Spinning a yarn

The Silk Letter Movement throws light on a forgotten story of India's freedom struggle

Last week, President Pranab Mukherjee released a stamp to commemorate the "Silk Letter Movement" or the Tehreek-e-Reshmi-Rumal a square of paper representing a larger square of silk, which unravels into a thousand strands of history. The Indian government has called it a forgotten chapter of India's freedom struggle. Yet several stories are woven into it the nationalist aspirations of Indians during the First World War, the Kaiser's dream of world domination, the Caliph's bid to lead a pan-Islamic insurrection among subjects of the British Empire. Conspiracy theorists never had it so good.

German strategy during the First World War included sending agents to British colonies east of Turkey to incite rebellion among their Islamic subjects and destabilise the empire, with the help of the Caliph, or the Ottoman ruler of Turkey. This dovetailed neatly into the interests of Indian nationalists in Germany, who formed the Berlin Committee, renamed the Indian Independence Committee (IIC) in 1915, to mobilise revolutionaries in India. As part of the Indo-German-Turkish Mission, they were to incite the tribes of the frontier provinces to strike against the British. In October 1915, Ubaidullah Khan and Mahmud al Hasan, principal of the Darul Uloom Deoband, made their way to Kabul. While Khan was to persuade the amir of Afghanistan to declare war on Britain, Hasan went on to seek Turkish and German help. In 1916, members of the IIC formed the Provisional Government of India in Kabul, almost three decades before Netaji declared his in Singapore. The conspirators seem to have shared a weakness for an opulent style of correspondence. The letters that gave them away were printed on silk.

The silk letter plot throws light on the compound nature of the freedom movement. The myriad interests and compulsions that converged within it defy the simplistic, unified narrative that many in independent India often try to impose on it.

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