Examine the causes of the partition of India

Examine the causes of the partition of India.
How important was the First World War in intensifying Muslim separatism?
By Libin Farah

The events of the First World War had far reaching consequences as the implications were felt deeply by Indian Muslims. There were existing notions of Pan-Islamism and Muslim separatism within the subcontinent. However, these sentiments were intensified by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire as a result of the First World War.

The discourse on the partition of India at times glosses over the impact of World War I. However, there is historiography that suggests that the First World War was a decisive factor in intensifying ideas about political Islam, thus laying the foundation for the creation of Pakistan.

Although, it should be emphasised that while Muslim separatism was strengthened this did not directly lead to the partition of India. Rather, it is more fitting to suggest that the First World War was a contributory factor rather than a determining factor in that it helped set the ground for ideas of Muslim separatism to materialise in the form of Pakistan.

This essay will examine the impact that World War I had by considering how the collapse of the Ottoman Empire was perceived by Indian Muslims. Secondly this essay will investigate the creation of the Khilafat movement and the impact that they had on society.

Overall, this essay aims to look at the different historiography while arguing that the First World was a crucial event in shaping the Muslim separatist dialogue in the subcontinent. It is not contradictory to suggest that the end of the Caliphate in part led to the creation of Pakistan. However, the First World War was not a determining cause of partition thus making it a contributing factor.

How the collapse of the Ottoman Empire was perceived by Indian Muslims
There was an upsurge in Muslim separatist sentiments in the subcontinent during the First World War which can be traced to the demise of the Ottoman Empire. The significance of this event is given great importance by both modern and traditional historians due to the immediate and long term consequences for Muslims in India.

The Ottoman Empire represented “the unity of the Islamic people and was the symbol of Islam’s world power”. The religious authority of the Ottoman is highlighted by Imams would “mention the Caliphs name during Friday sermons” and political support was demonstrated by Indian Muslims “giving relief to Turkish troops during Ottoman wars such as the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-78”.

The Ottoman Empire had great appeal to Indian Muslims because the empire was the centre of Islamic political power and due to the minority status of Muslims in India it was also seen as a centre of authority for protection. The partition of the Ottoman Empire by the Entente powers, namely Britain, created much agitation amongst Indian Muslims as Christian European colonial powers were penetrating and dividing the last dominant Muslim power.

Indian Muslims attempted to influence the “provisions of the Treaty of Sevres and the territorial adjustments” being made to the boundaries of the Ottoman Empire. Their failure to do so resulted in religious antagonism which created much friction between Indian Muslims and the British, therefore when political doctrines such as Pan-Islamism and Muslim separatism emerged they had anti-colonial undertones.

Indian Muslims felt the urge to strengthen the caliphate and recreate it to some degree. Therefore the consequences of the First World War, in particular the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, contributed to the partition of India because it mobilised Indian Muslims against the colonial state and illuminated the possibility of an alternate political realities by bringing attention to Muslim separatism.

The emergence of the Khilafat movement and how they impacted society and the lives of Indian Muslims
The aftermath of the First World War was the global context in which the Khilafat movement in India was created. A direct link can be made between the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the acceleration of the Khilafat movement in India.

The Khilafat movement was designed to “put pressure on the British government to preserve the boundaries of the Ottoman Empire and preserve the spiritual authority of the Ottoman sultan as the Khalifa of Islam.” The movement itself was founded during the First World War, however, support for the Caliph can be traced back to the “second half of the eighteenth century and by this time the Indian attachment to the Ottoman Empire was an accepted reality.”

The Khilafat movement were able to influence perceptions of a potential Muslim separatist state in two ways. Firstly, by using ideas about civilisation as a means to mobilise Indian Muslims and secondly by appealing to various levels of the Muslim society. The idea of the Khilafat as a civilisation centre that challenged colonial and national borders was perpetuated by the Khilafat movement in India.

Gilmartin discusses the “importance of such civilizational ideals in shaping the meanings attached to Pakistan” based on Venkat Dhulipala’s contemporary writing on the creation of Pakistan. Gilmartin and Dhulipala are contemporary South Asian historians that present a different approach to understand the appeal of the Khilafat movement to the Muslim community.

Gilmartin and Dhulipala develop the notion that the Khilafat movement were offering the idea of a nation state which would “establish a new civilizational centre for modern Muslims.” Dhulipala further elaborates that the creation of a Muslim separatist state would “creatively blend Islam with Indian Muslim experience of modernity.”

From this perspective, it can be understood as to why Indian Muslims had anxiety over their fate during the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. World War I had destroyed their safety net and there was an insecurity that they too would be overwhelmed by the Hindu majority. This explains why Muslim separatism and later the creation of Pakistan had overwhelming support from Muslims because the Khilafat movement framed the idea of a Muslim nation-state within “broader civilizational terms”.

While partition was not explicitly discussed Gilmartin and Dhulipala suggest that the Khilafat movement used ideas of civilisation, the collapse of the Islamic caliphate and the necessity to revive it as a means to mobilise and gain widespread support from Muslims to intensify their aims of Muslim separatism. The development of these concepts are all underpinned by the First World War which gave the impetus for these ideas to be advanced.

Another method adopted by the Khilafat movement was to directly target different social groups. Minault argues that previous historiography on the Khilafat movement has a “major flaw” in that the movement is given a “wholly pan-Islamic interpretation.” In doing so, she argues, that it neglects the most significant aspects of the movement: the development of new forms of communication that targeted each strata of the Muslim society.

This idea can be further evaluated by understanding that the new networks that were created provided the Khilafat movement with the platform to address sections of society that were previously inaccessible. It also allowed them to advance Muslim separatism and build up support from Indian Muslims.

Therefore, when the idea of partition and the creation of a Muslim state was later introduced it was a familiar concept with existing grass roots support. A combination of old methods such as “social service organisations and political groupings” combined with new methods such as “rallying public support through fundraising and the publication of pamphlets” demonstrates that the Khilafat movement was creating a new networks and mediums to reach the wider Muslim community.

The Khilafat movement itself had widespread appeal in that it represented different things for different levels of society. The group had anti-British nature which was the common denominator across the social groups.

For the ulama (Islamic scholars) the movement symbolised the “continued supremacy of Islamic law”, for the peasantry it was Islam itself and their “chance of eternal salvation” and for Western educated moderates it symbolised “the principles of religious freedom and self-determination”.

This technique was important for the psyche of Indian Muslims because these networks provided “structures within Muslim communities which were alternatives to the political and administrative superstructures of British rule”.

The significance of the Khilafat movement here is that they demonstrated that alternative political realities were possible. Muslim separatist sentiments and the politicisation of Islam were facilitated by the consequences of the First World War.

The First World War challenged the imperial world order in that it fuelled anti-imperialist nationalism in the colonies. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the emergence of Turkish and Arab nationalism were difficult to digest by Indian Muslims because ‘they felt no nationalistic urge in relation to India.’

Niemeijer discusses the emergence of nationalism in India and his is one of the most notable contributions to the historiography of Indian nationalism. He draws attention to the compatibility of growing nationalism and Pan-Islamism and suggests that World War I birthed a new wave of nationalism that reduced the political appeal of Pan-Islamism in the Turkey and the Middle East.

This impacted the subcontinent as Pan-Islamism as a political reality was severely undermined by the abolition of the Caliphate and the secularisation of Turkey in 1924. However up until this point the Khilafat movement continued to advocate Pan-Islamism and “told Indian Muslims that the Ataturk’s reforms were of temporal significance.”

From this point Niemeijer argues that the Khilafat movement had to switch gears from advocating for Pan-Islamism to promoting the need for a Muslim state. Therefore to combat the threat posed by nationalism, the Khilafat movement responded by entrenching themselves within Muslim separatism.

Therefore, it could be argued that the emergence of the nationalism as a product of the First World War contributed to the partition of India as it intensified the Khilafat movement’s commitment to a Muslim state.

Ultimately, the Khilafat movement was unsuccessful in its aims of maintaining the borders of the Ottoman and preserving the role of the Caliph. However, that is not to say that the movement was a complete failure.

The group succeeded in spreading Muslim separatist dialogue within the Muslim community. Despite Pan-Islamism not enduring as a political concept it “survived as a socio-cultural sentiment”.

The Khilafat movement was a rallying point for political resistance and was able to mobilise different areas of the Muslim community. While partition was not directly discussed, there were strong sentiments from different strata’s of the Muslim community that an Islamic state of some sort was favoured.

It is important however to keep in mind the wider context in which the Khilafat movement was operating in. The creation of the movement was reactionary to the unfolding events of the First World War, in particular the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. World War I was the catalyst which led to the creation of the movement as well as its guiding philosophy of restoring the Caliphate.

Therefore, it is imperative to contextualise the Khilafat movement and its ideas of Pan-Islamism and Muslim separatism as by-products of the First World War. In this way, a link can be made from the First World War to the creation of Pakistan.

Overall, it is evident that some roots of the partition of India can in fact be traced back to the consequences that the First World War had on the Muslim population of India. Much of the historiography on partition is concerned with the impact rather than causation and even within the historiography of causation not enough attention is given to the role of World War I.

What underpins World War I as one cause of partition is the pro-Ottoman sentiments expressed by Indian Muslims. It is this affection for the Caliphate that birthed the Khilafat movement who successfully promoted the idea of a Muslim state to various levels of the Muslim community.

When assessing World War I as a factor that led to partition, the evidence above has demonstrated that the impact it had was that it produced a strong support base for the creation of Muslim state. In this way, it is not contradictory to suggest that the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, a consequence of the First World War, lead to the creation of Pakistan.

Although the impact of World War I is compelling, when considering World War I amongst other factors that led to the partition of India it bears less significance as it was not a determining factor. It paved the way and created the foundation for partition to take place therefore it would be more fitting to understand the First World War as a contributing factor.


Ahmad, Ishtiaq (2012) “From Pan-Islamism to Muslim Nationalism: Khilafat Movement and the Struggle for Pakistan” in Pakistan Journal of History and Culture, Vol. XXXIII, No.2 accessed on 27th April 2018 http://www.nihcr.edu.pk/Latest_English_Journal/Jrnl%2033-2%20(2012)%20PDF/1.%20From%20Pan-Islamism%20to%20Muslim%20Nationalism,%20Ishtiaq-Butt%20Article.pdf

Dhulipala, Venkat. (2015) Creating a New Medina State Power, Islam, and the Quest for Pakistan in Late Colonial North India, (India: Cambridge University Press)

Gilmartin, David (2015). The Historiography of India’s Partition: Between Civilization and Modernity. The Journal of Asian Studies, 74, pp 23-41 doi:10.1017/S0021911814001685

Krishna, Gopal. “The Khilafat Movement in India: The First Phase (September 1919-August 1920).” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, no. 1/2, 1968, pp. 37–53. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25203021 .

Minault, Gail. (1982) The Khilafat Movement: Religious symbolism and Political Mobilization in India (New York: Columbia University Press).

Niemeijer, A. C. (1972) “Nationalism and Pan-Islamism in 19th Century India.” In The Khilafat Movement in India 1919-1924, 22-48. Brill, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1163/j.ctt1w76v5c.5.

Ozcan, Azmi. (1997) Pan-Islamism: Indian Muslims, the Ottomans and the British (1877-1924), (Leiden: Koninklijke Brill)

Qureshi, M. Naeem, (1999) Pan-Islam in British Indian Politics (Leiden: Koninklijke Brill NV)

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