Asghar Ali Engineer

 (Secular Perspective April 1-15, 2010)

This year hundred twenty fifth anniversary of its founding is being celebrated. All people of India, irrespective of their religious persuasion richly contributed to the freedom movement through the Indian National Congress. However, due to majoritarian attitude of our leaders and narrow outlook of those who devise our educational curriculum, minorities’ contribution has been totally forgotten.

India has never been a nation in the classical sense of the word as used in the west. Their nations have been formed on the basis of one language and one culture. But India was never mono-religious, mono-cultural and lingual. Pluralism of all kinds, – religious, linguistic and cultural, apart from ethnic, has been its hall mark. When we began to challenge the might of the British Raj, our leaders had realized the importance of unity of Indian people, especially of Hindus and Muslims. One of the slogans of freedom fighters was “Deen Dharam Hamara Hazhab, Yeh Isai (meaning the British) kahan se aye (Islam and Hinduism are our religions, where these British came from)?

When the Indian National Congress was formed the Muslims too responded enthusiastically. This has never been emphasized by our historians. If at all they focus on Sir Syed’s attitude towards Congress and his advice to Muslims not to join it. But this was a minority opinion of a section of Muslim elite who had intensely suffered during the 1857 war of independence and wanted to make up with the British rulers. There were such elements among Hindus too, especially Zamindars, Rajas and Maharajas.

Moreover Sir Syed’s attitude towards Congress was not of hostility but of caution as he wanted Muslims to concentrate on modern education and social change. Sir Syed’s role was much more complex than has been projected, especially by majority communal elements. Another important thing to note is that Sir Syed had worked tireless for Hindu-Muslim unity and had described Hindus and Muslims two eyes of bride of India.

It should also be noted that Sir Syed was not a mass leader. He was trying to influence the North Indian Muslim elite as the leader of social and educational change. Also, the Muslim elite too was not united behind Sir Syed. Others like retired High Justice of Bombay Court Badruddin Tyabjee enthusiastically joined Congress along with 300 Muslim delegates in its Mumbai session. He was elected president of the Indian National Congress.

The Muslim masses, on the other hand, enthusiastically welcomed formation of the Congress and supported all its efforts throughout freedom struggle until India became free. We wish to throw some light on this question in this article. First thing I would like to emphasize is that no community should be judged by what few of its people do. Even priorities and programme differ from people to people.

It should surprise many that most enthusiastic support for the Indian National Congress from amongst Muslims came from the Orthodox Ulama of Deoband School. I must state here that the Ulama had participated in the 1857 war of independence and had thrown everything into it. They made great sacrifices and hundreds of them were given what was then known as kalapani i.e. exiled to Andaman-Nicobar and also many to Malta, an island to the south of Italy. I have visited the Malta cemetery and saw graves of hundreds of Ulama who died there and could never return to their dear country. Some of the Ulama exiled were very prominent like Maulana Fazal Kahirabadi (though there is some confusion with person of similar name, who had no parallel of his in North India then).

Once the Indian National Congress was formed the founder of Darul Ulum Deoband, Maulana Qasim Ahmed Nanotvi, a prominent alim himself, issued a fatwa urging Muslims to join Indian National congress and throw the British out of the country. He not only issued a fatwa but also collected hundred such fatwas and published them in the form of a book and named it Nusrat al-Ahrar i.e. for the help of freedom fighters. These Ulama were mass leaders and were determined to throw out foreign rulers.

Another very eminent Alim Maulana Mahmudul Hasan took part in what came to be known as Reshmi Rumal conspiracy (i.e. silken kerchief conspiracy) in which Hindus and Muslims had hatched to defeat Britishers through passing on messages to others in India for uprising. Besides Maulana Mahmudul Hasan several other Ulama and ordinary Muslims took part in this ‘conspiracy’.

Another great intellectual and poet who made great sacrifices for complete freedom of India was Maulana Hasrat Mohani, an eminent Urdu poet and great revolutionary. Maulana was great admirer of Bal Gangadhar Tilak who gave slogan that ‘freedom is my birth right’. He was used to address him as Tilak Maharaj. Though a Maulana, he was also one of the founders of the Communist party of India in 1925.

Maulana was repeatedly jailed was often given harsh punishments like grinding one maund (40 kilo) of raw grains in the month of May. But the Maulana never gave in. His attitude towards complete freedom of India was non-negotiable. Even Gandhiji, in the long term interest wanted to accept Home Rule for a transit period. When this resolution for Home Rule was moved in the Ahmedabad in 1922, Maulana had to be kept away for arranging a mushaira (poetic gathering) so that he does not oppose the resolution for Home Rule. Such was Maulana’s commitment to complete freedom.

The Khilafat movement also has been grossly misunderstood. In fact it was very intelligent move on the part of Mahatma Gandhi to draw Muslim masses in the freedom movement. Unfortunately the elite look at it from their own perspective. But the fact is that due to this movement millions of Muslims took part in freedom struggle. It is another thing that the Khilafat movement collapsed due to Kamal Ata Turk’s revolution overthrowing the Uthmani khilafat.

Ali Brothers i.e. Maulana Mohammad Ali and Shaukat Ali were product of this Khilafat movement. Both of them played very crucial part in realizing freedom of India. Their mother was equally committed to freedom movement. When their mother heard the rumour that her sons Muhammad and Shaukat Ali are thinking of tendering apology to come out of jail (it was only a rumor) she, a lady observing purdah (veil) came on the public stage and said if they ever do that mein unka doodh mu’af nahin karungi) i.e. I will never pardon them till I die. Maulana Muhammad Ali had developed sharp differences with Gandhiji towards end of his life but while dying he said burry me in Jerusalem as I do not want to die in slave India.

During Khilafat movement some Muslims declared India to be Darul Harb (abode of war) under the British and began migrating to Afghanistan to form an interim government to fight British for freedom. One Maulana Ubaidullah Sindhi was the main inspiration behind this migration and he formed interim govt. under the leadership of Raja Mahindra Pratap as President of the Republic of free India, with himself as Prime Minister. Thousands perished when the King of Afghanistan threw them out under the British pressure. Such was the enthusiasm of Muslim masses for India’s independence.

Another charismatic figure for freedom movement was Maulana Husain Ahmed Madani who opposed partition tooth and nail and in this respect took on mighty Iqbal, a great poet-philosopher and challenged him on the issue of nationalism and wrote a book Muttahida Qaumiyyat aur Islam i.e. Composite Nationalism and Islam. He challenged two nation theory of Jinnah too and proved from Qur’an and hadith that two nation theory has no Islamic sanction. This book has recently been translated into English also by Jami’at al-Ulama-e-Hind and many more people can benefit from it. Maulana Husain Ahmed was abused and greeted with garlands of shoes by Muslim league activists.

And of course who can forget the yeoman services of Maulana Azad and Sarhadi Gandhi Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan to the cause of freedom of India. Both remained committed to India’s freedom till they breathed their last. Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan was the only leader who never reconciled with the partition of the country and consistently opposed it in the CWC even when leaders like Nehru and Sardar Patel accepted it as fait accompli. Maulana Azad’s statement why he is against partition is one of the finest one I have come across.

These Muslim leaders deserved better attention in our freedom movement’s history. But thanks to communal attitude of many of our academicians, historians, text book writers and above all politicians these rich contributions to the cause of freedom movement by Muslim minority has been forgotten or very cursorily mentioned in the text books. When I visited Gandhi Museum in Madurai which is considered the best (or one of the best) Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan was represented by only one photograph. It was so sad and I pointed out to the director of the Museum the serious flaw. He promised me to rectify it.

Today an average Hindu thinks that Muslims divided our country and looks upon them with suspicion. The Congress has made no efforts to correct this situation. I urge upon their leaders to properly project Muslim minority’s contribution at least in this 125th year of foundation of Indian National Congress. It would greatly serve the cause of national unity and integration.

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