Allama Mashriqi & the 1943 Bengal Famine. By Nasim Yousaf

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Allama Mashriqi was a prominent reformer, revolutionary, and humanitarian from the Indian sub-continent. One of the reasons for Mashriqi’s popularity was that he and his Khaksar Movement worked tirelessly to serve the masses. This article discusses the Bengal Famine of 1943, when the Khaksars played a laudable role in providing social services to the people in a time of great need. This time period also sheds light on how the Government of British India and Mashriqi’s political opponents felt threatened by the Tehrik and opposed its efforts, ultimately resulting in a Government ban on the Khaksars’ humanitarian work in Bengal.

During the time of the Second World War (WWII), around mid-June of 1943, the Bengal area was faced with a terrible famine. It was a devastating time, as millions of people starved, bodies were lying everywhere, and over three million perished. The Khaksar Tehrik’s English weekly newspaper The Radiance (Aligarh) wrote at the time (in an article entitled “The Bengal Famine” dated September 24, 1943): “This famine has not come down like the bolt from the blue. It was clearly foreseen or foreseeable. It is not an Act of God. It is the sin of man – the result of man’s stupidity and tyranny” (also see “Our Duty to Bengal” in The Radiance, dated October 08, 1944). Allama Mashriqi mainly blamed the Government for the famine; he refused to watch his fellow citizens dying or suffering from malnutrition and starvation and planned to save at least a half a million victims. On September 15, 1943, Mashriqi issued the following order to Khaksars all over India:

“Hunger and death in Bengal need no comment. This is perhaps the only event in history when human beings are dying in thousands…and Government is fiddling away the time. The situation has been literally unbearable to many of us and I have passed many sleepless nights.”

Mashriqi issued the following directive: “…I order that every group [of Khaksars] must make itself ready to support one person until hunger and death disappear…Hindu as well as Muslim Khaksars should take part in this movement irrespective of caste or creed…must take the most active part in organsing [organizing] this vast human effort for good…” (Source: Help Bengal! Allama’s Order, The Radiance, September 24, 1943).

Information about Mashriqi’s order also appeared in the Governor of Punjab’s confidential report for the second half of September 1943, which stated that Mashriqi had issued a directive to Khaksars throughout India to help Bengal famine evacuees (IOL L/P&J/5/246, p. 38). Following Mashriqi’s order, a large number of male and female Khaksars from various religious faiths joined the effort. From the Muslim side, some Khaksars included Tahira Begum (Nazim-i-Ala), Saeeda Bano, and professors (e.g. Prof. Rafiq Ahmed, Prof. Ubaidullah Durrani) and students of Aligarh Muslim University. From the non-Muslim side, some Khaksars were Pandit Amar Nath Joshi (Naib Salar-i-Azam, Mani Ram (Nazim-e-Sind) and Jaindu Ram.

In order to help the victims of the famine, a Central Relief Camp (“Bengal Destitutes Camp”) as well as district camps were set-up. The central camp was at Mohammad Ali Park in Calcutta (now Kolkata) under the control of M. Shafi Khokhar (Nazim-i-Alah Muhajareen) and Abdur Rashid Qureshi (Hakim-e-Ala, Bengal). Sick and destitute individuals in the camps were seen by medical experts (e.g. Dr. Abu Zafar Mohammad Tahir).

One of the remarkable aspects of the Khakasar Tehrik was its commitment to treating everyone equally and fairly at a time when communalism and territorialism were actively promoted by other political parties. Mashriqi commanded the Khaksars: “No discrimination of whatever sort is to be allowed. Hindus and Muslims and Sikhs, and Christians [Parsees, Jews] are all equally the creatures of God. The food restrictions of different casts and religions are to be strictly observed” (The Radiance, Aligarh, October 08, 1943).

Because of the limited resources available in Bengal, it eventually became indispensable to shift the victims to various parts of India. Mashriqi got permission from the Premier of Bengal Sir Khawaja Nazimuddin to evacuate the victims from Bengal and made another proclamation:

“the only thing we can do is to invite our suffering brethren from Bengal and share our bread with them…Half a million people can be very easily absorbed in the remaining 39 ½ million” (The Radiance, Aligarh, October 18, 1943).

Per Mashriqi’s plan, the victims would be supported by the Khaksars until they were rehabilitated or until they could go back to their respective homes in Bengal. Based on Mashriqi’s order, tens of thousands of Muslims and non-Muslims were transported to various cities of India. A Secret Police Abstract of Intelligence (Punjab) dated December 11, 1943 confirmed that new groups of destitute people (including both Muslims and Hindus) had been brought to Gujrat, Ferozepore, Gujranwala, Lahore, Multan, and Ambala. The police abstract also discussed Mashriqi’s orders to organize the relief effort. Many Muslims and non-Muslims visited the camps to learn about the help the Khaksars were providing and lauded them for working 24 hours a day with complete discipline to provide services to the victims, while also maintaining a respect for the victims’ differing religious beliefs. In December of 1943, Begum Amtul Salam of the Shevagram Ashram Wardha also visited the Central Camp at Mohammad Ali Park and found the relief activity to be highly disciplined and commendable; impressed with the relief work, she issued a Press Statement:

“I am very happy to have met you [Khaksars] and seen your work…There is no doubt that we can establish Hindu-Muslim unity only by serving each other…Personally speaking, there cannot be a more praiseworthy effort…for Hindu- Muslim unity….This the mission of my life. I hope you will fully help me in this mission I thank you all very heartily for the honour you have bestowed on my humble self” (The Radiance, Aligarh, December 17, 1943).

People from all over India watched as the Khaksars moved victims to different cities and took care of the Bengalis. The nation admired Mashriqi and the Khaksars’ philanthropic services. As a result, the Khaksar Tehrik’s reputation was bolstered in India and the Tehrik’s membership grew immensely.

All of this of course did not sit well with the British rulers and Mashriqi’s political rivals; both groups felt threatened by Mashriqi’s popularity and the Khaksar Tehrik’s growth. The matter was discussed in Government circles, including high-ups such as Sir Richard Tottenham (Additional Secretary), Sir Reginald Maxwell (Home Member), and Sir Bertrand James Glancy (Punjab Governor); they were extremely unhappy with the Bengal Premier, Khawaja Nazimuddin, for allowing relief work and free railway transportation for victims, which was being done under an agreement with the Khaksar Tehrik. On the political side, Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Hindu Mahasabha leaders (among others) were also concerned about the Khaksars’ growing popularity. The President of the Hindu Mahasabha, Dr. Shyamaprasad Mukherji, threatened a “Press Campaign” against the Khaksar Tehrik. Another Mahasabha leader, V.D. Savarkar, made a false and “mischievous.” claim that the Khaksars were converting “starving Hindu women and children to Islamic faith.” The idea was to defame and reduce Mashriqi’s popularity and gain grounds for the Hindu Mahasabha (which had no popularity in Bengal).

In order to damage Mashriqi and contain the Khaksar Tehrik’s growth, false propaganda from the Government as well as by political opponents was unleashed, including by pro-Government, pro-opposition media sources. Their false allegations included: (1) victims would become a burden on provincial governments, (2) the Khaksar activities were intended to “boost” the Khaksar Movement, and (3) Khaksars were converting Hindus to Muslims. These opposing sources even went so far as to collect false statements from a few of the destitute through either bribery or pressure. In order to further harrass the Khaksars, the Government of Bengal in Dhaka (Dacca) initiated a court case accusing the Khaksars of kidnapping children.

The opposition was indeed deplorable to any sane person; anti-Mashriqi elements were severely criticized by many, including Dr. K.N. Islam (who later wrote a book in the 1980s in Bengali entitled “Allama Masreki o Khakasara Andolana”). To reject the opposition’s flimsy allegations and charges, on December 19, 1943, Mashriqi telegraphically informed Abdur Rashid Qureshi (Hakim-e-Alah, Bengal) to have Hindu Khaksar leaders manage the Hindu destitutes (to refute the criticism that the Khaksars were trying to convert Hindus):

“Authorise [Authorize] Pandit Amar Nath Joshi, Naib Salar-i-Azam, Mani Ram, Nazim-i-Sind, Jaindu Ram, jointly to distribute Hindu destitutes all over India to the utmost satisfaction of everybody…Obstructions put by Communal organizations incapable of saving destitues from death themselves under base political motives most callous. Refuse response to them in this work of saving humanity irrespective of cast or creed (The Radiance, Aligarh, December 24, 1943).

Despite Mashriqi’s step, Premier Khawaja Nazimuddin issued another order according to which “no more Khaksars would be allowed to enter Calcutta for relief work” (Source: a note by Sir Richard Tottenham dated December 23, 1943). Premier Nazimuddin also informed Khaksar leader Professor Rafiq Ahmed of Aligrah Muslim University, “We cannot allow you to take destitutes from Bengal…you are taking them in large numbers…the Government of India do not want the destitues to be taken away…” (The Radiance, Aligarh, December 31, 1943).

When this ban was imposed on the Khaksars’ humanitarian efforts, many throughout the country were upset and angry. Zamindar daily published a news item appreciating the Khaksars and indicating that their efforts would be forever remembered in Indian and human history. The newspaper also denounced the Government’s ban (Zamindar, December 25, 1943).

Mashriqi was naturally angry with the Government for canceling the agreement and also with his political opponents, including Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s All-India Muslim League, who he believed were trying to block the Tehrik’s humanitarian efforts and putting self-interests above the needs of the people. According to a Sind Police Abstract (On December 12, 1945), Mashriqi stated that the [Jinnah’s All-India Muslim] League was responsible for a number of negative acts, such as “the deaths of lacs [hundreds of thousands]” of people during the Bengal famine, and that Leaguers “took bribes openly” making “lacs of rupees [Hundreds of thousands rupees].” According to the abstract, Mashraqi also criticized the “capitalist mentality” of Indian National Congress leadership.

Upon the Bengal Premier’s cancellation of the agreement with the Khaksars, Mashriqi sent a telegram to Jinnah (as the Premier’s cancellation had Jinnah’s implicit consent): [Translated from Urdu] Notwithstanding your extremely objectionable, vindictive and one-sided attitude towards the Khaksars, I make a final appeal to you to make Nazimuddin continue November agreement [on] removal [of] Bengal destitutes…please consider patiently your heartless cruelty based on political motives also results refusal my humble request – Inayatullah Khan Ichhra.”

 

Khaksar Abdur Rashid Qureshi (Hakim-e-Ala, Bengal) also issued a Press Statement regarding the Bengal Premier’s order: the Khaksars "find the purpose of the heavy sacrifice they [Khaksars] made in their business and educational activities defeated by the Government of Bengal cancelling its agreement with them without notice and for no reason" (The Indian Express, June 07, 1944). Khaksars and the public were surprised that M.K. Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru did not condemn the Central or the Bengal Government for banning the Khaksars’ humanitarian activities. Their silence spoke of their anti-Khaksar mindset.

 

The Bengal famine was a fitting example of the Khaksars’ tireless devotion to the masses and the Government and opposition’s political motivations. Despite the Bengal Government’s actions, Mashriqi and the Khaksars continued to serve the people in other parts of India. Mashriqi believed in uniting the human race and from the very start of the movement had made regular community service a key and compulsory feature of the Khaksar Movement. As a result, millions of Khaksars all over India followed his policy of spreading brotherhood, which earned him the utmost respect.

Mashriqi’s teachings of bringing together all people, regardless of religion, class, color, or creed are relevant even today. This spirit of inclusiveness needs to be instilled from the early school days to defeat the divisiveness that exists around the world. Ultimately, people should not support leaders who seek to divide them or try to foment communalism in order to gain or maintain their power, and instead support those who work tirelessly to bring them together.

Nasim Yousaf is a historian and scholar and a grandson of Allama Mashriqi; his works have been published in renowned peer-reviewed publications and he has presented papers at well-known academic conferences in the US.

Copyright © 2020 Nasim Yousaf

 

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