When Jerusalem changed the world

A hundred years ago Jerusalem surrendered to the British, and the world would never be the same again.


The present day territories of Israel and Palestine has been the epicenter of religious conflict for centuries. Down the ages the desire to possess this sliver of a Holy Land had led the followers of a dozen gods and their countless aspects to slaughter each other. Locations central to the lore of all three Abrahamic faiths, i.e. Judaism, Christianity and Islam, lie in this territory – and for the believers no price seems too high to pay for possessing it. Within these religions themselves numerous denominations jostle for control over shrines and sites of significance, each convinced that their way is the truth. The lives of billions are tied to contentious debates over who owns what in the Holy Land. The holy city of Jerusalem lies at the heart of this conflict.

A watershed event occurred exactly a hundred years ago during World War I, when Ottoman Jerusalem ignobly surrendered to the British under General Allenby. Seven centuries after recapturing it from the Crusader Christians, Muslims had once again lost Jerusalem.  The third holiest city in Islam, Jerusalem’s takeover by the Kufr is perceived as a great transgression by many Muslims. The inflection point of the West Asian conflict may be traced to this event and the events surrounding it. The waves of Jewish immigrations, the Arab-Israeli War of 1948, the formation of Israel, and the current situation in West Asia are a result of this British campaign. The road to the British capture of Jerusalem was quite eventful and has lasting ramifications – and Indians also played a role here.


The Ottoman Problem and the Great War:

The Holy Lands had been held by the Ottoman Turks since the early 16th century. The possession of the holy cities of Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem enabled the Ottoman Emperor to title himself “Caliph of all Muslims”. In World War I (1914-1918), Ottoman Turks aligned with Germany against Britain and her allies. By early 1917 the British were in trouble: in the early phase of the war the Turks had mauled them in Europe and Iraq. Also, the Ottoman Emperor in his capacity as Caliph called on Muslims under British yoke to rise against their overlords. Though Indian Muslims, especially the thousands serving in the army, did not take up the call to Global Jihad en masse, a few mutinies and insurrections did break out. Many Indian revolutionaries and Pan-Islamist movements latched on to this and commenced numerous operations such as the Ghadar Mutiny, Christmas Day Plot, the Kabul Mission, etc.

The British in response utilized the talents of Lawrence of Arabia to aid the Arab rebels against their Turk overlords. British aid to the erstwhile ill-equipped but fanatical tribes of Arabia invigorated the Arab Revolt. By the end of 1916 major cities such as Mecca, Aqaba and Aden had fallen and the Ottoman hold on the Arabian Peninsula was weakening. In January 1917, the British attacked Gaza and Palestine from Egypt, a British protectorate since 1882. For six months the Ottomans and their German allies managed to defend, but then the capable General Allenby took charge.


Allenby’s brilliance and Lawrence’s success in Arabia had tipped the scales. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF – “E”) now smashed into the Holy Land. This force was nearly one fifth Indian, many of them Muslims. At this point the well-reported “Jerusalem Syndrome” set into many Christian soldiers. The men could identify each city, town and geographical features as these names were part and parcel of their religious life. The feeling that they now walk on lands where Jesus and other Biblical figures walked was overwhelming. This instilled religious fervor and even hysteria in many soldiers and officers. Purely military objectives started to get tainted with other considerations. Since the Allenby campaign began, the Western press had also contributed by drawing real and imagined parallels from the Bible, and foraying into apocalyptical millenarian (“End Times”) themes. Soon the feeling that this campaign was a Crusade to free the Holy Land from the Muslims took root. Ministers, top bureaucrats and generals were not immune to such emerging zeitgeist. Moreover, the situation in France was bleak: the victories in the Holy Land seemed portentous and were a welcome respite.


A home for the Jews in the Holy Land:

In this environment Zionists such as Herbert Samuel, the Rothschilds, and Chaim Weizmann (who would later become the first President of Israel) were able to influence politicians and swing support for a Jewish home in the Holy Land. Zionism, the movement which sought the return of Jews to Palestine had gained steam in the late 19th century with the worldwide rise of Jews in science, arts and business. Zionism also had support of powerful Christian denominations which believed that a Jewish state in the Holy Land was a pre-condition for Biblical prophecies. The slaughter of tens of thousands in The Great War fed apocalyptical millenarian views among Christians and Jews – this also hastened the development of the project. The American President Woodrow Wilson and the British Prime Minister Lloyd George supported the Zionist cause. In fact, most British cabinet ministers were evangelicals who supported Zionism. Efforts of Zionists also created a Jewish Legion in the British Army, veterans of which would later ascend to great heights in the nation of Israel.

Weizmann in particular was very important to the war effort due to his inventions in armament production. His friendship with Lloyd George and the Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour led to the Balfour Declaration in November 2, 2017, which promised a home for all Jews in the Holy Land – albeit in joint ownership with Palestinian Arabs. The declaration was also timed in response to the ongoing October Revolution in Russia which threatened Russian participation in the War. The declaration could gather support of influential Russian Jews and perhaps break the revolution.

The Balfour declaration caused widespread condemnation from Muslims worldwide, including leading Indian clerics and politicians. Lord Curzon and Montagu, who had experience governing millions of Indian Muslims remarked that they expect much bloodshed in future in the Holy Land. Deeper intrigue was afoot. The British, Russian Empire and the French secretly decided one year previously under the “Sykes-Picot Agreement” to partition West Asia between themselves. The Jews could surely be accommodated in the Holy Land under this top-secret arrangement. This agreement also negated all assurances made to the Arabs. The Balfour declaration was anyway momentous – the Jews who were exiled by the Romans in 70 C.E. could now return to the Holy Land under the aegis of another empire!


The Battle for Jerusalem:

In November 17, the British struck at Jerusalem: Indian units fought admirably in these operations. The defense crumbled and the Ottoman and German forces fled. Jerusalem was governed by a decadent and corrupt regime. When the defenders retreated the leadership sought to surrender as fast as possible, leading to farcical situations. The first offer for surrender was presented to two British cooks foraging just outside the city gates. To avoid the parallels to conquerors, or Christ riding into Jerusalem, Allenby was ordered to walk into the city to accept the surrender.  Jerusalem and adjoining areas now fell under British control. In the coming years the Empire managed to get a mandate to govern the Holy Land – which they did for 30 years with much trouble.

Meanwhile the communists and their allies captured power in Russia. One of their first acts was to expose the Sykes-Picot agreement, on 23rd November. Reactions to this revelation from all Arabs and non-Arab Muslims were severe, but the ongoing war prevented serious opposition. The mood in Jerusalem was charged as news of western perfidy spread. Also, many could not accept the loss of the holy city to infidels – or the greater freedoms that Jews and Christians minorities now enjoyed.


Amidst such tension the British were holding on gingerly. Due to the large Muslim population and their Arab allies in the peninsula the British had to safeguard the Islamic shrines. The British also had to guard Christian and Jewish shrines and sites from Muslim zealots (and also zealots of opposing denominations within these two faiths). Moreover, the Ottomans and the Germans were regrouping to the North. Diplomatic gaffes, triumphalism and religious exhortations could set off the tinderbox at any moment. An avalanche of protocols and regulations flowed from London to avoid this. In fact, the surrender ceremony itself had ended in a bad note when Allenby himself declared that “The Crusades have now ended”, to which the Arab dignitaries stormed off from the ceremony.

Indian troops were used for important guard duties: The Muslim units would guard the Islamic shrines and Hindu/Sikh units would keep the peace in other areas. Contemporary reports point out to the professionalism of Indian troops in such a charged environment. It was also to their credit that they were not swayed by religious fervor and propaganda in the heart of the Holy Land. Indian troops guarded sites such as the all-important Al Aqsa mosque, Bethlehem, the Cave of the Patriarchs, and Rachel’s Tomb. The reaction of Indian Muslims to the fall of Jerusalem was quite muted, despite the decades-long support for Ottoman-sponsored Pan-Islamism by many Indian leaders. However, the embers of this loss remained. The emotions would flare up as the Khilafat Movement when the British and their allies attempted to annex remnant Turkish lands and abolish the Caliphate in 1921.


Aftermath: 1918 –

Jews around the world saw a chance now that Jerusalem was in British hands: over 500,000 would trickle into Palestine over the next 21 years in five waves of emigration called Aliyahs. Once the civil administration was set up in early 1918, the British embarked on further campaigns. The Indian component of the British force was increased in strength and it would take part in major operations till the end of the war. In total, over 100,000 Indians served in this theater and nearly 12,000 had fallen. Thousands more were maimed or wounded.

Indian involvement did not end with the war. In the late ‘30s to early ‘40s the threats of the Indian Muslim League and leading clerics were one reason the British withdrew support for Zionism. Jinnah reminded senior British officials that “one in three soldiers who won the Holy Land for the Empire were Indians, and many of them were Muslims”. He warned that continuing support for the Jews and the influx of Jewish immigrants would antagonize Muslims worldwide – including the millions in British India. Muslim League leaders worked closely with the Arabs to prevent Jewish consolidation in Palestine. The British did pull support for the Jewish home in the ‘40s following a bloody Jewish insurgency and Arab insurrections. However, by then 600,000-plus strong highly organized and militarized Jewish community was well-established. World War 2 and the Jewish Holocaust followed: in its wake the British relinquished its mandate sparking off the Arab-Israeli war of 1948. The rest is history.


The bloodletting continues in these lands as a result of these events during World War I. Other conflicts across the globe, even in faraway places such as the Americas and Philippines, also stem from the British decisions regarding the Holy Land during the Great War. In fact, ISIS leader Al-Baghdadi specifically referred to the Balfour declaration and the Sykes-Picot agreement in one his videotaped messages. India’s national security is also indirectly tied to the situation in West Asia. Though we did not start the fire, Indian blood had also primed the West Asian conflict a hundred years ago.



  • Jenkins, Philip. (2014). The Great and Holy War. HarperCollins.
  • Monetfiore, Simon-Sebag. (2011). Jerusalem: The Biography. Orion Books.
  • Grainger, John D. (2006). The Battle for Palestine. Boydell Press.
  • Fromkin, David. (2010). A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East. Holt Paperbacks.
  • Woodward, David R. (2006). Hell in the Holy Land. University Press of Kentucky.


PS: This is my article in The Mint, published on December 23, 2017. Here’s the link to the original article.

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The Naga Sadhus and Awadh

Armed ascetic orders were a major phenomenon in India till the mid-19th century, when they were destroyed, disbanded or resettled by the British. Trained in rigorous penance and military drill, and seeped in martial spirit – to the pointed of being chastised by saints such as Tulsidas and Kabir – these militarized orders were once significant powers. Even within the framework of Mughal supremacy and other states, these orders wielded much control over pilgrimage sites and temples. Contrary to conventional sadhus who renounced worldly life and immersed themselves in devotion and tapas, the sadhus of these military orders viewed ascetic lifestyle and training as a means to rise in worldly affairs. The decline of the Mughals led to rebellious governors or new kingdoms jostling for supremacy all over India. The chaos of the 18th century encouraged some orders to secure even more power. Many such orders became influential military entrepreneurs; one the more successful ones were the Naga Gosain Sadhus. This ascent of the Gosain order was partly due to their close association with the Nawabs of Awadh.


Awadh state comprised of prime lands in the Gangetic Plain, and once was the jewel in the Mughal crown. The ruling dynasty was Shiite but majority of the Awadhi populace was Hindu. Moreover, most of their Muslim subjects were Sunnis. The Nawabs understood the need for a balancing act given the demographics and the chaotic political scenario. From the 1740s the Nawabs cultivated friendship with the Gosain Sadhus and other such orders. The Gosain Sadhus led by their mahant Rajendragiri had grown to a sizeable fighting force by the 1740s, during the reign of Nawab Safdar Jung. They soon became his chief allies and Safdar Jang heaped his patronage on the order. The ascent – and importance – of the Gosains was due to charismatic warrior gurus such as Rajendragiri, Anupgiri (a.k.a. Himmat Bahadur), Umraogiri, etc, who attracted thousands into the order. Caste and ritual orthodoxy were not major concerns of the Gosains. Therefore, a large number of low-caste and destitute people also signed up for the heady mixture of sustenance, purpose and martial euphoria. The order was no flawless war-machine but it had thousands of men with nothing else in life other than to live and fight under the guidance of their Gurus. The training, the rigorous lifestyle and fanaticism made them more valuable than a peasant militia. The Naga Gosain ascetics fought naked, save for talismans and weapons, in berserker rage, unmindful of the elements. For the Nawab, a force of such ferocious heathens would be useful in any conflict with his Sunni civilians and neighboring Sunni Muslim states.


When the Marathas made their push northwards in 1760 C.E., the Afghan King Ahmed Shah Durrani (Abdali) was invited to invade India by Shah Waliullah, a leading fundamentalist cleric. The Afghan-origin Rohilkhand rulers and the Mughals, fearful of the Marathas, allied with Abdali. The proximity of these two states – and the swift Abdali invasion – forced Nawab Shuja-ud-Daula (the successor of Safdar Jung) to ally with Abdali after failed efforts to broker peace. In this largely Islamist alliance, the Gosain Sadhus fully supported the Nawab against their own co-religionists. They reportedly fielded over 10,000 men for battle. On the other hand, one of the most potent forces in the Maratha army was the Deccani Muslim musketeer infantry led Ibrahim Shah Gardi. The gory tale of the Third Battle of Panipat is well known; the Gosains fought well as per chroniclers. Before the battle, Abdali was actually incensed at the sight of thousands of naked heathens in his encampment. It took some adept maneuvering by Shuja-ud-Daula to avoid fights within the camp. After proving themselves in battle the Gosains gathered the bodies of the fallen Maratha leaders and cremated them according to Hindu rites. The Nawab reportedly had to pay a princely sum to Abdali so that his allies could perform these last rites.


The Gosains continued to aid Awadh – notably in the Battle of Buxar against the British in 1764. The British decisively won this watershed battle and the Gosains realized that the Awadh state was finished. As a roving force they offered services to various powers. In a twist of fate, the Gosains under Anupgiri became a major ally in the later Maratha campaigns. The Gosains also aided Bajirao and Mastani’s grandson Ali Bahadur (whose father had fallen in Panipat) carve out a Maratha vassal state in Banda. In this period Anupgiri himself rose to be the de-facto king of a swathe of Bundelkhand. During the 2nd Anglo-Maratha war when the Marathas started to retreat Anupgiri ceded Bundelkhand to the British. Following his death in 1804 his army split into separate bands. These bands either settled down or sought new masters. The growing British Raj soon clashed with the Gosains and other armed orders till the latter were eliminated, disbanded or severely curtailed.


PS: PS: This is my article in Daily News & Analysis (DNA), published on December 17, 2017. Here’s the link to the original article.

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The Moamoria Rebellion and the fall of Assam

In 1822 C.E. Assam fell to the Burmese as a direct result of socio-religious conflict which unraveled the centuries-old Ahom state. Assam was rather unique in this respect – other Indian kingdoms were weakened by succession crises or petty squabbling with neighbors and became ripe for plucking by invaders. Just before the Burmese invaded and dealt the death blow, Assam was greatly weakened by a bitter thirty-six year-long civil war called the Moamoria Rebellion.


For centuries an Assamese neo-Vaishnavite movement was gaining popularity among major tribes, recent settlers, and lower-caste people. This monotheistic movement named Ekasarana Dharma, followed the teachings of Srimanta Sankardeva, a major figure of the 16th century Bhakti Movement. Ekasarana Dharma was based on decentralized socio-religious institutions called “Sattras” where practices radically different from mainstream Hinduism were followed. The movement instituted communal prayers in Assamese, and promised salvation to anyone who diligently recited the name of Krishna, the supreme God. Submission to the Guru leading the Sattra, tithe payment, strict rejection of idols and rituals, and everyday life centered around communal prayers were core practices. By the late 18th century, the movement swelled considerably and had branched out into multiple sub-sects. A sub-sect called Mayamara (later corrupted to Moamoria) became prominent due to their enthusiastic admission of tribals, fisher-folk and low-castes. The entry of the fierce and hardy tribes such as the Morans into their folds soon changed the very nature of the Moamorias.

The rising popularity of unorthodox Sattras like the Moamorias had siphoned off the power of orthodox Hindu groups and the powerful Shakti-worship sect which supported the Ahom kings. There was yet another reason to fear these Sattras: they provided refuge for those seeking to escape the “Paik” System that was the backbone of the Ahom state. In this corvée (state-run unpaid, forced labour) system, any able-bodied person who was not a Brahmin or a noble could be used for labour, services or conscripted into the army – without a choice on this matter. The flow of thousands of subjects into the mushrooming Sattras (away from the clutches of the Paik system), and charismatic Sattra Gurus swaying many high-born people, would surely destroy the Ahom state. The mainstream sects and the Shakti order launched vehement theological attacks and encouraged pliant kings to curtail or destroy the heretic Sattras. Periodic campaigns were launched: many Satras were destroyed and leading priests and followers were killed. A few Sattras submitted; the other Sattras did not – or could not – retaliate on a large scale. However, rising dominance of the Morans and similar groups in the Moamoria Sattra would change this.


The rebellion finally erupted in 1769 C.E. when the Moamoria Guru and key Moran disciples were humiliated and flogged by royal officials. Years of religious repression had built up much anger – the flogging incident simply ignited the charged atmosphere. Shoddy treatment of tribals (who now dominated the Satra), caste oppression and the Paik system also contributed to the rage. The Moamorias, and others who sympathized with their cause, banded together and marched to Rangpur, the Ahom capital. They defeated the Ahom forces and imprisoned the King. An orgy of revenge followed: top officials and priests were executed and a puppet ruler was installed. The violence and the rebels’ inexperience in ruling a state led to this regime crumbling quickly. The Ahoms regrouped and chased the rebels into the mountains and jungles. The Moamorias lost their Guru and many leaders; the year-long military campaign also killed thousands. The subsequent guerilla war between 1770-1788 slowly sapped the strength of both parties. Guerrilla attacks and military campaigns occurred relentlessly. In 1788 a Moamoria campaign captured Rangpur once again. King Gaurinath Sinha fled and sought refuge in neighboring lands.


By 1792 the rebel dominion had grown and the King sought the aid of the East India Company, now the eminent power in India. Perhaps they could be able to defeat the heretic rebels. The British on their part were well aware of the Assam situation. They also realized the strategic importance of Assam, given the growing power of Burma. The company sent a crack force into Assam to restore Ahom rule. The Moamorias were no match for the British and soon retreated to their strongholds. Gaurinath Sinha was reinstated in 1794 and the British forces left – but the guerilla war resumed. In 1805 the tired belligerents agreed to a compromise. In return for peace the Ahoms formally ceded territory to the Moamorias where the latter established the near-independent state of Matak (“One Principle”). However, the damage was done. Gutted by the long civil war, the Ahom state could barely sustain itself. In 1817, the Burmese used a political crisis as an excuse to invade. The Burmese annexed Assam in five years, slaughtering Assamese regardless of faith, creed or caste. In 1826 the British became the new master of Assam following their victory in the First Anglo-Burmese War.


PS: This is my article in Daily News & Analysis (DNA), published on December 10, 2017. Here’s the link to the original article.

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