Ironies of History: Contradictions of The Khilafat Movement
by Hamza Alavi
The ‘Khilafat’ Movement of 1919-24, is probably quite unique inasmuch as it has been glorified with one voice by Islamic ideologists, Indian nationalists and communists alike and along with them by Western scholars, as an anti-colonial movement of Muslims of India, premised on the hostility of the British to the Turkish Sultan, their venerated Caliph.1 Little attempt has been made to examine the premises on which the movement was founded, the rhetoric of its leaders being taken at face value. On closer examination we find extra-ordinary paradoxes and contradictions behind that rhetoric.
As for the ‘achievements’ of that Movement, its lasting legacy is the legitimised place that it gave the Muslim clergy at the centre of the modern political arena, armed with a political organisation in the form of the Jamiat-e-Ulama-e-Hind (and its successors after the Partition) which the clergy have used to intervene actively in both the political as well as the ideological sphere. Never before in Indian Muslim history was the clergy ever accorded such a place in political life.
The Khilafat Movement also introduced the religious idiom in the politics of Indian Muslims. Contrary to some misconceptions (and misrepresentations) it was not the Muslim League, the bearer of Muslim Nationalism in India, that introduced religious ideology in the politics of Indian Muslims. Muslim Nationalism was a movement of Muslims and not a movement of Islam. It was an ethnic movement of disaffected Muslim professionals and the government-job-seeking educated Indian Muslim middle class, mainly those of UP and Bihar and urban Punjab. Their objectives were modest, for they demanded not much more than fair quotas in jobs for Muslims and certain safeguards for their interests. Muslim Nationalism in India was a secular rather than a religious movement. Nor was it, in its origins, a Hindu hating movement as is sometimes made out. To the contrary, by virtue of the Lucknow Pact of 1916 it had already moved decisively towards a common platform with the broader Indian National Movement and unity with the Congress Party. The Khilafat Movement intervened in that context in a way that decisively killed the politics of the Lucknow Pact. The intervention of the Khilafat Movement in Indian Muslim politics has had a considerable retrogressive ideological influence on the modern Indian Muslim mind that reverberates still in Muslim thinking and their politics in present day India and Pakistan. For that alone, it deserves to be reviewed and re-evaluated.
The Khilafatist Claims
The arguments of the Indian Khilafatists were based on the claims that:
1) The Ottoman Caliph was the ‘Universal Caliph’ to whom all Muslims, everywhere in the world, owed allegiance;
2) That there was an ongoing war between the World of Christianity and the World of Islam, which, inter alia, caused loss of territories of the Ottoman Empire in Europe, a loss that Indian Muslims felt obliged to mourn;
3) That Britain in particular, was an enemy of the Ottoman Caliph; that after World War I Britain held the Caliph captive in Istanbul. They demanded that the person and the office of the Caliph be protected and preserved and his sovereignty, including that over Ottoman Arab colonies and the Muslim Holy places, be respected and preserved.
A dispassionate examination of the relevant facts show that these claims were all quite dubious. In this short paper we can review these matters only quite briefly.
Origins of the Ottoman Caliphate
The acquisition of the status of Caliph by Ottoman Sultans is a disputed matter. When, in the modern era, they decided to describe themselves as Caliphs, they claimed that the Caliphate had been transferred three and a half centuries earlier to the Ottoman Sultan Selim I by al-Mutawakkil, a descendent of the Abbasids of Baghdad, who was living in exile in Egypt as a pensioner of the Mamluk ruler Baybars, who was defeated in 1517 by Selim. Baybars, the most distinguished of the Mamluk rulers was originally a Turkoman slave. He had picked up al-Mutawakkil’s father, an uncle of last Abbasid Caliph, and installed him in Cairo with great pomp as, what scholars have labelled, a ‘pseudo-Caliph’ 2 who carried the name but none of the authority of that office. Baybar’s object in installing him in Cairo was thereby to confer honour and legitimacy on his crown and give his court an air of primacy in Muslim eyes. 3 Al-Mutawakkil succeeded his father in that role. He claimed to be the legitimate bearer of the (late) Abbasid Caliphate, although he was a man without a country and without any authority. He had, at best, only a symbolic value for Baybars, in view of his connections with the Abbasid dynasty. On his return to Istanbul Selim carried the hapless al-Mutawakkil with him, to deny a potential future Mamluk any shred of legitimacy.
The claim that the Caliphate was transferred by al-Mutawakkil to Selim is considered by historians to be quite dubious. 4 It has been argued that al-Mutawakkil was in no position to pass on the Caliphate to anyone, for he did not have it himself, having neither a country nor any power or authority. What appears to the present writer to be a more telling argument against the veracity of that story is that neither Selim nor any of his descendants for nearly three and half centuries, called themselves Caliphs ! There was no Ottoman Caliphate for all those centuries. The title that the Ottoman Sultanstook pride in using was that of Ghazi.
It had, however, become a common practice among medieval Muslims rulers to be addressed as Caliph, but only informally so, along with other honorific titles, on ceremonial occasions. In Turkey such a practice also grew, imperceptibly and gradually. The title of Caliph came to be added to the many honorific titles attached to the Ottoman Sultan. But, formally and officially, the title of Caliph was not used by the Ottomans until 1774, or over 250 years after Selim’s famous victory over the Mamluks. In that year formal use of the title of Caliph for an Ottoman Sultan came about purely by coincidence. During negotiations with the victorious Russians of the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca, the Russian negotiators described their Empress, Catherine the Great, as ‘the Head of the entire Christian Orthodox Church’, thus laying a theoretical claim to the loyalties of Christian subjects of the Ottomans. Not to be out done, a quick-witted negotiator of the Sultannamed his master as the Caliph of all Muslims, thus laying a counter claim, to the loyalties of Muslim subjects of the Russian Empress. There was no more to it than that.
After that episode, despite the informal use of the title of Caliph, the Ottomans still did not yet claim that they were legitimate Caliphs andreligious heads of all Muslims. That was to come much later. That was encouraged not least by the British who were staunch allies and patrons of the Ottomans, with an eye to the Muslims of India whom they hoped to be able to influence through the Caliph. Lewis writes: ‘Under Abdul Aziz (1861-76) the doctrine was advanced for the first time that the OttomanSultan was not only the head of the Ottoman Empire but also the Caliph of all Muslims and the heir, in a sense not previously accepted, of the Caliphs of early times.’ 5
Legitimacy of Ottoman Caliphs
It was only by the late 19th century, that the Ottoman Sultans decided to lay claim to the Universal Caliphate. For that to be credible, they needed to establish an acceptable source of legitimacy in the eyes of the world. For that purpose, Turkish propaganda, (which was greatly to influence Urdu journalism and Indian Muslim thought) dredged up the mythical story of transfer of the Caliphate to Selim, by al-Mutawakkil in 1517. It was necessary to take resort to that mythical origin of the Ottoman Caliphate which, it was hoped, would reinforce their claim for legitimacy of their Caliphate. If they could show that it had been formally transferred to them by a member of the House of Abbas who was supposed to be the custodian-in-exile of the Abbasid Caliphate and held that legacy until he could transfer it to a Muslim Sultan who possessed secular power that could do justice to that awesome office, their claim, they hoped, would thereby be unchallengeable. The Ottomans resurrected al-Mutawakkil from the grave to prove their Caliphal credentials.
Indian Muslims were divided into at least two groups on the issue of recognition of the legitimacy of the Ottoman Caliphate, though its is remarkable that neither side questioned the validity of the story that it had been passed on to Selim by al-Mutawakkil. Those who subscribed to the Barelvi tradition refused to accept the legitimacy of the Ottoman claim on an issue of principle and not by questioning the truth of the story of the supposed transfer of the Caliphate by al-Mutawakkil. Barelvis did not disbelieve the story itself. Given years of Turkish propaganda about it in the Urdu press, they took it for granted, like other Indian Muslims. The Barelvi objection was that the Caliphate could be held only by someone descended from the Quraysh clan. The Ottomans were not of Quraysh descent. They did not, therefore, satisfy an indispensable condition for Caliphate. In taking that view they were in accord with an authoritative and established tradition in classical Islam. Eminent scholars such as Imam al-Ghazali and al-Mawardi had expressed the view that only a descendent of the Quraysh could be Caliph. 6 In the light of the Barelvi rejection, and in order to rally Indian Muslims behind the Ottoman Caliph, Maulana Abdul Bari of Firangi Mahal issued a fatwa in February 1919 laying down inter alia that Quraysh descent was not a necessary condition for Caliphate. Lined up against Bari were such major figures in Islamic learning as Imam al-Ghazali and al-Mawardi. His ex cathedra judgement was rejected not only by the Barelvis but also by influential groups of ‘Deobandi’ Ulama. Minault records the fact that several senior Ulama refused to sign the fatwa. Amongst those who signed, says Minault, the Ulama of Deoband, Punjab and Bengal were conspicuous by their absence.7
The Barelvi principled position on this issue has been totally ignored by scholars although, arguably, they are the majority of Indian Muslims. Barelvis had a following not only in towns but also, and especially, amongst the vast majority of the rural population. A key difference between Barelvi beliefs and those of the so-called ‘Deobandi Tradition’ (the ‘tradition’ itself is much older than the eponymous Dar-Ul-Ulum at Deoband) is that Barelvi’s believe in intercession between ordinary humans and Divine Grace which is accessed through the intervention of an ascending, linked and unbroken chain of holy personages, pirs, reaching out ultimately to Prophet Mohammad, who intercede on their behalf with Allah.8 It is a more superstitious but also a more tolerant tradition of Indian Islam. The views of the Barelvi tradition of South Asian Islam are, by and large, ignored by scholars. Sanyal’s pioneering study is an exceptional and excellent new beginning. 9
The Unexamined Concept of Khalifa
Abul Kalam Azad, the principal theoretician of the ‘Indian Khilafat Movement’ summed up the fundamental ideological point of departure of the Movement, quite succinctly, in the following statement: 10
‘It is an Islamic Shar’i law that in every age Muslims must have one [ék]Khalifa and Imam.11 By Khalifa we mean such an independent Muslim king or ruler of government and country who possesses full powers to protect Muslims and the territory that they inhabit 12 and to promulgate and enforce Shar’i laws and is powerful enough to confront the enemies of Islam.’
The Sultan of Turkey, it was held by the Indian Khilafatists, was such a Muslim ruler and Caliph and it was to him that Muslims of India should pay allegiance.
It is quite extra-ordinary that in the voluminous literature on the Indian Khilafat Movement this ‘basic religious premise’ of the Movement , as stated by Azad and others, is taken for granted and has not been subjected to critical examination. No proper evaluation of the Khilafat Movement is possible without an analysis in depth of the initial premises of the Movement.
To begin with, there is a basic contradiction between the Ottoman claim that the Caliphate was transferred to them, via Sultan Selim, by al-Mutawakkil, which the Indian Khilafatists took as the Ottoman’s charter, and the conditions for a legitimate Caliphate that are outlined by Azad. Those conditions render the Ottoman claim to Caliphate flawed from the start. By virtue of the conditions as set out by Azad, al-Mutawakkil was not a legitimate custodian of the Caliphate. He was neither a Muslim king or ruler of any country nor was he independent, being a pensioner of Baybars, the Mamluk ruler. In the circumstances the question of his possessing the power to enforce Shar’i laws of course does not arise. al-Mutawakkil was in no position to transfer the Caliphate to the Ottomans, not being a valid Caliph himself. He had nothing to give. This objection to the validity of the Ottoman Caliphate is quite separate from that put forward by the Barelvis. Azad’s rhetoric, typically for him, is bound up in contradictions.
Meaning of the word ‘Khalifa’
It is important to be clear at the outset about the meaning of the wordKhalifa and the way in which that word was later transformed linguistically by Umayyad Monarchs to legitimise their rule, having seized power by military force. The word Khalifa is derived from the Arabic root khalafawhich means ‘to follow’ or ‘to come after’. It means a ‘successor’ in the sequential sense, not in the sense of inheritance of properties or qualities. When Prophet Mohammad died, Hazrat Abu Bakr was elected to succeed him. He was consequently called ‘Khalifat al-Rasool Allah’ or the successor of the Messenger of Allah. In its true meaning (successor) the word Khalifadoes not indicate any kind of office or status such as that of a ruler, the sense in which it came to be used later. Khalifa meaning ‘successor’ could be used meaningfully only with reference to a specified ‘predecessor’. Hazrat Abu Bakr was Khalifa only with reference to his predecessor, al-Rasool Allah.
The head of the Muslim Umma, Hazrat Umar, who succeeded Hazrat Abu Bakr could have been called Khalifat al-Khalif al-Rasool Allah, or the ‘Successor to the Successor to the Messenger of Allah. With every succession thereafter one more ‘Khalifat al’ would have had to be inserted before such a title of the previous one. That would have been quite absurd. The question of using the word Khalifa for those who came after Hazrat Abu Bakr simply did not arise. Instead, Hazrat Abu Bakr’s successors,Hazrat Umar, Hazrat Uthman and Hazrat Ali, the three successive elected heads of the Umma were each designated by the title ‘Amir al-Mu’minin’ or the Commander of the Faithful.
When the Umayyad Dynasty was set up in Damascus, its legitimacy was disputed and fought over. Unlike the elected headship of the umma, here was a seizure of power by military force. For that reason Maulana Maududi (1903-1979) has called the rise of the Umayyad dynasty a ‘counter-revolution against Islam’ (Inquilab-e-ma’koos) and a reversion to Jahiliyaor the age of ignorance that is said to have preceded the advent of Islam 13. The Umayyad rulers having become monarchs through military force, looked for a legitimating symbol to sanctify their regime. For that they chose the word Khalifa. They hoped thereby to attach to themselves the legitimacy that was associated with the title of Mohammad’s successor,Hazrat Abu Bakr. In so doing they changed the meaning of the word. The word Khalifa was no longer to mean ‘successor’ to a specified predecessor. It was now to mean monarch or ruler.
A new word had been invented. Although it was spelt and pronounced in exactly the same way as the original word Khalifa that meant ‘successor’ the same utterance, in its sound and spelling, was now to have a new and totally unrelated meaning. It was a neologism, unconnected etymologically or semantically, with the original word Khalifa the successor. The new word was to mean monarch or ruler. Sir Syed Ahmad commented on that, saying: ‘The term Khalifa was abandoned by Hazrat Umar when he was elected to succeed Hazrat Abu Bakr. Instead, of that he adopted the title of Amir al-Mu’minin [Commander of the Faithful]. That title was used until the time ofHazrat Ali and for a time even after him. After that and after the time ofImam Hussain, the people who had taken over power [viz. the Umayyads)arrogated to themselves the title of Khalifa 14 because they thought that the title of Khalifa was more exalted (muqaddas) than that of Commander of the Faithful. 15
The word Khalifa, having been misused by Umayyad Monarchs as their title, to sanctify their monarchy, would have lost its force if it were not applied also to the four successors of Prophet Mohammad. But there was a general recognition of the obvious fact that the Umayyads were not in the same class as the latter. Therefore Hazrat Abu Bakr and his three successors were re-designated as ‘Khulafa-e-Rashidun’ 16, or ‘The Rightly Guided Caliphs’. If any religious significance attached to the first four, it was made clear that it did not apply to the later ‘Khulafa’, starting with the Umayyads.
Under the Umayyads the word Khalifa was not yet impregnated with any religious connotations. For them the word was to be only a symbol of legitimacy of their rule-a variant of the ‘divine right of kings’ as propounded in medieval Europe. It was only in later centuries that claims about religioussignificance of the title of ‘Khalifa’ or Caliph were to be made. That was during the period of decay and decline of the late Abbasid Caliphate, when the Caliph was reduced to being a mere puppet in the hands of military commanders or regional princes. These true holders of power needed to generate an ideology that would remove the Caliph from the centre of secular state power, as the ruler, and relegate him to the sidelines, as a nominal head of the state whose essential functions were supposed to lie in the religious sphere-where in practice, he had nothing of any significance to do.
In the Sunni tradition the religious domain is the domain of the Imam. But unlike the Pope, the Imam does not have any religious authority. Islam, as it is often said, does not recognise any priesthood or a Pope. It is a religion of the individual conscience. Imams are therefore essentially guides, persons who by virtue of personal and religious perfection and excellence in scholarship come to be recognised as Imam. No one appoints Imams. In contradiction to that earlier usage, in the decadence of the late Abbasid period, a (nominal) religious significance began to be attached to the Caliph. Increasingly the practice grew of conflating the concepts of Khalifa andImam. It is this later corrupted tradition that Azad follows in his words quoted above.
There was also an escalation in religious attributes that were attached to the Caliph. The Caliph was even called Khalifat Allah, or ‘Gods Caliph’ or ‘successor’ ! Azad in fact takes the phrase Khalifat Allah as his point of departure when expounding the meaning of the word Khalifa. The concept of Khalifat Allah (God’s Caliph), which Azad uses freely when expounding the concept of the Caliphate was been strongly denounced by classical Islamic scholars in works of which Azad could hardly have been ignorant of. Al-Mawardi, condemning the use of the term Khalifat Allah wrote in his classic work Al-Ahkam as-Sultaniya that: ‘We disagree that he can also be called Khalifat Allah The consensus of the Ulama has prohibited this and condemned any one who says it as a fajir (i.e. a sinner or liar) because there can be a Khalifa (successor) only of such a person who has disappeared or who has died. Allah can neither disappear nor can he die.’ 17Goldziher writes: ‘When the Umayyads used this pretentious title (Khalifat Allah) it was merely intended to convey the unlimited power of the ruler. Under the later Abbasids the title was filled with theocratic content. The Ottoman Sultans were thought to have special claim for adopting these titles of the old Caliphs just as the name Khalifat Allah was transferred to them’. 18 When Azad, in the corrupted late Abbasid tradition, begins his exposition of the concept of Khalifa with the discredited notion of Khalifat Allah, 19 he follows the most backward and reactionary traditions in Islam.
Sir Syed Ahmad Khan’s position on this issue is emphatically the opposite. He is quite clear in distinguishing Khilafat, the secular domain and Imamatthe religious domain. He reiterated this, saying that ‘After the death of the Prophet of Islam, Hazrat Abu Bakr was appointed Khalifat al-Rasool Allah(But) he had no religious authority (dini ikhtiarat). He repeatedly emphasised that the Caliph was not like a Roman Catholic Pope. HazratAbu Bakr, he pointed out, was simply the administrative head of the community of Muslims. 20 Shaban, a contemporary scholar, says exactly the same thing. He wrote: ‘Mohammad could have no true successor, since no other man could ever have the same divine sanction Therefore Abu Bakr had no religious authority He was in no sense a grand combination of Pope and Holy Roman Emperor’. 21
Under the late Abbasids when ‘The Caliph had little left except the capital and even there his authority was shadowy’ 22 there was an escalation in his religious attributes. The Caliph being divorced from effective control over state power was presented to the people as a religious rather than a secular figure. The Caliphs were increasingly referred to as Imams. Goldziher notes that : ‘Under the later Abbasids the title was filled with theocratic content.(They, the Caliphs) claimed to be Representatives of God’s rule on earth and even as “God’s shadow on earth”. Their ideologues taught that the Caliph is the God’s shadow on earth; all those who are troubled find refuge in it (zillu’Ilahi fi’l-ardi ya’wi ilayhi kullu malhafun). These pompous theocratic titles must have appeared to contemporaries the emptier the less of real power corresponded to them The Ottoman Sultans, as the protagonists of Islam, were thought to have a special claim for adopting these titles of the old Caliphs, just as the name of Khalifat Allah, or Gods Caliph, was transferred to them.’ 23 The Ottoman propaganda machine played a large part in spreading the notion of the Caliph’s supposed religious role, which by implication provided a basis for the Caliph’s claim to the loyalty of Muslims everywhere, including India. The Indian clergy in particular welcomed this because as self-appointed guardians of Islam in India this enhanced their place in Indian society and Indian Muslim politics as mediators between the Caliph and ‘his people’.
It was not long before ‘Muslim’ intellectuals and scholars began to come forward with ‘authoritative’ texts, inventing, emphasising and exaggerating the supposed ‘religious’ role of the Caliph as Imam. Gone was the notion of an elected secular head of state as it was under the Khulafa-e-Rashidun, the first four ‘Rightly Guided Caliphs’. The notions about the supposed religious role of the Caliph were in contradiction to the distinction made in original Islam between the head of the state who was a secular figure (an office that remained secular even when it was redesignated Khalifa by Umayyads rulers) and that of Imam, a religious guide who dwelt in the domain of faith. In the decadence of later days, the two concepts were often collapsed one into the other so that, as we have seen from the above quotation from Azad, the words Caliph and Imam were uttered in the same breath (as Azad does when referring to the Ottoman Sultan) as if there was no distinction between the two.
The Universal Caliphate
Azad’s speeches suggest that there could be only one Caliph in every age. One would have to close one’s eyes to much of Muslim history to accept Azad’s arbitrary condition at face value. The fact is that over many centuries there has been a plurality of rival Caliphates and not just one that embraced the entire Muslim world. Several Caliphates have coexisted at the same time. The most notable of these, contemporary with the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad, were the Umayyad Caliphate in Spain and the Fatimid Caliphate in Egypt. Besides these three best known rival Caliphates, there were numerous independent Muslim kingdoms whose heads claimed the title of Caliph. Bosworth’s comprehensive survey offers an account of no less than 82 such Islamic ‘Caliphates’ ! 24 Notwithstanding that fact of a long history of Islam, the Ottoman’s propagandised the notion of a single ‘Universal Caliph’ for the whole Islamic world as a basic component of Islamic polities. That was the basis on which they laid claim to the loyalties of Indian Muslims. The idea is pure fiction of course. And yet, that is the assumption on which the Khilafat Movement was premised.
Azad claimed that it was an Islamic Shar’i law that in every age Muslims must have ‘one’ (ek) Khalifa and Imam, the Universal Caliph. He does not indicate the source of that shar’i law where that is laid down, or the basis on which he makes that statement, for he has none. He was accustomed to making large and extravagant claims without any foundation in the basic sources of Islam. It was enough that his half educated and ill-informed audiences were captivated by the fluency of his rhetoric laced with long ‘quotations’ in Arabic, which was virtually Azad’s first language. 25 They had little time to reflect on the veracity of what Azad said and claimed. In any case the content of what he (and others) said mattered little for they had already made up their minds ‘to be carried away’ ! The scholars who pontificated before them were, for them, mere cheer-leaders.
Sir Syed Ahmad Khan argued emphatically against the notion of aUniversal Caliphate. His view was that every Caliphate was confined to territories which were directly under the control of the claimant of that title. The Khilafatists dismissed Sir Syed Ahmad’s arguments, ad hominum, by accusing him of being a servile subject of the British and parroting their views. It was unworthy of them to say so. It was Azad and not Syed Ahmad Khan who, on that issue, was in tune with the pro-Ottoman British policy which strongly supported the notion of the Ottoman Sultan as the Universal Caliph. Considering the charges so often laid against Sir Syed Ahmad Khan of servility towards the British, it is even more significant that on the issue of the Universal Caliphate Sir Syed held his ground as a matter of principle, although his views were diametrically opposed to those of the British. It was quite another matter that his political project for the future of Muslims in India, as he saw it in mid-19th century, left him open to the charge of being a British puppet. Pro-British he might have been at the time, rightly or wrongly. A puppet he was not, as this example shows. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan’s stance on the ‘Universal Caliphate’ defied both British and Turkish inspired propaganda.
British Relations with Ottoman Caliphs
The British, far from being enemies of the Ottomans, as the Khilafat Movement propaganda suggested, had remained their steadfast allies over many centuries. Their enduring alliance with the Ottomans was motivated, as far as the British were concerned, by a threat to British imperial interests that came from expansionist ambitions of Czarist Russia. The Ottomans were equally worried about the Russian threat, the more so with their increasing weakness. They needed a strong and dependable ally which they found in Britain. The Ottoman decision to ally (but belatedly) with Germany in World War I was a temporary break in a centuries old British-Ottoman alliance. Turkey’s aberrant Wartime alliance with Germany arose due to a peculiar combination of circumstances within Turkey itself and despite every effort made by the British to prevent Turkey from joining with the Central Powers in the War. Turkey stumbled into the war, in opposition to her traditional ally, by an uncalculated accident. It is an interesting episode about which we shall have more to say below.
British relations with the Ottoman Empire were founded on Britain’s own imperial interests. That was dictated by the Ottoman Empire’s strategic location vis-à-vis a perceived threat from Czarist Russia. For Britain the Ottoman Empire was a valuable bulwark in Russia’s way, in the context of a new age that had been inaugurated by the great explosion of maritime trade and the correspondingly increased importance of naval power, from the 16th century onwards. Global strategic priorities were radically changed. Control of the high seas, and not of large land masses, was now to be the secret of Imperial power. Britain soon emerged as a major maritime power and extended its imperial might around the globe.
Czarist Russia was handicapped in this new game of world power. Its naval power was constrained by geography. Its Baltic Fleet was vulnerable at the narrow straits that separated Sweden from Germany and Denmark. Its Black Sea fleet was even more vulnerable at the Bosphorus and Dardanelles. Its Eastern fleet at Vladivostock was too far out of the way to play an effective role in the game. If Russia was to become a major world power, it had to have free and open access to the oceans of the world. The option before it was to push southwards, to conquer territory that would place it in a dominating position on the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea. But that would be a direct threat to British imperial interests.
The Ottoman Empire stood in the Russia’s way to the warm waters that lay to the South. It would have to break Ottoman power to be able to mount a successful southward move. Russian policy was therefore consistently hostile to the Ottomans. Given that equation, the Russian threat to move south was an immovable foundation on which an enduring alliance between the British and the Ottomans was built. It was to last for centuries. They fought wars together as allies, most famously in the long and expensive war, in money and in blood, the Crimean War of 1854-56. That war ended, as the British desired, in a Treaty that banned passage through the Bosphorous and Dardanelles of all naval units, which for all practical purposes meant Russian naval units. That effectively bottled up the Russian Southern fleet in the Black Sea.
Ottoman Expansionism and Decline.
The Ottomans reached the height of their power by the end of the seventeenth century when the Sultan’s army besieged Vienna for a second time but once again failed to conquer it. From that moment began the steady decline of Turkish power in Europe. Turkey was soon to lose her colonial possessions beyond the Danube and the Sava river (in Yugoslavia) through expensive wars with Russia and the Habsburgs in the eighteenth century. But the final Ottoman decline was only partly the result of conflicts between Turkey and those two great powers. In the main the Turkish retreat was forced by nationalist struggles of the Southern Slavs who were quite as hostile to the colonial power of the Habsburg Austro-Hungarian empire as they were to the Ottomans. In their wars of national independence the Southern Slavs fought against both those colonial empires, the Ottoman as well as the Habsburg. In India, in the Urdu press particularly, this was misrepresented as a war of Christianity against Islam. It was a in fact a war of nationalism against colonialism.
These were struggles for territory and power. Religion did not come into it. ‘Muslim’ Ottomans did not hesitate to fight ‘brother Muslims’ too, such as the Arab people, to subjugate them under their colonial rule. They also led repeated, though unsuccessful, campaigns against the ‘brother’ Muslim Safavid rulers of Iran. Ottoman expansionism was not about religion. It was about territory and power. Likewise, Muslim subjects of the Ottomans were no less keen to gain their freedom from their Muslim colonial masters. Stojanovic writes: ‘The weakening of the Central Power encouraged the already strong separatist tendencies of Provincial Pashas. The Porte (the Centre of the Ottoman Government) had to cope with a series of Moslem revolts’-including that of Mohammad Ali of Egypt 26 (who, it must be said however, was a military adventurer rather than a leader of a nationalist movement).
As for the charge that independence movements in the Balkans were ‘Christian’ Movements against ‘Islam’, we can hardly forget that it was the assassination of the ‘Christian’ heir to the Habsburg throne, Archduke Francis Ferdinand, by a ‘Christian’ Serb nationalist at Sarajevo, that triggered off the First World War. It is patently simplistic and absurd to describe the nationalist struggles in the Balkans, as it was being done by Indian Muslim publicists and bigoted Mullahs, as a war of Christianity against Islam. The 19th century was the age of nationalist ferment everywhere-as indeed in India too. The Balkan nationalist movements were a part of that global phenomenon, when subject peoples had begun to fight for freedom and independence from colonial rule.
The Indian Khilafatists have made much of the idea that the British were Pro-Greek and anti-Turk. That charge can be made of Lloyd George who was temporarily the Prime Minister of Britain in the War-time coalition government-the man who dictated the humiliating Treaty of Séveres, which even his Conservative cabinet colleagues such as Bonar Law did not like. That was one reason why the Treaty was never ratified and implemented. After the end of the War-time coalition government, when Lloyd George was thrown out, and a conservative government returned, under Bonar Law, Britain returned to her traditional pro-Turkish or, rather, pro-Ottomanpolicy (that distinction is not without significance).
As for the long term strategy of the British in the Eastern Mediterranean, the idea that British Governments were pro-Greek is patently false. Here again the threat from Czarist Russia entered into British calculations. In the Greek struggle for independence from Turkish colonial rule, despite strong popular support in Britain for the Greeks, the British Government itself was not at all in favour of Greek independence. They feared that it would give Russia an ally and a foothold in the Eastern Mediterranean. However, following an enormous upsurge of public opinion in Britain, after the death in 1826 of the popular poet Lord Byron, who had fought and died for the Greeks at Missolonghi, a reluctant British Government was finally pushed to join the alliance that had been initiated by the Russians in support of the Greeks. The outcome of that war was the Treaty of Adrianople in 1829. But the British Government was quite as unhappy about that Treaty as were the Turks. As Gewehr notes: ‘Due to British fears of Russian preponderance in the Balkans, it was not until 1832 that the final agreement regarding the territorial extent and the form of government in Greece was made. The new born Greek state was restricted to an area (which) excluded from its boundaries many important centres A numerical majority of the Greek race was actually left under Turkish sovereignty. That is explained by the fear of the English Prime Minister, The Duke of Wellington, that Greece would become a satellite of Russia and hence it must be restricted to a small area.’27 Britain’s commitments to the Ottomans remained unshaken.
Ottoman Services to the British in India
The acceptance by Muslims of India, of the Turkish Sultan as the Universal Caliph was a relatively recent development. For Mughal India, there was no question of submitting to the overlordship of the Turkish Sultan, whom they rivalled in power and wealth and the size of the territory over which they ruled. It was during the period of British colonial rule in India that, with full British encouragement and support, the idea of accepting the Turkish Sultanas the Universal Caliph was propagated amongst Indian Muslims, as their venerated Caliph to whom they ought to give allegiance. Given their alliance with the Ottomans, the British realised the value of the ideology of the religious authority of the Ottoman Caliph over Muslims everywhere that could be brought into play to control Indian Muslims. The British welcomed that and encouraged propaganda on behalf of the Caliph. In return the Caliph served the British well.
The first major example of this was in 1789 when Tipu Sultan, as a gesture of defiance against the Moghuls, paid formal allegiance to the Ottoman Caliph who, in return sent Tipu a sanad (charter of office) and Khil’at(robes of investiture) as ruler of Mysore. Tipu is a legendary figure in Indian history as a fighter against expanding British colonial rule. In 1798, therefore, at British request, the Ottoman Caliph sent a letter to Tipu, telling him that the British were his friends and asking him to refrain from hostile action against them. The letter was sent to Tipu not directly but through Lord Wellesly who was leading the British forces against Tipu ! Tipu replied to the Caliph, professing devotion but also telling him that the Caliph was too far away to know the situation in India. He cheekily invited the Caliph to join hands with him so that, together, they may throw out the infidels ! Another major occasion when the Ottoman Caliph came out in support of the British at a very difficult moment was at the time of India’s War of National Independence in 1857 (downgraded by historians as ‘The Indian Mutiny’). True to form, the Ottoman Caliph Abdul Majid condemned the ‘mutineers’ and called upon Indian Muslims to remain loyal to the British. The British, he said, were ‘Defenders of Islam’.
The idea that the Ottoman Caliph would be of value in controlling Muslims of India was at the forefront of British calculations in their relationship with the Ottoman Caliphs. That is illustrated by the reception that they gave to the tyrant Sultan Abdul Aziz when he visited London in 1867. The British went overboard with their lavish entertainment for the Caliph. Significantly though the huge expenses incurred were charged by the British Government to Indian revenues ‘on the ground that cordial relations with the Sultancontributed towards the good government of India The Sultan as head of the Muslim religion, would propitiate Indian Muslims. 28
Shaping of Pro-Turkish Attitudes of Indian Muslims
Until the beginning of the 19th century Indian Muslims were largely indifferent to Turkey and the Ottoman Caliph. Quite apart from British interest in it, two factors of major social change combined to create conditions for successfully propagating pro-Turkish sympathies among them. These two changes had quite separate origins. But they were inter-twined, enough to constitute a single phenomenon.
The first of these was the emergence of a new educated Indian Muslim middle class. This class of Muslims were brought up not in the traditional education provided by Madrassahs and the Ulama. They were products of the new Anglo-Vernacular system of education that was instituted by the colonial government, following Macaulay’s Minute of February 1835. It was a system of education that was designed to produce men who would staff the colonial state apparatus; civil servants and scribes. They were needed in state employment to mediate between the English speaking Sahibs and the local population. Nehru called it an educational system designed to produce a ‘Nation of Clerks’. It was a new class, which I have elsewhere named thesalariat.29 The salariat was that section of the middle class whose goal was state employment. They sought not ‘education’ but ‘educational qualifications’ i.e. degrees and diplomas, that would serve as a passport for a government job. In colonised societies with an agrarian production base, thesalariat tends to dominate the urban society and is the most articulate class which tends to pre-empt issues in political debate. The salariat therefore came to be a class of enormous social and political significance. It also became a newspaper reading class, when newspapers became affordable.
The Muslim salariat, especially in the UP was a rather disgruntled class, for it had lost ground in state employment, especially in the more prestigious upper ranks of jobs in which they had been, so far, preponderant. Psychologically, this class needed avenues through which it could channel its discontent and pain. When news began to come through of Turkey’s defeats in the Balkans, which was represented to them as a War of Christianity against the World of Islam, that struck a chord in their increasingly communalist minds. The ‘fate of the Turks’ seemed to mirror their own sense of decline. They responded with deep sympathy to the news of the ‘Tragedy of the Turks’ (Turkon ka almia). A powerful sense of solidarity was created and, poor as they were, they collected funds for Turkish aid. The British, for their part, greatly welcomed that development and did all they could to encourage it. They were happy to see a growing bond between Indian Muslims and their protégé, the Ottoman Caliph.
This potential political base on which strong pro-Ottoman sympathies were generated was fostered very effectively by a new development, namely the emergence of Urdu popular journalism. 30 The early newspapers had minuscule circulation, catering as they did to a handful of the wealthy and the powerful who needed to keep in touch with affairs of the state and of the world of commerce. Many of these ‘newspapers’ were produced in manuscript form. Urdu printing was in vogue too, for Naskh metallic type for Urdu had been available for some time. But Naskh was not popular with general readers and was also expensive. Calligraphic nastalique writing was immensely more popular. As it turned out, the best method for printingnastalique script, namely lithography became widely available precisely at that critical time in the history of the Indian Muslim salariat. Litho printing was invented in 1796. Further developments were needed before it could be used to print newspapers in large numbers and cheaply. By 1850 the first mechanised lithographic press became available. Later in the 19th century it became possible to build rotary presses by replacing stone by a zinc plate which could be curved. These inventions made large scale litho printing innastalique script both possible and very cheap. Urdu newspapers could now be turned out in large numbers which ‘everyone’ could afford. For Urdu readers, the age of the mass media had arrived. But the papers needed issues that could be sensationalised, to build up their circulation. The drama of the ‘Turkish tragedy’ was just what they needed. They played it for all that they were worth.
Events of the First World War were a traumatic shock to Indian Muslims. They had grown up with the knowledge about friendship between Britain and the Ottomans, which was regularly reflected in news items in the Urdu press. The news of Turkey and Britain being on opposite sides in the War was therefore a traumatic blow to them. Nothing illustrates this with more poignancy than Maulana Mohammad Ali’s long article entitled ‘The Choice of the Turks’ that he published in his journal The Comrade. After listing Turkish grievances against Britain, he expressed his fervent hope that the Turks would remain neutral in spite of these slights. He closed his article with an assurance of Muslim loyalty to Britain. 31
Turkey and World War I
Turkey’s decision to join Germany and the Central Powers in the World War was a complete surprise to everyone, including the Turks themselves ! In 1908 a radical group, called the ‘Committee for Union and Progress’ (the CUP), the so-called ‘Young Turks’, seized power in Turkey in a coup, deposing the tyrannical Caliph Abdul Hamid II. In his place the CUP installed his brother Mohammad Reshad as Caliph. The Young Turk regime itself soon degenerated into a military oligarchy. Behind the scenes there was an ongoing triangular ‘struggle for power within the Turkish state between the Caliph supported by conservatives and reactionaries, the High Bureaucrats supported by Liberals, and (on the third hand) the radical Unionists’, the Young Turks. 32
Despite differences within the Turkish ruling elite on internal questions, it was quite remarkable that they were all unanimously pro-British. That was the legacy of their shared experience of centuries of British support for the Ottoman state. As far as the Turkish elite were concerned, the British had been their most consistent and reliable friends. Despite factional squabbles within the Turkish elite, there was no faction which was not pro-British. Turkey’s decision to ally with the Central Powers namely Germany and Habsburg Austria, in the First World War was therefore completely at odds with her long-standing attitudes and close friendship with Britain and France. How so ?
Initially, Turkey itself approached Britain and the Allies offering to join them in the War. Feroz Ahmad writes: ‘After the traumatic experience of the Balkan War diplomacy the CUP was convinced that the Ottoman state could survive only as an ally of one of the two blocs, preferably the Triple Entente (Britain, France and Russia). Delegations were despatched to London and Paris and finally to Tsar Nicholas The Unionists were pro-English and pro-French, rather than pro-German because they were sure that Turkish interests would be best served by the Entente powers.’ 33 But, despite Britain’s consistent alliance with Turkey over many centuries and her commitment to preserve the safety and integrity of the Ottoman Empire (even if that was in pursuit of her own imperialist interests vis-à-vis Czarist Russia) the Western powers turned down Turkey’s offer to ally with them. Why ?
There are some clues to this puzzle to be found in the autobiography of the Agha Khan which throws some light on Turkey’s ultimate decision. Although the British had declined the Turkish offer to join them in the War, they were, nevertheless, most keen that it should stay neutral. The Agha Khan writes; ‘Lord Kitchener requested me to use all my influence with the Turks to persuade them not to join the Central Powers but to preserve their neutrality. His opinion was shared and supported by the Secretary of State for India, by the Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey and by the Prime Minister Mr Asquith. Indeed even the King, when I had the honour of lunching with him, referred to it.’ 34 So the Agha Khan got in touch with his ‘old friend’ Tawfiq Pasha, the Turkish Ambassador in London. They both agreed that Turkey should be kept out of the war. The Young Turks were invited to send a Ministerial delegation to London to enter into direct negotiations with the British Government. The Agha Khan writes: ‘Britain was prepared on her own behalf and on behalf of Russia and her other allies to give Turkey full guarantees and assurances for the future.’ 35 The Agha Khan added that neutrality would give the Turks, after their recent losses, the time that they needed to carry out their programme of social, economic and military reform. That seemed to make sense.
Tawfiq Pasha, the Turkish Ambassador, having meanwhile been briefed by his own government, told the Agha Khan that their negotiations would have a much better chance of success if the Allies were to ask the Turks to come and join them on their side in the War instead of staying neutral, as Britain had proposed ‘for at the end of the conflict no one would thank her for staying neutral.’ But would neutrality not have been better than lining up with the losing side ? And would neutrality be so bad an option if it was a position taken at the suggestion of the winning side ?
Why did Britain decline having one more ally by her side in the war ? The underlying problem as so many times before, was Czarist Russia. Given Russia’s anti-Turk attitude, there was a strong possibility that Britain, by taking Turkey as an ally in the face of Russian opposition, would have been left isolated, to face the rising tide of German power, on her own. That was a risk that the British did not wish to take. Tawfiq Pasha, the Turkish Ambassador in London ‘was also convinced that Russia would never agree to Turkey joining the Allies, as such a step would put an end to all Russia’s hopes of expansion at Turkey’s expense, either in the North East around Erzerum, or Southwards.’ 36 The British had little choice but to decline Turkey’s generous offer to fight alongside her. Taking the Turks on as allies would have antagonised the Russians. Russian neutrality would have left Britain at the mercy of the Germans.
After repeated Ottoman requests to the British to let them join them in the war had been politely turned down, the Turkish Government adopted a policy of ‘wait and see’, initially at least, rather than join Germany precipitately. But they also carefully avoided showing hostility to the Germans. They were keeping their options open. While they were still debating which side to align with in the War, or whether to stay neutral, in October 1914 the Turks, as Lewis puts it, ‘stumbled into a major European war’ 37 The Agha Khan writes that ‘By the close of 1914 the Central Powers were confident of quick victory on their own terms. Tragically misled by all these signs and portents dangled before their eyes by the exultant Germans the Turkish Government took the irrevocable step of declaring war on Russia. This automatically involved the Ottoman Empire in war with Great Britain and France.’ 38 Looked at objectively, this was a disastrous move by the Turks, for which they had to pay a heavy price later. It was a decision, that defied logic. Staying neutral would have been their most sensible option.
The Caliph After World War I
The ‘Young Turk’ (CUP) leaders, who had led Turkey into the disastrous War, fled into exile on board a German gunboat. In July 1918 the wartime Caliph Mehmet Reshad, the nominee of the CUP leaders, was deposed and Mehmet Vahdettin (Mohammad Wahiduddin), was installed in his place. Friends of Britain were in the driving seat again. The government was reshuffled and an armistice was signed on 30th October. According to Aksin, ‘In March 1919 Damad Ferid Pasha, the Grand Vezir, sent a message to the British to the effect that “their entire hope was in God and in England, that a certain amount of financial aid was a must and that they were prepared to arrest anyone the British wanted”.’ 39
During the War Britain had directed all its anti-Turk propaganda against the Young Turks (the CUP) but had spared the Caliph himself for they looked forward to the possibility of having to co-operate with him again after the war. The decision to spare the Caliph, was based on the recognition of three facts. Firstly they knew that the Caliph was merely a figurehead and that it was the CUP, the Young Turk leaders, who were responsible for going to War. Secondly, and even more importantly, the British who were confident of victory, knew that the sympathies of the Caliph and the old ruling class in Turkey were wholeheartedly with them and would continue to remain with them. The British knew that the Caliph knew that the British were his most reliable protectors. Thirdly, Britain was still looking forward to the value of being able to exploit the Caliph’s claim to be the religious head of the entire ‘Muslim World’, as they had done successfully in the past. The Caliph had been a valuable asset for the British in the past who, they thought, was worth preserving.
When, at the end of the War, the Young Turk leaders fled precipitately into exile, there was a power vacuum which was instantly filled by the old ruling class with the Caliph at their head. This suited the British. Their protégé was in charge. Contrary to the Khilafatist’s charges against it, Britain was fully committed, after her victory in the war, to preserve the Caliphate, to protect the Caliph, and in so far as it was possible, to reinforce his authority in Turkey and abroad. In accusing Britain of being hostile to their venerated Caliph, the Khilafatists were fighting an imaginary enemy. The real threat to the Caliph came from the rise of the powerful Turkish Republican Nationalism with its secular and democratic aspirations. The Khilafatists, proved to be quite incapable of perceiving the nature and significance of that historic conflict between the monarchical rule of the Caliph and the democratic aspirations of the Republican Nationalists. Paradoxically they glorified the arch-adversary of the Caliphate, Mustafa Kemal, whom they gave the title of Ghazi, while at the same time they also glorified their venerated Caliph. They could not see that these two represented irreconcilable forces in Turkish society and politics. Their failure to comprehend this is quite incredible. When the denouement of the struggle between those mutually contradictory forces finally came about, with the victory of Turkish Republican Nationalism and the end of the Caliphate, the Khilafatists were left totally bewildered, unable to comprehend the news that came to them.
A new Turkish state was emerging in Anatolia, led by men who rejected outright the Treaty of Sévres and the principles that underlay it. They condemned those Turks who had accepted it, as traitors. The Indian Khilafatists shed endless tears over injustices of the Treaty of Sévres. But they could not yet see that it was not their beloved Caliph but the forces of the Republican Nationalist opposition who successfully repudiated it. They were too pre-occupied lamenting the ‘fate of the Caliph’ to see the Turkish reality as it was actally unfolding before their eyes. The supine Caliph had acquiesced in the iniquitous Treaty of Sévres, which had been inspired by Lloyd George’s prejudices. But, thanks to the power of the Republican Nationalists the Treaty of Sévres remained a dead letter until the victorious nationalists later re-negotiated a fresh treaty at the Peace Conference that opened at Lausanne on 20th November 1922. In the words of Lord Curzon (quoted by ‘Maulana’ Mohammad Ali) the Treaty of Sévres was ‘dictation of terms at the point of the Bayonet Only when the terms had been drawn up was the beaten enemy admitted, to be told his sentence. Far otherwise was it at Lausanne. There the Turks sat at the table on a footing of equality with all the other powers.’ 40
British Intrigues With the Caliph
On 9th November 1918, with the Caliph and his coterie back in charge, Calthorpe the newly appointed British High Commissioner in Istanbul wrote to Foreign Secretary Lord Balfour: ‘The Turkish Ministers will try to present themselves as genuine friends of the British and will try to win you over.’ 41He emphasised to his Government that the Caliph was an important factor vis-à-vis the Muslim world as a whole, as well as in Turkey itself. The Caliph, he wrote, was very eager that they, the British, ‘should settle in Istanbul’. 42
With the backing of the British, the Caliph’s government prepared to confront the remnants of the Young Turks and following that the emerging force of the Republican Nationalists. From now on ‘One of the first tasks of the Turkish Sultan and his ministers was to crush the remnants of the Young Turks’ 43. The new Republican Nationalist Movement, under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal, had to be suppressed, decisively. For their part, the Nationalists were getting organised for action. By July 1919 Kemal convened a Congress of Delegates from every district which laid the foundations of a popular Grand National Assembly which began to function from April 1920, to preside over the liberation of Turkey from dynastic rule. That brought alarm to the Allies as well as their protégé the Caliph. By August 1919 a declaration known as the Milli Misak or the ‘National Pact’ was issued. In September, at the Second Congress of the Republican National Assembly Mustafa Kemal was elected as Chairman. The nationalist struggle was well and truly launched.
To forestall a possible nationalist coup against their friend the Caliph (who had desperately been calling for their help) British forces entered the Turkish quarter of Istanbul on 16 March 1920 (18 months after the Caliph had been back in business) and began to round up known nationalists. True to the time-honoured role of mullahs in such situations the Sheikh-ul-Islam,Dürrezadé Abdullah Effendi, issued a fatwa, on the invitation of the Grand Vezir Damad Ferid Pasha, declaring that killing of the nationalists was a religious duty of Muslims. 44 The target of that fatwa included Mustafa Kemal himself, against whom a sentence of death was already pronounced. The Indian Khilafatists who venerated the Caliph and glorified Kemal Attatürk at the same time, appear to have received this news in uncomprehending silence. Given the prevalence of nationalist influences in the Turkish Army the Caliph did not trust it. He therefore continued the disarming of Turkish forces. 45 To forestall a popular revolt or a coup d’état, the Caliph, with British help, organised an independent special force known as quwwa-indibatiye (‘force for discipline and control’) to fight the nationalists. The nationalists, however, went from strength to strength.
Kemal on ‘The Friends of England‘
Confronted by Republican Nationalism, the Caliph turned to the British for his survival. Mustafa Kemal, in his remarkable retrospective ‘6 day speech’ of October 1927 spoke about a ‘Society of the Friends of England‘ that was formed, as he put it, by some ‘misguided’ persons. He pointed out that: ‘At the head of the Society were Vahdettin, who bore the title of Ottoman Sultan and Caliph, Damat Ferid Pasha (the Grand Vezir), Ali Kemal, Minister of the Interior ‘ (Kemal named other leading figures of the ancien régime). Kemal charged that the Society ‘openly sought the protection of England ‘ , that ‘it worked in secret’, and that ‘its real aim was to incite the people to revolt by forming organisations in the Interior, to paralyse the National Conscience and encourage foreign countries to interfere.’ 47
Kemal pointed out that: ‘Without knowing it, the nation had no longer any one to lead it’ 48 He continued, ‘The Nation and the Army had no suspicion at all of the Padishah-Caliph’s treachery.49 On the contrary, on account of religious and traditional ties handed down for centuries, they remained loyal to the throne and its occupant. That the country could possibly be saved without a Caliph and without a Padishah was an idea too impossible for them to comprehend.’ He continued: ‘To labour for the maintenance of the Ottoman Dynasty and its sovereign would have been to inflict the greatest harm, to the Turkish nation. We were compelled to rebel against the Ottoman Government, against the Padishah, against the Caliph of all Mohamedans, and we had to bring the whole nation and the army into a state of rebellion.’ 50 Kemal made it clear that he had made a decision to get rid of the Caliph from the very start of the Republican Revolution, although prudence and tactical considerations dictated that the ground must be prepared for it before the Caliphate was ended, step by step. That was finally done in 1924. He said: ‘From the first I anticipated this historical progress. But I did not disclose all of my views, although I have maintained them all of the time The only practical and safe road to success lay in dealing with each problem at the right time.’ 51
Kemal’s statement made it crystal clear that the Caliph was in league with the British and the European powers. The British for their part, banked on the Caliph as a bulwark against the advancing forces of Turkish nationalism. Their own long term interests lay in securing the Caliph in a position of authority in the Turkish state to hold back the nationalists. This reality was only partly obscured by the extravagant and chauvinistic anti-Turk and pro-Greek rhetoric of Lloyd George and Asquith, who had headed the War time Coalition government in Britain. They were both soon to be ousted with the fall of the Wartime Coalition Government and the formation of a Conservative Government under Bonar Law. The Bonar Law Government immediately reverted to Britain’s time honoured policy vis-à-vis Turkey and the Caliph, with the exception of its new plans, made in League with the French, to carve up between themselves Turkish colonial possessions in Arabia.
Arabia: A Change in British Geopolitical Priorities
The British were still interested in maintaining their friend the Ottoman Caliph at the head of affairs in Turkey, if they could manage it. But the War had brought about a basic change in the historical reasons for British strategic support for the Ottomans. Britain’s centuries old alliance with Turkey had been founded on British fears about the threat of a southward drive of Czarist Russia. Until the War, Ottoman Turkey was a bulwark against Russian southwards expansionism. The Communist Revolution of 1917 in Russia radically changed the strategic map. There was now an entirely new configuration of strategic calculations for the region. One of the first things that the Soviets did after winning power was to renounce all unequal treaties with neighbouring states, which were a legacy from the Czarist days. They had no ambitions, nor indeed any capacity, for a drive to the south. Britain no longer needed a strong Ottoman state as a bulwark against a possible Russian threat, as it had needed hitherto. Its priorities changed.
The British and the French could now contemplate carving up the Arab colonies of the Ottomans between themselves. But Arab Nationalist Movements had already begun make themselves felt, demanding their freedom from all colonial rule. However, sadly, the Turkish Republican Nationalists were no less committed to hold on to their Empire, in Arab lands, than the Caliphs before them. Indian Khilafatists slavishly followed Turkish slogans demanding preservation of Turkish colonial rule over the Arabs, rather than take a principled stand on the question of the right of the Arabs for national self- determination. The Arab territories were already under the de facto control of Britain and France. The Indian Khilafatists slogans therefore demanded re-imposition of Turkish colonial authority rather than Arab freedom. They asked for restoration of Turkish colonialism under the guise of a demand that Muslim holy places should remain under Muslim rule. Arabs too were Muslims ! The Khilafat slogan on this was sheer humbug when seen against the struggles of the Arab people for their own freedom. Given the claim of the Khilafatists to be Indian nationalists, their stand vis-á-vis Arab nationalism was quite shameful. But this was hardly surprising, coming from a movement that was dominated by the ignorant and bigoted Indian Muslim clergy and reactionary Ulama such as Azad.
The Indian Khilafatists’ not only betrayed Arab Nationalism. In Turkey itself their slogan for the authority of the Caliph to be preserved was also reactionary. They were asking for the preservation of an outmoded monarchy in the face of a rising tide of republican democracy. Their campaign was misconceived, based on ignorance and prejudice and, founded on discredited interpretations of the supposed religious role of the Caliph. Their perception of reality was twisted by the distorting prism of their narrow dogmatic and utterly reactionary ideology fashioned by the Muslim clergy and Ulama such as Azad.
The Caliph as Prisoner of the British !
The whole case of the Indian Khilafatists campaign was based on the charge that after the War the British held the Caliph ‘captive’, that they had undermined his authority and threatened his existence. The reality, as we know, was exactly the reverse. The real threat to the Caliph came from the Republican Nationalists. On the other hand, the British were the Caliph’s patrons and protectors-and they were quite as hostile to the Nationalists as the Caliph was himself. How did the Indian Khilafatists come to hold such an upside-down view of the Turkish reality ?
Republican Nationalism was a direct threat to the Caliph for its aim was to put an end to monarchic rule under a Caliph. The British on the other hand wanted to keep the Caliph. The British and the Caliph faced the threat of the Republican Nationalists together. The Caliph had one weapon that he could deploy against the Republican Nationalists. That was Islamic ideology, of which he claimed to be the guardian. The Caliph played the religious card for all it was worth. He denounced the Republican Nationalists as atheists and enemies of Allah and his Caliph. By that he hoped to alienate the mass of the Turkish people from the Republican Nationalist leadership.
Despite their rapidly growing strength, the Republican Nationalists were as yet at an early stage of their great enterprise. They felt threatened by the Caliph’s campaign. They felt that they could not ignore it. As Kemal’s speeches show, they feared that Islamic ideology could still be a powerful factor among the Turkish people and that the Caliph’s propaganda might do their cause much harm. Feroz Ahmad commenting on this, writes: ‘The nationalists took great pains to counter the Caliph’s religious propaganda, for they understood the powerful influence of Islam in Turkish society. Their task became easier when Istanbul was occupied by Anglo-French forces. Now they could describe the Sultan-Caliph as the captive of Christian powers, waiting to be liberated.’ 52 These forces had entered Istanbul on 16th March 1920, no less than 18 months after the end of the War, when the Caliph had got back in business in Istanbul. The Republican Nationalist counter-propaganda on this score did not have much ground to stand on. But it was an ideological war. And any weapon that came to hand was welcome. British forces came into Istanbul only when the Republican Nationalists were gaining ground. It was feared, not without reason, that there might be a Republican coup against the Caliph. After all, that is what they were fighting for. The British wanted to preserve and protect the Caliph, for he was their man. If it had been the intention of the British to keep the Caliph as their ‘captive’ they would have moved in a year and a half earlier.
Whatever the Turkish people themselves may have made of the Republican Nationalists’ defensive propaganda that the Caliph was a prisoner of the British, the leaders of the Indian Khilafat Movement seem to have swallowed it, hook, line and sinker. The liberation of the Caliph from the clutches of the British became their central slogan. Indeed that became theraison d’être of their campaign. These worldly wise leaders did not consider the possibility that the Caliph could actually be a willing collaborator with the British, acting in collusion with the Western powers with whom he had common cause to make against the Republican Nationalists. Nor was this a matter that could not have been easily verified-it was important enough for them at least to have made an effort. This was a simple matter. All that they needed to do was to send a delegation to Istanbul, to see things for themselves. They had extensive personal contacts at all levels, amongst all groups, in Istanbul. They would have had no difficulty it getting to the bottom of things if they had wanted to do so. But they did not do that.
One might suspect that they did not really want to get to the bottom of it, for that would have punctured the balloon of their Movement before it even got off the ground. The Maulanas and mullahs behind the campaign needed the Movement for its own sake. Whatever it may or may not have done for their revered Caliph, it was doing a lot for them. The campaign was lifting them up to the forefront of Indian Muslim politics, for a while totally eclipsing secular educated Muslim leadership. Because of the Khilafat Movement the Indian Muslim clergy was able secure a legitimate place for itself in the political arena and masquerade as men with a nationalist conscience. In the process they also built up a political organisation in the form of the Jamiat-e-Ulama-e-Hind.
Indian Khilafatists and Turkish Reality
The Indian Khilafatists could not comprehend the significance of the forces that were reshaping Turkey and the momentous changes that were in train. Abbasi, an Urdu journalist and a leading participant in the Khilafat Movement, for example, explains Turkish politics of that period in terms of purely personal differences and intrigues. 53 He praises Mustafa Kemal as a great Ghazi, for victories against Greeks, but also bemoans the fate of the Caliph. Abbasi goes on to write that ‘Mustafa Kemal challenged theKhalifat-e-Muslémeen and the Sultan found himself to be helpless. At last he complained to his Western Masters (aqayané-firang) But they were not prepared to take any decisive step against the Republican Movement.’ 54That statement by an important figure in the Khilafat Movement exemplifies their confusion and utter lack of comprehension of events in Turkey. It is sad to see a leading Indian Khilafatist, a champion of the cause of anti-colonialism, actually bemoan the fact that the British did not intervene against the Turkish nationalists and resolve the Khalifa’s ‘helplessness’ ! Abbasi’s contradictory posture was by no means unique. It reflects the widely held attitudes of the Indian Khilafatists and their inability to understand the forces that were at work in Turkey and historic struggles that were reshaping it. At no point did they reflect on the significance of the Republican Nationalist Movement and ask themselves whether their own Movement on behalf of the Caliph had not been overtaken by events.
It is not surprising that the Government of India was not only tolerant but even supportive of the Khilafat Movement. Until the launching of Gandhi’s Civil-disobedience Movement (quite a different kind of issue) the British responded to the Khilafat Movement in quite good humour. It is not without significance that it was at the time when the Khilafat Movement had only just begun to gather steam that the colonial government released from war-time detention Mohammad Ali, Shaukat Ali, Abul Kalam Azad and Zafar Ali Khan, who were leading and effective figures of the Movement. In the post-war situation their pro-Caliph sympathies were no longer a threat to British interests, but quite the contrary.
Nothing reveals the stance of the Government of India vis-à-vis the Khilafatists more clearly than its decision to finance a Khilafat delegation to go to Europe to plead their case. In January 1920 a Khilafat delegation, led by Dr. Ansari, met the Viceroy, Lord Chelmsford, who promised them every assistance. A telling ‘petty detail’ arising out of it is that, following the meeting, Shaukat Ali wrote a letter on 20th January 1920 to an official, Mr. Maffey, requesting the Government of India to provide five first class return tickets for the Khilafat delegation to go to England to plead the Khilafat cause before the British public and parliament and the Peace Conference in Paris-a curious request from champions of a supposedly Anti-Colonial Movement to their colonial masters ! The Secretary to the Home Department of the Government of India immediately cabled the Government of Bombay asking them to arrange the passages accordingly, emphasising its political importance. 55 This is a clear illustration of the fact that the Government of India did not see the Khilafat Movement as a dangerous anti-colonial movement, hostile towards the British Empire. British repression was let loose only later with the launching of the Congress Civil Disobedience Movement, when appeals were made, by some individuals, to Muslims not to serve in the British army. That indeed was a threat to British Imperial interests. But those appeals were born out of the Congress Civil Disobedience movement and were disowned by some Khilafat leaders.
The Khilafat Movement has been idealised as an anti-colonial movement. But the main ‘achievement’ of the Movement was the turning away of Indian Muslims from a secular understanding of politics, towards a religious and communalist one. It has left a legacy of political activism of the Muslim clergy that bedevils Indian and Pakistani politics to this day. One final irony of it is that the Movement betrayed both Turkish Nationalism and also Arab Nationalism.Unfortunately Mr Gandhi’s leadership of the Movement has led Indian Nationalist scholars to acclaim the Movement and Gandhi’s role in it, uncritically. On the other hand, Jinnah (who in the present writer’s view, has been accused, quite inaccurately of being a ‘communalist leader’ rather than one with a secular outlook) got physically beaten up by ‘Maulana’ Shaukat Ali for opposing that atavistic religious movement, which has had such a major negative impact on Indian (and Pakistani) Muslim political thought. Finally, the Khilafat Movement laid the foundations of political leadership of the Muslim clergy, for which it was to be acclaimed by Islamic ideologists !
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