New Delhi: On 20 August 1921, a group of Muslim agricultural workers in Kerala’s Malabar region went up in arms against “unfair land laws” of the British, which while granting landowners complete ownership of agricultural lands, reduced this group to mere labourers with no control over the land they tilled or the produce thereof.
While it took the British several months to check the rebellion, 100 years later, the episode, known as the Malabar Rebellion, or the Mapilla or Moplah rebellion after the community that led the agitation, remains a contentious event in Indian history.
Some celebrate it as an “agrarian movement”, even an “anti-imperialistic rebellion”, and the Kerala government in 1971 had recognised the rebels of 1921 as “freedom fighters”, but others have termed it a “communal riot” and the “jihadi massacre of Hindus”, since the landowners of the time were mostly upper-caste Hindus.
The latest example of this conflicted memory of the 1921 rebellion came days after the 100th anniversary of the event.
The Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) Monday slammed the BJP-led government at the Centre for trying to “distort history” by seeking to remove the names of the 1921 rebels from The Dictionary of Martyrs, India’s Freedom Struggle from 1857 to 1947, published by the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) in 2019.
ICHR, an autonomous body working under the Ministry of Education, has formed a three-member committee to review the names of these martyrs and is reportedly considering removing the names of 387 martyrs of the 1921 Malabar Rebellion.
The ICHR move comes days after former BJP national secretary Ram Madhav claimed last week that the riot was “the first manifestation of the Taliban mindset in India”, and slammed the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government in Kerala for celebrating the event.
ThePrint looks back at the uprising and decodes why it remains such a contentious episode in India’s colonial past.
What led to the Malabar riots
Widely hailed as one of the first nationalist uprisings in southern India, the Malabar Rebellion of 1921 started off as a peasant movement against the British and the upper-caste Hindu landlords, owing mainly to the new land laws introduced by the British government in the early 19th century.
The movement was led by the Moplahs, the indigenous Muslim community in Kerala’s Malabar region, who trace their origin to the coming of the Arab traders in the 9th century, credited with having brought Islam to the west coast of India.
The Moplahs were mostly agricultural labourers on land owned by the upper-caste Hindus under the British.
“The new land laws introduced by the British government in the 19th century gave the legal ownership of the land solely to the landlords, most of whom were upper-caste Hindus. The Moplah community, who were tenants and agricultural workers, lost their formal or customary rights, which they had enjoyed for a long time,” Dr Sunil P. Ilayidom, a Malayalam literature professor at Sree Sankaracharya University of Sanskrit told ThePrint.
Before the new tenancy laws, the Moplah workers had had the right to claim a decent share of the farm produce.
The uprising, which started on 20 August 1921, carried on for several months, forcing the British authorities to impose martial law to end the rebellion. They also set up a new police unit called Malabar Special Police to crush the revolt.
The uprising reportedly led to the death of around 10,000 people, including 2,339 of the rebels. Many Hindus were forced to convert to Islam. In one incident, 70 of 90 Moplah prisoners died of suffocation, while being taken to the Central Prison in Podanur in a closed railway wagon. The incident is widely referred to as the “Wagon Tragedy”.
According to Ilayidom, it is important to take into account all three elements of the uprising — the “anti-imperialist struggle, agrarian revolution, and religious ideology” — to understand what really happened in 1921 and why.
Renowned historian and political commentator M.G.S. Narayanan, who is also the former chairman of ICHR, agreed.
“The Moplah rebellion of 1921 was an attempt to overthrow the British government in Kerala. It was an expression of dissatisfaction of the Moplahs against British rule,” he said.
Why the agitation got its communal colour
“The rebellion started as a movement against the Janmis (caretakers of land on behalf of local rulers), but since most of the landlords were Hindus, it turned into an anti-Hindu rebellion,” Narayanan told ThePrint.
Ilayidom argued, however, that it was the British who sowed the seeds of conflict.
“Following the withdrawal of Tipu Sultan from Malabar in the beginning of the 19th century, the upper caste Hindus and the landlords began to be associated with the British authorities. While the upper caste Hindus were protected by the imperialist government, the Moplahs were treated as a fanatic community from the 1840s onwards and both these parties jointly suppressed the Moplahs in the Malabar region,” he said.
“It was primarily an agrarian unrest and an anti-imperialist movement directed and energised by religious ideology, which took a communal turn since Agrarian tenants (Mappilas) were fighting against landlords, who were mostly upper-castes Hindus,” he added.
British officers of the time have also since accepted their role in fuelling the agitation.
William Logan, the Collector of Malabar district between 1875 and 1884, who was later appointed Special Commissioner to look into land tenures and tenant rights in the Malabar in1881, is quoted in The Malabar Manual (Volume 1) as saying that “the problem (between the landlords and tenants) is rooted fundamentally in the British’s misunderstanding of the traditional relationship of the janmi to the land”.
Because the British considered the janmi as the English landlord and protected them with the force of law, instead of perceiving them as one of the several agricultural classes with rights to the land and its produce, it gave rise to conflict.
Stoking religious sentiment
Meanwhile, extremist Muslim leaders used this moment to turn their wrath into religious animosity.
Diwan Bahadur Nair, Retired Deputy Collector of Calicut, Malabar, in his book, The Moplah Rebellion 1921 has claimed Ali Musaliar (an Islamic scholar who was among the main leaders of the rebellion and an active orator of the Khilafat movement) was responsible for igniting religious hatred and violence, and argued that his main goal was to install a Khilafat Government by any means necessary.
He wrote, “it was not mere fanaticism, it was not agrarian trouble, it was not destitution, that worked on the minds of Ali Musaliar and his followers. The evidence conclusively shows that it was the influence of the Khilafat and Non-co-operation movements that drove them to their crime. It is this which distinguishes the present from all previous outbreaks. Their intention was, absurd though it may seem, to subvert the British Government and to substitute a Khilafat Government by force of arms”.
Narayanan begs to differ, however. “The Congress too had supported the movement in the initial days as it was an anti-British uprising. To only emphasise on the Hindu killings is not correct.”
The movement’s “anti-Hindu” tag was given mostly by the BJP and the RSS. BJP former national secretary Ram Madhav’s claim that the riot was “the first manifestation of the Taliban mindset in India” is only the latest in that narrative.
And the controversy spills from real to reel…
The contentious episode from history has also caused the BJP and RSS members to slam filmmakers and actors over their attempt to “glorify” Variyamkunnath Kunjahammed Haji, the Moplah leader who led the agitation and has been accused of persecuting Hindus during the Khilafat movement.
Malayalam director Aashiq Abu’s film Vaariyamkunnan will see actor Prithviraj Sukumaran as Haji. But the film has spurred a huge controversy, with several Right-wing leaders requesting Sukumaran to not take the role, and claiming that the historical character was responsible for the “1921 attack against Hindus”.
This is the second movie based on the Moplah Rebellion. The first one, 1921, was made by I.V. Sasi in 1988 and starred Malyalam actors Mammootty and Suresh Gopi. It was very well-received and was even thought to be one of his best cinematic works by many.
(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)
Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it
India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.
But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.
ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.