Indo-Africans: The Siddi People of South Asia and The Story of Malik Ambar

Group of Siddi men playing music and dancing during a celebration in Hyderabad, Pakistan.

Throughout history, if there is one thing that unites people of different cultures, it is trade. In the case of Africa and South Asia, this is no different. Trade relations date back to as early as the Bronze Age Indus Valley Civilisation (3300-1300 BCE) as Pearl Millet, a crop originally domesticated in West Africa, and the burial site of an African woman was found at the Indus settlement of Chanhu-Daro[1]. Trade relations would continue for centuries to come. According to the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, a manuscript detailing ancient trade routes written in the first century, both South Asia and East Africa were connected via the lucrative Indian Ocean trade routes[2]. Merchants from the Kingdom of Aksum, a trading empire located in modern-day Eritrea and Northern Ethiopia, would trade gold and soft-carved ivory in exchange for cotton and other goods from South Asia. By Medieval times, Indo-African trade had grown to even greater levels, and the African presence in South Asia began to take on a more political role.

With the rise of Islam strengthening connections between different cultures in Africa and Asia, more and more Africans would begin to settle in the Indian Subcontinent permanently. The first African settlers came from a range of different backgrounds including merchants, sailors, indentured servants, slaves, and mercenaries but mostly descended from the Bantu people of East Africa[3]. These African settlers and their descendants would come to be known as the “Siddi”/“Sheedi”, believed to be derived from the Arabic “Sahibi” and Urdu/Hindi “Sahib”, meaning master[4]. The Siddi would go on to establish various communities and, in some cases, rule over native Indians. Siddis ruled the State of Janjira (1489-1948) located on the Konkan Coast and, in 1759, Jafarabad State (1650-1948) located on the Kathiawar Peninsula, 320 km northwest of Janjira, became its dependency[5]. Some Siddis would also rise to positions of power within the various royal courts of India. For example, Jamal-ud-Din Yaqut, a prominent slave-turned-nobleman was a close confidant of the infamous Razia Sultana of the Delhi Sultanate (1206-1555)[6]. Similarly, many Siddi served as warriors and generals in South Asian armies such as General Hoshu Sheedi who died fighting the British in 1843[7]. However, there was one Siddi, in particular, that would go on to distinguish themselves as a mighty military general and ruler: the legendary Malik Ambar[8][9].

Malik Ambar (1548-1626)

Malik Ambar was born in 1548 with the birthname of “Chapu” and belonged to the Maya people of central Ethiopia. He spent his early childhood living a peaceful pastoral life until, at the age of 12, Chapu would become one of the thousands of people from non-Abrahamic communities that were enslaved by the Solomonic Christians and Adal Muslims. The young Chapu was captured by Arab traders and taken to a slave market on the coast of Yemen. Chapu would eventually end up being sold to a merchant by the name of Mir Qasim who took him to Baghdad, the cultural centre of the Muslim world. Qasim converted Chapu to Islam, giving him the name “Ambar”, and taught him to read, write and manage finances. Ambar would remain in Baghdad for a decade before accompanying Qasim to the Deccan Plateau in 1571 where he would be sold once again to the chief minister of the Ahmadnagar Sultanate (1490-1636), a Siddi, by the name of Chengiz Khan (no, not that Chengiz, a different one).

Political map of South Indian states (1400-1650)

The Deccan at the time was divided into five sultanates which comprised of Muslim elites ruling over a Marathi Hindu majority as well as many Indo-Turks, Persians, and European merchants. The Deccan was a land plagued by war and intrigue as rulers would have to always watch over their shoulders lest their own soldiers slay them. Violent coups were the norm, and it was rare for a ruler to hold power for more than a few decades. To make things worse, the rising Mughal Empire (1526-1857), to the north, was slowly becoming the most dominant force in India and had its sights set on the Deccan.

Ambar would serve as a warrior-slave but soon distinguished himself becoming Chengiz Khan’s personal aide. However, much in the nature of Deccani politics, Khan would be framed by his fellow courtiers, who were jealous of his power, for conspiracy against the state and was subsequently executed. Following his master’s death, Ambar legally became a free man and decided to travel south to the neighbouring Bijapur Sultanate (1489-1686). There he got married to a fellow Siddi, by the name of Karima, and enlisted in the Sultan’s army.

The Bijapur Sultanate was ruled by Sultan Ali Adil Shah I until he died in 1579. Following his death, his nine-year-old nephew, Ibrahim Adil Shah II, became his successor. After several bloody battles, his wife Chand Bibi, by turning various generals against each other, came out on top as regent to the young Sultan. As regent, Chand Bibi introduced the idea of fidelity to the salt, which espoused loyalty to the land rather than any single ruler or dynasty. During this time, Ambar slowly climbed the ranks of the Bijapur army gaining a following of veteran cavalrymen due to his bravery in battle, earning the respect of Chand Bibi and the symbolic title of “Malik”, before returning to Ahmadnagar. Chand Bibi would follow suit, and at the end of her regency, she too returned to Ahmadnagar, the kingdom of her birth.

In 1595, the Mughal Empire decided to turn its full attention to the Deccan following the death of the Sultan Burhan Nizam Shah II of Ahmadnagar in a border war with Bijapur. Chand Bibi laid claim to the Ahmadnagar throne which led its chief minister to seek the Mughals for protection. The Mughal Emperor Akbar sent his son Murad Mirza, with a mighty imperial army, to secure the Sultanate. Realising his mistake, the chief minister fled, and Chand Bibi became the leader of the resistance. Donning full armour, she led her men in defence of Ahmadnagar Fort, and after a long unsuccessful siege, the much more powerful Mughals opted to make peace in exchange for the cessation of the Berar province to the east. Chand Bibi accepted, becoming regent of Ahmadnagar, and entering an uneasy truce with the Mughal Empire. However, in 1599, in typical Deccani fashion, Chand Bibi was slain by her own soldiers on false accusations she was going to sell out Ahmadnagar to the Mughals. Without Chand Bibi to defend it, the Mughal Empire subsequently invaded the Sultanate and imprisoned its young Sultan.

Without a ruler to lead them, Malik Ambar took it upon himself to oust the Mughals from Ahmadnagar. Siddis, Indo-Turks, Persians and Marathi Hindus all rallied behind the great commander as he carried out cross-border raids against the Mughals. By 1600, his forces grew from around 150 cavalrymen to 7,000; insignificant compared to the manpower the Mughals were capable of mustering. Out-gunned, out-manned, out-numbered and out-planned (a little reference for all you Hamilton fans out there), Ambar realised he couldn’t take the Mughals head-on and began to pioneer guerrilla war tactics in the Deccan. One such tactic was to use light Marathi Hindu cavalry, famous for their lightning-fast assaults, to attack Mughal supply lines. The Mughal’s heavy cannons and war elephants were unable to keep up with the continued harassment from Ambar’s forces. The Mughals were eventually forced to retreat from Ahmednagar city. With the Mughals out of the picture, for the time being, Ambar went about rebuilding Ahmadnagar’s government.

Deccani politicians were unlikely to accept a Siddi as their ruler, and so Ambar went about finding a puppet he could proclaim as Sultan. The Mughals imprisoned almost all the royal family with claims to the throne except for a young prince by the name of Ali who was currently staying with Sultan Ibrahim Adil Shah II of Bijapur. In 1600, Ali was crowned Sultan Murtaza Nizam Shah II of Ahmadnagar. To cement his power, Ambar gave his daughter’s hand in marriage to the new Sultan. Malik Ambar was subsequently appointed Prime Minister of the Ahmadnagar Sultanate making him the de facto ruler.

In 1603, Malik Ambar put down a rebellion launched by three of his officers all whilst feigning a treaty with the Mughals to prevent them from taking advantage of the situation. A testament to Ambar’s skill in balancing the pressures of external and internal threats to his power. In 1605, following the death of Akbar, his successor Emperor Jahangir restarted incursions into Ahmadnagar territory but to no avail due to Ambar’s superior guerrilla war tactics. The Mughal Emperor was so enraged that he ordered a painting to be drawn of him shooting the decapitated head of Malik Ambar. This fantasy would remain just that, a fantasy.

Emperor Jahangir’s fantasy painting.

In 1610, Sultan Murtaza Nizam Shah II turned against Malik Ambar and his daughter. He was swiftly assassinated and replaced by his five-year-old son, Burhan Nizam Shah III. In the same year, Ambar founded the city of Khadki close to the Mughal border and made it his new capital. In 1612, a treaty was secured with the Mughal Empire, allowing Ambar to focus on developing his kingdom. The next decade saw Khadki become a booming economic hub: the construction of an aqueduct system to bring fresh water to the new capital, the maintenance of over 40 forts to secure the Sultanate’s borders, the flourishing of Muslim and Hindu arts, and the building of masjids and palaces to increase Ahmadnagar’s prestige.

Predictably, the fragile peace with the Mughals was eventually broken and, in 1616, Ambar experienced his first major defeat allowing the Mughals to regain a foothold in Ahmadnagar once again. By 1618, Malik Ambar’s ally to the south, Sultan Ibrahim Adil Shah II of Bijapur, believing Ambar’s time was up, began to conspire against him and collaborate with the Mughals. To force the Bijapuris onto the backfoot, Ambar began raiding the Bijapur countryside. This forced the Mughal Empire and Bijapur Sultanate to meet Ambar on his own terms. In September 1624, Ambar won a decisive victory against a joint Mughal-Bijapur army at the Battle of Bhatvadi. Thereby, humiliating the Mughals once again, foiling the attempts of his Bijapuri rival, and securing his realm’s independence.

In 1626, Malik Ambar passed away peacefully at the age of 78 and was succeeded by his son Fateh Khan, who changed Khadki’s name to Fatehnagar. Unfortunately, he lacked his father’s military genius and, within ten years, the Mughal’s managed to conquer Ahmadnagar under the leadership of Emperor Shah Jahan. In 1653, when Prince Aurangzeb was appointed leadership over the Deccan, he made Fatehnagar his capital and renamed it to Aurangabad, which it is called to this day. Prince Aurangzeb would go on to become Emperor in 1658.

Today an estimated 250,000[10] Siddis are living in Pakistan mainly concentrated in Karachi and its coastal regions. Meanwhile, in India, there are at least 25,000[11] Siddis primarily concentrated in Karnataka, Gujarat, and Hyderabad. The majority of Siddis practice Islam, although there some Hindu and Christian Siddi communities. Although Siddis have largely adopted the language and traditions of their localities, some traditional Bantu practices have been preserved. Gujarati Siddis practice the Ngoma style of dance and music. Similarly, the annual festival by the name of Sheedi Mela in Pakistan also has notable African influences. Unfortunately, Siddis still experience discrimination and prejudice from the broader South Asian community. Despite this, many Siddi have managed to rise to prominence in India and Pakistan such as Urdu poet Noon Meem Danish, singer Younis Jani as well as politicians Tanzeela Qambrani of Pakistan and Shataram Budna Siddi of India to name a few.

The Siddi people serve as a testament to the shared global history of humanity and have undoubtedly added to the diverse fabric of the Subcontinent; their contributions to South Asian culture and society should not go unnoticed.

[1] Kennedy, K. and Possehl, G., 2012. Were There Commercial Communications Between Prehistoric Harappans And African Populations?. Advances in Anthropology. [online] Research Gate. Available at: <> [Accessed 27 July 2020].

[2] Schoff, W., 1912. The Periplus Of The Erythraean Sea. Longmans, Green.

[3] Shah, A., Tamang, R., Moorjani, P., Rani, D., Govindaraj, P., Kulkarni, G., Bhattacharya, T., Mustak, M., Bhaskar, L., Reddy, A., Gadhvi, D., Gai, P., Chaubey, G., Patterson, N., Reich, D., Tyler-Smith, C., Singh, L. and Thangaraj, K., 2011. Indian Siddis: African Descendants with Indian Admixture. American Journal of Human Genetics, [online] 89(1). Available at: <> [Accessed 27 July 2020].

[4] Albinia, A., 2018. Empires Of The Indus: The Story Of A River. John Murray (Publishers).

[5] Ali, S., 1996. The African Dispersal In The Deccan. Sangam.

[6] Meri, J. and Bacharach, J., 2006. Medieval Islamic Civilization: An Encyclopaedia. Routledge.

[7] Soomro, F., 1977. Cultural History Of Sind. National Book Foundation.

[8] Ali, O., 2016. Malik Ambar: Power And Slavery Across The Indian Ocean. Oxford University Press.

[9] YouTube. 2019. Malik Ambar: African King In The Heart Of India. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 28 July 2020].

[10] Trip Down Memory Lane, 2012. Blacks in Pakistan (Afro-Pakistanis). Available at: <> [Accessed 29 July 2020].

[11] The Sidi Project. n.d. The Sidi Project. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 29 July 2020].

Lucknow Pact – 1916

Mohammed Ali Jinnah (bottom centre) and others at the time of the Lucknow Pact.

Since the AIML’s establishment in 1906, Jinnah had been mistrustful of its pro-British inclinations. The Muslim League was willing to offer their loyalty to Britain in exchange for more political representation[1]. Ultimately, this loyalty did not stop the British from reversing the Partition of Bengal. A now disillusioned AIML amended its constitution and adopted Indian self-government as its primary goal[2].

In October 1913, with no reason to continue opposing the League, Jinnah joined the organisation yet retained his membership in Congress, stressing that League membership took second priority to the “greater national cause” of an Independent India[3]. Unfortunately for Jinnah, over the next few years, Congress would endure significant blows.

The deaths of Moderate leaders Gokhale and Pherozeshah Mehta in 1915 significantly undermined the party and left Jinnah isolated. Not to mention the fracturing of the party several years before in Surat. Nevertheless, Jinnah saw that if India were to achieve freedom, both the INC and AIML would have to work together.

In 1915, Jinnah ensured that both the INC and AIML held their annual sessions in Bombay and organised a joint meeting between the two parties. At this meeting, the Congress and League pledged to work together to put pressure on the British and committees were set up to prepare a common scheme of reforms.

In 1916, the INC and AIML met again in Lucknow and officially endorsed the reforms at their respective annual sessions. The scheme came to be known as the Lucknow Pact[4] and called for the following amongst others:

  1. 4/5 of members of the Provincial Legislative Councils and Imperial Legislative Council should be elected.
  2. Separate electorates for Muslims in Provincial Legislative Councils in the following proportions:
    • Punjab (50%)
    • United Provinces (30%)
    • Bengal (40%)
    • Bihar (25%)
    • Central Provinces (15%)
    • Madras (15%)
    • Bombay (1/3)
  3. No bill/clause/resolution concerning a particular community can be passed if 3/4 of the members from said community oppose it.
  4. Number of members in the Imperial Legislative Council should be increased to 150.
  5. 1/3 of the Indian members of the Imperial Legislative Council must be Muslims.
  6. 1/2 of the Viceroy’s Executive Council must be Indians.

In short, Congress agreed to Muslim demands concerning political representation, and, in exchange, the League agreed to Congress ideas concerning government structure along the lines of Gokhale’s Political Testament[5].

The Lucknow Pact serves as a testament to Jinnah’s adeptness as a political tactician in the cause for an Independent India. By bringing the League and Congress together, Jinnah single-handedly allied both of India’s most influential political parties, creating a joint front against the British. Thereby living up to his title as “the best ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity” and making significant strides in the cause for Indian independence.

The Lucknow Pact served to bring the AIML and INC together, but it also healed the fractured Congress party as both the Extremists and Moderates were on board with the proposed reforms[6]. All in all, the Lucknow Pact signified a turning point in the Indian Independence Movement. It turned the League and Congress from bickering rivals into a united political force to be reckoned with.

On the 31st December 1916, Jinnah gave his presidential address to the AIML during its annual session in Lucknow,[7] where he stated the following:

“In its general outlook and ideal as regards the future, the All-India Muslim League stands abreast of the Indian National Congress and is ready to participate in any patriotic efforts for the advancement of the country as a whole. […] I have been a staunch Congressman throughout my public life and have been no lover of sectarian cries, but it appears to me that the reproach of “separatism” sometimes levelled at [Muslims] is singularly inept and wide of the mark when I see this great communal organisation rapidly growing into a powerful factor for the birth of United India. A minority must, above everything else, have a complete sense of security before its broader political sense can be evoked for co-operation and united endeavour in the national tasks. To the [Muslims] of India that security can only come through adequate and effective safeguards as regards their political existence as a community.”

“The [Muslims] must learn to have self-respect; what we want is a healthy and fair impetus to be given to our aspirations and ideals as a community, and it is the most sacred duty of government to respond to that claim. Towards the Hindus, our attitude should be of good-will and brotherly feelings. Co-operation in the cause of our motherland should be our guiding principle. India’s real progress can only be achieved by a true understanding and harmonious relations between the two great sister communities. With regard to our own affairs, we can depend upon nobody but ourselves. We should infuse [a] greater spirit of solidarity into our society. […] We should not lose the sympathy of our well-wishers in India and in England by creating a wrong impression that we, as a community, are out only for self-interest and self-gain. We must show by our words and deeds that we sincerely and earnestly desire a healthy national unity.”

In summary, Jinnah is saying that the AIML is the vital “political organ” of the Muslim community and necessary for the creation of a “United India”. It is the role of the AIML to see to the internal affairs of the Muslim community while working externally with the other communities of India for the “advancement of the country as a whole”. These are hardly the words of a staunch separatist who seeks to divide India and carve out a new state for himself, as is commonly depicted.

One interesting thing about the Lucknow Pact is that it revealed a lot about Jinnah’s political character. A man who only six years before was dead against the idea of separate electorates[8] was now the architect of a common scheme of reforms in which separate electorates were a key demand.

It is here that a distinction must be made between strategy and tactics. Strategy defines your long-term goals and overarching plan to achieve said goals. Meanwhile, tactics are smaller specific steps and decisions that must be taken to complete your overall strategy.

Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.

The Art of War
Sun Tzu

The inclusion of separate electorates in the Lucknow Pact was a political tactic. Jinnah knew that to free India, he needed the League and Congress to be on the same page. To do so, he had to compromise on his individual opinion when it came to separate electorates because he knew that it would be the only way to get the League on board. He even states so in his address:

“Whatever my individual opinion may be, I am here to interpret and express the sense of the overwhelming body of [Muslim] opinion, of which the All-India [Muslim] League is the political organ.”

Jinnah was also aware that separate electorates would have to be a necessary evil to secure his position in the Imperial Legislative Council. Jinnah’s ability to put aside his personal opinion for the overall strategy would serve him well in the years to come. However, it makes the historian’s job of dissecting and determining said opinion from the annals of history much harder.

In many ways, Jinnah acts against his personal beliefs, the inclusion of separate electorates being a clear example, with many more, albeit subtle examples, to come up in future essays. What is certain, though, is that whatever Jinnah’s strategy was, it involved Muslims and Hindus working together for a common cause.

Unfortunately for Jinnah, events in the next few years would disrupt and eventually put an end to the unity brought about by the Lucknow Pact. Nonetheless, the Lucknow Pact still served to establish fundamentals in the Independence Movement. The agreement on separate electorates made the communal issue a crucial part of Indian politics.

Furthermore, by agreeing with the League, Congress tacitly yielded to the idea that India consisted of two different communities with different interests. This pushed the less relevant AIML into the forefront of Indian politics, alongside the INC, as the political body representing Muslim India. This made it a necessity to have the League involved in any future decisions concerning Indian independence.

This essay is part of a larger series on the history of the Pakistan Movement called Jinnah’s Pakistan: Revisiting the Pakistan Movement

[1] Pirzada, S., 1969. Foundations Of Pakistan. All-India Muslim League Documents: 1906-1947. National Publishing House.

[2] Encyclopedia Britannica. n.d. Muslim League | Indian Muslim Group. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 20 July 2020].

[3] Wolpert, S., 1984. Jinnah Of Pakistan. Oxford University Press.

[4] n.d. The Congress-League Scheme 1916 (INC & AIML). [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 20 July 2020].

[5] A History of India. n.d. Gopal Krishna Gokhale’s “Political Testament” (1915). [online] Available at: <,Gopal%20Krishna%20Gokhale%27s%20″Political%20Testament”%20(1915),of%20the%20Morley-Minto%20Reform.&text=He%20specifically%20referred%20to%20the,for%20the%20impending%20Indian%20reform.> [Accessed 21 July 2020].

[6] Ahmed, N., 1987. History Of The Indian National Congress, 1885-1950. Aligarh Muslim University.

[7] Jinnah, M. A., 1916. Presidential Address By Muhammad Ali Jinnah To The Muslim League Lucknow, December 1916. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 20 July 2020].

[8] Jalal, A., 1985. The Sole Spokesman: Jinnah, The Muslim League And The Demand For Pakistan. Cambridge University Press.

Partition of Bengal – 1905-1911

Map of Bengal, from 1880, prior to the 1905 partition.

On the 20th July 1905, the Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, announced what would be his last and most controversial act in office: The Partition of Bengal.

The Bengal Province covered a total area of 190,000 square miles, with a population of 78.5 million[1]. As you can imagine, this proved to be an administrative nightmare. To rectify the issue, Curzon decided to divide the province into Hindu majority West Bengal and Muslim majority Eastern Bengal & Assam on the 16th October 1905 before leaving office in November. It backfired, triggering a political crisis.

Before the partition, Bengali Hindus dominated the province’s commerce, professional and rural life[2] as they were in the numerical majority. Meanwhile, Bengali Muslims were economically side-lined with little education. However, after the partition, Bengali Muslims became the majority in Eastern Bengal & Assam. Meanwhile, non-Bengali speakers became the majority in West Bengal after the inclusion of Orissa and Bihar[3].

For the Muslims of Bengal, the partition presented an opportunity for advancement without Hindu dominance. Soon to be founder of the Muslim League, Nawab Salimullah of Dhaka led Muslims in support of the partition[4]. For the Bengali Hindus, the partition was a fracturing of their motherland and diminished their authority. In the lead up to the partition, Congress arranged protests and collected petitions against the partition. These proved infective against a government that heeded little attention to the sentiments of its subjects.

Sir Surendranath Banerjee, a founder of the INC at the forefront of the protests, began advocating for Swadeshi (a boycott of British goods). The INC Moderates led the protests; however, minor rebel groups began to sprout under its cause[5]. The efforts ultimately proved futile, and the British went ahead with the partition anyway.

In response, the protests grew more violent, awakening a radical nationalism amongst Bengalis. Congress Moderates grew anxious and stopped supporting the boycott because the newly appointed and sympathetic Morley presented an opportunity to reverse the partition[6]. In what became a blend of religious and political feelings, agitated young Bengali Hindus began adopting the use of car bombs, shootings, and assassinations to see their demands for the partition’s reversal realised[7]. Although some prominent Muslim speakers were present at the protests, most Bengali Muslims were indifferent to the movement[8]. Soon, invigorated nationalists all over India began holding protests against the British in Bombay, Poorna, and Punjab, among others[9].

The radical nature of Indian nationalism made it difficult for the INC to gain support for future constitutional reforms and highlighted internal strife within the party. The Extremists faction became increasingly dissatisfied with the Moderates handling of the situation. The Moderates wanted to gain independence via constitutional means and co-operation with the British; however, this proved ineffective as little ground was gained since the INC’s founding in 1885. On the other hand, the Extremists believed the best way to achieve independence was through protest, boycott, and agitation.

The 1907 annual Congress meeting was originally due to be held in Nagpur but fearing the Extremists would dominate the session, Gokhale changed the venue to Surat. In response, the outraged Extremists protested, leading to a physical scuffle in which furniture was flung around the room. This event came to be known as the Surat Split[10].

It was a significant blow to the INC’s reputation and left the party fractured. In the subsequent years, the Extremists were excluded from Congress. Meanwhile, the AIML was able to gain the preference of the British due to their unwavering support of the partition. This paved the way for the introduction of separate electorates in the Minto-Morley Reforms of 1909.

Nonetheless, by 1911, unable to quell the protests and fearing another potential rebellion on the scale of the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, the British eventually assented and annulled the partition. East and West Bengal were reunited while Assam, Bihar and Orissa were separated from the province. Bengali Hindus were able to dominate Bengali life once again. The status quo was restored.

Bengali Muslims were shocked as the Partition of Bengal was interpreted as British enthusiasm for Muslim interests. By backtracking, the UK government made it clear that it was willing to give in to the demands of Hindus at the expense of loyal Muslims[11]. For the League, failure to prevent the annulment was a massive blow to its reputation as the party that claimed to represent and defend the interests of India’s Muslims.

The Partition of Bengal is a clear example of how what is in the best interests of one community can be at odds with the best interests of another. The Bengali Hindus wanted to have a united Bengal at the expense of the Bengali Muslims. Likewise, the Bengali Muslims wanted a divided Bengal at the expense of the Bengali Hindus.

Thus, highlighting a fundamental issue throughout India that would come to define the Indian Independence Movement in its later years. That issue being that India is a land of many nations. In particular, two nations seem to be most at odds with each other: Hindus and Muslims. This idea is known as the Two-Nation Theory, which I will expand upon in future essays.

The annulment was the first sign that Britain’s iron grip was loosening on its prized possession. However, what would replace the British Raj? An independent India that saw to the interests and advancement of all its communities or one that was dominated by Hindus and reduced to majoritarianism?

This essay is part of a larger series on the history of the Pakistan Movement called Jinnah’s Pakistan: Revisiting the Pakistan Movement

[1] Stein, B., 2010. A History Of India. 2nd ed. Blackwell Publishers.

[2] Encyclopedia Britannica. n.d. Partition Of Bengal | Indian History. [online] Available at: <; [Accessed 14 July 2020].

[3] Stein, B., 2010. A History Of India. 2nd ed. Blackwell Publishers.

[4] Baxter, C., 1997. Bangladesh: From A Nation To A State. WestviewPress.

[5] Metcalf, B. and Metcalf, T., 2006. A Concise History Of Modern India. Cambridge University Press.

[6] Stein, B., 2010. A History Of India. 2nd ed. Blackwell Publishers.

[7] Kulke, H. and Rothermund, D., 1986. A History Of India. Croom Helm Australia Pty Ltd.

[8] Talbot, I., 2016. A History Of Modern South Asia: Politics, States, Diasporas. Yale University Press.

[9] Metcalf, B. and Metcalf, T., 2006. A Concise History Of Modern India. Cambridge University Press.

[10] Talwalkar, G., 2006. Gopal Krishna Gokhale. Rupa & Co.

[11] Robinson, F., 1974. Separatism Among Indian Muslims: The Politics Of The United Provinces’ Muslims, 1860-1923. Cambridge University Press.

Minto-Morley Reforms – 1909

John Morley, Secretary of State for India (1905-1911)

Following the Liberal Party’s whopping success in the 1906 British general election, John Morley became the Secretary of State for India. In contrast to the Conservative Party’s autocratic approach to India, the Liberals were more susceptible to Indian demands for more political representation.

So far, Indians were limited to proposing candidates whom the British could consider for the Imperial Legislative Council – but even then, those candidates could only give speeches and take part in debates rather than vote on legislation – despite the best efforts of the INC[1]. Nonetheless, the new government presented an opportunity for Congress to redouble its efforts. To avoid being left out, the Muslim elite formed the AIML to guarantee Muslim representation.

For the next three years, the AIML campaigned and lobbied London to see the introduction of separate electorates and reserved seats. On the 1st October 1908, draft proposals for future reforms provided Muslims with reserved seats in all councils, resulting in limited Muslim representation in the provincial and imperial legislatures. For the AIML, this was not enough as Morley, who oversaw the reforms, still opted for a mixed electoral college. In response, the League and Muslim press began to protest what they saw as a betrayal of the Simla Deputation discussed in the previous essay.

On the 23rd February 1909, the AIML got Morley to voice his support for separate Muslim representation marking the League’s first victory. Despite this, the reforms still did not meet the League’s demands as they provided an inadequate number of Muslim seats. The League’s London branch opposed the bill, winning some support within parliament, meanwhile back in India, they organised a protest[2].

The Reforms Committee advised Lord Minto, the Viceroy, to seek a settlement with the AIML. Minto believed that the Muslims had already had enough representation. However, Morley was weary of the potential obstacles that dissatisfied Muslims could pose to British rule following the Rebellion of 1857 and Lord Mayo’s assassination in 1872[3].

On the 12th September 1909, the League once again pressed for more Muslim representation. Despite Minto’s ardent opposition, Morley was sure the bill would not pass without the League’s support and opted to sit down with their leadership. The Aga Khan, then President of the AIML, compromised for the inclusion of two additional reserved seats for Muslims in the Imperial Legislative Council. The rest of the League hesitantly agreed[4].

The Indian Councils Act of 1909 (aka the Minto-Morley Reforms) increased the number of members of the Imperial Legislative Council from 16 to 69, of which only 27 were to be elected[5]:

  • Viceroy’s Executive Council (9)
  • Nominated by the Viceroy (33)
    • Officials (28)
    • Non-officials (5):
      • Commerce (1)
      • Punjabi Muslim (1)
      • Punjabi Landowner (1)
      • Others (2)
  • Non-officials elected from provincial legislatures (27)
    • General (13):
      • Bombay (2)
      • Madras (2)
      • Bengal (2)
      • United Provinces (2)
      • Central Provinces (1)
      • Assam (1)
      • Bihar & Orissa (1)
      • Punjab (1)
      • Burma (1)
    • Landholders (6):
      • Bombay (1)
      • Madras (1)
      • Bengal (1)
      • United Provinces (1)
      • Central Provinces (1)
      • Bihar & Orissa (1)
    • Muslim (6):
      • Bengal (2)
      • Madras (1)
      • Bombay (1)
      • United Provinces (1)
      • Bihar & Orissa (1)
    • Commerce (2):
      • Bengal Chamber of Commerce (1)
      • Bombay Chamber of Commerce (1)

The Minto-Morley Reforms in and of themselves did not do much for the everyday Indian. Most of the Indians in the Imperial Legislative Council were not given official status and could not vote on legislation. However, they could discuss the budget, present resolutions, and ask questions[6]. Furthermore, it also made it a requirement to have Indian members on the council. Before, it was only a courtesy[7].

The reforms provided a platform for Indian politicians to build upon. In essence, they were getting a foot in the door for independence. For the League, in particular, it ensured a limited amount of representation in government to see to the interests of India’s Muslims. That being said, the main takeaway from the reforms was separate electorates.

In a separate electorate system, a certain number of seats in a constituency are reserved for a particular community. For example, a total of 7 seats were reserved for Muslims in the Imperial Legislative Council. The candidates that occupy those seats must belong to that community. The voters that get to vote for which candidate occupies the seat must also belong to that same community. Other communities do not get to participate in the elections that determine who occupies the reserved seat.

In short, Muslims and only Muslims got a say in who occupied Muslim seats in government. If a party wanted to win a Muslim seat, they had to put forward a Muslim candidate, and that candidate must win the support of the Muslim community in that constituency.

A separate electorate system meant that Muslim politicians could give proper representation to their Muslim constituents without fear of being ousted by a non-Muslim majority. The alternative, a joint electorate, would have meant Muslim politicians got swamped out of government. Those who did get elected would be very watered-down to avoid upsetting the majority. The reforms allowed Muslims to get into government and rock the boat without fear of being tossed overboard. However, not everyone was happy.

The Quaid-i-Azam, for one, was not pleased. Still a firm believer in Congress, Jinnah moved the resolution deploring the extension of separate electorates to local boards at the 1910 annual INC session even though he had directly benefited from them[8]. Jinnah was elected to the Imperial Legislative Council as the Muslim candidate from Bombay.

The introduction of separate electorates is often interpreted as another successful attempt by the British to divide Hindus and Muslims[9]. And while there is merit to this argument, one must still be mindful of the already existing lack of Muslim representation in government and Congress. If the INC were not willing to see to the interests of Muslim India, it would fall to the AIML to do so with separate electorates.

Today, Muslims make up 14.2% of India’s population[10] but less than 4% in the Lok Sabha, India’s 545 seat lower house of parliament[11]. Given the current situation facing India’s Muslim minority, I would argue that a lack of Muslim political representation is more detrimental to Hindu-Muslim unity than the introduction of separate electorates. Had separate electorates for Muslims not been scrapped upon independence, I am confident India’s current communal landscape would be vastly different.

For the next three decades, separate electorates would continue to play a critical role in Indian politics and the direction of the Indian Independence Movement. Despite Jinnah’s objections, he would continue to utilise the separate electorate system to his strategic political advantage.

This essay is part of a larger series on the history of the Pakistan Movement called Jinnah’s Pakistan: Revisiting the Pakistan Movement

[1] Kulke, H. and Rothermund, D., 1986. A History Of India. Croom Helm Australia Pty Ltd.

[2] Robinson, F., 1974. Separatism Among Indian Muslims: The Politics Of The United Provinces’ Muslims, 1860-1923. Cambridge University Press.

[3] Robb, P., 2002. A History Of India. Palgrave Macmillan.

[4] Robinson, F., 1974. Separatism Among Indian Muslims: The Politics Of The United Provinces’ Muslims, 1860-1923. Cambridge University Press.

[5] n.d. Indian Constitutional Documents, 1773-1915. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 7 July 2020].

[6] Gul, S. and Neelam, M., 2018. M.A. Jinnah in the Imperial Legislative Council of India, 1910-13 and 1916-19. Pakistan Historical Society. Journal of the Pakistan Historical Society, [online] 66(3/4). Available at: <> [Accessed 9 July 2020].

[7] Chandra, B., Mukherjee, M., Mukherjee, A., Panikkar, K. and Mahajan, S., 1988. India’s Struggle For Independence. Penguin.

[8] Jalal, A., 1985. The Sole Spokesman: Jinnah, The Muslim League And The Demand For Pakistan. Cambridge University Press.

[9] Katju, M., 2013. The truth about Pakistan. The Nation, [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 30 June 2020].

[10] Firstpost, 2015. India has 79.8% Hindus, 14.2% Muslims, says 2011 census data on religion, Firstpost, [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 9 July 2020].

[11] Wolfe, D., Kopf, D. and Thaker, A., 2019. Why is Muslim political representation declining in India?. Quartz India, [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 9 July 2020].

Founding of the All-India Muslim League – 1906

Built between 1859 and 1872, the Ahsan Manzil Palace is situated at Kumartoli along the banks of the Buriganga River in Dhaka, Bangladesh and served as the seat of the Nawab of Dhaka.

On the 30th December 1906, almost three thousand delegates from all over India gathered in Dhaka at the Ahsan Manzil Palace for the annual Muhammadan Educational Conference. For the first time, the conference lifted its ban on political discussion. The Nawab of Dhaka, Sir Khwaja Salimullah Bahadur, proposed establishing a political party to safeguard the interests of India’s Muslims: the All-India Muslim League (AIML). In particular, the AIML had three main goals[1]:

  1. To promote among the Muslims of India feelings of loyalty to the British government and to remove any misconceptions regarding government measures.
  2. To advance the political rights of the Muslims of India and respectfully represent their needs and aspirations to the British government.
  3. To prevent any feelings of hostility toward other communities without compromising on the objectives of the League.

At the time, Jinnah was a member of the Moderates faction in the Indian National Congress (INC) led by leaders, such as Gopal Krishna Gokhale. Gokhale would later state, “[Jinnah] has true stuff in him, and that freedom from all sectarian prejudice which will make him the best ambassador of Hindu–Muslim Unity”[2]. Despite this, many may still be surprised to find out that Jinnah was initially against the establishment of the AIML – I know I was.

Before the 1906 Muhammadan Educational Conference, its founders had held a meeting with the Viceroy of India, known as the Simla Deputation, on the 1st October 1906 to assure him of their loyalty in exchange for political representation. They advocated for separate electorates, more Muslim seats in the central legislature, a quota for Muslims in the Indian Civil Service (ICS), increased Muslim representation in universities, and funding for a Muslim university[3].

In response, Jinnah wrote a letter to the Gujarati editor asking what right the non-elected and self-appointed members of the delegation had to speak for Indian Muslims[4]. This elitist nature would prevent the AIML from gaining support among the masses during its early years.

The Aga Khan later stated how he found Jinnah’s opposition “freakishly ironic”. The same man who “came out in bitter hostility toward all that I and my friends had done […][and] said that our principle of separate electorates was dividing the nation against itself” would be the same man that would lead the AIML to Independence[5].

Critics often state the League was founded to divide Congress, thus minimising the Indian Independence Movement’s strength. The League’s loyalty to the British is often interpreted as falling victim to Britain’s overall strategy of “Divide and Rule” that sought to drive Muslims and Hindus apart[6]. However, this narrative overlooks the genuine concerns Muslims had when it came to the shape of an Independent India. Furthermore, it asserts that the INC represented all of India’s religious groups without favouring any specific community over another.

The truth is Muslims received little representation in Congress. The INC’s first session took place on the 20th December 1885 and had 72 members; only 2 were Muslim (less than 3%)[7]. This trend would continue throughout Congress’s pre-independence history. Its percentage of Muslim delegates only reached a height of 10.9% in 1921, before dramatically dropping to 3.6% in 1923[8], despite making up 27.06% of British India’s population according to the 1941 census[9]. Besides, the increased use of Hindu imagery to define Swaraj (“self-rule”) by the INC’s Extremists faction and promises to ban cow slaughter upon independence further alienated Muslims.

With their voices being ignored by Congress, the Muslim elite turned towards the British to address their concerns. It was a lack of confidence in the INC to protect Muslim interests, which led to the AIML’s establishment, not a desire to hinder the Independence Movement.

This essay is part of a larger series on the history of the Pakistan Movement called Jinnah’s Pakistan: Revisiting the Pakistan Movement

[1] Pirzada, S., 1969. Foundations Of Pakistan. All-India Muslim League Documents: 1906-1947. National Publishing House.

[2] Wolpert, S., 1984. Jinnah Of Pakistan. Oxford University Press.

[3] n.d. Simla Deputation (1906).[online] Available at: <> [Accessed 26 June 2020].

[4] Singh, J., 2009. Jinnah: India, Partition, Independence. Oxford University Press.

[5] Wolpert, S., 1984. Jinnah Of Pakistan. Oxford University Press.

[6] Katju, M., 2013. The truth about Pakistan. The Nation, [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 30 June 2020].

[7] n.d. Muslims And The Congress. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 30 June 2020].

[8] Brown, J., 1985. Modern India: The Origins Of An Asian Democracy. Oxford University Press.

[9] British Government of India, 1943. Census Of India 1941. [online] Government of India Press. Available at: <> [Accessed 26 June 2020].