Remembering Maulana Barakatullah on the occasion of Bharat Ki Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav

By Prof Abdul Ali*

Maulana Barakatullah (1859-1927) was one of the distinguished luminaries of modern India. He was a multidimensional personality and indefatigable freedom fighter. He appeared on the scene of the Indian freedom movement at a time when the Indians in general and the Muslims in particular had become demoralized through their constant persecution and harassment at the hands of the British authorities in the wake of the failure of 1857. Another serious setback of far-reaching implications that confronted the stalwarts of the freedom movement as a backlash of the defeat of the 1857 mutiny was the danger posed to the deep-rooted composite culture of India. Applying the divide-and-rule tactics, the British encouraged and doctored pseudo-reformist Hindu and Muslim currents, thereby separating Hindu history from Muslim history at the cost of the Ganga-Yamuni tehzib (culture) which had remained intact in the subcontinent till 1857 and had filtered down to peasant village and artisan culture.

It was against this background that Maulana Barakatullah and like-minded revolutionaries appeared on the scene and thwarted the nefarious design of the British as well as championed the cause of the freedom movement by strengthening the forces of national integration on the basis of the liberal-secular ingredients of the unifying composite culture of India. The Maulana became a symbol and champion of Hindu-Muslim unity. He tried his best to see that both Hindus and Muslims remained united. But for that, India might not have achieved independence.

He took upon himself the task of freeing India by soliciting support from the countries hostile to Britain. With that aim in sight, he embarked upon his self-styled political exile which lasted for about 40 long hectic years. He spent 11 years in England, 6 years in the USA, 5 years in Japan and a considerable part of his life in Central Europe, Central Asia and Soviet Russia.

Barakatullah worked in close association and collaboration with such revolutionary stalwarts as Shyam Krishna Verma, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Lala Hardayal, Champakraman Pillai, Ras Bihari Bose, Tarak Nath Das, Bhagwan Singh, alias Natha Singh, Lucas Joshi, Indu Bhushan Dey Mazumdar, Madame Bhikaji Cama, Virendrannath Chattopadhyaya, and his life-long friend Raja Mahendra Pratap.

The Maulana had an academic side also. Side by side with his work for independence, he studied strenuously and became a polyglot and distinguished scholar of literature and international politics. He served as Professor of Arabic at the Oriental College in Liverpool University on a salary of Rs. 1500 per month. His academic leaning brought him into contact with such reputed authors and Orientalists as Stanley Edward Lane-Poole and E. J. W. Gibb and assisted them in their comprehension of Arabic and Persian sources of history. No wonder, Gibb acknowledged his sincere thanks to Barakatullah for having ” placed with the utmost kindness at his disposal the stores of his great erudition”.

Barakatullah wielded a facile pen and was a fine, eloquent speaker. He took pen as a fighting weapon and published blazing articles in leading journals and dailies of England, America and Japan to incite the fire of independence. Even his Islam was deeply overshadowed by Indian nationalism and anti-imperialism. He is credited with having worked out a remarkable synthesis of different ideologies including communism. As rightly pointed out by Ramnath Maia in her Haj to Utopia, Barakatullah was the most important interfacer of Pan-Islamism, communism and the Indian national liberation struggle. He was a sort of connecting link between different movements of concern to the Indian freedom fighters. He was a nationalist to the core. He was completely free from any religious or communal bias. In the words of the German diplomatic attache Otto von Hentig: “Barakatullah was first in line a nationalist and then a Muslim”.

After having worked in England and America, he left for anti-British Japan which he found to be a fertile ground for his nationalist activites. His arrival in Tokyo in February 1909 gave a shot in the arm to the anti-British political activites at India House. He was appointed as Professor of Urdu and Persian at Tokyo School of Foreign Languages on March 7, 1909. Wherever he went, he always remained under the strict surveillance of British intelligence. Soon he became very popular among both the Japanese and the Indians. An idea of this fact may be had from the statement given to the police after much interrogation by Kanchan Kumar: “Barakatullah is a good and spirited speaker… He speaks against the British Government. He was a great favourite of the Indians and the Japanese, and commanded immense influence. In my opinion Barakatullah is the Shyamji Krishna Verma of Japan. He carried on correspondence in cipher (code). Savant, Gikhale and Mukherji know Japanese and are friends of Barakatullah ”.

Barakatullah published a number of journals and periodicals, in which he espoused the cause of freedom of India by highlighting the British atrocities. He was the chief transit point for the dissemination of revolutionary literature including the Indian Sociologist edited by Krishna Verma and other journals from America and Europe. He also managed to circulate his own revolutionary writings among Indians throughout India and East Asia via Singapore. No wonder, Tokyo had become an important headquarters of the activities of Indian revolutionaries, which was later fully exploited by Rash Behari Bose and Subhash Chandra Bose as a base in their freedom struggle. Ultimately, Barakatullah was extradited from Japan under pressure from the British Government.

Undaunted, Barakatullah returned to San Francisco, accompanied by a leader of the Ghadar Party which was founded by Lala Hardayal and his associates in 1913. He joined the Yugantar Ashram and worked with Taraknath Das in the editorial department of the party to edit the weekly Ghadar paper. The Ghadar party was the first organized violent bid for freedom after the uprising of 1857. Barakatullah played an important role in strengthening the party.

Another great contribution of Barakatullah was that with help of Raja Mahendra Pratap and with the support of Germany and Turkey, he succeeded in forming during the First World War an Azad Indian Government-in-exile on 1st December, 1915, in Kabul. He himself was designated as Prime Minister of the Government, while Raja Mahendra Pratap was made its President. The parallel Government in Afghanistan was established with the avowed aim of organising an armed revolt in India. Its ambassadors were sent to different countries such as Japan, Turkey, Russia and China. But this government could not function for a long time due to adverse circumstances.

Even after the collapse of the parallel government in Kabul, both Barakatullah and Mahendra Pratap remained active and busy making efforts for the independence of their country. They travelled widely in Germany, France and Russia. But the hectic political activities adversely affected the health of the Maulana, following which he was shifted to Germany for treatment along with Raja Mahendra Pratap. When he recovered, he resumed his nationalistic activities with full vigour.

Barakatullah visited Berlin in 1926 where he met Jawaharlal Nehru. Giving his impressions of the meeting, Nehru called him a progressive Moulvi and different from others. He also described him to be “a delightful old man, very enthusiastic, very simple and very likable, who was trying to imbibe new ideas and understand the present day world”. In February 1927, the Maulana participated as a representative of the Ghadar Party at an anti-imperialism international conference held at Brussels where he met Jawahar Lal Nehru for the second time, who represented the Indian National Congress at the Conference.

Finally, Barakatullah left for San Francisco, accompanied by Mahendra Pratap, in July 1927 on the invitation of the Ghadar Party. But his condition suddenly worsened and he breathed his last on the night of 27th September,1927. Raja Mahendra Pratp acted as his closest relation on that occasion. He was buried in Sacramento Historic Cemetery. His funeral was attended by large numbers of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. On his death a glowing tribute was paid to him in the United State of India, a publication of the Ghadar Party, a small portion of which is quoted below: ” His death is a great loss to India in that it constitutes a serious blow to the revolutionary movement whose main pillar he had been for more than thirty years. The loss will not be easily forgotten, nor will the gap created soon be filled. Heroes like Barakatullah are not born everyday… He wandered from place to place as a political refugee. It was just a matter of good fortune that he did not actually fall into the enemy’s trap, from which there would have been no escape”.

*Former Chairman, Department of Islamic Studies, AMU, Aligarh

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