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Madhe Sahaba Agitation and Muslim League – by Venkat Dhulipala


  Editor’s note: Violence against Shias of Pakistan existed before Pakistan was born as a Muslim democratic state in South Asia. Right after partition of India in 1947, hundreds of graduates of Deoband madrassah, most of them disciples of Abdul Shakoor Lakhnawi and Hussain Ahmad Madani, migrated to Pakistan and started setting up seminaries and […]


Editor’s note: Violence against Shias of Pakistan existed before Pakistan was born as a Muslim democratic state in South Asia. Right after partition of India in 1947, hundreds of graduates of Deoband madrassah, most of them disciples of Abdul Shakoor Lakhnawi and Hussain Ahmad Madani, migrated to Pakistan and started setting up seminaries and joined religio-fascist Deobandi political parties like the Tanzim-e-Ahle-Sunnat (TAS), Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI) and Majlis-e-Ahrar. They travelled through the length and breadth of the country and called for attacks on the life, property and social and civil liberties of Shias. Most successful among them were: Molana Noorul Hasan Bukhari, Molana Dost Muhammad Qureshi, Molana Abdus Sattar Taunsavi, Molana Mufti Mahmood, Molana Abdul Haq Haqqani and Molana Sarfaraz Gakharvi.

Andreas Rieck has documented the attacks on Shias that happened after partition in his book “The Shias of Pakistan”. In the year 1955, Muharram processions were attacked on at least 25 places in Punjab. On 7 August 1957, three Shias were killed in Sitpur village. In May 1958, a Shia orator Agha Mohsin was target-killed in Bhakkar. The worst case of anti-Shia violence in the early years of the newly born state occurred on 3 June 1963, when two Shias were killed in Lahore and 120 slaughtered in a small town of Tehri in the Khairpur District of Sindh.

To make sense of sectarianism in Pakistan, it is important to analyse the Madhe Sahaba Agitation that preceded it’s formation. Venkat Dhulipala studies the historical records in detail and presents a complete picture of the events that haunt the fate of South Asian Muslim society to date.

Source: Venkat Dhulipala, “Rallying the Qaum: The Muslim League in the United Provinces,1937–1939”(Part. 2), Modern Asian Studies, Vol 44(3), pp. 603–640, (2010).


This paper re-examines the nature of the Muslim League’s mobilization of the UP Muslims during the period of Congress party rule and the extent to which it was successful in emerging as their ‘authoritative, representative organization’.In the light of such a re-examination, the paper makes two arguments.

First, in contrast to the existing historiography which highlights the role of Jinnah in the ML’s revival, this paper underlines the agency of the local leadership of the ML in this process. Second, the paper argues that even though the ML emerged as a popular political party among the UP Muslims in this period, its strength still remained uncertain.

This became evident during the Madhe Sahaba agitation between 1938 and 1939 that led to serious tensions and riots between Shias and Sunnis in the city of Lucknow. These tensions threatened to fracture the political base of the ML in the UP besides snowballing into a wider all-India conflict.

During this crisis the ML stood aside helplessly, unable to exert its authority as the ‘premier’ organization of the Indian Muslims. These divisions within the Muslim community in the ML’s putative bastion in the UP demonstrate that the party still had a task ahead in terms of rallying the Qaum.

The Madhe Sahaba Agitation and the Limits of the Muslim League’s Political Mobilization

The problem between the Lucknow Shias and Sunnis began in 1905over annual Tazia processions during Muharram to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussain at Karbala. [68] Till that year, Shias and Sunnis went together in common processions, taking their Tazias to one main ‘Karbala’ in a place called Talkatora, where they were buried. Over the next few years temporary fairs sprang up in thea reas adjoining the road to the ‘Karbala’ on the three main days of the Tazia processions, namely, Ashra or the tenth day of Muharram and the anniversary of Karbala; Chhelum or the fortieth day thereafter; and the 21st day of Ramzan, the anniversary of Imam Ali’s birth. As the Government’s Gazette noted about these fairs,

‘Shops and booths came to be set up and there were amusements such as swings and merry go rounds. It appears further that women of the town had begun not only to frequent the route of the tazias but to setup tents on the fair ground where they received visitors. [69]’

The Shias took exception to these practices which they felt denigrated the solemnity of these religious occasions which wear predominantly for mourning. They therefore petitioned the Lucknow District Magistrate to check these practices and to disallow anything which went against the character of these occasions.

In response stringent rules sympathetic to Shia demands were put into place for the Ashra procession of 1906 by the Lucknow District administration.The Sunnis objected to the new rules claiming that unlike the Shias,they regarded the processions as celebrations in honour of an Islami chero and not as occasions for mourning.

The dispute between the two sides was temporarily settled in 1906 with the Lucknow district administration granting a separate site for Sunnis to bury their Karbala.The Sunnis however were now determined to give their processions a character that was distinct to that of the Shia processions. Verses at the time known as Char yari were recited during the Sunni processions. These verses were in praise of the first four Caliphs who were portrayed as friends of the Prophet as well as friends of each other.

Since some of these verses were positively objectionable in that they contained abuse of Shias and of their beliefs’, their recitation was found provocative by the Shias. [70]

The Shias retaliated by reciting Tabarra or abuse of the first three Caliphs in their own processions, since they saw them as usurpers who were hostile to the rightful Caliph Ali and his family.

These developments marked a watershed in the social relations between these two sects of Islam in the UP. Serious riots broke out in 1907and 1908 in Lucknow due to the recitation of Charyari and Tabarra by Sunni and Shia processions respectively.

Responding to these developments, in 1908, the provincial government set up a committee headed by T.C. Piggott, an ICS officer,who was asked to examine the whole issue, assess the claims ofboth parties, and to make recommendations. The Piggott committee concluded that the recitation of Charyari verses in an organized way,and converting Tazia processions into Charyari processions, was an ‘innovation’ since 1906.

Such social innovations were deemed to beat the root of civil disturbances in a combustible religious society like India, and the British, in their keenness to maintain law and order,actively discouraged them.

Not surprisingly, the Piggott committee recommended prohibiting the recitation of Charyari verses along the ‘route of any tazia, alam or other Mohammadan procession or in the hearing of such a procession on three days of the year—Ashra, Chhelum and the 21st day of Ramzan.

On the question of the utterance of these verses on other days of the year, it was decided to leave the matter to ‘the operations of ordinary law’.

This meant that deliberately offensive recitations of Charyari verses by individuals could still be punished by the law at all times of the year. However an absolute ban on Charyari was not imposed, as the Sunnis were deemed to possess the right to express the distinguishing doctrines of their faith’.

Thus, Sunnis could be granted permission toutter these verses under strict regulation in a circumscribed area on particular days of the year so as not to offend the Shias or cause a law and order problem. The Shia plea that the recitation of these verses be banned throughout the year was disallowed.

In addition, the committee also made a distinction between Charyari and Tabarra and declared that they could not be placed on the same footing. It adjudicated that while Charyari primarily involved praise of the companions of the Prophet, Tabarra primarily involved abuse against the first three Caliphs, with the intent of hurting Sunni religious sensibilities. The recitation of Tabarra was therefore deemed unlawful at all times of the year under any conditions. The Piggott committee thus sought to balance the claims of both the communities, but not surprisingly, it succeeded in pleasing neither of them.

The Sunnis were the first to express their dissatisfaction with these recommendations, which, they claimed, curtailed their freedom to express their fundamental religious beliefs. They decided to confront the government after it accepted the recommendations of the Piggott committee. Thus, in 1909, Sunnis deliberately flouted government orders disallowing Charyari during Muharram which led to arrests and prosecution.

The chastened Lucknow Sunnis now decided to take thelawful route. In 1911, they applied to the Deputy Commissioner of Lucknow for permission to take out a Charyari procession which was denied as it was feared that it could lead to riots. A second application was made in 1912 to the Lieutenant Governor, Sir James Meston, but this too ended in failure. Orders were henceforth issued every year asa matter of routine by the government, disallowing public recitation of Charyari in any organized manner. The Sunnis therefore desisted from taking out any Charyari processions.

The problem broke out with renewed vigour in 1936 on Ashra daywhen two Sunnis disobeyed orders and publicly recited Charyari in the city centre of Lucknow. They were arrested and prosecuted, but then on Chhelum day more Sunnis took part in reciting Charyari and fourteen were arrested. This led to a new agitation by the Lucknow Sunnis in favour of reciting these verses publicly, which came to be known as Madhe Sahaba (Praises of the Companions of the Prophet).

The Sunnis now proposed to take out a procession on Barawafat, the Prophet’s birthday on 3rd June, 1936 during which Madhe Sahaba verses would be recited. This was prohibited by the Lucknow Police Commissioner in anticipation of violence. The Sunnis however had a procession without permission on 12 June 1936, reciting verses from the Quran containing praises of the companions of the Prophet without any reference to their names.

This led Shias to believe that Madhe Sahaba had been recited and they retaliated by publicly reciting Tabarra. The Sunnis deepened the conflict by taking out processions every Friday reciting Madhe Sahaba in deliberate defiance of official orders prohibiting such processions.A spate of arrests and prosecutions followed leading to a considerable law and order problem in Lucknow over the next few months.

Towards the winter of 1936, both sides turned to the government to resolve the dispute by presenting memorials and making their respective cases on the issue, and a series of negotiations ensued between the three parties. These negotiations however failed to break the deadlock and the government therefore appointed yet another committee, headed by Justice Allsop of the Allahabad High Court, to review the situation.

The Allsop committee, which began its proceedings in April 1937,was asked to decide upon two questions. First, whether the principlesandpolicylaiddownintheGovernmentResolutionof7th January1909following the Piggott committee report, required any modification,and second, whether the practices adopted by the Lucknow district administration, vis-`a-vis the Sunnis, for maintaining law and order needed to be changed.

 The Allsop committee submitted its report to the government by June 1937 and endorsed the recommendations of the Piggott committee to maintain the status quo.This could hardly be expected to assuage the Sunnis, and the government, reluctant to offend the majority in the Muslim community, accordingly delayed the publication of the Allsop report.

Instead it sought to bring about a compromise between Shias and Sunnis through the mediation of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad. [71] However,with these negotiations not making much headway, and with the Sunnis threatening an agitation for the publication of the report, the government finally published it in March 1938 ,along with a resolution accepting the report’s findings.

The Sunni response, as expected, was an outright rejection ofthe decisions of the Allsop committee and condemnation of theresolution of the government. Maulana Zafarul Mulk and Maulana Abdul Shakur, the two main (Deobandi) leaders of the Madhe Sahaba movement, told a public meeting in Lucknow in late April 1938 that a meeting of 26 eminent ulema had decided that recitation of Madhe Sahaba could not be restricted for even a single day since it was a fundamental religious right.

Zafarul Mulk declared that he had sent a notice to the government that the Sunnis would launch civil disobedience incase it did not reconsider its decision. The next day on Chhelum, there was an incident at Patanala, a narrow lane in Lucknow, housing the Dar al Muballaghin, a Sunni religious institution run by Maulana AbdulShakur. Brickbats were thrown at a Shia Tazia procession passing infront of the institution and the consequent riot saw ten people being killed and several dozen injured.

The government arrested Abdul Shakur and Zafarul Mulk in orderto control the situation, but this outraged Sunnis in other parts of theUP as the issue began to spill out of the confines of Lucknow. Shopswere shut for two full days in Lucknow, big public meetings were held in Barabanki, Bareily, Bahraich, Faizabad, Bijnor, Saharanpur,Ghazipur, Agra and Azamgarh, and a general strike was observed in Sultanpur district. [72] The two Maulanas were subsequently released by the government as it issued fresh invitations to both parties to attend negotiations.

The next several months however saw a buildupin tension as both Shias and Sunnis prepared for a showdown. On the Sunni side, the Anjuman Tahaffuz-e-Namus Sahaba was formed to co-ordinate civil disobedience. On the Shia side, the Anjuman Tanzimul Momineen emerged as the premier organization, along with a Fauj Abbasia, or volunteer corps, for self-defence.

The Muslim League Dilemma

The ML saw the Shia-Sunni schism as a serious threat since it undermined the idea that the Muslims were an undivided, religious and political community. But what was particularly embarrassing for the ML was the fact that partisans on both sides of the conflict were beyond its control, thus bringing into question the party’s claim to being ‘the authoritative and sole representative organization of the Muslims’.

 Furthermore, the ML faced the prospect of splintering on this issue as district units in the UP began to manifest splits along Shia-Sunni lines. [73] The ML’s problems were compounded by the fact that while the Sunnis comprised the overwhelming majority of the UP Muslims, the leadership had a number of Shia landlords in important leadership positions such as the Raja of Mahmudabad, the Raja of Salempur, and the Raja of Pirpur. Jinnah himself was a Shia.

The ML initially decided to maintain a policy of strict neutrality on the Madhe Sahaba issue, like the Congress had done in the case of the Communal Award, but this failed to please either group.

It therefore changed tack and started to make specific initiatives towards both sects to stem the alarming breakdown of Muslim unity and to recoup its own political base.

The Muslim League and the Shias

The Shias were hostile towards the ML since they saw its neutrality onthe issue as a sign of its Sunni sympathies. The Shias bluntly accused the party of hypocrisy on minority issues.

As Nawab S.M.Ismail, a Shia ML member of the Legislative Council from the neighbouring state of Bihar, wrote to Jinnah, ‘The AIML who [sic] speaks in the name of the minority [Muslim] community and also speaks of the tyranny of the Hindu majority ought with its naked eyes to see and to realize the tyranny of the Muslim majority over the Muslim minority.’ [74] Ismail further reminded Jinnah, that as a Shia himself, he needed to protect the religious rights of his brethren.

The Anjuman Tanzimul Momineen, the main Shia organization formed under the guidance of Shia mujtahids, therefore condemned the ML asa Sunni organization [75] and asked Shias to join the Congress. [76] The Anjuman’s executive committee passed a further resolution denying the ML’s right to represent Shias and stated that any ML-Government agreement over Madhe Sahaba would not be binding on them. [77]

The Anjuman also reached out for Hindu support by expressing itself in favour of cow protection. [78] Hindu presence in Shia mosques becamea regular feature and in Kanpur the Shias circulated a pamphlet entitled ‘What is Tabarra’, among the Hindus. [79]

Finally, in what was a humiliating slap on the face for the ML, a deputation of Shia leaders made a trip to Wardha to petition Gandhi on the matter. Not only was the ML’s position as the authoritative organization of the Muslims being challenged, but also the Congress was being approached as a forum for appeal by one of the parties in the conflict.

The ML attempted to assuage an angry Shia community with a range of strategies. It first approached the Shias through the issue of Palestine, hoping to tap into the rich vein of sentiment for fellow oppressed Muslims in the wider Islamic world which had paid handsome dividends during the Khilafat agitation.

 The Anjuman Tanzimul Momineen was therefore persuaded by the ML to participate in its Palestine Day processionson26th August 1938. On this occasion the Shia band joining the ML procession in Lucknow comprised 400men carrying lathis and another fifty volunteers of the Fauj Abbasia carrying dummy rifles.

This Anjuman’s participation in an ML-sponsored rally brought swift condemnation from within the Shia community. Critics contended that the Shias could not take part in such meetings or processions unless the ML promised to stand by and support them in their conflict with the Sunnis. To stanch the flow of criticism, the Anjuman responded by promising not to co-operate with the ML until the latter reformed its current policy, which was detrimental to Shia interests.

The Shias were obviously placing a price on their support and forcing the ML toraise its bids.The ML responded by withdrawing its candidate against Syed Ali Zaheer for the Allahabad-Jaunpur Muslim seat to the UP legislative Assembly in a by-election held in January 1939. This was on the grounds that he was a Shia and the ML wanted to make a concession to the Shia community.

 Syed Ali Zaheer’s sympathies with the Congress were well known. The son of Sir Wazir Hasan, a prominent Congress member, Zaheer had resigned from the ML soon after its Lucknow session in October 1937 after denouncing Jinnah for his ‘negative policy’ and the ML for its ‘anti-national’ position. Syed Ali Zaheer won the seat unopposed and went on to become a vocal defender of Shia rights as the agitation progressed, totally ignoring the ML.

The importance of the ML’s gesture may be gauged from the fact that this was the first time the party had not contested a Muslim seat after the Congress had assumed office in the UP. Elections were occasions for the ML to bolster its credentials as the sole representative organization of the Muslims, and a concession of this kind was therefore the high price that it was willing to pay to avert a melt down in UP Muslim politics.

The Muslim League and the Sunnis

The greater threat for the ML arose from the fact that its Sunni flank was rendered vulnerable by the Madhe  Sahaba movement. In the first place, the main Sunni (Deobandi) leaders of the movement were independent and not amenable to the ML’s control.

 Zafarul Mulk and Abdul Shakur were suspicious of ML’s intentions, given the fact that Shias such as Mahmudabad, Salempur, and Pirpur were top ranking UPML leaders. Thus, at a Sunni public meeting called by Zafarul Mulk and Abdul Shakur, the ML representative who got up to declare support for civil disobedience against the government orders prohibiting Madhe Sahaba processions, was heckled and told to sit down as ‘nobody had faith inthe ML on the matter’. [80]

Secondly, anti-ML Muslim (Deobandi) political parties aligned with the Congress such as the Ahrar party became extremely active throughout 1938 and 1939, in trying to attract the Sunnis support. The Ahrars had considerable success in gaining adherents, especially in the Agra division of the UP. The Ahrars fished in troubled waters by hiring Kharijites to utter Tabarra against Imam Ali in many places. This led to a riot between Shias and Sunnis in Rae Bareli. [81]

Thirdly, influential Sunni (Deobandi) ulema, at the forefront of the Madhe Sahaba agitation, were firm supporters of the Congress. Thus, Hussain Ahmad Madni, Principal of the Deoband school and a prominent Congress supporter, declared that recitation of the Madhe Sahaba was a fundamental religious right and openly advised Sunnis to carry ona peaceful struggle till their demands were fully met. [82]

However, the ulema of Firangi Mahal and Fargania, two important religious seminaries with ML sympathies, backed the movement by issuing a joint manifesto in which they stated that under no circumstances could the abuse of their Caliphs be tolerated and asked the government to stop any recitation of Tabarra. [83]

What was perhaps more alarming forthe ML was the fact that Zafarul Mulk had participated as a delegate at the AICC annual session at Haripurain 1938. Zafarul Mulk was also supposed to have spent a considerable amount of time with Gandhi atthe Wardha Ashram.

Matters were made worse for the ML by the fact that Sunnis in Lucknow showed themselves to be as keen as the Shias to enlist Hindu sympathy. Thus, when a dead pig was found in Lucknow’s Nadan Mahal mosque, the Sunnis claimed that this was not the work of the Hindus but an underhand Shia tactic in order to cause a Sunni-Hindu riot and weaken the Madhe Sahaba movement. [84]

The ML’s efforts to attract Sunnis to their camp in Lucknow were also rebuffed. Thus,when the party organized a meeting in Lucknow to commemorate the anniversary of the death of Caliph Omar, it was disrupted by hecklers in the crowd who accused it of being in‘ cahoots ’with the Shias leading‘to some loss of prestige’ for the ML among the local Sunnis. [85]

The ML sought to keep its Sunni base intact by stressing the need for Muslim unity. In this regard, it skillfully utilized issues affecting Muslims in their localities, along with issues impinging upon them at the provincial and national level, with some success.

At ML meetings in Kanpur and Barabanki it was alleged that the Congress furtively stoked Shia Sunni riots in order to sow divisions within the Qaum,since the MMCP had failed.This was a constant ML refrain and was possibly true to an extent as partners of the Congress such as the Jamiat ul Ulama-i-Hind and the Ahrars tried to use the dispute to their own advantage.

 However, what must also be noted is that the prominent UP ML leader Khaliq uz zaman, was widely rumored to have stoked Shia Sunni tensions in 1936–37in order to ensure his election victory. Shafaat wrote that ‘the issue is entirely due tothe machinations of the Congress though it must be confessed that in 1936, during the election campaign of Khaliq uz zaman sahib, the Sunni agitation was deliberately engineered by Khaliq against the Shia candidate and a Shia Sunni riot in May or June was the consequence’. [86]

In Muzaffarnagar, the lack of Muslims in the local Gram Sudhaar committee and dismissal of Muslim sub-inspectors for their participation in a strike were cited as instances of government vindictiveness towards the Muslims. [87] In Kanpur it was alleged that Hindus were aiming to setup Ram Raj and treat Muslims as ‘worse than Untouchables’. [88]

At Badayun, the ML alleged that Sampurnan and, the Education Minister, had declared Sanskrit as India’s national language. [89] At Fatehpur, local ML members accused the local District Board of financing Hindu schools to the exclusion of Muslim institutions. It was also alleged that Muslim boys had been prohibited from saying their prayers at the Government School. [90]

In Benares, Gandhi’s charkha and khadi were portrayed as having thrown‘ four and half crore Muslim weavers out of work’. [91] The ML organized memorials all over the UP on the first anniversary of Tanda firings by the police to avert a communal riot, in which several Muslims were killed. [92] The ML also criticized the Congress’ Tenancy Bill int he legislature alleging that the contemplated changes would affect Muslim Warasat law.

It declared that Muslims could never accept the Tenancy Bill as it was based on Hindu law. On the issue of Palestine,the ML alleged that the British government and the Congress had entered a conspiracy according to which the British government would give Congress a free hand to oppress the Indian Muslims, if it did not interfere with British repression of the Palestinian Arabs. [93]

Schemes for Pakistan were also commended by ML speakers in a few places. [94] Finally, the ML continued its relentless campaign against the Congress on the familiar issues of communal riots in UP, the threat to Muslim lives and property, Vande Mataram, the Wardha scheme of education, and discrimination against Urdu.

In spite of this vigorous campaign there appears to have been as light dip in the enthusiasm for the ML among the UP Muslims, as the party’s annual session held in December 1938 at Patna failed to evoke much response in the UP. As Sir Harry Haig, the UP Governor wrote to the Viceroy,

Perhaps I have over-estimated the importance of the speechs and resolutions of the Muslim League conference at Patna. During my tours in the eastern districts, I questioned a number of District Officers and Superintendentsof Police as to whether this conference had any effect on the communalsituation. They all told me it had not, and in this part of the province at any rate they do not seem apprehensive about trouble at Bakrid.[95]

The Crescendo of the Madhe Sahaba Movement

The Shia-Sunni tensions peaked in the spring of 1939 as Sunnis piled pressure on the government for permission to recite Madhe Sahaba during Muharram. They were incensed that even though the right to publicly recite Madhe Sahaba had been acknowledged by the government through two official communiques, permission had been withheld on the grounds of a worsening law-and-ordersituation. Zafarul Mulk and Abdul Shakur now restarted the Sunni civil disobedience movement by reciting Madhe Sahaba with their followers, and were consequently arrested in Lucknow.

 Zafarul Mulk also printed and circulated an appeal to Sunnis allover India to support the movement. In response, Sunni bands began to pour into Lucknow from different parts of the UP, other provinces in British India, as well as the native states. By the beginning of April 1939, interest in Madhe Sahaba agitation was reported from 22 out of the 48 districts in theUP. [96]

The government responded by granting Sunnis permission to have a Madhe Sahaba procession during Barawafat. This was seen as a major Sunni victory since it broke a 30-year practice of not allowing processions where Madhe Sahaba would be recited. The event passed off  peacefully due to heavy police band o bust but Shia resentment at such a major concession only increased tensions. An open letter to the Mahatma published in the Shia newspaper, The Moonlight, reflected their resentment at the government’s capitulation.

The question for you Mahatmaji to answer is whether the INC is prepared to give its seal of approval to the conduct of the UP government which has for all practical purposes substituted expediency in place of justice, equity and fairness? Are we to believe that the UP government has become so demoralized and so cowardly that it has no regard for honesty and truth? Are we to understand that while you were prepared yourself to starve yourself to death because the ruler of Rajkot broke his promise, you will not take the trouble to point out to the UP government how unmanly, how unjust, how partial, how immoral their conduct has been in connection with the Madhe Sahaba agitation?

Will you permit the UP government to want only disregard the decision of a judicial committee and to ride roughs hod over the civic and religious rights of the Shia community? Let me tell you however that if your answers to these questions be halting and indecisive, then you have no right to call the bureaucratic government satanic. Your own Congress government does not seem to be less satanic. In fact, it is much worse for the obvious reason that its predecessor bureaucratic government seldom, if ever, yieldedto outside pressure or influence. It had its own definite policy, it has its own moral code, which it never failed to follow. Remember Mahatmaji you and your Congress are taking their trial before the bar of Shia opinion. [97]

The government’s refusal to grant corresponding rights to recite Tabarra was attacked as a patent lack of equity or justice. An editorial in The Moonlight sought to refute the idea that Madhe Sahaba was harmless while Tabarra was abuse, as was being put out by Sunni propagandists.

‘The root meaning of Tabarra’, it noted, was ‘staying aloof’, while with regard to the three Caliphs it meant that the Shias did not recognize them as spiritual leaders. Tabarra was an article of faith with the Shias, and a number of traditions could be quoted to prove that it was enjoined upon them. Madhe Sahaba by contrast, the editorial pointed out, was neither an article of faith with the Sunnis nor was it enjoined upon them by any tradition. It was in fact biddat or‘innovation’.Tabarra was similar to Lanat or the calling of imprecations. No Muslim could call Lanat abuse. As the editorial noted,

No Musulman has said that the Quran is full of abuse, because in it we find that God has cursed the liar, the tyrants, the murderers, the non-believers etc etc. There are traditions to the effect that the Prophet in his time has cursed people by their names like Ibn Obaid and other munafiqs. The Shias unanimously believe that it is open to them and even virtuous to pray to God that he may keep some persons away from his mercy, which is the real meaning of lanat, if they are tyrants, murderers or non-believers.[98]

To therefore term Tabarra as ‘abuse’ was ‘nothing short of an abuse of Islam, an abuse of the Quran and the abuse of Mohammedan law’. [99] Tabarra was further acclaimed as an example of Shia use of rational analysis and critical judgment. The Sunnis by contrast, it was pointed out, were prevented from the use of rational judgment and critique the Caliphs as it was forbidden to them under the doctrine of Kaffe-Lisan, or the shutting of one’s mouth.

The Shias, the paper suggested, could not be expected to ‘remain blind and dumb wherethe Companions of the Prophet were concerned’. Finally, the Shia right to criticize the caliphs was defended on the grounds that ‘there was no defamation of the dead in criminal law’. It was argued that, ifsuch were the case, no history could ever be written. Criticizing the Congress government for upholding Hanafi notions of justice instead of the law of the land, the editorial defiantly concluded that,

if one community has the right of calling unrighteous men the benefactors of humanity, then the other community has the right of calling a spade a spade and thus save its ignorant masses from being taken by the Madhe Sahaba propaganda.’ [100]

As the Shia agitation gained momentum, prominent Shia figures inthe UP now began to court arrest by reciting Tabarra. These included Syed Ali Zaheer, the newly elected MLA from Allahabad- Jaunpur, the Princes of the royal family of Awadh, the son of Maulana Nasir, a respected Shia mujtahid, and the brothers of both the Rajas of Salempur and Pirpur.

It was believed that Maulana Nasir himself, besides top ranking ML leaders such as Mahmudabad and Pirpur, would together court arrest, a development that could have a ‘very bad effect on theLeague’. [101] Furthermore, purdah ladies among the Shias threatened tocourt arrest in an effort to embarrass the government.

More importantly, the Tabarra agitation attracted attention fromother parts of India as Shias across the country sought to express solidarity with their UP counterparts who were numerically dwarfedby the Sunnis.

Shia bands came into Lucknow from the districtsof Darbhanga, Monghyr, Saran, Patna, and Chapra in Bihar, fromBombay city, Poona, and Bhusawal in Bombay province, from Panipat,Karnal Ambala, Jalandhar, Rawalpindi, Lahore, Sialkot, Multan,Ferozepur, Amritsar, Gurdaspur, and Ludhiana in the Punjab, from Kohat and Bangash in NWFP  from the provinces of Assam and Bengal and finally from the capital Delhi.

They also came from the nativestates of Kashmir, Gwalior, Bharatpur, Jaipur, Bahawalpur, Rampur,and Malerkotla. Several hundred Shias courted arrest every week during the months of April and May 1939. [102]

As the Tabarra agitation spread, attracting volunteers from different parts of India, its control slipped into the hands of the Punjabi Shias,who,as Haig pointed out, were not as inclined to conduct the agitation in the ‘gentlemanly manner of the Lucknow Shias’. [103]

Public functions of government ministers such as G.B. Pant and Vijayalakshmi Panditwere disrupted, and filthy abuse heaped upon them by Punjabi Shias.

A parliamentary secretary, Gopinath Srivastava, while visiting Agrajail to enquire into conditions under which prisoners were being held, was abused and assaulted by Shia prisoners. [104]

The jails in UP were already full to capacity and over flowing as several thousands from both sides courted arrest. The government now began to plan on setting up jail-camps to handle the ever increasing volume of detentions.

The UP government also approached the Punjab and NWFP governments to stop the departure of Shia bands headed for the UP and the sere quests were readily granted.

In late March 1939, 4,000 Shias and 15,000 Sunnis brick batted each other near the Asaf ud daula Imambara in Lucknow but a major riot, which may have resulted in heavy casualties, was averted by the police firing several volleys into the air. In them following month, Sunni demonstrators stormed into the legislative assembly in Lucknow by breaking through the police barrier and disrupting its proceedings, seriously embarrassing the government.

If the UP government wasdeeply concerned about the deteriorating law and order situation, the ML watched the political scene with amixture of apprehension and helplessness as the conflict spread not only to other districts of the UP but also involved Shias and Sunnis from different parts of India. The UP ML leadership now implored Jinnah to make a decisive intervention.

 Some members of the ML’sAllahabad unit sent a plea to Jinnah to go on a fast unto death, like Mahatma Gandhi, in order to force Shias and Sunnis to come to asettlement. [105] Adesperate Mahmudabad,  Pirpur and Ismail Khan, telegraphed Jinnah with a fervent message: ‘For God’s sake come.CriticalmomentforMuslims.’ [106]

Similarly urgent messages were sent to Jinnah from other parts of the country. [107] Jinnah, however, refused to take a stand on the issue or come to Lucknow. This was because as Sir Raza Ali wrote, ‘If the League took cognizance of the matter and if its decision failed to find the acceptance of the Sunnis and Shias of Lucknow, itwould deal a death blow at the League [sic].’ [108]

However,Raza Ali also feared that unless UP ML leaders intervened at least intheir ‘personal capacity’, the Muslim community would ‘split into two parties on sectarian grounds which will paralyze our political activities for many years to come’. [109] Jinnah however threatened to expel anyML member who dared to intervene in the matter and make the MLa party in the conflict. [110]

Khaliq uz zaman, the ML party leader in theUP assembly echoed Jinnah’s views stating that ‘the League had keptitself aloof and did not take any initiative in order to settle the matter,and would maintain the same attitude to the problem.’ [111]

This stand invited ridicule coming from an organization that styled itself as thesole and authoritative representative of the Indian Muslims. As Haig wrote to the Viceroy in Delhi,

It is interesting to observe the powerlessness of the Muslim League to bringabout a settlement between two sections of their own supporters. It seems tome that the Muslim League, like the Congress in the past, is really strongonly in opposition. When faced with a necessity for positive action and policy, it seems to be unable to secure agreement and has no adequate leadership.[112]

Mahmudabad tried to intervene in the dispute in his ‘personal capacity’ but could not make much head way. The Nizam of Hyderabad,the ruler of the largest native state, was alarmed enough with the existing state of affairs to send a telegram to the Viceroy.

The Nizam expressed fears that the problem, ‘If not taken in hand, quickly, maylead to many complications or also it is possible that it will not be limited to one place only but may become an all India question later on.’ [113] The Nizam be seeched the Viceroy to use his influence to resolve the matter which he saw as having the same potential as the Kanpur mosque affair. [114]

With Jinnah refusing to intervene,22 prominent Muslim leaders belonging to all political parties,including ML Premiers Sikandar Hayat Khan and Fazlul Haq, met at Simla and issued an appeal to Shias and Sunnis to renounce Madhe Sahaba and Tabarra in order to pave the way for an honorable settlement. [115] Maulana Abul Kalam Azad issued a similar statement, but these appeals were derisively rejected by Zafarul Mulk whoresponded stating that,

The Sunnis of Lucknow cannot even for a moment tolerate that the Madhe Sahaba and Tabarra should be placed on an equal footing….The main object of the Shias in opposing the Madhe Sahaba procession is that theyare fully alive to the fact that if it is allowed to gain ground, the Sunni masses will in course of time become proof against the lure of taziadari and thedoor of proselytization to Shiaism will be effectively closed….The superior organization of the Shias backed by their wealth and propaganda can neither prevail upon the Sunnis to give up their religious and civil rights nor inducethem to accept the dictum of an Allsop or any other misinformed gentlemanthat the right of praise and the license to curse can at any stage becomeanalogous and interchangeable.[116]

By the middle of the summer though, as Harry Haig the Governorof UP wrote to the Viceroy, fatigue was beginning to set in on all sides,raising hopes of a settlement. [117]

Note: for complete article, please visit: Rallying the Qaum: The Muslim League in the United Provinces, 1937–1939


[68] Government Gazette of the United Provinces Published by Authority Extraordinary, Lucknow, Monday, 28 March 1938. Government of the UP General Administration Department, pp. 2–6. The following background to the problem is based on this Gazette. File 113/1939 (Public Information), UP State Archives, Lucknow.

[69] Gazette Extraordinary, p. 3.

[70] Ibid.

[71] Fortnightly Report for the first half of January 1938, File 18/1/37 Home Poll, NAI, New Delhi.

[72] PAI for the week ending 30 April, 1938.

[73] See PAI for the week ending 3 September, 1938 for its report on Rae Bareli.

[74] S.M. Ismail to Jinnah, 10 April, 1939, Qaid–i–Azam Papers, Reel 14, File 161 Madhe Sahaba, April–July, 1939, Neg 10773, Oriental and India Office Collection, British Library, London. (Henceforth, QA Papers, OIOC).

[75] PAI for the week ending 28 May, 1938.

[76] PAI for the week ending 24 September, 1938.

[77] PAI for the week ending 18 March, 1939.

[78] PAI for the week ending 25 June, 1938.

[79] PAI for the week ending 13 May, 1939.

[80] PAI for the week ending 23 April, 1938.

[81] PAI for the week ending 22 April, 1939.

[82] PAI for the week ending 4 March, 1939.

[83] PAI for the week ending 15 April, 1939.

[84] PAI for the week ending 11 March, 1939.

[85] PAI for the week ending 18 February, 1939.

[86] PAI for the week ending 13 May and 10 June, 1939. This was a constant ML refrain and was possibly true to an extent as partners of the Congress such as the Jamiat ul Ulama–i–Hind and the Ahrar tried to use the dispute to their own advantage. However, what must also be noted is that the prominent UP ML leader, Khaliq–uz–zaman, was widely rumoured to have stoked Shia Sunni tensions in 1936–37 in order to ensure his election victory. See Shafaat Ahmad Khan to Jinnah 18 May, 1939, Madhe Sahaba File, QA Papers. Shafaat wrote that ‘the issue is entirely due to the machinations of the Congress though it must be confessed that in 1936, during the election campaign of Khaliq–uz–zaman sahib, the Sunni agitation was deliberately engineered by Khaliq against the Shia candidate and a Shia Sunni riot in May or June was the consequence’.

[87] PAI for the week ending 4 June, 1938.

[88] PAI for the week ending 24 June, 1939.

[89] PAI for the week ending 24 September, 1938.

[90] PAI for the week ending 1 October, 1938.

[91] Ibid.

[92] PAI for the week ending 17 September, 1938.

[93] PAI for the week ending 15 April, 1939.

[94] PAI for the week ending 15 April, 1939.

[95] Haig to Linlithgow, 24 January, 1939, Haig Papers.

[96] PAI for the week ending 1 April, 1939.

[97] Open Letter by Mustafa, M. Golam, Secretary Anjuman–i–Mustafavi, The Moonlight, 10 April, 1939, Qaid–e–Azam (QA) Papers, IOR Neg 10773, Reel 14, File 161, Madhe Sahaba, OIOC, British Library, London.

]98[ The Moonlight, 10 April, 1939, Madhe Sahaba File, QA Papers.

]99[Tabarra was further distinguished from ‘Sub’ or abuse which was forbidden by the Quran. It was pointed out that the Quran enjoined the believers not to abuse the Gods of others so that they may not out of ignorance abuse your God.

]100[ Ibid.

]101[ Karim ur Raza Khan to Jinnah, 27 April, 1939, Madhe Sahaba file, QA Papers.

]102[ See PAIs for the months of April and May 1939.

]103[ Haig to Linlithgow, 12 June, 1939, Haig Papers.

]104[ PAI for the week ending 3 June, 1939.

]105[ The Pioneer, 29 April, 1939.

]106[ Telegram by Mahmudabad, Pirpur, Ismail Khan to Jinnah 1 May, 1939, Madhe Shaba File, QA Papers.

]107[ See Telegrams by Hassan Ispahán to Jinnah from Calcutta and Sir Sultan Ahmad from Patna, Madhe Sahaba File, QA Papers.

]108[ Sir Raza Ali to Jinnah, 19 June, 1939, Madhe Sahaba File, QA Papers.

]109[ Ibid.

]110[ Haig to Linlithgow, 9 May, 1939, Haig Papers.

]111[ Hindustan Times, 14 June, 1939.

]112[ Haig to Linlithgow, 12 June, 1939, Haig Papers.

]113[ Nizam of Hyderabad to Lord Linlithgow, 25 April, 1939, Linlithgow Papers MSS EUR. F125/121.

]114[ The Kanpur mosque affair occurred in 1930. The UP Government as part of its Town Improvement Scheme in Kanpur decided to demolish a part of the mosque compound in order to let a road pass through. This was objected to by Muslim leaders and snowballed into a major movement across India.

]115[ The Statesman, 3 June, 1939.

]116[ The Pioneer, 6 June, 1939.

]117[ Haig to Linlithgow, 9 August, 1939, Haig Papers.

Relevant Link:

From Mazhar Ali Azhar to Jawad Naqvi – by Hamza Ibrahim

From Mazhar Ali Azhar to Jawad Naqvi – by Hamza Ibrahim


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