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Why is the Silk-Letter Movement so Important? Shaikhul-Hind’s contribution to Indian freedom movement cannot be ignored. By Abdur Rahman The author is a Ph.D Scholar at JNU, New Delhi.


ndia witnessed some powerful movements in 19th century to liberate the country from the clutches of British tyranny; one of them was “Deoband Movement” which started with the establishment of a Madrasa “Darul-Uloom” in Deoband on May 30, 1867. At that time, the Indian people were demoralized and were increasingly attracted towards Western culture.

Nanautawi and had drunk deep in the spirit and the ideas underlying its foundation. He joined its staff in 1890 C.E. and became its Sadr Muddaris (principal). Although a scholar and author of several treatises and a translator of the Quran, he had interest in philosophical speculations. He trained and produced a number of great men of learning who were also active in the political and social life of India .

It was in these circumstances that a group of Indian Muslims decided to launch a project aimed at fighting the forces of Western cultural imperialism. The project took the form of a school of Oriental learning and Islamic culture. The Madrasa Darul Uloom was founded by Maulana Muhammad Qasim Nanautawi, hero of the battle of Shamli .

Silk-Letter Movement

Its first enlisted student, Mahmood Hasan, the prisoner of Malta, who is known in the history of the freedom movement as a “leader” of the Silk-letter Revolt , was born in 1851 C.E and educated at Darul Uloom Deoband. He had been very close to Maulana Muhammad Qasim


To achieve the success in his mission, to negate British influence

and drive them out of India, he started various movements which were directly against the British. He

worked hard and spent his time and energy in fulfilling his dream of a free India. Prof. Syeed Ahmad Akbarabadi writes: “The National Congress was fighting a war against British for their rights but Hazrat Shaikhul-Hind was preparing a plan on how to overthrow their government” . He believed in Muslim brotherhood and had great sympathy for his co-religionists. He felt deep sympathy for the oppressed and admired the bravery of the Muslims . Shaikhul Hind. ran one of the biggest movements to save the Ottoman Empire. He was then the head of Darul-Uloom Deoband. To achieve the dream goal of independent India he met the Wali (governor) of the Khilafah in Makkah, Ghalib Pasha. However, after attaining great success in Makkah in receiving support for India’s freedom movement, he called on the ministers of Turkey, Anwar Pasha and Jamal Pasha. The Wali gave documents to the Shaikh to help and provide all physical and material support from the Khilafah in the struggle of India against the British tyranny.

HISTORY The document is known in history as Ghalib Namah. Anwar Pasha too wrote a letter, appreciating the Indians’ constant struggle against the British tyranny. The letter also exhorted all citizens and employees of the Uthmani Khilafah to have full confidence in Shaikhul Hind and provide physical and material support to his movement. Copies of these letters were transferred to India in the face of all the challenges posed by the British intelligence services. The entire episode is known as “Tahreeke-Reshmi Romal” the “Silk-Letter Movement” (they used to smuggle coded messages of Jihad in silk handkerchiefs). His movement had twin purposes i.e. save the Ottomans and Jihad against the British. Shaikhul Hind and his student Maulana Hussain Ahmad Madani (later known as Shaikhul Islam) were arrested by the traitor Sharif Hussein in Hijaz on 19th December 1916. They were sent to Malta via Cairo and imprisoned by the British for 3 years. This was because they were sticking to the truth and not disowning the Uthmani Khilafah. Darul-Uloom administration suggested to Shaikhul-Hind to keep away from politics, but he ignored

learn and teach? The madrasa was established before my eyes. As I know the institution was established after the defeat of 1857 to prepare some people to recover the loss of 1857” . Another illustrious product of Deoband Movement, Mufti Shafi Usmani Mufti-e-Azam, the Grand Mufti of Pakistan, describes the purpose of this madrasa. “The key purpose of Darul Uloom was to foil the attempts made by Lord Macaulay’s education system and to produce a bunch of gallant Ulama who not only can perform the duty of saving religion in its true form but also can deliver it to the succeeding generations, so that any time when Muslim can get freedom from the colonial rule they can find here the Islamic teachings in their true and original form”.

Shaikhul-Hind’s visit to some Muslim countries Shaikhul-Hind Maulana Mahmood Hasan thought that the plan could best be carried out by visiting some Muslim countries. He, therefore, decided to go to Hijaz and asked Maulana Unbaidullah Sindhi to visit Afghanistan which had become the centre of German-Turkish and

Shaikhul Hind and his student Maulana Hussain Ahmad Madani (later known as Shaikhul Islam) were arrested by the traitor Sharif Hussein in Hijaz on 19th December 1916.

the suggestion and said the following about objectives of Darul Uloom. “Did Maulana Qasim Nanautavi build this madrasa just to 32 EASTERN CRESCENT | APRIL 2014

Indian rebel activities. Such was the political situation at home and abroad when Shaikhul-Hind decided to launch his programme to oust the

foreigners from India. Nonetheless, it is significant to note that before the advent of Mahatma Gandhi, the popular leader of Indian National Congress on the political scene the revolutionaries believed not only in violent methods but were also convinced that India could not be freed without the support of a foreign government. Shaikhul-Hind’s programme consisted of bringing the government of Afghanistan and Iran closer to each other on some workable point and seeking the military support of Turkey to attack India through Iran and Afghanistan. Consequently in 1915, Maulana Ubaidullah Sindhi was commanded by his teacher and guide to proceed to Afghanistan, when the “Mujahidin” (freedom fighters) of Yagistan informed Maulana Mahmood Hasan that due to shortage of ammunition and food stuff they were not able to carry out their activities against the British government. As such they reported that some Muslim government be persuaded to support the “Mujahidin”. For this purpose Shaikhul-Hind sent Maulana Ubaidullah Sindhi to Kabul and he himself decided to go to Istanbul. But as it was very difficult for him to reach Istanbul directly so he proceeded first to Hijaz. Muhammad Hajjan Shaikh quotes: “Maulana Mahmood Hasan negotiated with Habibullah Khan, the Amir of Afghanistan, and his brother and some of the famous chieftains (sardars). Amongst his brothers there was one Sardar Nasrullah Khan, who in the course of his visit to England in 1898 A.D., had urged the members


of the parliament and high officials of the British government to stop intervention in the internal affairs of Afghanistan. But no one responded to his voice. He therefore on his return formed a political party called “Jamiat-e-Siyasiyyah”. The main object of group was the opposition of the British. Maulana Mahmood Hasan had also established contacts with this party and some of his Afghan contacts were taking leading part in it” . Shaikhul-Hind made efforts to activate the Mujahid camp on the frontier and sent his trusted emissaries to the area for bringing about the unity among the tribes to remove their misunderstanding about the Mujahidin. This he was able to achieve to a considerable degree because he had many pupils in the area who were trusted by the local population. In the beginning the tribes and the Mujahideen were successful but later they began to face difficulties because of shortage of arms and the British propaganda that the Muslims of the frontier area should wait for a lead from the Amir of Afghanistan who was the nearest Muslim monarch. The trick worked out because the British knew that Amir Habibullah Khan would not fight against the British. It was in view of these developments that Maulana Mahmood Hasan had to decide to send Maulana Ubaidullah to Afghanistan to seek their support against the British. He himself wanted to go to Turkey but was not able to go directly. In India many supporters of the Ottoman Caliphate like Muhammad Ali Jawhar, Maulana


Showkat Ali, Maulana Zaffar Ali, were arrested. So it was possible that Shaikhul-Hind would be arrested and it became necessary for him to leave the country. Dr. Mukhtar Ahmad Ansari advised him to leave India for Turkey through Hijaz as soon as possible. He left Deoband at evening on 29th Shawaal 1333 A.H./ September 1915 C.E. Maulana Mahmood Hasan also wanted to go to Constantinople and meet Anwar Pasha, the Turkish war minister, for which the arrangements had been made. But later on Anwar Pasha and Jamal Pasha themselves came to Madinah and Maulana Mahmood was able to have a secret meeting with them and discussed his plan. They advised Indians not to compromise on the question of complete independence by accepting the mandate of any power or its tutelage in any form. They were confident that a peace conference would be convened and it would be in the distant future when Turkey and her allies would raise the question of Indian independence. They appreciated the programme of Shaikhul-Hind and promised to help him in his endeavour to attack India through the Khyber Pass. He also gave a message addressed to the tribal people of the Northwest Frontier assuring them of all possible aid in their anti-British efforts. After having conversation with Anwar Pasha and members of his government, Ubaidullah Sindhi wrote a letter to Shaikhul-Hind, both Ubaidullah and Nasrullah, the son of Amir Habibullah, made a Silk Handkerchief in such a way that it contained all information about

invasion on British India. They got it woven by an expert so skilfully that the full context of the pact along with the date of attack on India was contrived in its pattern. The member of the movement selected for carrying the message from Afghanistan to India and back, was a cloth merchant having business in both countries, India and Afghanistan. He was a disciple of Shaikhul-Hind having masters degree in English literature and was fairly intelligent and could understand the delicate nature of the matter very well. However, in accordance with the instructions, Shaikh Abdul Haq brought this handkerchief to Peshawar and kept folded with the rest of his merchandise. He changed his mind and handed it over to Haq Nawaz Khan at Peshawar as per the instructions given to him. The letters were received at 9 p.m. and sent at 4 a.m. through a reliable person to Hazrat Ghulam Muhammad, the spiritual guide of Maulana Sindhi at Dinpur.

Recovery of Handkerchief by British Army Before the morning prayer the house of Haq Nawaz was besieged by a contingent of the army and he was arrested. Shaikh Abdur Rahim got the Handkerchief next day in the afternoon. In order to escape in the cover of the night he decided to disguise himself. Nonetheless, when he was stitching the handkerchief in his mantle all of a sudden some soldiers jumped over the wall of his house and punched upon him and took possession of the mantle as well as the Handkerchief. In the


meantime, Shaikh Abdur Rahim slipped away. Shaikh Abdur Rahim was brother of Acharya Kripalani and after accepting Islam at the hands of Maulana Ubaidullah Sindhi he had assumed the name of Abdur Rahim. He kept himself concealed till the end of his life for fear of persecution. He was afraid that he might be compelled under duress to disclose the secrets of the movement to the British and bring hardship to his elders. This is how the Silk Handkerchief fell in the hands of the government and all the secrets got disclosed. Who communicated the report of Silk Handkerchief to the government is an important question. However, the fact of the matter is that Amir Habibullah Khan and his son Inayatullah Khan had communicated through wireless the information regarding the Silk Handkerchief to the British government. He had also provided full details of the places and the persons through whom it had to pass. These misdeeds ultimately proved fatal for him and put an end to Inayatullah Khan’s dream of becoming the heir apparent. The correspondence of Maulana Ubaidullah Sindhi with Shaikhul-Hind through letters on the pieces of cloth has been mentioned by Rowlett in his report as the “Silk Letter Conspiracy”. Shaikhul-Hind, of course, was dead against the British rule, when he was invited by Maulana Mohammad Ali Johar to preside over inaugural session of Jamia Millia Islamia at Aligarh on 34 EASTERN CRESCENT | APRIL 2014

20th October 1920, Shaikhul was reminded by well-wishers towards his deteriorating health and he replied “If my presidency caused inconvenience to British then I will definitely attend to that” . His mission was not only to set India free but put an end to British dominance from all Muslim countries.

Address of Shaikhul Hind Shaikhul Hind despite his illness presided over the inaugural session of a National University in Aligarh on 29th October 1920. This university was later renamed Jamia Milia Islamia. Here is the excerpt of his speech at an inaugural function at the university. “I have come here at your call in the hope of rediscovering one of my lost assets. There are pious people whose faces are lit up with the glow of intense worship, but their heart start sinking when they are asked to rise and save the Ummah, their fear is not the fear of Allah but it is a few individuals and their military weapons that they fear the most. Comrades! I, with a few of my friends took a step forward to Aligarh when I felt that I shall find sympathisers in my grief (which has been consuming my bones), not in madrasas, and khanqahs

(monasteries), but in schools and colleges; thus we have been able to establish intimate relations between two historic centres of learning in India, Deoband and Aligarh. My elders never issued Fatwas prohibiting the learning of any foreign language or the sciences of others. Yes, they did say that ultimate result of English Education, as has been generally seen, was that its learners were dyed deep in the ways of the Christians and passed blasphemous remarks about their religion and turned out to be the worshipers of the government of the day. Hence, they considered it better to remain ignorant than to acquire knowledge in such fashion.” Shaikhul-Hind’s contribution to Indian freedom movement thus cannot be ignored. It was this blending of both religious and political concerns in Mahmood Hasan that popularized the cause of freedom of India widely and he himself had to take many risks. What is of primary significance is that the ulamâ of the late 19th and 20th centuries had already contributed much both intellectually and practically towards this end. The later activities and rapport among the various religious and political organizations like Jamiatul Ulama-eHind, Khilafat Movement and Indian National Congress in realizing the common cause of the freedom bears the influence of the political activism of Shaikhul Hind and his followers.