It is fascinating to note that in the centuries-long Mughal and British rule over the Indian Subcontinent, we see none of the mass Hindu-Muslim riots that we have come to associate with the 20th century. There were certainly sporadic incideces of communal violence, but it cannot be considered systematic communal infighting. Hindu armed groups and Hindu rajas rebelled against the Mughal rulers accompanied by bloody reprisals, but there was little civil strife among the people themselves. There were some Parsi-Muslims riots in Bombay and Gujarat in 1851, 1857 and 1874 – but none between the Hindus and Muslims.
When Sir Syed Syed Ahmed launched his educational drive for the Muslims, he was well aware that it would open the doors of a rift between the two communities and put them on a path of mutual hostility. Educated on Western syllabi, the marginalized Muslims would gain confidence to demand equality, respect and recognition as a community – which Sir Syed knew would bring them in hostile competition with a resurgent Hindu identity.
Till the end of the second decade of the 20th century, Hindus and Muslims had struggled together for freedom and equality. They had agitated together against the draconian Rowlatt Act. On the 13th of April 1919, protestors from three religious communities in Amritsar’s Jallianwala Bagh and, a few days later in Gujranwala, had been massacred by the British. Religious tensions existed but had not flared into violence. When the Ali brothers introduced religion in politics by launching the Khilafat Movement during the Nagpur session of the Congress Party in December 1920, a young Mr M.A. Jinnah (later to become known as the Quaid-e-Azam) had rightly feared a violent outcome. Most Congress Hindus, too, had opposed linking this movement with the party. However, Gandhi prevailed in lending support to the Ali Brothers and linked his non-cooperation initiative with the Khilafat drive. B. R. Ambedkar had been intimately involved with the events of the time and has described the communal mistrust of the time in his book Pakisan or Partition of India.
The mutual trust between Hindu and Muslim communities was severely affected by the short lived Partition of Bengal in 1906. The partition was subsequently annulled in 1911, the year in which the capital of the British administration was moved from Calcutta to Delhi. However, the reversal of the Partition of Bengal was not complete. Bihar and Orissa were turned into a separate province but the Bengali-speaking lands did return to one province. While the Partition of Bengal was considered an act by the British calculated to create communal divisions, its annulment was viewed as appeasement of Hindus. This further aggravated communal relations.
In 1909, the British had exacerbated the communal divide by accepting separate electorates for Muslims and Hindus, though there was no real demand for this amongst the Muslims – except that the Simla delegation to Viceroy Lord Minto, comprising of representatives of the Muslim feudal and political elite, had demanded this. Incidentally, Muslims had amongst their elite some stalwarts who had remained loyal to the British during the great 1857 anti-colonial rebellion and could cash in on those relations during the Simla meeting. This episode caused a breach between the two religious communities and the trust between them eroded at an alarming pace.
Serious Hindu-Muslim riots started with the Khilafat Movement – more specifically, with the Moplah Rebellion that it inspired in Kerala. The Moplahs, Muslims living on the Malabar coast, and their rebellion are described in The Moplah Rebellion, 1921 by Diwan Bahadur C. Gopalan Nair, the retired Deputy Collector of Malabar. On a side note, now, a century later, it is amusing to note that this book, published in 1923 at Calicut, was priced at Rs. 2/- per copy!
Educated on Western syllabi, the marginalized Muslims would gain confidence to demand equality, respect and recognition as a community – which Sir Syed knew would bring them in hostile competition with a resurgent Hindu identity
The Moplah uprising was a major incident. It erupted on the 20th of August 1921 and took six months for the colonial authorities to control. About 10,000 people were killed including 2,500 rebels, and 50,000 Moplahs were imprisoned – of whom 20,000 were deported to Kala Pani (colonial imprisonment on remote islands). Many of the rebels were hanged and scores suffocated to death when being transported in a closed, congested rail carriage.
During the course of the revolt, thousands of Hindus were forcibly converted by rebels. The much maligned Shuddhi movement by Arya Samaj was, in fact, started in 1923 to formulate procedures to facilitate the reconversion of these Hindus back to their old religion.
Some analysts portray the uprising as a reaction of Muslim tenants against their Hindu landlords. That may be one of the causes. However, its religious nature cannot be denied either. Consider the establishment of Khilafat Committees by the rebels and the forced conversions already mentioned above.
The communal environment was poisoned to the extent that Hindu extremists rejoiced in inciting the Muslims, who lashed back violently over these provocations
It must be added here that Shuddhi Movement later concentrated on reconversion of Malkana Rajputs who were considered nominal Muslims as they retained a Hindu lifestyle despite having formally become Muslims. This alarmed the Muslim religious leadership. The Tableeghi Jamaat was started in 1926 to strengthen the Muslim faith amongst the Muslims, partly against the Shuddhi efforts. This only proves that the communal environment was completed polluted by the 1920s.
The Hindu-Muslim acrimony across the country had attained such frenzy that the riots, once started, continued unabated. The Kanpur Commission set up by the Congress recorded riots in Malabar (1922), Multan (1922, 1927), Ajmer (1923), Saharanpur (1923), Amritsar (1923), Sindh (1923), Jubbulpur (1923), Agra (1923, 1931), Rae-Bareli (1923), 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).
As is evident above, beginning 1921, communal riots occurred frequently across many cities of India. P.K. Ghai quotes a government report of 1928 in his Indian History Congress of 1985, that from 1923 to 1927, there were 88 communal riots, mostly in UP. In 1923, the country witnessed eleven riots, in 1924 there were eighteen riots, in 1925 there were sixteen riots, and in 1926 there were 35 riots. In the twelve months from May 1926 to April 1927, 40 more riots occurred across various cities. Dr. Ambedkar, in his earlier mentioned book on Pakistan and Partition, has also given details of the riots between 1920 and 1940.
The riots mostly occurred in Bengal, Punjab and the United Provinces. The Lahore violence of August 1927 was part of the most deadly recorded riots. It was this series of riots that prompted Hindu nationalist ideologue K.B. Hedgewar, who had personally led drum-beating before mosques in Nagpur, to form the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in 1925. The Muslim League followed suit to form its National Guards in 1931. These two lightly-armed organizations grew in membership to about 50,000 each and played a major part in the massacres and communal-ethnic cleansing of 1946 and 1947, as chronicled through eyewitness accounts quoted by Dr. Ishtiaq Ahmed in his book, Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed. Hindu Mahasabha and Congress leader Dr. S.P. Mookerjee also organised Hindusthan National Guards in the aftermath of Great Calcutta killings of 1946, so as to protect Hindu lives and properties in Bengal.
The history of Muslim National Guards and their role in the 1947 Partition violence has not been written as yet. The organisation was formed in UP to protect Muslims from Hindu vandalism. It was organized at district levels in the shape of militant outfits with green uniforms, helmets and whatever weapons they could muster. Its leaders were labelled as “salaars” meaning commanders. In Bengal, its prominent leaders were Hussain Shaheed Suharwardi, the Prime Minister of Pakistan in 1956-57, who played a major role in Partition violence and Abdul Monem Khan, who was governor of East Pakistan between 1962 and 1969. In Punjab, the leaders of the guards were Shaukat Hayat Khan, Major Khurshid Anwar and Mian Iftikharuddin. According to Sanyal and Basu (2011), two days before the violent Direct Action Day on the 16th of August 1946, the Guards had been summoned by Muslim League. This author hopes that someone trained in history finds the courage to depict the true story of this organization.
Another indication of the hardening attitude of two communities was that some extremist Hindus began a campaign of antagonizing Muslims by insulting Islam and figures sacred to Muslims. Most of these Hindus were murdered by Muslim fanatics. B.R. Ambedkar lists Swami Shradhananad killed by Abdul Rashid, Lala Nanakchand by Ghazi Ilam Din and Nathuramal Sharma by Abdul Qayyum. Meher Chand Khanna of the NWFP Mahasabha was severely injured by a Muslim crowd for a blasphemous speech. Much earlier in 1897, Pandit Lekh Ram, an Arya Samaj leader of Peshawar, was murdered in Lahore for, purportedly, his anti-Islam writings. This is only a partial list. The communal environment was poisoned to the extent that Hindu extremists rejoiced in inciting the Muslims, who back lashed violently over these provocations.
It is undeniable one of the reasons for Hindu instigation was the Muslim attitude of very vocal denunciation of idol worship and eulogizing of iconoclasts – while at the same time, the Muslims themselves are easily moved to violence by any real or perceived slight to their holy figures. This attitude went unchallenged as long as Muslims were in power in pre-colonial India. Now, in a social and economic environment where Hindus were resurgent, Muslims often found themselves in a reversal of roles and the only rebuttal they found feasible was to eliminate the blasphemer.
It was evident in the years and months leading to the independence of India and Pakistan that there was no easy or peaceful mechanism for the Partition of the Indian Subcontinent.
Hindu and Muslim communities were set on a mutually destructive course in many parts of the Subcontinent. The Muslim League’s violent direct action day on the 16th of August 1946, to further push the Pakistan issue, converted numerous but still isolated communal violence incidents into a civil war. This led to a Hindu massacre in Noakhali and its reaction in the form of Muslim massacres in Bihar. Sikh communal leaders had their own historic animus against Muslims and their political union with the Congress and militant union with RSS led to violence in towns and villages of Punjab.
The period from August 1946 till the months following independence would be remembered in world history as a new low for humanity.
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
This was the condition when Gandhi was the leader of Hindus. Estimated four million people lost their lives during the partition riots. This is the reason as to why New Delhi is uncompromising on Kashmir issue and bent upon crushing so-called aspirations of Kashmiris. You can imagine what will happen all over India if the country is again partitioned on communal lines. Hindus are already logic of Muslims getting separate homeland as well as equal rights in the rest of India. If Kashmir is the unfinished agenda for Muslims and Pakistan, exchange of the Muslim population is the unfinished agenda for Hindus. The result will surpass easily nuclear holocaust. So given the cost-benefit ratio, Kashmir will never be allowed to separate from India come what may. The alternative is just unthinkable.