In October 1930, the Daily Illini printed a curious news item titled ‘Western Umbrellas Are Cause of Riot on the Malabar Coast’. The Illini, a student newspaper of the University of Illinois referred to an incident that had apparently taken place on an island in the Lakshadweep archipelago, off the coast of what is present-day Kerala, in India. The item read: “A job lot of Western umbrellas and shoes caused a riot on the Laccadive Islands, 150 miles off the Malabar coast. The Koyas, or aristocracy of the islands, long ago decreed that they alone might go shod and carry umbrellas but when the western shipment came in the Malumis, or sailor caste, and Melacheris, who pick coconuts, decided to try dressing up. They picked eleven Melacheris and nine Malumis to defy the old edict and it was a gala day for the strutting low castes until the Koya chief heard about it and ordered out his spearmen. After the fight the mannequins found themselves in jail.”
But why would carrying an umbrella cause such a sensation, especially on islands hit by torrential rain during the monsoon? Well, if you belonged to the Melacheri community, you were barred from wearing shoes, a shirt, carrying an umbrella and many other things that most other people do without a second thought. For these islanders, life in Lakshadweep was not just unbearable; it was impossible.
This was a time when the idyllic Lakshadweep islands were populated exclusively by Muslims, who had migrated there from mainland Malabar, in the 14th century. Although the caste system is usually associated with Hindus, these Muslim immigrants carried with them a similar social system that segregated the affluent upper castes from the working castes, resulting in considerable friction and violent clashes over time.
A somewhat simplified view of the social stratification among the islanders divided them into three groups. On top of the pyramid were the Koyas, or the aristocrats who owned land and odams, the large sailing vessels which were used to commute between the islands and the mainland. This wealthy and autocratic group claimed lineage from the Arab traders of yore and the Nayar castes of Malabar.
The Malumis, the traditional navigators, were next on the social ladder, and the Melacheris were on the lowest rung. The Melacheris were the serfs of the Koyas and they engaged in all sorts of manual labour such as plucking coconuts, fishing, collecting cowrie shells, twisting coir, among other chores. They basically kept the wheels of the island economy turning.
But it wasn't so much what they did for a living that was unbearable; it was the many brutal social restrictions that made their lives intolerable. They were not allowed to wear shirts, or sandals, nor use umbrellas. The women could not wear gold ornaments or silk clothes. During religious functions and rites of passage ceremonies, neither men nor women were allowed to sing or walk in a procession. They could not build good houses.
When they encountered a Koya on the street, the Melacheri had to remove his veshti (the piece of cloth strung across the shoulder) or upper cloth to show respect, and step aside. When talking to a Koya, the Melacheri had to cover his lips with his fingers. He was not allowed to sit in the presence of a Koya. He had to remove his headgear or turban and stand in reverence.
– For Melacheri weddings, singers from among the Koyas had to be hired but they as well as other Koya guests were to be provided separate eating and seating arrangements.
Melacheris could neither own odams nor conduct trade with the mainland. Finally, they had no say in the administration of the islands, which was vested in the hand of the Koyas.
A Koya, on the other hand, wore a colourful loin-cloth and three other pieces of cloth of variegated colours – one on the shoulder, one tied around the waist, and one wrapped around the head like a turban. He carried a short dagger at his waist, and a brush made of coconut husk tucked into his turban. Koyas were the landlords, administrators and the judiciary on the islands, and were never opposed.
Being subjugated in this manner led to frequent conflicts and, over time, the deep-seated resentment among the Melacheris only grew stronger. Records dating to colonial times bear several complaints and cases being adjudicated by the British administration, in this case the Collector on the mainland, under whom the Lakshadweep islands fell.
In the early days, the British took the side of the Koyas, but as time went by, discerning administrators decided to bring in a semblance of balance to this wholly oppressive situation. As a result, the Melacheris started to express their dissatisfaction more and more, prompting the unyielding Koyas to be even more brutal.
A mass representation by the Melacheris resulted in the inspecting officer of the British administration deciding on 25th Nov 1909, to formally allocate work types to different castes and sub-castes. For the hitherto hopeless Melacheris, it was one step away from abject slavery.
In 1913, some Melacheris dared to sing during one of their weddings. Incensed, the Koyas stoned and vandalised their homes and even assaulted the residents. Unable to retaliate against the numerically superior Koyas, the Melacheris decided to approach the British administration. They submitted a petition to Mr W. Rabjohns, Sub Collector and Island inspecting officer. Rabjohns ruled, though siding with the Koyas, that the Melacheris could carry an umbrella during bad weather. Also, they were allowed to sing but, with certain riders. Not to offend a Koya, they could sing during festivities but only inside their homes. However, they could still not walk in a procession. Finally, they were allowed to wear shirts, but only while on a voyage or if the weather was cold; never as an 'adornment' on shore! The aggrieved Melacheris then struck work and refused to do anything for the Koyas. An appeal against this ruling in the Calicut court, dragged on until 1920, at which point a compromise was eventually reached.
These concessions gave the Melacheris some social leeway but life was still very oppressive for them. Sometime after the above ruling, a Melacheri named Rajab Arakkalar of Kalpeni Island, sailed across and met the Malabar Collector. He presented the Melacheris' case to wear shirts on the island, asking, “Is the right to wear clothing not a fundamental right?” He secured an order from the Collector, who allowed Melacheris to wear shirts not only while at sea but also on land. It was a significant victory.
Rajab promptly found a tailor in Calicut and made himself a sturdy coat. Armed with the Collector's directive and wearing his coat, he appeared before the Amin (Judge) Mr K K Attakoya of Kalpeni Island in Lakshadweep. The Amin had no choice but to honour the Collector's order and allow Rajab to wear the jacket.
But Rajab went a little too far and wore his new jacket inside a mosque. The Koyas were enraged and thrashed him soundly, but since they could not rip off the jacket with their hands, they used knives to cut it to shreds. Rajab and other Melacheris were thrown out of the mosque and banned from entry.
Unfortunately, around this time, the benevolent Malabar Collector was replaced by a new administrator, who decided it was not wise to change the status quo on the islands. So he grandly decreed “The islanders should preserve the island conventions themselves” and put an end to any further dissent.
Things had begun to change and, a few liberal Koyas decided to support the Melacheris, and encouraged them to wear shirts, carry umbrellas and sing and dance in processions. In 1922, a group of Melacheris proceeded to carry out all the said actions during a wedding but the other Koyas were merciless in their brutal retaliation. The Melacheris again approached the new Collector, R H Ellis, with their grievance. Ellis reprimanded the Koyas tactfully and stated that the Melacheris should be allowed to sing at weddings.
– The Melacheris, however, decided to stretch the new law by singing and walking in a procession.
The Koyas sued and the court decided that the four Melacheri leaders be fined 15 rupees each. On appeal to the Collector, the fines were cancelled and the rule modified to allow them to sing on the streets. It was then decided that two singing parties comprising Koyas and Melacheris would be formed and they should be invited to all weddings.
Two years later, in 1924, a Melacheri called Melaillam Saban requested permission from the Amin (Judge) of Kalpeni Island to celebrate his son's circumcision ceremony with a musical procession. The Amin, ignoring the previous rulings, refused permission. Saban complained to the Collector and so, an inspecting officer, Mr Gone was deputed to investigate.
As soon as he arrived, he was inundated by hundreds of complaints and appeals cooked up by the Koyas against the Melacheris. But Mr Gone saw through the ruse and decreed, “It is permissible not only to sing in wedding houses, but since the procession by the bridegroom and his party to the bride's house is an important rite, playing and singing of music at such processions cannot be prohibited.” He also pointed to the 1922 judgment by Ellis, which had implied such a verdict. The Koyas were very unhappy.
Then, on a rainy day, Musakka Abdu Rahman, sporting an umbrella, passed a Koya on the street, and the latter promptly sued him in the local court, which fined Abdu Rahman. He then approached the Malabar Collector, who reversed the fine as well as the ruling. Similarly, in 1931, a Melacheri named Mohammed went to a Koya mansion as a guest to attend a wedding. Since it was raining, he had his umbrella open. The other guests assaulted him and threw him out. He too complained to the Collector but the inspecting officer this time did little more than warn the Koyas.
By 1931, things began to change for the better, for the Melacheris. Owing to frequent and stricter warnings to the Koyas from various officers, the Melacheris were able to assert their right to wear shirts and sandals, hold umbrellas, and sing in processions. As time went by, the Melacheris started to accumulate money and build better houses and mosques, and some Melacheris acquired land after their Koya landlord passed away, but though this boosted their confidence, it heightened the antagonism between the two communities.
In 1934, on Amini island in the archipelago, fireworks were lit for a Melacheri wedding, resulting in the serfs being beaten up by the Koyas, yet again. The Tehsildar arrested leaders from both groups and the Koyas retaliated by refusing to allow the Melacheris to use the wells on Koya lands, and destroying the other wells. The Collector intervened to prohibit fireworks and finally allowed the inclusion of two jurors to take care of Melacheri interests. It was a major win!
Then a Mali (fisherfolk community) at Kalpeni started an odam rental business and it was then that the Melacheris decided to take the final step in becoming ship owners. So, in 1949, 12 of them pooled money and bought an odam. This sparked an incident, which went on to proverbially break the camel's back.
The Melacheris who decided to buy an odam, supported by the liberal Koyas, decided to register the purchase of the boat and the Amin had no choice but to accede. But the following night, the coconut sheds of the Melacheri owners were set on fire. They drilled holes into the new ship, which had been loaded with produce. A period of violence ensued, and the outnumbered Melacheris could not even step out of their homes for fear of being thrashed and killed.
When things got out of hand, the Amin appealed to the Collector for help. The Collector arrived with the police in tow but let off the Koyas off with a warning and some fines. This set off a string of incidents across the Lakshadweep islands, where the Melacheris defied social and religious norms, much to the horror of the Koyas. But the die had been cast and the iron grip the Koyas had maintained through the centuries was starting to loosen.
Finally, in 1952, the administration – Lakshadweep was now a Union Territory of India – persuaded the Kalpeni Koyas to include two Karanavers (elders) from the Mali community, and four from the Melacheri group, in the Council of Elders. This brought the lower castes much-needed representation in the local administration.
Despite these changes, friction between the two groups continued for a long time afterwards, and even though the 'umbrella' had triumphed, there is a certain amount of social distancing even today.
So what about the report in the Daily Illini? Did the islanders actually dress up in shoes and walk in a procession with umbrellas? That is not clear. It was probably an exaggerated version of events as the news travelled many a mile across the sea. As for the rest of the incidents concerning umbrellas, shoes and shirts in Lakshadweep, memories of these are all too painful for the Melacheri community.
– ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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. A version of this article was posted on Historic Alleys in March 2020.