The Government of India Act 1858 brought India directly under the control of the British Parliament, to be governed directly by the British government and in the name of the Crown. On a political front, it was also felt that the lack of any type of consultation between the rulers and the ruled by the earlier regime had been a significant factor in contributing to the rebellion of 1857.
Considering this the British colonial administration in India embarked on a program of political reform, trying to socially integrate Indian influential class and local rulers into the government. In consequence, some Indians were drawn into government at the local level, mostly in subordinate roles. Eventually, the spread of education giving western worldview created a new professional and aspirational middle class which was in no way bound by the legacy. This constitutional change laid the foundation for a structured Freedom Movement using constitutional methods.
Society after the 1857 Revolt – Immediately after the 1857 revolt, even the residual Muslim power had gone away and the Muslim nobles had lost their political and economic clout. Muslim elites were in a state of shock for the loss of power and influence with a feeling of insecurity.
Lack of western education and orthodoxy rendered them socio-economically and politically irrelevant and demoralized. The Hindu masses had lost their clout centuries ago. So, in this context, the British rule had reset the race for advancement where both communities were at the same level.
However, Hindus adopted western education and technology rapidly whereas Muslims got stuck considering that as un-Islamic. The British were also sceptical about the Muslims because of their role in the 1857 revolt as well as the past experiences of the East India Company.
While the Muslims remained the non-starter for a long and rather spent most of the time in despair and cursing later Mughal rulers and elites, who they believed, to have deviated from pure Islamic values. This particular thought created Deoband Movement and Aligarh Movement. Later Barelvi Movement emerged by splitting the Sunnis led Deoband Movement.
But, Deobandi and Barelvi both Movements institutionalized the Halal vs. Haram Fatwa system among the Muslim masses. Aligarh Movement created the Muslim intelligentsia that promoted the Two-Nation Theory of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan. Deoband and Barelvi Movements were purely religious Movements whereas Aligarh Movement was a blend of Islamic traditions along with western scientific education.
Deoband, Aligarh and Barelvi Movements developed a pan India Muslim network which played a crucial yet negative role during the freedom struggle. Collectively, they all opposed the growing Indian nationalism, by not accepting ‘Maharana Pratap’, ‘Veer Shivaji’ and ‘Tatya Tope’ etc; as national heroes, opposing the war cry of Indian nationalism ‘Vandemataram‘ along with opposing Hindi as an official language of United Province and Bihar. Despite their different approaches, their common objective was to restore the lost pristine glory of Islam in India. All these three Movements played a pivotal role during the freedom struggle.
The freedom struggle had different streams and people adopted different methods in pursuit of their goal for independence. Some of them picked the arms to counter the British might. Some others, initially adopted constitutional methods only to later resort to non-violent Gandhian methods.
Some of them carried out overseas activities to support Indian efforts for freedom while some other used the turbulence to maximize the gain for their community. Here, the Muslim League activities can not be considered for freedom struggle as its role was negative throughout the freedom struggle. Here, INA is also being kept out of the discussion as that was a straightforward war against Britain and allies with the help of Axis forces.
Let’s have a close look at various movements and Muslim participation in each of them.
Anti-partition of Bengal, Boycott and Swadeshi Movement – This was the first major mass movement in colonial India. This movement started as a mass reaction against the Partition of Bengal in 1905 and then further expanded as the Boycott and Swadeshi Movement.
The rise of Bangali nationalism had started taking the shape of Indian nationalism. But, there was no single prominent Muslim personality who participated in the Anti-Partition of Bengal Movement or raised any voice in support of the movement. Instead of that many of them opposed the Boycott and Swadeshi Movement. This was the situation where the Muslims were in majority in undivided Bengal and directly affected by the Partition of Bengal.
Khilafat Movement –The same Muslims who conspicuously abstained from active participation in the Anti-Partition of Bengal, Boycott and Swadeshi Movements, launched a massive and violent Khilafat movement with the call for Jihad. Interestingly, the issue of Khilafat was nowhere related to Indian Muslims or even India.
The Muslims raised this issue with so much vigour that the Head of Deoband seminary invited Afghan Amir to invade India in support of Turkey’s Khalifa. In the history that is recorded as Silk Letter Conspiracy.
Even at the beginning of the First World War, Maulana Abdul Bari Firangi Mahal had sent a telegram to the Sultan of Turkey (Khalifa) to support Britain or remain neutral. Later, he actively supported Khilafat Movement.
In the entire Muslim world, only Indian Muslims insisted on the international aspect of Islam. Politically, this movement received the wholehearted support of Gandhi and because of that several Khilafat leaders joined the Congress-led Non-Cooperation Movement. Maulana Shaukat Ali, Maulana Mohmmad Ali Jouhar, Hakim Ajmal Khan, Hasrat Mohani, Maulana Mazharul Haque and Maulana Azad were such prominent leaders. However, except last two, Maulana Mazharul Haq and Maulana Azad, all others had joined Muslim League also.
Maulana Mohammad Ali Jouhar went to the extent that he represented Muslim League opposing Congress in the Round Table Conference demanding a separate electorate for Muslims. Thus, their active participation in freedom struggle and association with Congress was limited to Gandhi’s support to the Khilafat Movement.
At a later stage Hasrat Mohani, as a member of the Constituent Assembly, had even declined to sign the Constitution of India. Interestingly, Jinnah was the only prominent Muslim leader who did not support Khaliphate Movement.
Revolutionary Armed Struggle – When the constitutional and Gandhian methods failed to yield any result, the disappointed youths picked the arms. They participated in armed activities against the British government, under the banner of HRA, HSRA, Anushilan Samiti, Abhinav Bharat and Jugantar etc.
The prominent members of the revolutionary movement were Khudiram Bose, Prafull Chaki, Satyendra Nath Basu, Kanailal Dutta, Amarendra Chatterjee, Shachindra Nath Sanyal, Suryasen, Jatindra Nath Mukherjee (Bagha Jatin), Narendra Nath Bhattacharya, Benoy Basu, Badal Gupta, Dinesh Gupta, Rash Bihari Bose, Pandit Ram Prasad Bismil, Rajendra Lahiri, Genda Lal Dixit, Bhagat Singh, Rajguru, Sukhdev, Batukeshwar Dutt, Chandrashekhar Azad, Damodar Vinayak Savarkar, Bhagwati Charan Vohra, Durga Bhabhi and Ashfaq Ulla Khan etc.
Here the only Muslim name ‘Ashfaq Ulla Khan’ is noticeable as he was the only prominent Muslim among those who resorted to the armed struggle against the British government, in India. Interestingly, this was the situation where Muslims had violently participated in Jihad in the name of the Khilafat Movement and its offshoot Mappila Rebellion of Malabar, while the issue of Khilafat had nothing to do with India or Indian Muslims.
Indian Muslims had a long history of socio-political violence but during the revolutionary armed struggle, they refrained from taking arms against the British government.
Overseas struggle – Indian freedom struggle was not confined to India only and the Indians in Europe and North America were also making respective efforts for Indian independence.
In Britain, Shyamji Krishna Varma started Indian nationalist activities by collaborating with Indian students under the banner of ‘Indian Home Rule society’.
In a reply to his invitation to join, Asaf Ali wrote to him that his Muslim friends sharing accommodation with him, would not like his (Asaf Ali) indulgence in such nationalist activities he did not want to offend them. A Parasi lady Madam Bhikaji Cama actively supported Shyamji Krishna Varma for his nationalist activities. Another revolutionary Hemchand Kanungo went to Paris to learn bomb-making from Nicholas Safranski a Russian revolutionary in exile.
In London, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar started the India House and Free India Society. Madan Lal Dhingra assassinated Curzon Wyllie in London. Udham Singh assassinated Michael O’Dwyer in London. Lala Hardayal started ‘Ghadar Party’ in North America and its other prominent members were Sant Baba Wasakha Singh Dadehar, Baba Jawala Singh, Santokh Singh and Sohan Singh Bhakna, Tarak Nath Das, Harnam Singh Tundilat, Kartar Singh Sarabha and V.G. Pingle and AHM Baraktullah.
Thus, in overseas efforts for freedom struggle, there was only one prominent Muslim A.H.M.Baraktullah and other than him, all other prominent Indian Muslims abroad kept away.
The Congress – When the Congress was made in 1885, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan was sent an invitation to participate in the first convention. But, he declined the invite considering that as a Hindu party. However, there were several Muslim leaders in Congress, but most of them are above mentioned who eventually either left Congress while continuing with the Muslim League or had hardly any contribution beyond Khilafat Movement. There were only a few exceptions like Saifuddin Kitchlew, Asaf Ali or Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed who did join Congress also kept away from the Khilafat Movement as well as the Muslim League.
The Muslim leaders were driven by religious sentiments for getting into active politics with the Muslim League or the issue of Khilafat. Those who were associated with the Muslim League did so with a desire of recuperating the social relevance and political clout that the Muslims had substantially lost after the Battle of Plassey or completely lost after the 1857 revolt.
The majority of remaining Muslims became active in politics because of purely Islamic sentiments associated with the Khilafat and they were temporarily associated with the Congress. This holistic view on the freedom struggle suggests that the constructive participation by the Muslims was rather marginal.