An Indian Muslim revolutionary in America

The History Column: An Indian Muslim revolutionary in America

By Ayub Khan, TwoCircles.net

TwoCircles.net presents “The History Column.” This fortnightly
column features narratives, incidents, stories, from the past and not
so recent past of Indian Muslim history. Columnist Ayub Khan is a
student of history and Political Science.

It was a hot summer night in 1927. An elderly and weak looking man
entered a community hall in Marysville, California. The gathered crowd
of over 800 Indians became ecstatic and greeted him with a thundering
applause. Strings of sparkling tears rolled down the face of the
elderly man. He went up to the stage and began speaking with his usual
forceful delivery but suddenly stopped. He couldn’t utter a word. There
were wails and sighs from the audience. The elderly man composed
himself and smiled; it’s glow sent a cheer through the audience. But he
did not speak.

Maulana Barkatullah

A voice that has shaken the corridors of British colonial
authorities was soon going to be silent forever. This voice belonged to
the great, but almost forgotten, hero of Indian independence movement
Maulana Barakatullah Bhopali. Maulana Bhopali’s life is one full of
dedication and service-a fiery journalist, a brilliant orator, an
erudite Islamic scholar, a nationalist to the core, an author of
several books, a polyglot who knew more than seven languages, a prime
minister of India’s government -in-exile. He was all this and more.

Maulana Barakatullah passed away on his way to San Francisco on
September 20, 1927 and was buried in the Old City Cemetery of
Sacramento. His funeral was attended by Indian Americans of all
religious persuasions and they hoped that the Maulana’s remains would
eventually be transferred to India once it attains independence. But,
alas, the wish remained unfulfilled and the Maulana rests in peace in a
particularly beautiful section of this historic cemetery.

Headstone of Maulana Barakatullah’s grave in Sacramento Historic Old City Cemetery (Courtesy: Sharon Patrician)

Maulana Barakatullah Bhopali was born somewhere between 1859 and
1861 in the princely state of Bhopal in India. His father Maulvi
Muhammad Shujaat Ullah was a Madrassa teacher originally with meager
resources and income. A bright student Barakatullah successfully
completed his religious education at Madrasa-e-Sulaimaniya and
qualified as an Alim in 1878. He served as a teacher at the same school
from 1879-1880. He was able to utilize the intellectual milieu of
princely Bhopal and was likely to have come in contact with the
scholar-prince Nawab Siddiq Hasan Khan Qanauji. He is also reported to
have met the pan-Islamist and reformer Jamaluddin Afghani in 1882 and
was much impressed of his ideas.

In 1883 he disappeared mysteriously from Bhopal and ended up in
Bombay where he enrolled himself in Wilson High School in Khetwadi.
Despite being a mature student he did not mind attending the elementary
grades. At the insistence of a certain Mr. Scot he began taking private
lessons in English from him in return for teaching Urdu. Within three
years he was proficient enough to qualify for the university entrance
examination.

He went to London in 1887 and served as a private tutor teaching
Arabic, Persian, and Urdu. He himself learned German, French, and
Japanese. He was invited by the British convert Abdullah Quilliam to
work at the Muslim Institute in Liverpool in 1895. He subsequently
taught at the Oriental College of University of Liverpool. He later
distanced himself from the Muslim Institute over its style of
functioning.

While in England he came into contact with Indian revolutionaries at
India House. In response to the then British Prime Minister Gladstone’s
racist comments about India he launched a flurry of articles and
speeches criticizing the policies. As a result his activities were
severely restricted.

He left for New York in 1899 at the insistence of Muslim scholar and
activist Muhammad Alexander Russell Webb. In his six year stint in New
York he churned out a prolific number of articles related to Islam and
India which were published in Webb’s The Muslim World and also in
mainstream newspapers such as the Forum. To earn an income he taught
Arabic. He developed contacts with the Indian community in other cities
of US and Canada and sought to instill the revolutionary spirit in
them. While in America he kept in touch with fellow revolutionaries in
India and had a scholarly exchange with the poet and nationalist leader
Maulana Hasrat Mohani. In these letters he stressed on the need for
Hindu-Muslim unity in the freedom struggle. He became a founder member
of the Ghadr Party started by the Indians in San Francisco.

Maulana Barakatullah reached Japan in 1909 and was appointed a
professor of oriental languages at the University of Tokyo. He brought
out a journal The Islamic Fraternity which was known for its
anti-colonial content. After its suppression he brought out another
newspaper by the name of El Islam which was banned in British India. As
a result of his activities his appointment at the university was
terminated in 1914. This, however, did not unnerve Maulana
Barakatullah. He treated the world as his playground and moved his
activities elsewhere.

Maulana Barakatullah (extreme right) with the Turko-German Mission.

He accompanied the Turko-German Mission to Kabul in 1915 and joined
Maulana Ubaidullah Sindhi and Raja Mahendra Pratap to form the
Provincial government of India. He served as the Prime Minister of the
government-in-exile. In 1919 he met Lenin and sought his help in
India’s struggle for freedom. Throughout the the early 1920s he
travelled widely in Germany, France, and Russia organizing the
expatriate Indian communities on the revolutionary path.

His 1927 visit was his second one to the New World and would prove
to be his last. He was suffering from diabetes and had a host of other
ailments but his love for the nation was such that he undertook the
long journey from Germany along with long time friend and fellow
revolutionary Mahendra Pratap. He arrived in New York in July 1927 and
stayed at a hotel in Times Square. On 15th July 1927, he was given a
reception by the Indian community at Ceylon Indian Inn on 49th Street.
He also met the Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey, founder of the Universal
Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League. The two
also spoke at a joint gathering of African-Americans and Indians. He
also travelled to Chicago, Gary, and several other cities of the
Midwest renewing his links with the Indian and Irish communities among
whom he had many friends.

He arrived at the Yugantar Ashram, the Ghadr Party’s headquarters in
San Francisco and was pleased with its work. He then proceeded to
Marysville where he was destine to give his last public speech.
Throughout this trip his constant companion was Raja Mahendra Pratap
who was himself not keeping well and aging. According to Mahendra
Pratap’s autobiography the Maulana last words were: “I have been
sincerely struggling all my life for the independence of my country.
Today, when I am leaving this world, I have regret that my attempts did
not succeed. But at the same time I am also satisfied that hundreds and
thousands of others have followed me who are brave and truthful…With
satisfaction I place the destiny of my beloved nation in their hands.”

Maulana Barakatullah Bhopali was an epitome of sincerity and
dedication towards one’s nation. A die hard to the core he never
married as he considered it be distracting from his duty to the freedom
struggle. It is an irony that this legendary son of the Indian freedom
movement is reduced to the margins of Indian history. His name doesn’t
find a mention in the country’s text books nor does his portrait grace
the famed halls of the Indian parliament. There is, however, a
university named after him in his native Bhopal.

Maulana Barakatullah’s sojourns in America also testify to the long
standing links which Indian Muslims have maintained with the new world.
Contrary to popular perceptions Indian Muslims did not begin arriving
in America in the 1960s but at least sixty years earlier. The registers
of cemeteries across California will verify this fact.

Maulana is buried at Old City Cemetery (http://www.oldcitycemetery.com/) of Sacramento, his grave is in Section A50.

Map of the cemetery: http://maps.google.com/maps?f=q&source=s_q&hl=en&geocode=&q=Old+City+Cem…

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