NEW DELHI — On 23 September 1918, during the final year of World War I, Indian soldiers played a decisive role in the Battle of Haifa, Israel. In what is believed to be one of the last cavalry charges in modern military history, the soldiers carried out an attack that allowed the British forces to capture Haifa from the Ottoman army. As they did so, they also ended up ensuring the safety of ‘Abdu’l-Baha.
India’s part in this historic battle was commemorated on 20 September 2017 at an event in New Delhi hosted by a think tank, the India Foundation. The event, titled The Centennial Commemoration of the Battle of Haifa, included politicians, civil servants, members of the military and armed forces, some of whom were descendants of the soldiers who fought in the battle, and representatives from the Baha’i community of India.
Addressing the audience, Major Chandrakant Singh, Secretary of the Indian War Veterans Association, said, “In researching the Battle of Haifa, I came upon the fascinating history of the Baha’is and their central figure ‘Abdu’l-Baha. I came to the conclusion that the story of the Battle of Haifa and the story of the Baha’is are so closely interlinked and so inspiring that everyone in India should know them.”
Indeed, safeguarding ‘Abdu’l-Baha was one of the lesser-known outcomes of the battle, explained Brigadier M.S. Jodha, the grandson of the captain who took charge of the Indian forces after the commanding officer was killed. Mr. Jodha described the military intricacies of the battle in his presentation.
‘Abdu’l-Baha had been a prisoner of the Ottoman Empire since His childhood. He was freed from incarceration in the prison city of ‘Akka in 1908 when the Young Turk Revolution led to the discharge of all religious and political prisoners. Following his release, ‘Abdu’l-Baha moved his residence to Haifa, where he was overseeing the construction of the Shrine of the Bab on Mount Carmel.
During the early years of World War I, though no longer imprisoned, ‘Abdu’l-Baha faced repeated threats against His life by authorities that were antagonistic toward Him and the Baha’is. The Commander of the Ottoman fourth army corps had even threatened to crucify ‘Abdu’l-Baha if the Turkish army were ever to be displaced out of Haifa.
It was under these circumstances that the dramatic Battle of Haifa unfolded, during which two regiments of Indian cavalry soldiers played a critical role in capturing the city from the well-entrenched Turkish and German soldiers.
“‘Abdu’l-Baha spoke of India as a land endowed with brilliant capacity, and expressed the hope that they would work to unite its peoples.”
— Naznene Rowhani, representative of India’s Baha’i community
Various speakers talked about the dramatic events of the battle as Indian cavalry regiments led a bold uphill charge toward Ottoman artillery positions on Mount Carmel. Though the Indian soldiers—the Jodhpur Lancers and the Mysore Lancers—were armed only with lances and spears and faced machine gun fire as they charged forward, their victory was unexpectedly swift, and Haifa was captured with relatively few casualties.
According to a historical account by Hasan Balyuzi, after the battle, Indian army soldiers were sent to the gates of the house of ‘Abdu’l-Baha. He “was sitting calm and unperturbed in the forecourt of his house.”
In her presentation, a representative of India’s Baha’i community, Naznene Rowhani, recounted stories of some of the Indian soldiers who met ‘Abdu’l-Baha two days after the battle and were invited by Him to have tea. “It was a picturesque and striking scene,” she said. “‘Abdu’l-Baha, sitting with representatives from India, Persia, the Kurdistan region, Egypt, and England, some dressed in military suits, others wearing turbans and Indian caps, and all receiving sweets from His own hands.”
Ms. Rowhani also related the comments made by ‘Abdu’l-Baha to two Indian officers—Mir Mumtaz Ali and Rasidar Rahim Sher Khan—who met with Him: “He told them that when they returned to India he wished for them to engage in another kind of warfare, a war against self and passion. He said that ‘he who gains victory over his self is the real conqueror, has proved his power, and will become the recipients of God’s blessings.’ ‘Abdu’l-Baha spoke of India as a land endowed with brilliant capacity, and expressed the hope that they would work to unite its peoples.”