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On 97th anniversary of Kohat riots, read how the facade of ‘Hindu-Muslim unity’ of Khilafat movement had collapsed leading to exodus of Hindus

While Gandhiji piggybacked on the Khilafat movement to artificially forge a 'Hindu Muslim unity', the underlying religious antagonism did not remain concealed for long.

The Khilafat movement or the Caliphate movement was of the Indian Muslims against the British colonial rule in India. The movement started by Indian Muslim leaders also sought to restore the caliph of the Ottoman Caliphate in Turkey. In a highly contentious decision, Mahatma Gandhi had announced his support for the Khilafat movement, who himself was leading the non-cooperation at that time. Gandhi had dreamt of achieving Indian independence through ‘Hindu-Muslim unity’, and this had resulted in the Congress party joining hands with the Muslim League against British India. However, the Khilafat movement had died by 1922 due to a change of policy in Turkey.

After the Khilafat movement began to fade, communal tension brewing underneath the facade of ‘Hindu-Muslim unity’ surfaced. On the fateful days of September 9th and 10th of 1924, radical Islamist mobs unleashed mayhem in Hindu mohallas (neighbourhood) in Kohat town of North-West Frontier Province (now known as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) in present-day Pakistan. The carnage was pre-meditated and resulted in the exodus of the entire Hindu population from the area. Since the British depended on the majority Muslim community to maintain their stronghold in the area, it implied that the government of the day turned a blind eye to the treatment meted out to the Hindus.

Kohat had a Muslim population of 12000 while the number of Hindus and Sikhs stood at a mere 5000 (Census 1921). The Hindus were prosperous even though they were outnumbered. The Hindu community lived in urban areas and controlled large businesses. Despite this, a large number of Hindus were being converted to Islam (about 150 conversions each year between 1919 and 1924). The Hindus had the support of the Arya Samaj and the Sanatan Dharma Sabha. Though both the organisations differed in their ideology and outlook, they came together to promote a sense of religious identity among the dwindling Hindu population.

There was widespread resentment amongst the Muslims for the minority Hindus and the Kohat riots were a manifestation of long-standing friction. A fertile ground, conducive to riots, was being created by giving a communal twist to each incident. When the son of one Sardar Makan Singh eloped with a Muslim girl, it motivated the Islamic clerics to give inflammatory speeches and provoke the community. Another dispute over a bathing tank was alleviated as a ‘Hindu-Muslim’ issue.

Press, blasphemy and the foundation of the massacre

One of the key factors that added fuel to the fire of communalism was the publication of a highly objectionable and ‘blasphemous’ poem in May 1924 by a notorious Muslim-centric newspaper named Lahaul. It read, “We shall have to burn the Gita of Kirars. We shall break the flute of Krishna. O Muslims! You will have to take up the sword and destroy the existence of Kirars and burn their goddesses.

Screengrab of the contentious poem published in Lahaul

The genocidal poem by a Muslim newspaper hurt the sentiments of the Hindu community and especially the Sanatan Dharma Sabha. The local secretary of the organisation, Jiwan Das, then published a pamphlet by the name of ‘Krishan Sandesh’. The pamphlet contained poems meant to reinstate the religious identity among the Hindus. Miffed by the anti-Hindu poem published in Lahaul, Das printed a poem by one author from Jammu wherein he mocked the followers of Allah. It read, “We have kept quiet so long, we shall have to speak out, O mulla! You must gather up your prayer carpet and taken it to Arabia. We shall build a temple to Vishnu in place of the Ka’ba, And destroy the existence of the Nimaziz.

Screengrab of the poem in Krishan Sandesh

Das printed 1000 copies of the contentious poem in retaliation to the Lahaul poem and distributed the pamphlets at the Janam Ashtami festival. This infuriated the Muslim community while their press and ulemas added fuel to the fire. Inflammatory speeches were made by Muslim leaders in mosques in Kohat. On September 3, 1924, Maulvi Ahmed Gul and Qazi Miraj Din led a Muslim crowd to the Assistant Commissioner of Police, S. Ahmad Khan, and demanded action against Jiwan Das. Khan assured them that Jiwan Das would be prosecuted under IPC 505, 153A. He had also directed the burning of pamphlets.

The Hindu community had meanwhile ‘conceded’ that the pamphlets were offensive and passed on the blame to Sanatan Dharma Sabha. They had asked for a pardon but opposed the burning of pamphlets since they contained the portrait of Lord Krishna on the covers. On September 8, Jiwan Das was released on bail and asked to leave the district until the conclusion of the trial. The Ulemas held large meetings, convinced the Muslims of Kohwat that Das had been ‘let off’ even though Das was not acquitted and only out on bail.

Ulemas used mosques for provocation, Islamists took ‘oath of talaq’

“Alas! Oh impotent Mussulmans! You have spoiled your cause by accepting bribes from the Hindus. You should die! You should have some sense of shame,” the extremist preachings began at the mosque. Maulvi Ahmed Gul then set the stage for the impending riots. He warned the police to take action against Das or that the community would take action as per Shariat. He gave an ultimatum until 8 am on September 9. He received support from other clerics such as Shahin Shah and Mian Fazul Shah.

In one such meeting at Haji Bahadur mosque, fanatic Muslims took the ‘oath of talaq’ i.e. they will divorce their wives if they fail to defend their religion. By night, Muslims were seen parading with arms. On September 9, 1924, a crowd of 1000-1500 Muslims first went to meet Deputy Commissioner Reilly, forcing him to give in to their demands. At around mid-day, half of the mob disappeared and surfaced outside the Hindu mohalla. The Hindus were anticipating trouble after learning about the ‘oath of talaq’, and hate speeches delivered at mosques. They sent telegrams to the Deputy Commissioner, SP but in vain.

Kohat riots: Remembering the carnage of September 9-10

Muslim mobs, particularly young boys, stormed into Hindu colonies and began wielding sticks and pelting stones. As per Mahatma Gandhi, the house of one Sardar Makan Singh was burnt and his garden was destroyed. Fearing an impending pogrom, the Hindus fired shots at them. Amidst the chaos, one of the stone pelters died while several others were injured. This gave the fanatic Muslim mob a free pass to kill the Hindus. Shops, temples and houses were set on fire and destroyed. Properties belonging to the Hindus were vandalised and looted.

The riots continued until 7 pm in the night when the law enforcement authorities dispersed the frenzied mob and brought the situation under control. However, the police did not prepare for another round of violence and killings that was to occur the following day. At about 11 am on September 10, 4000 Muslims from Kohat and nearby tribal areas gathered outside the Hindu mohalla and resumed one of the deadliest episodes of violence in pre-Independent India. The large-scale arson forced about 3000 Hindus to flee the Kohat town and take shelter in a nearby temple. It was at this point that the Muslims began torching Hindu homes after looting them and slaughtering those who chose to stay behind.

Reportedly, the fire took over a week to extinguish and almost the entire Hindu mohalla was burnt to ashes. The Hindus of Kohat sought refuge in Rawalpindi in Punjab. It was estimated that the casualties on the Hindu side were 3 times more than that of Muslims, some of whom were killed in self-defence. Official statistics state that 12 Hindus were killed, 13 went missing (presumably killed), and 86 were wounded. The total casualties stood at 155. The entire Hindu population of Kohat was wiped out, forcing a further demographic change in favour of the Muslims.

The fear and panic created by the riots prevented the return of Hindus, who were forced to leave their homes. The return of the exiled Hindus began from January 1925 onwards after NWFP Chief Commissioner H.N. Bolton facilitated a settlement between Hindu and Muslim leaders. As per the settlement which yet again favoured the Muslims, all civil/criminal cases pertaining to the riots were dropped except for the charges of blasphemy against Jiwan Das. The Hindu victims of the riots did not get any compensation but were offered loans of 5 lakh rupees for damages.

The Faith of the British Raj on ‘Muslims’

Prior to the Kohat riots of 1924, Lord Reading wrote to the British Secretary of State on July 23 stating, “The Gandhi movement could never have gained its strength but for the Treaty of Sevres which made the Mohamedans so fanatic that they joined up with the Hindus for the time being…the difficulty at present is to keep the Mohamedan and Hindu from each other’s throats, a task which I believe can only be performed by the British….From purely Indian considerations, I have no hesitation in saying that the peace [with Turkey] will assure us of the support of all but the extremists among the 60 or 70 million Mohamedans in India and will help materially to strengthen the British position in India.”

The influence of Ulemas, Khilafat movement and its aftermath

Patrick McGinn wrote, “The heightened sense of religious identity which existed among the Muslim community was accentuated during the Khilafat movement. The orthodox ulama had been brought into political activity on a large scale. They had been a valuable asset in the Non-co-operation and Khilafat movements in gaining support among the masses. With the decline of these movements the ulama were no longer needed as politicians turned away from mass politics. As a result, their influence disappeared temporarily.”

He added, “The activities of the ulama in the years following Khilafat can be seen as an effort to perpetuate power and influence within the Muslim community. Communal issues became more important at the local level. Those Muslim leaders who had been heavily involved in the Khilafat movement became the defenders of the faith in subsequent years.” While Gandhiji piggybacked on the Khilafat movement to artificially forge a ‘Hindu Muslim unity’, the underlying religious antagonism did not remain concealed for long. To correct the discourse he fasted for 21 days to restore communal harmony.

A closer analysis of the Khilafat movement tells us that the seeds of prominent historical events such as the partition of India on religious grounds, the creation of Pakistan, and the genesis of Hindutva were either sowed or germinated in this movement. Be it the genocide of 10000 Hindus during the Moplah Massacre of 1921 or the exodus of the entire Hindu population in Kohat town of northwest Frontier Provinces in 1924, the true face of ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ was exposed. Even post-partition, the seeds of Islamic supremacy and fanaticism culminated in the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits from the Muslim-dominated Kashmir valley. The plight of Hindus has remained unchanged since then and they have paid the price with their lives each time.

Reference: McGinn, P. (1986) ‘Communalism and the North-West Frontier Province: the Kohat Riots, 9-10 September 1924’, South Asia Research, 6(2), pp. 139–158. doi: 10.1177/026272808600600204.

 

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Dibakar Dutta
Fascinated by Indian politics

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