August 20, 2021 marked the centenary of the outbreak of what the British historians called the Moplah Rebellion. Today, one would hesitate to use that terminology, though we in independent India are not quite clear as to what is the term that we must use to describe the uprising which caused mayhem all over Malabar a century ago. Perhaps we could agree on the appellation “the Malabar Rebellion”.
Unfortunately, the centenary of the event has also been the occasion for controversies which could threaten the social fabric of a region which has generally remained peaceful over the last hundred years. Some say that a perennial problem in Malabar, as in the rest of Kerala, is too much sensitivity bred out of awareness, which, in turn, is bred by education. But it must not be ignored that Kerala has a long history of resistance to perceived injustice, and it is not confined to any particular community. There is a medieval text in Arabic “Thuhfathul Mujahideen” written by a Malayali Muslim scholar (possibly of West Asian origin) known as Sheikh Zainudeen about Kerala in the 15th and 16th centuries. He died in Ponnani, known as the heartland of Islam in Kerala, in 1583. The book lists out the atrocities of the Portuguese against Muslims and is an exhortation for Jihad mainly against the oppressors. But interestingly, the book also repeatedly refers to Zamorin as a friend of the Muslims. I do not know if there is a lesson to be learnt from this – namely, that the Muslims of Kerala have always remained loyal and friendly to whoever protected and patronized them, even if it be a Hindu sovereign.
There is an interesting story about Cheraman Perumal who was perhaps the last King to rule over the ancient entity known by the name of Keralam. The legend is that he became a Muslim, handed over part of his kingdom to the Zamorin and went to Meccah. There is a tomb in Yemen which is believed to be that of the last Cheraman Perumal. Moreover, there are certain rituals, including giving pan to a Muslim woman, which take place while the Zamorin ascends his throne, which are indicative of the special place that Islam had in the Malabar region even under a Hindu ruler. It is also believed that Malik Dinar, who was the most prominent amongst the Muslim preachers who spread Islam in Kerala was a descendant of the last Cheraman Perumal. These are stories in which the Muslims, especially of the Malabar region of Kerala take great pride.
The Malabar region has, perhaps as a consequence of this special relationship that they had with the ruling dynasty, witnessed stubborn resistance to the Portuguese and the British, by the Muslims or Moplahs. The Kunjali Marakars were the Admirals of the Zamorins. All through the 16th century they gave a tough time to the Portuguese Navy, though the Zamorin himself had been considerably weakened by then. During the British period, there was a series of rebellions by the Moplahs, especially in the 19th century. Within 18 years from1836 to 1853, there were 22 uprisings in Malabar. There was a perception that these were basically peasant revolts and that economic deprivation suffered by Muslims, a large number of whom were tenants of Hindu landlords was the basic reason for their discontent. The most serious of these uprisings was the one in 1849, which occurred in Manjeri. The rebels killed a British Ensign and charged at the 43rd Native Regiment, whose soldiers broke ranks and ran for their lives. Later when reinforcements arrived from Kannur, the Army took on the rebels and 64 of them courted death, virtually falling on the bayonets of the soldiers. The Madras Government, alarmed by these repeated ‘outrages’, decided to appoint a Commission headed by a former District Judge of Malabar, Mr. Strange, to look into the reasons for the unrest of the Moplahs. At that time, there was a very popular preacher in Malabar, known as Syed Fazal Pookoya Thangal. He is believed to have been of Yemeni extraction. The British believed that he was behind every uprising of the Moplahs from 1848 (when he returned from Meccah after studies) to 1852. The then Malabar Collector H. V. Connolly forced him to go to exile. He went to Yemen, Meccah and later to Istanbul, where the Sultan gave him the seat of Governor at Zutur of Yemen. This gives a particular significance to the fact that the rebellion of 1921, which happened against the background of the Khilafat agitation, broke out at the Mambram mosque founded by Fazal Pookoya Thangal. Mr. Strange came to the conclusion that there were no grounds for the theory that the rebellions were peasant uprisings against their landlords. H. V. Connolly, the Collector, also concurred with this view. Within a few years, Collector Connolly was killed by Moplah rebels who broke into his official residence. Subsequently, in the 1880’s, the then Malabar Collector, William Logan took a fresh look at the issue and differed from the views of his predecessors. He did report to the Madras Government that Muslim tenants were facing a great deal of injustice. Consequently, the Malabar Tenancy Act was passed in 1887.
The goriest uprisings, nevertheless took place even after this corrective step was taken. In 1894,32 rebels involved in an uprising courted death. Then, two years later, a group of rebels, for no apparent reason or provocation, barged into the Kunnathur Bhagavathy temple in Manjeri, the scene from where the Moplahs had chased out the Army in 1849. When the authorities, with superior manpower and firepower confronted them, not one surrendered. 92 of them courted death.
The final act in this series of events was what the British called the Moplah Rebellion of 1921. It started with the Khilafat agitation, which, according to some historians, was the first jihad to be led by a non-Muslim, namely, Mahatma Gandhi! Muslims in India had been restive ever since the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, when hostilities commenced between the British Empire and the Ottoman Empire ruled over by the Caliph whom all Muslims considered the protector of their religion. The Ottoman Empire with its headquarters in Istanbul in Turkey, once a formidable force in Europe and the Middle East had been crumbling for long and finally collapsed by the end of the First World War in 1919. The Treaty of Sevres signed at the end of the war in June 1920, concluding the terms of peace virtually decimated the empire of the Ottoman Caliphs. Gandhiji who had actively supported the war effort felt let down by the British when they introduced the repressive Rowlatt Act in 1919. He launched the Non-Co-operation Movement against the imperial government in Delhi. He also took up the cause of Indian Mulims who had their own reasons to be resentful of the British government who had just won a global war in which thousands of Muslims had fought for them. That is how the Muslims of India entrusted the leadership of the agitation for the restoration of the Caliphate (Khilafat) to Mahatma Gandhi. Hindu-Muslim unity formed the foundation of this movement which was launched at a time when solidarity between the two religions had reached its peak. In Punjab, Muslims participated in the Ram Navami procession, and a Muslim leader, Maulana Abdul Bari offered, at the Khilafat Conference held in November 1920, to stop cow slaughter “because we (Hindus and Muslims) are children of the same soil.” Gandhiji tried his best to keep this jihad non-violent. Sadly, however, it was not long before the agitation slipped out of control.
In distant Malabar, at the southern tip of the Madras Presidency, the agitation was led by respected Congress leaders, most of whom were non-Muslims. The police records show that “the rebellion of 1921 was not solely due to the fanaticism of the Mopilla, but mainly due to the Khilafat and non-co-operative movements set at work in these districts by the Malabar District Conference held at Manjeri on the 28th of April,1920. Since then, Khilafat meetings were held all over and the so-called leaders such as M. P. Narayana Menon, U. Gopala Menon, K. Madhavan Nair, Katlasserry Muhammed Musaliyar began to make speeches encouraging the ignorant and illiterate Moppillas to die for freedom and to defy the authorities”.
K. Madhavan Nair later authored a comprehensive history of the rebellion, “The Malabar Rebellion”, in which he brings out the same point. Madhavan Nair’s book, which is in Malayalam, deserves to be translated for the benefit of a larger readership. His account has to be considered authentic, since it comes from one of the foremost leaders of the agitation. He passed away fairly young in 1933. Hence he could not complete his history of the rebellion. It was only in 1971, as the fiftieth anniversary of the rebellion was approaching that his wife, N. Kalyani Amma, finally managed to publish it. Lamenting the fact that her husband could not complete the book, she highlights the very last sentence in the unfinished work, “I shall end this chapter only after describing the nature of the trials conducted and punishments awarded under the Martial Law.” Sadly, he never got around to it.
This is a pity, because we have been deprived of a version which would have been independent of the official history of the rebellion. Interestingly, Madhavan Nair refers sceptically in his book to the official history, the task of writing which had at that time been entrusted to the District Superintendent of Police of Malabar, R. N. Hitchcock. Madhavan Nair avers that “Hitchcock is better at creating history than writing it!” He also refers to the testimonies of police officers like Deputy Superintendent Amu in courts of law and argues that these are not reliable. In this centenary year of the rebellion, it may be worthwhile to take into account the fact that there are contemporary narratives on record which differ from the official account.
Another book in this genre has been authored by Mozhikunnath Brahmadattan Namboodiripad, a Namboodiri brahmin who was arrested during the course of this rebellion (which is generally attributed to the Muslims), and made to run, with his hands tied behind him, by a mounted soldier all the way from his village to Shoranur Railway Station, twenty kilometres away. His son has got the book translated and published in English. It makes for remarkable reading. One fascinating aspect of the book is that it describes very clearly the build-up to the events of Aug. 20. Interestingly, he refers to the Trichur riots of Feb. 1920 as the forerunner of the Malabar rebellion. (The problem in Trichur, which was then in the neighbouring Cochin State, was between Christians and Hindus, who summoned Muslims from Ernad to defend them! But the immediate run-up to the events of August 20 in Tirurangadi, begins, in the narrative of Mozhikunnath Brahmadattan Namboodiripad, with the observation of the first death anniversary of Lokamanya Balagagadhara Tilak on August 1. Namboodiripad, who was the president of the local unit of the Congress held a meeting to mark the occasion on the precincts of a temple owned by him. The Police was not in a position to ban the meeting since it was held on his private property. There were also attempts to drag him into a case of sedition, which did not succeed. Namboodiripad thus highlights how the Non-Co-operation Movement per se managed to stay clear of the attempts of the authorities to tackle it legally. However, the same could not be said of some leaders of the Khilafat Movement, especially Ali Musaliyar of Tirurangadi. As Brahmadattan Namboodiripad says, “The Police was acting with the diabolic intention of sabotaging the Non-Co-operation Movement also by dragging Musaliyar and company into a rebellion by some foul trick or other….Musaliyar’s men lacked the patience to understand this and behave accordingly. They became tools in the hands of the Police.”
Namboodiripad raises the pointed question as to why Mahatma Gandhi did not call off the agitation in Malabar as soon as it turned violent, just as he called off the agitation at the all-India level after the Chauri Chaura incident a year later. He says, “It would have been a shrewd and proper action if the Non-Co-operation Movement was called off on the 20th August on the same day when the armed conflict of Tirurangadi took place.” In my limited reading on the subject, I have not seen anyone attempting to answer this important question.
I have narrated these events at some length to show that the mental make-up of the Malayalee, regardless of religion, may be relevant when we study issues related to the Malabar Rebellion of 1921 a hundred years after its outbreak. The history of Malabar Special Police which was set up under R.N. Hitchcock in the wake of the rebellion of 1921 has been recorded by H. G. C. Barboza, one of its illustrious commandants. A passage therefrom merits to be quoted. “The MSP is recruited from all the castes and creeds of Kerala. In its ranks, Nair, Thiyan, Christian and Mappilla alike rub shoulders. Mappillas, to whom the MSP may be said to owe its very being, have been enlisted ever since 1934 and today, they supply over a tenth of the Force…. and are amongst the finest of its men. While inclined to be impulsive and sensitive to a degree, alive to injury and prone to resent ill treatment whether fancied or real, the Malayalee, agile, energetic and adventurous, with his inherent sense of cleanliness and neatness, and his native intelligence, makes when properly treated and imbued with real sense of discipline and esprit-de-corps, an excellent soldier. Faithful, cheerful and readily willing, he is second to none in India.”
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Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.