At 5:17 pm on 30 January 1948, Mahatma Gandhi was shot three times on his way to a prayer meeting. He died instantly, aged 78.
The assassin, Nathuram Godse, was a Hindu nationalist who felt that Gandhi had given Muslims way too many concessions during the partition of India. He didn’t even try to escape and was arrested, put on trial, and hanged in November 1949.
Throughout his illustrious career, Gandhi had strongly advocated religious pluralism. After India got its independence in August 1947, the country was partitioned into two dominions: a Hindu-majority India and a Muslim-majority Pakistan.
Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs were uprooted from their homes, and religious violence erupted, prompting the Mahatma to stage a series of hunger strikes aimed at stopping the violence. The last of them was on 12 January 1948, two weeks before his assassination.
Gandhi remains one of the most widely admired and recognisable figures in world history — a titan of the 20th century who inspired non-violent resistance on all four corners of the globe.
At first glance, Gandhi’s career and struggle seem rather unrelated to the Arab world — a region he never visited and to which he had no direct connection. A closer look, however, shows an often-missed connection, which began with Kemal Ataturk’s decision to abolish the Islamic caliphate, previously vested in the Ottoman sultan, in March 1924.
Gandhi and the Muslim Caliph
Part of the caliph’s duties, some of his functions, and what remained of his funds were transferred entirely to the Turkish parliament.
Ataturk explained: “I must make it clear that those seeking to keep Muslims absorbed in the illusion of the caliphate are the enemies of Muslims.”
Gandhi was appalled. Although not a Muslim, he viewed the caliphate as a symbol of Islamic unity and power. During World War I, it had morphed into a lightweight religious authority. After the guns went silent in 1918, the sultan’s army was crushed, his empire in ruins, and his capital occupied by Western powers.
Once commanding wide respect reaching as far as Muslim Spain and India, the defeated caliph was now a non-entity forced to obey the dictates of Great Britain and France. He had to give up entire parts of Anatolia, relinquish all of Syria, and return Allied prisoners without securing the return of Ottoman soldiers.
On 17 October 1924, the Caliph Abdul Majid II left his throne in Istanbul aboard a British liner headed to Malta, with orders never to return.
A caliphate movement had emerged in India since 1919, which challenged post-World War I attempts at curbing the powers of the caliph before doing away with it altogether. The movement also played a crucial role in forging unity among Hindus and Muslims and in challenging British rule in India.