The Khilafat Movement, Turkey and Ataturk

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Having lived in Turkey for a few years and having admired Mustafa Kemal Ataturk‘s rebuilding of that war torn nation into a modern Turkey, I was always curious as to what Mustafa Kemal had to say about India. After all, he had come eye to eye with many an Indian soldier working in the British Army at Gallipoli and slew many (a lot of them still rest in Turkish graves) and later hobnobbed with many an Indian Khilafat representative. This article will lightly focus on the Kemalist approach to the Indian Khilafat movement. As it all ended, it appeared that Mustafa Kemal had lost interest in the concept of the Caliphate and walked away from the whole thing, leaving the Indian side who had invested time, resources and huge amounts of money in Turkey’s support, bewildered and shattered.

To understand all that we have to go back to a time well before the freedom movement got into a full 
swing in India and to a time when the Khilafat or caliphate movement started. But with most people having only a dim view of the concept, let me use a few lines in explanation of its meaning in the medieval and post medieval periods. During the medieval period, three major caliphates existed: the Rashidun Caliphate (632–661), the Umayyad Caliphate (661–750) and the Abbasid Caliphate (750–1258). From the Rashidun Caliphs, the title had moved to the Ummayads and thence to the Abbasids of Baghdad.  Then it moved to Egypt where the Cairo Abbasids with the support of the Mamluk Sultans held the title. In the 16th century, the position of Caliph had moved with the Ottoman Sultan to Istanbul, following his capture of Mamluk Egypt.

The fourth major caliphate, the Ottoman Caliphate, established by the Ottoman Sultans in 1517, was therefore the period where the Ottoman kings claimed authority of the caliph. The Caliph for practical purposes was the supreme religious and political leader of the broad Islamic state known as the Caliphate, and the titular ruler of the Islamic Ummah, as the political successors to Muhammad. So what is an Ummah? For centuries, the Caliphate represented the basis that all the Muslims of the world are equal members of a single, global pan Islamic entity, the ummah. On one hand, the Sunni branch of Islam stipulates that, as a head of state, a caliph should be elected by Muslims or their representatives. On the other hand, Shia Muslims believe a caliph should be an Imam chosen by God from the Ahl al-Bayt (the "Family of the House", Muhammad's direct descendants). The main responsibility of a Caliph is to oversee and protect the safety of pilgrims performing the hajj. Needless to say, controlling the holy cities of Mecca and Medina is a prerequisite for the Caliph.

As the World War I resulted in a defeat for the axis powers of which Turkey was a part, the powers of the Ottoman Turks declined and their vast holdings in Central Asia were at risk till eventually the Ottoman Empire collapsed.  Even though the victorious Europeans decided to support the continuation of the Caliph in Turkey, the Arabs were not too keen of Turkey’s domination in this scene (it is probably a right time to recall the Lawrence of Arabia and his help for the Arabs). The Sultan holding the Caliph’s position in the year 1918 was Mehmet Vahideddin VI, the penultimate Ottoman monarch. Anyway the treaty of Versailles clipped the Ottoman Empire and the Treaty of Sevres of 1920 resulted in many other countries like Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Egypt getting hived off the Sultan’s vast Ottoman Empire. Turkish nationalists upset over the turn of events, rejected the settlement by the Sultan Mehmet IV and his cronies.

Old Istanbul
The event which really incited nationalist Turks was the Greek landing at Smyrna (modern-day İzmir). This was a military operation by Greek forces supported by the allies and which commenced on May 15, 1919. The action involved landing of troops in the city of Smyrna and surrounding areas. Violence and disorder followed with Greek troops and many Greek citizens of Smyrna participating in these actions. The Turks soon rose in revolt in their own nationalist movement, against proxy forces of the Allies combining Greece, Armenia, France, Italy, and of course the British. A new government, the Turkish Grand National Assembly was formed on 23 April 1920, in Ankara (then known as Angora).  The man who united the Turks and headed the movement was none other than Mustafa Kemal Bey later on known honorifically as Ataturk or the father of Turks. This new nationalist government denounced the rule of Mehmet VI who had thrown his lot with the British.

The British started to institute a policy aimed to break down authority in Turkey by separating the Sultan, the nationalist government, and by pitting religious minorities in Istanbul against Muslims. On top of all this, the new government of the puppet Sultan wishing and hoping to undermine the Kemalists, passed a fatwa calling the Turkish revolutionaries as infidels, and demanding the death of its leaders. This as we will see was the final straw.

What about the Khilafat movement? Far away in India, the Muslims of India had been anxious of the potential fate of the caliphate, the fate of their religious centers and had risen in protests around 1918. The prospect of British ascendance in Turkey and the feeling that Islamists around the world would be humiliated started the Khilafat movement in India. The Khilafat movement was therefore a pan-Islamic, political protest campaign launched originally by the Muslims of British Raj to influence the British government not to abolish the Ottoman Caliphate when such a threat loomed, following the first world war.

The two organizations in India, The All India Khilafat committee and the Jamiat Ulema-I hind worked hard to whip up the feelings of Muslims all over India, and Mahatma Gandhi seeing an opportunity of getting support from the Muslims of India for the overthrow of the British yoke by joining the Satyagraha movement, decided to throw in his and the INC’s support with the Khilafat leaders. Very soon, the INC and the Muslim organizations protested together in support of the Caliph in Turkey.

Indians donated money and gold for the support of their brethren in Turkey. In Turkey though Mustafa Kemal and his entourage expressed doubts on the ability of the masses in India and their powers if any to sway the British and he went on to hold that while there was much talk, no action could really be expected from the India populace in their support.

In India agitation after agitation ensued, more monetary collections were made and many petitions were submitted to the leery British. They asked for three reliefs – evacuation from Constantinople, the Sultan’s suzerainty over the holy mosques and the restoration of Ottoman Thrace including the city of Adrianople (Edirne) and Symrna (Izmir). The Viceroy in India Rufus Isacs or Lord reading as he was more popularly known, was largely conciliatory and tried hard to pacify the Muslims of India. Agha Khan also joined in support of the Khilafat movement.

But the festering problem however was that the so called Caliph or Mehmet Vahiduddin had chosen to side with the British and the occupying allied forces, while the nationalists under Mustafa Kemal were against the Sultan. But naturally Mustafa Kemal was lukewarm in supporting the Khilafathists who were trying to prop up the very Sultan who was against him and taking the side of the occupiers of Turkey. In this confused situation involving India, Britain, and the two factions of Turkey, stepped in yet another player trying hard to tilt the scales, that being the Russians.

The Russians were hard at work since the inception of the Great Game, trying to break through the buffer between them and the British India, the buffer being none other than the NWFP or the wings of old Afghanistan. An event in 1919 raised much alarm when Amir Habibullah, a supporter of the British though outwardly neutral was assassinated in his tent while away hunting. He had some weeks earlier chosen to form an alliance with the Emir of Bokhara to resist any Soviet incursions and attempts. So it was somewhat apparent that the Russians had engineered this assassination.

His son Amanullah supported by young Afghans who were furious at Habibullah’s failure to rise up a against the west after uniting the restless Muslims of Central Asia, quickly rose in revolt against the British mounting attacks at British troops in what is known as the third Anglo Afghan war. The British wisely sued for peace, deciding to concentrate on the Southerly Indian rebellions with Gandhiji in the lead, but making heavy weather. The Muslims wanted vigorous action, but the Hindus and Gandhi supported passive revolt, and the Khilafat movement now spearheaded by the Ali brothers, was starting to lose momentum.

Mustafa Kemal’s requirement for arms was in the meanwhile met by Soviet Russia. According to Soviet documents, Soviet financial and war materiel comprised supply of large numbers of rifles, machine guns, cannons, rifle bullets, shells, patrol boats, gold ingots and over 11 million Turkish lira.
In Turkey, things had come to a boil. Anti-nationalistic efforts by the British were bearing fruit and it was at this juncture that Cemal Pasha of the Ittihad group reported from Kabul to Mustafa Kemal that Afghanistan could play a pivotal role in the conflicts as the British feared a union of the Bolsheviks with the Muslims of Turkey, Afghanistan, Central Asian states. He suggested that Turkey use the Afghan territory to support activities in India with himself in charge. Mustafa Kemal supported the idea. The Afghans meanwhile signed treaties with Russia and Turkey, making the British even more wary and Cemal Pasha was on the rise.

The Bolsheviks wanted to annex the parts of the Caucasus, including the Democratic Republic of Armenia, which were formerly part of Tsarist Russia. They also saw a Turkish Republic as a buffer state or possibly a communist ally. Around this time, the British worked out an arrangement of splitting Central Asia between them and Russia (after throwing a scare into the Russian minds about a large Muslim confederation building up on their southern borders) resulting in the Russians pulling out of the Asian Muslim federation. Next to follow was Cemal Pasha’s murder in Tiblis by the Armenians. The British then executed a final phase of the divide and rule method to bring about a split between Mohammed Ali and Gandhiji over the publication of a letter where Ali supporting nonviolent methods apologized to Gandhiji. Following this intrigue, the Khilafat movement ran aground with the lack of support from the INC and the Hindus. Violence flared, and the Moplah revolt at Malabar followed.

Meanwhile in Turkey a Khilafat leader with a claimed access to many thousands of pounds in
collected funds, landed up in Turkey, fluent in Turkish, English and Hindustani. This was the person sent by the British to spy and monitor the situation in Istanbul and Angora, the suave Indian Mustafa Saghir in the guise of a Khilafat leader, whose story we recounted some year ago. Mustafa Saghir was quickly caught by the nationalists and confessed to two things at the end, firstly that he a well-trained spy, party to planning Ataturk’s assassination and secondly that he had been involved in the assassination of the above Amir Habibullah. What also came to light in subsequent studies was that the information on the presence of Saghir in Turkey and his British affiliation was provided to the Nationalist Turks by the Russians. They informed the Kemalists that Saghir was not a Khilafat leader, but a skilled British spy. Saghir was quickly sentenced, tried, sentenced and hanged. Herein lies the conflict of the whole story. If Saghir was indeed behind the killing of the pro-British Habibullah, how could he admit to preparing an assassination of anti-British Mustafa Kemal? What gain would the British have by getting him assassinated? If it was just a ploy meant to play well with the Kemalists, then it is understandable and Saghir had nothing to do with the Amir’s killing which was actually engineered by the Soviets.

As the event flared up in Angora, the British made some futile lukewarm efforts to get Saghir freed. Presumably they wanted the hanging of an Indian Saghir to reverberate in India and polarize the Indians against Turkey. The British perhaps wanted to manipulate the situation and declare war on the nationalists, but it did not quite work out that way. Nevertheless the British made a hue and cry about Saghir a Khilafath leader being killed by Turks, the very people the Khilafat movement was rooting for. Mustafa Kemal declared that the proof they had unearthed proved otherwise.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk
What followed in India was anticlimactic. The Khilafat leaders were more in support of Kemal Bey and on top of it, Maulana Azad mentioned that Saghir was one of those unfortunate Mohamedans who had sold his conscience and religion for some little worldly benefit. Did it mean that monetary compensation was provided to Saghir? It is not known for sure though the trail mentioned large amounts of 20 or 50 thousand pounds. What the leaders Mohammed Ali and Shaukat Ali had to say about Saghir is a matter I have still not unearthed. If they knew he was an imposter and a spy, why did they keep quiet? (The British diplomats did record internally that Saghir was their spy and that his hanging was a matter of fact). Mustafa Kemal went onto fight his wars with the Greeks in Izmir and evicted them. The Canak crises was heating up and moving in favor of Kemal Pasha. In India they rejoiced stating that Mustafa Kemal pasha had saved the Khilafat. They now formed the Ankara legion to support the Turks if so needed and demanded that Istanbul be turned over to Mustafa Kemal.

But a few months later, the Grand National Assembly abolished the sultanate in Nov 1922.  Days later the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet VI boarded a British warship and fled to Malta. His last resort fatwa against the Kemalists had infuriated Mustafa Kemal and made him abolish the Sulatante.
But Mustafa Kemal still wanted to retain the position of a caliph. He stated all he wanted was to free the Caliph from the Allies and that the person would be selected democratically. Mustafa Kemal cabled the Indian Khliafat leader Chotani thanking the Indian Khilafat for the moral and financial support provided thus far. Chotani replied stating that they agreed to the decision of the Turkish national assembly. The All India Muslim league followed suit and the Mulims and Hindus of India decided to now refocus their energies into liberating India as Turkey and the Khilafat was in the good hands of Mustafa Kemal.
Ankara 1920's
Initially, the National Assembly seemed willing to allow a place for the Caliphate in the new regime, agreeing to the appointment of Mehmed's cousin Abdülmecid II as Caliph upon Sultan Mehmet's departure. But the position had been stripped of any authority, and Abdülmecid's purely ceremonial reign would be short lived. When Abdülmecid was declared Caliph, Mustafa Kemal refused to allow the traditional Ottoman ceremony to take place, bluntly declaring: The Caliph has no power or position except as a nominal figurehead. In response to Abdülmecid's petition for an increase in his allowance, Kemal replied “Your office, the Caliphate, is nothing more than a historic relic. It has no justification for existence”.

At this juncture appeared the infamous Ameer Ali Agha Khan (letter) missive insisting on increased powers for the Khalifa. Mustafa Kemal and the assembly were starting to understand how religion would henceforth become a contender in Turkey’s foreign policy considerations. He started to understand how the khilafat movement was starting to get manipulated by the British. But there were factions who wanted to abolish the Calipahate and others who wanted to retain it and the prestigious position of Turkey as its head. In 1924, a draft resolution to abolish the Khilafat was discussed. A major outcome was the opinion that Turkey had no interest to rule or in influencing their fate and that no other country had any role in influencing Turkey’s fate. The resolution was put to vote, and passed. That ended the Khilafat of Turkey.

Britain quickly supported and lauded the divergence of Turkey from the Islamic world stating that a secular Turkey was no longer a threat to Britain. The Muslim Kurds of Mosul were appalled and protested. In India Mohammed and Shaukat Ali, the leaders of the Khilafat movement were hugely upset. Mohammed Ali made a speech blaming the Turks of abandonment and treating India like a dirty handkerchief and discarding it after use. Shaukat Ali wrote to Ataturk to reconsider his stance. 

Mustafa Kemal replied that Turkey’s decision was final. Shaukat asked him at least to accept a delegation for discussions. Abdul Kalam Azad was appointed the leader of this group going to Ankara, but the British disallowed it and would not grant him a passport.

The despondent Khilafat supporters now tried as a last resort, by asking Mustafa Kemal to take over the mantle of Caliph himself. They also transferred close to a million pounds of collections to Turkey and this money became eventually the seed money which started Turkey’s Is bank.
Mustafa Kemal replied firmly that he was not interested in becoming a Caliph and that he could not be the titular leader of the Muslims of a country already being ruled by another emperor. He further stated that as the British would not obey his orders, the title was just that and had no power or purpose any longer. He argued that 8 million Turks cannot reasonably represent the 80 million plus Muslims of other countries.

His next words nailed the coffin. He said “Gentlemen, I have to speak plainly and explicitly. Those who are still occupied with fooling the Muslims by the assumed giant image of the Khilafat are nothing but enemies of Muslims, especially that of Turkey. To tie hopes to a game like this can only be a sign of ignorance and of indolent indifference”!!!! He went onto say that Turkey was tired and exhausted with their own struggles and could not take on any other heavy burdens beyond their borders. 

The National Assembly abolished the Caliphate on March 3, 1924. Abdülmecid was sent into exile along with the remaining members of the Ottoman House, marking the official end of the Ottoman Caliphate. And with that ended the role of Turkey in the Ottoman Khilafat.

Many meetings and plans followed, around discussions of whether the Hashemite’s of Jordan or the Sauds of Saudi Arabia donning the mantle of Caliph, but these were not fully supported by the South Asian communities who were still rooting for a Turkish Caliph. The Khilafat movement died and Jinnah who was against it all along, rose to limelight with his philosophy of a separate identity and a nation for Muslims. Mecca’s custody passed on to the house of Saud by 1925 after the Hejaz battles.
During the final years of the Khilafat movement, Mohammed Ali was jailed and was a very sick man with advanced diabetes. Ali did attend the round table conference of 1930, died in London in 1931 and is buried in Jerusalem. Shaukat Ali was also arrested and jailed during those years and later joined up with Jinnah in the Muslim league.

All this had a number of unintended effects during the 1920 decade, in Malabar the infamous 1921 revolt occurred resulting in terrible tragedies for the populace of Malabar. In South Eastern Turkey the Kurds got alienated and Mosul was finally ceded to Iraq, as the British continued their machinations and string pulling behind the curtain. In India the unity between Muslims and Hindus took a hit and as it became worse, a large number of people lost their lives. Turkey became a secular nation and the country and the Is bank prospered. It took another great world war, the loss of many thousand lives and another two and a half decades for India to get independence. Pakistan remained a friend of Turkey, while India drifted away into other spheres.

Nobody in Turkey talked about or remembered the Khilafat movement or the support which it got at a crucial juncture from India. All they remembered was that one Raj Kapoor acted in a glorious movie called Awara. The Hintlis of Hindistan, which is how India is known in Turkey, became just some friendly place in the east, home to many strange spiritual beliefs. Few enlightened leaders like Bulent Ecevit continued Indian studies and learned the Gita and the Gitanjali. Most Turks had no care of lands beyond their borders. When I was shifting to Istanbul, some wizened and old people said - Oh! You are going to Kemal Pasha’s country and some recalled their parents and the Khilafat years. Those were the 90’s in Turkey.

Was Mustafa Kemal right? Well, from a Turkish nationalistic point of view, he was infuriated by the inefficient and bureaucratic Ottoman sultanate and made no bones about his contempt for them during the early part of the second decade of the 20th century. His actions did prove right and the sick man of Europe, as Turkey was known, did stand up and walk, to become a modern nation though not showing robust health or cantering off at a gallop. Many decades later, Necmettin Erbakan stirred some interest with a variation of the Khilafat concept (but excluding Indian Muslims) once again, but there were hardly any takers. Things are changing these days as the Turkish nationalists are slowly moving away from a westernized, moderate and secular state towards one increasingly swayed by religion. But that is a subject I will not get into.

I must also confess that with this study I am now able to conclude that Mustafa Saghir whose story I recounted some years ago and whose fate I could not quite conclude properly, has cleared up. Saghir, the ill-fated man, was nothing but a pawn in the whole affair, just a sacrificial goat who was placed in the middle of that hungry and angry crowd in Angora, to be torn apart and consumed. He was the sacrifice intended to stir up the Muslims in India against Turkey. Perhaps he knew this all too well and as the story goes was well compensated on the eve of his departure by the British. Poor fellow!

The Turkish war of Independence and the Khilafat movement – Mim Kemal Oke
Gray wolf Mustafa Kemal – HC Armstrong
A clash of empires – Bulent Gokay
The Khilafat Movement – Gail Minault
The critical triangle India Britain and Turkey - Raj Kumar Trivedi
Pan Islam in British Indian politics – M Naeem Qureshi
The Turkish Nationalists and the Indian Khilafathists – Ali Asghar Khan
The Turkish revolution and the abolition of the Caliphate - Mohammed Sadiq
Ali Brothers – Khalid Ali
Ataturk: The Biography of the Founder of Modern Turkey - Andrew Mango


  1. Muz

    Highly informative.