Malabar Rebellion, 1921: An Uprising or A Catastrophe

Malabar Rebellion

The Malabar Rebellion was the armed uprising of Mappila peasants against the repressive regime of British and the ruthless tenancy practices of jenmis (landlords in Kerala). This rebellion also contains tales of looting, destruction of official records, burning down of government buildings, the murder of jenmis and killing of innocents. 

Malabar Rebellion
PC: youtube.com

A lot of debate and discussion has happened on whether this rebellion should be seen as a part of Indian freedom struggle or a massacre that broke down all bonds of trust between Hindus and Muslims.

An article published on June 28, in The Hindu, talks about a similar controversy that has erupted between a film director, who wants to commemorate the rebels and rebellion with a film, and a politician who sees this rebellion otherwise. 

In another article in The Indian Express, journalist Amrith Lal writes, “ The Malabar rebellion is a layered story with multiple strands that defy simplistic narrations. Erasing any of these strands or experiences… would result in an incomplete, lopsided picture of the event with the potential for dangerous interpretations in our fraught present.” 

Hence, while reading about Malabar rebellion there are a few elements that one must look at carefully. 

Mappilas

Malayali speaking Muslims who mostly reside along the coastal length of Malabar are known as Mappila. M. Gangadhar Menon in his thesis on Malabar Rebellion writes that Mappilas have always been noted among scholars for their sense of “social cohesion”, their “militancy and militant tradition” as well as “their higher sense of organisation”. 

Throughout the nineteenth century, this community posed a huge problem for the jenmis and British administration. The frequent eviction notices, excessive renting, and demand for heavy renewal fees by the jenmis as well as the ignorant attitude adopted by the British towards their problems were answered by Mappilas through violent outbreaks.

Though with the coming of Congress and spread of Khilafat-cum-Non-Cooperation movement in Malabar, Mappilas found themselves introduced to new methods of organisation and meetings that allowed them to express themselves without resorting to violence. In the 5th Annual Conference of Congress, held in Manjeri, people of Mappila community voted for working for Khilafat movement and tenant rights.

People of the Mappila community had well adapted themselves to the path of non-violence propagated by Mahatma Gandhi. However, the repressive measures adopted by the British government in 1921 which stopped them from holding meetings related to the Khilafat movement, as well as the frequent raids and forced arrests of Khilafat leaders like Yakub Hassan, forced Mappilas to fear for their safety and the success of their cause. 

Malabar Rebellion
PC: brilliancecollege.com

The Malabar rebellion was a desperate attempt on the part of the Mappila community to free themselves from the repressive British regime as well as from the jenmi atrocities. They took up arms thinking that their rebellion would help in getting justice for the Turkish Caliph. However, the violent methods adopted by Mappila led towards indiscriminate looting and attacks on the local populace. 

Tenant Movement

The landed aristocracy of Kerala, also known as jenmi, were the owners of much of the land in Kerala. Most of these landlords either belonged to the Nambudiri or the Nair castes( mostly upper-caste Brahmans). Besides revenue collection the jenmis had the power to evict tenants, could ask for an exorbitant amount of rent and renewal fee from the impoverished tenants. 

Malabar Rebellion
PC: Wikipedia.org

Further the British turned a blind eye to the pleas for justice by tenants, as British administration heavily relied on these landlords for support. As a result, the tenant-landlord relationships got strained beyond repair. However, after contemplating the situation, in 1900 certain changes were made to the Compensation Act by British in order to provide relief to the tenants. 

Despite the modifications made by British jenmis continued committing atrocities on their tenants. Hence, the tenants who had succeeded in completing their education as well as had secured themselves jobs decided to get together and speak up against the atrocities committed by jenmis.

In the 1920s, with the coming of Khilafat and Non-Cooperation movement to Malabar, the tenants, on whose worsening conditions there had been no discussion in the previous four District Conferences, got together to pass a resolution on tenant rights. Mappilas participated in huge numbers in this conference.

According to this resolution, the tenants refused to cooperate or work for any jenmi who evicted a tenant according to his whims. It was only after the evicted tenant had been taken back by the convicted jenmi that the other tenants went back to work for the jenmi. Despite adopting the principle of non-cooperation and succeeding at organizing themselves against jenmis, several tenants were still at the mercy of tenancy laws, changes to which could only be made by British.

Khilafat and Non-Cooperation Movement

Launched in the year 1919, the Khilafat movement was launched by Indian Muslims to protest against the sanctions placed on the Ottoman Empire and the Caliph under the Treaty of Sèvres. The movement was led by Shaukat Ali and Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad in support of restoration of caliph of Ottoman Caliphate. 

Non-Cooperation movement was launched in the year 1919 by Mahatma Gandhi to protest against the passage of Rowlatt Act as well as the massacre of Jallianwala Bagh. In 1920, however, Mahatma Gandhi and Khilafat leaders decided to join hands in their fight for Swaraj and Khilafat. The decision to unite these the two movements helped Mahatma Gandhi in bringing together Hindu and Muslim in the Indian struggle for freedom. 

Malabar Rebellion
PC: madrascourier

With the 5th District Conference, Khilafat, as well as the Non-Cooperation movement, reached  Malabar. It was during this conference that the leaders of Indian National Congress and Khilafat movement decided to set up offices in different taluks of Malabar for ensuring that the meetings and activities related to the movement were conducted in a peaceful manner and it was joined by people in huge numbers.

As M. Gangadhar Menon writes in his thesis,” the fifth conference was attended by Mappilas… because they wanted to support the Turkish Sultan.” This movement had a sway over the hearts and minds of the Muslim populace who believed that the restored Caliph would free them from the British regime.

Despite the peaceful manner in which all the meetings and programs related to Swaraj and Khilafat were conducted in different taluks of Malabar, the District Magistrate of Madras, E.F. Thomas believed that the Congress-Khilafat workers posed a threat to British administration in Malabar and had to be suppressed.

Since the beginning of 1921, he used various laws to prevent Khilafat and Congress workers from holding meetings, rallies and processions. The riots at Trichur, between the British loyalists and supporters of Khilafat and Non-Cooperation, was a result of British planning. E.F. Thomas and several other British officials resorted to writing and spreading narrations that sowed the seeds of mistrust between Hindus and Muslims. The surprise raid at Tirurangadi to arrest Khilafat leaders was also suggested by E.F.Thomas.

The repressive policies of British, their malicious practices and arrests of Khilafat leaders succeeded in forcing Mappilas, who had a history of resorting to violence when they found themselves helpless, to lead an armed rebellion for Khilafat. 

The leadership of the Rebellion

Ali Musaliyar, Variyan Kunnath Kunhamad Haji and Chembrasseri Thangal are some people who were indicted by the British for their role in the rebellion. If one carefully reads the biography of these men they would realize that all these men were educated and victims of British atrocities. They just wanted to replace the British regime with a one that was more just. 

Malabar Rebellion
PC: Wikipedia.org, Ali Musaliyar

The violent turn that the Malabar rebellion took can be attributed to the fact that the movement did not have one leadership or a singular ideology behind it. With people of diverse aims participating in Malabar rebellion it became difficult for even those who were considered to be its leader to prevent rebels from committing heinous crimes. 

A Freedom Movement or A Catastrophe? 

Towards the end of his article on 5th July 2020, Amrith Lal says that an  “uncritical valorisation of the rebellion or spinning a singular Hindu victimhood narrative cannot do justice to the complex tragedy that the rebellion was.” Any discussion on the Malabar rebellion will involve having a look at several elements that led to the uprising. Valorizing this rebellion as a peasant movement or as an uprising against British in turn results in ignorance of the homicidal turn that the movement took.  

Malabar Rebellion
PC: slideshare.net

But as M. Gangadhar Menon writes that despite its “limitations” the rebellion “ should be given its place in the struggle for Indian freedom, which necessarily had to pass through such attempts and failures”.

Hence, decrying Malabar rebellion as a pogrom ignores the fact that a small section of Indian society decided to stand up to the atrocities of British administration at the local level. 

If you know some more facts about the Malabar Rebellion or want to discuss something, feel free to express yourself in the comment section. For further reading on this topic, you can refer to M. Gangadhar Menon’s thesis on Malabar Rebellion. 

Do go and check out our article on Rani Chennamma

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