Hyderabad Police action 1948: Survivor recalls Operation Polo

Gulnar Khanum, was 16-year-old when India forcefully annexed the then Independent princely state of Hyderabad in September 1948. All the men in her house were massacred by the Indian army.

The killing spree ensured a Muslim nation doesn’t exist in the heart of India.

The annexation of Hyderabad, with military aggression, is underplayed as ‘police action’ termed as Operation Polo. Muslims of Hyderabad state were massacred in three prong-military invasions, followed by a three-year economic blockade, disruption of railway lines and infrastructure, and air raids.

The government-appointed Sunderlal Committee report — declassified in 2013 — states a conservative death toll of nearly 40,000 people. But the oral histories record more than 2 lakh deaths — overwhelmingly Muslims and Dalits — during those four days of annexation. 

“Apart from killings, the other atrocities recorded were – rapes, abduction of women and children, forceful conversions, loot, arson, and desecration of mosques, seizure of property etc. The duty also compels us to add that we had absolutely unimpeachable to the effect there were instances in which men belonging to the Indian Army and the local police took part in lootings and other crimes,” reads the report.

I sat down with Khanum to unveil her story, which we knew in fragments. It was as if one phase of grief conjures another memory of violence.

She lived with six sisters and two brothers living in vada (ancestral house) with parents, uncle, aunt, and grandparents. The house was located on the bank of the Manjra River in Deoni village —Latur, Maharashtra.

Excerpts of her testimony:

I can never forget that September, it was Thursday [16 September 1948] when the military entered the village. Many fled but we thought staying home can be safer. But the military men barged into our house, dragged all men in the family by their hair, kicking them left right, and aligned them only to shoot on their head.

The sound of those four gunshots can never be forgotten. All the men were dead.

I became the eldest child left in the family after the decapitation of her brother, father, uncle, and cousin.

The military entered with tanks firing in all directions, killing men, burning shops, setting homes on fire, followed by goons raping women, looting houses, and stabbing those running for life.

My mother begged for our lives, and we ran away like people of no land, wandering in search of shelter. What followed after death were the local goons who entered Muslim homes, raped their women, plundered their belongings. Many women jumped into wells with their babies to save their dignity.  Ammah ran away with my 3-year-old brother tied to her bosom, disguising him as a girl making him wear a frock, and putting bangles to save her son.

I could not recover from the trauma of my father’s death. I was crying for hours, and so were my sisters. Ammah took us to the well, where women of the village were jumping in to save themselves from rape and lynching. She told me, I will jump into the well with all your sisters; you take Miya (the toddler) and get far away from this town and raise him well. I begged her not to give up. We fled with no food and water until Ammah found a safe hut in the bushes.

We will die under these tracks while the train run over us, we will not board. We will jump in the river and die, we will not board

Gulnar Khanum’s mother

I remember she came running to me with ash in her hand and started rubbing it on my face. I was a fair-skinned, brown-eyed young girl, an easy prey in such war, she said. She draped a white cloth over me and asked not to come in front of anybody. We were accompanied by other women and little girls who escaped the horror.  

My mother was pregnant with my youngest sister, yet she was determined to save each one of her family like all of us were inside her womb. We did not know where to go, and the sky cried in our agony. The rain never stopped that night; the blood was all over the street. Amma’s sari was muddy; we walked all night in the wilderness, hiding from the police, military, and goons. We were hungry and thirsty; Ammah would fetch some water from puddles to my weeping sisters filtering her chadar.

We reached Kamla Nagar the following day [ 17th September 1948]. Eight of us had walked 31 km on our feet. A rumor of a refugee train to Hyderabad broke out, so we rushed to the nearest station. Few policemen asked us to board the train. As we stepped inside; The compartments were in the blood pool, men were slaughtered, and women were left naked-half-dead on the floor, frightened my sisters started screaming. We refused to board the train. I remember Amma’s words “hum patriyon ke neeche Jaan detain Magar nai jaate nai to Nadi mei kud ke Jaan dedetain Magar nai jaate” (We will die under these tracks while the train run over us, we will not board…..else we will jump in the river and die, we will not board)  

We strolled back to my Nani’s [grandmother] house in Udgir, 29 km away from Kamal Nagar, hungry and thirsty. When we reached there, one of my uncles was already shot dead and the other was missing. After the military action, a new menace of street goons sprang, harassing women on streets, knocking on their doors at night and throwing stones at windows. 

We never went back to Deoni; there was no home to return to. We were being hunted in our home. Amma would sleep with a dagger close to her side, even after a few years of the tragedy. She started working as a weed plucker in fields, harvesting crops, picking grains to raise my seven sisters and a brother.

After three months of military action, I was married to your grandfather. Even they, in Kalyani [present-day Basavakalyan, Bidar] went through a similar trauma of the incident. 

Khurram Muraad Bidri is an independent writer and currently studies at University of Hyderabad.