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The Historic Uprising of February 1922

Many wonder what is going on in Bahrain. Why, many would ask, is the reaction of the government in Bahrain so irrational bearing in mind that the opposition demands no more than a restoration of a parliament that existed in Bahrain between 1973 and 1975? The puzzle can only be partially understood by understanding the history of Bahrain and the background of the ruling mentality.

The indigenous population of Bahrain are called Bahranah. Before the Al Khalifa’s invasion of Bahrain islands, the population was the most prosperous and advanced nation in the Gulf. As a trading pearle centre and as a centre of knowledge, Bahrain was always held at high esteem. It was always known for its sweat spring waters, pearls, palm trees and scholars. For example, Captain Ahmad bin Majid described Bahrain in 1489 saying “Awal (an old name of Bahrain) the island of 360 villages, sweat water, pearls and one thousand trading boats”. A postgraduate (MA) dissertation submitted in 1952 by M. G. Guriawala to the University of London described one of the great philosophers of Bahrain, Sheikh Maitham Al-Bahrani (born in 1238 and died in 1299), as “When Bahrani discusses the views of the opponents, he generally reproduces them with definite fairness. This is shown by comparing his account of these views with the original versions of such views as set forth by the authors in these classical works on Muslim theology and philosophy, such as Al-Asha’ari, Al-Baghdadi, Al-Ghazali, Ibn Sina, etc. He sets these views in order numbering in an exact way. Then he replies to them one by one in accordance with their numerical order. In his replies to the objections and doubts raised by his opponents, he may seldom write with passion, but rather proceeds to prove the falsity of these views with logical coolness”.

It is for this reason that the ruling Al-Khalifa family has always felt insecure ever since they invaded Bahrain in 1783 and again in 1811 (they were forced out of Bahrain between 1799 and 1811). They treated the people of Bahrain as subjects; and in the case of the indigenous Baharnah community, the Al-Khlaifa treated them as slaves.

In his PhD theses (University of London), M. A. Al-Tajir states “For centuries, the Shia Arabs (Bahranah) had been involved in traditional trades and crafts, such as date-cultivation, fishing, weaving, sail and mat-making, boat-building, pottery and some other cottage industries of lesser economic significance. Their conditions before 1923 were described by the (British) Resident as follows:

((The mass of the people of Bahrain who are Shi’ahs, were the sufferers and their condition resembled that of helots, who could call no lands nor produce of any lands their own))”.

The bondage of the Baharnah was ended in 1923 following the historic uprising of February 1922. In his PhD thesis (University of London, 1979) entitled “Protection and Politics in Bahrain 1869-1915”, T. T. Farah , states “very much at the bottom of the social strata under Al- Khalifa rule were the Baharnah, the indigenous Shi’ite inhabitants who … were of mixed Arab origin and constituted the largest distinguishable group within the total population. Virtually serfs, they supplied the agricultural work-force for the Sheikh (of Al Khalifa) and his retinue, held the land they worked usually in return for unpaid labour (sukhra) and were also assessed for services based on their possessions (eg boats and animals).”

When the broadly-based opposition surfaced in the 1992 and 1994, the Al-Khalifa adopted a cowardly policy (the sacrificing of the indigenous population) as they felt that the US, UK and other regional powers would turn a blind eye because of the stereo-type “forcible linking” of Shia communities (such as the Baharnah) with Iran.

The Al-Khalifa went further to accuse the Shia of Bahrain of loyalty to outside powers (forgetting that they were talking about an indigenous population) and stated that it intended to wipe out their towns and villages (see the editorials of Al-Ayyam and Akhbar Al-Khalij of March-June 1996). The Al-Khalifa selected the wrong target and the wrong approach to deviate attention from the reality of the political crisis, and for this reason the uprising enters its third year with full strength to defend the honour of the country and its people. Today’s Bahrain is a modern, cosmopolitan and multi-cultural civil society. All Bahrainis, Shia and Sunni; Baharnah Arabs, Ajam, Howala, Tribal Arabs, and others, have an aspiration to live harmoniously in a constitutional state. The Al-Khalifa family is the odd one out. Its members have failed to merge into Bahrain society and have not yet internalized the notion of being Bahraini citizens. To them Bahrain is nothing more than a property and its citizen are nothing more than a nuisance.

The Uprising of February 1922:

(Reference: Bahrain 1920-1945 by M. A. Al-Tajir, ISBN 0-7099-5122-1)

On 6 February 1922, while a fidawi (member of an armed group used by Al-Khalifa to persecute the Bahranah) was escorting a Baharnah villager who was under arrest in Manamah, several Baharnah accosted the Fedawi, overpowered him and released their kinsman. According to the British Political Agent, the villager was wrongfully incriminated and unlawfully arrested and beaten up. in Manamah ,the Baharnah closed the bazaar to a standstill. They were determined to press their case with Shaikh Isa bin Ali who, in the words of the Agent, was ‘oblivious to the fact that he was sitting on a volcano’.

This communal action by the Baharnah posed a serious challenge to the authority of the Shaikh who sought the Agent ‘s advice. The latter, not wishing to be directly involved in relations between the Ruler and his subjects, urged Shaikh Hamad (eldest son of Sheikh Isa bin Ali) to find ways of appeasing the Baharnah. It was decided that a deputation of Baharnah, accompanied by a number of leading Sunni personalities, should seek an audience with the ruler. During the meeting, the Baharnah submitted the following demands.

1) No one except the ruler and Shaikh Hamad to decide (court) cases or have the right to punish in any way.

2) Cases which Shaikh Hamad cannot decide to the satisfaction of both parties to be referred by him to the Shara’ (religious court), Majlis al-‘Urfi (trading court) or Salifah (court) as the case may be.

3) No one to be dragged off to the ruler’s court without notice, but to be served with a summon signed by Shaikh Hamad.

4) Documents concerning gardens leased to subjects by the ruling family to be in duplicate , a copy in possession of each party, and to be witnessed by independent witnesses. No conditions other than those written in the document to be enforced.

5) Steps to be taken to stop the Shaikh’s camels being allowed to enter and graze in private gardens (of the Bahranah).

6) ‘Sukhrah’ (i.e. forced labour; also commandeering of donkeys where by Bahranah are forced to walk with the donkeys while members of the Al-Khalifa ride over) to cease.

7) The practice of placing calves belonging to the ruling family with Bahraini bakers to fatten free of charge, to cease.

8) The prison to be put in proper order and a reasonable house provided for the same.

After consulting with the chief members of his family, Shaikh Isa agreed to concede to these demands. The Agent, on the other hand, doubted the Shaikh’s real intentions.

On 7 March the Resident visited Bahrain and while there communicated government instructions to Shaikh Isa to the effect that ‘if misrule leads to uprising, the Indian (British) Government will find it most difficult to render him any support whatsoever’. He also cautioned Shaikh Abdullah (arch-rival of Sheikh Hamad) not to oppose Shaikh Hamad’s Administration and urged Shaikh Hamad to show firmness in dealing with ‘ oppression’.

Thereafter both Shaikhs Hamad and Abdullah frequently sought the Agent’s advice admitting to him that the difficulties facing them were caused by ‘past misrule’. Commenting on this change of attitude, the (British) Political Agent noted:

“They have been compelled by recent events to realize that such tyrannical rule as they have exercised in the past is, with the spread of democratic ideas, bound to come to an end”.

Since February 1922 the Baharnah had refused to pay discriminatory taxes, with Shaikh Hamad pursuing a conciliatory policy towards them. His efforts were thwarted, however , by his uncle Shaikh Khalid and his sons who continued to try to collect taxes. During April many Bahranah assembled, at the Agency in protest and when they refused to leave, the Agent asked Shaikhs Hamad and Abdullah to talk to their representatives. They agreed to disperse only after they had received assurances form the Shaikhs that they would ‘ instruct Shaikh Khalid to cease interference with liberty of persons and to postpone collection of taxes’. In addition, they were told that the Rulers would consider their complaints regarding taxation and the administration of justice, and subsequent to these developments the Shaikh decided to abolish the ‘obnoxious taxes’ in preference to ‘ reasonable and just taxation ‘.

In addition to Customs revenue, the Shaikh collected the following taxes :

1) Date-garden tax. Collected quite arbitrarily…. from Shiahs (Baharnah) only.

2) ‘Raqabieh’, literally ‘ neck-tax’ or ‘poll-tax’ levied on males at varying rates in different localities. It has been collected from Shiahs only and is particularly obnoxious to them.

3) Fish-tax. levied form Shiahs only at varying rates.

4) A special tax on Shiahs during Muharram.

5) A variety of taxes collected in kind from Shiahs only.

6) A pearling tax. This was originally collected form all pearling boats, which are mainly owned by Sunnis. Of late years a large number of the boat-owners have ceased paying.

The Shaikhs now asked the Agent to suggest an alternative method of taxation. After sounding out local opinion, he submitted the following scheme:

1) Date tax of 1-10th on gardens watered by flow, and 1-20th on those watered by life, to be collected uniformly. This tax is admissible under Shara’ (religeous) law.

2) Fish tax of 1-10th on fish caught in the local fish traps, and 1-20th on fish caught otherwise.

3) Abolition of ‘Raqabieh’ and all other taxes on Shiahs, and substitution with a very light ground tax for all houses, other than those in the towns of Manamah and Muharraq, which pay municipal taxes, to be collected without religious distinction.

4) The impartial collection of the existing pearling tax.

The author continues the story: “As the Sunnis were virtually immune from taxation, it was anticipated that they would oppose the introduction of the above scheme. In the event of such opposition the Government of India (under the British Crown and responsible for Bahrain) was prepared to back the scheme regardless of Sunni opposition. the Agent was in no position to speak for the Government, but he submitted the matter to the Resident noting that if the Sunnis refused to pay taxes, the Shi’ah’s would follow suit, in which case the Shaikh’s income would be drastically cut. Already the Shaikh’s revenue had dropped as a result of the Bahranah refusal to pay what they regarded as arbitrary taxes. For the scheme to be acceptable to both sections of the population it was necessary that it received the approval of the Government before its introduction, Daly noted. At this juncture the Shaikhs were at a loss as to how to collect revenue from Shi’ahs without provoking further protests. The Agent advised them to open a Government office to be run by two clerks. This office was destined to become the precursor of a central bureaucracy.

Early in May 1922, the Government of India cabled the Resident:

“It is the ardent desire of the Government of India that they should not be drawn into interference between the Ruler of Bahrain and his subjects. But as the proposed reforms are mainly due to their warning against oppression, etc., and appear sound in themselves, you are authorized to inform the Shaikh that the Government welcome his scheme and will lend their moral support to an honest attempt to put it into force impartially. This authority is given on the understanding that you felt that more than moral support is unlikely to be required.”

Although the (British) Government promised moral backing for the reforms, it was nevertheless anxious to avoid any accusation that they were forced upon the Shaikh.

In June 1922 a reconciliation, apparently on firmer grounds than before, was effected between Shaikh Abdullah and the Administration of Shaikh Hamad. Shaikh Abdullah was promised ‘ an attractive allowance from the revenues of the Islands’ in return for assisting Shaikh Hamad in the conduct of affairs. The Resident commented:

“If an arrangement between Shaikh Hamad and Shaikh Abdullah can be arrived at on a pecuniary basis, so much the better; such an arrangement is more likely to be lasting than any other.”

This reconciliation was described by the Agent as a serious blow to the disaffected tribal elements, since its separated Abdulah from the tribal camp which opposed Shaikh Hamad’s Administration.

After the uprising of February 1922 reforms faltered. This represented a serious blow to the Baharnah hopes of achieving parity with others. “Haji Ahmad bin Khamis, one of their leaders, informed the Agent that it was incumbent upon the Government of India to ensure a fair and just Administration in Bahrain; that on his accession to the Rulership , Sheikh Isa bin Ali had mad such a commitment; and through their friends in India the Baharnah would publicize their grievances in the Indian press.

In the first half of 1923, disturbances wrecked the island following clashes (April) between Najdi and Persian communities in Manama and following the attacks (May) by Dawasir tribe on the Baharnah in A’ali, Barbar and other villages to revenge the refusal of the Bahranah to continue living under bondage conditions. A leading Shia cleric, Sheikh Abdulla Al-Arab (of Bani Jamra) and his colleague, Molla Husain bin Ramadan were murdered as they campaigned for supporting the proposed reforms. They were targeted because they encouraged the residents of Barbar and A’ali to give evidence about the attacks on their villages.

On 26 May, Britain intervened and removed the ruler Isa bin Ali and installed his son Hamad in his place. The latter sought the support of the Baharnah on the promise that he will not discriminate against them anymore. ý

The grandsons of Hamad (present Amir and prime minister as well as the crown prince) found it convenient to re-ignite their hatred against the Baharnah to help deviate the peaceful broadly-based political movement that is based on the modern concepts of civil society. To their bad luck, they miscalculated and the uprising (which they enforced on the nation of Bahrain) enters its third year. The demands are not and will not be sectarian. The modern society of Bahrain is progressively marching forward towards a better life for all citizens regardless of their ethnic or religious orientation. The Al-Khalifa will have to adapt or go.

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