The true nature of the Malabar rebellion of 1921 — an uprising against the British and the feudal lords

Since there is a lot of debate yet again on the Malabar rebellion of 1921, sharing something I had written last year and did not publish anywhere.

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When the Malabar Revolt broke out in August 1921, Poozhikkal Narayanan Nair, a local jenmi in Thanur who at that time used to pay Rs.1000 in taxes and collected 9000 ‘paras’ of grain from tenants annually, fortified his house with around 40 security men. With several disgruntled tenants under him, he was expecting an attack.

His securitymen did succeed in resisting all attacks until the fag end of the revolt, a few weeks later, when a group of rebels entered the house, murdered eight and destroyed revenue records. Narayanan Nair managed to escape. Citing court records of that time, historian K.N.Panikkar shares an observation from the judge who heard this case in his book ‘Malabar Rebellion:Against Lord and State’ — “It is evident that there were more reasons than religious hatred or mere robbery. It seems that the rebels were keen on murdering everyone whom they managed to catch. There are strong clues of deep enmity in this whole act. A majority of the accused are tenants of Narayanan Nair”.

Looking at a particular point in history from the present, without considering the social context of that time or the events of the many preceding years leading up to it, is an exercise fraught with many a pitfall. So it is with the Malabar rebellion of 1921, now back in the limelight in its centenary year and the announcement of four feature films, from different ends of the political pole.

The deeply divergent interpretations on the nature of the revolt at present depends on whom you are asking. For some, it was a purely religious uprising, while for others it was a blowback against the British and the oppressive feudal system of that period. But as historians like Panikkar observe, though the basic reasons of the rebellion and much of the rebellion itself were not communal, part of its aftereffects certainly became so.

Panikkar’s book and Conrad Wood’s 1987 study ‘The Moplah Rebellion and its genesis’ provide us valuable insights on the true nature of the revolt, as they base their work on the municipal, court, revenue documents and media reports of that time. Early on in his book, Wood says that the violence of the Moplah under British rule represents “a response to a new economic and political context created by the British”.

The rebellion of 1921 was not a standalone event, rather it was one in a series of several outbreaks, led mainly by the Muslim tenants, from as far back as 1836 onwards. In looking for the reasons, Panikkar goes back to 1792, when Malabar came under British rule, after Tipu Sultan’s defeat. The East India Company went on a major monopolisation drive of the spice, salt, tobacco and timber trade, all of which were sources of revenue for the local population until then. Monopolisation led to massive job losses in all these sectors. For instance, 6438 tobacco producers lost their jobs in Malabar during this period.

Alongwith this, the British imposed a huge tax burden, with almost 40% of the agricultural produce going to the Government. Taxes were also imposed on 50 or more items, including boats, fishing nets and even machetes. All of these measures led to huge price rises, making essentials unaffordable to a large section, pushing them into penury.

The British were fully convinced of their view that the ownership of land and its use fully rests with the jenmi (feudal lord), and hence their policies too began reflecting this. This upset the traditional agricultural relations that existed in Malabar. Even the British civil servant William Logan had written that this was a mistake on the part of the British, who viewed it all through the lens of European agricultural relations, without trying to understand the local context. For them, the only aim was to build a social foundation for colonisation, for which favouring the jenmis was the easy route. Even the recruitments to the revenue and law and order departments were from these classes, further empowering them.

Eviction of tenants, which was rare before colonisation, was aided by the new revenue laws. In the 1850s, 1140 petitions eviction petitions were filed in Malabar. From 1852 to 1883, the number of petitions increased by 450% every year. This doesn’t count the many cases which never reached the courts. Among the Muslim tenents especially, there was a major lack of faith in the judiciary and revenue department, filled with relatives of jenmis, who ruled in favour of them. Majority of the tahasaildars and village officers too were upper caste Hindus.

This prevailing situation led to disenchanthment, which at times surfaced as violent attacks. Between 1836 and 1859 there were as many as twenty two ‘Moplah out-breaks’ recorded in this region, and a similar number in the years leading up to the rebellion of 1921. Wood cites a British report on the social background of the participants in the largest of all the outbreaks, that of 1896, as “field-labourers, porters, timber-floaters, mendicants, and others of the lowest class, living from hand to mouth”.It is recorded that the net value of the property of the dozen participants in the May 1885 outbreak amounted to a mere Rs.205.

Wood notes that all the victims of the 29 major outbreaks were Hindu jemis. Out of the 72 victims, nineteen were rich jenmis (landlords) or moneylenders, four were kariastans (land agents) and advisers of jenmis, 18 guests, retainers, servants and similar dependents of jenmis, ten members of jenmis’ families. He says that the essence of the Moplah outbreak, demarcating it from other forms of violence, consisted in the belief that participation was the act of a shahid or martyr and would be rewarded accordingly. The frequent coming together of Muslim tenants and workers in mosques may also have led to the building of a solidarity network, which led many of the outbreaks, in which non-Muslims participated in lesser numbers.

The repressive Moplah Outrages Act of 1854, which provided for the levying of fines on all the inhabitants of a locality involved in outbreaks, the deportation without trial of anyone suspected of intending to participate in an outbreak, the confiscation to government of the property of participants and banning of the Moplah knife, also created much anger among Muslims, as they saw this as a British attempt at punishing the entire community.

The murder of H.V.Conolly, the collector of Malabar at his residence in 1855, is a reflection of this anger. It was an act of revenge against Conolly’s decision to exile Syed Fazal Pookkoya Thangal of the Mambram mosque, along with 50 of his family members, accusing him of fuelling outbreaks.

Though the Logan commission of 1881, appointed by the British to study the reason for the outbreaks, did record much of the grievances of the tenants and suggested policy changes, the jenmi class through their influence, managed to force to torpedo these suggestions. The Compensation for Tenants’ Improvements Act of 1887 merely provided for payment by jenmis for “improvements” made by tenants on the land, when they are evicted. The British did not attempt to change the oppressive rules related to agriculture until they were forced to, after the Malabar rebellion, when the Malabar Tenancy Act was enacted in 1929.

It is to this volatile Malabar, roiled by frequent outbreaks, that the Congress leaders arrived, with the non co-operation movement and the Khilafat movement. The latter, demanding the restoration of the Ottoman Caliphate, was seen by Gandhi as a way of spreading anti-British movements among a large section of the Muslim population. Gandhi and Moulana Shoukat Ali addressed public meetings in Malabar in 1920 August.

Leaders like M.P.Narayana Menon, nicknamed Mapilah menon, spread the ideas of the Khilafat among the masses. Oppressive measures began, with fabricated cases and the arrests of K.Madhavan Nair and others following a public meeting in February 1921.

A rumour that the police had entered the Thirurangadi mosque wearing boots and claims that the mosque was damaged, raised communal passions. Protests followed, and at Thanur, the police shot down nine people. Between August 20 and 25, Government offices were attacked, land documents destroyed, police stations attacked, telecommunication lines and railway lines damaged across various taluks.

Even leaders couldnt control after a point, which led to the retreat of the congress khilafat leaders like Moidu moulavi, Abdur Rahiman and Madhavan nair. But, another band of leaders, including Variyamkunnath Kunjahammad Haji, Ali Musaliar, Chembrassery Thangal and Seethikkoya Thangal, took charge, taking control of vast swathes of land in Pukkotur and other areas from the British.

Both Panikkar and Wood point out that this rebel regime had the form of Government borrowed from the British system. ‘Passports’ were issued for entry and movement in the rebel zone, with guards scrutinising these documents. The leaders put out orders against looting. All loot was taken over as the property of the Khilafat.

A court system was also formed in that short period in which they had control. Evidence points to the punishment of even Muslims who aided the British, like the retired police inspector Khan Bahadur Chekkutty, who was shot dead or the murder of 34 Hindus and 2 Muslims for allegedly leaking information to the British.

Ali Musaliar and Kunjahammad Haji had taken strong stands against loot and forced conversions, with Haji even writing a letter to The Hindu on October 7, 1921, saying that the “report that Hindus are forcibly converted” by his men was “entirely untrue.” But with the counter attacks and dispersal into groups, not every group followed the ideology of the leaders, attest both Wood and Panikkar. As in the case of any large scale riot, many had used it for their private interests, including looting and conversion

A separate stream did see the rebellion as a path towards bringing Islamic rule, but no major leader of the rebellion were part of this stream. Lesser known leaders like Konnara thangal, Abduhaji and Aboobacker Musaliar led the conversions. Madhavan nair in his book claims that 75% of the conversions were done by Thangal and Haji.

Wood cites the observation of F. B. Evans, the special civil officer for the martial law area, that the victims of the rebels were nearly always those who had supported the government or failed to help the insurgents. The Moplah rebellion of 1921–22 was, for the most part, no irrational orgy of communal bloodletting. Certainly the myth that the Moplah who “went out” tried to kill each and every Hindu he met does not bear scrutiny. The occasions when shahids permitted Hindus to proceed unharmed were very numerous, he says.

Communist leader and the first Chief Minister of Kerala E.M.S.Namboodiripad, had in 1946, on the 25th anniversary of the rebellion, written a seminal piece ‘Ahwanavum Thakkeethum’ (An exhortation and a warning), on the true nature of the rebellion, bringing the rebellion back into the discussion again. While acknowledging the rebellion in Malabar as a historic fightback against the British imperialists, he cautioned against the infiltration of religious bigots in such struggles, which could turn genuine uprisings into communal riots, thus aiding the imperialists. As it went against the British interpretation of the rebellion being a communal riot, EMS was arrested and the left mouthpiece ‘Desabhimani’ banned. It is clear that right from the early days the British establishment did push a particular view of the rebellion, although a few officers’ writings do expose those claims.

Amid the current focus of the debate on the nature of the revolts, the many who laid down their lives fighting the British during the rebellion are forgotten. Variyamkunnath Kunjahammad Haji, who is portrayed as a religious bigot in right wing interpretations, was shot dead by the British on January 20,1922. According to Wood, official figures indicate that battle casualties totalled 169 on the British government side while about 4000 rebels were killed or wounded. As a result of the rebellion, 468 murders were reported, 5941 dacoities, and 352 cases of arson.

On 20 November, 1921 occurred one of the most gruesome murders by the British. As many as 64 rebels who were being transported to a prison in a closed rail wagon suffocated to death, in an incident which the British gave the passive title of “wagon tragedy”, although it was nothing short of massacre. Such British interpretations from a time when they held complete control over how history should be written, still influences ideological debates over the Malabar rebellion. Yet, official records of the time have enough in them for those patient enough to sift out the truth.