India has a long association with Aden going back to the historic times. Aden was a flourishing port, trading centre and an important gateway for India at that time. It attracted a large number of Indians, mainly from Gujarat and Maharashtra, who were engaged in wholesale and retail trading in India. After Aden became part of the British Empire in 1839 and began to be administered by the Bombay Presidency, the population of the city as well as that of the expatriates began to increase. It was estimated that the Indian Diaspora in Aden numbered 8,563 in 1856 and increased to around 15,000 by the mid-1950s. The Hassan Ali Street in the Crater region of Aden still shows traces of the old glory of the ‘Cloth Market’, which was primarily managed by the Indian merchants.
Apart from their astute business acumen, the Indians resident in Aden displayed a high degree of political consciousness and took a keen interest in the events relating to the freedom struggle back home. The Indian community in Aden was staunchly opposed to the proposal mooted at that time by the British government to separate Aden from India with a view to continue their governance of Aden as a protectorate even if India gains independence eventually.
The British government in India considered Aden as a safe haven to incarcerate Indian freedom fighters, on the same lines as they used the Andaman & Nicobar Islands as the infamous “Kala Pani”, far away from the sight and minds of people.
One of the earliest and well-known cases of confinement of Indian revolutionaries in Aden pertains to that of Vasudeo Balwant Phadke, who was the first freedom fighter to conceive ‘swaraj’ or the Indian Republic, as the only answer to rid India of its foreign occupation. He gathered several tribes comprising Ramoshis, Bhils, and others launched an armed struggle against the British, and even managed to briefly take control over the city of Pune. He was, however, captured in July 1879, sentenced to life imprisonment, and transported to Aden in January 1880. Phade managed a daring escape from the Aden jail in October 1880 but was re-arrested soon after. He died in Aden on February 17, 1883, after a hunger strike.
The location of Aden as the first port of call from India on the international sailing route made it a favourite destination for many Indian national leaders and revolutionaries to stop by on their way to or from Europe and other destinations.
One of the earliest Indian leaders to visit Aden was Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, first in 1919 and later on 13 January 1935. Netaji wrote extensively about his second visit to Aden, which was on his way to Europe from Bombay on board the ship ‘MN Victoria’ on the Italian Lloyd Triestino Line. He mentioned in his account that the Indian settlers in Aden were primarily from Kathiawar and were engaged in businesses. He referred to the strong presence of the Royal Air Force and a contingent of British troops numbering about 2000 stationed at Aden. He was impressed by the city’s picturesque location, nice buildings, roads, tunnels built through some of the hills, and the stony water reservoirs. Netaji addressed the Indian community in Aden and talked about the constructive programme adopted at the Bombay Congress and the Khadi movement in India.
No other visit by an Indian or world leader generated as much enthusiasm and interest among the local Arabs as that of Mahatma Gandhi to Aden in 1931. Gandhi’s use of the instruments of non-cooperation, passive resistance, civil disobedience, self-reliance, and communal harmony in his peaceful struggle against the British created a deep impact on the Arab world, which was itself suffering the ignominy of colonial rule in large parts. Gandhi’s clear views on the Palestinian issue that “Palestine is for Arab as Britain is for the British and France is for the French” had already gained him great admiration in the Middle East.
No wonder when Gandhiji arrived at the Al-Tawahi port in Aden on the morning of September 2, 1931, onboard the British Ship ‘SS Rajputana’, en route to London to participate in the Second Round Table Conference, he was warmly received by the people of Aden, both Indian and the locals. Gandhi was accompanied on the voyage by Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya, Sarojini Naidu, the “Nightingale of India”, his youngest son Devdas, his British disciple Madeleine Slade (“Mira Behn”), and his assistant Mahadev Desai.
The first person to go onboard to greet khadi-clad Mahatma Gandhi was Mohammed Ali Luqman, a renowned Arab journalist and editor of the Aden Chronicle newspaper. Mr. Luqman recollects, “I stood silent in front of a man who has been sent by god to change the face of Asia.” He introduced himself to Gandhiji as the President of the ‘Arab Reform Club’, whose branches existed in the Al-Tawahi and Sheikh Othman areas of Aden, and later accompanied him in the city.
Mohammed Ali Luqman, who was privileged to interview Gandhiji, gave a succinct account of Gandhi’s sojourn in Aden, which is being regularly published in Arabic and English newspapers in the Middle East, the last being in the ‘Aden News’ on 27th December 2010. Dr. Farooq Luqman, the illustrious son of Mohammed Luqman, who is a renowned journalist based currently in Jeddah and a great friend of India, has been instrumental in refreshing the memories of the Arab readers to this historic visit of Mahatma Gandhi to Aden.
Mohammed Luqman mentioned that the British authorities were initially reluctant to allow Gandhi to disembark from the ship and address a public gathering at the Al-Faris Park in the Sheikh Othman area. They even tried to intimidate and dissuade the people from gathering at the park but relented later and allowed the meeting to be organized. They also agreed to Gandhi’s request for the hoisting of the Indian flag at the venue. Gandhi was greeted enthusiastically by a cheering crowd and offered a purse of several thousand rupees towards the cause of the freedom struggle.
On the way to the venue, Mr. Luqman enquired with Gandhi on the possibility of the Arab world getting their freedom from the shackles of colonialism to which Gandhiji replied “This is an iron castle, and you should move ahead patiently and cautiously as the imperialism is still powerful, but certainly it would not last long”.
In his first public speech delivered outside the Indian sub-continent since 1914, Gandhi declared that India did not stand for isolated independence and added that “one-fifth of the human race, becoming free through non-violence and truth can be a great force of service to the whole of mankind”. Quoting extensively from the Holy Quran, the Bible, and the Gita, which he was carrying with him, Gandhi praised Prophet Mohammad and Caliph Omar Bin Al-Khattab and urged the Indians to live in harmony and brotherhood with their Arab brothers and establish permanent bonds of friendship with them. He expressed regret at the widespread sale of alcohol in Aden. He concluded his speech by declaring that he would not accept anything short of independence during the Round Table Conference.
On his way back from London, Gandhiji once again passed by Aden but was not allowed to disembark. The first question he asked upon reaching Aden was “Where is my friend Luqman?”
To mark the historic visit of Gandhiji to Aden, a ‘Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Hall’ was constructed and later a bust of Gandhiji, donated by the Government of India was unveiled by the then Governor of Aden, Mr. Taha Ahmed Ghanim. A limited edition of a hundred covers commemorating the 75th Anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s arrival in Aden was issued by the government of Yemen. A ‘Mahatma Gandhi School’ also runs in this place and over ninety percent of its students are Yemeni. Every year, Gandhi Jayanti is celebrated with great vigour and passion in the school. Mahatma’s legacy lives on!
(This article was written by me in 2011 for a special publication ‘India-Yemen in Focus’ when I was the Ambassador of India to Yemen)