Kaiser, Sultan and the Holy Jihad in India

There was another axis of evil that was rotating in Constantinople, the capital of the Islamic Ottoman Empire.

By Dr Pankaj Saxena, Director for Centre for Cultural Studies

In the previous articles, we saw how the Great Game between Russia finally culminated with the closing of the Pamir Gap in 1908 and the Race to Lhasa in 1905. But as soon as the First Great Game ended, another started. This time Russia was not in the Game but an entirely new player had entered: Turkey. But even more than Turkey, the mastermind driving this plan was Germany the prime belligerent of the Great War.

It would come as a surprise to many today that powers as distant and as far-flung as Germany were directly interested in matters of Central Asia during the First World War. In fact, Germany wanted to foment a Holy Jihad against Britain by inciting the Muslims of India. Kaiser Wilhelm II wanted to help this effort by landing armies in Persia and then invading through the mountain passes of Afghanistan. And in this plan, Afghanistan and Central Asia were extremely crucial. This is the story of the second Great Game which was largely played between Germany-Turkey on one side and British India on the other.

The recent events in which Turkish President Erdogan, who is an Islamic fanatic, converted Hagia Sophia once again into a mosque should concern India. For events happening deep inside the Islamic underbelly of modern Turkey has always had deep implications for India. In the past too Turkey has thought of invading India and inciting India’s Muslim population against Hindus and any ruler who has been ruling this land.

In the First World War, Constantinople or Istanbul became the headquarters of a massive plan to invade India and incite its Muslim population in Holy Jihad against the British Empire. The German Embassy in Istanbul, dominating the skyline would become the epicenter of the Holy War Conspiracy against India. It is worthy to be noted how other major powers have been interested in India’s fate to the extent that foreign embassies in foreign countries were planning the conquest of India. On the other hand, political leaders in India have been clueless to the extent that Nehru got to know that Aksai Chin had been occupied a full seven years after the Chinese had built a road there.

The plan that Germany and Turkey made did not involve Hindus and was primarily aimed at inciting the Muslim sentiments of the sizeable Muslim population of undivided India. But they did take the help of the Hindu and Sikh rebel leaders in India who genuinely wanted to throw the British out and liberate India. They had no idea about the Islamist designs of the Muslim leaders and if they had, they ignored it.

While Istanbul performed as the headquarters of actions, this plan was hatched in Germany. The German fascination with Muslims is not new. What we saw under Angela Merkel has been repeated before. And even in the past this love for the ‘poor Muslims’ has come from the conservative side.

The Islamist Plan of Kaiser Wilhelm II

On the eve of the First World War, when it had become apparent that Britain would enter the war on the side of France against Germany, the leader of Germany, Kaiser Wilhelm II, thought of fomenting trouble in the colonies of Britain. He hoped of inciting the teeming millions of Asia against Britain, particularly in India, in the hope of knocking it out of the game.

He had a fair idea that Britain would recruit Indian soldiers in the First World War as it had a ready supply of them and the British mainland did not. Any revolt in India against its colonial master would result in serious disruption in Britain’s war efforts and thus it might tilt the balance of the war in favor of Imperial Germany.

The plan that he had for achieving this was very sinister. He planned to incite the Muslim population of India against Britain, by encouraging them to wage a Holy Jihad against their oppressors. “Our consuls and agents must inflame the entire Muslim world against this hateful, lying and unscrupulous nation.” – said the Kaiser.

He planned to foment revolt against Britain throughout the length and breadth of the Islamic world, wherever British interests lay. A lynchpin in this plan was the co-operation of the Islamic Caliphate of Ottoman Turkey. The Caliphate was very much alive till then in however a ramshackle position. Though the military generals had become very powerful the Sultan was still very powerful. Its heydays were long over. It was not the preeminent power that it formerly was during the Middle Ages. Many Sultan and Caliphate loyalists were dreaming of reviving the glorious days of the Ottoman Caliphate when there was no one stronger than the Caliph, the preeminent authority in the Islamic world.

Germany thus entered into an alliance with Turkey and fought alongside it all throughout the First World War. Germany found an easy ally in Turkey as Ottoman Caliphate was hated by various great imperial powers of Europe, particularly Britain and Russia. The genocides of the Christian populations that the Sultan would routinely engage in were not something that went down well with Britain and other imperial powers like Russia. For hundreds of years, the Ottoman Empire had been the enemy number one of most of the Western European powers.

The Muslim Turks had heaped unheard-of atrocities on its Christian subjects in various countries of Europe that it had come to rule in the Middle Ages like Bulgaria, parts of Romania, Ukraine and various countries in the Balkan. Gradually Christian powers like Russia had risen in defiance of the Turkish Muslim yoke, which they called the Tartar yoke. In fact, it is the clash with Turkish Muslims that Russia in part became a great power of the day.

The Pan-Turkic Plan

The German plot to incite the Muslims of India and the Middle East against Britain had a more interesting sub-plot which is of more interest to us in this series of articles.

There was another axis of evil that was rotating in Constantinople, the capital of the Islamic Ottoman Empire. Many Turkish leaders wanted to recreate a Turkish Islamic Empire in Central Asia. The Turkish tribes originally migrated from Central Asia. Building up on this, various Turkish government officials before the First World War wanted to create a unified Turkish Islamic Empire across Asia and Europe; an Empire that would rule most of Central Asia with its various Islamic nations and the Caucasus with its myriad Muslim tribes. Anatolia and Istanbul would of course remain an integral part of this plan.

This new version of the Great Game was more sinister than before and spanned across continents, spilling out of Eurasia for the first time. It also involved locations and players in the United States for the first time. As Peter Hopkirk says:

Masterminded by Berlin, but unleashed from Constantinople, the Holy War was a new and more sinister version of the old Great Game. Fought out between the intelligence services of King, Kaiser, Sultan and Tsar, its battlefield was to stretch from Constantinople in the west to Kabul and Kashgar in the east. It was to spill over into Persia, the Caucasus and Russian Central Asia. It took in the whole of British India and Burma, where Berlin hoped, with the aid of smuggled arms and funds, to foment violent revolutionary uprisings among the restive natives, whether Muslims, Sikhs or Hindus. But the conspiracy’s sinuous tentacles stretched far beyond the frontiers of Asia. Berlins’ grand design embraced arms dealers in the United States, a remote island rendezvous off Mexico’s Pacific coast, and revolver range in London’s busy Tottenham Court Road where assassinations were planned and rehearsed. It would involve schooners loaded with enough arms to launch a second Indian Mutiny, and crates of revolutionary literature smuggled into India behind the innocuous dust-wrappers of the English classics.” (Hopkirk2-3)

While on one hand, the German Kaiser dreamed of inciting the Muslims of India against the British Raj, on the other hand, he was thinking of invading from neutral Persia and Afghanistan. For this, he was desperately trying to convince the Shah of Persia and the Emir of Afghanistan, just like the British were also approaching them to win them to their own side.

For this a critical piece was the co-operation of Turkey. Turkey was not in the First World War from the very first days of the War. When the Guns of August started firing their death shells on the Western Front, Turkey was still silent and only jumped into the game on the side of Germany after three months. It is very important to note that it was Germany’s relentless efforts to recruit Turkey on its side which brought Turkey on its side. He was desperate for Turkey’s help because only the Ottoman Sultan could summon the Muslims of the world to war.

Germany had no Muslim colonies and subjects and thus its bonhomie with Islamic powers was not dangerous for his own colonial designs. Kaiser imagined that a global Holy Jihad headed by Turkey would only result in the Allied loss. It can be confidently said that this was the first Global Jihad against any modern Western power, and Turkey lay smack at the centre of it. Germany on the other hand was falling head over heels in proving itself to be a pro-Islamic power.

“What, it would be asked by many Muslims, was a Christian sovereign doing fomenting and funding a Holy War aimed at killing those of his own faith? Wilhelm’s advisers, who included a number of eminent German orientalists and scholars, were ready for that one. In mosques and bazaars throughout the East, rumors were circulated that the German Emperor had been secretly converted to Islam. ‘Haji’ Wilhelm Mohammed – as he was now said to call himself – had even made a pilgrimage, incognito, to Mecca. Muslim scholars friendly to the cause were able to find mysterious passages in the Koran which purported to show that Wilhelm had been ordained by God to free the faithful from infidel rule… All this was designed to legitimize Germany’s role in the minds of ordinary Muslims.” (Hopkrik 4-5)

Elaborate plans were made to make Holy Jihad possible in India. German officers were prepared with inflammatory material referring to the Quran and the Hadith and also other pamphlets inciting the faithful Muslims to war against the heathen British Empire. The plan was to ride through the Muslim lands of Persian and Afghanistan and inflame the local population through the material and the propaganda for war. But more important was to convince the Emir of Afghanistan to prepare his tribal Muslim bands to invade India. Personal letters in leather-bound jackets by Kaiser Wilhelm II were prepared for Indian Muslim kings with private armies. Anything was offered to them if only they switch over to the Turko-German side for war.

The Berlin-Baghdad Railway

One of the most audacious attempts of Germany to invade India through Persia and Afghanistan was the Berlin-Baghdad Express. This was a proposal of Germany that would connect Berlin and Baghdad directly through a railway track. This railway line would address the needs of the growing Germany-Turkey axis and would serve the purpose of transporting armies from Berlin to Constantinople to Baghdad, which then was an Ottoman Territory. From Baghdad, these armies would invade Persia, and persuading the Muslims there for Holy Jihad they would reach Kabul where they would recruit tribal Muslim armies for invading India under the British Raj.

The traditional route from Europe to India in those days lay through the ocean. At first, the European powers rounded off African cape to reach India but after the Suez Canal and the occupation of Egypt by the British shortened the route, but it still was long and the entire path was controlled at important points by the Royal Navy of Britain. If Germany wanted to invade India and create its empire on the ruins of Turkey’s imperial domains then it would have to find an alternative route to India. The Berlin-Baghdad railway was the answer, the alternative route to India.

Kaiser, Caliph and the Holy Jihad

Kaiser Wilhelm II actually imagined that after snatching India from Britain the railway would extend to the Persian Gulf and going into India’s borders. This plan to appease Muslims of the world and especially Turkish Muslims had been going on since 1898:

“…Wilhelm reached Damascus. There, at the tomb of the great Muslim hero Saladin, he laid a wreath and hung a lamp of solid silver before ordering that a mausoleum of the finest marble be built around it at his expense. Knowing that his words would be spread throughout the East by the highly efficient German propaganda machine, he proclaimed his profound admiration for the chivalrous and saintly warrior who, in the twelfth century, had successfully defended Jerusalem against the English. He also let it be known that he was sickened by the quarreling that went on among the Christian churches, and that had he not been born a Christian sovereign he would have chosen to be a Muslim one. All this was unashamedly intended to please Muslims everywhere, although many of those present could hardly believe their ears.” (Hopkirk 23)

In fact, it was the German attempts at inciting the Muslim populations of the British Empire in India and the Russian Empire in Central Asia which ended the First Great Game between Britain and Russia in a treat in 1907. The next Great Game was played between Britain on one hand and Turkey and Germany on the other.

Germany’s plans got a fillip in 1913 when there was a coup in Turkey and a more radical and expansionist leader Major Enver Pasha came to power in Turkey. He had dreams beyond the then borders of the Ottoman Empire. He imagined a pan Eurasian empire of Turkey starting from Istanbul in the West to Central Asia in the East. Turkey joined Germany and Austria in the First World War a few months after the War started. And three weeks into the War, the Turkish Sultan declared a Holy War against Britain and Russia and all its domains:

“In his summons to Muslims everywhere to join the Holy War, he ordered them to rise as one and smite their infidel oppressors wherever they could be found.” (Hopkirk 60)

This was not a half-hearted call. The hatred for non-Muslims was not only palpable but visceral. The leaflets prepared for inciting the Muslims for Holy Jihad were even more incendiary. One of them fell into the hands of the American Ambassador Morgenthau. It contained instructions to Muslims calling upon them to brutally massacre all non-Muslims:

“Take them and kill them wherever you find them. He who kills even one unbeliever among those who rule over us, whether he does it secretly or openly, shall be rewarded by God. And let every Muslim, in whatever part of the world he may be, swear a solemn oath to kill at least three or four of the infidels who rule over him, for they are the enemies of God and of the Faith, a Muslim who does this shall be saved from the terrors of the Day of Judgment.” (Hopkirk 61)

This message seems uncannily similar to various verses of the Quran itself and is not dissimilar to various fatwas of modern-day Islamic terrorist outfits in which Muslims are regularly called upon to slaughter all non-Muslims. Along with British domains like India, this Holy Jihad was so global that it was waged everywhere including the Caucasus, where Muslim tribes were aroused to revolt against the Russians. In the words of Hopkirk:

“For not since the great Arab invasions of the seventh century had a Holy War been launched on such a scale, and never before against a modern European power.” (Hopkrik 64)

In the First World War, he commanded the Turkish Third Army fighting in the Caucasus. It was led by the fanatical Islamist Enver Pasha. He renamed this army as ‘The Army of Islam’. He imagined that defeating the Russian forces in the Caucasus he would ‘liberate’ the Muslim tribes of the Caucasus and then encouraging them for the Holy Jihad he would next take the various Islamic kingdoms around the Caspian Sea and then the large Central Asian Islamic countries which were then under the Russian rule would also fall. After this, he would invade India and create a pan-Turkic mega kingdom and would unite all the Muslim people under one banner, for the first time uniting the former Mughal and the Ottoman domains.

For achieving this, Enver Pasha had first to win the Battle of Sarikamish in the high mountains of the Caucasus in extreme winters. It was a disaster. He started with an army of 90,000 men but only 15,000 survived at the end and it ended in a loss. His dream of proceeding east through Sarikamish and waging a Holy Jihad through that route ended at Sarikamish. Another Turkish defeat in Egypt further dampened the Turkish plans. But the story was not over yet

In India meanwhile, a Sikh and Hindu uprising was taking place. Har Dayal, a revolutionary leader, had his base in San Francisco and he was in touch with the Germans. He promised his colleagues and supporters in India that the Germans would help Indian revolutionaries with arms. But the help could never materialize even as the plans were being made to do so. A committee to co-ordinate the efforts of Indian revolutionaries were made in Berlin called the Indian Revolutionary Committee. Plans were made to buy arms in neutral countries like the United States and then ship them via the Pacific Ocean to Java, from Java to Thailand and from there they would be smuggled to the revolutionaries in India. To say that the plan was farfetched would be an understatement but so many plans in those years were farfetched.

The attitude of these revolutionaries was not uniform. The Sikh and Hindu revolutionaries were simply being patriotic and were trying to utilize the opportunity which was presented to them. Their colonial rulers were at war with Germany and thus going by the dictum of ‘enemy of an enemy is a friend’ they were trying to enlist German help for India’s liberation from the hated British rulers. Going by the literature and correspondence that they produced, they did not betray a racist hatred of the ‘unbeliever’, as these concepts rarely exist in Sikhism and Hinduism.

The attitude of the Muslims was entirely different. The Muslims were not waging a revolution. They were waging a Holy Jihad. For them, the playground was not India but the entire world. For them, the issue was not just the overthrowing of the British, but also the re-establishment of Islamic rule in India. For them, the issue was the establishment of the Global Islamic Caliphate.

This article was first published at indiafacts.org.

Click here to read the previous part of this article.


  1. Hopkirk, Peter. On Secret Service East of Constantinople: The Plot to Bring Down the British Empire. John Murray, 2006.
  2. McMeekin, Sean. The Berlin-Baghdad Express: The Ottoman Empire and Germany’s Bid for World Power, 1898-1918. Penguin UK, 2011.
  3. Rogan, Eugene. The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East, 1914-1920. Penguin UK, 2016.
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