An Unsung Hero of the Pakistan Movement
By Mohammad Ashraf Chaudhry
Pittsburg, CA

History may be the biography of great men, but it was never made by them in isolation. In fact, it could never have been made, had those unsung, unrecognized and nameless “heroes”, not soiled their faces with dust and blood, and not stayed with them as determinedly as they did. We must remember them, as by doing so we learn to look around and notice the unnoticed heroes that surround us all the time. Munshi was one such unrecognized hero of the Pakistan movement in London.
Who was this Munshi?
His passport confirms that he was born on April 4, 1903, in a small, but a Sikh-Jatt stronghold village, called Thiara, in district Ludhiana, India. His father, Muhammad Buta, otherwise a small farmer, was a well-respected Muslim mainly on two counts: he had seven sturdy sons, and one sole daughter, a good half of them over 6’.3”, and one of them, Noor Mohammed, a known wrestler and weight-lifter of the area; and second that he was a Muslim in whose circle of friends, non-Muslims equaled if not outnumbered because he knew not what hatred meant. Munshi was his first born, and he named him, Ghulam Muhammad.
Munshi perhaps was the first in the area to clear his Anglo-Vernacular Middle School
Exam sometime in 1916-17, acquire a teaching diploma, and start his teaching career at a distant place, Kamalia, now a part of Pakistan in 1918. His parents fondly, and then everybody as was the custom, began addressing him as Munshi. Prem Chand (1880-1936), the famous short-story writer also had the title of Munshi eternally prefixed to his name.
Munshi was a visionary, a big-city man, and Kamalia, a small sleeping town was too small for the realization of his dreams to be something in life. Besides, India didn’t have much to offer him. It stood depleted after the First World War. Hatred and hunger ruled supreme.
Those were bad times in India, especially for the Muslims. Hindu nationalism was on the rise, and hatred, if it was not directed towards the British, came to be directed towards them. World recession of the 1929 had already begun pinching people. The Quaid after his setback at Nagpur in 1920, had resigned from the Congress, and Muslims virtually had become a community without a leader in the1930s. Jinnah, too, left for England in 1930 (two years after Munshi), perhaps for good.
However, fate ideally combined four things for Munshi when he arrived in London in 1928. He was handsome, healthy and had lots of Buta’s good genes in him; he came in contact with a wonderful young English woman, Bessie, who later became his life- partner, and remained so for over 50 years; he was able to own a house in London, and above all, became fairly rich within a short span of time due to his silk imports.
Who knew that this son of illiterate Muhammad Buta of Thiara would one day play host to the Quaid-i-Azam in London in 1946; would make the living room of his East London home a meeting venue for the UK-based Muslim students and Leaguers in late 1930s-40s; would become the founding father of the famous East London Mosque( in all he helped establish some 50 mosques in England and Scotland); would arrange the first big party celebrating the creation of Pakistan on the 14th of August, 1947; would act as stage secretary in the meetings at the famous Albert Hall. In the words of his world-famous scientist-son, Eric Hamilton, “Overall dad was always of an opinion that England was the best country in the world to live in and bring up children”. Munshi did that and much more.
Munshi, himself a nominally educated person, sired this son, Eric Muhammad, now known to the world as Eric Hamilton. Eric became a world-class scientist in geochemistry, a founder and developer of the world famous MRC, Stable Element Lab., (SEL), a PhD in geochemistry of uranium from Oxford; an expert member of the WHO and IAEA; an advisor to the Royal College of General Practitioners on the epidemiology of diseases; founder and editor-in-chief of two famous scientific journals, “Earth and Planetary Science Letters”, Government consultant on radioactive wastes; author of more than 200 scientific papers and a world-class author of three books. Munshi did not fail his parents; nor did he fail the world. His contribution had been quite tangible. Munshi lived with this famous son of his till he breathed his last in 1981.
In a recent email, Eric Hamilton, Munshi’s son writes to me, “Recently through my sisters Laila and Miriam some new information has been provided. It seems that Mum, before she met Dad, together with her parents had befriended and become friends of an Indian family, the wife called Fatima who were Muslims living near Mum in the East End of London, and who ran a haberdashery business. …we are informed Mum had already accepted the Moslem faith through her association with Fatima, had added the name of Hamida to her”.
Munshi became prosperous and rich within a few years of his arrival in 1928. He took care of his parents in India so well that as the saying goes; they carried the money he sent them on a donkey back. He became a silk importer from China, but after the Second World War, he suffered great financial losses. Neither in prosperity, nor in adversity, did Munshi lose sight of his compassion and passion to reach out others in need. In the words of Eric, “We lived near the East India Docks that was the main entry of goods from the East. Poor Asian seamen were often sent ashore. Some went to the local Sailors’ Rest Home, but often there was language problem and particular food requirements. The police and the Salvation Army would often knock on the door of our home, and seek assistance on matters of language. Dad, following his faith, was concerned that Muslims among the seamen had difficulty in finding acceptable food, carrying out the practice of praying 5 times a day… Dad organized and contributed significantly to the purchase of a four-floor house in Stepney to provide on the upper floors room for sleeping, lower floors, a room for reading and meditation and the writing of letters to the homes of the seamen, mediating on any legal residence issues etc. …Later the building was redeveloped to become the East London Mosque as it exists today… throughout its development Dad played a very significant role”.
Munshi was very clear on the matter of religion. He believed in no coercion. In the words of his son, Eric, “I and my sisters, Miriam and Laila at least, attended the East London Mosque on Sunday mornings for instruction in Islam and prayers… even today I can still read Arabic, albeit I do not know what the words mean… but, Dad made it clear from the onset that it was up to us to decide what faith, if any, we would adopt”
Munshi had friends among Catholics, Methodists, Jews, Salvation Army, Plymouth Brethren… his purpose was always to learn and understand, albeit he had firm beliefs (in Islam).
Mr. Z. A. Sulehri, the famous journalist and Editor-in-Chief of the Pakistan Times, who had supped hundreds of tea cups as a student at Munshi’s home at Canton Street in East London in the late forties, writes in one of his articles, published in 1990, “The time for the departure of the airplane in which the Quaid was to travel was very early and in those days underground trains were not in operation. One of our friends, Mr. Ghulam Muhammad, a businessman came from the East End of London by hiring a taxi at five pounds (a very big amount in 1946); just to see off the Quaid. We felt proud of our friend, and presented him to the Quaid, telling him how deeply and sincerely people like Mr. Ghulam Muhammad loved him. The Quaid first smiled, but then said spontaneously, ‘You Muslims are extravagant’ ”.
Munshi appears prominently in a group photograph in Mr. Sulehri’s book: “My Leader” (1946). It is another story that Mr. Sulehri never during his hay-day in Pakistan remembered ever to invite Munshi to Pakistan, a country in whose creation Munshi had spent thousands of hours and pounds. Munshi was disillusioned. In the words of his son, Eric, “After partition Dad became very disillusioned with personalities, for example, a governing group emerged from the more wealthy Regents Park Mosque with attachments to the new Pakistan Embassy etc. Dad did not approve of these newcomers…my father saw corruption becoming significant as a consequence of partition… it would be unlike my father to discuss such matters with me… as I have said my father was deeply involved (in the Pakistan movement).”
Munshi also appears sitting very gracefully just behind Mr. Liaquat Ali Khan in Victor Boletho’s famous book “Jinnah: Creator of Pakistan), pp 172-73, when the Quaid came to address the Muslims at Kingsway Hall in December, 1946. When I met Munshi in April, 1978 at Plymouth, he told me endless tales of betrayals of some of the very important people of Pakistan. I was shocked when he called all of them as corrupt and ungrateful people. “Ashraf, these leaders of yours did not even bother to send me a receipt of the 77,000 pounds I had collected through appeals made at the East London Mosque, and by going from door to door, to help the refugees and the displaced refugees that included my brothers and sister too”.
These leaders of Pakistan who had frequently supped at Munshi’s, and whom his wife, Hamida (Bessie, Charlotte Kathleen), had most generously accommodated at their East London home for years, forgot them all. Some did remember him: the East London Mosque Board of directors, and the Indigent Moslems Burial Fund of London. On Munshi’s death on February 19, 1981, both sent messages of condolences, stating, “Marhoom (late) Ghulam Mohammad was a founding member of this Trust and was very much devoted to this Mosque…”. Eric and his sisters (Munshi’s children) made sure that his religious beliefs were respected, and that he got the proper Muslim burial. They saved all his religious books, even the Qur’an Munshi had specially brought from India in 1928, and some rare family photographs and letters.
Munshi was none else, but my own eldest Mamoo, the eldest brother of my mother. Muhammad Buta was my maternal grandfather, and Eric Hamilton, Laila, Miriam and Aysha, my cousins. I was pleased to learn as I met Eric this April in Birmingham that he, his sisters, and grandchildren still address Ghulam Muhammad as Munshi, and hold him in great esteem and respect. Munshi’s story reminds me of the Qur’anic verse, (49:13) which says, “You Mankind: We have created you from a single pair of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes that you might come to know and cherish one another, (not to despise one another). In the court of Allah, good deeds (personal usefulness to mankind), will mainly determine which way one is to head…to Hell or to Heaven. Munshi, indeed, was a useful human being for this world. Eric Hamilton, at age 74, still appears greatly interested in knowing who his ancestors from the Munshi-side were, and some of his grandchildren born with black hair keep reminding them all that Munshi is not dead. He is an integral part of their DNA.


Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
2004 . All Rights Reserved.