Loyalists of the British Empire

Almost all Deobandi religious leaders and all Barelvi ulema were on the payroll of the empire. This is how they sustained a living and ample proof can be found in their own books

Loyalists of the British Empire

Canadian activist and polemicist Tarek Fatah, responding to my article ‘Shorish Kashmiri, Azad and partition’ last week (Daily Times, June 30, 2014) thought it wise to declare, on Twitter, that what I had written about Shorish Kashmiri was inspired by Ahmedi propaganda. He declared that no Ahmedi had fought against the British and that the British had sustained the Ahmedi community and rewarded it time and again. This, of course, is the standard line of the mullahs in Pakistan, a line that has been forwarded time and again by Tehreek-e-Khatm-e-Nabuwat and Majlis-e-Ahrar. This was also the elaborate fiction that Shorish Kashmiri invented along with Ataullah Shah Bokhari and Mazhar Ali Azhar of Ahrar in the 1940s to attack the Muslim League and discredit it as the authoritative representative of Muslims. What is strange however is that a self-styled progressive refusenik like Fatah, who does not tire of attacking Muslims otherwise, has chosen to repeat this distortion of history.

The biggest issue the scholars of Deobandi and Barelvi schools had with the Ahmedis was that Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, the founder of the sect, had reinterpreted the doctrine of jihad as more than qital (fighting). Consequently, the Ahmedi community as a whole remained constitutional and law-abiding citizens of British India. The Ahmedi religious movement itself had been at the forefront of the missionary activities of the church. Mirza Ghulam Ahmed, before founding the Ahmedi sect, had been considered the intellectual champion of Muslims against the onslaught of the Christian west and the re-absorption activities of Hindu sects like the Arya Samajists. A peaceful, hardworking and enterprising community, the Ahmedis produced the likes of Sir Zafrullah Khan who was one of the finest advocates in law, the president of the Muslim League for a while, one of Pakistan’s founders and later head of the International Court of Justice. For this reason, Ahmedis are denounced as British agents even though there is not a single Ahmedi who received any patronage or pension from the British Empire.

Let us, however, look at the roles of those other groups who were considered to be at the forefront of the Independence Movement. That the Hindu reform and revival movement itself owed a great deal to British patronage after 1857 can hardly be disputed. Needless to say, the most celebrated freedom fighter in all of South Asia, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, made his name as a recruiter for the British Empire before and during the First World War. When Jinnah asked Gandhi to join the movement for Indian self-rule, Gandhi’s condescending reply, in olde English, was, “First ye seek the recruiting office” and then the British will open their doors to his petitions. For his stellar services to the British Empire, in 1915 Gandhiji was awarded the Kaiser-e-Hind medal — the highest honour for a loyal British Indian subject.

Hindus were not the only ones to receive this patronage by the empire. Almost all Deobandi religious leaders — supposedly the most militant of anti-British elements — and all Barelvi ulema were on the payroll of the empire. This is how they sustained a living and ample proof can be found in their own books. For example, in Sawanay-e-Qasimi — the biography of Maulana Qasim Nanawatvi — page 103 credits Maulana Fazlur Rahman Muradabadi with having facilitated the English capture of Lucknow. On page 247 of the same book we find that Deobandi religious figures were proud of being pensioners of the British Empire and used it to prove their loyalty to the monarch. The biography of Maulana Rashid Gangohi, Tazkira-e-Rasheed, on page 80 has the great Deobandi freedom fighter claiming that he was entirely loyal to the British Empire. On page 160 of the Tehreek-e-Shaikh-ul-Hind, we find that another ‘freedom fighter’ and the Dean of Darul Uloom Deoband, Hafiz Maulana Muhammad Ahmad, was given the title of “Shams-ul-Ulema” by the British governor of UP. His most famous student was Maulana Hussain Ahmad Madni, the great ally of the Congress Party and the leader of Jamiat-e-Ulema-Hind — another ‘freedom fighter’. He is considered a great hero of the freedom movement by Pakistani Islamists and Indian nationalists. The entire Deoband edifice was built on official patronage and British pensions.

Now let us come to the other side of the Hanafi Sunni coin: the Barelvis. Ahmad Raza Khan Barelvi was principally a supporter of British rule and declared jihad against the British to be unlawful. His fatwa can be found on page 447 of his treatise Al-Mohajat, Al Mohtamanat Fi Ayat-al-Mumtahanat. Francis Robinson, in his book Separatism Amongst Indian Muslims: The politics of UP Muslims 1860-1923 on page 268 confirms the pro-government fatwas of Ahmad Raza Khan Barelvi.

Similarly, the Shias by and large remained loyal and law abiding citizens of the empire though it must be said to their credit that, unlike the Barelvis and Deobandis, they were not patronised by the British. A sub-sect of Shia Islam, the Ismailis, both Agha Khanis and Bohris, looked towards the British Raj as a means to protect them from hostile sectarian majorities. Indeed, so close was the relationship of Sir Agha Khan to the British that Kemal Ataturk publicly accused the Agha Khan of working for the British against Turkey, though unjustifiably. Needless to say, Kemal Ataturk himself has also been accused of being a British agent by latter day votaries of the pan-Islamic khilafat.

The point I wish to make is this: people interacted with the empire in different ways. Some people, very few and far between, did take up arms against the empire, more often for reasons wholly unsavoury than noble ones. Others worked within the system or were its beneficiaries. The accusation targeting one community or the other of having been ‘British agents’ is therefore farfetched and wholly unfounded. As free men and women in the 21st century, we should approach modern realities without the rancour that our blinkered views on history cause. As for Tarek Fatah, given his penchant to attack minorities like Ahmedis, the logical question is whether he feels any pang of hypocrisy vis-à-vis the fact that he is a Canadian subject of the Queen of England?


The writer is a lawyer based in Lahore and the author of the book Mr Jinnah: Myth and Reality. He can be contacted via twitter @therealylh and through his email address yasser.hamdani@gmail.com