When Nizam wanted to shift his jewels outside of India
Every Hyderabadi has grown up with the tales of Nizam’s vast wealth. Occasionally, we get to see the magnificence and grandeur of Nizam’s jewellery, now in the custody of the central government. But few would know that Mir Osman Ali Khan, the last Nizam, had made up his mind to shift his wealth outside India during the Second World War.
The Nizam and other princes were advised by the British to move their assets to safer places as the threat of a Japanese invasion loomed large. The Nizam revealed this when the future of his assets was being deliberated after the Police Action in September 1948.
“The British government, under the ‘scorch-earth policy’, issued secret instructions to all the princes to take whatever measures they thought best, to protect all their valuable assets, or if they could not do it in time, and the crisis happened, they were advised to destroy them before the enemy entered the borders of India,” Osman Ali Khan revealed in a letter to Maj Gen J N Chaudhuri, Hyderabad’s Military Governor, in September 1949.
The Nizam revealed that he had made up his mind to send his assets abroad and informed the British Resident in Hyderabad, Sir Arthur Lothian, of his intention. “Luckily this menace (Japanese invasion) disappeared after some time and satisfaction prevailed all around and everybody took a sigh of relief,” the letter said.
The letter was written in the context of rumours that the Nizam was planning to shift his assets outside India after the Police Action. “If I were to remove my wealth and jewellery outside India, I would have done it before the partition of India,” he wrote in a letter that forms a part of declassified documents of the Ministry of States (now Ministry of Home Affairs).
While the government took over the Sirf-e-khas (crown lands), the Nizam was permitted to retain several properties categorized as personal and also family heirlooms. He was asked to submit a detailed inventory of gold, silver, diamonds and jewellery. The process of preparing the inventory took a long time as the Nizam “with his miserly qualities” had each inventory prepared in his presence, noted the Military Governor in his report to the Home Minister.
While the inventory was under preparation, Osman Ali Khan played every trick to either sell off costly items or keep them out of the list. In one letter, he said he had purchased jewellery from many well-to-do families in their times of distress during the World War with a view to make profit later on, so such items could be considered heirloom. In another, he mentioned he had accumulated a huge number of watches, bracelets, hair pins, cufflinks etc. which were old-fashioned, so he should be allowed to auction them in the US or UK. For another set of jewellery, the Nizam pointed out that it was purchased by his father, Mahbub Ali Khan, from the exhibition held during the first Coronation Durbar in Delhi in 1903, and therefore, was not a traditional heirloom.
The final list of jewellery and heirlooms the Nizam submitted was mind-boggling but the valuation he gave was minuscule – Rs 12 crore including for the famed Jacob diamond. The central government officials estimated the market value of jewels at about Rs 25 crore.
The inventory included 30 sets of jewellery contained in trays; closed boxes of jewellery sets in the name of his eldest wife Dulhan Pasha and 7 other ‘ladies of senior position residing in the Palace’; 5 gold bricks; 6 gold bars; 65 gold chips; one large gold brick; 80,000 Ashrafis in HEH Treasury; 100,000 Ashrafis and 10,000 Sovereigns in the Nazari Bagh Treasury; 8 crore pieces of Hali Sicca Rupee coins (pure silver); and 7 crore Hali Rupee currency notes.
The Nizam placed the jewellery under the custody of two trusts he created in 1951 – HEH The Nizam’s Jewellery Trust and The HEH Nizam’s Supplementary Jewellery Trust – stipulating that the jewels could be sold only after his death and the death of his son, Azam Jah. The Nizam died in 1967, followed by Azam Jah three years later.
The descendants approached Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1972 requesting the government to purchase the jewellery and establish a museum to showcase the collection. After long and tortuous negotiations and legal tangles, the central government purchased the collection of 173 items for a sum of Rs 218 crore. They were shifted from the vaults of Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank in Mumbai to that of RBI on January 12, 1995. The last public display of the collection was at the National Museum in New Delhi in 2019.
[The writer is a journalist and author based in New Delhi]