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Historical Observations: An Indian Muslim View of Constantinople in 1919

Αssociated Press

Constantinople is perched between Europe and Asia. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

The leading Indian Muslim, Agha Khan 111 (Sir Sultan Mohammed Shah, 1877-1957) held the title of prince which was recognized by the British government. As the leading Muslim leader in India, he commanded a lot of power and respect amongst his people and co-religionists. He used his prominent position to advance Muslim interests and that of the Ottoman Empire during the Paris peace conference in 1919.

During the early stages of the conference, the allied powers had to decide on the future of Constantinople and whether the Sultan's government would remain there or be banished to Asia Minor. The Indian Muslims used this period to campaign for Constantinople to remain the seat of the Ottoman Empire. At this time, Great Britain was the world's leading Muslim power where Indian Muslim agitation could cause her problems in Egypt, Mesopotamia (Iraq), Arabia, and Palestine.

The Agha Khan along with other leading Indian Muslims Ameer Ali, Sir Abbas Ali Baig, and Yusuf Ali signed a memorial which was handed to the British Foreign Secretary, Arthur J. Balfour in Paris regarding the future of Constantinople. The memorial was couched in moderate language to persuade the British delegation to understand Indian Muslim feelings as to what Constantinople meant to them.

The Agha Khan stated that he spoke for 80 million Muslim subjects in India who were loyal to the British Empire during the great war. They contributed money and troops to the Indian army who played a very important role in the British Empire's victories in Europe and the Middle East. A prominent Indian Muslim, Nazim of Hyderabad contributed one million pounds towards the British war effort and also kept the Muslim population pacified under his authority.

Indian Muslims remained loyal to the British government which they lived under, but prayed for their Caliph, who was the Sultan of Turkey. Whilst they helped the British war effort, their prayers in the mosques of India were for the Sultan. The Agha Khan mentioned that this devotion for the Sultan was of recent origin without specifying a specific date. However, it was a remarkable fact that the British government shouldn't ignore or underestimate the loyalty of Indian Muslims towards the Sultan.

The memorial declared that Indian Muslim loyalty had been tested with calmness when Turkey had been defeated in the Balkan Wars of 1912-13. There was no civil unrest during that time and even when Constantinople was to be handed over to Russia. It was important for the British government to pay attention to the law-abiding Indian Muslims "who have withstood temptation, and notwithstanding their sympathies, loyally and enthusiastically supported the Allied cause."

It was important that any attempt by Britain to deprive Turkey of its capital, Constantinople would raise the specter of rebellion among Indian Muslims and create problems for the British in India. Indian Muslims wanted to maintain good relations with the Indian government.

They quoted the British Prime Minister Lloyd George’s war aims speech of January 5, 1918, to support their case. He said, "we are not fighting to deprive Turkey of its capital" which was a great relief felt among the Muslim population. Nazim set the example celebrating the allied victory and the collapse of their enemies by offering thanksgiving prayers in his mosque. The end of hostilities meant that peace between the Turks and the British was now restored.

However, they failed to mention in their memorial that Arabia, Armenia, Mesopotamia, Syria, and Palestine were destined to be detached from the Ottoman Empire with the inhabitants given the opportunity for self-determination, or the massacres perpetrated by the Turks against the Armenians, Greeks, and Assyrians during the First World War.

This was one of many memorials submitted by Indian Muslims supporting the Sultan during the allied peace negotiations with the Ottoman State.