Front cover of The Magnificent Diwan: The Life and Times of Sir Salar Jung I.
Title: The Magnificent Diwan: The Life and Times of Sir Salar Jung I
Author: Bakhtiar K Dadabhoy
Publication: Vintage Books
Price: Rs 999
The Magnificent Diwan is the life story of Salar Jung, Diwan of Hyderabad state from 1853 to 1883. This long tenure also provides a point of entry into some larger themes of the history of Hyderabad and also the difficult interface between the government of India and the princely states in the 19th century. In Bakhtiar Dadabhoy’s narrative, Salar Jung comes across as an astute politician, a dynamic and often reform-minded administrator and a courtier deeply loyal to Hyderabad and its Nizam. The fact that he is largely forgotten today, even in Hyderabad, was the reason for embarking upon this biography. The famous Salar Jung Museum, for instance, is named not after him but his grandson, and the “Magnificent Diwan” himself has retreated into obscurity. This biography admirably remedies that.
It is well known that as the Mughals entered their final twilight, one of their premier nobles — the Nizam-ul-Mulk — found it in his interest to sink deep roots in the Deccan from the second decade of the 18th century. Later in the 18th century, successive nizams found it expedient to ally with the British — they were the most potent military force available against the Marathas and Mysore rulers. Salar Jung’s family came into prominence in the second half of the 18th century and many of his ancestors had also held the post of the Diwan in Hyderabad.
A jade screen showing Salar Jungs I, II and III. (Photo courtesy: Penguin Random House)
In Salar Jung’s tenure as Diwan, we find in Dadabhoy’s treatment a comprehensive view of Hyderabad in the second half of the 19th century. There were a host of internal issues — courtly intrigues with rival centres and conflicting factions to be navigated — but there were also other issues very specific to Hyderabad. One of these was the Arab diaspora, consisting largely of former and present soldiers in the Nizam’s army. They were both a source of strength and a constant headache. How much the elements of this diaspora could leverage their Hyderabad base to influence politics in Yemen forms a very interesting part of the book. Similarly, there was the antagonism between “mulkis” and “non-mulkis” — in brief, original Deccanis and the northerners who made the Deccan their home from the early 19th century, as the Mughals headed for extinction.
A considerable bulk of The Magnificent Diwan, however, concerns the British and their relations with and perceptions of Hyderabad. In this Salar Jung was frequently, as the book brings out, caught in the middle. On the one hand, there was the Government of India, represented in Hyderabad by hyper-sensitive regents. On the other hand, there was a whole princely setup that strained against any curbs on its authority. What were the British so concerned about? Salar Jung was appointed Diwan just a few years before the Mutiny and, in 1857, he had firmly sided with the British. Such outbreaks as there were in Hyderabad were put down firmly by him. But the British on the whole remained suspicious about potential challenges and this was reflected in a long series of often petty intrigues to make sure that the Diwan remained firmly circumscribed in his functioning. Salar Jung, notwithstanding the actual realities of the situation, often functioned on the premise that Hyderabad was an ally rather than a subordinate or subsidiary state with respect to the colonial power. How often he would be disabused of this is part of the fascinating detail of the book. The process by which this happened is also quite revealing — the intrigues and frequently petty tactics employed by British officials to make their point.
One particular area of friction throughout Salar Jung’s tenure as Diwan was Berar — originally part of Hyderabad, but given away in the 1850s to offset the expenses for a British military contingent maintained in the Nizam's territory. But as Dadabhoy points out, in the Berar issue “it was neither the settlement of the Nizam’s debt, nor the payment of the contingent, which agitated Dalhousie’s mind but the British need for cotton”. For many in Hyderabad, the restitution of Berar to the Nizam was a priority above all others and for successive nizams, the cession of Berar was a standing humiliation. Dadabhoy appropriately quotes the last Nizam wryly commenting, when he was awarded the Knight Grand Cross of the British Empire or GBE half a century later in 1917, that the initials stood for “Gave Berar to the English”. Salar Jung failed in reversing the Berar cession and the failure embittered and disillusioned him. The process by which this happened also illustrates the tight leash on which the Government of India kept the princes — otherwise their strongest supporters. This tight control was executed both in terms of day to day policy and also in optical terms through extravaganzas such as Viceroy Lytton’s Grand Durbar in Delhi in 1877. Salar Jung’s participation in this is described in some detail and the many vanities of the British in India certainly merit revisiting.
While its details may overwhelm some readers, this hefty book can certainly be read with interest by all connoisseurs of Hyderabad history. This reviewer would have liked the author to delve more deeply into what is, in retrospect at least, another fascinating aspect of the polity of the Hyderabad state: its multinational and multilingual nature. The old state was like a quasi-Ottoman empire covering a territory that included Telugu, Marathi, Kannada and Urdu speaking areas, and had therefore a political and social complexity unmatched elsewhere in India. But this does not detract from what is otherwise a great long read about a forgotten personality of Indian history.
Raghavan is a retired diplomat. His latest book is History Men: Jadunath Sarkar, G.S.Sardesai, Raghubir Sinh and their Quest for India’s Past.