World War I and the Indian Muslim response - V
by Shreerang Godbole on 10 Aug 2020 2 Comments

The pan-Islamist Turkish fixation of Indian Muslims took an anti-British turn due to certain events that took place in World War I. In addition, certain events in India and around the Muslim world caused Indian Muslims to graduate from amity (1911-1922) through armed truce (1911-1922) to open warfare with the British (1922 onwards).  It is incumbent to briefly outline events in World War I that caused this about-turn in Indian Muslim attitude to the British. While outlining these events, it is instructive to see the responses of Indian Muslim leaders to these global events. Though the Khilafat Movement was triggered by the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, its portents started getting visible with the declining fortunes of the Turkish Khalifa in World War I. It is convenient to consider the end of World War I (November 1918) as the midpoint of the sequence of events from 1911-24.


Ottoman Turkey in World War I


World War I lasted from July 28, 1914 to November 11, 1918. The two alliances that fought the War were the Allied or Entente Powers and the Central Powers. The Allied Powers comprised of Great Britain, France, Russia, Italy, Romania, Japan and the United States. The Central Powers comprised of Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Turkish Empire (or Sublime Porte after the High Gate that led to the palace of the Sultan). By the time the War was over, the Allied Powers had claimed victory. An estimated 16 million people, both civilians and soldiers perished in the War. Different countries were drawn into the War at different stages.


Founded in 1299, the Ottoman Empire at its zenith (1520-1566) ruled large areas of the Middle East (parts of Arabia, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, and Egypt), Eastern Europe (Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, Hungary, Macedonia, and Romania) and North Africa (coastal strip). Its decline began in the 1600s with the dawn of Renaissance and Industrial Revolution in Christian Europe. Over the next 100 years, the Ottoman Empire lost large parts of its territories: Greece (1830), Romania, Serbia and Bulgaria (1870), Tripolitania Vilayet (province) that included Tripoli (1911-12, to Kingdom of Italy), most of remaining territory in south-eastern Europe (1912-13, Balkan Wars against Serbia, Bulgaria, Montenegro and Greece with the blessings of Russia).


On the eve of World War I, the Ottoman Empire was in shambles, having lost territories and beset by internal dissensions and a tottering economy. Far from getting demoralized, the press and political classes sympathetic to the ruling Committee for Union and Progress (CUP) and the figurehead Sultan Mehmet V unanimously called for a hareketi-i intibahiye (lit. national awakening). This was impossible to achieve if Turkey remained neutral in the War.


The Ottoman Government under wartime minister Enver Pasha turned to both Germany and Britain respectively, to reorganize the Ottoman army and navy. Turkey was initially open to an alliance with either of the two countries. A long-standing alliance with Britain seemed improbable. Germany had never displayed any territorial aspirations of the Ottoman Empire. In view of this as well as previous military ties with Germany, the Ottoman Empire sought alliance with Germany. On September 30, 1914, Turkey asked Germany to lend it five million Turkish pounds in gold from German banks. Germany pointed out that such a loan could be arranged if Turkey actively intervened on the German side. The Ottoman Empire entered the war after its fleet bombarded Russian ports on October 29, 1914.


By mid-1915, the Ottoman Empire, denied access to international capital markets to float loans, faced a fiscal crisis. Despite the Ottoman victories over Britain at Gallipoli (1915) and Kut (1916), the Turkish army was nearing exhaustion by 1916. The Russian winter offensive (1916) and British offensives in Syria, Palestine and Jerusalem (1916-17) crippled the Ottoman Turkish army (Turkey’s Entry into World War I: An Assessment of Responsibilities, Ulrich Trumpener, The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 34, No. 4, 1962, p. 374; see also The Ottoman Empire, Kenneth W. Harl, The Great Courses, 2017, pp.228-250).


In 1900, Turkish Sultan Abdul Hamid had started construction of a far-reaching railway line connecting his Arabian provinces to Damascus. This Hedjaz railway was a ‘pious fraud’, constructed by German engineers with money subscribed by Muslims throughout the world. Ironically, the first trains started running only in September 1918, just in time to receive the final victorious onrush of the British (‘T.E. Lawrence’ in Arabia and After, Liddell Hart, Jonathan Cape, 1934, pp.51-53). 


Bogus nature of pan-Islamic Khilafat


Just before War began, there arose subterranean stirrings among the Arab subjects of the Turkish Empire. With the past glory of the Abbasid Khilafat in their eyes, Hussein (1853-1931), the Sherif of Mecca and his sons dreamt of a vast Arab confederacy under the suzerainty of his family. Hussein was the 37th descendant of Prophet Muhammad. Soon after his arrival in Mecca, the violently anti-Arab Turkish Governor Vahib Bey ordered the Sherif to hand over a hundred of the old rifles in possession of the Sherif’s guard. This insult provoked a riot. Sherif Hussein was encouraged by the British who always wanted an independent Arab state in Arabia and Syria. They also wanted the Arab Sherif to be on Britain’s side should Turkey proclaim a jihad. However, though Hussein counted much as a descendant of the Prophet, it was doubtful that he had the temporal weight to lay claim to the Khilafat. In January 1915, when pressed by the Turks to proclaim jihad, Sherif Hussein refused to do so after being egged on by the British and in consultation with Ibn Saud, the founder of the dynasty that rules Arabia to this day (Liddell Hart, ibid, pp 61-64).


In early 1916, the Turkish army swooped into Syria to crush the Arab movement within their own ranks and territories. Suspected rebels were put to death wholesale. A special Turkish force under Khairi Bey was formed to march onto Mecca along with a small German column and overawe the rebels. Finally on June 5, 1916, the Arab revolt started. It was led by the Sherif himself and had fifty thousand Arab soldiers but only ten thousand rifles between them. The revolt resulted in the seizure of Mecca, Jeddah and Taif. Sherif Hussein proclaimed himself King of Hedjaz from 1919-24. Two days after the Turkish Khilafat was abolished on March 3, 1924, he declared himself Khalifa, but was ultimately driven out of Arabia by the rival Saudi clan (Liddell Hart, ibid, p. 65-73).


The spectacle of a descendant of Prophet Muhammad revolting against the so-called Khalifa of the Islamic world as he fancied himself was stinging proof, if such was required about the bogus nature of pan-Islamism and the Khilafat!


All the King’s toadies


In 1911, Muhammad Ali opened a relief fund for Turkish victims of the war over Tripoli and later for Turkish victims of the Balkan wars. A medical mission headed by Dr. M.A. Ansari left India in December 1912 and came back in July 1913 (The Khilafat Movement in India 1919-1924, A.C. Niemeijer, Martinus Nijhoff, 1972, p. 56). It is noteworthy that from 1898-1918, more than 10 million people died of plague all over India. In 1911 itself, 3997 people died of plague in Bombay with mortality rate of 408.1 per 100,000 while 1736 people died in Calcutta with a mortality rate of 166.2 per 100,000 (The Indian Medical Gazette, March 1948, p. 138). There is no mention of any relief work organized by Red Crescent Mission or voluntary medical work by the good Dr. Ansari to help plague victims in India. Their hearts were bleeding for war-torn Turkey!    


At every step, Muhammad Ali with respect to his fund and mission sought official and personal co-operation from the British, going as far as enlisting the Viceroy as a Patron of the Delhi Red Crescent Society and organizing his relief work through British consular officers. When World War I broke out, the field hospital financed out of his Comrade Turkish Relief Fund was presented to the Medical Service in India (Niemeijer, p. 56).


In July 1914, when war broke out between Serbia and Austria, Indian Muslim sympathies went with the latter, because Serbia had been one of the confederates in the Balkan hostilities with Turkey. Subsequently, when Germany and Russia also became embroiled, Indian Muslims championed Germany’s cause on account of the memories of the Russo-Turkish War. Generally Indian Muslims were jubilant at the sight of Christian Powers fighting among themselves and believed it to be a punishment from Allah for their ill-treatment of Turkey. Many thought that the War would lead to the downfall of Christendom and revival of Islamic power in Europe (The Khilafat Movement in India, 1919-1924, Muhammad Naeem Qureshi, dissertation submitted to University of London, 1973, pp.29, 30). 


However, when in August 1914, Britain joined on the side of Serbia and Russia, Muslim sympathies, in spite of their pro-German leanings for her supposed pro-Turkey tendencies, paradoxically veered to the side of Britain. Indian Muslim leaders wanted Turkey to remain neutral or side with Britain. The reason for this unexpected pro-British outburst seems to have been the result primarily of the declaration of neutrality by Turkey (Qureshi, ibid, pp.30, 31).


Maulana Abdul Bari (of Firangi Mahal) in his telegram to the Turkish Sultan begged him either to remain neutral or side with Britain. At the same time, he pleaded with the Viceroy, Lord Hardinge (I858-I927), that Britain should adopt such attitude towards Turkey as might help maintain such a neutrality (Qureshi, ibid, pp.32, 33). By 1914, Maulana Abdul Bari, the Ali brothers, Zafar Ali Khan, Hasrat Mohani and Azad, the leading participants in the Khilafat Movement, were all full blooded pan-Islamists – but not yet anti-British. Mohamed Ali’s counsel to the Turkish authorities to stay neutral in the war, if they could not join the Allies, besides his correspondence with Uttar Pradesh’s Lt. Governor Meston, and with the Viceroy during his internment, attests to the fact that he did not launch an anti-British path till late in the day... so long as the British were not directly involved, pan-Islamism in India did not take on an explicitly anti-British orientation.


Only when the British were perceived to be bent on scuttling Turkish power and territory and enfeebling the Khalifa’s power and prestige in the post-war period, did Indian pan-Islamists set out on a pronouncedly anti-British course in that period. Later in March 1922, when Montagu, Secretary of State for India, permitted the publication of a Government of India memorandum favouring revision of the Treaty of Sevres that abolished the Ottoman Empire, Maulana Bari and Hasrat Mohani proposed dropping Non-cooperation with the British. This indicates that pan-Islamic goals, namely the future of Turkey and of the Khilafat, were at the centre of the Khilafat Movement (Review: The Khilafat Movement: Religious Symbolism and Political Mobilization in India by Gail Minault; Review by Sharif al-Mujahid; Pakistan Horizon, Vol. 39, No.2, 1986, p.87, 88).  


The great U-turn


After the Russian Revolution of 1917 and a separate peace with Germany, the secret Allied treaties aiming at Ottoman dismemberment started to get exposed. Leading pan-Islamic journals in India including Muhammad Ali’s Comrade and Maulana Azad’s al-Hilal suggested that Britain should declare that even if the Allies succeeded in vanquishing Turkey, her integrity would be maintained after the War. For their part, the British got a fatwa issued by some ulama including Ahmad Raza Khan of Bareilly (who started the Barelvi movement) that the war with Turkey was political and not religious and that the jihad against the British was religiously unlawful (Qureshi, ibid, pp.30, 31).


The entry of Russia on Britain’s side tilted Indian Muslim opinion further against Britain. Russia was viewed as a hereditary foe of Turkey. Maulana Abdul Bari at Lucknow, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad at Calcutta, Mahmud-ul-Hasan at Deoband, and Hakim Ajmal Khan, Dr. Ansari and the Ali brothers at Delhi started isolated activities to help the Khilafat. The Khilafat Movement may actually be dated to November 1914 when Turkey entered the War against Britain (Niemeijer, ibid, p. 63).


Some Deobandi ulama such as Mahmud al-Hassan and Obaidullah Sindhi attempted to overthrow British rule in India in league with the Frontier tribesmen and with the assistance of Turkey and Afghanistan in a plot called Silk Letters Conspiracy. This plot had spread to Central Asia, the Hedjaz, and Mesopotamia through emissaries and cypher letters. In the Hedjaz, Mahmud al-Hassan established contacts with the Turks and obtained from Ghalib Pasha, Ottoman Governor of Hedjaz, a declaration of jihad against the British for circulation in India. The document, known as the ‘Ghalib Nama’, was smuggled into India by a trusted follower of Mahmud al-Hassan, photographed and distributed. The jihadist propaganda also penetrated the Indian army and caused mutinous incidents in Bombay, Rawalpindi, France and Singapore (Qureshi, ibid, pp.39-41).


Mahmud al-Hassan was arrested by the British and interned at Malta. Maulana Azad was externed by the U.P. and Punjab Governments and Maulana Hasrat Mohani was interned by the U.P. Government and later imprisoned (Qureshi, ibid, pp. 41, 42).


The Arab revolt in the Ottoman Empire in 1916 came as a shock to Indian Muslim leaders as it punctured pan-Islamism. Past masters at self-delusion, they ignored genuine Arab aspirations and termed it as a British plot. On June 26, 1916, the Council of the All-India Muslim League met at Lucknow and passed a resolution condemning the ‘outrageous conduct’ of Hussein which it thought had jeopardised the safety of the Holy Places. Abdul Bari dubbed Hussein and his sympathisers as the ‘enemies of Islam’ and Ajmal Khan frankly told the Viceroy that the British policy of aiding Hussein was a serious blunder and ought to be remedied (Qureshi, ibid, p. 43).


On January 5, 1918, British Prime Minister Lloyd George unequivocally declared in his famous war-aims speech that they were not fighting ‘to deprive Turkey of its capital, or of the rich and renowned lands of Asia Minor and Thrace, which were predominantly Turkish in race’. Indian Muslims took this as an unalterable pledge and tenaciously clung to it (Qureshi, ibid, p. 46).


Conclusion of the War


The Armistice between the Allies and Turkey was signed at Mudros (currently a town in Greece) on October 30, 1918. The unconditional surrender of Turkey followed on November 11 by German capitulation brought World War I to a close. Secret treaties and other war-time arrangements had committed the Allies to a policy of “the setting free of the populations subject to the bloody tyranny of the Turks and the turning out of Europe of the Ottoman Empire as decidedly foreign to Western civilisation” (Qureshi, ibid, p. 49).


According to these treaties, the Allies contemplated to strip Turkey not only of her entire European possessions, including Constantinople, but also to deprive her of her eastern territories of Mesopotamia, Palestine, Arabia and Syria. Turkey was to be left with practically nothing, not even an important access to the sea. What was more important was that Turkey was also to lose her sovereignty. From the ruins of the Ottoman Empire arose the secular Turkish Republic in 1923. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk who led the Turkish Republic sent the Khalifa packing and thus dealt a mortal blow to the fiction of pan-Islamism.


The response of Indian Muslim leaders vis-à-vis the British kept on changing as Turko-British relations evolved during the War. The Indian leaders started with pronouncements of loyalty to the British, then entreated Britain to remain neutral with regards Turkey and finally adopted a strident anti-British stand once the British appeared to be scuttling the Ottoman Empire and the Khalifa. They were more than willing to betray the anti-British freedom movement in India if the British threw crumbs at them. Not once was their stand guided by purely Indian interests. The anti-British stand they adopted in later years was incidental and dictated solely by threat to Turkish interests. The Indian Muslim leaders were Indian only by accident of birth, their heart and soul was in Turkey.


(Continued on August 17, 2020)


See also:

1] Khilafat Movement:  Relevance and discourse – I

2] Khilafat scriptural sanction and historical antecedents - II

3] Khilafat Movement: The previous hundred years - III

4] United colours of Khilafat - IV 

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