Objectively speaking, the 108 hours campaign undertaken to liberate the Princely State of Hyderabad, codenamed Operation (Op) Polo stands out as India’s ‘first’ military success. Having said that, in view of its timing, (September 1948), and the forces it ‘dislocated,’ at a time when India was fighting a grim war in Jammu and Kashmir (J & K) and, it cannot be denied that the campaign deflected India’s operational focus and undermined the nation’s ‘main’ effort. To recapitulate the operation situation: By the time the Hyderabad operation was eventually undertaken, Pakistan had already annexed what is now ‘Azad’ Kashmir, occupied Gilgit and cut off Ladakh by capturing Skardu and Kargil.
War ravaged Britain was constrained to scuttle her liabilities, i.e. her global empire, including the jewel in the crown – India, the keystone of her Asian empire.
Despite such major operational reverses, Polo was still allowed to run its course, despite the fact that it ‘fixed’ combat resources desperately needed to restore the situation in Kashmir. This is not to suggest that the situation in Hyderabad did not require intervention, it did, but it is advocated that the situation could have been timed/handled differently. Admittedly, it is easy to build a hypothetical case with the ‘undue’ advantage of hindsight, the aim is to highlight the ramifications Polo had on Kashmir – a conflict that India not only lost in strategic terms, but which continues to cast its shadow on India’s progression.
Before coming to Hyderabad and Kashmir, Britain’s ‘post war’ compulsions need to be recapitulated. Despite emerging victorious, five years of gruelling war had sapped Britain financially; apropos, whatever visages of Pax Britannica she still harboured had to be (finally) laid to rest. War ravaged Britain was constrained to scuttle her liabilities, i.e. her global empire, including the jewel in the crown – India, the keystone of her Asian empire. Concurrently, after Stalin’s crushing defeat on Nazi Germany and his expansion into Europe, Soviet Russia had emerged as the new and ‘larger than life’ adversary. A vicious Cold War had already erupted and World War Three was expected to break out at any time between the former allies. Cutting to the bone, the competition was over oil, the ‘liquid gold,’ as control over the ‘wells of power’ not only yielded enormous economic power, but also fuelled the war machines of the new imperialists. Energy rich Gulf and the Middle East being the immediate spoils and since the Soviet shadow over the Gulf loomed large, the threat was clear and present.
Lord Wavell, India’s penultimate Viceroy, was the one to give practical shape to Mr. Churchill’s brainchild and it was he who transformed England’s economic liability of the times into a strategic opportunity. By fructifying the creation of Pakistan, he ensured that a bulwark against Soviet expansionism was finally put in place. With this strategic masterstroke, he also ensured Britain’s post-war strategic relevance for the new superpower – the USA, as it created the possibility for the use of military bases in Pakistan (Peshawar and Karachi); located on the flank of the Soviet Union, which were invaluable for retaining control over the Gulf. At the same time, creation of Pakistan also counter-balanced a potentially powerful India, whose support to the Soviet bloc due to the socialist leanings of her leadership could not be relied upon. The creation of a ‘credible’ Pakistan, therefore, was therefore England’s strategic requirement and Lord Mountbatten who replaced Wavell and then presided over the division of India and guided (sic) India through the Kashmir war was candid in admitting: “Having created it (Pakistan), its survival had to be ensured.”
…the impasse over Hyderabad’s refusal to accede to India, offered yet another way for the English to facilitate Pakistan’s war in Kashmir.
The Princely State of Kashmir being a part of their new creation was essential, as without Kashmir, or at least the parts she went on to annex, Pakistan’s heartland (Rawalpindi) remained vulnerable to a swift Trans-Jhelum offensive. Since English leaning during the Kashmir war are well-documented, they do not merit to be recounted. However, it needs to be pointed out that the impasse over Hyderabad’s refusal to accede to India, offered yet another way for the English to facilitate Pakistan’s war in Kashmir. By ensuring Indian deployment around the state, the English mandarins entrenched in South Block weaved a web of despondency and managed to balance the Indo-Pak force ratios in Kashmir. The upshot was that though Hyderabad was eventually liberated (after Lord Mountbatten had demitted office), ten months of diffused operational focus contributed largely to India’s inability to wrest the advantage in Kashmir.
The Hyderabad State in 1947- 48
With a population of 1.634 crores, not only was the state the most populous, but also the richest amongst the 542 Princely States and Provinces that formed British India. Occupying a pivotal place in the Deccan, the seventeen districts that made up the Nizam’s state, included Aurangabad in the North West and Gulbarga in the south. Since Berar was already under the British, it had already come under Independent India. At the same time, Sholapur, which formed an enclave in the west provided the shortest axis to Hyderabad. A map to highlight the extent of India’s second largest Princely State is given above.
Unlike J & K, which had a Muslim majority (77 percent), Hyderabad only had thirteen percent Muslims, though they held 97 percent of the public posts and controlled the army. Land-locked Hyderabad had well-developed links and was socio-economically conjoined with her neighbours. Though the state had her own currency, the economy was well integrated with British India, so much so that Indian currency was used concomitantly. This was unlike the case of J & K, which not only had a common border with Pakistan, but also was economically dependent on her for her survival.
…unlike Hari Singh’s dithering on the decision of accession, as early as 26 June 1947, the Nizam issued a ‘Firman’ (Royal proclamation) announcing his intent neither to join with India nor Pakistan.
Like Maharaja Hari Singh of J & K, Asaf Jah VII, the Nizam of Hyderabad, fabled to be one of the richest man in the world, did not want to lose his independent status. However, unlike Hari Singh’s dithering on the decision of accession, as early as 26 June 1947, the Nizam issued a ‘Firman’ (Royal proclamation) announcing his intent neither to join with India nor Pakistan. On the other hand, he sought an independent (dominion) status. Though this was rejected in view of the insular nature of the state, Mountbatten went on to offer a ‘standstill’ arrangement brokered through his ‘Tory’ friend, Sir Walter Monckton, who at that time was well entrenched as the Nizam’s Constitutional Advisor.
Taking advantage of the distraction provided by Pakistan’s tribal aggression, on 27 October, i.e. the day India intervened militarily in Srinagar, the Prime Minister was taken in custody on instructions of the Razakar leader, Kasim Razvi. The Razakars were the private army of the fundamentalist Ittehad-ul-Musilmeen party and wanted to extend the writ of Islam over the length and breadth of South India. In that, they had the support of Hyderabad’s Commander-in-Chief, Major General El Edroos, an Arab mercenary. Rattled by the developments but helpless against the fundamentalists, the Nizam succumbed and appointed Mir Laik Ali, the nominee of Razvi as the new Prime Minister; de-facto control thus shifting to the separatists. The leadership in New Delhi, pre-occupied with the war in Kashmir still preferred to negotiate and an (inconsequential) standstill was finally signed on 29 November.
Emboldened by Delhi’s demure reaction(s), Laik Ali pressed for the removal of Indian Forces and concurrently renewed efforts for supply of arms from Britain and Pakistan. Despite Hyderabad’s declared neutrality, he appointed an agent for Pakistan and even extended a loan of Rs 20 Crores to help her war with India. Concurrently, the strength of Razakars was increased and by the spring of 1948, armed raids on Indian enclaves and border villages and the growing belligerence of the Razakars, made it incumbent for the Indian government to finally act. The strength of Hyderabad’s forces is tabulated, and though they may appear numerically strong, they were poor in training and in terms of armaments.