To provide a superficial pan-Indian legitimacy to this overtly Islamist plan, an Indian Raja called Mahendra Pratap was chosen to accompany the invading German-Turkish force in Persia.
By Dr Pankaj Saxena, Director for Centre for Cultural Studies
While Enver Pasha’s plans to invade India through Transcaucasia and Central Asia failed another more ambitious plan of invading through the route of Persia and Afghanistan was still afoot. The First Great Game had ended with the fixing of the borders of Afghanistan, the closing of the Pamir Gap, the Anglo-Tibetan Convention, and the dividing up of Persia into three spheres.
Northern Persia would be the Russian sphere of influence. Southern Persia with its ports would be the British field of influence and there would be a neutral zone in between. Persia was not ruled by anyone but it was divided up as ‘spheres of influence’. In the First World War, Turko-German armies clashed with British and Russian forces in Persia in many places. The second Great Game started with Turko-German plans of inciting a Holy Jihad in India against the British and any authority which dared to oppose the Muslims and Islamic rule.
The Afghan Invasion
To provide a superficial pan-Indian legitimacy to this overtly Islamist plan, an Indian Raja called Mahendra Pratap was chosen to accompany the invading German-Turkish force in Persia. But more importantly, the Muslim revolutionary Mohammed Barkatullah accompanied him to assuage the Muslim sentiments and convince the Persians and Afghans that the war was entirely Islamic in character.
The German-Turkish armies enrolled many Persian tribes too in the war and led them against British forces at many places in Persia. The Turko-German influence was gradually increasing in Persia and they were gradually enflaming the local Muslims into a Holy Jihad against the British and India. Russia which was an enemy of Britain in Great Game One had now become a friend. Britain planned to stop rapid Turko-German advances in Persia by deploying joint Cossack-Indian armies in the north of Persia.
While Persian forces were nothing more than a joke, the Emir’s forces in Afghanistan were feared by many. The prospect of Germans crossing Persia and then reaching Kabul and enlisting Afghan soldiers in a Holy Jihad against India was something that gave the British nightmares. Germans were proceeding rapidly in Persia and the nightmare could come true. The British as mentioned were also assembling forces in Baluchistan and in northern Persia. The race for Kabul was heating up.
But the Turko-German forces were finding it very difficult to cross the Persian desert. It is one of the hottest places on earth. Summer temperatures can easily reach beyond 50 degree centigrade in many places. Due to the infighting between the German commanders their march was delayed and the summers set in. The march in summers through the Persian desert was as difficult as the march in the hellishly cold passes of Tibet and the Pamirs.
The contingent would travel at night as a consequence and would lose path quite often. But this was far from their only worries. Sometimes the soldiers would run into a sea of swarming hissing snakes. Some other times an army of scorpions would invade them. These insects were also trying to find respite from the harsh Persian heat and would find their home in the clothes of the soldiers. The Kavir desert was even harsher than it was a salt desert. There was not a drop of water and the temperatures soared too high. The sunny side would blind one completely and the other side would look completely white due to all the salt. The legends did not call it the Hell of Persia for nothing.
The German soldiers left behind in Persian towns were consolidating German hold on Persia. They had taken over many British-owned banks and looting them diverted the money to the Holy Jihad against the British in Persia and for the advancing race to Kabul.
Great Game one had ended in 1907 and in 1915 with the German armies and Turkish soldiers knocking at the gates of Afghanistan threatening India, Great Game Two was well underway. The Germans were just shy of the Afghan borders. It must be remembered that in the heydays of Great Game One, the Persian desert had been considered to be impassable and the plans of both Napoleon of France and Tsar Alexander of Russia had not materialized due to the harsh terrain of this desert. But the Germans had finally crossed it and passed into the Afghan territory.
For the first time ever since Alexander’s invasion, a European contingent of soldiers had crossed to Afghanistan from the East. No doubt, the Britishers were panicked. Granted that this was just a small contingent of soldiers and the invasion of India could be completed only with the large Turko-Persian army that the Germans still hoped of creating in Persia and Afghanistan.
After two months of waiting in Herat and the outskirts of Kabul, the German officers were finally granted an audience with the Emir of Kabul, the ruler of Afghanistan. The dream of waging a global Holy Jihad was now palpably possible. That the Turko-German effort was going to be a purely Islamic effort was proved by the questions of the Indian Muslim Mujahedeen Mohammed Barakatullah, who tried to rouse the Islamist anger in the Emir of Kabul:
“It was next to the turn of the Indian firebrand Mohammed Barakatullah, who claimed to represent the aspirations of his country’s Muslim millions, to make his overture to the Emir on their behalf. He asked the Afghan ruler bluntly whether he was prepared, as an avowed Muslim, to lead his people in a Holy War to liberate the oppressed Muslims of British India. He asked him, too, whether he would allow German and Turkish troops to enter Afghanistan and join forces with his mujahedin, or holy warriors, for a combined invasion of India.” (Hopkirk 161)
To make it a more clearly Islamist plot, Maulvi Obeidullah from India also joined Barakatullah in Kabul. He was a Sikh turned Muslim and was raging with the fire of Holy Jihad in his veins. For him, it was not at all doubtful that a Holy Jihad would liberate India and re-establish the Islamic Empire in India, as it once was.
The German party was dispatched after a day of talks. Meanwhile, the Emir was mulling over his options. Not sitting idle, the British were sending letters and envoys to the Emir of Kabul to remind him of his treaty with the British and what he stood to gain with British friendship. The Crown tried to bribe the Emir by an additional allowance of 25,000 pounds a year for his troubles. The Emir finally did his calculations and accepted the British offer, deciding to stay loyal to his treaty with the British. The Turko-German efforts suffered a blow here.
The Iran plot too failed meanwhile. A German Prince called Henry was in charge of inciting Persian masses and the Shah against the British and the Russians. While some ragtag group of Islamist warriors had picked up arms with the Turko-German contingent it was important for the Shah to come out of the capital Teheran and migrate to southern Persia inside the German strongholds so that the Holy War could be waged in full. But leaving Teheran meant that the Russians might permanently occupy the Persian capital. The Shah wasn’t ready for this and thus did not go with the Turko-German plan. As a result, the Iran plot too failed, giving another setback to the Turko-German plan of invading India riding on the wave of the Holy Jihad.
The Ghadar and the Christmas Day Plot
In India meanwhile, the Germans had not lost hope of a Ghadar or an Islamist colored uprising against the British. Learning from the previously failed uprising led by Ras Bihari Bose, this time it was planned that the uprising would be on Christmas Day when the British soldiers would be merry-making and then the Jihadis and other Hindu and Sikh revolutionaries would fall upon them. The operations center at first would be Calcutta and the uprising would begin all over India. One part of this plan was that the Afghan Jihadis would join in from the west.
But the plan was doomed from the beginning. The arms contingent that was supposed to come from the United States never materialized. The ship Annie Larson carrying arms was confiscated by the US authorities and the other ship Maverick docked in just carried a few inflaming pamphlets and a dozen revolutionaries. Another ship carrying arms was reportedly sunk by the British forces that got wind of it. Arms from China never materialized which had been promised before. On December 15, 1915, in a series of raids various conspirators, Jihadis and revolutionaries were arrested in Calcutta and across India. The Christmas Day Plot had also failed.
There were a few daring ventures by the German officers who had controlled various southern and central Persian cities like Isfahan and Kerman. But after the failed attempts in Kabul and in India, it was a doomed affair. As the British forces captured Baghdad defeating the Turks, all hopes of the Holy Jihad and a united pan-Turkic Empire were lost. For the very terminus station, Baghdad, of the Berlin-Baghdad line had fallen into the hands of the enemy – the British.
The Massacre in Azerbaijan
Before it all ended, there some spectacular events unfolded in the Caucasus. The Tsarist regime fell and the Bolsheviks seized power in November in a coup. And they were turncoats. As they had promised to the Germans who had supported the Bolsheviks in exile and even facilitated Lenin’s arrival in Russia, they dropped out of the war suddenly. As the entire eastern front of the Allied powers collapsed gaping holes suddenly appeared all along the eastern front, the front which led to India.
The Caucasus was now once again open to Turkey which had been itching for a long to run over the Caucasus and after massacring its Armenian Christian populations realizing the creation of a pan-Turkic state. Added to this threat was the fact that there were around 50,000 German and Austrian POWs in the Russian prisons who would be freed to join the invading Turkic forces in their march on India. This meant that India was once again threatened by Germany and Turkey.
The Turks started advancing on the Caucasus in 1917, just after the Bolshevik coup. The Germans encouraged them not just for their designs on India, but also because Baku’s oilfields lay directly in the path and they would boost the failing German war machinery. The British had no option but to arm the Armenian Christians who were the only fighting force left in the Caucasus willing to take upon the Turkish might. Led by Colonel General Dunsterville, a small British-led Indian force also tried to help the Armenians in holding the Turkish advance in the Caucasus. India’s involvement in Turkey’s affairs and vice-versa is not a far-fetched theme. It has happened many times in the past.
Enver Pasha who had earlier lost the Battle of Sarikamish was now proudly leading the Army of Islam into the Caucasus. In the month of September he occupied Baku; the capital of Azerbaijan and for two days a horrible massacre of Armenian Christian women, children, and men were continued in which 30,000 Armenians were butchered on the streets of Baku by Muslim soldiers of Enver Pasha and the local Azeri Muslims. The blood literally flowed in the streets.
The Caucasus was lost to the British. But the Turks would have to leave Baku after the defeat of Germany and Turkey in the First World War. Their dreams of a pan-Turkic Empire were forever crushed. The Bolsheviks who replaced them in the Caucasus were no friends of Britain or India. The British tried to confront the communists in many cities in Central Asia but in vain. Central Asia was once again lost to the Russian bogeyman from the North, though this time the enemy was in a much more ruthless avatar of communism.
With this, the Great Game Two had virtually ended.
The first plot of the Holy Jihad – the Turkish revolution in Central Asia led by Enver Pasha had ended after the Turkish disaster at Sarikamish.
The second plot of the Holy Jihad unraveled in Persia and Afghanistan after the Shah proved prevaricating and the Emir chose to remain loyal to the British.
The third plot of Holy Jihad that involved fomenting a Ghadar or an uprising against the British in Calcutta was foiled by the failure of armaments to reach Indian shores and the arrest of the Jihadis and revolutionaries by the British.
The fourth plot of the Great Game Two ended in the Caucasus with the Turkish defeat in the First World War and the ascendancy of the Bolsheviks and the emergence of the communist Soviet Union as a global power, much more menacing, cruel, calculating, and ambitious than its imperial predecessor. But that is the story of Great Game Three, to be told in the next articles of this series.
The Islamic Angle of Great Game Two
Only in the Christmas Day Plot were some non-Muslims involved. But in all other plots, it was purely an Islamic Holy Jihad, although orchestrated and facilitated by Germany in most cases.
Though the Turko-German plot of fomenting the Muslims of the world to unite against in a Holy Jihad against the infidels failed, it sparked a race among various European powers to do so against their enemies. Britain successfully fomented the Arab revolt against the Turks. But an unfortunate side-effect of these successes was that the European powers started thinking that they could use Islam against their enemies and would remain unharmed themselves. As would be proved in the post-War world, this was a pipedream.
Many great powers and superpowers would try to use Islam for their geopolitical benefit and would appear to succeed for a short while but would fail eventually. Just after the failure of Germany’s game in Persia and Afghanistan, the Muslim subjects of the Tsar rose against Russia in Central Asia. Russian civilians were brutally culled in all the Central Asian cities. In total, four thousand Russians died brutally at the hand of the Holy Jihad. Though eventually they were once again controlled by the Russian forces the specter of the Holy Jihad was not to be underplayed.
The Soviet Union failed to try to do so in Afghanistan. The USA failed to try to raise the Afghans against its enemies and eventually found the Jihadis to be fighting against America itself. And in modern times, China is trying to play Pakistan and various Central Asian Islamic countries against India. While it is successful for now, the fanatical populations of Central Asia are still a powder keg and may explode against China anytime. This is perhaps the only silver lining in the current Great Game that is being played with overwhelming advantages to China against India and every other force in Asia.
If the Hindus and the Sikhs believed that siding with Muslims against the Europeans would do them any good and create a long-lasting Hindu-Muslim friendship then they were sorely mistaken. This is a myth dear to many in India even now. Even some nationalist historians and scholars are fond of this myth believing that had the Ghadar uprising succeeded or had the Hindus and the Muslims managed to overthrow the British power in India together a lasting peace would have reigned between them. This was more than a myth. This was wishful thinking which would have proved fatal to them, had such a plan succeeded.
A trailer of this was to be seen very soon after the end of the First World War and the defeat of the Turkish designs to foment Holy War in India. Not only was Turkey defeated the Caliphate was also abolished. For the first time in centuries, the Muslims were without a Caliphate. The repercussions were to be felt all over the globe, but particularly and most brutally in the remote mountains and lush green coastal plains of the Indian state of Kerala in the horrible year of 1921.
In a fit of anger at the loss of the Caliphate, Indian Muslims would jump upon their infidel Hindu neighbors and would commit such horrible atrocities against them that the genocide of Armenian Christians in Baku would pale in comparison. Even if Germany had won and the British had been dislodged after the success of the Ghadar Plot, things could have gone very wrong in India as emerging victorious the fundamentalist Islamists might have gone on an anti-Hindu pogrom all over India. The presence of Afghan, Persian and Turkic armies, all fanatically Islamic in India would have done Hindus no good either.
This article was first published at indiafacts.org.
- Hopkirk, Peter. On Secret Service East of Constantinople: The Plot to Bring Down the British Empire. John Murray, 2006.
- Rogan, Eugene. The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East, 1914-1920. Penguin UK, 2016.
- Strachan, Hew. The First World War: Volume I: To Arms: 1. OUP Oxford, 2003.