Communalising martyrdom

Print edition : September 24, 2021

September 26, 1925: Mappila prisoners, charged with agitation against British Rule in India, going for trial in Calicut in Kerala. Photo: Getty Images

The deletion of the names of two top leaders of the Malabar Mappila rebellion from the Dictionary of Martyrs of India’s Freedom Struggle invalidates the guiding definition of the dictionary and is a repetition of the colonial strategy of entrenching communal divide for retention of state power.

THE move by the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) to remove 387 names from the Dictionary of Martyrs of India’s Freedom Struggle is an attempt at upsetting the secular foundation of the nation. It is against the spirit of many martyrs and leaders who fought against imperialism and brought forth upon the Indian subcontinent a nation, democratic and secular.

As per the definition given in the Dictionary of Martyrs, a martyr is “a person who died or who was killed in action or in detention, or who was awarded capital punishment while participating in the national movement for emancipation of India”. It includes the martyrs of the 1857 uprising, the Jallianwala Bagh massacre (1919), the Non-Cooperation Movement (1920-22), the Civil Disobedience Movement (1930-34), the Quit India Movement (1942-44), revolutionary movements (1915-34), kisan movements, tribal movements, agitation for responsible government in the princely states, the Indian National Army (INA, 1943-45) and the Royal Indian Navy Upsurge (RIN, 1946). In five volumes, the dictionary contains information on about 13,500 martyrs. Of them, those who died fighting the British rank the foremost.

Listing of the martyrs had involved serious research based on regional and national archives, but elimination of names, too narrow-minded and preconceived, precludes research and defies the guiding definition of the dictionary. A self-contradictory act, the deletion reduces the whole concept of the dictionary into a mere rhetoric that veils the communalisation of the past.

Deletion from the list of martyrs the top two leaders of the 1921 Mappila Rebellion of Malabar—Variyan Kunnatthu Kunhahammed Haji (1883-1922) and Ali Musaliar (1864-1922), who were sentenced to death by the British for fighting and freeing a territory—has sparked a nation-wide controversy. Inclusion of their names was based on independent historical probings and high order judgements of national conscience. According to ICHR historians, the rebellion was a failed attempt at the creation of an Islamic state and had nothing to do with the country’s freedom struggle. This is exactly what the British imperialists meant when they stated that it was a revolt against Hindus by Muslim fanatics. Some liberalists like Annie Besant and great leaders such as B.R. Ambedkar felt sad about the dimension of Hindu-Muslim conflict. Actually, the depiction of the rebellion as communal was largely a consequence of colonial narratives and popular rumours.

A Khilafat Offshoot

According to many, the Mappila Rebellion of 1921, the first major communally mobilised popular riot against British rule, was an offshoot of the Khilafat Movement. Unprecedented in magnitude and extent, the rebellion’s consequences were far-reaching. Several people lost their lives at the hands of the rebels. Many more got killed, injured, imprisoned and dislocated by the British force. Evidently, the Khalifat and the Non-Cooperation Movements had a role in turning the Mappilas rebellious under the hope of attaining swaraj (self-rule).

According to a narrative, the Mappila Rebellion was triggered by an agitation by two Muslim organisations, the Khuddam-i-Kaba (servants of the Mecca Shrine) and the Central Khilafat Committee. The agitators allegedly called upon the Mappilas to fight the British government that was Dar-ul-Harab (land of war), which inspired many Mappilas to plunge into the riot against the British.

The heavy-handed suppression of the Khilafat Movement was a provocation for the rebellion. According to Diwan Bahadur C. Gopalan Nair, the Rebellion of 1921, 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-Cooperation Movements that drove them to their crime. It is this which distinguishes the present from all previous outbreaks ……. (judgment in case No. 7 of 1921 on the file of the Special Tribunal, Calicut).

The freedom fighter K.P. Kesava Menon said: “There is no doubt regarding the genesis of the rebellion in 1921. It was born out of police repression. Its chief cause was the excessive violence used by the authorities to suppress the Khilafat Movement, and not any Jenmi-Kudiyan conflict, or dispute regarding the mosque. When police atrocities became unbearable, they gave up the vow of non-violence, and decided to meet the violence (by the British police) with violence itself.”

K.N. Panikkar’s analysis

Historians see the revolt basically as a peasant uprising with a religious dimension, unleashing violence against landlords and the colonial rule. Of the commendable body of literature on the history of the Mappila Rebellion are four books, brought out by leading publishers in the world, by Ronald E. Miller (1976), Stephen F. Dale (1980), Conrad Wood (1987) and K.N. Panikkar (1989). Panikkar discerns in the books of the rest a refined version of what the British officials maintained about the revolt—an outflow of Muslim fanaticism. Panikkar contests the characterisation of the Mappila uprising merely as communal or agrarian discontent because it obfuscates our understanding of the complex interconnections between economic dissent and religious ideology. M. Gangadharan (2011) has, in a study that has rich data, maintained that the revolt, the culmination of a series of revolts by the Mappila Muslims, was basically political (anti-British) in motivation.

Analysing the material and sociocultural background of the rebels and their enemies in the light of primary sources, Panikkar has made a brilliant analysis of how religious ideology was used to build up a negative class consciousness among rural Mappilas through popular culture and oral tradition since the early years of the British rule. A series of riots that broke out in the 19th century from 1836 onwards vouch for it. What happened in 1921 was the culmination of those riots. It was an unprecedentedly serious aggression of the Mussalman peasants (Verumpattakkar) against the landlords (Namboodiri Brahmins and Nair chieftains) and the colonial government. Indeed, the consciousness of Hindu-Muslim communal divide brought up by the British as a strategy of control did play a crucial role.

Panikkar explains how the Mappilas were able to launch a series of riots against tenurial exploitation, while the lower castes, who were under more oppressive conditions, were incapable of even attempting one such riot. Religion helped Mappilas escape to a certain extent the clutches of the caste system and emerge as relatively unencumbered individuals resourceful enough to agitate. But the lower castes had no such identity to wrench themselves out of their caste barriers, the major fetters of the agrarian order precluding individual consciousness and awareness to revolt.

Tenurial Exploitation

Agrarian relations of traditional Malabar, centred around the landlord (janmi), top in the hierarchy of multiple functionaries with hereditary land rights (kanam), was a system of joint proprietorship as distinguished from the European feudalism that gave the lord absolute ownership. At the bottom of the hierarchy were enslaved tillers. In the Malabar region, under the leaseholders there existed a category of sharecroppers called Verumpattakkar with a simple tenancy that was renewed annually. These miserable peasants were mostly Mussalmans, who were sharecroppers under the hereditary tenants, including artisans and craftsmen. Though entitled to one-third of the net produce, they got a little or nothing, for what they got was what was left over after expropriation by all those above them with hereditary rights.

In the janmi system, the landlords had no right to evict the tenants, but the British introduced a juridical concept of absolute ownership in land and induced the janmis to enhance the dues and evict tenants who failed to comply. This set in a relentless practice of eviction and over-leasing by the janmis with the support of courts, magistrates, constables and armed soldiers of the British greedy for enhanced repatriation. With exploitation of peasants becoming increasingly severe down the order of hierarchy, the plight of the Verumpattakkar became extremely miserable. This accounted for the series of riots. The British, with their long-inherited hatred of Muslims, called the revolts Mappila outrages, while historians consider them as outbreaks triggered by agrarian discontent.

Eviction, a major provocation

A major provocation for the peasant upsurge was the eviction of the tenants from their lease in 1896 by the landlords under the Manjeri ruling lineage with colonial support. It led to armed conflicts between tenants and landlords as well as British troops. Many such events were fuelling antagonism between the Mussalman peasants and Hindu landlords, which finally burst into a major rebellion. The rioters, led by Variyan Kunnatthu Kunhahammed Haji, attacked the landlords and seized their property. Soon the British army came in to help the landlords, but Haji’s people inflicted a heavy loss on the soldiers.

Although the aggrieved tenants included lower castes as well, the spread of rumours about the targeting of Mussalmans led to communal polarisation. For instance, the rumour about the destruction of the Mampuram mosque and Makham by the British army during a raid for hidden weapons spread like wildfire, turning the Mussalmans into a violent mob, which under Ali Musaliyar, rushed to the British juridical and politico-military outpost (kacheri) at Tirurangadi, where the magistrate’s court, police station, the office of the registrar, and postal service were located. The police, under the Collector’s order, opened fire on the angry mob that suddenly turned violent, killing a few policemen, seizing the kacheri, and forcing the Collector to flee to Kozhikode with all his retinue. They pulled down telegraph equipment, upset railway stations, and blocked roads. The rioters even climbed into the seat of the Magistrate and proclaimed the advent of swaraj (self-rule). Under the leadership of Ali Musaliyar, Variyan Kunnatthu Kunhahammed Haji, Seethi Koya Thangal, and Chembrassery Thangal, the rebellion spread to Manjeri, Pandikkad and Tirur, the nearby areas of Malappuram.

Following the outbreak of the Malabar Rebellion in 1921, the British force was compelled to retreat from Malappuram. Several British officials, including the Magistrate Austin, who were held up there demanded that the Collectorate despatch a force for their rescue. Accordingly, the force left Kozhikode for Pookkottur in 22 lorries and 25 cycles under Captain McEnroy and Cuthbert Buxton Lancaster, the Superintendent of Police. On hearing about this, Kunhahammed Haji, in consultation with Vadakkuveettil Mammad and Kunhi Thangal, planned to fight the British army at Pookkottur.

On the morning of August 21, Haji’s Mappila force set out to reach Pilakkal, the strategic spot where they planned to confront from all sides the British force that was expected there. However, Parancheri Kunharammutty, a Mappila leader, who was not aware of the plan and was hiding behind a mud heap, opened fire on the first lorry. Splashing smoke bombs around, the army reversed the lorries, and the Mappilas, under the cover of smoke, misfired. Soon, the army opened fire using machine guns. Once the smoke subsided, a few soldiers marched ahead attracting the men of Kunharammutty, who vainly ran forward to capture the enemy, but the soldiers rushed back and opened two rounds of fire from their machine guns killing most of the rebels, including their leaders. After the battle was over, the army moved on to Malappuram led by Lancaster with four soldiers in a lorry at the front. On the way, a Mappila rebel, seated on a tree, threw a grenade into the lorry, killing Lancaster and many soldiers.

On August 24, 1921, Variyan Kunnatthu Kunhahammed Haji, taking over the command from Ali Musaliyar, led a major battle at Pookkottur in Malappuram district against the British troops commanded by Captain P. McEnroy. Haji liberated most of Eranad and Valluvanad in Malabar by August 28, 1921. A couple of days later, the rioters under him killed Khan Bahadur Chekkuty, a police officer, who had attempted to take the life of Ali Musaliyar. Haji named the conquered territory Malayala Rajyam and ruled it for over six months. Haji had planned in advance to form an independent territory (Doula) with an army of 60,000 soldiers, including ex-military personnel who had fought for the British in the First World War but were expelled without pensionary benefits.

Haji was sentenced to death by the Martial Law Commander Colonel Humphrey and shot dead on January 20, 1922, at Kottakkunnu. British officials burnt his body along with all records of his parallel government. Others sentenced to death in connection with the Malabar Rebellion were Ali Musaliyar, leader of the rebellion; Kunhi Kadir, Khilafat secretary of Tanur; Kunhj Koya Thangal, president of the Khilafat Committee, Malappuram; Koya Tangal of Kumaramputhur, the Governor of a Khilafat principality; Chembrasseri Imbichi Koya Thangal; Palakamthodi Avvocker Musaliar; and Konnara Mohammed Koya Thangal.

Not Against Hindus

It was not a riot against Hindus, but evidently against the British. The rebels turned against the Hindus when the British began to use them as spies, policemen and soldiers against the Mappilas. They attacked only those landlords who joined hands with the British in oppressing the peasants. In a statement published in The Hindu, Variyan Kunnathu Kunhahammed Haji denied the rumour that the Hindu-Muslim unity in Malabar had ceased to exist and said the report about forcible conversion of Hindus was entirely untrue. He accused the colonial government officials and the policemen in mufti (plainclothes) who masqueraded as rebels for the heinous acts. He admitted that some of the Hindu brethren, aiding the military by disclosing the hideouts of the rebels, and a few Namboodiris, who had caused the riot, had to suffer. He blamed the British for imposing compulsory military service upon Hindus to fight Muslims. According to his statement, several Hindus as well as Mussalmans had sought rescue in his guarded headquarters. He blamed the chief military commander of the colonial government for forcing Hindus to evacuate from the taluks under his control.

Many Hindu leaders from among the Namboodiri Brahmins and Nairs had shown concern for the cause of the poverty-stricken rioters in different parts of Eranad and Valluvanad. Several local Mappila groups had offered protection to Hindu households during the scorched earth march of rebels. It was a Mappila group, led by Odayappurath Chekkutty of Kalpakanchery, which gave protection to the eastern palace of the Zamorin of Calicut. Likewise, the Mappilas offered protection to the Arya Vaidya Sala at Kottakkal and its founder (P.S. Varier) reciprocated by providing shelter to the Mappila families orphaned by the British army.

Coalition of Conflicting Interests

Any rebellion is a collective operation by people of conflicting interests. Like multiple eddies in a current, they coexist by conflicting and complementing one another for reaching their goals through the movement, ultimately the dominant current prevails though. One can see the Mappila rebellion as one such complex movement with diverse participants of mutually incompatible objectives varying between the survival struggle of the oppressed peasants and the overthrow of the British rule. The participants acted under the inspiration of and as driven by the ideology and world view in which each of them was subsumed. The influence of the religious world view was certainly a crucial factor in the mobilisation of the rebels.

The dominant social dynamic of the upheaval was agrarian unrest under oppression by landlords. Therefore, the rebels targeted landlords. Since it was colonial exploitation that made landlords oppressive, the rebels turned against British rule as well. Religious and communal forces used the rebellion for their goals. Compared with the peasant uprising in the 19th century, the rebellion of 1921-22 had a marked difference in the leadership (religious), mobilisation (communal), strategies (political), operation (battle) and goal (territorial conquest).

Colonial Strategy

What one sees in the present controversial move to clean up the Martyrs’ Dictionary is a repeat of the colonial strategy of entrenching communal divide for retention of state power. Since contestants for state power turn to history for legitimacy, the past is always contested in the present. Hence occasions aiming at rejuvenation of memories of revolts led against power are essentially part of the contemporary political agenda. Players with mutually antagonistic passions and values competing for the making or unmaking of the structure of the nation use or abuse history for their goals.

The Indian nation, in the making of which antagonism between secularism and communalism has been decisive, is witnessing an unprecedented aggressive race for historical legitimacy, owing to Hindu communalists’ upper hand in politics today. Communalists always try and rebuild an uprooted culture of the past upon the present and hence helplessly become fundamentalists and militants. Communal appropriation of the past becomes inevitably aggressive, for its knowledge base is invariably distorted history. Therefore, the present tinkering with the Dictionary of Martyrs must be seen as a serious historiographical aggression of far-reaching sociocultural consequences.

Rajan Gurukkal, a historian and social scientist, is a former Vice Chancellor of Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam, Kerala.

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