THEY TOO FOUGHT FOR FREEDOM
- ROLE OF MINORITIES IN FREEDOM STRUGGLE

December 1-15, 2005

by Asghar Ali Engineer

The new generation of Indians is hardly in know of the role played by minorities in our freedom struggle. They think only majority community fought for it. In case of Muslims partition made them culprits for dividing the country Firstly all Muslims were blamed for partition and secondly it was thought they played no role in the freedom of the country. It is this view with which the whole new generation has grown. Even Maulana Azad's role has been obscured and our textbooks on history of our freedom struggle either totally ignore him or mention him just casually.

In fact besides majority community all other minorities have played important role in freedom struggle. The Sikhs (Sikhs are a minority with a distinct identity and they resent being clubbled with Hindus) played glorious role and who can ever forget the supreme sacrifice made by Bhagat Singh. He has become an icon of Indians' hearts. Besides Bhagat Singh Sikhs played glorious role right from beginning. Who can ever forget Ghadar Party which was formed mainly by Sikhs and they went to Canada and America to fight for India's freedom.

The role of Dalits also has been ignored by and large and also that of tribals from different parts of India. While much light has been thrown on the role of Mangal Pandey (recently a film also has been made on him), a Brahmin, one hardly finds mention of various Dalit leaders who also played role in 1857 war of independence. The Christians and Parsis too were in the forefront of freedom struggle. Who can forget Dadabhai Naoroji and Phirozshah Mehta besides others?

But today we find hardly any mention of these persons who never hesitated to throw themselves in the struggle for freedom of our country. But our school textbooks hardly mention them. If the role of these communities is not highlighted what of Muslims who are thought to be culprits for dividing the country. And during the NDA rule even Father of the Nation Gandhiji's role was sought to be de-emphasised.

I would like to deal with the role played by Muslims in freedom struggle, as this is important for de-communalising thinking of our people today. However, before we proceed further I would like to point out that while it is important to discuss the religious identity of people who fought for our freedom it is not our intention to communalise the role of those individuals in history. Those Sikhs, Christians, Parsis, Muslims and Hindus fought for freedom as they loved their motherland and not simply because they belonged to this or that community. Yet in the Indian subcontinent since nineteenth century religious identity became main identity as the British rulers divided us on the basis of religions and each individual despite his/her patriotism also considered himself/herself as belonging to this or that community. It is for this reason we have to talk of role of minority communities in freedom struggle.

Unfortunately the minority communities have been marginalized in every respect including in respect of their role in freedom struggle. The history of freedom struggle as also that of medieval period is being written today from majoritarian perspective. It thus becomes necessary to emphasise the role of minority communities. While Mangal Pandey, a Brahmin's role is glorified in the 1857 war of independence (recently a film also has been made on him) the role of dalits has been completely ignored or if at all mentioned, it is mentioned only on the margin. The tribals also played important role but hardly mentioned in history books.

Who can ever forget the role of Sikhs (though Sikhs are often clubbed with Hindus but Sikhs themselves resent being so clubbed) in freedom struggle. The Ghadar party mainly consisted of Sikhs and Ghadar Party played very important role. The members of Ghadar Party migrated to Canada and United States in early twentieth century to fight for India's freedom.

The Namdhari Sikh movement, which came to be known as Kuka movement and consisted of lower caste Sikhs from artisan class and poor peasant started after occupation of Punjab by the Britishers posed a great threat to the British rule and challenged the role of Sikh elite including the Mahants of Sikh temples. It was the first radical challenge to the British rulers in Punjab. On the other hand the ?Punjab Unrest of 1907?, which was spearheaded by Ajit Singh's Bharat Mata Society or alternatively called Anjuman-e-Muhibban-e- Watan (i.e. organisation of the lovers of the country) was a secular, political struggle of the peasantry against the destructive economic policies and laws of the British Government.

Similarly, our history of the freedom struggle ignores the role played by lower class Muslims led by the orthodox ulama. The Muslim masses were mostly from artisan classes and belonged to poor peasantry. Most of the ulama came from these sections of Muslim society and they fought British rule tooth and nail. When Indian National Congress (INC) was formed in 1885 Maulana Qasim Ahmed Nanotvi (who was founder of Darul Ulum, Deoband) issued a fatwa urging Muslims to join INC to fight against British rule. He also got fatwas issued by several other ulama on similar lines and published them in a book form called Nusrat al-Ahrar (help for freedom fighters) and as a result of his efforts large number of Muslims joined INC.

It is true Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, an ardent advocate of modern education among Muslims and founder of Mohommedan Anglo-Oriental College (MAO) opposed Muslims joining the Congress but it was because of his priority to modern education rather than politics and not because of lack of patriotism. Also, he was representing the interests of upper classes of Muslims i.e. ashraf whereas the ulama in north India represented interests of lower class Muslims know as ajlaf.

But realities in western India were quite different. There Badruddin Tyebji, the retired acting Chief Justice of Bombay High Court urged upon Muslims to join INC and himself joined it with three hundred Muslim delegates and was elected President of INC. It is interesting to note that three presidents of INC were from minority communities in those days. Badruddin Tyebji, a Muslim, W.C. Bonnerjee, a Christian from Bengal and Phiroz Shah Mehta, a Parsi. Dadabhai Naoroji was a critic of British economic policies and was devoted to the cause of India's welfare.

The ulama, particularly of the Deoband School, were greatly devoted to the cause of Indian freedom. Maulana Mahmudul Hasan of the Reshmi Rumal (silk kerchief) conspiracy fame was stauch supporter of freedom movement. Another important name in this respect is that of Maulana Ubaidullah Sindhi. Prof. Barkatullah also played key role in fighting the British in those days.

In fact a provisional Azad Hind Government was formed in Afghanistan with Raja Mahendra Pratap as President and Prof. Barkatullah as Prime Minister. The Ulama urged upon Muslims to migrate from India to Afghanistan as they had declared India as Darul Harb under the British rule. Thousands of Muslims migrated and faced great hardships. Though it was not a wise decision but that is a different matter. What we intend to show here is that Muslims played very important role in freedom struggle.

Maulana Ubaidullah Sindhi was very enthusiastic fighter and when he was forced out of Afghanistan by the Afghan King he migrated to Russia through Central Asia and witnessed revolution in Russia and was greatly influenced by Russian revolution. Another very important figure is Maulana Hasrat Mohani who stood for complete freedom along with Tilak. He was great admirer of Tilak and opposed the Congress policy of Home rule in those days. He used to publish an Urdu magazine, which was confiscated by the British along with his press and his valuable books were also destroyed by the British police.

Mention must be made here of Maulana Husain Ahmed Madani, the then President of Jam'at-ul-?Ulama-I-Hind who was an important ally of INC and was totally opposed to the partition of the country. He opposed two nation theory and wrote a book Muttahida Qaumiyyat aur Islam (Composite Nationalism and Islam). It is a seminal contribution by the Maulana. He argued against separate nationalism and quoted from the Qur'an to support his contention. He gave example of the Holy Prophet who migrated from Mecca and set up a composite city state in Madina with Muslims, Jews and pagan Arabs constituting one political community described as ummah wahidah. All communities were given full freedom to practice their religion and charged with responsibility to protect Madina from outside attack.

Many other Muslim leaders, besides Maulana Azad, who played an important role in freedom struggle and stood for united nationalism, were Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan (Sarhadi Gandhi), Hakim Ajmal Khan, Dr. Ansari, Rafi Ahmad Qidwai and others. We must also mention the role of Ali Brothers i.e. Maulana Muhammad Ali and Shaukat Ali who play key role in Khilafat movement along with Mahatma Gandhi and also their mother Bi Amma.

We cannot mention the role of several others in this article for want of space. But it becomes obvious that Muslims played very important role in freedom movement and also opposing two -nation theory propounded by a small minority of Muslims belonging to upper class. Large number of Muslims belonging to artisan classes, poor peasantry and backward caste Muslims, particularly the All India Momin Conference vehemently opposed partition of the country. It would, therefore, be wrong to blame all Muslims for partition of the country. Vast number of Muslims made great sacrifices for the cause of freedom of their motherland.