Attempts To Add Communal Colour to the Moplah Rebellion Are Wrong

A hundred years after that anti-landlord and anti-colonial revolt, the Sangh parivar is using it to vilify Muslims.

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The Non-Cooperation-Khilafat Movement launched by Mahatma Gandhi was to start all over India. People were exhorted to withdraw co-operation from the British government and to demand restoration of the Caliphate in Turkey – which had ended with Turkey’s defeat at the hands of the British.

It was in the Malabar region of Kerala that this call elicited the most enthusiastic response.

The Moplahs had organised militant movements against the the Raj and the landlords for decades. Here, the demand for Tenancy Reform was made part of the non-cooperation struggle and, as a result, demonstrations, processions and huge mobilisations became the order of the day. The government retaliated with great severity and the resulting anarchy of the last days of the rebellion led to a situation that E.M.S. Namboodripad described thus: “The greatest mass movement in British Malabar was diverted into the most tragic and futile mass action.”

The Sangh parivar has grabbed the opportunity now, during the centenary of the Rebellion, to further its agenda of fostering hatred of Muslim communities. It is now demanding that the names of many of the rebellion’s martyrs’ names be struck off the list of freedom fighters. Its ideologues have published many articles which describe the Moplah rebels as forerunners of the Taliban. They are determined to tar all Moplahs with the same brush and accuse them – and by implication all Muslims – as congenitally violent, bloodthirsty and communal. They are completely silent on the subject of British atrocities and the reign of terror that they instituted in Malabar.

It is important, therefore, to understand the complexities of this Rebellion.

Mozhikunnath Brahmadattan Namboodripad (MBN), the president of the local Congress committee in Walluvanad, Malabar wrote an eye-witness account of the Rebellion, The Khilafat Reminiscences (the English translation was published by Malabar Institute for Research and Development). He did this to prove that, “The root cause of the rebellion is not to be sought in communal conflict. It sprang out of political repression. Police atrocities provoked it. This rebellion is only an aspect of the freedom struggle.”

Also read: Govt Panel Seeks Removal of 387 ‘Moplah Martyrs’ from History Book, Says Rebellion Was ‘Communal’

The book starts with a series of events that took place in Thrissur in February 1921. On the February 16, four leading Congressmen were arrested in the run-up to the Non-Cooperation movement due to start some months later. A protest meeting was organised and the administration encouraged some Christians to disrupt it.

Over the next few days, homes and shops owned by Hindus and Muslims were attacked and set on fire by Christians aided and abetted by the administration. In retaliation, Hindu notables sent telegrams which invited the Moplahs from nearby to come to their aid. Hundreds arrived and their stay and food were organised by Hindus. This turn of events forced the administration to broker a peace. It is quite clear that there was a sense of brotherhood between the Hindus and Muslims of the area and it was this that the British were now determined to destroy.

Hectic preparations were made for the success of the movement, in which MBN played an active role. In the last few days of August, militant processions and demonstrations were organised. The British responded with arrests and firings. This repression succeeded in rallying thousands of Moplahs around a prominent leader, Ali Musaliyar and they succeeded in ridding a small area around Tirurangadi of the British administration altogether and he was crowned king.

Moplah prisoners go to trial at Calicut on the Malabar Coast in India’s south-western state of Kerala, charged with agitation against British Rule in India, September 26, 1925. Photo: Topical Press Agency/Wikimedia Commons

The British administration soon received reinforcements. Ali Musaliyar and his supporters, who had taken refuge in the important Mamram mosque, were surrounded and attacked. Some Moplahs escaped, but many were killed and Ali Musaliyar had to surrender with a few followers. He was arrested and sent to Coimbatore jail. The attack on the mosque was widely reported and led to more determined resistance by the Moplahs.

MBN was arrested from his home on the same day, September 1, by the British cavalry. His hands were tied behind his back and the rope held by a British soldier on horseback. He was made to run for 20 miles. He was also sent to the Coimbatore jail where he was able to meet Ali Musaliyar and many others. He was beaten, tortured and humiliated and wrote in his book that if he as a Namboodiri was treated like this then the treatment meted out to the Moplahs could only be imagined. In February 1922, Musaliyar was hanged at the jail.

Another prominent leader of the Rebellion was Haji Kunhamad, for whom MBN had the highest regard. Haji also became the ruler of a ‘liberated’ area for a short while. The historian Manu Pillai said in an interview with Soumya Rajendran in June 2020 that, “Kunhamed Haji (Variyamkunnath) was one of the more prominent leaders of the revolt… During the 1921 rebellion, he wrote a letter to The Hindu, in which he made it known that reports on forcible conversion were “entirely untrue”, and that these were done by elements linked to the police to vilify the Mappila rebels… Hindus are referred to in this letter as “brethren”. He did add that those Hindus who helped the military and handed over “innocent Moplahs” had been “put to some trouble”.

Haji wrote,”If Hindus were fleeing, it was because the army was evacuating them, whereas he was willing to protect all who came to him, regardless of religious affiliation…The leadership of the Mappilas was spread out and fragmented; it is very likely that Kunhamed Haji was being entirely sincere when he put on record that forced conversions were not something his people did, because this may have been the doing of another set. The important thing to note is that there were half a dozen leaders and several ‘gangs’, as the British called them, which sometimes coordinated action while otherwise sticking to areas under their control. Their policies, outlook, and methods did not always match. When we say ‘the Mappilas’ we forget sometimes that this was not one solid mass working like a battalion; it was more chaotic.”

Kunhamed Haji appears repeatedly attacking the police, seizing arms, and disappearing, usually with 200 odd men; in January 1922, by which time it was clear the rebellion was failing, this dwindled to 80 “tired and hungry” men till he was finally captured with 21 supporters.

After his capture, he was brutally tortured. The British made him an offer: if he apologised, he would be deported to Mecca. The Haji replied that although he loved Mecca, he preferred to die on his own soil. He died a hero’s death, shot by a firing squad with his eyes uncovered at his insistence.

Between September and March, the British waged war against the rebels. The did everything in their power to ensure that other communities withdrew from the movement. No effort was spared in communalising acts of retaliation. Of course, they succeeded not only in crushing the rebellion but in ensuring that for the next decade the landless poor, both Hindu and Muslim suffered cruel exploitation, evictions and exactions in silence.

Memories of the rebellion are very varied. There are some shared in my own family that are very different from the memories that the Sangh parivar wants to convert into the dominant narrative. My great grandmother, A.V. Ammukutty Amma, a landowner, lived alone in her home in Anakara village in Malabar. Anakara had a large population of Moplahs and all her tenants were Moplahs. When she heard about the violence breaking out, she thought of leaving for Madras. Two of her tenants came to her and begged her to have faith in them and stay on. She did. Both of them slept outside her room for several months after that. During this time, the Moplahs of the area held a meeting in the Anakara mosque. They drafted a letter and sent it to the rebels requesting them not to come to their area where they had no quarrel with the Hindus.

Subhashini Ali is a former member of parliament from Kanpur and politburo member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).