(My column in Mint Lounge, September 08 2018)
In September 1921, Lord Reading, the British viceroy of India, received from an army general a most urgent telegram. “The situation,” warned the military man, “is now clearly actual war, and famine, widespread devastation and prolonged rebellion can only be avoided by prompt measures”. He was referring to the horrific communal uprising in Malabar, known as the Mappila Rebellion, so intimidating in its scale and fury that it took six months for the authorities to prevail and restore order. In the end, 2,339 rebels were killed, nearly 6,000 captured, and over 39,000 persuaded to surrender. Much blood had flowed through parts of northern Kerala, featuring “guerilla warfare, plunder, terrorization” and worse, by Mappilas against the colonial state as well as local grandees, in an outburst of economic and religious hostility.
The economic angle is clearest and, for many, more comfortable to acknowledge. In 1915, it was found, for instance, that one-fifth of the land revenue in Malabar came from 86 landlords, 84 of whom were Hindus. Muslim Mappilas were often tenants-at-will, easily turned out from the land they tilled, by superiors who, even in the best of times, could charge anywhere from 59-77% of the produce as rent. All legal clauses privileged the owner—even when the landlord, such as the Zamorin in Kozhikode, wasn’t fully certain where his land began or ended. This, naturally, left cultivators in a perpetually precarious position. The colonial establishment, meanwhile, had no desire for reform. Even in 1917, the British were convinced that legislation to prevent arbitrary eviction of cultivators would be a “grave political mistake”.
Resentment had built up over many years among the Mappilas and through the 19th century there had been dozens of “outrages”, predominantly in south Malabar. Each time it was quashed, but the figures could be disturbing. In 1849, for example, 64 Mappilas were shot dead, most of them under the age of 24 and impoverished. However, some of the responses from those captured alive were revealing. It was “impossible”, said one rebel in 1843, “for people to live quietly while the Atheekarees (officials) and Jenmies (landlords)…treat us in this way”. Eight years later, during another outbreak, a Mappila leader declared: “What is the loss to the Nairs and Namboories (the Hindu elites) if a piece of ground…be allotted for the construction of a Mosque? Let those hogs (soldiers) come here, we are resolved to die.”
This, then, highlights the religious element, which also animated a good section of the rebels in 1921: economic marginalization channelled into jihad. The Mappilas had, to begin with, seen happier days. There had been warriors among them, and wealth in their trading community before the dawn of colonialism. Kerala’s connections to Arabia meant that Islam came here shortly after its birth, with one legend placing a Malayali king as witness to the Prophet splitting the moon. By 849 AD, Muslims were witnessing royal grants, and till the advent of the Europeans, Mappilas held senior positions at the Zamorin’s court, joining in the 12-yearly Mamankam celebrations. Muslim nerchchas even resembled Hindu poorams (festivals), and there were multiple bonds between these diverse communities, cemented by economic interests.
What the Mappilas lost first was political clout—as Europeans ejected Muslims from the spice trade, Hindu elites aligned their interests with these new lords of the seas. To quote the scholar Roland E. Miller, “The Mappilas in the main (slowly) became a community of poor labourers, fishermen, shopkeepers and religious figures. Deep poverty became the general pattern,” as they forfeited former positions of influence. The invasion of Malabar by Tipu Sultan injected short-lived confidence into the community, but by the end of the 18th century, it was British power in the ascendant, aided by the Hindu aristocracy; an aristocracy that now suspected Mappilas for their flirtation with the fearsome, violent Tipu, who had caused them only pain.
Religious animosity swelled on both sides during the 19th century. In 1851, a Nair landlord was killed after he forced a Mappila to replace the call to prayer with a “summons to eat swine’s flesh”. Meanwhile, in 1844, a British official had already noted that, encouraged by overzealous religious men, some Mappilas had started to believe that the “murder of a heretic is a passport to heaven”. As late as 1896, when a Mappila was captured after a temple attack, he confirmed his suicidal convictions: “We came to the temple intending to fight…and die. That is what we meant to do when we started.” And what would come after death? As testimony from an earlier survivor went, “I had heard that there was a reward in heaven for those who got shot.” Indeed in 1898, one Mappila even pointed out that his biggest fear was that he would get shot in the legs and live: only a fatal shot opened the gates of paradise.
Without economic resources, pushed to the corners, and radicalized by an extremist minority, the men who sparked the outrages exemplified a combination of factors that birthed violence. To this was added the trigger of the Khilafat Movement in 1921, with protests against the post-World War I unseating of the Ottoman Caliph. Unprecedented savagery was unleashed that year. Hindu and Christian homes were targeted, and, as a declaration by the Zamorin claimed, cows were killed in temples, with assailants “putting their entrails on the holy image and hanging skulls on the walls and the roofs”. It was a horrifying display of fanaticism but came at the end of a long history of alienation: the stake Mappilas had in society had been watered down, till it was felt that the order itself must be toppled if they were to find purpose. The result was pain—for all of Malabar society—but from it was born introspective wisdom. For it was understood that if there was to be peace between the communities, each one of them had to feel that important thing: a sense of common belonging.