This is an abbreviated version of a longish paper I wrote recently on this subject. If you would like to read the paper please email me on and I will be glad to mail you a copy.

The terms Deoband and Barelwi have come to be associated with militant Islam, thanks to the Taliban and to several violent incidents in India and Pakistan. In India, the recent incident in Udaipur was blamed on two individuals who claimed affiliation with the Barelwis and also were visitors to the Dargah at Ajmer.  Given that  in the days before 1947, the Muslim League advocated for and successfully partitioned India on the basis of religion, there were always going to be elements in India who consider Indian Muslims to be fifth-columnists for Pakistan at worst or working to bring Islamic law to India.

Hindu nationalism in India is not new, and it can be dated back to the assumption of British Crown rule in 1858. But it has gained steam in the last thirty years since the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1991, as evidenced by the rise of the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP).  This force is here to stay.  The Hindu nationalist message of the Hindu Mahasabha was similar to that of the Muslim League – Hindus and Muslims are two nations.

The Indian National Congress that lead the Independence movement believed in a composite nationalism based on India being the home of all Indians regardless of religion.  They were staunchly opposed by the Muslim League who voiced the two nation theory right from 1930 onwards, resulting in the formal claim for Pakistan in March 1940.  The Muslim League was always loyal to the British Crown, and their unwavering view was that if the British leave, they have to split the country rather than leave India’s Muslims to the Hindu hordes.

They were also opposed by the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS who wanted a Hindu nation, were equal votaries of the two nation theory, and who essentially sat out most of the Independence movement due to this basic disagreement with the Congress.

But did the Muslim League truly represent all shades of Muslim opinion? And were all Muslims loyal to the British to a fault, to ensure the British would protect them from Hindu nationalism?  

The upper-class Muslims in India were the first to be affected by the increasing military and political might of the British. The decline of Muslim political power in India was precipitous following the death of Aurangzeb, and nearly complete by 1764. It took a few more decades until 1803 for the last rites to be performed.

The Muslim angst at this loss was directed towards the British. As early as 1730,  a Muslim thinker and preacher, Shah Waliullah Dehlawi, was indoctrinated into the concepts of the extreme form Islam in Medina that first surfaced in the 13th century. He was taught these concepts by a preacher of Indian origin, and his fellow student was another fiery young man, Muhammad al-Wahhab.

Al-Wahhab internalised these extreme interpretations and helped the Al-Saud tribe conquer most of Arabia, and where they hold power today, and where Al-Wahhab is revered.  Waliullah returned to India and taught his Indian Muslim students to purify themselves and wage holy war against the British at a Madrassah in Delhi that was very prestigious amongst the Muslim elite.  

His mantle was taken up by another student, Syed Ahmad. In 1803 when the Mughal Emperor signed away what little power he had in exchange for a pension from the East India Company, he was enraged. He tried to interest a local warrior to wage war but that person was a freebooter. He then preached and taught the Wahhabi message of unrelenting holy war against the British, quite unnoticed by the Company, and helping found the Wahhabi hub in Sadiqpore, in Patna.

After a pilgrimage to Mecca, he launched the first of such Holy Wars – against the Sikhs. He was killed in battle in 1830.  Since then his disciples launched several such actions against the British while all the while expanding the Wahhabi presence in India via a network of cells operating independently of each other. Some of these were nipped in the bud thanks to alert Company officials, who by 1840 were aware of “Hindustanee Fanatics” operating in India. 

As Muslims became increasingly marginalised, thanks to the switch to English in education and administration, the intensity of the Wahhabi angst increased.  In 1857 the Mutiny broke out, lead by upper caste Hindu sepoys. Attempts to convert this into jihad failed but the Wahhabi Muslims fought the British hard along with their Hindu counterparts. Thanks to a lucky arrest in Patna of the entire Wahhabi leadership, the Wahhabi cells did not participate in the Mutiny – if they had, the outcome for the British would have been far worse.  The Mutiny ended with the British cleansing Delhi of its Muslims and regarding Muslims with suspicion everywhere. 

At this juncture, the Wahhabis from Delhi made a crucial switch. The remaining Wahhabi leaders in Delhi understood that violent action was neither feasible nor productive given the extreme repression of the Muslims by the British. Muslim rule was never going to return. So they chose a town north-east of Delhi called Deoband, and there they established a school called the Deoband Dar-Ul-Uloom where they taught young Muslims how to live an Islamic life and the basics of modernity. They abandoned violence and focused on purification while retaining their basic premise – that the British should leave India. 

The Wahhabis in Patna continued to be active but now disconnected from their former Delhi counterparts.  Their paramilitary activity continued in a low-key manner until 1871. Two high-profile assassinations by these Wahhabis – one of the Chief Justice of Bengal and another of the Viceroy Lord Mayo – lead to a crackdown on the Wahhabis and most of them were sentenced to very long terms in the Andaman prisons. The Wahhabi headquarters in Patna was demolished and converted into a public garden.

As we know, after 1857, the Hindu revival began as Hindus occupied almost all administrative positions offered by the British.  Indians started to get co-opted into decision-making councils.  The Deoband school started to develop a reputation for their views on religious matters and by the last quarter of the 19th century, was considered second only to the famed Al-Azhar University in Cairo.

The Deobandi leaders now made an important and seminal pronouncement. They instructed their followers to collaborate and co-operate with the Hindus in the mission to rid India of the British. All of this was long before any formal independence movement began.  Though the Indian National Congress was founded around this time, it was just a talking shop for Indians loyal to Empire. It was not until Tilak in the late 1890s that the Congress started to talk of self-government. Independence was much later.

From here on this remained the philosophy of the Deobandis – work with Hindus to rid India of colonial rule. And when the Congress started to espouse the cause of self-government, the Deobandis were with them every inch of way.  Predictably this caused a reaction amongst the orthodox Muslims.  The Barelwi Sunni movement launched in the late 19th century. While they had religious differences with the Deobandis, the biggest point of divergence was they believed Muslims were a separate nation and could not co-exist with the Hindu majority. They were loyal to the British Crown on the basis that the Christians were people of the Book.  Well before the Muslim League began to talk of two nations, the Barelwis were ahead of them by twenty years. These developments coincided with the first all Indian census which showed how much of a minority the Muslims were.  And, it coincided with the launch of modern Western style education for Muslims in Aligarh by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan. 

The turn of the century saw the formal establishment of the Muslim League, with the now anglicised elite from the Aligarh school in its ranks, who warned the British that in any future political dispensation the Muslims deserved an out-sized carveout.  This demand took the form of reserved electorates to start with, and then progressed on to the two state formulation. Loyalty to the Crown was the foremost consideration.

The political battleground in India from the Jallianwala Bagh killings is often reduced to the byplay between the Congress and the Jinnah-lead Muslim League. We also hear of Savarkar, the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS.  What we do not hear about is the complete support the Deobandis gave to Mahatma Gandhi and the Congress through and through, and championed the cause of Hindu Muslim unity. As we know the communal situation frayed through the 1920s. As the Hindu Muslim estrangement grew, the League and the Barelwis acted in tandem – the League consisting of the anglicised Muslim upper class and the Barelwis addressed the uneducated Muslim lower classes.  

After the wreckage of the Round Table Conferences had been cleared, and after another round of Civil Disobedience (with the Deobandis in lockstep with the Congress),  the Government of India Act 1935 was passed and that lead to elections in the provinces. The electorate in total consisted of 30 million people pre-selected on the basis of education and property.  The Congress won a resounding victory overall with Deobandi support. The League, supported by the Barelwis, finished a very poor second. The Congress refused (rightly) to accommodate the League in government, which Jinnah took as a personal affront. 

In 1939, the Congress resigned the ministries to protest the British decision to commit India to war without any promise of self-government or independence in return for support.  And in 1942 the Congress announced the Quit India Movement. Though it was supposed to be non-violent, it was actually (in Lord Linlithgow’s words) the most serious challenge to British rule since 1857.  In both decisions the Deobandis supported the Congress. In both cases the Muslim League was quick to rush into the breach and promise eternal loyalty and support to the British, supported by the Barelwis. In retrospect both these decisions were blunders, because it evacuated the public space and allowed Jinnah a free hand, and the violence of the Quit India movement did not endear the Congress leadership to the British who were fighting for survival. 

Driven by American pressure and domestic compulsions, the British freed all the Congress leaders in 1944 and started to move India towards some form of self-rule – the stated objective of the Attlee Government that took power in October 1945.  In 1946 elections were held in British India – roughly 50% of the country; the other 50% under the Princely states sat them out. The election was conducted on the basis of reserved seats for Muslims where only Muslim candidates could stand.  The Muslim League captured nearly all these reserved seats, giving them 423 seats in contrast to the Congress’s 923 seats. Pakistan was now a reality. 

Right through, the Deobandis kept the faith in favour of composite nationalism and unity between Hindus and Muslims.  They believed they were Indians first as Muslims had been buried in Indian soil for centuries.  Their belief system was compatible with their basic belief in Islamic purification – that India was a country in which two nations lived and each of them had the right and duty to peaceful co-existence. 

When Partition was hurried through, it was not a day of happiness for the Deobandis. By this time the Deobandis had split into a Pakistani entity who started to go back to the Wahhabism that the Deobandis had abandoned some 80 years before.

Correcting these misconceptions is essential to the future of India, which has a large minority of Muslims for whom India is their home.  The constant suspicion that Muslims do not deserve to be Indian because the Muslim League forced the creation of Pakistan is unfair to our fellow citizens. Islam needs to address genuine problems within its followers in terms of education, attainment and opportunity.  Islamic terrorism has given the whole religion a bad name. The religion needs to modernize further and complete its transition to the modern era. Threatening violence in the name of religion is wrong – whether it is Muslim or Hindu.  If Muslim leaders pull their kids out of secular schools it hurts those kids and feeds into the narrative of the right wing. Moving today’s Indian Muslims more into the mainstream is the function of not just the Indian state but also of Muslim thought leaders with Hindu support.  And this is why it is important that we all understand the past.      

4 thoughts on “Indian Islam and British Colonial Rule in India

  1. Excellent post Ravi.

    There is an enduring shared civilisational history, that predates the founding of the Abrahamic religions themselves. What it means to every Indian, is a process that all amongst us must be allowed to discover.

    Independent of how each one of us understand and practice our faith, is an acknowledgement that all paths lead to the same fundamental purpose for which we are here.

    Not merely to consume, procreate and compete – but to realise the divine within us.


    1. Absolutely. My post argues that as the majority, we need to understand these nuances so that we all create a composite identity irrespective of who we worship. Religion is ultimately a private business between you and Eternity. Thanks for leaving a comment!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This is a great write up meeting the high standards you have set for yourself in historical writing. It proves the point emphatically that the historical reality is multilayered and nuanced, very different than the linear narratives trotted out by social media and some of the wannabe historians.


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