#04: Revisiting Khilafat and the isolation of Indian Muslims
Revisiting Khilafat movement, Gandhi and the perhaps the beginning of Hindu Muslim distrust in India, guised as an example of unity in official history taught in school.
I hope you’re doing well. This past week I’ve been listening to Vikram Sampath’s biography of VD Savarkar, and while there’s a lot of information that is either new or of contested nature, one theme that stuck with me was the discussion around Khilafat movement and its repercussions on the events that were to follow.
Quick recap for those with little background, Khilafat movement was a movement to reinstate the Caliph as the ruler of Turkey after British abolished it following First World War, that involved the defeat of Ottoman Empire of Europe.
Khilafat movement, started by Ali brothers, in Indian school textbooks has been taught as an example of Hindu Muslim unity, wherein Gandhiji supported the movement and solicited the cooperation of Muslims mobilised thanks to the movement in Indian Independence struggle. This appeared to be a straight forward conclusion back when I learnt history in school (and I was one of the few ones who paid attention - all credit to my history teacher Azra ma’am).
Khilafat, in a new light
Of late I have come across a lot of criticism of Khilafat movement, especially from Right Wing ideologues. The most visceral manifestation being the Malabar riots (also referred to as Moplah Rebellion), where ghastly crimes seem to have been communally inspired and justified in the name of the movement.
Given the nature of accusations, I have tried to overlook current debates in favour of historical commentary, and quotes from BR Ambedkar on the matter seem to confirm the RW stance.
Source: Malabar Rebellion - Wikipedia (The footnotes mentioned in image, are in the footnote)
Given the commentaries by Ambedkar as well as other freedom fighters seem to confirm to me the assertion made by Vikram Sampath while quoting Savarkar that the Khilafat movement in its manifestations was not seen by contemporary figures as an testament to Hindu-Muslim unity. Rather, it was seen as a move by Gandhi to consolidate Muslim masses by appeasing a radical minority that wanted to mobilise the Muslims on the basis of religious association.
This has been referred to as the political beginning of Two Nation theory, and what has been referred to by many as the primary fault in Gandhi’s politics, wherein he perhaps devalued individuals, asking them to sacrifice their lives and suffer for the larger goals; goals that it seems not everyone agreed on.
The primary question raised by Savarkar (initially), is that by supporting a movement like Khilafat, did Gandhi not imply that Indian Muslims unlike Hindus or Sikhs or other communities owed allegiance to powers outside the country? This to me feels like the basis of the suspicion of the patriotism of Indian Muslims that has plagued us ever since.
Another minor question is also that of the logic of the movement. Firstly, when Indians themselves weren’t independent what leverage did they hold with the British to enforce the demands of the movement. Secondly, how could people in one country demand and decide fate of another country. Whether Ottoman Empire was to be restored in Turkey had to be the choice of Turkish people, what business was it of Indians.
However, I don’t want to harp on that for too long. My primary insights from this saga, is the confusion regarding the Khilafat movement and how glorifying it in history textbooks seems to hurt the India project.
On one hand, it absolves the role of Gandhi’s politics in strengthening Islamist politics in India burdening the Muslims with its consequence that is the constant doubt regarding their allegiance in India. On the other hand, it necessitates the whitewashing of events like Malabar riots as a class war, anguishing the Hindus.
Other-ing of Indian Muslims
As I stated previously, my interest in Khilafat movement is not borne out of historical curiosity or an unabashed acceptance of Savarkar’s views and assertions. In fact, I’m yet to finish the book and most of the controversial views of Savarkar actually occur later in his life and are part of the second volume by Vikram Sampath, which I’ve just started.
The reason why Khilafat intruiged me was because it seemed to offer a starting point to the narrative that involves questioning the patriotism of Indian Muslims. For context, it is a well known lament in India that a Hindu always has to prove his secular credentials and a Muslim has to prove his patriotism.
The Khilafat movement, at least in Savarkar’s biography seems to be the starting point from where Muslim loyalty starts to be questioned. Prior to Khilafat, the same Savarkar has praised Bahadur Shah Zafar’s leadership of 1857’s War of Independence and talked of uniting against the foreign oppressor.
But with Khilafat leaders talking about the Muslim Umma, Savarkar starts questioning where the loyalty of Muslims’ lay. This might seem like a communally loaded question today, but it seems a valid question for Savarkar to ask.
Again, I’m not totally agreeing with Savarkar questioning the loyalties of Muslims, but I understand his perspective. The leaders he is talking to, the events he is witnessing, all seem to handle questions through prism of identity and his contemporaries (at least according to the biography) seem comfortable invoking trans-national allegiances in case of Muslims. On the other hand, Savarkar being unapologetic about his Hindu identity, thus sees Khilafat as a deprioritising of Hindu and broader Indian interests.
These events inspired by Khilafat movement, to me, seem like the genesis of the line of thought which on one end inspires Muslims to prioritises their religious identity over everything else and on the other hand sows the distrust in the hearts of Hindus.
Asking these questions of every Muslim today could be and perhaps should be considered communal in nature, but at the time that it started, when the Indian identity was still in flux, being defined and redefined with every subsequent wave of national consciousness, I don’t think I can blame Savarkar for asking the questions that he asked and asking for reciprocative religious tolerance and acceptance that others asked of him.
This brings me to my newfound gripe with Khilafat movement. It appears to me a movement which mobilised the Muslims quickly in the short run but hurt their long term interests, especially contemporary Indian Muslims.
On the other extreme, it seems to have actively promoted the confusion in Muslims with respect to their place in Indian subcontinent. The historical outcome being partition of Indian as well as the distortion and destruction of historical consciousness that happened in Pakistan, where they felt compelled to erase all things non-Islamic while establishing a religious state.
Every nation has to, from time to time, revisit its heroes. Mahatma Gandhi played a pivotal role in Indian Independence movement and that is undeniable. However, given that we have survived and thrived as a nation, we have to move past the insecurity that a nascent nation state has regarding its narrative.
India is and will stay united despite acknowledging the missteps that occured. In fact, acknowledging these missteps allows a nation and its many communities to heal the wounds of the past. Heroes become more human and people relate to them more.
Gandhians often bemoan that Gandhi now only exists in empty symbolisms practiced for a show and his values have been lost. This might be true, but that requires a step from Gandhian scholars first and broader Indian historian community to address the criticism.
Gandhiji was never a fanatic as far as I know and he frequently changed his views when confronted and convinced with evidence. He never claimed to know the truth, he experimented with truth and as with all experiments, some are successful others fail.
The Khilafat movement seems to be a prime example of an experiment that failed and it is time it is acknowledged and leaders including Gandhiji and other from the then Congress held accountable.
This will not only heal the Hindu wounds, that seem to be festering decades later (and being exploited by extremists elements) but also redeem Muslims who have been singularly blamed for strains of Islamism that from time to time seem to threaten the project of Indian nationhood.
To me, Hinduism and Islam (as personal religions) are both as desirous as Hindutva and Islamism are undesirous. But unless those who are not affiliated with either denounce both unequivocally as well as acknowledge the reasons that caused them we will only be strengthening one and then the other as a reaction.
This post might not be as palatable as my other writings and I understand that not everyone might be as comfortable discussing these themes or agree with me. If you feel this includes you, please feel free to share your perspective in the comments of this post.
Further as I have stated above, this is one of those topics where I have recently changed my mind and thus I am fully aware that it is possible that I might be missing some piece of information or perspective despite my best efforts not to. I’ll be glad to listen to any contrarian evidence or viewpoints.
Citations from the Image:
 - Carvalho, Brian. "Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar was more iconoclast than icon". The Economic Times. Retrieved 29 March 2022.
 - Daniyal, Shoaib. "Was Ambedkar anti-Muslim?". Scroll.in. Retrieved 9 September 2022.
 - Ambedkar, Bhimrao. Pakistan or the Partition of India. pp. Chapter 6.
 - Daniyal, Shoaib. "Was Ambedkar anti-Muslim?". Scroll.in. Retrieved 9 September 2022.
 - Ambedkar, Bhimrao (2014). Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, Writings and Speeches. New Delhi: Dr. Ambedkar Foundation. pp. volume 8, P.163. ISBN 978-93-5109-064-9.
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Really enjoyed reading this and this is the kind of nuance we need in our reading and comprehension of Indian history!