Gandhi’s Maulanas

Jihad is a dry wind blowing through the Muslim East, from Egypt to India, ‘whose parched grasses wait the spark.’–John Buchan

The first country to declare the First World War a ‘holy’ enterprise was Tsarist Russia, when it opened hostilities against the Ottoman Empire on 2 November 1914. On 16 November 1914, Sultan Mehmet V responded in kind. The Shaikh ul Islam, chief cleric of the state proclaimed a jihad from the public square of Constantinople: ‘Know that our state is today at war with the Governments of Russia, England and France and their allies, who are mortal enemies of Islam. The Commander of the Faithful, the Caliph of the Muslims, summons you to jihad!’

There is no historical evidence that the then British Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith, or his First Lord of Admiralty, Winston Churchill, had any desire to scorch-earth Islam out of existence. Indeed, during the previous ‘holy’ conflict, the Crimean War of 1854, Britain and France had spent blood and money to protect Ottoman Sunni Islam from Russian Orthodox Christianity. The geopolitics of the region changed, however, with the Anglo-Russian entente of 1907, and the two powers joined France in the great confrontation with a German-led alliance for the domination of Europe and its colonies.

The political response of Britain’s colonies in 1914 was split between an urge towards loyalty to Empire, and a desire to use this opportunity to further nationalist ambitions. Egyptian Arabs, who were nominally part of the Ottoman Empire but under de facto British rule, remained indifferent to the fate of either empire, Djemal Pasha’s Fourth Army was easily defeated by the British when it attempted to retake the Suez Canal in January 1915; the local Arabs were in no hurry to rush to the help of fellow-Muslims in the jihad. The war began badly for the Turks. In December 1914, the Russians had destroyed Enver Pasha’s Third Army in the Caucasus. Amid a great deal of gloating in London, Churchill formulated plans for the coup de grace, a naval attack through the Dardanelles that would capture Constantinople, put the Ottomans out of the war, and enable Britain and France to split their Arab territories.

The British could not afford similar equanimity about India, whose Muslims had shown a propensity for jihad through the nineteenth century and displayed active sympathy for the Caliph in the turbulent prelude to the First World War. Jihad was a familiar word in Britain, and crept into popular literature, thanks to generation of officers and soldiers who had fought in the north-west of India and Afghanistan.

Barelvi’s 1825 jihad had mutated by the turn of the century, into a pan-Islamic sentiment that sought both to lend as well as borrow support for a common front against a seemingly unstoppable European occupation of Islamic territory. The ulema propelled by events – the Turko-Russian war of 1877, the Greece-Turkey conflict of 1897, the Italian invasion of Tripoli in 1911, and the Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913, gradually turned the idea of transnational Muslim solidarity into mainstream conviction.

London was particularly concerned about the impact of jihad on Muslims serving in the Indian Army. The Indian Army remained faithful to its oath throughout the war, and Indians backed the Empire in its moment of peril. Sir Penderel Moon quotes John Buchan: ‘But it was the performance in India which took the world by surprise and thrilled every British heart India, whose alleged disloyalty was a main factor in German calculations . . .’ Recruitment rose from an annual rate of 15,000 in 1914 to over 300,000 in 1918. India’s contribution in materials is estimated at a minimum of 150 million pound sterling.

The British Raj, which frequently described itself as the greatest ‘Muhammadan power’ since more Muslims lived under the British flag than under the Ottoman, assured Indian Muslims that Jeddah, Mecca and Medina would never be attacked, and there would be no disruption in the Haj pilgrimage. Caution encouraged precaution. Despite the surface calm, the government detained, under Defence of India rules, three Muslims capable of inciting public opinion against the government: journalist-orators Muhammad Ali, editor of Comrade, his elder brother Shaukat Ali who ran the Urdu language Hamdard, and Abul Kalam Azad, editor of Al Hilal.

The Ali brothers belonged to an Aligarh generation that described itself as ‘Nai Raushni’, or the new light. Both had a puckish sense of humor as well. Muhammad Ali pointed out in an article in the Times of India in 1907 that if the English wanted Indians to be loyal, they should never have educated them. By the turn of the first decade, reasons for Muslim discontent had begun to accumulate. The government refused to grant university status to Aligarh without taking direct control of the institution; Bengal was reunited in 1911; and on the international scene, Turkey was under siege.

Muhammad Ali’s first editorial in Comrade, in January 1911, recognized the value of Hindu-Muslim cooperation. He gravitated naturally towards a leader of a similar disposition, Jinnah, and together they sought to change the pro-establishment character of Muslim politics as evident in the positions taken by the Muslim League, which was heavily influenced by the ultra-loyalist Aga Khan, elected permanent president of the League in 1908. Jinnah was a key participant in a Hindu-Muslim unity conference held in 1910 at Allahabad. The League, sensing the changing mood of the Muslims, passed a resolution supporting greater cooperation with Congress in 1911. In 1913, during a visit to London, Muhammad Ali persuaded Jinnah to join the League. In its March session that year, the League inched towards the Congress demand of a ‘suitable’ form of self-government for India. In an address in Allahabad in 1907, Muhammad Ali spoke of the League as an organization which would promote the integration of India rather than its disintegration. Comparing the Congress and the League as two trees growing on other side of a road, he said: ‘Their trunks stood apart, but their roots were fixed in the same soil, drawing nourishment from the same source. The branches were bound to meet when the stems had reached full stature. . .The soil was British, the nutrient was common patriotism, the trunks were two political bodies, and the road was the highway of peaceful progress.’

When the war broke out between the British and Ottoman empires, the Muslim heart was with fellow Muslims even if the mind advised ambivalence. In August 1914, Muhammad Ali wrote a famous article in Comrade titled ‘The Choice of the Turks‘ in which he listed Turkish grievances against the British: it’s entente with Russia at the expense of Turkey; it’s not-so neutral ‘neutrality’ in the Balkan wars; the occupation of Egypt; and, most crucially, Winston Churchill’s decision to seize two Dreadnoughts (warships) being built in England under commission from Turkey and put them into service with the British navy (the Turks had already paid for the ships). But Ali still hoped for Turkish neutrality and promised Indian Muslim support for Britain in the event of war against Germany. The government persuaded prominent Indian Muslims to impress upon Turkey that its best interests lay in neutrality. Dr. Ansari sent such a cable to the caliph after its text had been approved by government. The Aga Khan had already gone the extra mile, with an article in the Times of India in early 1913 suggesting that the Ottoman Empire would be wise to retire from Europe and concentrate on its Asia Minor possessions. The Urdu press labelled the Aga Khan anti-Muslim; later that year, the Aga Khan resigned from his permanent position as head of the League, citing frequent absence from India.

Ottoman reverses only increased support for the caliph, particularly since it became a very real possibility that Mecca and Medina would fall into British, and thus infidel hands. The Ali brothers and Maulana Bari sought a donation of one rupee from every Indian Muslim; more ambitiously, they wanted Muslims to swear an oath to sacrifice all their property and their life in the name of Allah. (This was amended to the more reasonable ‘all possible’ property). One-third from a fund of Rs. 100 million so raised would be sent to Turkey, another third kept for Indian madrasahs and missionary activity, and the rest retained for the defense of Mecca and Medina.  Bi Amman, the mother of the brothers, began women activism at the popular level, a first for Indian Muslims. The authorities banned the fund on grounds of sedition, but they could not prevent the Ottoman crescent from entering the imagination of Indian Islam. In his bureaucratic office in Bhopal, Shaukat Ali fantasized about German support for his war against Britain.

The Ali brothers were interned in May 1915, in Chhindwara, an isolated town in central India. Bari urged them to catch up on their faith in prison, and they did. They read the Quran in Urdu, and occasionally led Friday prayers at the local mosque, thus acquiring the reverent appellation of Maulana. When jail authorities complained that Shaukat Ali had been heard praying for the victory of the caliph one Friday, he replied that he could hardly be blamed if the caliph of Islam also happened to be sultan of Turkey.

Jail was good for their reputation. Muhammad Ali was elected, in absentia, president of the Muslim League in 1917. His veiled mother, Bi Amman, stood beside the empty presidential chair and delivered a fiery speech on her son’s behalf. It was the first time that a Muslim woman had addressed a political audience that included men. Her son was received with tears at the Amritsar sessions of the League and the Congress upon his release in 1919.

Maulana Abul Kalam Azad was brought up in the conservative-classical tradition of Islamic life and education. He was born in Mecca on 11 November 1888; his father, Shaikh Muhammad Khairuddin Dehlavi, a respected Sufi of the Qadri and Naqshbandi orders, had migrated to Arabia, and married locally. The family returned to India in 1898 and settled in Calcutta. Azad was educated at home in Islamic sciences by his father. By his teens, he had read the work of both the conciliator Sir Syed Ahmad and the anti-imperialist ideologue, Jamaluddin Afghani whose polemics would spawn radical movements like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

Azad saw no contradiction between a pan-Islamic alliance against western colonization and Hindu-Muslim unity against British rule in India. They were two pillars of the same architecture and reinforced each other. Azad believed it was the duty of the Muslims to declare a jihad against any power that had occupied even a small part of Dar al-Islam. Islamic solidarity could be extended to Hindus through a ‘federation of faiths’, an alliance of all eastern people against the West. He used Prophet Muhammad’s pact with the Jews in Medina as a precedent for Hindu-Muslim unity, arguing that this was reinforced by the Quranic injunction to befriend those who believed in peace.

Although they had much in common, Azad and the Ali bothers remained aloof from one another. Azad thought Shaukat Ali inferior, intellectually; and Muhammad Ali a bit common.
Azad was only sixteen when he started his first journal, Lisan us-Sidq. He began to write on Turkey and the Middle East in other papers as well. In 1912, at the age of twenty two, within three years of his father’s death, he launched his own Urdu paper, Al Hilal from Calcutta. The first edition appeared on 12 July 1912. Its prose was powerful, its content mature.

Azad agreed that the obscurantism of some ulema was retrograde, but his solution lay in the Quran, not the West. He attacked the Muslim League as a stooge of the British.  Indian Muslims, Azad argued, ‘ . . . do not need to lay new foundations or to exercise ingenuity. They have only to revive and reaffirm what has been commanded. There is no reason why we should feel distraught over the new houses to be built; we need only to settle in the new dwellings we have forsaken.’ The paper’s circulation reached a dizzying 26, 000 copies at one point, helped by colourful reporting on the Balkan wars, including the innovative use of pictures and charts. In the 23 October 1912 issue, he wrote that Islam condemned narrow-mindedness and racial or religious prejudice, and that human virtue was not the exclusive preserve of Muslims.

In 1913, he launched a political party, Jamiat-e-Hizbullah, or the Party of Allah; he believed that politics could not be separated from religion. The party did not take off but its ideas did. A revealing British intelligence report in 1916 contains Azad’s notes for a lecture he had prepared for his students at the madrasa, Dar uL Irshad, which he had started to encourage independent thinking among the ulema: ‘The Quran forbade Muhammadans to remain in subjection. A country like India, which has been under Muhammadan rule, must never be given up. . . Ten chores (100 million) of Muslims were living in slavery; it was a disgrace.’ the director of the C.I.D. In Calcutta, C.R. Cleveland, commented: ‘I do not think there is any personality that could arouse the same personal sympathy and fanaticism in the general Muhammadan community.’

Azad condemned the ‘minorityism’ of the Muslim League as a sign of weakness, an unwarranted inferiority complex. Muslims were not a minority tail attached to the Hindus in the struggle against the British; they were equals in the nationalist cause as well as part of a world struggle against British imperialism, he argued. The government closed Al Hilal after the outbreak of war. Azad resumed in 1915 with a different name, Al Balagh, but that too was shut down in March 1916. Azad was arrested and kept in Ranchi prison till January 1920.

Why did Gandhi, a passionate recruiter for the British war effort in 1918, insist on non-violence for Indians in 1917? Surely, if war was good enough, morally, to protect the British Empire, it was good enough means to destroy it? Those who see Gandhi merely in the fashionable spotlight of moralist, forget that he was first and foremost a realist. Without an honest appreciation of Indian weaknesses, he could never have controlled incubation through the tribulations of a protracted and tortured labour to deliver freedom.

Philosophically, Gandhi recognized the corrosive impact of violence on the perpetrator. This was particularly dangerous in India, where old passions had repeatedly instigated bouts of Hindu-Muslim violence. He sensed that if he sanctioned violence, Indians would probably kill one another long before they killed the common enemy. Moreover, violence would pit Indians against Indians, for Indians manned the British instruments of repression, the police and army. Dyer may have been a white imperialist, but those who carried out his cold-blooded orders were from the subcontinent.
It is an illusion to think of India as a pacifist nation. All the major religions, Hinduism, Islam and Sikhism, include a war ethic in their religious doctrine. Islam, of course, has jihad. The two major Hindu epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, are war narratives. The ideal Hindu king, Lord Rama, is pictured in popular iconography with a bow and a sheaf of arrows. His triumph over the evil Ravana is celebrated as a major festival across most of India each year. Rama’s most famous warrior-lieutenant, the monkey-god Hanuman is worshipped fervently for his devotion and martial feats. Sikhism was the most pacific of the three faiths until, forced by circumstances, the tenth master, Guru Govind Singh, gave the community a striking martial identity in the Khalsa creed.

Gandhi knew that to sustain non-violence might require unprecedented heroism, but to permit violence would be suicidal. These perceptions run through an essay that a deeply saddened Gandhi wrote in 1924, after his dream of independence had curdled, when communal violence had resurfaced and he had become the target of cynical barbs from all sides. Some Hindus were even calling him a turn-the-other-cheek Christian for advocating non-violence amidst riots. He writes in the 29 May 1924 issue of Young India: ‘My claim to Hinduism has been rejected by some, because I believe and advocate non-violence in its extreme form. They say I am a Christian in disguise. I have been even seriously told that I am distorting the meaning of the Gita, when I ascribe to that great poem the teaching of unadulterated non-violence. Some of my Hindu friends tell me that killing is a duty enjoined by the Gita in certain circumstances . . . what I see around me today is . . . a reaction against the spread of non-violence. I feel the wave of violence coming. The Hindu-Muslim tension is an acute phase of this tiredness. . . I am then asking my countrymen today to adopt non-violence as their final creed, only for the purpose of regulating the relations between the different races, and for the purpose of attaining Swaraj. . .This I venture to place before India, not as a weapon of the weak, but of the strong.’

Courtesy of Tinderbox by M.J. Akbar, Harper Collins Publishers India, 2011.

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