The many shades of the Mappila insurrection

(Published in The Hindu, August 29 2021)

Among the witnesses whose names are inscribed in Arabic on the Kollam Syrian copper plates of 849 CE are men called Muhammad, Ibrahim, Mansur and Ismail. Oral tradition claims that Islam’s arrival in Kerala dates to the Prophet’s own lifetime. Whether one accepts the idea or not, by the ninth century, Muslims were a definite presence on the coast. In the times that followed, as Arab traders married locally, not only did they father a community of Malayali Muslims — Mappilas — their offspring were also woven into the region’s narrative fabric. In the story of the sage Vararuchi’s children by a Parayar wife, for example, one is a Brahmin, another a Muslim. If the legendary King Bana Perumal chose Buddhism, Cheraman Perumal sailed to Mecca. The veracity of these tales is not really the point as much as what they seek to communicate. They were, in other words, a device by which a new group was legitimised, as the Mappilas became a familiar and respected element in Kerala’s cultural landscape.

The Mappila identity, now much discussed in the context of the 1921 rebellion, was first rooted in trade. The rise of Kozhikode, for long a seat of power and prosperity in Kerala, relied a good deal on Arab networks of commerce. Mappilas, local in their social practices like matriliny, and yet joined by a common faith with foreign Muslims, were an important link in the political economy. Indeed, a Muslim stood beside the Zamorin rajah at the great Mamankam festival at Tirunavaya. Hints of religious tension appear now and then, but the economic alliance between Hindu elites and Muslim traders meant that these were contained. Brahmin texts like the Keralolpathi offered Islam a place in their worldview, likening the Quran to a Veda, and works such as Zayn al-Din’s sixteenth century Tuhfat al-Mujahideen framed Hindu rulers as good, ideal monarchs. That is, however, till new (European) flies appeared in the ointment through the sixteenth century, and upset prevailing socio-economic balances.

Although the 1921 rebellion is often discussed in isolation, this prehistory is integral to making sense of its economic, social, and religious facets. For by the 20th century, the Mappilas had been marginalised in the very land where they were once esteemed. Starting in the 1500s, Portuguese terror at sea damaged the trading networks on which so much had been built. And while Mappilas resisted — including militarily and by subverting European efforts to police maritime traffic — in the long run, they lost out. Local Hindu Kings were forced to come to terms with successive European trading companies to protect their turf, with the result that their erstwhile Muslim associates were cornered. As the scholar Roland Miller wrote, “poverty became the general pattern” by the 18th century, and in crisis, some in the community turned towards a more distinct sense of self and religious identity. At first, Mappila spokesmen such as Zayn al-Din had called for jihad against Europeans; in time that language would be turned against those who represented regional economic injustices also.

In other words, as the Mappila stake in society was painfully diluted, religious ideology offered a method by which to valorise resistance. In 1742, for example, British East India Company officials recorded how there were Mappilas who “selected themselves to Murder any Christian” and who, if they died in the process, saw it as “meritorious”. Into the 19th century, which saw colonial laws disproportionately favour landlords against tenants-at-will, the former too became targets. Scholars have noted how as much as 77% of the produce could be demanded by the landlord. The fact that a large section of the peasantry in South Malabar — the nucleus of the 1921 rebellion also — was Mappila while landowners were typically Hindus caused an overlap between economic grievances and religious divisions. The result was a series of “outrages” in which individual Mappilas or small bands launched ritualised suicide missions, killing Hindu grandees and officials. The triggers may have been economic but instances such as in 1852, when a temple was “festooned” with the entrails of a cow, show that these violent outbreaks had religious overtones too.

The tendency among some to victimise present-day Muslims for the “sins” committed by “their ancestors” has generally resulted in a hesitation to acknowledge this religious element, with the focus limited to economic aspects. But the fact of the matter is that economics, radical religious ideology, and a historical sense of lost greatness all played a role. The 1921 revolt, thus, began as a part of the pan-Indian Khilafat Movement, to which even Mahatma Gandhi pledged support. It became a means by which to mobilise as part of a larger struggle. But all at once, it also offered an occasion for Mappilas in British-ruled Malabar to attempt to overthrow not only the colonial government but also the Hindu feudal classes that, in ostensible alliance with the Raj, pressed down on them. The scale of the event cannot be understated: over 2,000 rebels were killed, and nearly 40,000 surrendered. And if the 19th-century “outrages” were isolated flare-ups, this was a large-scale insurrection, validated in a religious vocabulary.

Sober students of history — if not politicians prone to rhetorical excesses — must be cautious, however, when it comes to labelling the event. Revolts of this nature tend to be messy in terms of even basic organisation. In 1921, there was no clear chain of command among the Mappilas, no single leader but “gangs” holding different areas, and no standard policy. During the months in which much territory was under rebel control, some factions espoused forced conversions of Hindus, for example, while others spoke pointedly against such tendencies. To some, 1921 represents a fight for freedom and a chapter in India’s anti-colonial struggle; to others, it is a case study in the consequences of class oppression; and to yet another set, it is about a “Hindu genocide” at the hands of “terrible” Muslims. The facts suggest, however, that to varying degrees all three elements manifested here. A century on, acknowledging this is perhaps critical to making better sense of the Mappila Rebellion — a bloody but complicated event with many roots and a long back story.