Muslim Contributions to India’s Freedom Struggle – A Different Narrative

Submitted by Professor Nazeer Ahmed

The traditional narrative about India’s struggle for independence takes a political route. The inference is drawn that India’s political elite compelled the reluctant British to give up their Indian empire and depart peacefully.

A deeper look at the forces that led to the dissolution of the British Empire tells a different story. In this second narrative, it is the Indian army, rather than the political movement that emerges as the principal player in India’s freedom struggle. In this narrative, Muslim names have more than their share in the honor rolls of soldiers, men and women, who laid down their lives for the freedom of their country. The sacrifices of these soldiers make every South Asian hold his head high with pride.

The principle of movement in geopolitics is not goodwill but the aggregate, net flow of sheer economic, diplomatic and military power. The British were not moved by the Indian non-cooperation movement and experienced a sudden change of heart to give up India, the crown jewel of their global Empire. They were compelled by geopolitical forces to quit and depart. It was to their credit and political sagacity that they left when they did, peacefully, unlike the French in Indo China who tried to hold onto their empire by brute force and were compelled to withdraw in defeat and ignominy after the battle of Dien Bien Phu (1954).

An extract from a letter written by P.V. Chuckravarty, former Chief Justice of the Calcutta High Court, on March 30 1976, widely available in various publications, including Wikipedia, reads thus: “When I was acting as Governor of West Bengal in 1956, Lord Clement Attlee, who as the British Prime Minister in post war years was responsible for India’s freedom, visited India and stayed in Raj Bhavan Calcutta for two days`85 I put it straight to him like this: ‘The Quit India Movement of Gandhi practically died out long before 1947 and there was nothing in the Indian situation at that time, which made it necessary for the British to leave India in a hurry. Why then did they do so?’ In reply Attlee cited several reasons, the most important of which were the INA activities of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, which weakened the very foundation of the British Empire in India, and the RIN Mutiny which made the British realize that the Indian armed forces could no longer be trusted to prop up the British. When asked about the extent to which the British decision to quit India was influenced by Mahatma Gandhi’s 1942 movement, Attlee’s lips widened in smile of disdain and he uttered, slowly, ‘minimal’.”

The Indian National Army, 1943-45 (INA) and the Naval uprising of 1946

The initial successes of the Japanese army destroyed the myth of European invincibility. Many notable leaders in Asia, such as Sukarno of Indonesia, saw in these initial successes a ray of hope for the liberation of their own countries from entrenched colonialism.

In 1941 and 1942, the Japanese armies advanced rapidly through East Asia and overran large swaths of China as well as the British colonies of Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaya. Thousands of Indian troops who were stationed in these colonies as part of British garrisons were captured. In Malaya alone, some 70,000 Indian soldiers had to surrender. The Japanese onslaught continued and resulted in the capture of the American colony of the Philippines as well as the Dutch colony of Indonesia.

Many of the soldiers felt as did some Asian leaders that the Europeans would not voluntarily relinquish their Asian colonies and had to be forced out. An opportunity for Asia presented itself when the Japanese started to recruit Asian soldiers from the territories they had overrun. Thus was born the INA, out of a combination of a burning desire of stalwart young Indian soldiers to free their county and the Japanese recruitment efforts to bolster their war effort. It was also called the Azad Hind Fauj.

The first INA was formed in 1942 under the leadership of Captain Mohan Singh. But it was not until April 1942, when Subash Chandra Bose, fondly referred to in India as Netaji, assumed the leadership of the INA that the movement took off. Bose was a dynamic leader, a former President of the Indian National Congress with a mass following at home and global stature abroad. His presence electrified the INA. In addition to Indian troops, thousands of expatriates in South East Asia also joined the newly formed national army.

Prior to partition, the British Indian Army was largely recruited from the region between Delhi and Peshawar, an area with a heavy concentration of Muslims. This was as much a reflection of the political conditions in the various provinces of India at the time as it was a legacy from history. While most of India was reeling under the non-cooperation movement, the Punjab under the Unionist party was supportive of the war effort. Consequently, somewhere between 35 and 40 percent of the British Indian Army was Muslim. This composition was also reflected in the soldiers who surrendered to the Japanese in Malaya, Singapore, Hong Kong and later in Burma.

Bose recruited the best available officers for key positions. Noteworthy among those who served in the INA were Lt. Col. Shah Nawaz Khan, Chief of General Staff, Major Habibur Rahman commandant of the Officers Training School, Captain Malik Munawar Khan Awan, Col. Inayat Kiani commandant of the 2nd guerilla brigade, and Col. Abdul Aziz Tajik, commander of the 2nd division during the Imphal (Assam) offensive. A women’s wing, the Rani of Jhansi Brigade was formed under the command of Captain Lakshmi Sahgal. The total strength of the INA in 1945 stood at 40,000 among whom were thousands of Muslim soldiers and officers who served with zeal and dedication.

Short of supplies and hammered by American air power, the INA fought on and suffered enormous casualties. As the Japanese offensive fizzled out, the INA withdrew through the jungles of Burma with thousands more falling due to fatigue, exhaustion and disease.

After the surrender of Japan in August 1945, the INA was disbanded and some of its leaders were put on trial.. Noteworthy among them were Major General Shah Nawaz Khan, Colonel Prem Sehgal and Col. Gurubakh Singh Dhillon. They were accused of treason and abetting the atrocities committed by the Japanese armies in China and Indonesia The court martial of these three officers in Red Fort, Delhi attracted wide publicity in India. None other than Pandit Jawarhalal Nehru himself led the defense team of these stalwarts. There were widespread demonstrations all across India in support of the officers who were hailed as revolutionaries and patriots. The INA had galvanized India as no other movement had done before.

The pent up nationalist energy let loose by the INA manifested itself with full force in the mutiny of the Indian navy in February 1946. What started as a grievance against food served in the cafeterias quickly mushroomed into a full scale boycott and then into a revolt. The first to strike were the sailors on board the ship HMIS Hindustan in Karachi. It quickly spread to HMIS Talwar in Bombay and ships stationed in Cochin, Vizagpatnam, Madras and Calcutta. The strike caught the imagination of a population already fired by exploits of the INA and Subash Chandra Bose. The Tricolor was hoisted across most ships and naval installations. Army personnel in Pune and other barracks joined the revolt.

It must be noted that the mutiny was looked at with disfavor by the major political parties including the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League. Were they concerned that an armed insurrection would lead to a chaotic breakdown of law and order and ultimately lead to international intervention? Was it that they were alarmed at their own loss of control over the fast moving events of the Uprising? Historians may argue about these issues endlessly.

Bereft of political support, the mutiny died down in a few days but not before demonstrating to the British that their hold on the Indian armed forces was slipping. The British Empire was a mammoth enterprise held up by the Indian army and the Indian civil service. The British could no longer count on the Indian army as a reliable partner in keeping the Indian masses at bay.  Britain was exhausted after Hitler’s war. It had no money and had to borrow heavily from the Americans. An unreliable Indian army would mean that the British would have to keep a large army in India to keep India at Bay. Britain was demobilizing and it had no money. These were the reasons that led to their decision to quit India, and to do so in haste.

The British Empire without the Indian army was like a lion that had lost its claws. This was most obvious during the Suez crisis of 1956. The British (along with the French and the Israelis) occupied the Suez Canal in Egypt but were forced to withdraw under American pressure.

This is not to diminish the importance of Gandhi’s non-cooperation movement in India’s independence struggle. Indeed, the events of 1946 highlight Gandhi’s achievements. What Gandhi did was to make India aware of itself. An India that was self-aware responded to the exploits of the INA during the Second World War and the RIN uprising of 1946 with the energy and enthusiasm that forced the British to quit India. It effectively drew the curtain on the British Empire that had dominated the world for two hundred years.

Summarily, Gandhi made India self-aware. The INA, in which the Muslims of Punjab had a dominant position, convinced the British to give up their Indian empire and leave.

Some historians seek to compare Gandhi with Jinnah. The two were leaders of different ilk and a comparison between the two is like comparing apples and oranges. In historical hindsight, Gandhi was closer to Iqbal than Jinnah although their methods were entirely different. Iqbal was a philosopher-poet who made the Muslims of India self-aware. Gandhi had his own philosophy and was a highly effective passive-activist. His non-cooperation movement energized vast sections of India’s population. Jinnah, on the other hand, was a strict constitutionalist. Gandhi transformed India. Iqbal transformed the Muslims of India. Jinnah achieved Pakistan. All three had an impact far beyond the South Asian region. However, none of them can be said to have had a decisive impact on the British decision to quit India when they did. That credit must belong to the INA. This subject requires a deeper analysis.

The First War of India’s Independence (1857)

The uprising of 1857 has been the subject of numerous books, articles and analyses. What is astonishing about the uprising was not that it took place in 1857 but it took so long for it to happen. The British East India Company came to India to trade. Then, as the Mogul Empire disintegrated, they started to meddle in Indian affairs. After winning a protracted struggle with the French for supremacy in Southern India, the British had a clear field for their political aspirations. Their first win came with the historic Battle of Plassey  in Bengal(1757).  As a military event, it  was a only a skirmish.  In its political impact, it was a pivotal event in world history, a hinge around which the destiny of Asia revolved, a milestone that changed the history of the world.

The East India Company had a taste of real wealth in Bengal.  Soon, they turned from trade to loot. The victory at the battle of Buxor (1764) brought them total financial control of Bengal, Bihar and Eastern UP. This they exercised with a rapacity matched only by the greed for profits from the Company stakeholders in London. The well known episode of how Governor General Warren Hastings starved the Begums of Oudh and compelled them to part with their jewelry is now ancient history. The peasants of Bengal went from prosperity to penury. Cheap cotton cloth was imported from England, and discriminatory taxes were imposed to drive the weavers of Bengal and eastern UP into poverty. Maladministration brought about successive famines and thousands perished in Bengal and Bihar.

There was resistance in Southern India from Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan but the British successfully navigated the balance of power in their favor, enticing the Nizam and the Marathas to side with them. Tipu fell in the Battle of Srirangapatam (1799) and the gold from Tipu’s treasury as well as the profitable spice trade from the Malabar coast fell into British hands.

The East India Company continued to consolidate its hold on India by force as with the Anglo-Maratha wars (1803-1818) in Central India and the Anglo-Sikh wars (1845-49) in the Punjab. The other method was the dispossession of Rajas, Nawabs and potentates under the so called Doctrine of Lapse under which a kingdom would be taken over by the British if there was no male heir for the king. Examples of this were the kingdoms of Jhansi, Satara and Oudh.

As India and much of Asia continued its political retrenchment in the 19th century, colonialism enjoyed its heyday. The technology gap between Asia and Europe continued to increase thanks to the industrial revolution and this increasing gap was used by the Europeans to consolidate their hold on Asia and Africa. The Dutch captured Indonesia and French established themselves in Indo China. Even mighty China was forced to bow down when a combined expeditionary force consisting of British and French naval squadrons shot its way up to Beijing and forced the Chinese emperor to capitulate and permit the sale of opium in his vast realm as well as opening up Chinese hinterland to foreign influence (1839-60).

The aggregate thrust of geopolitical forces was in favor of Europe. There was widespread resentment in India and its former ruling classes of the loss of power and increasing poverty thanks to the rapacity of the East India Company. These tensions were inherent in the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized as well as the unbridled capitalism of the East India Company. But what finally ignited the spark of uprising was religion. Increasing wealth tilted the balance of power in Europe towards the Protestant North (English, Holland, Germany) and away from the Catholic South. There was a Protestant resurgence and its impact was felt as far away as India and China. What seemed to have ignited the spark of uprising in India appears to be the increasing aggressiveness of Protestant ministers to preach their faith in India. In one of her proclamations, Begum Hazrat Mahal of Oudh, one of the principal leaders of the Uprising, describes her grievances against the Company (quotation from William Dalrymple, The Last Mughal, Viking Penguin 2006):

“To eat pigs and drink wine, to bite greased cartridges and to mix pig’s fat with sweetmeats, to destroy Hindu and Mussalman temples on pretense of making roads, to build churches, to send clergymen into the streets to preach the Christian religion, to institute English schools, and pay people a monthly stipend for learning the English sciences, while the places of worship of Hindus and Mussalmans are to this day entirely neglected; with all this, how can people believe that religion will not be interfered with?”

This historical document provides one of the few first hand insights of what impelled the ruling classes of India to take up arms against the British.

The uprising started from Meerat and spread rapidly through Lucknow, Kanpur, Barielly, Jaunpur, Gwalior, Agra, Bulandsher, Bijnor, Jhelum and Sialkot. Many were the gallant men and women who fought in that First War of Independence and laid down their lives. Here we briefly highlight the names of some of the heroes of that war.

Begum Hazrat Mahal of Oudh was a wife of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah. In the uprising of1857, after Wajid Ali Shah had been exiled to Calcutta by the British, she and her supporters led by Raja Jailal Singh took control of Lucknow and expelled the Europeans. When the British recaptured Lucknow, she joined forces with Nana Saheb and made Shahjehanpur her base. She held the British at bay for more than a year but was ultimately forced to retreat and seek refuge in Nepal where she passed away in 1879.

Molvi Ahmedulla of Faizabad was a soldier, a patriot, who fought the British valiantly and won the praise of his adversaries for his courage, chivalry and code of honor. One of the British officers, Col. G.B. Malleson, writes this about the Molvi, “The Molvi was a very remarkable man. Of his capacity as a military leader, many proofs were given during the revolt. No other man could boast that he has twice foiled Sir Colin Campbell (hero of the Crimean War) in the field.” The Molvi was a Shaikh of the Qadariya Sufi Order. He arrived in Lucknow in 1856 and one of the first to preach a struggle against the British, traveling far and wide, as did other faqirs,  to Agra, Aligarh, Lucknow and Faizabad. With a large following of his disciples, he took control of Faizabad. He then proceeded to Lucknow where he joined forces with Birjis Qader, the Vali of Lucknow. After the fall of Lucknow, he continued the struggle from Muhammadi as an autonomous ruler but was assassinated by a rebel at Pawayan.

Bakht Khan, was appointed the Commander in Chief of the Mughal army by Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mogul emperor. An able soldier and administrator, Bakht Khan assisted the emperor in military as well as civil administration. When Delhi fell and Bhadur Shah was arrested, Bakht Khan fled and continued to fight until he was killed in the later stages of the Uprising.

Rae Ahmed Nawaz Khan Kharal was head of the Khurrul tribe in Western Punjab. In September 1858, he led the Uprising against the British in Neeli district. After some initial successes, Rae Ahmed laid down in life in battle with a contingent of British Punjab cavalry.

The names of Begum Hazrat Mahal, Molvi Ahmedulla, Commander Bakht Khan and Rae Ahmed stand tall along with the names of more commonly known heroes of the First War of Independence (1858-59) such as Bahadur Shah Zafar, Jhansi Ki Rani, Tantya Tope and Nana Saheb.

The First War of Independence was crushed and its aftermath was brutal. Several reasons may be advanced as to why it did not succeed. First, a great undertaking such as a national war of liberation requires a national focus and a great leader. These were absent.  While some were fired by religious zeal like Maulvi Ahmadulla, others were fighting for privileges usurped by the British. Bahadur Shah Zafar was an old man, a weak ruler and clearly lacked the skills required to lead a national Uprising. Secondly, the struggle was confined to a small part of India, notably, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. Many rajas and nawabs either remained aloof or supported the British. Notable among these were the Nizam of Hyderabad, the Rajas of Bikaneer and Kashmir as well as the Sikhs in the Punjab. Bengal and the South were largely quiet. Even in the centers of the Uprising such as Lucknow there were internal tensions between the Shias and the Sunnis. Third, there was very little coordination among the leaders of the Uprising. The British clearly had the advantage of technology. The telegraph which had just been introduced into India enabled them to maintain effective communications. Lastly, by 1857, the British Empire was well established and the British navy ruled the oceans of the world. They were able to draw reinforcements from as far away as England and Australia.  Lastly, from a global perspective, the Indian Uprising marked the last gasp of the Age of Soldiers, kings and rajas. It marked the onset of the Age of Merchants and Bankers.

Tipu Sultan of Mysore

In the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, there is a gallery which houses imperial artifacts from the British Raj. In a prominent section of the gallery that was opened by none other than Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru, there is a collection of artifacts from Tipu Sultan of Mysore. The plaques attached to the artifacts pay glowing tribute to the Tiger of Mysore as a worthy foe who earned the respect of his enemies through his valor and undaunted courage.

Alas, the name of Tipu commands more respect in the museums of the British who fought him than in his homeland for which he laid down his life. The Sword of Tipu kept the British Empire at bay for forty years. He chose martyrdom over surrender, showing a path of dignity for his countrymen to follow. He is justly the First Freedom Fighter of India.

I have covered at length the life and times of Tipu Sultan in elsewhere in this Encyclopedia ( Here I will highlight a few observations on his fight for his country.

Tipu’s father, Hyder Ali Khan, was a brilliant soldier who rose through the ranks in the Mysore army to become the de-facto ruler of the state. India was in turmoil at this time. The Mughal Empire was weak and was ruled by incompetent monarchs. In 1739, the Persian Nadir Shah invaded India and carried off the peacock throne. The Maratha armies moved up north to fill the political vacuum created by the Persian invasion and carried their sway all the way to Lahore.  In 1757, the British occupied Bengal. In 1761, the Marathas were defeated by Ahmed Shah Abdali of Kabul at the Third Battle of Panipet.  The aftermath of the Third Battle of Panipet created opportunities for new entrants at the periphery of the Maratha empire. It is in the political context that we have to understand the emergence of Hyder Ali in Mysore and the Sikhs in Central Punjab.

There emerged four contestants for power in Southern India. The Nizam was an appointee of the Moghul emperor. He governed the richest of the Moghul provinces consisting of what are today Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and large parts of the erstwhile Andhra Pradesh. The Nizam’s dominions had three subdivisions: Hyderabad, Arcot (modern Tamil Nadu) and Sira (old Mysore State). The second contestant was the Maratha Empire. Although they suffered a reversal at the Third Battle of Panipet, they remained the dominant power in Central and Western India. Based in Sitara-Poona, the southern reaches of the empire nominally extended to the Cauvery River. The third contestant was the East India Company which emerged as the dominant European power after outmaneuvering the French. The fourth was Hyder Ali of Mysore.

The expansion of Mysore territories under Hyder Ali brought him into conflict with the other three contestants for power. The conflict with the Marathas was for control of the region between Tunga Bhadra and Krishna rivers. The dispute with the Nizam was for Bellary, Kurnool and other northern districts. The contest with the British was control of Arcot.

Hyder Ali fought a series of skirmishes with the Nizam and the Marathas and successfully consolidated his dominions in a vast track extending from Goa in the north to Travancore in the South and from the Arabian sea to the Eastern ghats. It is for his struggles with the British that he is best remembered. The First Anglo Mysore War was fought in 1767-69 and was primarily centered on the control of Arcot. It ended when the Mysore armies conducted a surprise raid on Madras and negotiate a truce.

The Second Mysore War (1780-82) was perhaps the most memorable from the Indian perspective. The War involved the French and the Dutch on the Mysore side and indirectly also the Americans under George Washington as the American War of Independence was going on at the same time. It was in the Second Anglo Mysore War that Tipu Sultan distinguished himself by defeating the British armies on multiple occasions. In 1780 at the Battle of Pollilur, he smashed a force under Colonel Bailie and forced him to surrender. This was the worst defeat suffered by the British on Indian soil. The battle is known for the extensive use of rockets by the Mysore army.  After the capture of Srirangapatam (1799) the Mysore rockets were modified by the British and used in the Anglo American war of 1812. It was a sky lit by the explosion of modified Mysore rockets over Washington DC that inspired the Star Spangled Banner. Other notable victories won by Tipu included the Battle of Tanjore against Colonel Braithwaite, the Battle of Bednore against General Mathews and the Battle of Mangalore against Colonel Fullerton. The Second Anglo Mysore War ended in 1782 with the Treaty of Mangalore on terms dictated by Tipu Sultan.

By a coincidence, there was a connection between America and the kingdom of Mysore The American War of Independence ended freeing the British from the burden defending their American colonies.  Cornwallis who had surrendered to George Washington at the battle of York in America was hired by the East India Company and was sent to India. Using the experience in the long, hard fought battles in North America as a springboard, Cornwallis methodically laid out a plan to contain Tipu Sultan. The Nizam of Hyderabad and the Marathas were lured into a tripartite alliance against Tipu. Using an incursion by Tipu’s armies into Travancore as a pretext, Cornwallis launched a sustained attack against Mysore. More than twenty thousand carts were pressed into service to carry the food and ammunition for the British army. The Nizam invaded from the North while the Marathas moved in from the North-West.  The Mysore armies fought valiantly for three long years. But the juggernaut laid out by Cornwallis worked. The allied armies surrounded Srirangapatam. The terms of peace were harsh. Tipu was forced to give almost half of his kingdom and ransom two of his children until a large indemnity was paid to the British.

Tipu Sultan knew the existential threat to India’s freedom from the British. With his indefatigable energy, he streamlined the finances of his kingdom, paid off the British, organized a navy and strengthened his army. He sent delegations to the Amir of Afghanistan, the king of Persia, the Sultan of Oman and the Ottoman Khalifa in Istanbul. When Napoleon emerged as the leader of the French Republic, Tipu Sultan started correspondence with him to launch a joint attack on the British in India. These were giant moves on the world stage. Napoleon responded and moved with a large contingent to occupy Egypt in 1798. The British realized that Tipu was threat to their interests not just in India but their fledging international empire. No cause for war was needed and British armies from Bombay and Madras invaded Mysore along with forces of the Nizam of Hyderabad and a contingent of the Maratha armies. Outnumbered by the enemy, the Mysoreans fought bravely, effectively using the rockets which terrified the British. However, the odds were too high. Tipu fell in the Battle of Srirangapatam on May 5, 1799.

Tipu Sultan held off the mighty British Empire for forty years. He humbled the British in battle and won their admiration as a worthy foe. To drive the British out, he sought the help of the Afghans, the Persians, the Omanis, the Turks and the French. But no help came. The Turks were allies of the British and were fighting the French for their own turf. The Afghans and the Persians were bogged down with Shia-Sunni conflicts along their borders. Napoleon lost the Battle of Acre and was forced to turn around and return to France. Tipu, the tiger of Mysore, fought alone, and fell in battle, fighting for his country. In the annals of those who laid down their lives for the freedom of India, his name is written in bold letters.

From Tipu Sultan to General Nawaz Shah Nawaz Khan, from Begum Hazrat Mahal to Molvi Ahmedulla, the annals of those who laid down their lives for the freedom of India are studded with Muslim names.