When South Asian Muslims Fled To Find Refuge In Afghanistan

When South Asian Muslims Fled To Find Refuge In Afghanistan
Millions of Afghan refugees, starting from the Soviet invasion of their country in 1979 and subsequent wars and upheavals, have sought refuge in Pakistan. A big influx occurred recently in the wake of the departure of Western troops in 2021, and the takeover of the country by the Taliban. In mid-January, the United Nations and other charitable organisations appealed to the world for contributions of over $5 billion for the year to avert hunger and misery in the impoverished country. Fareed Zakaria, an Indian-American journalist, reported that 23 million people, more than half the population of Afghanistan, faced starvation, and a million children under the age of five might die.

Given this backdrop, most Pakistanis will be surprised to learn that there was a time a century ago when Indian Muslims, fired up by religions and nationalistic zeal, decided to migrate to Afghanistan from India, considering it a religious duty. The second decade of the twentieth century was an especially turbulent time in India as the freedom movement against British rule had gained momentum under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi. Indian Muslims were also traumatised by the Ottoman defeat in the First World War (1914-1918), as the prospect of the abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate and the dismemberment of the only Muslim Empire loomed large. Turkey, known as the “sick man of Europe,” had suffered a series of reverses, starting with its defeat in Tripoli (1911), and later in the Balkan wars (1912-1913). The Indian Muslims mobilised their modest resources to help. They dispatched a medical mission in 1912 under the leadership of the renowned Muslim doctor and national leader Dr. Mukhtar Ahmad Ansari to treat the wounded Turkish soldiers. Turks have never forgotten the support they received from Indian Muslims.

The sentimental attachment of Muslims to the Caliphate dates back to the conquest of Egypt by Sultan Selim in 1517, after which the Ottoman Sultans adopted the mantle and title of Caliph and Defender of the Holy Cities of Makkah and Madinah. The Muslim allegiance to Turkey was further reinforced later by Sultan Abdul Hamid II (1876-1909), who charted a new direction for the empire, espousing  the doctrine of pan-Islamism. He asserted that all Muslims, regardless of the country they lived in, owed allegiance to the Ottoman Caliph. In many mosques in India, following the old tradition, the Friday Khutba was recited in the name of Sultan Abdul Hamid.
Initially, the Indian Muslims were accorded a warm welcome by the local population

The Ottoman defeat in the First World War was so devastating that Constantinople, the capital, was occupied by British, French, Italian and Greek forces from 1918 to 1923. A great wave of sympathy and affection for the beleaguered Ottomans engulfed Muslim India and the Khilafat movement, under the leadership of Maulana Mohammed Ali, Shaukat Ali, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and Hakeem Ajmal Khan, swept the land. The Congress Party and Mahatma Gandhi fully supported the movement and pressured the British Indian Government as well as the British Government in London to preserve the Caliphate and the Ottoman Empire. The Khilafat movement saw an unprecedented harmony and friendship between Hindu and Muslim communities, hard to imagine in today’s India, with Hindus celebrating Eid and Muslims voluntarily foreswearing the slaughter of cows. The movement ultimately fizzled out as the iconic leader and the founder of modern Turkey, Kamal Ataturk, organised resistance, drove the Greek occupiers out of the core Turkish lands and abolished the Caliphate.

In September 1920, Mahatma Gandhi and the Congress Party launched the noncooperation movement with the British Government in India, designed to force them to grant full independence to the country. A fatwa, signed by five hundred ulema, was issued directing Muslims to practice noncooperation with the British. Thousands resigned and walked away from Government jobs. Also, all the pleading of Muslim leaders to the British Government to save the Ottoman empire and the Caliphate failed to produce any satisfactory results. Then, as a reaction to the British Government inaction, in 1920, Muslim ulema, notably Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Maulana Abdul Bari Farangi Mahli and others, directed Muslims to migrate as religious duty to Muslim lands (Darul Islam) from a non-Muslim country (Darul Harb).

On the face of it, any idea of emigration to Afghanistan, an impoverished country barely able to support its own people, did not make much sense. Furthermore, the country had not previously encouraged any immigration. However, in 1919 Amir Aman Ullah Khan succeeded his assassinated father to become the ruler of Afghanistan. After a brief war with the Government in India, he was able to achieve full independence for Afghanistan and full control of its foreign affairs. He was very sympathetic to Ottoman Turkey and enthusiastically encouraged the Hijrat movement that was already taking roots among Indian Muslims. He promised many facilities to the migrants, including parcels of land, government jobs for those qualified, and a grant of 15,000 jeribs of his own land for distribution among the immigrants. The total value of the donated land was estimated to be seven-and-a-half million rupees.

It is hard to imagine today, a century later, the extent of enthusiasm and excitement about Hijrat gripping Indian Muslims, especially those living in Sindh, Punjab and Frontier provinces. Thousands of gullible Muslims from northern India sold their houses and properties at cheap bargain prices, formed groups and entered Afghanistan with high expectations. Other Muslims, moved by raw emotions of Islamic solidarity, hailed all would-be immigrants as heroes and greeted them with bouquets of flowers.

Maulana Abdul Majeed Salik, a prominent journalist and writer who witnessed the Hijrat movement firsthand, gave an account in his memoir Sirguzasht of the special train carrying the immigrants to Afghanistan. It arrived at Lahore station at 3 am and was rapturously and vociferously greeted by thousands of Muslims who had waited for its arrival for hours. The roars of “Allahu Akbar” echoed through the railway station. Arriving later at Peshawar railway station, it was received with equal excitement. It is estimated that some 18,000 Muslims, mostly uneducated peasants, moved to Afghanistan during the Hijrat movement.

Initially, the Indian Muslims were accorded a warm welcome by the local population. Unfortunately, the spirit of warmth and friendliness that greeted the early migrants did not endure. The local population soon turned resentful, and some unscrupulous elements took advantage of the vulnerability of the newcomers who were leaderless.

The Indian Muslim leaders never undertook the Hijrat themselves. In any event, the entire movement was rooted in the false assumption that Afghanistan would be able to host and absorb thousands of unskilled immigrants, unfamiliar with the language and cultural norms of their new home. The British India Government never opposed the movement, since they could foresee the likely outcome of the exercise. Most migrants eventually returned home after much trouble and suffering financial losses.