A Review of “Malabar Kalapam” (Malabar Riots) by K. Madhava Menon

The revenge of Hindus and the police against the attacks of the Mappilas; the horrendous revenge of the Mappilas against that revenge; an even more horrendous revenge by the police and the army – this, in brief, is the history of the Malabar riots.

We studied it in school as “Mappila Lahala” (The Mappila Rebellion). In 1921, as Mahatma Gandhi took up the Khilafat cause of Islam (demanding the restoration of the deposed Ottoman Sultan as the Khalifa of global Islam) against the British and joined it along with India’s freedom struggle, the Eranad region of Malabar (coinciding roughly with the district of Malappuram in Kerala today) erupted in bloody riots. The Muslims in that area (known as Mappilas) went on a rampage, attacking the British and Hindus at will and leaving a bloody trail of dismembered bodies, torched houses and destroyed public property. The police retaliated brutally – as can be expected of colonial gendarmerie – and many a times, the punishment was way in excess of what the crime warranted. However, instead of quelling the riots these retaliatory measures aggravated the situation, so ultimately the army (comprising mostly Ghurkhas) had to be called in: and they acted with such ferocity that not only was the rebellion extinguished but so were most of the Mappila families.

The official history (which I learnt) put the blame squarely on the British; it was the politically correct attitude in that era. The Indian National Congress, led by Gandhi, was the hero and the English were the despicable villains.

But my mother told another story about the murderous Muslim, always waiting for the chance to cut Hindu throats and rape Hindu women. According to the folk narrative among the Hindus, the Mappila rebellion was an unprovoked attack of an intolerant religion on a tolerant one – and Gandhi was responsible in part for it, by taking up the Khilafat cause unnecessarily.

As I grew up, I learnt the third version: maybe we can call it the leftist narrative. According to this, it was the rebellion of an impoverished Muslim serfs against the cruel upper caste Hindu landlords which soon degenerated into a religious pogrom.

Which is correct? Well, looking back from 2017, I think all three narratives are partly correct – especially viewing it in tandem with Islamic terrorism in many parts of the globe today. This view is confirmed by this book, written by K. Madhavan Nair, a freedom fighter and the first managing director of the daily “Mathrubhoomi” (‘Motherland’ – the mouthpiece of the Congress during the struggle for independence) almost immediately after the event. Even though the author does not have the advantage of hindsight, he has the one of immediacy and intimacy – as a congress leader he was caught up in the riots, was arrested and spent time in jail, and was in danger of his life many a time. But the most important thing is that the modern sense of political correctness does not apply – so he can say this about the impoverished Mappila:

He has got courage, strength and the capability to do anything: but he has no sense, no education, and no relief from poverty. From his experience, he sees no comfort in living on this earth. He has grown up hearing the songs praising martyrs for the faith. This has created many desires in his mind. What a difference between the sorrow on earth and the ecstasy of heaven! No burdens, no dependencies, no hunger. Countless celestial virgins embrace the one who dies by the sword! If the thought of the pleasures that follow influence their mind, is there any wonder? Poverty, fanaticism and the superstitious belief in the pleasures of heaven makes him ready to embrace death.

Well, this could be definition of the ISIS fighter today!

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The Hindu and Muslim communities of Eranad coexisted peacefully until Tipu Sultan of Mysore started his invasions into Malabar, according to the author. This could well be true, because the Muslims of Malabar are the descendants of Arab traders who settled down with the blessings of the indigenous rulers – there is no bogey of the “marauding Muslim” as it existed in North India before the start of the Mappila uprisings. The riots of 1921, though the only ones known widely across India, are hardly the first. K. Madhavan Nair states that there has been more than fifty such uprisings before the one under discussion. The reasons? Well, they are given in the passage quoted above.

“The” Mappila Rebellion was triggered by the ill-advised move of the District Collector Thomas and Deputy Superintendent Hitchcock to raid a famous mosque in Tirurangadi to arrest Ali Musalyar, a Mappila leader and a participant in the Khilafat movement. After the raid, there were a couple of skirmishes in which members of a largely peaceful march were killed – three policemen also lost their lives. This slowly spiralled into a carnage which lasted six months.

Even though the aim of the collector was ostensibly to preserve the peace, the hidden agenda was to scotch the non-cooperation movement of Gandhi which had found renewed vigour after bonding together with the Khilafat; also to sow discord between the Hindu and Muslim communities. Well, he was not successful in the former endeavour but delivered with a vengeance; the jinn of violence he let out in Malabar roamed across the countryside for days on end.

The author is at pains to clarify that initially, the riots were not religious in nature. Most of the Muslim ire was directed against the British Government. Most Mapplilas who were influenced by the Khilafat took special care to protect Hindu lives and property (Variyankunnan Kunhahammad Haji, who would turn the scourge of Hindus later, is a prime example). However, after Ali Muslyar surrendered in the beginning of September, instead of trying to establish peace, the army let loose a reign of terror against Muslims – even those who were opposed to the riots – which unfortunately many Hindus supported. This resulted in a resurrection of the rebellion – and this time, it was a jihad.

Most of the Eranad area was cut off from the rest of the country. The police was no match for the death-dealing jihadis; even less were the Hindus, divided by caste and weakened by soft living (especially the upper caste landowners). The Mappilas ran riot, looting, converting and murdering at will until the Gurkha brigades were brought in. Then, the army went on an even more murderous spree until the whole sorry episode came to an end towards the end of January 1922.

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This book does not make exciting reading (I read this as a part of my resolution to devote part of my reading time to history, especially that of India and Kerala). Madhavan Nair’s Malayalam is of a previous era, and I found the archaic grammar and construction difficult in some areas. The book is a bit patchy, as it makes big leaps over time and place in many places without continuity – maybe because it first appeared as a serial in a magazine. Madhavan Nair is no historian; he simply records events as a journalist, providing commentary on them from his political viewpoint.

Still, the author’s candour, his impartiality even with regard to his enemies the English, and his sympathetic approach to all the participants in this terrible piece of history makes this a worthwhile read.

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