Essay on the Khilafat and Non-Cooperation Movement in India during 1919-22


A new stream came into the nationalist movement with the Khilafat movement. We have seen earlier that the younger generation of educated Muslims and a section of traditional divines and theologians had been growing more and more radical and nationalist.

The ground for common political action by Hindus and Muslims had already been prepared by the Lucknow Pact. The nationalist agitation against the Rowlatt Act had touched all the Indian people alike and brought Hindus and Muslims together in political agitation.

For example, as if to declare before the world the principle of Hindu-Muslim unity in political action, Swami Shradhanand, a staunch Arya Samaj leader, was asked by the Muslims to preach from the pulpit of the Jama Masjid at Delhi while Dr Kitchlew, a Muslim, was given the keys of the Golden Temple, the Sikh shrine at Amntsar. At Amritsar such political unity had been brought about by governmental repression.


Hindus and Muslims were handcuffed together, made to crawl together and drink water together, when ordinarily a Hindu would not drink water from the hands of a Muslim. In this atmosphere, the nationalist trend among the Muslims took the form of the Khilafat agitation.

The politically-conscious Muslims were critical of the treatment meted out to the Ottoman Turkish) empire by Britain and its allies who had partitioned it and taken away Thrace from Turkey proper.

This was in violation of the earlier pledge of the British Premier Lloyd George who had declared: “Nor are we fighting to deprive Turkey of the rich and renowned lands of Asia Minor and Thrace which are predominantly Turkish in race.”

The Muslims also felt that the power of the Sultan of Turkey, who was also regarded by many as the Caliph or the religious head of the Muslims, over the religious places of Islam should not be undermined.


A Khilafat Committee was soon formed under the leadership of the Ali Brothers, Maulana Azad, Hakim Ajmal Khan and Hasrat Mohani, and a country-wide agitation was organised.

The All-India Khilafat Conference held at Delhi in November 1919 decided to withdraw all cooperation from the government if their demands were not met.

The Muslim League, now under the leadership of nationalists, gave full support to the National Congress and its agitation on political issues.

On their part, the Congress leaders, including Lokamanya Tilak and Mahatma Gandhi, viewed the Khilafat agitation as a golden opportunity for cementing Hindu Muslim unity and bringing the Muslim masses into the national movement.


They realised that different sections of the people Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians, capitalists and workers, peasants and artisans, women and youth, tribal people and people of different regions would come into the national movement through the experience of fighting for their own different demands and seeing that the alien regime stood in opposition to them.

Gandhiji looked upon the Khilafat agitation as “an opportunity of uniting Hindus and Mohammedans as would not arise in a hundred years.”

Early in 1920 he declared that the Khilafat question overshadowed that of the constitutional reforms and the Punjab wrongs and announced that he would lead a movement of non-cooperation if the terms of peace with Turkey did not satisfy the Indian Muslims. In fact, very soon Gandhi became one of the leaders of the Khilafat movement.

Meanwhile, the government had refused to annul the Rowlatt Act, amends for the atrocities in the Punjab or satisfy the nationalist urge for self-government.


In June 1920, an all-party conference meet at Allahabad and approved a programme of boycott of schools, colleges and law courts. The Khilafat Committee-launched a Non- Cooperation Movement on 31 August 1920.

The Congress met in a special session in September 1920 at Calcutta. Only a few weeks earlier it had suffered a grievous loss- Lokamanya Tilak had passed away on 1 August at the age of 64.

But his place was soon taken by Gandhiji, C.R. Das and Motilal Nehru. The Congress supported Gandhi’s plan for non-cooperation with the government till the Punjab and Khilafat wrongs were removed and swaraj established.

The people were asked to boycott government educational institutions, law courts and legislatures; to give up foreign cloth; to surrender officially-conferred titles and honors; and to practice hand-spinning and hand-weaving for producing khadi.


Later the programme would include resignation from government service and mass civil disobedience, including refusal to pay taxes. Congressmen immediately withdrew from elections, and the voters too largely boycotted them.

This decision to defy in a most peaceful manner the government and its laws was endorsed at the annual session of the Congress held at Nagpur in December 1920.

“The British people will have to beware,” declared Gandhiji at Nagpur, “that if they do not want to do justice, it will be the bounden duty of every Indian to destroy the empire.”

The Nagpur session also made changes in the constitution of the Congress. Provincial Congress Committees were reorganised on the basis of linguistic areas.

The Congress was now to be led by a Working Committee of 15 members, including the president and the secretaries. This would enable the Congress to function as a continuous political organisation and would provide it with the machinery for implementing its resolutions.

The Congress organisation was to reach down to the villages, small towns and mohallas, and its membership fee was reduced to 4 annas (25 paise of today) per year to enable the rural and urban poor to become members.

The Congress now changed its character. It became the organiser and leader of the masses in their national struggle for freedom from foreign rule.

There was a general feeling of exhilaration. Political freedom might come years later but the people had begun to shake off their slavish mentality. It was as if the very air that India breathed had changed.

The joy and enthusiasm of those days was something special, for the sleeping giant was beginning to awake. Moreover, Hindus and Muslims were marching together shoulder to shoulder. At the same time, some of the older leaders now ieft the Congress-

They did not like the new turn that the national movement had taken of hey still believed in the traditional methods of agitation and political work which were strictly confined within the four walls of the law.

They opposed the organisation of the masses, hartals, strikes, satyagraha, breaking of laws, courting of imprisonment and other forms of militant struggle.

Muhammad All Jinnah, G.S. Khaparde, Bipin Chandra Pal and Annie Besant were among the prominent leaders who left the Congress during this period.

The years 1921 and 1922 were to witness an unprecedented movement of the Indian people. Thousands of students left government schools and colleges and joined national schools and colleges.

It was at this time that the Jamia Millia Islamia (National Muslim University) of Aligarh, the Bihar Vidyapith, the Kashi Vidyapith and the Gujarat Vidyapith came into existence.

The Jamia Millia later shifted to Delhi. Acharya Narendra Dev, Dr Zakir Husain and Lala Lajpat Rai were among the many distinguished teachers at these national colleges and universities.

Hundreds of lawyers, including Chittaranjan Das, popularly known as Deshbandhu, Motilal Nehru, Rajendra Prasad, Saifuddin Kitchlew, C. Rajagopalachari, Sardar Patel, T. Prakasam and Asaf Ali gave up their lucrative legal practice.

The Tilak Swarajya Fund was started to finance the non-cooperation movement and within six months over a crore of rupees were subscribed. Women showed great enthusiasm and freely offered their jewellery. Boycott of foreign cloth became a mass movement.

Huge bonfires of foreign cloth were organised all over the land. Khadi soon became a symbol of freedom. In July 1921, the All-India Khilafat Committee passed a resolution declaring that no Muslim should serve in the British-Indian army.

In September the Ali Brothers were arrested for ‘sedition’. Immediately, Gandhiji gave a call for repetition of this resolution at hundreds of meetings.

Fifty members of the All-India Congress Committee issued a similar declaration that no Indian should serve a government which degraded India socially, economically and politically. The Congress Working Committee issued a similar statement.

The Congress now decided to raise the movement to a higher level. It permitted the Congress Committee of a province to start civil disobedience or disobedience of British laws, including non- Payment of taxes, if in its opinion the people were ready for it.

The government again took recourse to repression. The activities of the Congress and Khilafat volunteers, who had begun to drill together and thus unite Hindu and Muslim political workers at lower levels, were declared illegal. By the end of 1921 all important nationalist leaders, except Gandhiji, were behind bars along with 3000 others.

In November 1921 huge demonstrations greeted the Prince of Wales, heir to the British throne, during his tour of India. He had been asked by the government to come to India to encourage loyalty among the people and the princes.

In Bombay, the government tried to suppress the demonstration, killing 53 persons and wounding about 400 more. The annual session of the Congress, meeting at Ahmadabad in December 1921, passed a resolution affirming “the fixed determination of the Congress to continue the programme of non-violent non-cooperation with greater vigor than hitherto till the Punjab and Khilafat wrongs were redressed and Swarajya is established.”

The resolution urged all Indians, and in particular students, “quietly and without any demonstration to offer themselves for arrest by belonging to the volunteer organisations.”

All such satyagrahis were to take a pledge to “remain non-violent in word and deed,” to promote unity among Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Parsis, Christians and Jews, and to practise swadeshi and wear only khadi.

A Hindu volunteer was also to undertake to fight actively against untouchability. The resolution also called upon the people to organise, whenever possible, individual or mass civil disobedience along non­violent lines.

The people now waited impatiently for the call for further struggle. The movement had, moreover, spread deep among the masses.

Thousands of peasants in Uttar Pradesh and Bengal had responded to the call of non-cooperation. In parts of Uttar Pradesh, tenants refused to pay illegal dues to the zamindars.

In the Punjab the Sikhs were leading a non-violent movement, known as the Akali movement, to remove corrupt mahants from the Gurudwaras, their places of worship. In Assam, tea-plantation labourers went on strike. The peasants of Midnapore refused to pay Union Board taxes.

A powerful agitation led by Duggirala Gopalakrishnayya developed in Guntu district. The whole population of Chirala, a town in that district, refused to pay municipal taxes and moved out of town.

All village officers resigned in Peddanadipadu. In Malabar (northern Kerala; the Moplahs, or Muslim peasants, created a powerful anti-zamindar movement.

The Viceroy wrote to the Secretary of State in February 1919 that “The lower classes in the towns have been seriously affected by the Non-Cooperation Movement.

In certain areas the peasantries have been affected, particularly in parts of Assam valley, United Provinces, Bihar and Orissa, and Bengal.”

On 1 February 1922, Mahatma Gandhi announced that he would start mass civil disobedience, including non-payment of taxes, unless within seven days the political prisoners were released and the press freed from government control.

This mood of struggle was soon transformed into retreat. On 5 February, a Congress procession of3000 peasant at Chauri Chaura, a village in the Gorakhpur District of Uttar Pradesh, was fired upon by the police.

The angry crowd attacked and burnt the police station causing the death of 22 policemen. Other incidents of violence by crowds had occurred earlier in different parts of the country.

Gandhiji was afraid that in this moment of popular ferment and excitement, the movement might easily take a violent turn.

He was convinced that the nationalist workers had not yet properly understood nor learnt the practice of non-violence without which, he was convinced, civil disobedience could not be a success.

Apart from the fact that he would have nothing to do with violence, he also perhaps believed that the British would be able to easily crush a violent movement, for people had not yet built up enough strength and stamina to resist massive government repression. He therefore decided to suspend the nation­alist campaign.

The Congress Working Committee met at Bardoli in Gujarat on 12 February, and passed a resolution stopping all activities which would lead to breaking of laws.

It urged Congressmen to donate their time to the constructive programme popularization of the charkha, national schools, temperance, removal of untouchability and promotion of Hindu-Muslim unity.

The Bardoli resolution stunned the country and had a mixed reception among the bewildered nationalists. While some had implicit faith in Gandhiji and believed that the retreat was a part of the Gandhian strategy of struggle, others, especially the younger nationalists, resented this decision to retreat.

Subhas Bose, one of the popular and younger leaders of the Congress, has written in his autobiography, The Vidian Struggle:

To sound the order of retreat just when public enthusiasm was reaching the boiling-point was nothing short of a national calamity.

The principal lieutenants of the Mahatma, Deshbandhu Das, Pandit Motilal Nehru and Lala Lajpat Rai, who were all in prison, shared the popular resentment.

I was with the Deshbandhu at the time and I could see that he was beside himself with anger and sorrow at the way Mahatma Gandhi was repeatedly bungling.

Many other young leaders such as Jawaharlal Nehru had a similar reaction. But both the people and the leaders had faith in Gandhiji and did not want to publicly disobey him.

They accepted his decision without open opposition. The first Non-Cooperation and Civil Disobedience Movement virtually came to an end.

The last act of the drama was played when the government decided to take full advantage of the situation and to strike hard. It arrested Mahatma Gandhi on 10 March 1922 and charged him with spread­ing disaffection against the government.

Gandhiji was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment after a trial which was made historic by the statement that he made before the court.

Pleading guilty to the prosecution’s charge, he invited the court to award him “the highest penalty that can be inflicted upon me for what in law is a deliberate crime and what appears to me to be the highest duty of a citizen.” He traced at length his own political evolution from a supporter of the British rule to its sharpest critic and said:

I came reluctantly to the conclusion that the British connection had made India more helpless than she ever was before, politically and economically.

A disarmed India has no power of resistance against any aggression. She has become so poor that she has little power of resisting famines. Little do town dwellers know how the semi-starved masses of India are slowly sinking to lifelessness?

Little do they know that their miserable comfort represents the brokerage they get for the work they do for the foreign exploiter, that the profits and the brokerage are sucked from the masses. Little do they realise that the government established by law in British India is carried on for the exploitation of the masses.

No sophistry, no jugglery in figures, can explain away the evidence that the skeletons in many villages present to the naked eye. In my opinion, administration of the law is thus prostituted, consciously or unconsciously, for the benefit of the exploiter.

The greater misfortune is that Englishmen and their Indian associates in the administration of the country do not know that they are engaged in the crime I have attempted to describe.

I am satisfied that many Englishmen and Indian officials honestly believe that they are administering one of the best systems devised in the world, and that India is making steady, though slow progress.

They do not know that a subtle but effective system of terrorism and an organised display of force on the one hand, and the deprivation of all powers of retaliation or self- defense on the other, have emasculated the people and induced in them the habit of simulation.

In conclusion, Gandhiji expressed his belief that “non-cooperation with evil is as much a duty as is cooperation with good.” The judge noted that he was passing on Gandhiji the same sentence as was passed on Lokamanya Tilak in 1908.

Very soon the Khilafat question also lost relevance. The people of Turkey rose up under the leadership of Mustafa Kamal Pasha and, in November 1922, deprived the Sultan of his political power. Kamal Pasha took many measures to modernise Turkey and to make it a secular state.

He abolished the Caliphate (or the institution of the Caliph) and separated the state from religion by eliminating Islam from the Constitution.

He nationalised education, granted women extensive rights, introduced legal codes based on European models, took steps to develop agriculture and to introduce modern indus­tries. All these steps broke the back of the Khilafat agitation.

The Khilafat agitation had made an important contribution to the non-cooperation movement. It had brought urban Muslims into the nationalist movement and had been, thus, responsible in part for the feeling of nationalist enthusiasm and exhilaration that prevailed in the country in those days.

Some historians have criticised it for mixing religion with politics. As a result, they say, religious consciousness spread to politics, and in the long run, the forces of communalism were strengthened.

This is true to some extent. There was, of course, nothing wrong in the nationalist movement taking a demand that affected Muslims only.

It was inevitable that different sections of society would come to understand the need for freedom through their particular demands and experiences.

The nationalist leadership, however, failed to some extent in raising the religious political consciousness of the Muslims to the higher plane of secular political consciousness.

At the same time it should also be kept in view that the Khilafat agitation represented much wider feelings of the Muslims than their concern for the Caliph.

It was in reality an aspect of the general spread of anti-imperialist feelings among the Muslims. These feelings found concrete expression on the Khilafat question. After all there was no protest in India when Kamal Pasha abolished the Caliphate in 1924.

It may be noted at this stage that even though the Non- Cooperation and Civil Disobedience Movement had ended in apparent failure, the national movement had been strengthened in more then one way.

Nationalist sentiments and the national movement had now reached the remotest corners of the land. Millions of peasants, artisans and urban poor had been brought into the national movement.

All strata of Indian society had been politicized. Women had been drawn into the movement. It is this politicisation and activisation of millions of men and women that imparted a revolutionary character to the Indian national movement.

The British rule was based on the twin notions that the British ruled India for the good of the Indians and that it was invincible and incapable of being overthrown.

As we have seen earlier, the first notion was challenged by the moderate nationalists who developed a powerful economic critique of colonial rule.

It was now, during the mass phase of the national movement, that this critique was dissemi­nated among the common people by youthful agitators through speeches, pamphlets, dramas, songs, prabhat pherics and newspapers.

The notion of invincibility of the British rule was challenged by satyagraha and mass struggle. As Jawaharlal Nehru wrote in The Discovery of India. The essence of his (Gandhiji’s) teaching was fearlessness not merely body courage but the absence of fear from the mind.

But the dominant impulse in India under British rule was that of fear, pervasive, oppressing, strangling fear; fear of the army, the police.

The widespread secret service; fear of the official class; fear of laws meant to suppress and of prison; fear of landlord’s agents; fear of the moneylender; fear of unemployment and starvation, which were always on the threshold. It was against this all- pervading fear that Gandhiji’s quiet and determined voice was raised: Be not afraid.

A major result of the Non-Cooperation Movement was that the Indian people lost their sense of fear the brute strength of British power in India no longer frightened them.

They had gained tremendous self-confidence and self-esteem, which no defeats and retreats could shake. This was expressed by Gandhiji when he declared that “the fight that was commenced in 1920 is a fight to the finish, whether it lasts one month or one year or many months or many years.”

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