By Owen Bennett-Jones
08 December 2016
A CENTURY ago, in British-ruled Multan, the Punjab authorities detained a messenger by the name of Abdul Haq. He had travelled from Kabul with three yellow silk letters sewn into the lining of his coat.
At first the British authorities did not know what to make of them. Written in neat, almost flawless Urdu, the letters revealed details of a worldwide plot to overthrow the British. The commissioner of Multan dismissed them as “childish rot”. But some of his colleagues took a different view, and over the next months and years British colonial officials produced thousands of pages of analysis of the letters as they tried to understand their significance for the future of British rule on the subcontinent.
Two of the letters had been written by a Sikh convert to Islam and Deoband graduate, Obedullah Sindhi, who had gone to Kabul in the hope of gathering international support for what he envisaged as a concerted effort by Muslim forces around the world to overthrow British rule. After a disappointing response from the Afghans, he put pen to silk in the hope of encouraging the then principal of the Deoband madressah, Mahmud Hassan, to travel to Istanbul to see if he could do any better.
The precise relationship between the two men remains unclear. By some accounts Hassan was the plot leader bending Sindhi to his will. Others see Sindhi as the more determined man, who had to persuade a reluctant Hassan to go along with his schemes. Whatever the truth of that issue, everyone can agree that the two men’s plans were grandiose.
The silk letters spoke of an “alliance amongst Islamic Kings… This is the only way of inflicting an effective blow against the infidels of India”. The idea was to send emissaries not only to all the major centres of Muslim power but also to Britain’s First World War enemies such as Germany. Then, when arms supplies were secured, the rebellion in India could begin.
Under the general command of Mahmud Hassan there were to be commands in Constantinople, Tehran and Kabul and then, in India itself, 11 field marshals and many colonels to lead the effort to kick the British out. But the plot, as British officials put it, was “nipped in the bud”. Having intercepted the letters, the British moved fast and arrested many of the key plotters.
In a fascinating parallel with the post 9/11 rendition programmes, Mahmud Hassan was moved from Makkah to Cairo and after interrogation there, sent to the island of Malta until the world war was over. Officials did not want him to be imprisoned in India itself for fear of arousing Muslim anti-British feeling.
A hundred years on, those looking back on the affair have very different interpretations of what happened. British literature to this day talks about a ‘Silk Letters Conspiracy’. Those more hostile to British rule prefer to discuss the ‘Silk Letter Movement’. Many in the West who worry about radical Islamism see a common thread between Deobandis advocating violent jihad in 1916 and those doing the same today.
The Indian state, however, has a different take, seeing the affair as evidence of how Muslims were part of a unified independence struggle. In January 2013, the Indian authorities issued a postage stamp celebrating the Silk Letter Movement as a nationalist contribution to Indian independence.
For their part, Indian Deobandis are happy enough to bask in that reflected glory. Their historians tend to play up the willingness of their Deobandi predecessors to support the use of force to overthrow the British. But their books about the affair also draw another lesson with contemporary echoes: that then, as now, Islamic movements are undermined by a lack of Muslim solidarity.
But perhaps the most striking aspect of how the silk letters were viewed then and now lies in a comparison of the language used by the British colonial officials a century ago and Pakistani ones today. The archives show that, in page after page of official commentary on the letters, the British colonialists expressed their fear of clerics using religion to rouse the emotions of the people.
As one official wrote, “It is possible, if not probable, that the time might come when persistent preachers of jihad would affect large numbers in India and across the border in the same way as they have already affected individuals.”
The British Criminal Investigations Department concluded that the plan had been to overthrow the British: “by exciting religious fanaticism... by perverted teaching … and in other ways by stirring up hatred against the British Government among the frontier tribes in Afghanistan.” Replace the words ‘fanaticism’ with ‘extremism’ and ‘British’ with ‘Pakistani’ and you could be listening to a Western politician today, or even an ISPR statement in support of the National Action Plan.
Owen Bennett-Jones is a British journalist and author of Pakistan: Eye of the Storm.