The Friday Times
The Fateful Twenties
Parvez Mahmood on how Hindu-Muslim communal tensions became a political factor in the 1920s for the first time
September 20, 2019
Moplah rebels apprehended by colonial authorities
The decade of the 1920s decided the future of the Indian Subcontinent as a divided rather than united nation. This article traces the events that led the Indian anti-colonial movement from national unity to communal division.
On his return to India from South Africa in 1915, Mahatma Gandhi was received as a hero. He had gained a favourable reputation because of his tactics of peaceful agitation against the racist South African regime on behalf of the Indian community. He took five years to familiarize himself with the political situation in India. To mobilize the people, he launched his civil disobedience movement in 1920. This was in tandem with the Ali brothers, his dedicated followers, who simultaneously started their Khilafat Movement to ensure the political mobilization of Muslims.
This was in December 1920.
By 1921, India was up in flames with riots from Malabar in the south (especially the Moplah uprising in August 1921) to Gorakhpur in the north (the Chauri Chaura riots in February 1922). Stunned by the violence, which the leaders had not envisaged, the movements were called off.
However, India was not to remain the same ever after. The riots continued to intensify and laid the groundwork for new divisions across colonial India.
Earlier, on the 30th of October 1920, Mr. Jinnah had written to Gandhi-ji – warning him that his methods were causing divisions in the society between Muslims and Hindus and that it would lead to chaos. Mr. Jinnah emphasized that he simply shuddered to contemplate the consequences.
It had not always been like that. After all, the Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs had agitated against the draconian Rowlatt Act and together faced the aftermath of the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre of the 13th of April 1919. I always like to mention that my maternal grandfather, who had a polio-induced limp, was a survivor of Jallianwala Bagh and I have heard stories of the carnage from this eyewitness. It was followed by a combined mini-uprising in Gujranwala. These protests were manifestations of communal unity. Moments such as these might have raised the hope for a united Indian Subcontinent when the British left.
Kanpur was a town that Muslims and Hindus had defended together seventy years earlier during the 1857 anti-colonial uprising and where Lt. Col. Neill had ruthlessly massacred both
But the combined movement by the Mahatma and the Ali Brothers had the unintended consequence of flaring up the schisms between the communities and led to a series of Hindu-Muslim riots. The forces thus unleashed continued to run amok for the next 27 years till the blood-soaked division of the Subcontinent materialized.
Mr. Jinnah had joined Congress in 1906 and the Muslim League in 1913. This was not really much of a contradiction at that earlier time. He was known as the Ambassador of Hindu-Muslim Unity. He had resented the non-cooperation and Khilafat Movements, fearing that they would lead to communal disharmony. However, Gandhi was by then holding sway over the Congress party. At the historic December 1920 Nagpur session of the party, the resolution for a non-cooperation movement was presented.
When Mr. Jinnah tried to speak against it, he was shouted down by the overwhelming number of Gandhi supporters. He was booed by the 14,500-strong crowd – one which included Muslims. Gandhi-ji watched quietly, perhaps triumphantly as the man who was later to become the Quaid stood as a minority of one. This, perhaps was the moment when India was divided, though its visible manifestation would occur 27 years and many hundreds of thousands of lost lives later.
Gandhi in 1929
Mr. Jinnah walked out of the session and later resigned from the Congress. This was the lowest point of his political career. He didn’t attend the concurrent Muslim League session being held at Nagpur because it, too, was set to approve of the Khilafat Movement. Later he told journalist Durga Das:
I will have nothing to do with this pseudo-religious approach to politics. I part company with the Congress and Gandhi. I do not believe in working up mob hysteria.”
He would depart for England for an extended stay, leaving the political scene to his opponents but knowing all the time that the twin movements would not only fail in their aims but also lead to violence. He would be proved right.
To preserve communal harmony, the Non-Cooperation and Khilafat Movements should not have been launched without educating the masses about their aims and tactics
Many across the political spectrum have since learned how prescient his view was. The Hindu wrote on the eve of the Quaid’s death in its editorial on the 13th of September 1948, “He was so little in sympathy with the Ali Brothers’ Khilafat campaign because it seemed to him to play with fire. He was deeply suspicious of the unrestrained passions of the mob and he was too good a student of history not to realize that once the dormant fires of fanaticism were stoked there was no knowing where it might end.”
Writing for CounterPunch on the 14th of August 2015, in his piece titled “Gandhi Kept On…”, B.R. Gowani has provided an event-by-event analysis of how Mahatama-ji’s strategy ended up opening the path of violence for political expediency.
The 1920s saw the passions of the mobs going wild. A commission of inquiry was set up by the Congress Party in the wake of the Kanpur riots, where 400 people died, 18 mosques were burnt, 42 temples were plundered and over 250 houses were damaged. Six days of unrest had left the city devastated from the 24th to the 30th of March 1931. This was a town that Muslims and Hindus had defended together seventy years earlier during the 1857 anti-colonial uprising and where Lt. Col. Neill had ruthlessly massacred both to avenge the murders of Europeans. Now the former comrades-in-arms were at each others’ throats.
The commission recorded riots in Malabar (1922), Multan (1922, 1927), Ajmer (1923), Saharanpur (1923), Amritsar (1923), Sindh (1923), Jubbulpur (1923) , Agra (1923, 1931), Rae-Bareli (1923), New Delhi (1924, 1926), Kohat (1924), Nagpur (1924, 1927), Indore (1924), Lucknow (1924), Calcutta (1925), Allahabad (1925), Sholapur (1925), Lahore (1927), Betiah (1927), Bareilly (1927), Kanpur (1927, 1931), Surat (1928), Hyderabad (1928), Kalipaty (1928), Mumbai (1929), Azamgarh (1930), Dhaka (1930), Muttra (1930), Mymemsing (1930), Daravi (1930), Basti (1931), Benares (1931) and Mirzapur (1931).
This list is long and makes it evident that the two communities had polarized beyond redemption. This was the aftermath of the politics of Gandhi-ji and the Ali Brothers. While the Moplah riots were the direct result of the Khilafat Movement, the Kanpur riots were the direct result of the Civil Disobedience Movement. The latter developed into a situation where the Hindus demanded the closing of shops and the Muslims refused. The leadership was clearly not in step with the mood of the masses.
Reading the history of the era, one is reminded of the concept of leadership as interpreted by Leo Tolstoy in his War and Peace. Gandhi-ji preached non-violence but the eventual result was anything but communal peace. The Ali Brothers preached adherence to the Mahatma and his principles but Muslims ended up not following that advice. The Muslim clergy made common cause with Congress but the Muslim masses didn’t follow them either.
It was the RSS that came to command the sentiments of the mainstream, at least among Hindus. RSS would later spawn its militant offspring in the shape of the Sangh Parivar, consisting of forces like BJP, VHP and Bajrang Dal.
Mr. Jinnah had wanted reconciliation between two communities up to 1920 but a logic of communal violence prevailed. He became a popular leader post-1935 only when he himself followed mainstream Muslim sentiments and strove to realize their dream of a separate homeland.
No leader of the time – despite the desire of some of them – could motivate the two communities to live together in peace in one country.
There is little doubt that the British sought to divide the two communities to ease their rule over India. Lord Canning, the Governor-General at the time of the War of Independence in 1857, wrote to the Board of Control in London,
“The men who fought us at Delhi were of both creeds. —— As we must rule 150 million people by a handful (more or less) of Englishmen, let us do it in the manner best calculated to leave them (Hindus and Muslims) divided”
(from the Canning Papers).
A.C Lyall, an English civil servant, in a letter to his father, dated the 14th of May 1858, writes, “ If the Musalman could by any means be entirely exterminated, it could be the greatest possible step towards civilizing and Christianizing Hindustan.”
Mirza Ghalib is quoted in one of his letters, “The only Muslims here are artisans or servants of the British authorities. All the rest are Hindus. […] The madrassahs were all closed, their buildings sold to Hindu traders and moneylenders who either demolished or converted them to warehouses.”
Lt. Gen Tucker of the British Indian Army in the 1940s has written in detail in his book While Memory Serves about the British need for having a Muslim state in the western part of India. The division of Bengal in 1905 and its reversal in 1911 could be construed as dividing the communities.
However, with all of this said, it remains a fact that the British merely took advantage of existing divisions. They did not create these divisions from anything.
In fact, the logic of communalism was such that Muslims perceived a Hindu-British alliance while the Hindus saw a Muslim-British concord. While there was a desire by the British to divide the two communities, it was really the followers of the two religions who had lost tolerance for each other.
The leaders of the two communities themselves were not averse to forming mutual alliances, holding meetings and dining. It was the common people who had developed hatred and eventually became mortal enemies.
Nothing else can explain the wanton cruelty that the members of two communities meted out to each other in communal riots before Independence – and then the horrors of the 1947 Partition violence.
To be able to relate to such odious behaviour in contemporary times, consider the senseless violent acts against Indian Sikhs in 1984 or against Pakistan’s Ahmadiyya community. The violence in Rwanda and former Yugoslavia in the 1990s is an example of similar passions being unleashed with horrific results.
In the case of the Indian Subcontinent, such a scale of carnage originating amongst the people had not been witnessed ever before. The violence was perpetrated against friends, neighbours, and strangers due to one sole reason; that the target belonged to a different religion. It was instigated and sustained by the lowest tier of Gali, mohalla and village leadership that included local ruffians, temple and mosque custodians, and even hooligans who had superficial allegiance to political parties. Rumours created uncertainty and fear. If anything, these gangs were co-opted by the political parties – perhaps hired to enhance their muscle. Sadly, Hindu and Muslim leaders could stoke the fires of hatred but could not douse them.
The events of the 1920s caused an irreversible schism between the two major communities. With the benefit of hindsight, it is now clear that to preserve communal harmony, the Non-Cooperation and Khilafat Movements should not have been launched without educating the masses about their aims and tactics.
Had the leaders of the time worked simultaneously on independence as well as on communal harmony, there is a fair chance that the Indian Subcontinent would have emerged as a united independent country.
Sadly, they let the streets and neighbourhoods boil and burn until nothing could prevent Partition.
-- Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from PAF and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org