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The Malabar Rebellion : How a movie project on history created whirlwinds about how history is written

The Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) recently announced that the 387 martyr names associated with the Malabar rebellion will be deleted from the ICHR’s 2019 compilation of the ‘Dictionary of Martyrs of India’s Freedom Struggle (1857- 1947)’. 

The move came from a process that started a year back when the central government took initiative to appoint a three-member committee to look into the credence of the published martyr’s names associated with the Malabar rebellion of 1921. 

The entire issue stemmed from the announcement of a Mollywood movie project that came up last year regarding the life of Variyamkunnath Mohammad Haji, one of the main spear headers and leaders of the Malabar revolt and rebellion of 1921. 


    Credit: Times of India

The movie project which included a team comprising prominent director Ashiq Abu and movie star Prithviraj issued major backlash especially from right-wing groups in India. They claimed that Haji was a leader of a movement that was predominantly anti- Hindu more than being anti-British, thereby connoting the Malabar rebellion with a communal colour. 

The whole issue took a turn for worse when different political parties started producing multiple narratives about the issue and voiced their ideological opinions in the matter regarding the motive of the investigation initiated by the central government. 

BJP national vice president AP Abdullakutty mentioned that it is offensive to the Independence struggle to consider the Malabar rebellion as a part of it. Former BJP national secretary Ram Madhav evoked the idea that the Malabar rebellion is one of the first manifestations of Taliban mindset in the country. V Muraleedharan, Union minister of state and former BJP secretary in Kerala said that the 1921 rebellion was a Hindu genocide. 

After the suggestion to remove the names was made by the ICHR on 23rd August 2021, a further fire was espoused with newer backlash and support emerging from all directions.

Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan calls the move of excluding martyr names a mistake. For Vijayan, it is done by people who have no clue regarding the fight against the British. MB Rajesh, Kerala CPM MP also made remarks which compared Variyamkunnath Haji to Bhagat Singh. A large section within the left-wing also supports the argument of how the Malabar agitation against the British is a class-based uprising against a feudal system imposed by the British, thereby terming it a freedom movement. 

The narrative adopted by the right-wing does entail some truth but the entire picture of the revolt should be looked into to arrive at a better understanding of the issue.


The religious aspect of the Malabar rebellion

The Malabar rebellion of 1921 was triggered as part of the larger Non-co-operation movement in India. The disintegration of the Ottoman empire in Turkey had a major impact on the minds of the Muslims in Malabar. Most of them including leaders like Ali Musliyar and Variyamkunnath Haji wanted the stability of the Caliph to be restored, mainly because it will act as a spiritual center for all Muslims. The Caliphate was a known spiritual entity for the Malabar Muslims. 

Historian O.P Salahudeen writes about how local religious newspapers published content about the developments in Turkey as early as 1909. The threat to the Caliphate in Turkey also did not happen abruptly. Its damaging process can be traced before the first world war period. Sources also show how Malabar Muslims collected and sent funds to Turkey for its fight during the Balkan wars. Salahudeen writes about how British officials reported the fact that prayers were held in mosques for the cause of the Ottoman caliphate in 1912 as well. 

The Manjeri conference held in April 1920 was the initiating point for the Khilafat movement to merge with the Congress. For Salahudeen, the large number of Malabar Muslims who attended the conference shows how much the Ottoman influence was present in their minds. The ideal for a khilafat movement was present in the form of Non-cooperation here. Hindus and Muslims both participated in this conference. 

Later on, after Gandhi and Shaukat Ali gave speeches in August 1920 to enormous crowds in Calicut around 200 khilafat committees were formed under the leadership of people like Variyamjunnath Haji, Ali Musliyar, etc. These leaders also gave speeches that endorsed the need for a stable Caliphate and gave out an idea that Muslims will not rest until the spiritual status quo is restored in Turkey. Gandhi had the impression that the Muslims in Malabar could be used to strive against the British under these religious influences which can be used to mobilize Muslim support. 

 Further conferences like the Otappalam conference in 1921 further strengthened the Non-cooperation and Khilafat ties to ideate a process to dismantle the British. Speeches were given by both Muslim and Hindu leaders like NP Narayana Menon and E Moidu Moulavi, speeches that advocated Gandhi's ideal of non-violence. But at the same time, provocative speeches were being given as well by some Muslim leaders which indirectly asked the Muslims to fight without rest till their Khilafat agenda is restored. 

However, after the British tackled and attacked places like the Thiruvangandi mosque in 1921 and arrested around 25 Khilafat agitators including Ali Musliyar himself, the movement turned into a larger violent movement. This included Muslim rebels attacking British institutions, offices, officers, policemen, and in some areas attacks were directed to Hindu temples, households, and the killing and conversions of upper-caste Nair and Namboothiri landlords known as Jemnis took place as well.

In an interview with Onmanorama, Stephen Dale, a prominent historian who wrote a book on the Moppilah Muslims said that the uprising was fundamentally ‘anti-British’. Initial attacks were aimed directly at government institutions and officers. But he also admits about how Variyamkunnath Haji had an Islamic political ideal in mind similar to that of a Khilafat government. According to historian Manu S Pillai, short-term Islamic khilafat governments and revenue systems were bought in areas around Eruvad and Valluvanad panchayats, places where the rebellion had much influence. The atrocities which came up from this are also mentioned in varied accounts. 


Annie Besant who visited the Malabar region during the time of the rebellion gave out some horrifying narratives that she witnessed and heard from Hindu refugees who were taking shelter in Calicut. This narration comes under the heading ‘Malabars agony’ and is written in a condoning tone towards Mahatma Gandhi for giving his support to the Muslims in the context of the Khilafat agenda within the Non-co-operation movement. ‘Malabar agony’ was published in New India newspaper on 29th November 1921.

She wrote about instances where women were raped and murdered. One woman was raped by Malabar Muslims in front of her husband and brothers. They were forced to watch under the threat of a sword. The incident came to light when one of the brothers mentioned the incident to Besant confidentially. Babies were killed and Besant mentioned an instance where a woman was murdered along with her unborn child. The murdered infant was taken out of the womb and left beside the dead mother. This was narrated by a refugee at Calicut who witnessed the event.  

She mentioned an instance where 25 Hindus were killed and put into a well at Puthur amson in Ernad Taluk. According to Besant, one of the victims survived and fled to Calicut which is where the person narrated the incident. Another event as narrated by a refugee in Calicut tells how he witnessed 10-12 people having their heads shaved and forced to recite the Quran. This was witnessed from a tree where he was hiding. The entire emotional narrative of ‘Malabar agony’ written by Annie Besant is available in the book called ‘Gandhi and Anarchy’ written and compiled by C Sankaran Nair.

“I wonder what is the authority of some people who contradict the news of murders, and forcible conversions of Hindus. Let them come here and test the veracity of these statements for themselves”.

-       Annie Besant in Malabar Agony

BR Ambedkar was another person who hugely condoned the large-scale massacres happening during the rebellion. He wrote 

“This was not a Hindu-Moslem riot. This was just a Bartholomew. The number of Hindus who were killed, wounded or converted, is not known. But the number must have been enormous”

    - BR Ambedkar

Historian Conrad Wood depicted Muslim convicts as those who did not fear death and knew they would be killed if they attacked upper-caste Hindu landlords or anyone associated with them. The religious meaning of giving life (or conducting a ritual suicide) that will help the Muslim martyr attain heaven was a scary factor that troubled the British officials at the time as well. This adds to a form of fanaticism in the Malabar outbreak of 1921.  



The class-based aspect in the rebellion

The reason for the attack on Hindus specifically is also traced in a class-based manner which doesn’t account for the fundamentalist Islamic nature of the revolt. The Muslim population in Malabar, especially South Malabar, were oppressed laborers working in the fields of upper-caste Hindus for meager incomes and high taxes. This Jemni landlord structure was bought in by the colonial English government after overthrowing Tipu Sulthan in the late 18th century. 

 A larger objective of gaining the prosperity of older times was present in the minds of many Islamic rebels even though a Khilafat structure backed it. In fact, there were small-scale conflicts between the Muslim laboring caste and the Jemni landowners (supported by the British) before the Malabar rebellion of 1921 broke out. 

 According to the Ph.D. thesis of historian Conrad Wood named ‘The Moplah Rebellion of 1921-22 and its Genesis', Wood, the tracing of Malabar Muslim outbreaks starts from 1836-1919. The attack was specifically focused on Jemni caste Hindus landlords, their families, servants, etc, and the attacks were conducted by Muslims belonging to the lower laboring class. Out of 29 outbreaks in this period, there were 82 Hindu victims. 63 of these were upper-caste Nairs or Namboothiris. The rest of the deaths were accorded as servants who were loyal to the same murdered upper-caste Hindus in the region of South Malabar. 




The outcome of the 1921 chaos

In course of all these events, the British army was deployed in large numbers to kill and contain the rebellion. The Gorkha regiment had a huge role in this suppression. Eventually, according to historians, around 10,000 lives were lost with 2339 being rebels. This includes the 387 martyrs mentioned in the ICHR dictionary. Around 39,000 people surrendered as well.  


Historical context and Present-day implications


CI Issac, one of the members in the three-member panel appointed within the ICHR to review the case says that the entire rebellion was anti-Hindu is character and thereby communal. He further suggested the removal of all the martyr names from the dictionary.

“It was actually a jihad and its main aim was unilateral religious conversion. Also, many temples were destroyed. It didn't have a nationalistic stand and should not be hailed as part of freedom struggle" he said

According to reports, the ICHR committee also brought out the idea that the Malabar rebellion was aimed at forming a Caliphate with Islamic courts. They also informed that the beheading of Hindus took place during the time.  

However, a letter written by VK Haji to ‘the Hindu’ before his death, talks about how there is no communal clash or religious violence present under his leadership. In the letter, Haji denies the happening of religious conversions and termed it a tactic of the British to invalidate the entire movement. He also mentioned his readiness to accept and safeguard Hindus seeking asylum from the instability in Malabar. However, Haji did agree that a few Hindu men were punished for joining hands with the British, but as per the letter, this attack was not communal per se.  


Mohammad Niyas Ashraf, a research scholar who was associated with the scholarly work in producing the ICHR dictionary of martyrs (2019) has another viewpoint regarding the matter.  He was involved in editing three volumes from the dictionary. For him, the research done by the team was a thorough process spanning many years. In his op-ed piece written for ‘The Wire’, he mentions how the dictionary and names recorded were meticulously researched. This was conducted with historiographical methods by referring to primary sources, like colonial documents, newspapers from the time, letters, etc. He also mentions the imbued bias within the British in regards to their divide and rule policy. This was also tackled in the process of research as per his article. 

MGS Narayanan, famed Kerala historian who was the ICHR secretary from 2001-2003 claims that the recent ICHR decision is politically motivated. He also mentions the need to look at the  rebellion as a larger scheme of events rather than through a uniform narrative. He also accepts that the movement entailed all the assertions different political parties made, but for him,  political invigorations into the matter are a threat to history as a discipline and will blur multiple historical truths.

     “It is difficult to say whether it was part of the freedom struggle or were expressions which were not related to the freedom struggle. Though it could be termed anti-Hindu, it is difficult to say whether it was anti-British though it had shades of that,” he said.

Ashiq Abu and Prithviraj, the main faces from Mollywood who were supposed to take part in the movie project announced a year ago later withdrew from the project amidst all the controversy it bought in. The reason for this move has not been clearly disclosed. It is important to note that along with this project three other movies regarding the Malabar rebellion were announced as well. However, it was the Ashiq Abu-Prithviraj duo project on Variyamkunnath Haji that created major whirlwinds within the public domain.

It seems that Historians and intellectuals are of the view that there is a larger picture to the Malabar rebellion that gets illuminated through contextual analysis. Rather than focusing on individual categories like communalism, class oppression, or the fight against colonialism, it should be seen through different situational and conditional facets. 



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Tags: violence India religion Islam Kerala history Muslim British Hindu malabarrebellion rightwing Gandhi leftwing communal malabar religious mopilahrebellion Independence historical mollywood


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