Forgotten role of Saudi Arabia in the Indian Freedom Struggle

Story by  Saquib Salim | Posted by  Aasha Khosa | Date 10-07-2023
Maulana Obdaiullah Sindhi (Second from left) in Turkey
Maulana Obdaiullah Sindhi (Second from left) in Turkey


Saquib Salim

It’s a little-known fact that Saudi Arabia played an important role in the Indian Freedom Struggle. This country was the only one outside British India to provide support to the Indian revolutionaries during the 150 years of freedom struggle.

At the outset of the Second World War, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose planned to send his men for Haj, and under that cover, they were to recruit anti-British people in Azad Hind Fauj. At that time Indian revolutionaries were operating from Hejaz (now Saudi Arabia).

Before announcing his fight against the British during World War II, Bose met Maulana Ubaidullah Sindhi in 1939. Sindhi was an Indian revolutionary who had formed a Free India Government in exile with Raja Mahendra Pratap and Barkatullah at Kabul in 1915. After World War I he toured countries like Russia, Germany, Italy, etc to create an alliance for the next war of Indian independence. In the 1930s, Sindhi settled down at Makkah after being granted asylum. However, British intelligence alleged that he was preaching Indian Nationalism among Muslim pilgrims visiting the holy city.

A grand plan was prepared at Makkah. The city provided one of the best communication channels to other parts of the world because of Haj. Sindhi returned to India in 1938. According to a letter written by Maulana Abul Kalam Azad to Maulvi Zahirul Haque, Sindhi had told him that he wanted to send Bose abroad for a final battle against the British. Azad wrote that Bose and Sindhi met in Delhi to talk about the future of the Indian Freedom Struggle. They again met in Calcutta (Kolkata) after a few months. Ubaidullah handed over important letters of reference and documents to be given to the Japanese authorities.

Sindhi wasn’t the first Indian revolutionary to use Saudi as his ground of action. The government he formed in 1915 in Kabul was part of a larger plan known as the Silk Letter Movement. This was a collaboration of Ulema, Ghadarites, Bengali revolutionaries, and others to free India by an armed revolution. The leader of the movement was Maulana Mahmood Hasan. He was arrested in 1916 from Hejaz along with  Maulana Husain Ahmad Madani, Anzer Gul, Wahid Ahmad, Hakim Nasrat Husain, and others.

Hasan and Madani were teaching at Makkah and Medina and also influencing pilgrims. They were sent to Malta as Prisoners of War because the British believed,  “if they were kept in confinement in the Hedjaz for a long period they might become interesting and exciting objects of pilgrimage or schemes for help or rescue to many fanatical Muhammadans in India and Afghanistan”.

Maulana Mahmood Hasan, the head of Darul Uloom, Deoband, was also a member of this group. Deoband considers Haji Imdadullah as its spiritual head; Imdadullah’s disciples founded the Madrasa at Deoband after 1857 to prepare revolutionaries.

Imdadullah went for Haj in 1845, where another Indian Shah Muhammad Ishaq directed him to fight the British. Imdadullah wrote, “The conditions of India are not hidden as India is my motherland” and returned to India in 1846. In the districts of Muzaffarnagar, Saharanpur, and Shamli, he started raising an army with the help of his students like Hafiz Muhammad Zamin, Maulana Qasim Nanautvi, Maulana Rashid Ahmad Gangohi, Maulana Mazahar, Maulana Munir Nanautvi.

This army led by Imdadullah fought the British forces in 1857 and liberated Shamli. A civil government governed the town for a few days before the British recaptured it. Thousands of people were killed, and Imdadullah took refuge in Makkah. He reached Makkah in 1859 and used it as a ground to preach anti-colonial ideas among the pilgrims.

Why did Ishaq, who lived in Makkah, ask Imdadullah to fight for Indian independence? In 1821, Syed Ahmad Shahid undertook a journey to Makkah and Medina. He was an Islamic scholar and soldier in Maratha forces. When Marathas signed a treaty with the British, Syed left their army and left for Makkah with a group of people. On his return from Haj, he attained martyrdom while fighting the British.

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In the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, British intelligence raised several alarms with the Saudi authority to check Indian revolutionaries in Makkah, Medina, and Jeddah. Indian revolutionaries in the name of Haj visited Saudi Arabia to meet each other freely. British intelligence kept an eye on them. Memoirs of all these revolutionaries show that the local Arabs fully supported their cause and mission.