A photo of a group of marfa and duff performers in the one of the duff shops in A.C. Guards. (Courtesy: Anisha Padma)

In Conversation with the Residents of A.C. Guards: The Pasts and Futures of A.C. Guards

in Interview
Published on: 28 February 2020

Anisha Padma

Anisha Padma is a researcher based in Hyderabad. In her Master’s thesis, she explored the history of a Hyderabadi community of Afro-Arabian descent whose ancestors were the ceremonial guards of the sixth and seventh Nizams of the erstwhile princely state. She has also been working on compiling an archive of the oral histories and photography of the pasts and presents of Siddis in Hyderabad.

Anisha Padma in conversation with Khaled Bhai, Abdullah bin Omer, Afsar bin Mohsin and Aqeel Ahmad Mahamood

The Hyderabad locality, A.C. Guards, is named after a celebrated regiment of men of Afro-Arabian descent, who were officially called the ‘African Cavalry Guards’ under the sixth and seventh Nizams (monarch) of the erstwhile princely state. This transcript features the oral memory of the descendants of the community through interviews with four residents of A.C. Guards: Khaled Bhai, Abdullah Bin Omer, Afsar Bin Moshin, and Aqeel Ahmad Mahamood. 

Khaled Bhai introduced himself to me as the community historian of A.C. Guards. He oversees Moulana Azad Memorial High School, a government-run school in the area. Many of the children of A.C. Guards residents attend this school, and some male residents congregate in the main lobby in the evenings. In his interview, Khaled Bhai draws particular attention to the tensions between the documents from the archive and oral narratives. 

Abdullah Bin Omer, more popularly known as Abu Sher amongst the residents, owns a girni (flour mill) in the neighbourhood. I heard many residents mention him when I began conducting interviews and studying spaces of historical, religious, and communal importance in A.C. Guards. Many of the residents asked me if I had gotten Abu Sher’s permission or if I had spoken to him regarding the histories of the neighbourhood. I finally met Abu Sher one afternoon, when I stumbled upon him sitting in front of his girni. When I asked him for permission to interview him, he chuckled. He then told me to wait and jumped on his scooter and rushed home to retrieve something. Five minutes later, he returned with a magazine in tow and said that he was ready to proceed with the interview. Although he wished to read from the magazine, the interview questions probed his own insights on the pasts of his ancestors and the neighbourhood at large.

Next, I spoke with Afsar bin Mohsin, who owns a marfa/duff shop in A.C. Guards known as KGN Arabi Duff. Marfa/duff refers to a kettledrum used during musical performances at Muslim weddings, political campaigns, and during the veneration of a Sufi Chishti saint, Khwaja Garib Nawaz in A.C. Guards. It is a distinctive instrument usually identified with the community in A.C. Guards and Barkas, another locality in Hyderabad with a large number of Hadhramis, another Hyderabadi Indian Ocean community. Many people from the Hadhramaut region (which includes present-day Yemen) migrated to Hyderabad. These peoples are known as Hadhramis and Arabs. Afsar also emphasised the importance of being treated with respect and dignity during his interactions with his clients.

Finally, I spoke with Aqeel Ahmad Mahamood, who was formerly employed in the Indian government as a railway engineer. He spoke with me about his desire to build an initiative that will cater specifically to his community in A.C. Guards because he believes they are a unified ‘negro breed.’ 

Following is an edited transcript of a series of interviews conducted on January 15, 2019, which portrays the diverse ways in which residents imagine the pasts and futures of A.C. Guards.

Khaled Bhai, Supervisor at Moulana Azad Memorial High School in A.C. Guards

Anisha Padma (A.P.):  Khaled Bhai, could I ask you a few questions about this community and the history of the African Cavalry Guards?

Khaled Bhai (K.B.): Many researchers come to this neighbourhood. You are not the first one. Many of them are foreigners. They want to know the story of the Siddi people and the African Cavalry Guards. The office [Telangana State Archives] does not have the correct information. I will tell you the true story of how the Habshi people came to Hyderabad. The Raja of Wanaparthy [unspecified the name of the monarch or the time period] went to Yemen to find strong, handsome men to gift the Nizam of Hyderabad. These men wanted to come to Hyderabad. There was no force. It was a great honour to be chosen. 

A.P.: In some documents from the Telangana State Archives and the National Archives in New Delhi, I have also observed that some men joined the regiment from present-day Ethiopia in the late 1880s and Zanzibar in the 1920s. How might we be able to understand these networks with Hyderabad?

K.B.: These men did not come from Zanzibar or Africa [in reference to archival documents, Khaled Bhai asserts that the men who joined the African Cavalry Guards all travelled as part of one migration from present-day Yemen to Hyderabad and formed the community here]. This is the true story of how the Habshi people came to Hyderabad. The Nizam of Hyderabad at that time was Mir Mehboob Ali Khan [the sixth Nizam of Hyderabad]. He was very dear to our ancestors. He gave them land and respect. The Africans were his bodyguards. The Nizam had great trust in them. The Rohillas [peoples broadly from present-day Afghanistan] helped with managing the finances, but the Africans were given the responsibility of guarding the Nizam and his harem because they [African Cavalry Guards] could be trusted…

Many of the people in this neighbourhood are Muslim. Their children are having a hard time getting married. Giving dowry is a Hindu practice, but we are expected to comply if we want our children to get married. Our religion [Islam] does not have dowry though. Money is a problem for many people here.


Abdullah bin Omer (Abu Sher), Owner of a Flour Mill in A.C. Guards 

A.P.: Could you tell me in your own words how you understand the history of the African Cavalry Guards?

Abu Sher: During the era of the Nizams, Africans came to Hyderabad. The Nizam saw that these were sincere and honourable people, and so he employed them in his army. The Nizam then gave them the facilities and all that was necessary for them to live here, and so they continued to serve the Nizam as bodyguards. They came from Yemen. Around 50 men came. The Arabs are very sincere people, and so they were put in charge of the treasury. This is why they built their homes in A.C. Guards. 

A.P.: How did the community of A.C. Guards develop during and after the reigns of the Nizams of Hyderabad?

Abu Sher: On this land, we have then built businesses like the flour mill, which is used for grinding flour. Under the Nizam’s rule, we were happy and lived well. But with the new government [after Hyderabad’s annexation into independent India starting in 1948], there was pareshani [confusion, upheaval]. Then everything became expensive, rates were increased… After police action [when the erstwhile princely state of Hyderabad was forcibly annexed into independent India or ‘liberated,’ depending on differing historical narratives], the Hyderabad of the past was gone, and with that the Nizams were also gone. After 1947, the A.C. Guards and their descendants mostly did labouring jobs or became fruit and vegetable vendors, doing whatever they could and living this life [although he says the year 1947 here, 1948 was the year of the police action. 1947 is, however, a major reference point because of the Partition of India].

A.P.: How have these very important economic concerns also combined with some social and cultural concerns?

Abu Sher: Our wives are educated and our children have grown up and gotten married. A lot of the older generation is gone, they’ve passed away. All that is left is our household. The ‘Africans’ [here, I think he is stressing a nostalgia for the former Afro-Arabs who came to Hyderabad] have expired, they are no longer.


Afsar Bin Mohsin, Owner of KGN Arabi Duff 

A.P.: Could you please introduce yourself?

Afsar Bin Mohsin: My name is Afsar Bin Mohsin, [owner] of KGN Arabi Duff [it was traditionally called marfa by the older people]. 

A.P.: What are your aspirations for your families and friends in A.C. Guards?

Afsar Bin Mohsin: In the future, our children should not do this work; so, we are working very hard to educate them and make something of them. 

A.P.: Could you tell me some of your family’s history with regards to the neighbourhood and marfa?

Afsar Bin Mohsin: Our grandfathers and great grandfathers came from outside [of Hyderabad] to serve as the Nizam’s bodyguards and they brought marfa music with them. We play during special occasions in Hyderabad, and we deserve respect. After we perform, if someone says, 'Chaush Bhai, come eat with us,' we feel very respected. [Chaush, a Turkish-derived term which means military officers or guards, is another name for the residents in A.C. Guards and is sometimes used self-referentially]. 

A.P.: During what occasions do you perform?

Afsar Bin Mohsin: We play during elections, we play during marriages, we play during Ganesh Chaturthi and festivals honoring the maata [here, he is referring to festivals dedicated to prominent Hindu goddesses], we play for all occasions. If we can provide a good time, they will remember us and invite us again to perform.


Aqeel Ahmad Mahamood, Retired Railway Engineer (Video Interview)

A.P.: Could you please introduce yourself? 

Aqeel Ahmad Mahamood (A.A.M): My name is Aqeel Ahmad Mahamood [Du’ Ali Ilm Mahmood Le Ahmad Farrukh]. It is a long name, and I only learned of it after I went to Africa. 

A.P.: How were your visits to African countries? What led you to go there?

A. A. M.: Before they [residents of A.C. Guards] found jobs as security, as policemen, and in the railway without [obtaining formal degrees] education. Now they need education because they are not getting jobs. I was educated and worked in the railways as an engineer. If I was not educated, I would be sweeping floors. After my visit to Africa, I wanted to create a platform to unify and uplift this community [in A.C. Guards]. I will show them a way. I want to do something that benefits them. 

A.P.: In your perspective, how have circumstances changed for your community between the reign of the last Nizam and the present?

A. A. M.: Earlier, we had the Nizam’s support, but now there is nothing. The Nizam gave each A.C. Guard living quarters of about 60 square yards. [But now] Two families cannot live there. Before, it was meant for one man, but now, after marriage, there are about 10­–15 people living in this space; how can they live? The nearby plots are all gone, we cannot find any more [property here]. And the government did not give anything [any benefits] after the quarters. A.C. Guards is a colony created by the Nizam and we are continuing to survive here. Those who have built three-storey buildings have money. Those who don’t have money live in the one-storey buildings. 

A.P.: What happens when it is no longer feasible to live in the allotted land?

A. A. M.: If they don’t have money to survive, then they sell the land and leave. If they all sell and leave, our generation is also doomed. If the [community] is unified, then we can say something [and accomplish something]. The central and state governments are not providing any help. Before, we used to play sports and were good at it. Now we don’t even have a bat to play cricket or hockey or the grounds and facilities. But what to do? I am 68 years old and am going to form a committee to create unity.