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Hazy Shades of Sovereignty

Gautam Pemmaraju ( is a Mumbai-based independent writer and film-maker with a special focus on the cultural history of the Deccan and Hyderabad.

Hyderabad, British India, and the World: Muslim Networks and Minor Sovereignty, c 1850–1950 by Eric Lewis Beverley, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015; pp xv + 344, $99.


On 13 September 1948, the newly- created Union of India deployed its armed forces to coerce an intransigent Hyderabad in joining it. Commonly known as the “police action” and often imagined and recalled in such an attenuated manner imbuing the action with a civilian character, the four-day “Operation Polo” was in actuality a highly coordinated military operation bringing an end to the autocracy.

A Fallen State

Mir Osman Ali Khan, the seventh of the Asaf Jah dynasty who came from the imperial Mughal empire to administer the region almost two-and-a-half centuries prior, popularly known as the Nizam of Hyderabad, announced the surrender of his domains on 17 September on Deccan Radio, the state’s official broadcasting station. This official surrender by the head of state had been preceded by a military surrender by the chief of the Hyderabad Armed Forces, Syed Ahmed El Edroos, a career soldier of Hadrami Arab descent, who had seen action in the First and Second World Wars.

Over the year since the British exited leaving a partitioned subcontinent in its wake, India and Hyderabad had signed a “standstill agreement” after protracted and vexatious negotiations on 29 November 1947. The provisions of the agreement allowed for a status quo to be maintained for a period of a year, wherein “all agreements and administrative arrangements” that existed between the Nizam and the British Crown were to continue until “new arrangements” came into place. During the lead up to the final negotiations led by V P Menon, then secretary in the Ministry of States, and Mountbatten, who had just then returned from Lahore on a trip to assess the tense situation in Kashmir with Pakistan and India deploying troops in the region, the head of the Hyderabad delegation Moin Nawaz Jung read out three statements by the Nizam (Vithal 2010) of which one said: “I want Hyderabad to be an independent sovereign State in close association with the Dominion of India.”

Hyderabad’s sovereignty was an idea of great contestation. It appeared to some “illusory and theatrical”1 guided by the hands and minds of imperial masters, yet there were elements to it which clearly indicated autonomous and innovative governance, sites of sociopolitical, cultural difference and independence, and the symbolic and substantive power of historical treatises, alliances, and political practices linked to a distinctly sovereign identity.

Following the high colonial period, as the British Raj consolidated its Indian empire, Hyderabad propelled itself towards modernity drawing from global trends and practices in limited, calibrated ways that demonstrated trajectories parallel to and not subsumed by those of British India. The putative independent princely state of Hyderabad had articulated its sovereign character on the international stage, indicating to the world its self-image and its desire to remain out of the Indian union. Its ultimate claim to sovereignty would soon be tested in terms of international legal principles framed through Eurocentric political legacies.

Hyderabad had informed India that it intended to petition the United Nations (UN) to intervene in the dispute and had appealed to the Security Council formally on 21 August to urgently intervene. As the constitutional expert and lawyer A G Noorani (2013) writes the Secretary General Trygve Lie was caught in a dilemma with regard to Hyderabad’s appeal due to its “uncertain status in international law as a sovereign state,” and consequently, Lie attached a note indicating to the council the procedural (im)propriety in circulating Hyderabad’s appeal and that the Security Council may act on it as they desire.

The grey legal hues of Hyderabad’s claims became a matter that needed urgent consideration, given the imminent hostilities. In an international sense—as understood through global consensus mediated by the UN governance—was Hyderabad a state? Ironically, the first hearing of the council took place on 16 September 1948, three days into Operation Polo. Hyderabad had all but fallen to Indian armed forces by then.

Hyderabadi Patrimonialism

The long-standing debate on Hyderabad’s sovereignty is often obscured by opposing binary arguments, and in the postcolonial state it is mostly drowned out by nationalist rhetoric. But aside from whether the state was sovereign or not in a simplistic oppositional manner, what assumes great interest was the hazy shades of its sovereign character which manifested in complex ways through state policy, its organs and officials, and associated interlocutors alike. Hyderabad had for long, particularly from the mid-19th century onwards, established independent networks beyond British India, initiated bureaucratic and administrative reform, begun major infrastructure planning and public works through its own state officials and not necessarily drawn from colonial knowledge and experience.

In this ambitious work Hyderabad, British India and the World: Muslim Networks and Minor Sovereignty c 1850 to 1950, Eric Beverley sets out to closely examine the complex and liminal spaces of Hyderabad’s “sub-imperial,” “minor” sovereignty asserting at the outset that the “legacies of political difference in Hyderabad are often obscured by subsequent political developments and related trends in historical thinking” (p 2).

Indicating that there is much to be learned from examining polities at “lower levels” of global political sovereignty, Beverley writes that the inchoate state of post-World War global legalistic consensus on state sovereignty provided opportunities for states such as Hyderabad, which operated in ambiguous spaces, to exist as “autonomous discrete fragments” under suzerain colonial powers.

Setting up a broad conceptual framework, Beverley further explicates that while colonial views tended to characterise the subcontinent as a “consolidated imperial terrain,” the complexities and anomalies were many. Hyderabad was not only anomalous in that regard the writer argues, it had also established robust transnational connections with other Muslim states and demonstrated political experimentation and improvisation that were a result of networks and strategies not necessarily linked to British India. These “dynamics of connectivity” indicate in turn that Hyderabad’s sovereignty was not dissimilar to other sub-imperial entities whose sovereignty remained “supple and fluid during the high point of European global imperialism.”

Additionally, pointing to such ambiguous legal conditions of being neither entirely colonial territories nor wholly-independent states linked in no small measure to putatively premodern patrimonialism, Beverley seeks to recalibrate the conceptual notion of such polities in order to account for innovations in governance and bureaucracy that existed and deepened simultaneously.

Margrit Pernau has previously pointed to the early treaties that the Asaf Jah rulers signed with the East India Company as being the foundations for future ones Hyderabad would sign with the British Crown. While the Nizam, Pernau (2000) writes, “had at least enough sovereignty” to enter into treaty agreements with the British, they did not however attempt to precisely define Hyderabad’s sovereign status. Its relationship with the Mughal empire and the Nizam’s status of a Mughal governor of the Deccan was not altered. This ambiguity, perhaps a tactical nicety in some regards, endured over the centuries.

However, the treaties held more than mere symbolic value; the very fact of their existence, Pernau argues, allowed for the notion that the relationship between the two was “based on the consensus of independent partners.” Beverley leverages Pernau’s work (and other recent scholarship) into his conceptual framing to argue that patrimonialism “intermingled” with bureaucratic, technocratic knowledge and transformed into “remarkably adaptable” modes: “My contention is that patrimonialism as a mode of political rhetoric had important stakes for legitimisation of a wide variety of political projects or status” (p 7).

Critical to this conceptual recalibration of political forms often more rigidly considered in to those which are more supple and malleable, Beverley introduces a key operator in these “transition narratives”—the bureaucrat–intellectual, who straddles all worlds with “knowledge of putatively modern statecraft techniques, awareness of global trends, political savvy and connections, and finely honed polyglot rhetorical skills” (p 8). These Deccani letrados2 as Beverley describes them, became key actors in the middle of the 19th century and were able to successfully harness the patrimonial loyalties of the state and introduce modernist ideas and projects. In their ability to “harmonise” the ethical patrimonial character of the state with its attendant benevolence towards subjects, these dynamic actors, “intellectual producers” were able to tap into a global network of administrative ideas and governance practice.

As the work of fellow scholars3 on native scribes has shown, the shaping of official knowledge had greater complexity to it than simplistic colonial narratives would indicate. So also, Beverley’s letrados are represented here, against the broader framework that he establishes, as critical animators of change operating with “alternate modes and idioms,” and thereby Argonauts of the more fluid, sovereign character of Hyderabad. With the aide of this conceptual framework, Beverley indicates that his work “is not a conventional monograph,” but instead, draws from multiple disciplines and attempts to critically examine “linked themes of global relevance.” Reading sources and records “against the grain” the writer claims, Hyderabad’s transnational connections are borne out by the dynamism and mobility of these actors.

Discursive Universe of Hyderabad

In a three-part structure (ideas, institutions, urban space), the writer initiates the first with anecdotes of three intriguing characters whose associations with Hyderabad have been of great interest to scholars—Jamal al-Din Afghani, the anti-colonial Muslim activist, Balakrishna Chapekar, one of the three brothers whose anti-colonial fervour drove them to assassinate two plague officials, and the Scottish urban planner Patrick Geddes. The invocation of these anecdotes (and others that follow later in the book) is to argue that Hyderabad had in place structures and ideas “beyond the formal borders of European Empire.” These individuals enter Hyderabad in ways not guided by forces of empire, but as a realm that appears to be beyond British India, both territorially and in imagination.

Hyderabad in many ways, with parallels to other minor sovereign states, was one amongst several “laboratories of experimentation.” From uncolonised states such as Siam and Qajar Iran, to sub-imperial states such as Johor, Malaysia and Sokoto, Northern Nigeria, Beverley writes on the complex relationships and associations that such politically diverse states had with the empire.

While the argument here is that despite varying matrices of sovereignty, several states in the high colonial period were able to innovate modernist projects and experiments with governance. The discussion of these political forms appears to set up the critical importance of the late Ottoman empire and the networks of Muslim solidarity. Anti-colonial thinkers from across imperial space found affinity, and this in turn, served to exacerbate colonial anxieties.

Apart from the shared anti-colonial political language being a resource, Beverley argues that Muslim solidarities were also about “sourcing content for ideological and institutional experiments” and as evidence to this he points to Ottoman Tanzimat4 reforms. States such as Hyderabad, which expressed “Muslimness” as part of their sovereign character looked to the caliphs as powerful, modernising entities on par with Europeans. This symbolic power of the Ottomans fed the sovereign claims of states such as Hyderabad: “The Muslim character of the dynasty became a reason of state to justify Hyderabadi sovereignty and political mobilisation to colonial interlocutors and international observers” (p 50).

Empire, in turn, sought to consolidate “indirect rule” as a counter, a “modular strategy” that could be deployed across imperial space. During this period of the rise of Muslim solidarity and of colonial anxieties associated to it, the legal concept of sovereignty itself as seen by colonial jurists, Beverley argues by leveraging other scholarly work, was deliberately rendered ambiguous in order to opportunistically advance British interests. For non-European states, sovereignty “never meant equivalence and reciprocity.”

Reiterating Hyderabad’s particularity, its distinctive character, Beverley introduces another key conceptual device: Hyderabad’s “discursive universe.” Borrowing the term from Henry Louis Gates, this allows the author to introduce diverse strands and characters, at times adroitly. From intriguingly linking Faisal Devji’s (2007) argument on the deterritorialised nature of the South Asian Muslim political thought to that of Maulvi Chiragh Ali’s early writings, wherein Muslims, as a demographic minority in colonial view, occupied “an imagined space situated at an angle to the sovereignty of the state” to the founder of the journal Islamic Culture, Mohammad Marmaduke Pickthall (amongst many others), Beverley devises a keen, if markedly over-contoured topological strategy to add ballast to his primary arguments. This discursive universe finds within it intellectuals, reformers, planners, political thinkers, who are linked to Hyderabad in ways that enable them to innovate modernist strategies and political ideas alike. The nature of their associations, whether oblique or more directly related to the goings on of the state, the writer appears to argue, provide cues, accretions, and critical detail to the contouring of Hyderabadi sovereignty and its modernising era.

Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, a retired British civil servant who alongside Pickthall and others embodied a certain form of pan-Islamism, stayed on in Hyderabad for a short while, but his presence and influence was to have a great impact on the state-sponsored modernist project of Hyderabad. As explored in great depth by Kavita Datla in her work The Language of Secular Islam: Urdu Nationalism and Colonial India, Blunt argued that education was the key to reform of Muslim thought and this crystallised into a plan to establish an Urdu language Muslim university in early 1884. It was only two decades later that this would actually become a reality when the Osmania University was finally established.

Beverley also brings up the writings of the scholar Mohiuddin Qadri Zore, a prominent of the 20th century in a limited manner. Beverley misses an opportunity here to extend his discursive strategy to the linguistic particularity of the Deccan and of how scholars such as Zore were able to articulate this through asserting the lost legacies of classical Dakhani, reformulated during this period as Qadeem Urdu, or Old Urdu. On a broader note, Dakhani in popular imagination is one of the most palpable and distinct markers of the region and has been associated with a perceived inscrutability of the region and its politics. As scholars have pointed out, the 20th century standardisation projects of Urdu (one of which resided in the Dar-ul-Tarjuma, the bureau of translation of Osmania University) saw programmatic actions against vernaculars.

These debates and the tensions between the standardised Urdu and Hyderabad’s spoken forms remain a critical site of difference between the state and British India, not to mention, of course, that here too a variety of interesting interlocutors enter Hyderabad (such as Maulvi Abdul Haq and Sayyid Ross Masood) from beyond the established administrative and intellectual networks of empire to participate and shape the destiny of the state.

Yet another keen strategic actor furthering Hyderabad’s transnational connections which fuelled colonial worries about Muslim solidarity was Maulana Shaukat Ali, a prominent activist of the Indian Khilafat movement. As an organiser at the World Islamic Congress in December 1931 in Palestine, Shaukat Ali, as Beverley writes, “sought to use the meeting as a workshop for planning the remaking of the Caliphate” (p 140).

In the 1920s, in anticipation of and following the abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate, there emerged several plans to prop it up outside of Turkey. Abdul Mecid II was exiled to France with family and retainers and it was then, prior to the Congress, that Shaukat Ali negotiated a marriage alliance between the two sons of Osman Ali Khan, the seventh Nizam, and the daughter and niece of Abdul Mecid II. This indicated “possibilities” which a few scholars5 have speculated about but as Beverley writes, regardless of whether there were any “dynastic ambitions” with regard to claiming the caliphate by the Nizam, “it is clear that these ties appeared from Hyderabad, and to Shaukat Ali, as a means of empowering Hyderabad by association with the Ottoman legacy” (p 141).

Modernity, the Raj and Benevolent Hyderabad

In the establishment of newer modernising institutions of governance, bureaucracy and infrastructure, which gathered pace in the high colonial period, Hyderabad began to appear as “a potential impediment to the colonial project in South Asia.” The tensions between the Raj and Hyderabad seemed periodically to flare up and despite the historically loyalties, there clearly seemed deep-rooted differences. In colonial narratives, Hyderabad began to appear as a backward, feudal autocracy and attempts to assert extrajudicial control by the British officials began to manifest more often.

Beverley examines these issues through frictions in the frontiers between Hyderabad and British India. From the flow of commodities, to regulating liquor (abkari policy) and opium, and conflicts resulting due to the presence of British survey teams in the Nizam’s dominions, a steady pressure persisted. Stark differences in juridical and policing strategies marked the equation between Hyderabad and British India. Beverley argues additionally that distinct differences emerged between the policies of the Hyderabad and British India towards vulnerable communities. Beverley writes that the “Asaf Jah famine policy envisioned a culture of social cohesion and mutual obligation in the countryside even for new migrants” (p 175) with respect to British Indian citizens settling in Hyderabad following the famine. While this claim is an interesting one to consider, there seems little counterargument and explication of policy across regions to make it. An interesting section on the Nizam’s Adivasi policy appears here and Beverley brings up another fascinating figure associated with Hyderabad—the anthropologist von Furer-Haimendorf.

Leveraging the work of the scholar Bhangya Bhukya (2010),the writer indicates that the British Indian policy on the Gonds was exclusionary, but in Adilabad district of North Telangana, the experience was “considerably different.” Following an uprising by the Adivasi populace led by the leader Kumaram Bhim to secure land and forest rights in 1941, the anthropologist Chistoph von Furer-Haimendorf led a significant tribal welfare project supported by the Nizam’s administration which was based on his studies and recommendations.

Subsequently, land grants (or Haimendorf patta) were made to the tribal populace of the region and to the areas of the neighbouring district of Warangal as well. In framing the “benevolent autocracy” in relation to these policies, Beverley does not offer any detail on whether such policy extended to other districts of the Nizam’s domains or if similar patterns of patrimonial benevolence was to be found in other princely states or regions.

Hyderabad in South Asian History

The discussions are many and diverse in Beverley’s ambitious work. The discursive methods at times serve to augment the principal argument. But there appear layers of conceptual thinking with speculative angles. The success of the book, however, is in the discursiveness itself—it introduces a dense matrix of ideas and actors whose role in history, in Hyderabad’s history, and consequently, in South Asian history, reveal intriguing alternative modes of connectivity and innovation.

A fascinating cast of diverse characters populated Hyderabad between the late 19th century to the decade of its fall, and the book brings together this cast. One distinct issue with the work remains is that the repeated invocation of Hyderabad’s particularity, its transnational networks, and its ability to leverage its ambiguous sovereignty brings to fore its shadowy claims to sovereignty. The repetitions of these principal assertions are far too many, across chapters, and articulated alongside most elements of the “discursive universe” of Hyderabad. This, in turn, somewhat detracts from a smoother engagement with the narrative.

Read in part as a work of intellectual history, the principal argument is over-contoured; its topography remains tenuous and speculative at times, and while the many details serve greatly to reveal unusual and distinct features and narratives, the vulnerabilities of the modern state, the counter narratives and politics against the autocracy, the Telangana peasant struggles, the communist movement (and its internationalist elements), are not adequately headed to in examining this vulnerability of the state’s political life in the decades leading up to its fall, or indeed, in the discursive framework.

Towards the end of the book, Beverley writes that “Telangana culture is said to draw significant elements […] from Asaf Jahi Deccan Cosmopolitanism” (p 298). It seems a peculiar error here to not invoke the Qutb Shahi era and the great amount of literature pertaining to Telangana under their rule.

In the years leading up to the military annexation of the state, the chief commander of the Hyderabad Armed Forces (El Edroosand Naik 1994) went to Europe on an exploratory trip to purchase arms and ammunition for his state. His mission failed, since Hyderabad was not considered an independent state, he writes in his memoir. Although Beverley argues robustly that international legal institutions and language with its historical biases framed and judged Hyderabad’s sovereignty in a limited way, the vulnerabilities of Hyderabad’s legal claims could have been examined with equal robustness in counterpoint here.

In recent times there has been an increased interest in the Deccan and Hyderabad. While scholars6 have published works examining the modern political history, its cultural history has seen some prominence through the art and architecture of the region. All these serve to extend our understanding of a region that has been understudied. Despite some of its conceptual ambitions not being entirely met, Beverley’s work is a welcome addition to contemporary scholarship on the political history of Hyderabad and to South Asian modern history.


1 Beverley cites Nicholas Dirks’s work on Pudukkottai here wherein, similar to Michael Fisher’s description, the power of minor sovereignties and the princes who ruled them was nominal; they wielded “illusory, theatrical power.”

2 The Spanish word for a person who is “lettered” or for the state of being so.

3 Beverley cites the interesting work of Rama Mantena and Bhavani Raman here. Both scholars have worked on colonial archives, knowledge production and historiography and throw light on the critical roles played by native scribes and the value of the kaifiyat village records they generated.

4 The ambitious Ottoman modernisation project of the mid-19th century broadly referred to as Tamzimat Reforms sought to consolidate and secure Ottomanism from both internal and external threats. The Ottomans were able to successfully article a broad perception as political leaders of the global Muslim community and a pan-Islamism that resonated in the Muslim imagination. Beverley traces the influence of these global forces, which were mobile outside of colonial networks and a threat to them as well, on Hyderabad.

5 In The Last Nizam: The Life and Times of Mir Osman Ali Khan, V K Bawa writes “… there is sufficient evidence to show that the caliphate issue directly and indirectly fanned the latent ambitions of Mir Osman Ali Khand, and made it possible for him to assert his claim to the title of King and his implicit claim to the succession of the caliphate.”

6 The work of Taylor Sherman and Sunil Purushotham stand out here. Kavita Datla’s outstanding work remains a valuable resource for scholars of Hyderabad, Deccan and South Asian history.


Bhukya, Bhangya (2010): Subjugated Nomads: The Lambadas under the Rule of the Nizams, Hyderabad: Orient Blackswan.

Devji, Faisal (2007): “A Shadow Nation: The Making of Muslim India,” Beyond Sovereignty: Britain, Empire and Transnationalism, c 1880–1950, K Grant, P Levine and F Trentmann (eds), New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

El Edroos, Syed Ahmed and L R Naik (1994): Hyderabad of ‘The Seven Loaves’, Hyderabad: Laser Prints.

Noorani, A G (2013): The Destruction of Hyderabad, New Delhi: C Hurst and Co Publishers.

Pernau, Margrit (2000): The Passing of Patrimonialism: Politics and Political Culture in Hyderabad 1911–1948, New Delhi: Manohar.

Vithal, B P R (2010): A State in Periodic Crises Andhra Pradesh, Centre for Economic and Social Studies, Hyderabad.

Updated On : 29th Dec, 2017


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