By Raza Naeem
Maulvi Barkatullah Bhopali, who was born 159 years ago on the 7th of July earlier this month, was a glorious standard-bearer of the Indian independence movement. He toured Great Britain, Europe, Japan and America, in addition to the Soviet Union, in connection with the struggle against British imperialism.
This essay is the third in a special nine-part series celebrating some of the greatest revolutionaries of the Indian Subcontinent – in part as a tribute to the bicentennial commemoration of Karl Marx worldwide.
Maulvi Barkatullah was amongst those few ulema who travelled to Moscow in May 1919, just a short while after the Bolshevik Revolution. He saw the conditions there with his own eyes, and met Lenin and other Bolshevik leaders. During his stay in Moscow, he said during an interview with the Izvestia newspaper:
“I am not a communist or a socialist but right now my political program includes throwing the British out of Asia. I am a staunch enemy of European capitalism in Asia. Therefore there is complete compromise between myself and the communists over these objectives and we are allies on this field. I do not know what shape the future events will take but what I can definitely say is that the famous appeal of the Soviet government of Russia, in which the people of all nations have been requested to rise up and conduct jihad against capitalists, has greatly influenced us, and what we like more than that is that Soviet Union has revealed all the secret agreements (between Russia and Great Britain) whose objective was to enslave other nations, especially the Eastern nations. Not only this, but the Soviet Union has unilaterally cancelled all such agreements. Russia accepts the principle of equality and evenness between all small and great nations. The ideas of the Bolsheviks, which we call socialism, are also making a place in the hearts of the common Indian people.”
In his book, Bolshevism and Islamic Nations, MaulviBarkatullah writes that:“The actual spirit of Marx’s thought and Divine religions is the same. The objective of both is to provide a dignified and peaceful life to the oppressed, punished people of God by freeing them from cruelty and oppression.”
He further writes that:“The philosopher Plato has presented such a map of his ideal Republic in which ownership would be common and public. The provision of basic needs, sources of entertainment, opportunities for employment will be equal for all. Because of the progress of education, every individual of the nation will benefit from knowledge in a way that his every act will be reasonable and right. These are the basic principles on whose foundation Karl Marx presented the majestic structure, behind which was the knowledge and experience of many generations.”
Maulvi sahib bemoans that in his time there is not even a single Muslim polity which can be called independent in a meaningful sense. He writes that:“Today not even a single independent Muslim state remains because Muslim countries have been subdued at the hands of British imperialism and the dictatorial royal czar, French or Italian colonialism in the 20th century. They are being fully exploited.”
But he is not hopeless with this situation. He says:“There is no cause for hopelessness. After the dark night of the czar’s oppression and tyranny, the dawn of human freedom has arisen on the horizon of Russia in which Lenin is giving the good news of human prosperity, sprinkling the light of his ideas like the sun. That grand scheme which was presented 2000 years before by the philosopher Plato, which was transferred as a great heritage from one generation to the other; today the principles and ideologies of this ideal republic are being given practical shape. Under the leadership of Lenin, this is being popularly accepted as a reality. Across the length and breadth of Russia and in Turkistan, the entire arrangement and administration has been given to workers, people employed in agriculture and ordinary soldiers. The equal rights of all classes and nations have been accepted, every individual has been guaranteed a better life.”
Maulvi Barkatullah not only completely supported the Bolshevik government of Russia but appealed forcefully to the Russian people, especially the Muslims of the Central Asian region to support the Soviet government wholeheartedly and array themselves against its enemies so that the successes of the revolution can be defended; and the intervention and conspiracies of the imperialists can be countered. He noted:
“Now the time has come that the Muslims of the whole world and Asian nations obtain complete information about Russian socialism, understand those golden principles and accept them with full passion and sincerity. The noble and high objectives hidden in the foundation of this modern system demand that Muslims should completely support and defend it. They should unite with Bolshevik forces to make the aggression of British followers and other tyrant rulers unsuccessful; send their children to Russian schools without wasting time so that they can obtain modern science, high arts, practical physics, chemistry and mechanical technique.”
He called to the Muslims: ‘O Muslims! Heed this voice of truth, the message of freedom, equality and brotherhood which comrade Lenin and the Soviet government is giving, say yes to it.”
Maulvi Barkatullah’s entire life was that of a warrior. He passed away on the 20th of September, 1927, in the US.
In her paper titled Orienting India: interwar internationalism in an Asian inflection, 1917-1937, Carolina Margaretha Stolte writes
The Khilafat connection: pilgrims into revolutionaries
In the thought of Mohammed Barkatullah (1859–1927), Pan-Asianism, Pan-Islamism, and Asian communism were intimately connected. Barkatullah was no stranger to ‘Pan’-projects. While the concepts he proposed are an excellent example of the patchwork internationalist grammar that marked the early interwar years, they were consistently internationalist and anti-imperialist.
Having ‘exiled’ himself on political grounds in 1906, he never returned to India. He was a co-founder of the Pan-Aryan Association in New York (‘Aryan’, here, meaning Indo-American collaboration), and had come into contact with incipient Japanese Pan-Asianism during his years as a teacher of Urdu in Tokyo. Active as a Ghadrite in the United States as well as in Berlin, we find him in Central Asia at the close of the First World War, as an Asianist whose projects had a strong Islamist inflection. This, too, had earlier roots; in Japan, he had published a journal called Islamic Fraternity, which, to the dismay of the British, called for anti-imperialist alliances in Asia. Indeed, when Indian involvement in Pan-Asianist projects started to expand in the 1920s, it was to this journal that intelligence services returned: ‘[Pan-Asianism] may be said to date back roughly some 10 or 11 years when Maulvi Mahomed Barkatullah, then Professor of Hindustani at the Tokyo School of Foreign Languages, … published a paper in Tokyo entitled “The Islamic Fraternity” which … generally advocated an alliance of the Asiatic nations against the domination of the white races’. In 1915, Barkatullah met with Mahendra Pratap in Constantinople before proceeding to Kabul where they intended to ask the Amir of Afghanistan, as well as several other leaders in the region, to declare war on the British. Although this request was denied, Pratap did gain the trust of Amir Amanullah and was sent to Soviet Russia as an extraordinary ambassador to establish friendly relations between Afghanistan and the new regime. He met with Lenin in 1919 and was also active in Soviet Turkestan and Bukhara.
Although well-versed in Islamic theology, Barkatullah was never a pronounced PanIslamist. He was sympathetic to Marxist and Leninist theories, and to the Soviet project, but he was not a communist either. During his three-year stay in the Soviet Union, he set out to combine elements of both.