New Delhi: To say that Mir Osman Ali Khan, the seventh Nizam of Hyderabad, was wealthy, would be to put it lightly. The richness of his treasury was, in fact, legendary. So much so that he used the Jacobi diamond, a 185-carat gem the size of a lime, as a paperweight.
The Nizam’s family had ruled Hyderabad since the early 18th century; yet he was the only ruler in British India who enjoyed the title of Exalted Highness owing to his contribution of £25 million to the British exchequer during the First World War.
And a few days ahead of India’s independence, he deposited an amount of £1 million in his account at the Westminster Bank in London. The money remained untouched for nearly 71 years and accumulated to about £35 million, or Rs 306 crore as valued in 2019, when a British judge finally ruled for the Nizam’s descendants to collect it from London’s National Westminster Bank.
Yet the man had an oddly modest appearance — wearing the same tattered fez for 35 years and mostly cotton pyjamas. Of course, he had his indulgences — the nizam had a prodigious sexual appetite, and it is said, had more than 100 illegitimate children.
His public image too was conflicting. While on the one hand he was hailed for being a progressive ruler, who brought in measures such as the abolition of bonded labour and the separation of the judiciary from the executive in the state, post-independence India remembers him primarily for his opposition to joining the union of India in 1947, one of the five rulers at the time to do so. The others included the Nawab of Junagadh, Muhammad Mahabat Khanji III and the Maharaja of Jodhpur, Hanvant Singh.
Which explains why, since the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh (AP) in 2014, into AP and Telangana, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been pressurising the K. Chandrashekar Rao-led Telangana government to celebrate 17 September — the day Hyderabad ceased to be an independent state — as “Liberation Day” from the ‘tyrannical rule of the Nizam’. So far though, the state has managed to evade the subject.
On Mir Osman Ali’s 135 birth anniversary on 6 April, ThePrint looks back at the chequered life of this former royal.
Architect of modern Hyderabad
Born in 1886, to Mahbub Ali Khan and Amat-uz-Zahra Begum, Osman Ali succeeded to the throne of Hyderabad in 1911. During the next 37 years of his tenure as Nizam, extending till 1948, he established many public institutions such as the Osmania General Hospital and the State Bank of Hyderabad and also commissioned the construction of the Begumpet Airport and the Hyderabad High Court.
Even before assuming responsibility as Nizam though, Osman Ali, was alert to the needs of his future subjects – in 1908, three years before his coronation, he initiated the construction of two reservoirs, Osman Sagar and Himayat Sagar, after the Musi River floods killed thousands in the state.
In 1918, he established the Osmania University, India’s first university to have Urdu as the medium of instruction. The ‘bold’ move drew the attention of Nobel Laureate-poet Rabindranath Tagore, who applauded it and declared that he was overjoyed to see the day when Indians are “freed from the shackles of a foreign language and our education becomes naturally accessible to all our people”.
And though he had been averse to joining the Indian union, in the aftermath of the 1965 war with Pakistan, the Nizam is said to have donated a record 5,000 kg of gold (Rs 1,600 crore in today’s valuation), to the National Defence Fund. While there are conflicting accounts about this, Nawab Najaf Ali Khan, one of the grandsons of the seventh Nizam, had last year reaffirmed that Osman Ali donated the said amount.
Annexation of Hyderabad
Yet, the state’s integration into India was a violent one.
According to historians, Osman Ali Khan’s refusal to integrate Hyderabad with India outraged the country’s leaders in New Delhi. “Osman Ali Khan was a ruler who was determined that his own power should not be diminished, a power based not upon religion but upon traditional concepts of kingship,” former IAS officer, V. K. Bawa, wrote in his book, The Last Nizam: The Life and Times of Mir Osman Ali Khan.
The Congress government was irked at the idea of a Muslim-led state taking root in the heart of a predominantly-Hindu India, especially after Pakistan founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah pledged to defend the oldest Muslim dynasty in India.
It was around this time, in 1948, that one of the worst episodes of communal tension started in India, after the Razakar militia led by Kasim Rizvi allegedly unleashed violence against Hindus in the state, to resist the integration of Hyderabad into India.
Observing the Nizam’s inability to suppress the growing turmoil within the state, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru launched Operation Polo, as part of which 37,000 Indian troops defeated the Razakars within five days, in September 1948, and took over Hyderabad. However, according to the Sunderlal Committee report of 1948, nearly 40,000 Muslims had been massacred in communal violence during those five days, in districts like Osmanabad, Bidar and Gulbarga.
After Hyderabad became a part of India, Mir Osman Ali was given the title of Rajpramukh of Hyderabad State, which he held between 1950 to 1956. After this, the territory of the erstwhile state was divided between Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.
A lasting legacy
During an election campaign ahead of the Telangana assembly elections in 2018, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, attacked Asaduddin Owaisi, leader of the Hyderabad-based All India Majli-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen party, and said that “If the BJP comes to power, I assure you Owaisi will have to flee from Telangana the same way the Nizam was forced to flee from Hyderabad.”
Owaisi had responded that the seventh Nizam never fled from Hyderabad, but retained his position as the governor of the state till it was abolished in 1956.
In the past five years, BJP pressure on the Telangana government to declare 17 September, as ‘Liberation Day’ from the “tyrannical rule of the Nizam” has been mounting.
Local history, however, remembers the Nizam differently. The website of The Nizam’s Museum in Hyderabad records that when Osman Ali died, on 24 February 1967, “the streets and pavements of the city were littered with the pieces of broken glass bangles as an incalculable number of women broke their bangles in mourning as is the Telangana custom on the death of a close relative.”
This report has been updated to reflect that the claim that the seventh Nizam donated 5,000 kg of gold to the National Defence Fund is disputed, and that there are conflicting accounts about this.
(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)