Historical Observations: The Ottoman Empire: British and Hindu Views – February 1919

December 6, 2020

A memorial that was written by Edwin Samuel Montagu, the Secretary of State for India (1917-22), Ganga Singh, the Maharajah of Bikaner, and Lord Sinha, the Undersecretary of State to the Secretary of State for India, on February 5, 1919, was presented to the British peace delegation in Paris regarding the future of the Ottoman Empire. The Indian delegates belonged to the Hindu religion whereas there was no Muslim representation in the Indian delegation.

The memorial stated that Indian Muslim blood had been shed during the great war but Indian Muslims expected the, "national unity and freedom will be maintained in the case of Turkey like the peoples of Europe." A Times of London newspaper article of January 20, 1919 was quoted about Indian Muslim concerns regarding the future partition of Turkey into a series of smaller states. It was important for Constantinople to remain in Turkish possession like Berlin and Vienna would stay in German and Austrian hands.

The appointment of a mandatory power was to ensure that misgovernment did not happen in the future and the dismemberment of Turkey should not be allowed to proceed. There was no mention of the mandatory in the memorial but in Paris, Britain and France desired the United States to fulfill that role. The United States was viewed as a suitable candidate since she hadn't declared war against Turkey during the First World War.

The memorial highlighted that giving Turkish territory to Bulgaria raised a new danger which the British cabinet needed to consider regarding the Vilayet (Province) of Adrianople. It stated that Adrianople was predominately Turkish. "No theory or self-determination or re-distribution of the populations on an ethnological basis could justify this. But Bulgaria is of all the enemy countries almost the worst of criminals cruel to prisoners of war, cynically selfish in wanton aims with which she entered the war," the memorialists declared.

They did not want Bulgaria to be treated leniently while Turkey would be severely punished as Indian Muslims would feel aggrieved for joining in an anti-Muslim war. Both Indian Muslims and Hindus desired home rule which Britain needed to seriously consider into her negotiations regarding the future Turkish peace treaty. Britain would be committing a grave mistake being vindictive towards Turkey because that would "set Christianity and Islam in antagonism to one another."

The memorialists stated that there were groups who wanted to transform the Aghia Sophia into a Christian Church from a Mosque which wasn't a wise decision. The removal of the Sultan would also see the title of Caliph (spiritual leader) transfer from Constantinople to another place outside Turkey which Indian Muslims didn't want to happen. Muslims were free to choose any Caliph they liked and Britain "pledged up to the hill and over and over again not to interfere with the Caliph." Even "if the Sultan of Turkey were not Caliph, Indian Muslims would still argue not to pursue an anti-Muslim policy."

The memorialists insisted that wartime pledges made by Prime Minister Lloyd George (1916-22) and Lord Robert Cecil, the Under Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (1915-19) that Constantinople would remain the Sultan's capital and that U.S. President Woodrow Wilson's 12th point that "the Turkish portions of the present Ottoman Empire should be assured a secure sovereignty, but the other nationalities which are now under Turkish rule should be assured an undoubted security of life and an unmolested opportunity of autonomous development and Dardanelles should be permanently opened as a free passage to the ships and commerce of all nations under international guarantees" should be honored in consideration "of our Mohammedan fellow-subjects."

Arnold Toynbee, a member of the British peace delegation, minuted on February 6, 1919, regarding this memorial. He stated it was a "very moderately worded" document and spelled out his four points against its recommendations. These include (a) Turks, not a majority of the permanent population of Constantinople they would not be a majority if it ceased to be capital of the Turkish State; (b) Eastern Thrace need not be handed over to Bulgaria or Greece. It can be made part of the state of the Straits under a mandatory power separate from Turkey; (c) St. Sophia need not (in a separate state of the Straits under a mandatory) be reconverted to a Christian Church, and (d) it will be better for the new Turkish national state to be rid of Constantinople and better for the peace of the world that Constantinople should be rid of Turkey."

This document was submitted, like many others, to the British delegation who simply noted and filed it away for possible future reference.


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