It was an event that transformed the sleepy hill terrain of Eranad in the Malabar, the plains around the Bharathapuzha River and the outlying areas of Calicut (present-day Kozhikode) into a fearful and turbulent state, culminating in frenzied mayhem, looting and wanton destruction, with a communal hue.
Called the Malabar Rebellion or the Mappila Revolt, it took place between 1921 and 1922, and saw the Mappila community in present-day Malappuram district of Kerala unleashing a wave of violence against their colonial and feudal masters.
The Mappilas were a section of the Muslims of Kerala, descendants of the Arabs who settled in the Malabar to trade. The Mappila community involved in the rebellion were however, mostly from the Eranad and Valluvanad areas, who were quite backward compared to the other Mappilas and were termed the ‘Jungle Moplahs’ by the British. Mostly forgotten, the rebellion by this community has found new legs in its centenary year and is debated on political platforms, by right-wing and left-wing ideologists, and by those who seek to rewrite history.
Controversy erupted when the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) announced its decision to delete the names of leaders of the rebellion from the Dictionary of Martyrs of India’s Freedom Struggle, jointly published by the Ministry of Culture, Government of India, and the ICHR. Their names will be removed along with those of 386 others, until now listed as leaders of India’s freedom movement.
The decision by the ICHR follows the recommendations of a committee set up to review these names. The panel claims that the Mappila Rebellion was not a part of the freedom movement but that the revolt was communal in nature.
But the truth is much more complicated than that. The Mappila Rebellion appears to have been in part, a fight for freedom from the British, but it was also a revolt against a feudal system marked by abject poverty and agrarian causes (inability to own land, unchallenged eviction powers, power to overlease tenancy to others (melcharth), increased land rent etc). It was the culmination of years of servitude of the Eranad Mappila by the British administration and a reaction to suppression by powerful Hindu landlords. It was fuelled by strong religious fervour sparked by the Khilafat movement, which had originated in Turkey, and fanned by rumour-mongering miscreants.
Roots of Discontent
The amicable relationship between the rulers of the Malabar, that is, the Zamorins and the Mappilas, started to deteriorate after the arrival of the Portuguese, especially since the lucrative Arab trade in spices, the mainstay of the Mappilas, started to get adversely affected. The arrival of the Dutch and the British into the trade matrix did not improve their status in the social ladder, and when the Mysore Sultans Hyder and Tipu invaded the Malabar, the Mappilas rose to the fore, favoured by the invaders, being co-religionists.
After a short period of ascendancy, they dropped into an abyss again, when the British defeated the Sultans and took over the administration of the Malabar. The relationship between the British and the Mappila quickly deteriorated, with the former characterizing the latter as unruly and rebellious, a troublesome lot.
As minor revolts and disturbances occurred with marked regularity, the British administration disarmed all communities in the Malabar and started policing the troubled regions, mainly Mappila locales south of Calicut.
With the impoverished Mappilas working as serfs and common labourers, the situation festered for many decades and the air was thick with resentment.
While the British were usually wary of the ‘troublesome Mappila’, they did see the wisdom in uplifting the Eranad region’s economy, so roads were laid and schools were opened. The Mappilas were offered employment in the army, jobs in Singapore, Burma, Colombo, Kolar etc, resulting in relative calm until 1915. But the British and the landlords always felt and reported an undercurrent of militancy in the region.
To ensure that potential revolts were quickly quelled, the British beefed up the police and army encampment at Malappuram, in Eranad. Also, calamitously, the British army top brass decided that the short experiment in employing troublesome Mappilas was a failure, and disbanded, terminated and sent home many Mappila soldiers.
In the years leading to World War I, the region was quite backward, economically, and the ill-effects of a declining feudal society were telling heavily on the lower classes. The Mappila workers floundered in a state of penury.
Looking for liberation, and seeing that the Hindu landlords were squarely on the side of the British rulers, the illiterate community in the hilly regions of Eranad and the plains south of Calicut had nothing to champion for, till the Khilafat movement and the situation of the Caliph at Turkey unfolded.
As the war engulfed Europe, the Mappilas were led to believe that they would be released from bondage by victorious Axis powers, influenced by the Caliph in Turkey. With support for the Khilafat movement from Mahatma Gandhi, the Ali brothers and the Congress, the Mappila community became a part of the broader freedom movement.
Many Perceived Enemies
When the British loosened the tight noose around Malappuram and replaced regular army men with reserve forces, some rebellious Mappilas resorted to violent acts, which included the murder attempt on Malabar Collector Charles Alexander Innes in 1915. Things were also unravelling in Turkey, when the nationalists led by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk swept the Ottoman regime aside in Turkey in 1920.
The Caliphate itself was being disbanded. The Khilafat movement was of no further importance, and Gandhi and the Ali brothers faded from the local scene. With nowhere to turn, years of pent-up frustration in the Mappila mind was about to explode.
As most historians concur, the events that unfolded in 1921 signalled a rebellion by the Mappilas against many perceived enemies. These were the Hindu landlord, the Christian estate owner, their own economic situation (indebted and largely illiterate), the local administration, as well as a vindictive local police force commanded by British officers. Embedded among those harbouring a grudge against the British were the many bitter, unemployed, ex-servicemen.
The accusation of a Mappila Khilafat leader stealing the Nilambur Raja’s pistol started the violence at Mambaram in Tirur in July/August 1921. The British clamped down with an iron hand and deputed army troops to quell the violence.
As the revolt widened, an organized Khilafat leadership was forming. Variyamkunnath Kunahmed Haji became one of the four leaders of the rebellion, the others being Chembrassery Thangal, Ali Musaliyar and Seethi Koya Thangal.
Their acts, between July 1921 and January 1922, reveal that they were an outlet for personal frustration, a desire for revenge on landlords who had belittled the leaders and their families, as well as revenge on the British administration, who had made life difficult for them.
Added to this was a certain amount of communal division, as most Hindus lined up behind the landlords and the British, with the Mappilas on the other side. The fight for national freedom was no longer of primary interest.
As the revolt spread, and as martial law was imposed, in came the war-hardened military folk i.e., the Leinster and Dorset regiments aided by ruthless Gurkhas and the Chin-Kachin Burmese soldiers, whose orders were to take on and massacre the lightly armed Mappila mobs and gangs.
Initially, the rebels robbed and looted government establishments to stockpile arms and other necessities with the intent to create a Khilafat state. They did not wantonly attack Hindus or rob landlords. Nevertheless, they killed police officers and collaborators and destroyed property, along the way. The brunt of the violence was in Eranad and it was at Nilambur that Kunahmed Haji proclaimed himself to be ‘The Rajah of the Hindus’, ‘Amir of the Mohammedans’ and ‘Colonel of the Khilafat Army’.
With Nilambur as the temporary headquarters of the Khilafat state, Haji started his rule in a systemic fashion, cutting off telegraph lines, destroying bridges and isolating the region. Operating through numerous small gangs, with the three leaders, Thangal, Koya and Haji, in frequent contact, the British army units found themselves hard pressed to retaliate effectively in the jungle regions.
By October 1921, the rebels and their leaders were making an impact, and unrestrained violence on the general populace was unbearable. Meanwhile, Kunahmed Haji set up the Khilafat state, instituted safe passes, passed new tax rules and abolished historic tenancy agreements in his realm.
Of course, these places were not how they look today; they were poor hamlets dotting dense jungle terrain. Roads and bridges were very few and motor transport was not easy. Even the military had to march on their feet, lugging their guns, heavy uniforms and kits.
After two stressful months into the revolt, reality started to set in in the region, which had been cut off from the rest of the Malabar. Food was difficult to come by, and for subsistence, the rebels attacked and robbed nearby houses (Hindu and Muslim) for food and arms.
Haji’s frustrated and embittered accomplices were involved in many murders, other acts of violence and forced conversions.
There were many reports of people from both communities getting maimed and butchered, with unarmed Hindus bearing the brunt of the terror.
But, after some months, things were no longer going well for the rebels, with supplies hard to come by and no homes left to loot. Discord set into the ranks of the rioters and the British moved in for the kill, with a large army force.
Frenzied attacks and counterattacks took place between the rebels and the British-led forces, and many rebels lost their lives. It was around this time that the terrible Wagon Tragedy occurred, when a large number of Mappila prisoners being transported to Coimbatore perished in an ill-ventilated goods wagon, all squarely the fault of the British administrators and the police (This was later symbolised in a mural at the Tirur railway station).
The rebellion was quickly unravelling. Chembrassery Thangal and the Seethi Koya Thangal were captured, tried and shot dead by the police on 9th January 1922. Haji and 21 members of his gang formally surrendered at around the same time. After a summary trial, Haji too was shot dead and his remains cremated. All personal records were destroyed and the homes of rebel leaders were burned down. Haji’s Khilafat state, established on 22nd August 1921 lasted until 6th January 1922.
Thousands of Hindus and Muslims lost their lives in this rebellion. When the revolt wound down in the early months of 1922, all that was left was a large number of prisoners, many maimed and converted Hindus, large numbers of dead on either side, looted homes and destroyed families. Alienation between the Hindu and Muslim communities was complete, leaving wounds and memories of hate which festered for decades.
It is apparent that Haji’s Khilafat reign of terror was for his and his gang’s perseverance; it was not nationalistic or overtly agrarian. Neither Ali Musaliyar, nor Kunahmad Haji had any agrarian grievances. It is also clear that initially, Haji seeing the need for broad-based support against the hated British, made statements exhorting his people not to attack, maim, convert or trouble Hindus, a decision which was not followed by his cohorts.
As days went by, Haji’s acts were criticized by nationalists, who argued that those activities fetched very little benefit for the country. Many of the forcefully converted individuals were reconverted to their original faith, and committees were formed to rehabilitate families who had been maimed, lost members or become homeless.
Many thousand rebels were rounded up in 1922. Some were sent to jails in Bellary, while over 2,000 Mappilas were deported to the Andaman Islands. A handful returned after their internment, but most stayed on as settlers in those islands. Not all of those transported were rebels, though most were involved in some way or another. Sadly, at that juncture, many Mappilas were rounded up and persecuted in what was considered ‘a Mappila scheme – or a final solution’ by the British.
The revolt was in the news recently, when the ICHR said it planned to remove the names of Kunahmed Haji, Ali Musaliyar, Seethi Koya Thangal, Chembrasseri Thangal and names of many other rebels from the previously published list of freedom fighters. Further, infuriating the local public, officials of the Indian Railway had removed large murals depicting the brutality of the Wagon Tragedy at the Tirur railway station in Malappuram district, in Nov 2018.
This announcement soon took on political overtones, bringing back into focus a period of unrest from a century ago, and threatening to destroy the amity that has since prevailed.
Calicut and the rest of the Malabar set an example in forgetting this terrible chapter in its history and getting on with life, after the feudal ways were reformed and prosperity set in with the oil boom. As Ashutosh Varshney (Sol Goldman Professor of International Studies and the Social Sciences and Professor of Political Science at Brown University, where he also directs the Center for Contemporary South Asia) explains in his brilliant work discussing why communities have got along so well in Calicut’s recent past, the local press in the Malabar stayed away from inflammatory articles targeting specific communities; local politicians from either community made it clear that they desired peace, law and order; and people in general have got along well. Varshney concludes that Calicut is a place of “joiners, not dividers”.
Sure, there is still some friction at times, and the odd disturbance. But, then, let’s hope the Malabar and Calicut continue to stay away from fractional politics being bandied about by divisive forces.
Ullattil Manmadhan (Maddy) is a history enthusiast who writes about the history of Malabar and Kerala on his blogs, Maddy’s Ramblings and Historic Alleys.
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