The institution of the khalifa, the leader or representative of the Muslim community after the death of the prophet Muhammad, had been associated with the Turkish Ottoman Empire since the 16th century. At the time of World War I, the Ottoman emperor and khalifa headed the largest independent Islamic political entity in the world.
When Great Britain declared war on the Ottoman Empire in November 1914, it promised the Muslim subjects of the British Empire in India that the conflict would not involve attacking the Muslim holy places in Arabia. In return, the British asked for the loyalty of their Muslim subjects to British war efforts. During the course of the war, it became evident that the Ottoman Empire would be dismembered.
Consequently, the khilafat question came to be of increasing importance to Muslims in India. On March 20, 1919, at a public meeting of 15,000 Muslims from Bombay, a Khilafat committee was formed. By November 1919 following widespread public demonstrations in support of the Khilafat movement, an All-India Khilafat Conference assembled in Delhi.
The conference protested the placing of former lands of the Ottoman Empire, such as Syria, Palestine, and Mesopotamia, under non-Muslim mandates on the grounds that dividing the Ottoman Empire and depriving its sovereign of his spiritual and political authority was an attack on Islam.
The conference also called for a Muslim boycott of European goods if the peace treaty with the Ottoman Empire was unjust and jeopardized the khilafat. The efforts of the conference were supported by Mohandas K. Gandhi, who had at the time launched a movement of noncooperation with the British, and by the Indian National Congress.
The leaders of the Khilafat movement were Maulana Muhammad Ali and his brother Maulana Shaukat Ali. Maulana Muhammad Ali was chosen to lead the Muslim delegation that traveled to England in 1919 to represent Muslim interests to the British, and the Ali brothers pioneered the Khilafat Manifesto, which they presented on March 17, 1920, to British prime minister Lloyd George.
Meanwhile, the terms of the Treaty of Sevres were published in May, whereby the Arab lands were to become independent of the Ottoman Empire. Syria, Mesopotamia, and Palestine became French and British mandates, and the Straits were internationalized. When the Turkish government signed the treaty on August 20, 1920, the delegation was left with no option but to return to India.
However, when Mustafa Kemal Atatürk rejected the Treaty of Sèvres and began resisting Allied occupation in Anatolia, Khilafat leaders avidly supported his cause. It was only when Mustafa Kemal wrested a new treaty of peace from the European powers in 1922, established the republic of Turkey, and himself abolished the Khilafat in 1924 that the Khilafat movement in India came to an end.
While the movement did not succeed in its goal of protecting the sovereignty of the Ottoman khalifa, it came to represent in the history of India both a moment of Hindu-Muslim cooperation against colonial rule and the eventual articulation of a distinct Indian Muslim identity.