On August 19th, former National General Secretary of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Ram Madhav claimed that the Malabar Rebellion (also called Moplah Riots) was one of the first manifestations of the Taliban mindset in India. He accused the Left government in Kerala of trying to whitewash it by celebrating it as a movement against the British and a revolution against the bourgeoisie or zamindars. Madhav, who is a senior member of the National Executive of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), was speaking while inaugurating a conference in Kozhikode titled, ‘Mappila Riots: Hundred years of Hindu genocide’.
The Hindu reported soon after that the names of 387 Moplah martyrs were set to be removed from the Dictionary of Martyrs of India’s Freedom Struggle (1857-1947), following the recommendation of a three-member committee of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), which comes under the Ministry of Education. The panel had noted that the 1921 rebellion ‘was never part of the independence struggle but a fundamentalist movement focused on religious conversion’. While BJP-RSS leaders piled on, calling the rebellion an ‘ethnic cleansing of Hindus’ and referring to it as the ‘Malabar Hindu Genocide’, a host of leaders of left parties in Kerala, including the Chief Minister, Pinarayi Vijayan, slammed the move. Many left leaders and progressive writers noted that the Union government and the Sangh Parivar were trying to re-interpret history to suit their communal ideology.
The Left in Kerala has been writing and speaking about the events that resulted in the rebellion. At the same time, it has also attacked the Sangh Parivar's attempts at presenting a distorted view of the rebellion, aimed at polarising society along communal lines and equating Hindutva with National. In doing so, the Left is engaging in a tradition that dates back to its leaders of the pre-Independence period.
The factors that led up to the Rebellion
The Moplahs (or Mappilas), a Muslim community in Kerala that traces its origins to the arrival of Arab traders to the Malabar coast, are primarily made up of the peasant community in the south Malabar by the turn of the 19th century. When the British East India Company took over Malabar after the conclusion of the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War, they imported conceptions of the British feudal system and absolute property rights into the region. British administrator William Logan had noted that it was with the advent of the British regime that the jenmi (landlord) in Malabar, who traditionally was only entitled to one-third of the produce and could not evict tenants, became the absolute owner of his land. This ownership gave the jenmi rights to evict and raise rents at will. The rents went up to as high as 80% of net produce.
The oppression and exploitation faced by the Mappila peasantry in Malabar at the hands of the jenmi, primarily upper-caste Hindus, and the British bureaucracy resulted in growing resentment which led to a series of local uprisings. As many as 45 such violent incidents took place against individual acts of oppression between 1836 and 1898, which the British put down to the community being a fanatical band of law-breakers. They accordingly enacted a law called Moplah Outrages Act and formed a special police force to contain the uprisings.
The onset of the war economy during the First World War worsened the impoverishment of the Malabar peasantry. The sense of injustice and anti-British sentiments in the community grew further due to the Empire's treatment of the Caliph in Turkey. The movement around tenancy issues became intermixed with the Non-cooperation and Khilafat movements. Resolutions were passed in the Fifth Malabar District Political Conference, held at Kalkoni Maidan in Manjeri in 1920, in support of the Non-cooperation movement and tenancy reform. This conference was followed by the formation of a host of Congress and Khilafat committees in south Malabar, with many being led by Hindus.
The Malabar Rebellion of 1921
The Madras High Court, which adjudicated on the matter, traced the outbreak of the rebellion to the attempt of the District Magistrate to arrest Ali Musaliar, Secretary of a Khilafat committee in Tirurangadi, and another prominent Khilafist on August 20th, 1921. After the police raided the Mambaram Mosque in Tirurangadi and seized records, rumours spread that the mosque had been desecrated. Police fired against a large crowd of Mappilas gathered at the police station, resulting in a violent uprising that soon engulfed Ernad, Valluvanad and parts of Ponnani Taluks in south Malabar.
One of the early battles between the Mappila rebels and the colonial forces were in Pookkottur, where around 400 rebels were killed, but the troops were forced to withdraw. C Gopalan the Nair, an officer of the colonial government, noted that the rebels blocked roads, cut telegraph lines and attacked and seized police stations, government treasuries, courts and registry offices. The rebels had driven out the colonial forces and gained complete control of Ernad and Valluvanad Taluks by August 28. They declared their own state after killing Khan Bahadur Chekkutty, a retired Moplah police inspector, on August 30. The British declared martial law and brought in several contingents of their military troops to quell the rebellion.
Even as many leaders of the rebellion had surrendered or been captured, military actions, like the one in Melmuri, near Malappuram, on October 25, in which 246 persons including old men and children were shot dead by British soldiers, caused the resurgence of rebel attacks. In a particularly horrific incident, known later as the Wagon Tragedy, nearly 100 peasant rebels who had been captured by the British were transported in one windowless wagon, without food and water, from Tirur to Podanur in Coimbatore. 67 of them had suffocated to death by the end of the journey, while some of them managing to survive only by drinking their own urine.
After prolonged fighting that lasted till January, the colonial government finally managed to gain back control over the region. Around 10,000 lives were lost and over 40,000 rebels were imprisoned over the course of the rebellion. A few thousand were deported to the Andamans, while many of the leaders were executed by the British. The rebellion was officially declared as a freedom struggle by the Kerala government in 1971 and survivors were extended pension.
RSS attempts to distort history
The initial rebellion against the colonial government and their helpers had transformed into a struggle against the jenmi and their (mostly Hindu) agents and in some cases, led to violent attacks against other Hindus and their forcible conversion. The latter was used by communal elements to depict it as an anti-Hindu pogrom from the very beginning. Balakrishna Shivram Moonje, a Hindu Mahasabha leader and RSS mentor, visited Kozhikode in 1923 and held a meeting with the then Zamorin and a few members of upper caste elite families. In north India, communal organizations spread rumours of mass organized attacks against Hindus, leading to the formation of Hindu protection committees in Gujarat and Maharashtra. This was an essential part of the genesis of the RSS in 1925.
RSS publications cite these ‘atrocities’ to indicate that Muslims could not be trusted and ‘that the Hindus were the nation in Bharat and Hindutva was Rashtriyatva’. Even as the RSS purposefully kept away from the anti-imperialist independence movement in India, these historical distortions allowed them to claim that ‘only Hindus could save Hindustan and only Hindu strength could save the country’. In doing so, they parroted the British narratives of a fanatical Muslim community or ‘Jungle Moplahs’ that were prone to violence and atrocities.
As the 100th anniversary of the Malabar Rebellion drew close, they again fell back on these narratives. In 2017, Kummanam Rajashekaran, then President of the BJP in Kerala, led a ‘Janaraksha Yatra’ with the slogan ‘Red and Jihadi terrorism’. He referred to the Malabar Rebellion as ‘the first episode in a 100-year jihad in Kerala,' with a number of BJP national leaders, including Amit Shah, coming to Kerala to support his march. In 2018, protests by Sangh Parivar organizations resulted in the Indian Railways removing wall paintings commemorating the martyrs of the Wagon Tragedy from Tirur Railway Station. The latest attempt of communal rhetoric around the Malabar Rebellion is thus part of a design that has existed since its inception.
Communists in Kerala and the Malabar Rebellion
Even as most sections of the Congress and the Muslim League (which mostly represented the landed gentry among Muslims) in the pre-independence period denounced the rebellion, the communists in the state took a different position. Communist leader Soumyendra Nath Tagore was perhaps the first person in India to highlight the rebellion as a peasant revolt. ‘It is to the illiterate, backward Moplah of the Ernad and Valluvanad taluks that the honour goes of having raised the initial voice of protest against the oppression of the jenmi,’ wrote EMS Namboodiripad, in his 1943 pamphlet ‘A Short History of the Peasant Movement in Kerala’.
Communists noted that the leadership of the Malabar Rebellion had not entertained the communal violence which the rebellion descended into later on. After proclaiming the independent state in south Malabar, Mappila leader Variamkunnath Kunhamed Haji is reported to have declared that there would be no animosity towards Hindus. Multiple accounts attest to the fact that he, along with other leaders like Ali Musaliar and Seethi Koya Thangal, had acted to prevent communal attacks, looting and other depredations. Kunhamed Haji himself had written to The Hindu, refuting allegations of forced conversions. Many accounts suggest that a number of Mappila rebels provided help and support to Hindus during the period. A number of rebel peasants were also not Mappilas, and instead, were Hindus. This can easily be seen in the names of the victims of the Wagon Tragedy or the leaders imprisoned by the British for having taken part in the rebellion.
On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Malabar Rebellion in 1946, the Communist Party in Kerala adopted a resolution titled, ‘1921: The Call and Warning’. Namboodiripad, who later went on to become the Chief Minister of Kerala post-independence, wrote a pamphlet on the rebellion with the same title. While celebrating the anti-imperialist and anti-feudal character of the rebellion and the nature of its leadership and rejecting the notion that it was primarily a religious conflict, the pamphlet warned of the need for cohesive organization and leadership to ensure that mass movements wouldn’t be repressed or deviated. It was also highlighted that the communal and adventurous elements among the rebels had caused the degeneration of the rebellion into communal violence towards its end.
‘It was thus that the greatest mass movement in British Malabar was diverted into the most tragic and most futile mass action’, wrote Namboodiripad. Both he and AK Gopalan were arrested and jailed by the British for writing the pamphlet and giving speeches on the same. Gopalan would remain in jail even after independence. The leaders of left parties in Kerala and progressive writers are now following their tradition to ensure that mass movements do not get deviated through communal polarization.