In his 2011 book Pakistan in Search of Identity, veteran historian Dr. Mubarak Ali wrote that the roots of Muslim religious radicalism in South Asia can be found in what came to be known as the Khilafat Movement (1919-1922).
Eminent scholar and professor of political science, late Khalid bin Sayeed had suggested the same in his 1968 book Pakistan: The Formative Years. The book was recently republished by Oxford University Press. But to Sayeed, the aforementioned movement not only stirred religious passions of the region’s Muslims, but also of the Hindus. Thus, in view of Sayeed’s assertions in this context, one can conclude that the roots of Muslim and Hindu militancy sprouted from the seeds first sown during the Khilafat Movement.
In 1919, when the already depleted Ottoman regime in Turkey was defeated by a British-led alliance during the First World War, the ulema of India who till then had largely remained stationed in their mosques and madressahs poured out to agitate against the possible dismantling of the Ottoman Empire.
Did the Khilafat movement sow the seeds of militancy in the subcontinent?
The resultant ‘Khilafat Movement’, which had begun to ferment during the last years of the First World War, managed to capture the attention and interest of a large number of Indian Muslims.
Pan-Islamists, many of whom were also operating from within the secular-nationalist Indian National Congress (INC), and ulema groups were at the forefront of the movement. The All India Muslim League (AIML), a moderate Muslim-centric party which had emerged in 1906 from progressive educationist and reformer Syed Ahmad Khan’s Muslim Educational Conference, was still struggling to find its feet.
One of its leading members, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, a dispassionate but astute lawyer, advised the League to stay out of the movement. In a letter to INC’s revered figurehead, Mahatma Gandhi, Jinnah wrote that the movement was bound to stir up untapped religious passions of the masses and would be a disaster to the fate of the Hindus and Muslims of India.
Gandhi disagreed. In November 1919, after being approached by some leading members of the Khilafat Committee, he decided to make the INC part of the movement. Both Mubarak Ali and Sayeed maintain that Gandhi did this to bolster the anti-British movement that he was already planning to launch.
On the other hand, a senior member of the Muslim League, Dr Ansari felt that the League was being sidelined and overwhelmed by the rising religious passions of the movement (which also became apparent within the party’s main Muslim urban middle-class constituency). He headed a special party convention in Delhi and invited a group of ulema to the session. This created a rift within the League. Jinnah’s group opposed the movement along with Gandhi’s ‘non-cooperation movement’. It was taking place in concert with the Khilafat Movement.
Jinnah insisted that the result of both the movements would be disastrous and chaotic. INC leader Jawaharlal Nehru later wrote that Jinnah saw the commotion (created by the Khilafat and non-cooperation movements) as ‘mob hysteria.’
The first major event which substantiated Jinnah’s concerns took place in Amritsar in April 1919. Mobs of Hindu, Muslim and Sikh protesters attacked a few banks and killed two British men. The colonial government responded by mercilessly massacring over 350 Indians gathered in a small garden (Jallianwalla Bagh).
The incident seemed to have consolidated Hindu-Muslim unity against the British but Jinnah continued to insist that the movement was bound to bring the two communities into serious conflict. He was ignored and, thus, his group in the League remained aloof throughout the movement.
To appreciate INC’s decision to participate in the movement, the conservative Islamic party the Jamiat Ulema-i-Hind issued a fatwa sanctioning Gandhi’s non-cooporation movement. Pan-Islamists such as Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and Muhammad Ali Jauhar were the most vocal proponents of the movement. Their fiery articles and speeches urged the Muslims to quit their schools, colleges and jobs ‘for the sake of Islam.’ Many did. The INC sectioned the move.
Jinnah was livid. He questioned the wisdom of such a move. ‘What are their replacements?’ He asked. ‘Where else would the students go, if not to schools and colleges?’
Then, Azad and another prominent member of the Khilafat Committee, Maulana Abdul Bari, declared India as darul harb (a house of war). They encouraged Muslims to migrate to Afghanistan which at the time was being ruled by a Muslim ameer. Hundreds of Muslims (mainly from Sindh and former NWFP) sold off their belongings and headed for Afghanistan. Most were robbed on the way, and the rest were turned back by the ameer. They found themselves homeless and jobless when they returned to India.
The anarchic route that the movement had taken and its violent currents further mutated it when, in the Malabar area, Muslim peasants began to attack Hindu landlords. The uprising was followed by bloody communal riots in Malabar and Multan. The riots were brutally crushed and Malabar’s Muslim peasant community never fully recovered from them.
Then, in 1922, a mob of Hindus and Muslims burned alive 21 policemen (all Indian). The incident took place in the Chauri-Chaura area. This is when Gandhi pulled the INC out of the movement.
Finally, the movement suddenly collapsed when Mustafa Kamal, a charismatic secular-nationalist general in Turkey, ousted European forces from much of Turkey and abolished the Ottoman caliphate.
By the end of it all, the INC was weakened; the League was severely fragmented; and thousands of Muslims were out of educational institutions and jobs. Large sections of the Hindu and Muslim communities had been radicalised. This eventually gave birth to militant outfits such as the Majlis-i-Ahrar-i-Islam and the Hindu Shuddhi movement, whose sole purpose was to convert Muslims and Christians to Hinduism. The influence of the Hindu nationalist outfit, the Hindu Mahasabha, also strengthened. The apolitical but deeply ritualistic and conservative Tableeghi Jamaat and, later, the quasi-fascist, Khaksar Movement, also emerged from the fragments of the fallen movement.
Jinnah’s caution and position were vindicated. But the tradition of politics done on the impulse and emotion of the mindless mob had been established in the region.