Mahatma Gandhi: Turkish contours of India’s independence movement


Nestled in the concrete jungles of old Delhi, just a few miles away from India’s seat of power, a two-story yellow house is a testimony to Mahatma Gandhi’s contribution to Turkey’s war of independence (1919-1923).

The semi-decrepit building, which belonged to Mukhtar Ahmed Ansari, is a significant structure in both Indian and Turkish history, not only because it was the resting place for Gandhi in Delhi, but it was also a center for the beginnings of a movement to help Turkey in critical times when colonial powers were bent on its fragmentation.

As the World celebrates the 150th birth anniversary of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, popularly known as Mahatma Gandhi on Oct. 2, Gandhian Scholar Yogendra Yadav maintains that Gandhi’s biggest decision in launching a non-cooperation movement against the British was linked to the 1920 Treaty of Sevres that effectively dismembered the remains of the Ottoman Empire. In the May 1919 issue of his journal Young India, Gandhi wrote that Dr. Ansari had widened his knowledge about Turkey.

Yadav, a professor, editor and linguist at the Gandhi International Study and Research Institute in Jalgaon, Maharashtra, said that until then, Gandhi’s approach was to seek justice within the British system. Since returning from South Africa in July 1914, where he led an anti-racist movement, Gandhi believed in the politics of cooperation.

“The publication of the Treaty of Sevres was a major shock. He [Gandhi] made the biggest decision of his life to refuse to cooperate any longer with the British government until their demands were fulfilled,” said Yadav.

Known as an icon of peace who remained a moral compass for India’s politics and diplomacy, Gandhi was significantly influenced by events in Turkey, which led him to change his approach from cooperation with the British to civil disobedience after 1920.

Author R. K. Sinha also agrees that Gandhi’s program of non-cooperation was actually adopted by the Khilafat Committee at Bombay on May 1920. He said that soon after persuading the Congress to join the program, Gandhi went to an extensive tour to rally the people behind the Turkish cause. According to Sinha, who authored a scholarly book, The Turkish Question Mustafa Kemal and Mahatma Gandhi, the movement to help Turkey in India was also a honeymoon period between Hindus and Muslims.

“The Hindus displayed great enthusiasm in raising the Angora Fund and they willingly subscribed to the fund. The Muslims had chosen to starve for some days in order to contribute to the fund meant for the safety of Turkey. These collected funds were sent to Constantinople [Istanbul] from time to time, where it was received by the representatives of Mustafa Kemal Pasha,” he wrote. By 1922, 375,000 Turkish liras had gone from India to help Turkish coffers.

Helping Turkey: Cement for Hindu-Muslim relations

Turkish history professor Azmi Ozcan, who undertook a comprehensive study on the subject believes that unrest in India and the civil disobedience movement played a decisive role in influencing British attitudes. Ozcan, who also authored a book about Indian Muslims, the Ottomans and Britain said the significance of the Ottoman issue in Indian politics could be judged by the fact that the brief honeymoon period between the Muslims and Hindus in the country was shattered soon after the disappearance of the Ottoman Caliphate in 1924.

He argued that the issue of Turkey’s fragmentation was not a religio-sentimental issue for Hindus, as it was for Muslims, but had brought them to a common platform to show dissatisfaction with British rule. Legislation known as the Rowlatt Act passed by the Imperial Legislative Council allowing certain political cases to be arrested without trial, as well as the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre, also known as the Amritsar massacre, had antagonized the Hindus with the same vigor as Muslims had over the humiliation of Turkey.

Recalling that Gandhi in his famous letter had asked the British viceroy to resign due to his treatment of Turkey and his failure to meet the expectations of Indians, Ozcan recounted that a clear warning was given to the British that the non-cooperation policy would intensify after Aug. 1, 1920, if it implemented the Treaty of Sevres.

The non-cooperation policy started from this date. People gave up titles conferred on them by the government. The program also advocated a boycott of all foreign goods and refusal to enlist for service in the British army. Soon, the movement gained the overwhelming support of all sections of the Indian community. The general feeling that prevailed in India was that Britain and her allies intended to destroy Muslims.

In the June 21 edition of Young India, Gandhi appealed to Hindus to join Muslims against the dismemberment of Turkey, writing: “India is not ready today, but if we would be prepared to frustrate every plot that may be hatched for the destruction of Turkey or for prolonging our subjection, we must secure an atmosphere of enlightened non-violence as fast as possible, not the non-violence of the weak but the non-violence of the strong, who would disdain to kill but would gladly die for the vindication of truth.”

Gandhi suspends civil disobedience

Along with Indian Muslim leader Muhammed Ali Jouhar, Gandhi relentlessly toured all around the country. Initially, the policy gained ground peacefully. However, violence started creeping in over time, despite its leaders’ best efforts. In the meantime, jails were being filled with activists. India almost lapsed into anarchy as the spirit of uprising spread across the country. Gandhi pulled the movement back on Feb. 22 as developments were getting out of hand, after activists attacked and razed a police station, burning more than 21 officers to death. “At this point, Gandhi felt that he should call off the policy and suspend the mass civil disobedience. This also, in a way, marked the end of the Hindu-Muslim alliance,” said Ozcan.

Even during the War in 1916, a British officer, Major Gen. Charles Vere Ferrers Townshend, who was commanding troops near Baghdad against the Ottomans, records that a Pathan sepoy of the 20th Punjabis had deserted after refusing to fire on Baghdad. He recounted that he had been forced to send the regiment back to Amara. The 3rd Lahore Division, which had performed bravely in France, also backed out in Basra. As a result, 429 soldiers were penalized.

“Two or three bundles of seditious documents in Hindi, signed Vande Mataram [I praise the motherland], were discovered laid against our wire entanglements. These called on the Indian troops to rise and murder the British officers and join their brothers the Turks, who would pay them better and give them grants of land,” recorded the British officer. He added that even cases of self-mutilation were detected about this time among the men in one of the Indian battalions, who shot off their trigger fingers and pretended they had been wounded. All these men — 12 or 14 of them — were tried and received heavy sentences.

Events in Turkey had served to bind the Hindu and Muslim communities together. “With the end of the Khilafat Movement in 1924, the Hindus began to stand aloof from the Muslims and communalist organizations among both groups began to gain ground. The leaders in their frustration and disillusionment chose either to remain silent or to join one of these communalist organizations. In this way the ambitious Khilafat Movement, though it lingered on for some time, that had brought Hindus and Muslims together slowly died,” concludes Ozcan.

Gandhi’s assassination and communalists

Exactly 24 years later, months after India’s independence, the apostle of non-violence and peace was assassinated by Hindu communalists. According to journalist and author Vivek Shukla, who has written extensively on Gandhi’s stay in Delhi, just three days before his assassination, Gandhi had visited the dargah of Sufi Saint Khwaja Bakhtiyar Kaki (1173-1235 AD), which had been ransacked. Thousands of Muslims had taken refuge inside, awaiting to be transported to Pakistan. “He asked Muslims to stay back in India and asked Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to repair the Dargah,” said Shukla.

On Jan. 30, 1948, at the prayer meeting in the compound of Birla House (now Gandhi Smriti), a large mansion in New Delhi, the assassin Nathuram Godse, a member of Hindu ultra-nationalist party the Hindu Mahasabha, and a past member of the patron organization of Hindu nationalists Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) shot Gandhi dead.

Godse was captured by a crowd nearby and handed over to the police. In total, nine people — including top Hindu nationalist leader V D Savarkar — were arrested for conspiring the murder. Savarkar was accused of being the mastermind behind the plot.

Ironically, he was designated a national hero by the current government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In November 1949, a court sentenced Godse and his accomplice Narayan Apte to death. According to historian A G Noorani, Savarkar was acquitted merely on technical grounds. Paradoxically, a portrait of Savarkar adorns the walls of the Central Hall of Indian Parliament, alongside that of Gandhi.

Paying tributes to Gandhi, noted writer Haresh Khare reminds that when Europe was passionately enamored of fascism, Gandhi’s greatest service to India was to wean us away from this fascist allure of violence and coercion. On the other hand, the Hindu rashtra (nation) ideologues, were inspired and emboldened by the rampant success fascists had achieved in Germany and Italy.

Khare says that Indians living abroad have become the most dangerous and supporters of Hindu nationalism. “From the safety of their North American perch, the NRIs [Non-resident Indians] are only too happy to applaud and finance the politics of resentment back in India; indeed, they are working out their own prejudices and anxieties in an increasingly uncertain global order,” he said.

While the world celebrates Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary with elaborate ceremonies and spectacles, his message and murder must not go in vain. Instead of violence and aggression on the part of the majority community, only compassion and sympathy should be prerequisite for new energy and vitality in a nation.
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