Review: The Hyderabad Heist by Sharmishtha Shenoy
A gripping account of the robbery of expensive artefacts encrusted with precious stones from the Nizam’s Museum in Hyderabad in 2018 and how the thieves were apprehended
A true crime story, The Hyderabad Heist by Sharmishtha Shenoy looks at the plunder of several antique artefacts studded with diamonds, emeralds and rubies worth about ₹50 crore from the Nizam’s Museum, Hyderabad, on September 3, 2018.
That morning, the museum had opened after a long weekend. A couple of vloggers who had planned to shoot a video tour of the building and upload it to YouTube spotted the empty display unit that had previously held a tiffin box studded with diamonds, a gold cup and saucer, and a gold spoon encrusted with emeralds and rubies. The museum was immediately closed and the media, both local and international, went into a frenzy.
Shenoy, who lives in Hyderabad, describes each stage of the robbery including its discovery, investigation, the interrogations involved, the chase and the eventual retrieval of the stolen artefacts.
The sensational case was especially daunting for the Hyderabad Police not just because of the value of the items stolen but because it was widely viewed as a theft of India’s heritage and culture. Prince Muffakham Jah, grandson of Mir Osman Ali Khan, the last Nizam of Hyderabad, who was in London when the event occurred, personally requested the city’s police commissioner Anjani Kumar to investigate the case. “The artefacts stolen from the museum were gifts given by rulers across the world to the seventh Nizam of Hyderabad on his golden jubilee in the year 1937,” Kumar says, in his foreword to the book, which is dedicated to the Hyderabad police. As everyone familiar with the case knows, Kumar successfully spearheaded the operation to recover the artefacts.
Media scrutiny was intense and with the police force needing to deliver results soon, Kumar’s priority was to ensure that the thieves did not succeed in smuggling the stolen items out of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. At the start of the investigations, the police team discovered that the grille of one of the building’s ventilators had been removed. Apparently, this was where the robbers had hauled themselves into the building with the help of a rope. CCTV camera under the ventilator had been turned towards the wall. The precision and expertise evident in the execution of the crime led investigators to believe that the culprits had either researched the area thoroughly or were insiders who knew the layout of the place. Further probing led the police to the culprits, two petty criminals, Ghulam, a welder and occasional construction worker, and Badshah aka Khooni Badshah. During a spell of unemployment, Ghulam had walked into the Nizam’s Museum and observed the extravagant pieces on display. When he told his friend and distant cousin Badshah about it, the latter suggested that they rob the museum. Ghulam then undertook a detailed recce, scrupulously researching the museum, even learning that the museum’s CCTV footage gets deleted every 30 days. They spent the next month planning the break-in, even practising rope climbing in preparation.
The duo, who had tonsured their hair and wore masks and gloves, burgled the museum in the early hours of a Monday morning after a long weekend when there were no security guards on duty. They changed their clothes immediately after the operation to avoid being identified. Any clues that were left behind were red herrings to distract and confuse the police.
Internationally, over the last 100 years, only about 1% of museum heists have been solved. The theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre in Paris in 1911 was one of the most famous cases and it shared many similarities with the Nizam’s Museum case. Both were the handiwork of petty criminals. In both cases, security was lax, and in both, the thieves were caught when they tried to sell the artefacts. While it took the Parisian police two years to recover the Mona Lisa from Vincenzo Peruggia, Ghulam and Badshah were apprehended within a record 10 days. The book, which is largely about the hard work and determination of the Hyderabad Police, provides the force with some well deserved positive publicity.
Sharmishtha Shenoy, who has previously authored the Vikram Rana mystery series, has turned the stuff of sensational newspaper reports into a well written novel with a gripping story. The Hyderabad Heist would work very well as a script for a film or web series.
A freelance writer based in New Delhi, Neha Kirpal writes primarily on books, music, films, theatre and travel
The views expressed are personal