The Khilafat movement, taught in Indian school books as the first pan-India agitation against the British rule, fought by Hindus and Muslims together, does not incite readers’ interest. However, when examined closely, with its nuances, one finds seeds of prominent historical events such as the partition of India on religious grounds, creation of Pakistan and genesis of Hindutva, an ideology defining Hindu nationalism, were either sowed or germinated in this movement. It leaves many questions unanswered.
Had Indian National Congress, under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi, not thrown its weight behind the movement to reinstate an Islamic state, thousands of miles away from India, could it have saved lives of thousands of Hindus, who were killed or targeted in the Moplah revolt? Could it have deferred Veer Savarkar from defining Hindutva on the lines of fatherland and holy land? Could it have avoided the birth of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and subsequently the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)? Could it have prevented or delayed Pakistan’s creation?
As we are commencing the centenary of these historic events, it is necessary to revisit them and study them from a broader perspective. The decision to support the Khilafat agitation with the non-cooperation movement exposed sharp differences within the Congress, and among the stalwarts of the Indian freedom struggle. While teaching history, these differences are deliberately excluded.
Leaders who opposed Congress and Mahatma Gandhi’s support to the Khilafat movement are presented as non-secular and often held responsible for the partition of India. One hundred years later, the Bharatiya Janata Party, which, in a way, has its roots in the Khilafat movement, has become the principal force in Indian polity, reducing the Indian National Congress to a fraction of what it was for almost 7 decades after the independence. It makes a compelling case for discussing different narratives of the Khilafat movement.
The root of the Khilafat movement lies in the birth of Islam and its arrival in India. Like Judaism and Christianity, Islam is a monotheistic religion. In the days of the Prophet Mohammed, political and religious powers were vested in his hands. After him, his successors were considered as Caliphs – which broadly means leader or guide. During the Golden Age of Islam, the Rashidul, Ummayad and Abbasid Caliphates, Islamic rule spread from Morocco to the western border of India.
Over a period of time, the Islamic rule was divided into several kingdoms and the position of Caliph shifted from Baghdad to Egypt and then to Istanbul in 1517 after the Ottoman conquest. Even though the position of Caliph was not as powerful as the Pope in Catholicism, the Caliph had appeal in the Muslim world. Although Mughal emperors called themselves the Caliphs of India, the Ottoman Sultan, who ruled over the empire spread across Central and West Asia, North Africa and parts of Eastern Europe for almost 5 centuries and was the custodian of the holy sites of Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem were considered as the Caliph.
Rise of Nationalism in the Muslim World
Nationalism started taking roots in Muslim territories adjacent to European countries in the 18th century. In Muslim majority countries, defining nationalism was not very difficult. However in India, even after centuries of rule over substantial parts of India, the population of Muslims could reach barely 25%. During their rule, Mughals and other Muslim leaders were challenged by Hindu and Sikh kings. The most prominent among them were Maharana Pratap, Chatrapati Shivaji, and Guru Gobind Singh. Even though territories they controlled were small, they were seen as an inspiration by people across India.
After the death of Aurangazeb, the last Mughal emperor in 1707, the Maratha Kingdom established by Chatrapati Shivaji as Hindavi Swarajya or Hindu self-rule, spread rapidly from Attok in the West to Cuttack in the East up to Tanjore in the South in 1758. Even though it lasted for less than a century and was replaced by the British East India Company (1818) and the British government (1857), it gave confidence to a section of Hindus that they can defeat mighty enemies and rule this country.
After the fall of Mughal rule, the dependence of elites among Indian Muslims on the Ottoman Sultan for political and religious support increased. Sultan Abdul Hameed II (1842-1918) propagated the idea of Caliphate or Khilafat to keep the Ottoman Empire intact from European aggression and dismemberment. He sent Jamaluddin Afghani as his emissary to India. Afghani influenced Muslim Umrao (noble) and Ulema (clerics) who wielded influence over Muslim masses in India.
In Denial of Their Hindu Past
Majority of Indian Muslims were Hindus and were converted to Islam sometime in the medieval period. However, the two communities have radically different narratives on how their forefathers embraced Islam a few centuries ago. Hindus’ generally believe that most of the conversions happened through force and allurement. If you ask Indian Muslims this question, they will tell you that it happened because Islam is a more progressive religion and offers equality among its followers. Among prominent Muslim families, you find a tendency to establish a direct connection with Prophet Mohammed or his Quraysh tribe.
When the First War of Independence, commonly called as the Sepoy Mutiny, failed to defeat the British East India Company Rule in 1857, the administration was transferred to the British crown. A large section of Indian Muslims remained under the illusion that the British rule will go away in a few years, and Muslims would return to power soon. As a community, Muslims were slow to adopt social reforms, English language, university education, and government jobs.
To give an example, out of 88 graduates from the University of Mumbai in 1868, the number of Muslims was zero. Their passive approach widened the economic and social gap between Muslims and Hindus. A section of Muslim leaders was alarmed foreseeing a Hindu rule in the future as a result of India becoming a democracy driven by the representative system. That meant that Muslims who ruled India for centuries would be thrown out of power. This fear sowed the seeds of two nations theory, i.e. Muslims are separate people and a nation.
India as a cohesive geographic entity and the cultural nation has a history of thousands of years. However, until the advent of the British Raj, most people used to identify themselves with their caste, language or the region. The British Raj and the western education system exposed them to the west and germinated the idea of modern nationalism. The first generation of Indians studied in the British established universities, started newspapers, schools, colleges and labour unions.
In the Muslim community, people like Sir Syed Ahmed tried to compete with Hindus by setting up an Aligarh Muslim University and exhibiting their allegiance to Britain; it was no match. Even in the Indian National Congress, established in 1885, as a national movement, participation of Muslims was far less compared to their population. Although Congress has always tried hard to project itself as an organisation of all Indians, it remained a predominantly Hindu organization.
From the partition of the state of Bengal along religious lines in 1905, the issues related to nationalism and religion came to the fore. Strong opposition from Indian leaders prevented the partition. In 1916, Congress led by Lokmanya Tilak, and Muslim League led by Barrister Mohammad Ali Jinnah demonstrated Hindu-Muslim unity by signing the Lucknow pact. Under this agreement, the leaders of the Muslim League agreed to support the Congress on the issue of autonomy in exchange for one-third representation for Muslims in the Provincial Legislature, excluding Punjab and Bengal. But within three years the project of Hindu-Muslim unity faced a second and more difficult test in the form of Khilafat movement.
The Start of WW1
The first world war broke out in 1914. The Ottoman Empire joined the Central Powers i.e. Germany, Austria and Hungary against the Allied Powers. With heavy setbacks at the beginning of the war, on the Western Front, the British government decided to mobilise Indian soldiers for the war. The war council decided that four Indian divisions, which formed Indian Expeditionary Force A, would be sent to the battlefields of Europe as reinforcement.
At the same time, smaller Expeditionary Forces B, C, and D were also being assembled for deployment in East Africa and Mesopotamia. The Sultan holding the position of Khalif, gave religious overtones to the war. Apprehensive of strong reaction from Indian Muslims, the British government showed a conciliatory approach towards the future of the Empire at the end of the war.
The Indian National Congress pledged its support to the Allied forces, thinking that India would be granted independence in return. The Indian Muslim League and several Princely states also responded generously. More than one million Indian soldiers fought in the war. There was more than 4 lakh Muslims in the army. Indian soldiers played a vital role in the defeat of Ottoman Turkey. As the war progressed, the fears about the Muslim world (Ummah) uniting against the Allied Forces proved overstated.
In many places, Arabs and Muslim communities helped Britain and France in the war to break away from Turkey after the war. A study estimates that 2.5 million Muslims contributed to the allied cause either as soldiers or labourers. In the middle of the war, there was the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. Soviet Russia, because of its revolutionary expansionist policies and its proximity, became a looming threat to the British interests in oil-rich Persia and the Indian subcontinent. As a result, Britain and France decided to partition the Ottoman Empire. A number of countries and mandates were created by drawing lines in the desert of West Asia.
While this was going on, Mustafa Kemal Pasha’s campaigns prevented dismembering present-day Turkey into pieces and imposing a powerless Sultan on it. Thus, towards the end of the war, the British were least bothered about the wishes of a group of Indian Muslim leaders about the Ottoman Empire. As the dismemberment of the empire became evident by the end of 1918, the Khilafat movement – for restoring the Caliph – started taking roots.
The first meeting in this regard was held in Kolkata on February 9, 1919. The first Khilafat Day was observed on October 17, 1919. The first Khilafat Conference was held in Delhi on November 22-24, 1919. More than half the delegates in this conference were from today’s Uttar Pradesh. In this conference, resolutions were passed to stay away from victory celebrations, boycott British goods and sending a delegation to England to find a just solution to the Khilafat.
Leaders like Mohammed and Shaukat Ali brothers, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and Dr Ali, Hasrat Mohani emerged from this conference. On 24th November, Mahatma Gandhi, at a well-publicised joint Hindu-Muslim conference, Mahatma Gandhi announced that Hindus were united with Muslims in their grievances over the Caliphate because it was a just cause.
The Congress Leaders’ hope that the British will give independence to India after the war did not materialise. On the contrary, the government imposed the oppressive Rowlatt Act in March 1919. This act indefinitely extended wartime emergency measures such as preventive indefinite detention, incarceration without trial and judicial review. Large protests erupted across India to oppose this oppressive act.
In one such protest march against this act at the Jallianwala Baug in Amritsar on 13th April 1919, General Dyer ordered indiscriminate firing on unarmed protesters. Hundreds of innocent people died. Many more were injured by bullets and in the stampede. This massacre created a massive outrage across the country. That year, the Congress organised its annual session in Amritsar in December 1919.
Motilal Nehru, in his presidential address on 27th December, strongly condemned the massacre and partition of the Ottoman Empire. He said, “It is impossible for one part of the nation to stand aloof while the other part is suffering from a serious grievance.” At the session, a resolution was passed to suspend General Dyer and Sir Michael O’Dwyer for being responsible for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. However, Congress refrained from initiating a nation-wide agitation on this issue.
In Resolution XV on the issue of Khilafat, the Congress urged his Majesty’s government to settle the Turkish question in accordance with the just and legitimate sentiments of Indian Mussalmans and the solemn pledges of the Prime Minister without which there will be no real contentment among the people of India. Hypocritical as it may sound today, the Congress while demanding the solution of the Turkish question in accordance with Indian Muslims, also passed a resolution safeguarding free and unrestricted emigration from India to East Africa and the full civic and political rights of ·the Indian settlers in East Africa including the East African territory conquered from Germany.
It was in 1919 at Amritsar that Mahatma Gandhi insisted on thanks for Mr. Montagu and using Reforms, working them sincerely for the betterment of “the Government of the country and it was he who about 8 months after that launched the non-cooperation movement.
End of Tilak Era, Gandhi Era Begins
On August 1, 1920, the tallest leader of Congress, Lokmanya Tilak passed away. It ushered the Mahatma Gandhi era in Congress. On August 10, 1920, the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire was officially sealed under the Treaty of Sevres in France. Mahatma Gandhi saw this as an opportunity to unite Hindus Muslims in the Khilafat movement and thus bringing Muslims in the national movement. This would have strengthened his grip in the party.
We were taught in schools that, Mahatma Gandhi associated the Congress with the Khilafat Movement to accelerate the non-cooperation movement. But his critics disagree and put it the other way. They quote Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar who opined that ‘the non-cooperation had its origin in the Khilafat agitation and not in the Congress movement for Swaraj: that it was started by the Khilafatists to help Turkey and adopted by the Congress to help Khilafatists: that Swaraj (self-rule) was not their primary object, but its primary object was Khilafat and that Swaraj was added as a secondary object to induce the Hindus to join it’ .
At the Nagpur session on December 1920, the Congress gave the British a deadline of one year to meet its demands on Jallianwala Baug massacre and the Khilafat and warned of a nationwide non-cooperation movement. Mahatma Gandhi assured that civil disobedience with adherence to non-violence, withdrawal of children from government schools, a boycott of foreign goods, withdrawal from British courts and other such measures will bring Swaraj within one year.
It is not clear whether he meant independence or more autonomy by Swaraj. However, it is true that, under Gandhi’s leadership, the Congress became a mass movement. Whatever the reason behind the Congress’ support to Khilafat, it succeeded in increasing participation of Muslims in the national movement and in mobilizing a large number of Hindus for Khilafat. However, the goal of Hindu-Muslim unity remained a mirage.
Many Hindus supporting the Khilafat were ignorant of Islam and its political ideology. On the other hand, the Khilafat movement sowed the seeds of dual nationality among Muslims. Supporting the Khilafat movement was in a way recognizing that for Indian Muslims’ desire to establish an Islamic Caliphate in Turkey was as important or more important than the independence of their ancestral homeland.
The Khilafatists deny the charge of dual nationality by putting it like India is motherland while Turkey was like fatherland to Indian Muslims, implying that supporting Khilafat does not affect their love for India. However, it left important questions such as whether it is permissible to request the help of Muslim countries for India’s independence; whether India should be a constitutional democracy based on the representation of people or a Hindu majority country to be ruled by Muslims as desired by these leaders; unanswered. Similarly, Islam doesn’t advocate non-violence (Ahimsa) advocated by Mahatma Gandhi, as an essential element of the non-cooperation movement.
At the annual session of the Congress in 1920 in Nagpur, the Khilafat leaders read Quranic verses that call for Jihad and support the killing of Kafirs (non-believers). When it was pointed out to Mahatma Gandhi, he smiled and said: “They are alluding to the British bureaucracy”. As a result, the Khilafat movement started losing its direction from the beginning.
Some Khilafat leaders looked at India under the British Raj as Dar-ul-Harb or the land of war. In the summer of the 1920s, some local committees representing the Central Khilafat organisation urged Indian Muslims to sell their land and belongings and immigrate Dar-ul-Islam (a Muslim country). Accordingly, thousands of Muslims in Sindh, Punjab and central India set out to go to neighbouring Afghanistan. In August 1920, 30000 people immigrated to Afghanistan. As their numbers started growing, Afghanistan closed its doors on the immigrants. Many of them had to return to India in a state of disrepair. Mohammad Ali allegedly sent a telegram to the Amir of Afghanistan, inviting him to invade India and urging him to not make peace with the British. Ali Brothers gave calls to violence as part of the non-cooperation movement.
Malabar province in Kerala had a large number of Muslims. These people, known as Moplah or Mappila, worked mainly with Hindu landlords as day labourers. Poor and uneducated, they believe that they are descendants of Prophet Mohammad. Influenced by the speeches of Khilafat leaders, Mohammed and Shaukat Ali, a religious teacher Ali Musliar rose to prominence as Khilafat leader.
He made people believe that the end of the British rule is near and a Muslim army would invade India soon. Calls were given to mobilise Moplahs; weapons were arranged for the revolt. Their agitation against the British rule soon became a religious uprising and was directed against non-Muslims in the region. Ali Musliar declared himself as the king and Ernad and Valuvnad as Islamic State. When the British sent troops to stamp out the uprising, the Moplahs started slaughtering people.
In August 1921, as per estimates, close to ten thousand Hindus were massacred. A large number of women were raped, temples were vandalized, people’s homes were burnt and they were banished. There were many incidents of burning people alive, peeling their skins, people were asked to dig graves for themselves and were buried in them. Marxist historians have tried to play this violence down by stating that it was caused by economic injustice and not by religious fanaticism. But that makes a case for such revolts across the country.
Leading political and social leaders such as Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, Swami Shraddhanand and Dr Annie Basent condemned these events. In her report, Dr Annie Basent described the heartbreaking experiences in the refugee camps. But Mahatma Gandhi, obsessed with his dream of Hindu-Muslim unity, chose to ignore this criticism. Initially, he praised Moplahs for the love of their religion. He also held Hindus partially responsible for the riots. He advised them to build up their courage to face this difficult situation.
One can notice the differences between Hindu and Muslim leaders of the Congress in the official minutes and reports of the annual sessions and working committee meetings. In November 1921, the Congress Working Committee appointed a committee headed by Faiz Tyabji to investigate the atrocities committed by Moplahs and also by the British forces against Moplah agitators. The three-member committee had two Muslims and one Hindu.
In a few months’ time, the committee was disbanded without doing an investigation. At the Congress National session held in Ahmedabad in December 1921, acting president Hakim Ajmal Khan expressed regret over these “scandalous events” but Hasrat Mohani opposed the resolution to condemn the Moplah violence. In the 36th annual session of the Congress in Ahmedabad, its leaders shrugged off responsibility for the massacre and tried to pass the blame on the British, stating that the Congress leaders and activists were not permitted to travel to the Malabar region and teach principles of non-violence to the people. At the same session, the Congress condemned the British for spreading rumours of violence and for their high-handedness against Moplahs.
On February 7, 1922, at Chauri Chaura in Uttar Pradesh, the non-cooperation movement took a violent turn. When the police used force against unarmed agitators, an angry mob locked down the police station and set it on fire. 22 policemen and 3 protesters died in the incident. Mahatma Gandhi condemned the violence and halted the nationwide non-cooperation movement without consulting other leaders.
He felt that Indian society was not yet capable of understanding the philosophy of non-violence. Many Congress leaders including Moti Lal Nehru, Lala Lajpat Rai, and Chittaranjan Bose resented Mahatma Gandhi’s decision. His critics ask why Gandhi, who halted the nationwide movement at its peak because of a stray incident, chose to look the other way when there was large scale violence by Muslims.
Realizing that Gandhi’s hold over the Congress was weakening, the government arrested him at Ahmedabad on 18 March 1922 and tried him for instigating disaffection against the government. He was sentenced to six years of simple imprisonment. That turned him from a British loyalist to an uncompromising non-cooperator. Moti Lal Nehru and Chittaranjan Das resigned and started Swaraj Party. On the other hand, leaders of the Khilafat movement and the Muslim league felt betrayed by Mahatma Gandhi’s erratic decision. They developed a grudge that Gandhi has abandoned the cause of Khilafat. It increased their alienation from the Indian national movement.
Around the same time, events in Turkey put a lid on the Khilafat movement. In 1919, Mustafa Kamal Pasha assumed leadership of the Turkish War of Independence. In April 1920, he challenged Britain and the Sultan by convening the National Legislative Assembly in Ankara. In August 1921, Mustafa Kamel’s troops defeated Greeks in the battle of Sakarya. In September 1922, he regained Anatolia. On November 7, 1922, the Turkish National Legislature separated the Khalifa from the state. In March 1924, an Indian Muslim delegation, led by Aga Khan and Amir Ali, met with Turkish Prime Minister Ismat Pasha and requested him that the Khalifa not be obstructed from performing his duties towards Muslim people. In response, the Turkish parliament dismantled the caliphate.
Prominent Pakistani historians acknowledge the contribution of the Khilafat movement in the creation of Pakistan. The Khilafat movement propelled the religious-national sentiments among Indian Muslims who until then largely stayed away from the mainstream political activity. Even though Mahatma Gandhi’s intention behind supporting the Khilafat movement was genuine, it brought out the beast of religious fanaticism out of a cage.
Later, Mohammad Ali Jinnah took control and succeeded in creating Pakistan. According to Sir Shafat Ahmad Khan – who left the Muslim League and became a member of Pandit Nehru’s interim cabinet in 1946 – the objectives of the Khilafat and non-cooperation movement were very different. Their conjunction for Hindu-Muslim unity produced more destructive energy than positive energy. Due to the protests, secular-liberal Muslim leaders were thrown out of Congress politics and were replaced by conservative and religious leaders. This is why Mohammed Ali Jinnah, who used to eat pork, consume alcohol and married a Parsi woman, had to don traditional Muslim attire to lead the Pakistan movement.
The Khilafat movement, the Moplah revolt and the confused response by Congress deeply impacted Hindu nationalist leaders. Veer Savarkar, who was serving two life sentences in the Andamans and Ratnagiri when these events unfolded, called Khilafat as Afat. He penned a fiction “Mala Kay Tyache Arthat Moplyanche Band’ (The Moplah Revolt: I don’t care) in Marathi and Essentials of Hindutva, which is considered as the first attempt to theorize political Hindudom.
In his fiction, Savarkar sharply criticized the caste-based discrimination among Hindus while vividly describing the atrocities of Muslims in the Malabar region. Essentials of Hindutva was deliberately written in English with an objective of removing confusion created by Mahatma Gandhi in the name of Hindu-Muslim unity. It also attempts to create a new Hindu identity based on cultural and geographical nationalism.
In making this arrangement, Savarkar calls Hindus to all those who live in the region between the Indus River and the Indian Ocean, who consider India as their ancestral land and holy land. As some people claim, the Hindutva philosophy does not separate Muslims and Christians from religions born in India. He states that their ancestors were part of this great nation. But if they continue to deny this reality and look out of India as their holy land, it could become a threat to India’s national unity and integrity.
He makes his case strong, he gave examples around the world. In one such example he writes, “If the Zionists’ dreams are ever realized — if Palestine becomes a Jewish State, it will gladden us almost as much as our Jewish friends — they, like the Mohammedans, would naturally set the interests of their Holy land above those of their Motherland in America and Europe and in case of war between their adopted country and the Jewish State, would naturally sympathise with the latter, if indeed they do not bodily go over to it.” The concept presented by Veer Savarkar later guided Dr Keshav Baliram Hedgewar in laying the foundation of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in Nagpur in 1925. Dr Hedgewar who once was a member of Congress was disillusioned by the Khilafat movement.
This year, as we are marking the centenary of the events that started the Khilafat movement, we see the rise of nationalist parties all over the world. This year, Indian people have entrusted power with a larger mandate to Bharatiya Janata Party and Prime Minister Narendra Modi who have been following the path of Veer Savarkar and Dr Hedgewar in the spheres of national security and foreign policy. With cross border surgical strikes, abrogation of article 370 from Jammu & Kashmir and passing a law criminalising instant divorce among Muslims, the Modi government has indicated that it will not hesitate in making tough decisions in the national interest. Today, as a mature democracy, we need to look back at the Khilafat movement which shaped our modern history with an open mind.
A columnist on International Affairs & India’s Foreign Policy. Technology enthusiast, activist for Indian languages on social media and the internet.