Peasant movements and tribal uprisings in the 18th and 19th centuries: Mopla Rebellion in Malabar (1841-1920)
- Mappila Riots were to a series of riots by the Mappila (Moplah) Muslims of Malabar, Kerala in the 19th century and the early 20th century (1836–1921) against mainly Hindus landlords and the state. The Malabar Rebellion of 1921 is often considered as the culmination of Mappila riots.
- The first such outbreak occurred in 1836 and thereafter between 1836 and 1854, 22 similar uprisings occurred, of which two, one in 1841 and the other in 1849, were quite serious. The Moplah movement of 1920-21 was of altogether different scale of violence.
- The relations of the Arab traders with the Malayali society can be traced back to the ninth century. The traders helped the local Hindu chieftains and were granted concessions. Many of the Arab traders settled in Malabar marrying mostly Nayar and Tiyar women; and the subsequent descendants came to be known as Moplahs. Their numbers also increased with the conversion of Hindus from the lower castes, especially the Cherumars who were slave labourers and hoped to gain better social status upon conversion. Through the years the Moplahs settled, became agriculturalists and joined the ranks of landless labourers, cultivating tenants, fishermen and petty traders.
- In the traditional Malabar land system, the Jenmi held land by birthright and were mostly Hindus, and let it out to others for cultivation. The other main sections of the Malabar society were the kanamdar who were mostly Moplahs, the verumpattamdar (cultivators) and agncultural labourers.
- The jenmi, consisting mainly of the Nambudiri Brahmins and Nambiar chieftains, were the highest level of the hierarchy, and a class of people given hereditary land grants by the Naduvazhis or rulers’.
- Owing to their ritual status as priests (Nambudris), the jenmis could neither cultivate nor supervise the land but would give it to other groups in return for a fixed share of the crops produced.
- The peasants were mostly the Muslim Moplahs. The land was given by the ruling raja to Namboodiri Brahmins whose obligation was to look after the temple and related institutions, and to the chieftains (mostly Nayars), who provided martial aid when needed. Traditionally, the net produce of the land was shared equally between the three. But during the reigns of Haider Ali and Tipu Sultan, Namboodiri Brahmins and Nayar chiefs fled and the subsequent vacuum was filled by the Moplahs.
- The social and economic background of the Moplah has been quite heterogeneous. The elites among the Moplah earned their livelihood by working as petty traders and merchants. However, the masses of Moplah earned their livelihood by working as small agriculturists. They were the tenants of the big landlords who happened to be high-caste Hindus. Though the Moplahs were poor they imitated the traditional ways of Nayars and acquired the reputation of warriors.
Under Mysorean Rule (1788–1792)
- During the Mysorean interlude (1788–1792), when the Haider Ali and Tipu Sultan captured malabar, it led to widespread atrocities on the Hindu population, the landowners were forced to take refuge in neighbouring states. Those who could not escape were forcibly converted into Islam.
- The Malabar government under suzerainty of Tipu’s Islamic Sultanate, having driven out the Hindu Landlords, reached accord with the Muslim peasants. A new system of land revenue was introduced for the first time in the region’s history with the government share fixed on the basis of actual produce from the land.
Arrival of British
- The conflict arose when after Malabar’s cession to the British in 1792 following the 4th Mysore War. British rule restored the landlords with absolute property rights which allowed the Moplahs to be evicted. With the return of the exiled Namboodiri Brahmins and Nayars, the government reestablished and acknowledged their landlord rights.
- The British by recognizing the jenmis as the absolute owners of the land gave them the right to evict the tenants at will. This reduced the Moplah Muslims to the status of tenants and leaseholders. The courts and the law officers sided with the jenmis.
- Once the jenmi landlords, who had the backing of the revenue officials, the law courts and the police started tightening their hold and demands on the subordinate classes, the Moplah peasantry rose up in revolt. Their grievances were related to lack of any security of tenure, renewal fees, high rents and other oppressive landlord exactions.
Revolts of Moplah
- The first outbreak occurred in 1836 and during the period of 1836-54 there were 22 uprisings, with the ones in 1841 and 1849 being quite serious.
- The first phase of the uprisings from 1836 to 1854 witnessed 22 revolts and had messianic overtones. The faithful sacrificed their lives in the belief that as Ahadis they would go straight to heaven. The second phase of the revolts was recorded in 1882- 85, and another spate of outbursts in 1896.
- The pattern of the rebellion was uniform with usually a group of Moplah youths attacking a Brahmin jenmi or a Nayar official or a jenmi’s servant, burning or defiling a temple or attacking the landlords’ house. The police would then crack down on them and the rebels would then seek refuge in either a mosque or the temple.
Q. What were the causes of Moplah Rebellion of 1921?
- Any analysis of the peasant movement of Moplahs should take into account that the Moplahs were Muslim peasants. Their landlords who were called Jenmis were mostly Hindus. The relations between the Jenmis and the Moplahs were historically quite unfriendly. In other words, the relations were both economically and religiously antagonistic. Since 1835 the Hindu landlords suppressed the Moplah tenants. Thus, the basic cause of the Moplah agitation was the operation against the Jenmis.
- The land tenure system in Malabar was quite unfavourable to the Moplah tenants. There was total insecurity of tenure to the Moplahs and they could be ejected from their land without any appropriate notice.
- The immediate cause of Moplah agitation in 1920 was the renewal of fee at an exorbitant rate fixed by the Jenmis. This was unbearable for the Moplahs.
- The exactions practised by the Jenmis were of very high order. More than often the Moplahs were discriminated against the Hindu tenants.
Moplah Rebellion of 1921:
- The Moplah movement of 1921 was altogether different. It was characterised by severe violence. The rebellion goes fell in the trap of Hindu-Muslim riot. During this period there was Khilafat movement—a movement raised for the attainment of freedom for Muslims.
- The first impetus for Moplah resistance against the landlords came from the Malabar District Congress Committee held at Majeri in April 1921. This conference supported the tenants’ cause and demanded legislation to regulate landlord-tenant relations.
- Following the Minjeri conference of 1920, the Moplah tenants formed an association which had its branches in the whole of Kerala. This brought the Moplah tenants under one organisation.
- Yet another motivating factor for 1921 Moplah agitation was the Khilafat movement which constituted a wider part of national struggle for independence. This movement developed its roots in Malabar also. The Moplahs took active part in Khilafat movement also. Actually, in practice, the meetings of the Moplahs and the Khilafat could hardly be separated. The bonds between the Khilafat movement and Moplah tenants became so much mixed that the government issued prohibitory notices on all Khilafat meetings on 5th February, 1921. This displeased the Moplahs and ended up with the agitation of the Moplah peasantry.
- The British government was weakened as a result of the First World War. It was not in a position to take strong military action against the Moplahs. As a result of this, the Moplahs began to exhibit increasing sign of turbulence and defiance of authority.
Due to Moplah’s participation in the Khilafat movement, the Moplah peasantry learned how to give a coherent expression to their grievances. However, when the Moplahs became more militant after the Majlis-ul-Ulema (council of Muslim learned men), an all-India militant Muslim organization caIled upon the Moplah masses to launch a jihad, the cause of swaraj and Non-Cooperation waned between March and August 1921. There was significant increase in the number of forced conversions of Hindus.
- The final break came only when the district magistrate of Eranad taluka, on 20th August, 1921, raided the mosque at Tirurangadi to arrest Ali Musaliar a Khilafat leader and a Muslim priest (with militia). The people became violent and the police opened fire on the unarmed crowd and many were killed. A clash ensued and government offices were destroyed, records burnt and the treasury looted. The rebellion soon spread into all Moplahs strongholds. Government deployed the army to take control of the civil administration.
- In the agitation the targets of Moplah attack were the unpopular Jenmis Hindus, police stations, treasuries and offices, and British planters. The Hindu landlords who were lenient in their relations with the Moplahs were spared by the latter.
- This gave a communal flavour to the peasant agitation. As a matter of fact, the Malabar people in general lost all their sympathy with the Moplahs. Communalisation of peasant agitation was suicidal for the Moplahs.
- The communalisation of the rebellion completed the isolation of Moplahs. British repression did the rest and by December 1921 all resistance had come to a stop. The militant Moplahs were so completely crushed and demoralised that till independence their participation in any form of politics was almost nil.
- Ali Musliyar was among a dozen leaders who were tried and sentenced to death. He was subsequently hanged at the Coimbatore Prison on 17 February 1922.
- Kunjahammed Haji was another important Mappila rebel leader. He was shot dead by the British police on 20 January 1922.
Analysis of Moplah Rebellion
- The movement of Moplah is a failure story. Much of its defeat lies in the fact that it took to communal swing. Secondly, when the Khilafat movement stood for non-violence and also the struggle for independence the Moplah took to violence as a method of agitation.
- Thirdly, the movement did not motivate the peasantry of the neighbourhood to stand in arms against the landlords. It was perhaps a lone tragedy of Moplahs that their landlords happened to be Hindus. This was never a case in any of the agitations which took place during 1920s and earlier.
The 1921 uprising was in essence an expression of long-standing agrarian discontent, which was only intensified by the religious and ethnic identity and by their political alienation”. It was essentially ‘pre-political’ in nature.
- To conclude, it can be said that the peasant movements which took place in 19th and early 20th centuries were a part of wider national struggle. On the one hand, these movements were influenced by the freedom struggle and on the other hand they had their impact on the struggle also. Most of these movements were the experiments in satyagraha and noncooperation of Gandhiji.
- Then, there was participation of intelligentsia and educated people in these movements. There were several causes of these movements; the major causes were increase in land tax, security of tenure and exploitation of the poor peasantry by the landlords. The big and middle peasants also participated in the movements. Most of the movements, leaving aside Moplah, were characterised by non- violence.
Reactions on Moplah Rebellion 1921:
- Citing the actions of the Mappilas during the rebellion, C. Sankaran Nair (President of the Indian National Congress in 1897) wrote a strongly worded criticism of Gandhi and his support for the Khilafat Movement, accusing him of being an anarchist. He was highly critical of the “sheer brutality” of the atrocities committed on women during the rebellion, finding them “horrible and unmentionable”.
- Annie Besant visited the affected areas of Malabar soon after the Moplah rebellion in 1921 and wrote a series of powerful articles about the carnage let loose by the Moplah Muslims which opened the eyes of the government of India and that of Britain. Mrs Besant wrote “Malabar has taught what Islamic rule means and we do not want to see another specimen of Khilafat Raj in India”.
- Annie Besant reported that Muslim Mappilas forcibly converted many Hindus, raped and killed or drove away all Hindus who would not apostatise, totalling more than one lakh.
- Quoting Mrs. Besant: “A respectable Nair lady at Melathur was stripped naked by the rebels in the presence of her husband and brothers who were made to stand close by with their hands tied behind. When they shut their eyes in abhorrence, they were compelled at the point of a sword to open their eyes and witness the rape committed by the brute in their presence. I loathe even to write of such a mean action. This instance of rape was communicated to me by one of her brothers confidentially. There are several instances of such mean atrocities which are not revealed by people….’