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Khilafat Movement: Congress’ turn towards communal politics
What began as a tactical move to wean away the League from the British soon became a conviction within the Congress, that – without Muslim League coming along, there would be no freedom. For the British, the League not joining hands with Congress meant no united resistance. Hence, both started patronizing the League. The last three decades of the independence movement were a saga of this competitive bargaining with the Muslim League.
There were many Muslim leaders in Congress at that time. Even Jinnah was a Congress leader and was seen as the ambassador of Hindu – Muslim unity. Sadly, in its competitive bargaining for the League’s support, the Congress leadership gave up on those saner and secular Muslim leaders and leaned more towards the communal and fundamentalist elements of the community.
The first milestone in the race of appeasement of the Muslim League was the Khilafat movement of 1919-1924. Khilafat was a religio-political movement launched by a section of the Muslim League for the preservation of the Ottoman Empire under Sultan Mehmed V as he was regarded as the Khalifa (leader) of the entire Muslim Ummah (religious community). It should be clear from the description that, one, it was a religious movement; and two, it had nothing to do with India’s independence. More importantly, the myth of the Ottoman Emperor as the Khalifa of world Muslims had been shattered by the dismantling of the empire by the British and the French after World War I, and subsequently when Mustafa Kemal Pasha, the newly elected leader of Turkey, abolished the title of Khalifa in 1924.
That was what even Jinnah told the Muslim League convention held in Delhi in 1918. Jinnah called Khilafat a ‘false religious frenzy of which no good will come out for India.’ When some members objected to his views and the League decided to form a Khilafat Committee to launch an agitation for the cause, Jinnah, along with some others, walked out of the session.
However, where Jinnah had walked out, Gandhi walked in a year later. Gandhi had returned to India in 1915 and was a relatively new figure in the Congress. But certain historical events paved the way for his easy rise in the Congress hierarchy. His mentor and a senior Congress leader Gopal Krishna Gokhale passed away in February 1915. Feroz Shah Mehta, too died in the same year. Lokmanya Tilak left for London to sue the British journalist, Valentine Chirol for defamation in 1919, and he too passed away a year later.
Gandhi walked into the space vacated by several illustrious seniors. Yet he needed an anchor which he found in the issue of Hindu-Muslim unity. In South Africa, during his struggle against the British, Gandhi was regarded as the leader of both the Hindu and Muslim migrants. Gandhi looked at the native situation too from the South African prism. By then, winning over the Muslim League became a zealous conviction for many in the Congress. Gandhi decided to use the Khilafat for Hindu-Muslim unity as well as for establishing his own credentials as the leader with the power to achieve that.
Several Congress leaders participated in the Khilafat Day protests organized by the Muslim League on October 17, 1919. Swami Shraddhananda, a renowned Arya Samaj leader and a senior Congress leader, was one among them, standing on the steps of the Jama Masjid in Delhi and exhorting the Muslims to fight for the Khilafat. Gandhi, along with Motilal Nehru, Madan Mohan Malviya, and others, was present at the Muslim League convention in December 1919. He described Khilafat as the “holy cow” of the Muslim community. Gandhi viewed Khilafat as the best opportunity for Hindu – Muslim unity and exhorted the Hindus to join the struggle for preserving Islam’s honour if they really want Muslims’ friendship. “Arise! Awake! Or be fallen forever”, was Gandhi’s call to the Muslims.
However, a section of the Congressmen started raising concerns over this gamble. Sardar Patel was unconvinced about a slave country fighting for the maintainence of a foreign Muslim Empire. Many were aghast when they heard that Khilafat leaders like Shaukat Ali and Hasrat Mohani were inviting the King of Afghanistan to invade India to achieve the Khilafat. Gandhi’s good friend Barrister Henry Pollack had warned that on the Khilafat question, Gandhi was behaving in an “ill-informed and dangerous manner”. On the other hand, the Khilafat leaders like Maula Abdul Bari started threatening Gandhi that if he failed to deliver on the promise of the Congress’ support, they would end their relations with it.
An emergency session of the Congress was called in August 1920 at Kolkata, in which Gandhi proposed to launch a nationwide Non-Cooperation Movement in support of the Khilafat. “I would, in order to achieve success in the Khilafat issue, even postpone the issue of Swaraj,” Gandhi declared. Leaders like Chittaranjan Das, Bipin Chandra Pal, and Annie Besant were against this bargain. Finally, issues like Swaraj and Jallianwala Bagh massacre were also included to make it look like an agitation for the Indian cause.
Jinnah, who was until then midwifing the Congress-League friendship, got disillusioned. He was particularly upset with his own sidelining and promotion of rank fundamentalists like Mohammad Ali and Shaukat Ali – the ‘Ali Brothers’ – by Gandhi. At the Nagpur session of the Congress later that year, Jinnah resigned, highlighting his opposition to the Khilafat. “I will have nothing to do with this pseudo-religious approach to politics. I do not believe in working up mob hysteria, politics is a gentleman’s game”, Jinnah told while quitting.
Khilafat failed. The Non-Cooperation Movement was abruptly called off by Gandhi when a violent incident took place at Chauri Chaura in the Gorakhpur district of the United Provinces in which 22 policemen were killed by the agitators. However, the damage to the fabric of national unity was already done. After the Khilafat, the voices of the nationalist Muslims became further subdued. Condoned by the Congress leadership, Muslim communalism became the order of the day. For example, when Shaukat Ali and others were arrested by the British on sedition charges for inviting the King of Afghanistan to invade India, Gandhi reacted by arguing that he couldn’t understand why the Ali brothers should be in jail when he was outside.
This was the only religious cause that Gandhi ever espoused during the independence movement. He probably had his reasons for doing so.
“The passions he had helped rouse, which were now turned against him and the Congress, meant that the Congress haemorrhaged Muslims ever afterwards. Gandhi returned to the secular straight-and-narrow with the Salt Satyagraha ten years later and strove manfully to secure the moderate aim of a pluralist nationalism in the age of mass politics, but opportunism of the Khilafat movement haunted the Congress and helped alienate the one constituency it prized above all others: India’s Muslims”, wrote historian Mukul Kesavan.
The Khilafat misadventure of the Congress had demonstrated that the seeds of communal separatism sown by the British a decade earlier were sprouting up actively, nurtured by the misplaced convictions of the Congress leadership. Later events led the process further along resulting in the blossoming of Muslim communal politics as the Congress continued its appeasement policies.
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(Courtesy: The article was originally published in Chintan, India Foundation on August 16, 2020)