Khilafat Movement: Context, Course and Consequences

Shahid H. Raja
8 min readAug 27, 2023


The Khilafat Movement was a political protest campaign launched by Muslims of British India and supported by a significant section of Indian Hindus soon after the end of the First World War to ensure that the institution of the Caliphate was not abolished by the victorious European powers. Although the movement failed to achieve its stated objective of the preservation of the institution, it had profound and far-reaching consequences for the political landscape of British India.


Apparently, the Khilafat Movement was triggered when Turkey was defeated during the First World War and the British Indian Muslims feared the abolition of the sacred institution of the Caliphate, we must keep its following historical context in view.

1. Emotional Attachment of Muslims to Khilafat

The institution of the Caliphate has always been an emotional issue for every Muslim throughout history. Being the caliph, the Ottoman sultan was nominally the supreme religious and political leader of all Sunni Muslims across the world.

Taking advantage of this emotional attachment of Muslims, Ottoman sultan Abdul Hamid II (1842–1918) launched his Pan-Islamist program in a bid to protect the Ottoman Empire from Western attack and dismemberment and to crush the democratic opposition at home. He sent an emissary, Jamal ud Din Afghani, to India in the late 19th century.

The cause of the Ottoman monarch evoked religious passion and sympathy among Indian Muslims. A large number of Muslim religious leaders began working to spread awareness and develop Muslim participation on behalf of the caliphate.

2. Revolutionary Ideas

After the end of the First World War, hundreds of thousands of soldiers recruited from the Subcontinent were demobilized. These war veterans had brought new ideas of freedom and equality from their experience serving in different war theatres and wanted to see India as an independent country.

At the same time, the 1917 Russian Revolution created feelings of mass empowerment Similarly, near home, a successful revolt led by Dr. Sun Yat Sen in China during the 1920s was an inspiration for the nationalists in India. His achievements were recognized and admired not only by the local and overseas Chinese but also by the global community

3. Changing Class Structure of British India

Thanks to improved law and order, ease of doing business, and opportunities offered by India’s global integration and the war economy, all fruits of imperialism, there emerged a strong commercial middle class that was eager to compete with the British merchants. They contributed the most to this movement

Similarly, decades of professional and liberal education introduced by the British resulted in the creation of a strong middle class consisting of doctors, engineers, administrators, and particularly lawyers. This class is always the vanguard of any social movement

4. General Public Resentment

There was general anti-imperialism due to the harsh treatment meted out, and the feelings of second-class citizens in their own homes. This frustration increased with the 1920s global economic recession that affected the Indian economy badly because of its integration being part of the British Empire.

Course of Movement

At the onset of the Turkish War of Independence, Muslim religious leaders feared for the caliphate, which the European powers were reluctant to protect. Mohammad Ali and his brother Maulana Shaukat Ali joined with other Muslim leaders to form the All India Khilafat Committee. The organisation was based in Lucknow, India, and aimed to build political unity among Muslims and use their influence to protect the caliphate.

In 1920, they published the Khilafat Manifesto, which called upon the British to protect the caliphate and for Indian Muslims to unite and hold the British accountable for this purpose. The Khilafat Movement had the following stated objectives to achieve:

  1. Firstly, to maintain the institution of the Caliph, an extremely important emotional and religious institution for Muslims. The Muslims were afraid that the Western powers were going to ‘Vaticanize’ the institution of the Caliph.
  2. Secondly, they wanted to keep places considered holy by Muslims in the hands of Muslims.
  3. Thirdly, to maintain the integrity of the Ottoman Empire.

However, Gandhi saw this as the perfect opportunity to forge a united Hindu-Muslim stand against the British, and, in combination with a peaceful non-cooperation movement, force the British to concede India’s political demands. In 1920, an alliance was made between Khilafat leaders and the Indian National Congress, whereby Congress leader Mahatma Gandhi and the Khilafat leaders promised to work and fight together for the causes of Khilafat and Swaraj.

Seeking to increase pressure on the colonial government, the Khilafat activists became a major part of the non-cooperation movement — a nationwide campaign of mass, peaceful civil disobedience.

Some also engaged in protest emigration from the North-West Frontier Province to Afghanistan under Amanullah Khan.

Khilafat leaders such as Dr. Ansari, Maulana Azad, and Hakim Ajmal Khan also grew personally close to Gandhi. These leaders founded the Jamia Millia Islamia in 1920 to promote independent education and social rejuvenation for Muslims.

The non-cooperation campaign was initially successful. The programme started with a boycott of legislative councils, government schools, colleges, and foreign goods. Government functions and the surrender of titles and distinctions.

Massive protests, strikes, and acts of civil disobedience spread across India. Hindus and Muslims joined forces in the campaign, which was initially peaceful. Gandhi, the Ali brothers, and others were swiftly arrested by the colonial government.

Causes of Failure of Khilafat Movement

It failed to achieve its stated objectives due to the following reasons:

  1. Unrealistic Objectives: The stated objectives of the Khilafat Movement, namely saving the Ottoman Empire, the safety of holy places, and the preservation of the institution of Khilafat, were too unrealistic to be achieved.
  2. Ill-organized: Though the ground was ripe for this eventuality, it was not an organized movement launched by any organization well-versed in mass mobilization. To succeed, mass mobilization needs a lot of resources and challenging work to keep going over time. However, the movement ran out of steam before it could gain momentum because of the half-hearted attempts of those who tried to own it.
  3. Narrow Communal Base: It was seen as a movement by a particular group advancing its agenda by using the grievances of the public against bad governance and adverse economic conditions. Old political stalwarts like Nehru and Jinnah saw it as a direct attack on their authority, while the business class generally abstained to protect their businesses. Finally, it took on a communal connotation, leading to its de-legitimization
  4. Fragmentation of Khilafat Leadership: Although holding talks with the colonial government and continuing their activities, the Khilafat movement weakened as Muslims were divided between working for the Congress, the Khilafat cause, and the Muslim League. While Sayed Ata Ullah Shah Bokhari created Majlis-e-Ahraar-e-Islam, other stalwarts like Dr. Ansari and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad aligned themselves with the Indian National Congress. The Ali brothers joined the Muslim League and would play a major role in the growth of the League’s popular appeal and the subsequent Pakistan Movement.
  5. End of Khilafat: The biggest and final reason for the failure of the Khilafat Movement was the end of the institution of Khilafat itself in 1924 by the new regime of Mustafa Kemal, which had replaced it. With the cassus belli gone, the Movement breathed its last


Apparently, it was a short-term failure but had far-reaching consequences, which led to the independence of Pakistan within two decades

  1. Changing the Indian Political Scene: The Khilafat Movement changed the Indian political scene irrevocably. Combined with the Non-Cooperation Movement, it was the first all-India agitation against British rule. It saw an unprecedented degree of Hindu-Muslim cooperation, and it established Gandhi and his technique of nonviolent protest (satyagraha) at the centre of the Indian nationalist movement. No longer was the nationalist movement confined to the council houses and bar associations; it had moved into the streets, bazaars, temple fairs, and mosques. The people of the Subcontinent realized how to oppose the British Government.
  2. Creation of Strong Muslim Consciousness: The Khilafat issue crystallized anti-British sentiments among Indian Muslims that had increased since the British declaration of war against the Ottomans in 1914. The Khilafat leaders espoused the Khilafat cause as a means to achieve pan-Indian Muslim political solidarity in the anti-British cause. As the institution of Khilafat was an emotional issue with the Muslims, this movement, by adopting saving Khilafat as its aim, created a strong consciousness among the Indian Muslims. They started considering themselves as a part of a broader Muslim Ummah
  3. Consolidation of Two-Nation Theory: The Khilafat Movement in the end became a shot in the arm for the Indian Muslims to consider themselves as separate from other communities of India, creating those feelings that Benedict Anderson calls “Imagined community,” a socially constructed community, imagined by the people who perceive themselves as part of a group. In modern political terminology. in modern political terminology, we can say it was analogous to Francis Fukuyama’s “Identity Politics,” a step toward the Two-nation Theory
  4. Agitational Politics by Indian Muslims: Before this movement, the Indian Muslims had been playing a secondary role in Indian politics and adopted constitutional means to press their demands. The Khilafat Movement became a catalyst for their psychological emancipation. During the Khilafat Movement, they not only learned the benefits of agitational politics but also gained experience in launching a mass movement. Mass mobilization using religious symbols was remarkably successful, and this method of agitation was adopted later by both Hindu and Muslim nationalists and played an important role in the Pakistan Movement later on.
  5. Emergence of Indian Muslim Leadership: One of the most significant consequences of the Khilafat movement was the emergence of Indian Muslim leadership, not only at the higher strategic level but also at the lower tactical level. These leaders then became the vanguard of the Pakistani movement. After the failure of the Khilafat Movement,’ the Muslim League emerged as the sole representative of the Muslims
  6. Entry of Ulema into national politics: It was the first movement in which almost every section of British Indian Muslims took part and brought them into mainstream politics. giving them a taste of politics. The leaders of the Khilafat movement forged the first political alliance among western-educated Indian Muslims and ‘ulema over the religious symbol of the Khilafat, giving them a taste of politics. These Ulema viewed European attacks upon the authority of the Caliph as an attack upon Islam, and thus as a threat to the religious freedom of Muslims under British rule.
  7. Significant Milestone towards Independence: After this movement, the British were more willing to listen to the complaints of the Indians since they realized that the Indians were now organized and knew exactly how to hurt the British the most. They also realized that, henceforth, they could not rule India by force and that their time in India was now limited.
  8. Pan-Islamism: The idea of Pan-Islamism left its imprint on the minds of the Muslim elite and the masses. These perceptions became one of the foundation stones of the foreign policy of modern Pakistan. During the 1950s, our Pakistani leaders were so obsessed with this idea of being the leaders of the Muslim world that the then Shah Farooq of Egypt publicly taunted that he never knew Islam came on August 14, 1947


The Khilafat Movement stands as one of the most significant milestones in India’s struggle for independence, intertwining religious sentiments with the broader fight against colonial rule. While rooted in concerns over the dismantling of the Ottoman Caliphate, it evolved into a movement that galvanized the masses and showcased the collective power of unity. The movement’s alliance with the Indian National Congress not only fostered communal harmony but also revealed the potency of joint efforts in the face of adversity.

From the book “Milestones of Pakistan Movement: 1857–1947”

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