Deccan Vanguard: Rediscovering the Forgotten Revolutionary Srikishen Balmukund and Anticolonial Nationalism in Princely Hyderabad

By Gautam Pemmaraju. Gautam is a Mumbai-based independent filmmaker, writer, and researcher working in the areas of history, literature, and art with a special interest in the Deccan. A Tongue Untied: The Story of Dakhani on the vernacular satire & humour poetry of the region is his first independent feature documentary film. He is a member of the Maidaanam editorial collective.

Srikishen Balmukund. (Source: Dr. Rahul Shastri)

In June 1910 a young man in his early twenties named Chaturbhuj Srikishen Balmukund returned from London to India on the orders of his father Rai Balmukund, a highly regarded judge of the High Court of the independent princely state of Hyderabad. He was travelling light with a handful of personal possessions. There was however a somewhat hefty item, which caught the eye of the customs official in Bombay. Much like his associate, the “moving spirit of the revolutionary party” whom he greatly admired, Srikishen had also recorded his fervid putschism in two books, The Theory and Method of Revolution and The Italian Revolution.

The fate of the former is unknown but the second book was confiscated, much like the writings of his well-known associate who had been arrested a few months earlier at Victoria Station in London. The spirited and passionate Srikishen had been dreaming of revolution. On his return to Hyderabad he revealed some of those grandiose dreams to British officials who interrogated him. When questioned if he believed in political assassinations the young revolutionary said to Sir Reginald Glancy, a British civil servant:

You terrorise by your acts, arrests, shootings, and justify that these are preventive measures, necessary in the interest of the society […] the only difference between you and these persons—revolutionaries, who believe in the cult of the bomb, is you are in, they are out. You are up, they are down. Successful, you are the rulers of the land, and can dictate. While down, till they gain the upper hand, and succeed in ousting you from your position, they are offenders against the Law of Sedition—and rebels. [1]

Srikishen was an associate of Vinayak Savarkar, Virendranath Chattopadhyaya and other anti-colonial activists seen at the Indian student’s hostel set up by Shyamji Krishnavarma, in Highgate, North London. India House was the den of militant anti-colonial activists, a ‘hot-bed of sedition’[2] for the British. Under the scanner since 1905, close surveillance on it began in 1907. Additionally, covert British agents operated there for a period in early 1909.[3]

In 1908 Srikishen had moved to London to study for the Bar. Back home, the Balmukunds and the famous Aghorenath Chattopadhyaya family maintained friendly relations, and were neighbours in the Abids area of central Hyderabad. Srikishen’s association was a little more intimate, given that he was romantically involved with Mrinalini, (known as Gannu/Gunnu by friends and family), one of the seven other siblings of the famous poet and nationalist leader Sarojini Naidu.

British Intelligence sources reveal that he had kept up “a somewhat seditious and at the same time a highly amatory correspondence”[4] with Mrinalini, who, much like her sister Suhasini (married for a while to the intriguing journalist and ‘shadowy figure’ ACN Nambiar), came to be associated with communist activists in Bombay.

Srikishen was close to both Savarkar and Virendranath Chattopadhyaya, known mostly as Chatto. He had been regularly attending meetings at India House from February 1909. When Savarkar fell ill later that year, Srikishen accompanied him to a convalescent home in Somerset, following which he moved in to the house of another prominent activist VVS Aiyar, at 81, Clarendon Road.

Several meetings took place at this location as well and at one on 20February 1910 which Srikishen presided over, it was decided that political assassinations were to continue.[5] This was in relation to the dramatic killing of Curzon Wyllie by Madanlal Dhingra on 1 July 1909, the subsequent shuttering of India House, and Savarkar’s temporary move to Paris in January 1910. At another meeting in March, Srikishen spoke on the Italian revolutionary Mazzini, whose life and writings were a great inspiration for Savarkar.[6] 

Srikishen recalls an instance of retrieving copies of the revolutionary magazine Talwar (edited by Chatto), from underneath the linoleum floor of a house where they were concealed, and ferrying them across friend’s houses alongside G.C. Varma and Chatto with “the Scotland Yard people following us, in the bus, the tube, the cab, the taxi, and other conveyances and came back at about 11 O’clock at night” only to put them back beneath the floor.

Following Savarkar’s arrest in London in March 1910, Srikishen, along with other leaders Aiyar, Chatto and Dr. Rajan, led a collection to fund his legal defense. He paid Savarkar several visits in Brixton Prison and writes that he last saw Savarkar in April 1910 although intelligence reports place him at the jail on 9 May. Intriguingly, Srikishen says:

I don’t suppose there will be any harm done if I were to diverge (sic) the secret now that it was here we had planned the mode and manner of his escape, when the ship anchored at Marsiellie (sic), and how he was to be taken to the interior from the shore. [7]

Savarkar had also spoken of ‘his own plans’ to David Garnett, an English journalist friend, who visited him in jail and briefed him about an escape plan he had hatched. Srikishen’s grandson Rahul Shastri, a former economics lecturer, told this writer that according to a family story Srikishen was aboard the ship SS Morea by which Savarkar was being transported back to India and that he had placed a hacksaw in the lavatory from which Savarkar escaped. This is unlikely, as the official enquiry into the incident would have certainly borne out any such details. More importantly, Srikishen had returned to India by that time.

His revolutionary activities continued after his return to Hyderabad.

He received a letter from Chatto dated 17 June 1910 who was then at Madame Cama’s residence in Paris, alluding to a forthcoming letter X—a cipher letter with instructions on an arms smuggling plan.[8] Srikishen was to travel to Calcutta and convey to Sukumar Mitter, a close associate of Aurobindo Ghosh, that Chatto could arrange rifles to be sent from Europe with a consignment of furniture, financed by Madame Cama.

The plan fell apart when British Intelligence intercepted the letters and consequently, the residences of Krishna Kumar Mitter (Sukumar’s father & editor of the journal Sanjibani) and Aghorenath Chattopadhyaya were raided. The searches yielded only correspondence between Mrinalini and Srikishen, but not much seditious material.

Some years later another plot emerged to establish in Hyderabad a “secret committee” with Srikishen and three other prominent young men in order to approach the Nizam of Hyderabad through an influential Hadrami Arab chief, Sultan Nawaz Jung. A letter dated April 1916 from the Berlin based Indian Independence Committee reveals a plan to create disaffection among “Arabs, Sikhs, Afghans, Mullahs, and anti-British officials like Shahab Jang.”[9]

Srikishen’s father Rai Balmukund. (Source: Dr. Rahul Shastri)

Srikishen underwent several years of hounding by colonial officials. The prolonged enquiry against him was lifted several years later with the intervention of the Nizam VII, Osman Ali Khan, when Srikishen’s father Chief Justice Rai Balmukund and his police officer brother resigned in protest against the harassment.

Srikishen was regarded a “dangerous revolutionary” by the British, but attempts to deport him from Hyderabad were blocked by officials friendly to his family. However, he was interned in Hyderabad. This put an end to his radical activities.

It appears that he suffered a serious heartbreak on account of his romantic affair, and as Shastri reveals, Srikishen attempted to take his own life. A British intelligence report of 1911 says that Srikishen was by then married to the daughter of a deputy collector named Babu Anrudh Lal Mahendra. In 1920, following the lifting of restrictions, he travelled to Britain once again, to complete his studies.

Srikishen returned a Gandhian, became a votary of the ‘cult of satyagraha’, started a local Congress unit with friends, and set up a khadi manufacturing enterprise. He soon fell out, accusing one of the partners Badrul Hassan of siphoning off funds.

Srikishen became a fierce critic of Gandhi, Nehru and later, of Vallabhai Patel. As time passed, he became increasingly disillusioned with Congress leaders, accusing them of pandering to the British and remaining enslaved by them. Often railing against the “self-hypnotised Gandhi and his disciples” and the grandiloquent, dictatorial Nehru, he staunchly attacked the “shibboleths of internationalism, humanitarianism, equality of man, and all that sort of thing.”

As Shastri says, Srikishen was closer to Savarkar in terms of political nationalism but at stark variance with him on Hindu-Muslim relations and the status of the Muslims of India. However, allusions to a glorious Hindu past and an undivided Hind ran alongside his admiration of Islam.

Srikishen’s vision of a post-colonial India was of a grand Dharmic nation that wrapped within its inclusive, noble folds all who live here and have settled here. This was complicated further by his loyalty to the Nizam and his staunch advocacy of an independent Hyderabad up until the militant faction of the Majlis Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM) took control of Hyderabad’s destiny under the leadership of Qasim Razvi.

Srikishen belonged to the Brahma-Kshatriya migrant community of Hyderabad, the earliest of whom, Rai Mahipat Rai, travelled to the Deccan with the first Nizam in the first half of the 18th century as a military commander. Srikishen’s own father Chaturbhuj (Rai) Balmukund is said to have moved to Hyderabad from Benares at the young age of thirteen.[10] The links of the community with the ruling autocracy were profound.

Filled with “dreams of Hyderabad shining in a resplendent bright Indian sky”, Srikishen was a sort of unofficial legal advisor to the Nizam, often offering unsolicited forthright views, and often critiquing the actions of HEH (His Exalted Highness), whose emoluments and benevolence had provided the family for generations. He often articulated Hyderabad as a vanguard, a prototype for an inclusive nation, although that nation to his mind must reject pan-Islamic solidarities, and seek to undo the grave injustice of partition.

Srikishen also attacked anti-caste legislation, and sought to assert the rights of traditional landlords to their lands and Brahmins to their exclusionary temples. Additionally, he asserted the “truths inculcated by Islam are a source of upliftment and salvation for mankind.”

The Brahma-Kshatriya community professes some syncretic features and Srikishen used to host Quran recitations at his home. In the lead-up to the military action against Hyderabad in September 1948, he sent several missives to the Nizam warning of things to come and of those who had swayed him—the real power behind the throne, as he pointed out.

Deeply pained by the sectarian violence that erupted in the wake of the fall of Hyderabad, Srikishen mourned the loss of his beloved city and angrily railed against Vallabhai Patel in a strongly worded letter. Accusing the national leader of “arrogance and conceit” with a “Hitlerian attitude” and a motive to finish off the Nizam and Hyderabad, Srikishen accused Patel of partisan actions causing exclusion and alienation, without regard to Hyderabad’s aspirations and well being: “In your eyes, we are a different entity, a foreign element to be removed from your midst.” Srikishen’s mulki (of the land) identity took on a deeply anguished form in his letters of the time as he bemoaned the violent actions against Hyderabad.

With shades of Gandhi, Savarkar, and Virendranath Chattopadhyaya, Srikishen was very clearly his own man, albeit a complicated man, who at times comes across as litigious and cantankerous. Shastri says this is an unfair characterization; the nation and dharma came first to Srikishen, and his disputes were a result of perceived attacks of his unflinching, high values. In 1962, the septuagenarian Srikishen sent for his friend Mehdi Nawaz Jung, the bureaucrat and governor of Gujarat, sensing that this end was near. Jung administered him ganga-jal, and not long after, the quixotic, redoubtable and rebellious Srikishen passed on.

A dispute with the Bench in 1945 led Srikishen to quit the Bar. He wrote florid, emotional farewells in Urdu addressed to the High Court and the people of Hyderabad. Expressing his despondency, he recalled his years of public service and pondered his state. His beloved Hyderabad had left him adrift:

I see there is silence this side too Then, what should I do, remaining here? In these circumstances, is not “Hijrat” better?

Srikishen does not appear in most accounts of the revolutionary phase of Indian nationalism, of India House, or in biographies of Savarkar, VVS Aiyar, and others[11] despite his extensive involvement, his leadership, and his closeness to the prominent activists. He was forgotten. Perhaps there was a reason.

(Many thanks to Ole Birk Laursen for valuable inputs)

This article was written by a guest contributor and solely reflects the views of the author.

[1] Srikishen, C., 45 Years A Rebel, The Deccan Printing Press, Hyderabad (1952)

[2] Acharya, M.P.T., Reminiscences of an Indian Revolutionary,

[3] Bakhle, Janaki ., Savarkar (1883–1966), Sedition and Surveillance: the rule of law in a colonial situation, Social History, 35:1, 51-75

[4] Weekly Reports of the Director, Criminal Intelligence, January 1911, National Archives of India.

[5] Prabha Chopra & P. N. Chopra, Indian Freedom Fighters Abroad: Secret British Intelligence Report (New Delhi: Criterion Publications, 1988)

[6] Weekly Reports of the Director, Criminal Intelligence, 9 April 1910, National Archives of India.

[7] Srikishen, op. cit

[8] Chopra & Chopra, op cit.

[9] German Federal Archives, AA RZ 201/21096, April 1916

[10] Rai Balmukund prepared a report in 1921 for the Hyderabad State Reforms Association on constitutional reforms and expansion of princely Hyderabad’s Legislative Council.

[11] He appears in Chatto: The Life and Times of an Anti-Imperialist in Europe by Nirode K. Barooh.

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