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Aga Khan and the Pakistan Movement

by Khaled Ahmed

File photo of Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III

The state of Pakistan and its inhabitants owe a debt of gratitude to Aga Khan III for his contributions to its development

In his well-documented book, A Leadership Odyssey: Muslim Separatism and Achievement of the Separate State of Pakistan (OUP 2021), Dr. Sikandar Hayat, Distinguished Professor and Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences, FC College University Lahore, has discussed Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan together with five great leaders of Pakistan: 1) Sir Syed Ahmad Khan; 2) Syed Ameer Ali; 3) Maulana Muhammad Ali; 4) Allama Muhammad Iqbal and 5) Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah.

(Note: The word Aga entered English from Turkish, and the Turkish word comes from the Old Turkic aqa, meaning “elder brother.” It is an equivalent of Mongolian word aqa or aka. Also, Greek verb agein (to lead) and Latin agere (to lead) is the same as Hindi agwa (leader) and Punjabi agoo (leader). Aga Khan doesn’t write his name as Agha. (Urdu just can’t accept “aga” and allows only “agha.” While Khan is a Mongol word, Greek Aga became Agha because of lack of “g” sound in Arabic. Aga means leader and Homer’s hero Agamemnon meant leader of tradition. Words like agenda and agency all come from this root. In Athens “agora” was the plain where the leaders gathered to watch games and “agony” was the “struggle” that wrestlers went through while contesting. The Ismaili faith originated in Egypt, deeply affected by Greek-Ptolemaic culture.)

Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III (1877-1957) was born in Karachi on Nov. 2, 1877, and grew up in Bombay (Mumbai) ad Poona. He was educated at Eton and Cambridge University. The British government helped in securing him a place at these prestigious institutions, thus smoothing his transition to British life and environment at a young age.

In 1902, when he was just 25 years old, he was nominated member of the Imperial Legislative Council of India. He gratefully acknowledged a letter from Viceroy Lord Curzon asking him to become a member of his Legislative Council. He commented later: “This was a considerable honor to a young man still in his 20s (I was by far the youngest member), for the Viceroy’s Legislative Council in those days was a small, select body of influential people, wielding real authority.”

The Aga Khan was offered nomination for the second time in 1904, after the expiry of his tenure, but he politely refused. He did, however, admit that his unique experience of the Legislative Council had a profound and permanent effect on his life and character.

The Aga Khan found the attitude of the Congress towards Muslims disconcerting in spite of the presence of stalwarts, such as K. Gokhale who was a caste Hindu but was beyond the barrier of creed and race; and Pherozeshah Mehta, who was high in the counsels of the Congress Party and was a family friend of Aga Khan. Indeed, he egged Mehta to use his influence and make Congress realize how important it was to win Muslim confidence—but all to no avail.

The Aga Khan saw the Indian situation as Syed Ahmad Khan had done before him, and “prioritized the minority Muslim community over Indian national identity,” indeed as a kind of response to the pressures exerted on minority groups by nationalism and its colonial legacy. He did not see the Muslims as merely a religious community but, more importantly, as a national entity with the right to be represented by their own leaders.

The experience of the working of 1892 reforms of the legislative council further showed to him clearly and convincingly that there was no hope of a fair deal for the Muslims within the fold of the Congress Party or in alliance with it. In this sense, the Aga Khan, given his first-hand, harsh exposure and experience of Indian politics, was left with no option but to follow in the footsteps of Syed Ahmad Khan who campaigned for Muslim unity and progress and for its own sake.

The Aga Khan firmly believed that, since the Muslims had obtained separate electorate recognition, they must have a political organization, too, to make that separate representation effective. Soon, he was able to influence quite a few Muslim leaders, including some leaders associated with the earlier Simla deputation. They met in Dhaka on Dec. 30, 1906, after the conclusion of the annual session of the Muhammadan Educational Conference, and decided to launch a Muslim political party. The meeting was chaired by Nawab Viqarul Mulk and attended by delegates from different parts of India representing landed, commercial, and professional classes and groups, and resulted in the founding of the All-India Muslim League, a logical culmination of the developments that had begun with the introduction of representative institutions in India.

The Aga Khan was elected the first President of the Muslim League though he himself was unable to attend the meeting in Dhaka, with Nawab Mohsenul Mulk and Nawab Viqarul Mulk as its Joint Secretaries. The Aga Khan remained president till his resignation in 1912.

His withdrawal from the League politics did not mean that the Aga Khan was no more interested in political life and processes of India. In fact, this withdrawal, this stepping down, provided him an ideal opportunity to reflect upon the situation afresh and suggest a way out for India in this evolutionary phase of the British rule, particularly with regard to the Muslim predicament. He wrote a masterpiece on Indian politics, India in Transition: A Study in Political Evolution in 1918. He had already published a number of thought-provoking works, such as Muslim Education in India (1902), The True Purpose of Education (1904), A Bill of Muslim Rights (1906), Some Thoughts on Indian Discontent (1907), Advice to the Muslim League, and The Problems of Minorities in India (1909).

Apart from politics and political plans, one of the major concerns of the Aga Khan during this time was the uplifting of an educational project by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan to raise the status of Aligarh College to that of a full-fledged university and make it an institution of higher education and learning for all the Muslims of India.

The Aga Khan, however, soon had to deal with religion up-front, with the convulsions of the Khilafat Movement launched by the Indian Muslims to save the Caliphate in the Ottoman Turkish Empire. The fate of the Turkish Empire agitated the minds of the Muslims. In 1912, the Balkan states, encouraged by the British and other European powers, had invaded the empire. To make the situation worse, the Turks sided with Germany during World War I and thus saw the end of their empire after its defeat at the hands of Allied powers. Turkey would be punished; it would lose its major territories, and the Khilafat would be lost, particularly with regard to its control of the areas of Hejaz, Syria, Palestine, and Iraq with the holy places of Islam.

Unable to assist the Khilafat Movement, the Aga Khan nevertheless demonstrated his sympathies for Turkish sovereignty by generously contributing money to meet Turkey’s war loans with £2,000. He also purchased bonds worth Rs. 25,000 and invested another Rs. 90,000 in Turkish bonds too. But the year 1924 also marked the conclusion of a phase of his public life. He retired and “devoted almost exclusively to his own personal and private life.”

Today, in 2021, the gradual narrowing of the Muslim identity around sects has led Pakistanis to regard the Aga Khan and his followers as a marginal community. But the state of Pakistan and its inhabitants owe him and his community a debt of gratitude that they can never repay.

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1 comment

Mumtaz Ali Tajddin June 28, 2021 - 9:06 am

I am the author of the “Ismaili through History” (Karachi, 1997) containing history of the Prophet Muhammed and Hazar Ali down to the Present Imam, the Age Khan IV. It took me several years to compile it after referring Arabic, Persian, English, Urdu, Gujrati historical books. I have never found in any work that the Aga Khan III had taken education in Cambridge University. This is absolutely incorrect. He took education at home under the care of his mother Lady Aly Shah and learnt many languages. His first travel out of India was in East Africa in 1899 to see his followers.

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