Malegaon 1921 – a precursor to the Moplah Riots

Photo by Ishant Mishra on Unsplash

On March 15th, 1920, a Khilafat committee was formed in Malegaon to conduct lectures and religious sermons. Nine months later, one of the Khilafat leaders, Shaukat Ali, visited Malegaon and political activities got a religious boost. A month later, Khilafat proponents, who supported Gandhi’s non-violent, non-cooperation movement turned violent and the poor residents of Malegaon were the targets of their anger. This is an intriguing story of a Mahatma, who signed a pact with a bunch of pan-Islamists with disastrous consequences for the weavers of Malegaon and eventually the Hindus of Malabar.

Khilafat 101

There were two Muslim schools in Malegaon — Beitujullum and Anjuman — which received grants from the Government. The Khilafat members, who at that point in time were supporters of Gandhi’s non-violence and non-cooperation decided not to take the aid in reaction to the events in Turkey following World War I

The Last Caliph Halife Abdülmecid Efendi

At the end of World War I, Turkey ended up on the losing side and was carved by the victors. Some Muslims considered the Turkish Sultan as their Caliph and were distressed at his future as well as the future of the Muslim holy sites. Muslims living in Britain petitioned their government to let Turkey have only Turkish majority regions, but let the others like Armenians and Arabs have their freedom. Indian Muslims had a bigger ask. Though Turkey lost, they wanted it to be restored to pre-war status. According to them, the Armenians and Arabs could live under Turkish rule.

The supporters of this movement were Muslim League members Mohammad Ali and Shaukat Ali who argued for Muslim interests over Hindu interests. They were people who found issues in common with Muslims of Algeria and Tripoli instead of their own countrymen. After the Balkan wars, they changed their stance and aligned with the Hindus due to the hatred of the British government. To compound that, the brothers were arrested and jailed and that aggravated their hatred.

Mohammad Ali and Shaukat Ali were quite clear and unapologetic about their strategy. They told a judge that as per their religion, they were compelled to do certain acts and any law which prohibits them from doing those acts had no validity. By this, the Ali brothers were claiming that they only be judged by the Koran and nothing else. The goal of the brothers was definitely Swaraj, similar to Gandhi. But the second step of their plan was Mohammedan domination of India.

Gandhi supported this Khilafat dream of pre-war Turkey being restored. He seemed to ignore the fact that even the Turks did not want dominion over Arabia. But someone had to be more Islamic than the Caliph and that was Gandhi and his Khilafat supporters. The argument was that it was not just a Turkish question, but a question concerning all Mohammedans. So who the heck was the Caliph to make such unilateral decisions. Either Gandhi did not know this and just went along to get Muslim support for himself or he used this for channeling Mohammedan anger against the government.

There was another dynamic at play as well. When Gandhi returned to India from South Africa, he quickly rose to prominence in the nation. Gandhi promised support for the Khilafat in exchange for the support of the Ali brothers and the Muslims of India for his non-cooperation movement. This Muslim support helped him be a national leader in just four years.

In 1921, the Khilafat Conference, with Ali brothers as the moving force, passed a resolution to declare Independence. In the speeches at the Conference it was declared that Islam was opposed to non-violence, but had to go along with it, so that they could get Swaraj. Gandhi had promised the Khilafat supporters Swaraj by 1921 and hence it was a temporary move just for a year.

Malegaon 1921

Coming back to Malegaon, the boycott of Government funds created a problem. If the schools had to survive without Government aid, then money had to be raised. The Khilafat committee proposed the idea of a “paisa” fund. Every person selling a sari — every weaver in Malegaon — was to pay quarter of an anna to the fund. Anyone who objected to this were persecuted.

The first step in persecution was commercial boycott. The paisa committee called a public meeting on 27th February, where this decision was announced. Matters did not end there; the commercial boycott was enforced by picketing their shops. Businesses which did not co-operate faced hostility and were halted. Seeing how this issue was going to get out of hand, the Sub-Divisional Officer called a meeting on March 13th to discuss the issue of enforced collection. One of the suggestions was to put collection boxes. The leaders of the fund collection were asked to issue statements supporting non-violence of Gandhi.

No agreement was reached and at the same time lectures and religious sermons, raised the feelings of hostility. This was aggravated by the fact that some of these Khilafat volunteers were roaming around carrying swords and cudgels. The District Magistrate, sensing a law and order disaster in the making banned the carrying of weapons on March 30th.

On April 1, the non-violence agreement was published. Just three days later, one of the signatories publicly apologized for having signed it and he was pardoned. The boycott of the shops continued as usual, but this time a case was registered against the violators. With the establishment cranking up the heat, more provocations started. On 24th April, a speech was given by a leading Mohammedan with the ominous words, “May god give the volunteers the strength to promote their religion”

The next day, the case came up before the magistrate. Six volunteers were fined Rs. 50 or 4 weeks in prison. Obviously the fines were not paid, but served as the the adhan for violence. The mob that had collected shouted “Allah-ho-Akbar”. They assaulted all the police found in Malegaon. They killed the Sub-Inspector of Police, burned a temple, and looted the houses of all the people who were opposed to the fund. The rest fled to save their lives. This was the non-violence of the Khilafat.

The disaster called Khilafat movement is downplayed in our history books. It did not turn out well for Gandhi. The Ali brothers, whom he supported, publicly humiliated him. Mohamed Ali even said that a Muslim thief was better than Gandhi, simply because of the thief’s faith in Islam. Originally intended to be a show case of Hindu Muslim unity, it turned out to be something else. It resulted in the massacre of Hindus all over India, especially in Kerala.

References

  1. Fazal, D. Abul. “THE LEADERSHIP CRISIS IN THE CONGRESS: MUSLIMS AND THE RISE OF GANDHI.” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, vol. 62, 2001, pp. 456–462., www.jstor.org/stable/44155789.
  2. History of the Freedom movement in India, R. C. Majumdar
  3. Gandhi and Anarchy by Sir C. Sankaran Nair
  4. Gandhi, Khilafat and the Partition, N. S. Rajaram

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