Ahrar: a chapter in Indian Muslim history

Book: Political Islam in Colonial Punjab: Majlis-i-Ahrar 1929-1949 Author: Dr Samina Awan Publisher: Oxford University Press, 2010 Pages: 235 Price: Rs 625   Aamir Riaz

Religio-sectarian by birth, activist by instinct, anti-imperialist and anti-feudal by ideology and nationalist by passion, the Majlis-i-Ahrar-i-Islam (MAI), a conservative Sunni Mulsim political party founded in 1929, died an early death but not without leaving an impact on major cities of Punjab like Amritsar, Lahore, Sialkot, Multan, Ludhiana and Gurdaspur.

The Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919 and the disintegration of the Khilafat Movement in 1922 gave birth to numerous organisations not only in the Punjab but also in the former NWFP, Bengal, UP, Bihar, Kashmir etc.

The politics of the second decade of the twentieth century was characterised by joint struggle against the imperialist rule not only in streets but also in the assemblies. Yet the undoing of Khilafat Movement proved to be the parting of ways among the liberals, nationalists, and fundamentalists. When the All India National Congress (AINC) endorsed Gandhi’s Non-Cooperation campaign (which sought to increase pressure on the British through peaceful civil disobedience together with the Khilafatists), Jinnah was among those Congress liberal leaders who publicly criticised the movement. Finally, 20 of them including Jinnah, K M Munshi, G. S. Khaparde and others left Congress at its Nagpur session 1920.

In 1922, a second lot of politicians like Motilal Nehru, Vithalbhai Patel and Chittaranjan Das followed Jinnah and formed the Swaraj Party against religion-based policies of Gandhi. Unlike Gandhi, they participated in the elections of provincial legislative assemblies throughout the 1920s. After some shifts and jerks in the 1920s, the Khilafat Committee and the AINC disintegrated into numerous territorial and ethnic factions. Majlis-i Ahrar-i Islam was one of them, confined to the Punjab.

The book, Political Islam in Colonial Punjab: Majlis-i-Ahrar 1929-49 is a PhD thesis of Dr Samina Awan who is Chairperson of the Department of History at Allama Iqbal Open University, Islamabad. The author rightly calls the book, “a journey through several interrelated domains including political Islam; South Asian Muslim identity politics; and the transformation of Punjab from a bastion of the Raj to a sword-arm of Pakistan Movement. The work, indeed the first of its nature, is an essential study to comprehend Punjab’s politics of the last two decades before partition. Yet she failed to link the whole phenomenon with pitfalls like the Lucknow Pact (1916) and emergence of provincial powers after the Government of India Act 1919.

Hakim Ajmal Khan, Iqbal, CR Das, Sir Mian Muhammad Shafi and leaders of Ahrar were against the Lucknow Pact. The issue of separate electorates got prominence in the Muslim majority provinces by the late 1920s due to the unwise weightage formula of the Lucknow Pact.

Ahrar, founded in Lahore on Dec 29, 1929, had a variety of leaders from the very beginning. It had parliamentarians like Maulana Mazhar Ali Azhar (son of a respected Shia literary family from Batala), Ch. Afzal Haq a well-known writer and intellectual, Ch Abdur Rahman, son of a prominent Rajput family of Juandhar and orators like Syed Ata Ullah Shah Bukhari, Sheikh Husam-ud-Din, and Maulana Habibur Rehman Ludhianwi and activists trained under Naujawan Bharat Sabha, like Master Taj-ud-Din Ludhinavi. According to Ch Afzal Haq, “Ahrar had Sunnis, Shias, Barelvis, Devbandies and Wahabis in it”, yet their over-emphasis on anti-Ahmadi politics restricted them to a sectarian framework. Islamic socialism was their alternative slogan but, unlike Z. A. Bhutto, they failed to make it into an election slogan.

The Kashmir Movement 1931 was their first test; here they had to face opposition from the All India Kashmir Committee, which was headed by Mirza Basheer-ud-Din Mahmood who was the head of the Ahmadya community. The 12 member Committee had personalities like Maulana Zafar Ali Khan, Fazil-i-Hussain, Muhammed Iqbal, Ghulam Rasool Mehr, Syed Mohsin Shah and Khawaja Hassan Nizami. According to the book, “The main office of the Committee was established in Qadian.” In a few months, trained agitators of Ahrar not only mobilised the Punjabis and Kashmiris by Jail Bharo campaigns but also launched heavy criticism on Muslim leaders who accepted the leadership of Mirza sahib.

“As a consequence of their successful agitation, Iqbal resigned from Kashmir Committee and gave a press statement against Qadiani leadership.” There was dictatorial rule in the princely states and Ahrar politicised these issues smartly not only in different States but also in adjourning settled areas. Unlike AINC, Ahrar supported the communal awards in 1932 and got prominence in the eyes of Punjabi leaders like Iqbal. In June 1933, Ahrar participated in three by-elections of the Punjab assembly. Afzal Haq, Mazhar Ali Azhar and Ch Abdur Rahman won all three seats. In 1934, Ahrar participated in the elections for the Indian Legislature and won two seats -- K L Gauba in Lahore and Qazi Muhammad Ahmad Kazmi in Meerut, UP.

The author gives new information about the strengthening of relations between Ahrar and Jinnah in mid-1930s. According to her, Ahrar leaders held several meeting with Jinnah before the 1937 elections. “Jinnah’s talk with the leaders of MAI and Majlis-i- Itehad-i Milli were successful, and Iqbal provided requisite help in this context.” The author also gives references of Jinnah’s exclusive meeting with Ahrar’s leaders at Abdul Qavi’s residence in Lahore. “MAI arranged a public meeting in honour of Jinnah where her volunteers guarded him with their symbolic axes”.

Jinnah announced All India Muslim League (AIML) Parliamentary Board, which had four MAI leaders, Afzal Haq, Sheikh Hassam u Din, Abdul Aziz Begowal and Khwaja Ghulam Hussain. Due to immaturities of both MAI and AIML, the alliance could not last for more than 5 months and it broke much before the election eve. Ahrar, Muslim League and Congress were among losers in the Punjab yet League immediately revisited its policies reflected in the historic Jinnah-Sikandar Pact (October 1937) which created new spaces for it to grow in the Punjab.

As for the Ahrar, it could not understand the power politics in the new electoral phase. The British government introduced an amendment in the Defence of India bill on 15 September 1938. According to this amendment, no one could launch propaganda against recruitment in the British Indian army. The Ahrar launched an anti-recruitment campaign immediately. As Congress was holding ministries in seven provinces, it did not support Ahrar on this. Interestingly, Subhas Chandra Bose criticised the Congress and supported the Ahrar on this issue. “Till December 1939, 7500 Ahrar volunteers had been arrested including its president Sheikh Hassamud Din from all over India”.

Left out in the political wilderness, Ahrar started a defamation campaign against the Muslim League, Lahore resolution and Jinnah which further discredited it among the people. During early 1942, Ahrar tried to regain its old glory but failed to attract the people. Finally, it lost the 1946 elections which compelled it to revisit its politics and ideology.

After the creation of Pakistan, in the Defence of Pakistan Conference (Dec 12-14, 1947), Ahrar disbanded. According to my late father Sheikh Riaz-ud-Din who was the son of Sheikh Hassamud Din who was present in that meeting, “Our leaders said that people have rejected us, our ideology is defeated and we have to accept that defeat boldly.” It was an unprecedented, politically mature, brave and wise decision. The most interesting riddle remains unresolved, which is that our official record, including the Munir Commission Report, shows Ahrar’s involvement in a movement (anti-Ahmadya movement of 1953) which started four years after its demise. (

The author is a Lahore-based researcher and editor