Freedom movement and the Aga Khan
By Sherali Alidina
After the collapse of the Great Revolution of 1857, the Muslims in the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent were hounded out of all opportunities and employments. Full advantage of the hostile attitude of the British was taken by other communities who thus surpassed the Muslims in every field. It was the genius of Syed Ahmed Khan, which tried to bring about a change in their prejudices against the British.
In 1875, Syed Ahmed Khan laid the foundation of the Muhammedan Anglo-Oriental College at Aligarh. In 1885, Mr. Hume, an English retired member of I.C.S. established the Indian National Congress. The Muslims under the leadership of Syed Ahmed Khan were soon found trying to keep themselves aloof from the Congress because it had become obvious that its activities were by no means favorable to them.
It was in the great hall of Aligarh College, that in the year 1896, this grand old man of Muslim India met a very young man in whom he soon began to pin his hopes. His Highness Sir Sultan Mohammed Shah Prince Aga Khan had visited the college where Syed Ahmed Khan, aged 82, welcomed him and presented an address in Persian to which the former also replied in Persian. Two years later Syed Ahmed Khan passed away.
In 1897, the Aga Khan presented three addresses of congratulations to the then Viceroy Lord Elgin at Simla; one on behalf of his community, the other as leader of the Muslims of Western India and a third on behalf of a representative assemblage of the citizens of Bombay and Poona. In 1902, Prince Aga Khan was appointed for two years a member of the Viceroy’s Council, which in those days was a very influential body. He took his residence at Calcutta then capital of India.
The Aga Khan’s appointment to the Viceroy’s Legislative council at the age of 25 years, as he then was, proved an effective training ground for his future public and political life. Besides other important men, he came in close contact with Lord Curzon, Lord Kitchner and the great Indian Leader, Mr. Gokhale. He also kept himself in touch with Nawab Viqarul Mulk and Nawab Mohsinul Mulk, whom he had met during his visit to Aligarh in 1896. In 1904, Aga Khan was again offered membership of the council for two more years but he did not accept it. I think it was mostly for the reason that he wanted to participate actively in politics, as the future events show. In 1902-03, he presided at the session of the Ali India Muslim Education Conference held at Delhi, on the occasion of the Coronation of King Edward VII, and made a strong appeal to the Muslims to raise the Aligarh College to the status of a University.
His active participation in the public life for about ten years gave the young Aga Khan an insight into the condition of Muslim India. He recalls his impressions about this period in his Memoirs as under:
“At the same time I began to realize, during these two crucial years (when he was a member of Viceroy’s Executive Council) that the Congress Party, the only active and responsible political organization in the country, would prove itself incapable, was already proving itself incapable, of representing India’s Muslims, or of dealing adequately or justly with the needs and aspirations of the Muslim community. The pressure of Hindu extremism was too strong. Already that artificial unity which the British Raj had imposed from without, was cracking. Deep seated and ineradicable differences expressed themselves once political activity and aspiration had advanced beyond the most elementary stage. The breach was there in Hindu intransigence and lack of perception of basic Muslim ideals and hopes. I did all I could to prevent the breach widened. I maintained a campaign of remonstrance with Sir Pheroze Shah Mehta, who was high in the counsels of the Congress Party, who was a friend of my family and who had known me since childhood. I begged him to use his influence and make Congress realize how important it was to win Muslim confidence. But all to no avail.”
Having been disappointed at the attitude of the Hindu dominated Congress, Prince Aga Khan, and his old friend Nawab Mohsin-ul-Mulk along with other Muslims, thought of organizing the Muslims and safeguarding their interests. On 1st October 1906, after consultations with Prince Aga Khan Nawab Mohsin- ul-Mulk, organized a deputation of 35 Indian Muslims, with the former as their leader, to present demands of Muslim India to the then Viceroy, Lord Minto, at Simla. The copy of the Address was prepared and sent in advance to the Viceroy. However, while traveling from Colombo to Simla, His Highness telegraphically suggested certain additions and alterations from intervening stations to be made in it. The Address read before the Viceroy by Prince Aga Khan inter alia demanded what is known as separate electorates for the Muslims of India. Hitherto the Congress which had numerical majority was persisting in ignoring the realities of communal situation and in sending only third rate Muslims from preponderantly Hindu provinces like Madras and Bombay. The Muslims, therefore, asked for their separate representations at all levels of Government working – district boards, municipalities and legislative councils. They demanded that the elections for Muslims in these tiers should be held separately and exclusively by them thus providing an opportunity to Muslim voters to return Muslim representatives according to their choice. In the Address, Prince Aga Khan also laid great emphasis on the raising, of the Aligarh College to a full-fledged University.
On 1 October, 1906, the news of the demands of Muslims for separate electorates spread like wild fire throughout the length and breadth of India. The Congress raised a storm of protests. There was some so-called nationalist Muslims who ridiculed this step of their brethren.
To assert their stand and make known the correct view-point of Muslims, Prince Aga Khan thought that it was necessary to have a political platform and association for the Muslims of India. He, therefore, on 24th October, 1906 wrote a letter to Nawab Mohsin-ul-Mulk which is a very important document in the History of Muslims of this subcontinent because with this document starts the Muslim League under whose flag the Muslims won their freedom and got Pakistan. The letter (1) is quoted below in full:
11, Elysium Road. Calcutta
24th October, 1906
My dear Nawab Sahib,
Perhaps I may be allowed as one, who took part in the recent deputation to H.E. the Viceroy to make a few suggestions as to future. The whole of the Mohammedan Community have taken the keenest interest in the movement and look to us to try our best to secure that the objects which were set forth in the address may be ultimately secured.
It may be well that provincial associations should be formed with the aim of safeguarding the political interests of Mohammedans in the various portions of India, and similarly some central organization for the whole. On these matters, I do not wish to pronounce an opinion. They are best left I think to the discretion of the leaders in the days that are to come.
But as the deputation was formed with a view to the securing of certain definite objects of the most vital interest to Mohammedans as a whole, I venture to regard its work as begun only, and it seems to me from every point of view important that it should without delay continue its labors until complete success has crowned its efforts. To this end, I would suggest that the deputation which presented the address resolve itself into a committee to endeavor to obtain the granting of the various prayers which the address embodied. This Mohammedan Committee for the completion of work of the deputation might, if it were thought necessary, add to its numbers, though I would suggest, in the interest of the rapid carrying out of its business, that this would be done sparingly, I am sure also that I express what is the wish of all my fellow Mohammedan when I ask you to continue to act as Secretary of this Committee.
Please circulate my letter among the members of the deputation.
I am, my dear Nawab Sahib,
I further suggest that if any of the members of this committee be absent or unable to give proper attention the other members should act without consulting him. However, this should not mean his resignation, but only his inability to be of service for the time being. Such an absent or indisposed member, unless direction asked to resign or himself resigns will continue to be a permanent member of the Committee.
It was decided to deliberate upon the contents of Prince Aga Khan’s letter at the time of All India Muslim Educational Conference that was being held at Dacca. Consequently, at a conference held there on 30th December, 1906 under the chairmanship of Nawab Viqarul Mulk a political institution known as the Muslim League was formed. The resolution for this was moved by the Nawab of Dacca Khwaja Salimullah who had earlier, by the middle of December, elaborated a scheme in view of Aga Khan’s letter. Both Nawab Viqar-ul-Mulk and Nawab Mohsin-ul-Mulk, as was the desire of the Aga Khan in his letter, were appointed the secretaries. Prince Aga Khan was appointed its first Permanent President which office he occupied for six years until 1912. The second and third sessions of the League were held at Karachi which was attended by the Aga Khan and at Aligarh. In September 1907 and March 1908, respectively, Maulvi Mohammed Amin Zubairi in his urdu compilation “Prince Aga Khan” published in 1952, at page 121, says “At that time it was very necessary to propagate and explain the aims and objects of the Muslim League as well as to have money for its office expenses. The League had no fund of its own. As such His Highness was good enough to fix an annual recurring grant and also contributed a lump-sum as initial grant. In the mean time at the initiative of His Highness a British branch of the All India Muslim League was formed in London with Sir Amirali as its Chairman. Here also all the expenses were given by the Aga Khan.”
As a corollary to the political awakening of Muslims the Aga Khan took up the project of raising Aligarh College founded by Syed Ahmed Khan, to a University about which he had already emphasized in his speech in 1902.
In 1911, the Aga Khan along- with Maulana Shaukat Ali toured all over India and collected funds to get the status of a University for the Aligarh College. Mawlana Shibli commenting on this work of the Aga Khan said, “What six crores of Muslims could not do what the Aga Khan alone did and got for the Muslims of India a University of their own”. Looking back to the history of Muslim struggle in this Subcontinent who can doubt that it was in the portals of Aligarh University that Pakistan was born.
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