Malabar Rebellion: When will we grow up?

MG Radhakrishnan


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Hardgrave praised EMS's analysis as the most 'sophisticated published till date'. No words could summarize the movement better than what EMS wrote then; 'It was the greatest mass movement in British Malabar but diverted into the most tragic and futile mass action.'

Memorial built at Tirurangadi.Photo: Mathrubhumi

Critics call it the Mappila Revolt. Historians refer to it as the Malabar Rebellion. For unabashed admirers, it was the Great Malabar Revolution. Leaders like Variyamkunnath Kunhahmed Haji or Ali Musaliyar are arch villains to some but valiant heroes to few others.

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Even after hundred years have passed since this most violent and polarizing chapter in Kerala's history, the event remains a site of heated contestation. It took a toll of nearly 2400 persons -unofficial figure is more than 10,000- within barely six months from a small region and scarred Kerala forever. Its memories continue to raise extreme emotions and therefore its true history still remains shrouded in intense communal and political diatribes. Many innocent souls warn against even debating it lest it would reopen old wounds and lead to fresh communal polarization. As a result, we still remain largely incapable of looking at the event objectively and learn from it to understand our history better. This makes us particularly poor because the Malabar Rebellion had the largest role in communalizing Malabar in the 20th century, dividing Hindus and Muslims deeply and terminating secular politics in the region, according to historian Prof. KN Panikkar.

The return of the shrill debate about Malabar Rebellion of 1921 in its centenary reminds of the flurry of revisionist debates that broke out in France over the legacy of the French Revolution in its bicentenary in 1989. Richard Bernstein had then written in the New York Times; 'the polemic centers around a very old and fundamental issue that can be put in the simplest and starkest terms; was the revolution on balance, good or bad?'. When we see the current debates over Malabar rebellion largely polarized between Right and Left perspectives, what Pierre Nora the French thinker whom Bernstein quotes rings a familiar bell; 'Perhaps because of the resurgence of the extreme right, there has been a bizarre resistance to the revolution, an unanticipated return of the counter revolutionary repressed. The left-right split that we thought had been buried has now come alive again.''

Two years ago, the decision by director Ashiq Abu and actor Prithviraj to make a biopic on Variamkunnath Haji, who was executed by the British, had provoked huge protests from BJP and Right wing scholars from all over India who called it an attempt to whitewash a 'communal carnage'. It was pointed out that even the very formation of RSS in 1925 was provoked by the rebellion. The centenary polemics now is triggered by the proposal by a three-member panel appointed by the Indian Council of Historical Research to remove the 387 rebels who died in the struggle from the Dictionary of Martyrs of India's Freedom Struggle. The dictionary, published jointly by the Government of India and ICHR, was released by Prime Minister Modi in 2019. Prof CI Isaac, a member of the panel and aligned to Sangh Parivar has said that the rebellion had nothing to do with freedom movement but a Muslim fanatic uprising. The rebellion was officially declared as a freedom struggle by the Kerala government as early as 1971.

Perhaps due to the shrillness of the debate and also with an eye on vote banks, even those who know that the rebellion was a highly complex and multilayered event, continue to resort to interpretations traditionally touted by the opposing camps. Leaders and scholars attached to the Left, Congress and Muslim League maintain the rebellion as a glorious anti-colonial struggle and a peasant revolt while the Sangh Parivar dubs it a barbaric chapter of Muslim fanaticism when large number of Hindus were killed, raped, looted and forcibly converted. Lost in this din is the fact that the multihued rebellion had contained all the above mentioned elements as pointed out comprehensively by an array of historians since the 1970s.

CPI(M) compares Haji to Bhagat Singh and quotes AK Gopalan to call it 'India's Paris Commune'. After some initial hesitation, perhaps fearing a Hindu backlash, Congress castigated the ICHR move as part of the Hindutva agenda. Muslim League has launched a campaign to expose attempts to distort history. BJP called Haji a criminal and the revolt, an anti-Hindu genocide.

One sided narratives continue to be touted by each camp despite the availability of a rich tome of information on the rebellion. It is one of the most widely studied, referred to and written chapters in Kerala's history. Look at the awesome array of leaders and scholars from both in and out of the country who have studied and written. Mahatma Gandhi, BR Ambedkar, VD Savarkar, Anne Besant, Soumyendranath Tagore, EMS Namboodiripad, KP Keshava Menon or AK Gopalan. Western anthropologists and historians like Kathleen Gough, Conrad Wood, Stephen Dale, Robert Hardgrave Jr, David Arnold, Nick Lloyd, David Hardiman or Indians like KN Panikkar, M Gangadharan and many others. Voluminous reports and correspondence by colonial officials are available in archives. Scores of books of fiction and poetry including one by Kumaran Asan and also films have rolled out on the topic. Conspicuously absent from this list are Right wingers except Savarkar who penned a fictional work -Moplah- on the topic.

malabar rebellion memorial

Gandhi lauded its anti-colonial character but heavily criticized the violence and communal angles. Ambedkar, Savarkar and Besant condemned it as pure Muslim fanatic outburst. Soumyendranath, the Troskyist grand nephew of Tagore was the first to glorify it as a great nationalist uprising. Colonial officials C Gopalan Nair and RF Hitchcock, the earliest to write about it, castigated it as Mappila insurgency. Madhavan Nair and Kesava Menon, Congress leaders of the Non-Cooperation and Khilafat movements which catalysed the uprising and who were at its epicenter trying to plead for non-violence, lamented its communal and violent deviations without condemning the rebellion altogether.

It took half a century after the rebellion for rigorous, independent and comprehensive studies to be done by professional historians. Most of the modern Western and Indian historians saw the uprising as caused by a combination of historical, political, economic and religious factors and warned against monocausal interpretations. They also saw it as a culmination of a series of anti-European outbreaks by the Malabar Muslims since the 15th century after European colonization began to ruin their prosperity. But some contemporary western scholars like Dale and Hardgrave have found a jihadi spirit in its core and recently a British researcher called it even 'a Taliban statelet in the making'. Panikkar and Gangadharan were the first professional Indian historians who made independent and comprehensive studies of the rebellion. Without rejecting its religious angle, they said it was basically a political movement against the English as well as a class action by the poor tenants against the landlords. According to Panikkar the struggle was waged against the lord and state.

Although political leaders viewed the rebellion in line with their respective ideological positions, EMS’s was one of the earliest and relatively independent analyses. In spite of belonging to one of the richest Namboodiri jenmi families of Valluvanad taluk (the hotbed of the rebellion) which was forced to flee its native village fearing violence, EMS hailed it thus; It is to these illiterate backward Moplahs that the honour goes for having raised the initial voice of protest against the oppression of jenmis'.

Nevertheless, EMS did not indulge in any simple interpretation and was the first to write about its Muslim extremist aspects before any other Communist as early as 1946. Hardgrave praised EMS's analysis as the most 'sophisticated published till date'. No words could summarize the movement better than what EMS wrote then; 'It was the greatest mass movement in British Malabar but diverted into the most tragic and futile mass action.'

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