The Bombay Building That Brought Hindus and Muslims Together to Free India
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
An important lesson lies in a building that never made it into history textbooks.
By Devyani Nighoskar
“Hargiz nameerad aan ke dilaash zinda shud ba-ishq / sabt ast bar jareeda-e-aalam dawam-e-ma.”
One whose heart was engrossed in true love cannot die. / He is eternally fixed in the chronicle of earth.
Engraved in Nastaliq script on a shining white marble plaque, this Urdu couplet — penned by the Persian poet Hafiz — decorates the gate of a 200-year-old building located on a quiet lane in Mumbai. It’s a fitting tribute to Umar Sobani, the Indian patriot and secularist who owned the building before he gave it away for a cause. Although Sobani, a millionaire and freedom fighter, is barely remembered by modern history, he is immortalized within the walls of what was once a private bungalow and is now a college — and a monument to interreligious unity in India.
This landmark building with a pale blue facade and Mogul-style arched entrance is the Khilafat House. Renovated in 1981, the one-story bungalow saw the birth of the Khilafat and Noncooperation movements, the two defining protests of the Indian subcontinent. Today, it’s hard to pick out among the other neighborhood bungalows, but the unassuming Khilafat House has been a witness to its country’s history.
It began in 1919, when freedom fighters and brothers Maulana Mohammad Ali and Maulana Shaukat Ali were struggling with their fellow Indian Muslims against the yoke of British rule. They were particularly upset with the war against the Ottoman Empire and the dethroning of the caliph, who was a territorial ruler but also their spiritual leader. The brothers founded the All-India Khilafat Committee, launching what is now known as the Khilafat (or Caliphate) movement, which galvanized Muslims across India to work together and fight their British overlords.
The launch of the movement coincided with the Rowlatt Act of 1919, deeply unpopular legislation allowing indefinite extension of wartime emergency measures that permitted the British to incarcerate people without trial or judicial review. The law’s passage was quickly followed by the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, where British troops opened fire on civilians in a public garden, killing hundreds. Outrage over the massacre led a young activist named Mohandas Gandhi, also known as Mahatma Gandhi, to launch a campaign of nonviolent resistance against British rule.
Since Hindus and Muslims were fighting for the same cause, Gandhi decided to embrace the Khilafat movement and the Ali brothers, merging their efforts with his newly named Noncooperation movement. In 1920, under Gandhi’s guidance, the movement was launched from Khilafat House, then located elsewhere in Mumbai. Later that decade, Umar Sobani donated his ancestral house to the cause, and the Khilafat House of today was born.
The legacy of Khilafat House is preserved through a teacher training institute, the All-India Khilafat Committee College of Education that awards diplomas in education — in English, Hindi and Urdu. Its halls are filled with students of multiple faiths. The walls of its ground-floor conference hall are adorned with sepia-tinted images of landmark moments from India’s nationalist movements: photographs of conferences, portraits of the Ali brothers and letters from leaders of the country recounting the importance of Khilafat House. Across the hall is a small library full of Urdu dictionaries and encyclopedias and literature on the movements. The classrooms encourage Hindu-Muslim unity and secularism through posters and wall inscriptions, one of which is a quote from the Hindu mythological epic of Mahabharata. “India is such a diverse country with so many cultures, religions and languages. Instead of fighting upon them, we need to celebrate them, and that is the spirit we inculcate in the students,” says Sultana Khan, the college’s principal.
But while the legacy of Khilafat House stands protected, the movements that were born there saw a bitter end. The Ali brothers were left without a cause when Kemal Atatürk, the first president of Turkey, declared his country a secular state, thus collapsing the rule of their beloved caliph. The Noncooperation movement was called off by Gandhi in 1922 after violent skirmishes in Chauri Chaura, a small town in northern India. In his book, Khilafat in History and Indian Politics, journalist and activist Zaheer Ali writes, “Gandhi’s decision to suspend the Noncooperation movement disappointed both Hindu and Muslim political leaders.” He notes that the Ali brothers blamed Gandhi for weakening the Khilafat movement when it was at its peak. Much later, Maulana Shaukat Ali joined the All-India Muslim League, advocating for the two-nation theory that led to the creation of Pakistan.
Khilafat House became the office for the Urdu newspaper Khilafat, which aimed to keep the movement alive (it went out of business in 1960). One young man, Sarfaraz Arzu, was inspired: Arzu is now the editor of Urdu newspaper the Hindustan Daily and vice chairman of the All-India Khilafat Committee, a charitable trust that advocates for secularism and pluralism via open discussions held at Khilafat House. The house has also been the starting point of Mumbai’s largest Eid-e-Milad-un-Nabi procession, aimed at strengthening Hindu-Muslim bonds in India, since Gandhi led the first one in 1919.
“The Khilafat movement has no takers today. Thus the only way to secure its legacy is through education and through furthering the message of religious harmony that Khilafat House is an embodiment of,” says Arzu, who is striving to raise resources for projects like a Hindu-Muslim research center and a museum about the Khilafat movement.
With Hindu right-wing extremism and sectarian violence on the rise in India, the house could once again serve as a platform for national integration and harmony. “As long as you want the idea of India to be sustained,” says Arzu, “Khilafat House should stand in all its glory.”
- Devyani Nighoskar, OZY Author Contact Devyani Nighoskar