The Khaksar movement in the Persian Gulf
In 1939, in the early months of the Second World War, British officials began making enquiries into the presence in Bahrain of members of a paramilitary Islamic social movement that sought the overthrow of British rule in India, and drew inspiration from Adolf Hitler.
The Khaksar movement was founded in Lahore in 1931 by Inayatullah Khan Mashriqi, a Cambridge-educated mathematician and Islamic scholar.
The movement was overtly Islamic, but claimed to wish to give equal rights to all faiths. It was highly organised, and rapidly acquired millions of members. It was also militaristic, with khaki uniforms, organised marches, and mock warfare. The movement’s emblem was the spade, egalitarian symbol of the dignity of labour, which its members literally carried around with them.
Khaksars in uniform, 1930s. The figure in the centre of the back row carries the Khaksar belcha (spade). Source: Wikipedia.
The Khaksar movement’s philosophy was enshrined in a creed and set of principles, which emphasised discipline and self-sacrifice, and encouraged the spread of Islam. However, the movement denied any involvement in politics, and its anti-colonialism went unstated.
The movement’s dictatorial beliefs and uniform prompted comparisons with contemporary Fascist organisations in Europe. Indeed, Mashriqi is said to have met Hitler in 1926 and to have been influenced by Mein Kampf, which he translated into Urdu.
Bahrain was the centre of the embryonic oil industry on the Arab side of the Gulf in 1939, and with the advent of war against those same European Fascist powers, the region constituted a key source of oil for Britain’s war effort.
The British compiled lists of those involved with the movement in Bahrain (about forty people, all of them members of the Indian community), including oil industry workers and a tailor.
Part of a letter dated 20 December 1939 from the Assistant Political Agent, Bahrain to the Director, Intelligence Bureau, Government of India, New Delhi, giving information on the Khaksar Movement in Bahrain, which he describes as ‘the object of much derision by the Arab population’: IOR/R/15/2/168, f 24.
The conclusion reached by British officials was that there was ‘nothing objectionable’ in the activities of the movement’s members in Bahrain, which were confined to a weekly uniformed march, and regular meetings. The British Political Agent in Bahrain was also sceptical about the movement’s wider appeal to Muslims, stating that it was ‘not likely ever to be of much significance on the Arab Coast, where a movement whose symbol is a spade can excite only derision’.
However, all that changed in March 1940 when more than thirty Khaksars were killed by police in a protest at Lahore. The movement was now viewed by the authorities as a danger and banned, and the ban prompted further enquiries into the strength of the movement in Bahrain. Fifteen further members, including workers at a shipping company and the RAF base, were identified by tracing the distribution of the Khaksar newspaper, Al Islah.
The Gazette of India, 20 March 1940, published the day after the deaths of Khaksar members at Lahore, announcing the Chief Commissioner of Delhi’s decision to declare the Khaksar Movement an unlawful association: IOR/R/15/2/168, f 31.
If the British feared a wartime outbreak of pan-Islamic unrest they need not have worried, because the Gulf states gave loyal support to the Allied cause throughout the war. Inayatullah Khan too, on his way to jail in New Delhi, pointed out that he had previously offered to raise a force of 50,000 men to fight alongside the British.
However, the implications for British rule in India were different, and the activities of Mashriqi and the Khaksars were a contributory factor in achieving the independence of Pakistan in 1947.
British Library: 'File 1/A/47 Khaksar Movement'. IOR/R/15/2/168
Amalendu De, History of the Khaksar Movement in India (1931-1947) 2 vols (Kolkata: Parul Prakashani, 2009) I
Roy Jackson, Mawlana Mawdudi and Political Islam: Authority and the Islamic state (Taylor and Francis, 2010)