Dr. Shreerang Godbole

Chapter V

The pan-Islamist Turkish fixation of the Indian Muslims took on 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 the 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 the 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 inWorld War I

World War I lasted from 28 July 1914 to 11 November 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 (metaphorically referred to by Europeans as 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 Middle East (part 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 Turkish Empire lost large parts of its territories – Greece (1830), Romania, Serbia and Bulgaria (1870), Ottoman 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 the political classes sympathetic to the ruling Committee for Union and Progress (CUP) and the figurehead Sultan Mehmet V unanimously called for a hareketi-iintibahiye (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 30 September 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 29 October 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 the 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 through 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 also 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 the 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, 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 5 June 1916, the Arab revolt started. The revolt 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 3 March 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

In1911, Muhammad Ali opened a relief fund for Turkish victims of the war over Tripoliand later on for Turkish victims of the Balkan wars. A medicalmission headed by Dr. M.A. Ansari left India in December 1912 andcame back in July1913 (The Khilafat Movement in India 1919-1924, A.C. Niemeijer, MartinusNijhoff, 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 of the disease 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, MuhammadAli with respect to his fund and the missionsought official andpersonal co-operation from the British side, goingas far as enlisting the Viceroy as a Patron of the Delhi Red CrescentSociety and organizing his relief work through British consular officers.And when World War I broke out, the field hospital which had beenfinanced out of hisComrade Turkish Relief Fund was presented to the Medical Service in India (Niemeijer, p. 56).

In July 1914, when war broke out between Serbia andAustria, Indian Muslim sympathies went with the latter, becauseSerbia had been one of the confederates in the Balkan hostilities with Turkey. Subsequently, when Germany and Russiaalso became embroiled, the Indian Muslims championed Germany’s cause on accountof the memories of the Russo-Turkish War. Generally the IndianMuslims were jubilant at the sight of the Christian Powers fightingamong themselves and believed it to be a punishment from Allah for their ill-treatment of Turkey. Many thought that the War wouldlead to the downfall of Christendom and the revival of the Islamicpower 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, the Muslim sympathies, in spite of their pro-German leanings for her supposed pro-Turkey tendencies, paradoxicallyveered round to the side of Britain. The Indian Muslim leaders wanted Turkey to remain neutral or side with Britain.The reason for this unexpected pro-British outburstseems 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 maintainsuch a neutrality (Qureshi, ibid, pp.32, 33). By 1914, Maulana Abdul Bari, the Ali brothers, Zafar Ali Khan, HasratMohani 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 upon 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 up scuttling Turkish power and territory and enfeebling the Khalifa’s power and prestige in the post-war period, the 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 the revision of the Treaty of Sevres that abolished the Ottoman Empire, Maulana Bari and HasratMohani 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 RussianRevolution 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 ifthe Allies succeeded in vanquishing Turkey, her integrity would bemaintained 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 withTurkey was political and not religious and that the jihad againstthe British was religiously unlawful (Qureshi, ibid, pp.30, 31).

The entry of Russia on Britain’s side tilted the Indian Muslim opinion further against Britain. Russia was viewed as a hereditary foe of Turkey. Maulana Abdul Bari at Lucknow, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad atCalcutta, 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, Obaidullah Sindhi attempted to overthrow the British rule in Indiain 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 contactswith the Turks and obtained from Ghalib Pasha, the Ottoman Governorof the Hedjaz, a declaration of jihad against the British forcirculation 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 interned at Malta. Maulana Azad was externed by the U.P. and the Punjab Governments and Maulana HasratMohaniwas 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 passeda resolution condemning the ‘outrageous conduct of Hussein which itthought had jeopardised the safety of the Holy Places. Abdul Baridubbed Hussein and his sympathisers as the ‘enemies of Islam’ andAjmal 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 5 January 5, 1918, British Prime Minister Lloyd George unequivocally declared in his famouswar-aims speech that they were not fighting ‘to deprive Turkey ofits capital, or of the rich and renowned lands of Asia Minor andThrace, which were predominantly Turkish in race. The IndianMuslims took this as an unalterable pledge and tenaciously clungto it (Qureshi, ibid, p. 46).

Conclusion of the War

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

According to these treaties, the Allies contemplated tostrip Turkey not only of her entire European possessions including Constantinople but also to deprive her of hereastern territories of Mesopotamia, Palestine, Arabia and Syria.In this way 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-a-vis the British kept on changing with Turko-British relations as they evolved during the War. The Indian leaders started with pronouncements of loyalty to 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!

                                                                                                                                                                                        …to be continued

(The author has written books on Islam, Christianity, contemporary Buddhist-Muslim relations, Shuddhi movement and religious demography)