Peasant movements and tribal uprisings in the 18th and 19th centuries: Mopla Rebellion in Malabar (1841-1920)

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 Moplahs (or Mappilas) were the descendents of Arab traders who had settled in this region and had married local Nair and Tiyar women.
  • Later their ranks inflated through conversion of lower caste Hindus like the Cherumars, a slave caste whose emancipation under the Slavery Abolition Act of 1843 had put them in greater social problems and they hoped to gain better social status upon conversion.
  • Gradually the Moplahs became dependent on agriculture and turned into a community of cultivating tenants, landless labourers, petty traders and fishermen.
  • 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 agricultural labourers who were also Moplahs.
  • 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.
  • Traditionally, the net produce of the land was shared equally between the three: by
    • the janmi (holder of janmam tenure),
    • the Kanamdar or Kanakkaran (holder of kanam tenure) and
    • the cultivator.
  • 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 atrocities on the Hindu landowners who were forced to take refuge in neighbouring states.
  • 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

  • When the British took over Malabar in 1792 following the 3rd Mysore War, they sought to revamp the land relations by creating individual ownership right in land.
    • Hence with the return of the exiled Namboodiri Brahmins and Nayars, the government reestablished and acknowledged their landlord rights.
  • The traditional system stipulated an equal sharing of the net produce of the land by the janmi (holder of janmam tenure), the Kanamdar or Kanakkaran (holder of kanam tenure) and the cultivator.
  • The British system upset this arrangement by recognising the janmi as absolute owners of land, with right to evict tenants, which did not exist earlier, and reduced other two categories (Moplah Muslims) to the status of tenants and leaseholders.
  • Apart from that, other factors which meant that the peasantry in Malabar lived and worked in conditions of extreme penury entailed by the twin exactions of the lord and the state:
    • overassessment,
    • a huge burden of illegal cesses and
    • renewal fees, high rents and other oppressive landlord exactions.
    • lack of any security of tenure,
    • a pro-landlord attitude of the judiciary and the police
      • The courts and the law officers sided with the jenmis.
  • A series of incidents therefore occurred in Malabar throughout the nineteenth century, which registered the protest and resistance of the rural poor to acts of oppression and exploitation.
  • 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.
  • But the most important aspect of this agrarian relations was that the majority of the janmi were high-caste Hindus like Namboodri and Nair and the peasants were the Muslim Moplahs.
    • Here the religion and economic grievances intermingled to produce a mentality of open resistance.
    • Moplah outbreaks assumed the dimensions of a class conflict with religious overtones.
    • Mosques became the centres of mobilisation and the targets were the Hindu janmi, their temples and the British officials who came to their rescue.
    • Many Moplahs believed that the cruel landlord merited death and it was religious virtue to kill oppressive landlords (who also happened to be kafirs or non-believers).
    • Thus the act of violence helped a Moplah to wipe out the source of injustice. Seen in this light, what religion provided was justification, not a motive to violence.
  • After few serious incident, British armed forces were deployed to suppress the revolt.
    • The repressive measures restored peace for about twenty years, but then the Moplahs rose again in 1870 and the events followed a similar trajectory.

Revolts of Moplah

  • The first phase of the uprisings from 1836 to 1854 witnessed 22 revolts (with the ones in 1841 and 1849 being quite serious) 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.

The causes of Moplah Rebellion of 1921:

  • The Moplah rebellion of 1921 stemmed from twin grievances of the Moplah Muslim’s continued oppression by landlord and British government’s anti-Khilafat policies.
  • 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:

  • In August 1921, peasant discontent erupted in the Malabar district of Kerala.
    • Here Mappila (Muslim) tenants rebelled.
    • Their grievances related to
      • lack of any security of tenure,
      • renewal fees, high rents, and
      • other oppressive landlord exactions.
  • 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 1920.
    • This conference supported the tenants’ cause and demanded legislation to regulate landlord-tenant relations.
    • The change was significant because earlier the landlords had successfully prevented the Congress from committing itself to the tenants’ cause.
    • The Manjeri conference was followed by the formation of tenants’ association at Kozhikode, and soon tenants’ association’s branches were set up in other parts of the district.
      • 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 Khilafat movement was introduced into the district of Malabar by a Resolution at the Malabar District Conference at Manjeri.
    • The Moplahs took active part in Khilafat movement. 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 leaders of the Khilafat-Non-Cooperation Movement like Gandhi, Shaukat Ali and Maulana Azad addressed Mappila meetings.
    • After the arrest of national leaders, the leadership passed into the hands of local Mappila leaders.
  • 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.
  • Violent tendencies soon appeared in the Khilafat movement, as the masses lost self-discipline and the leaders failed to control them and it was visible in the Moplah uprising, where the poor Moplah peasants, emboldened by the Khilafat spirit, rose against the Hindu moneylenders and the state.
  • 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 alleged 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 arrest of a priest leader, Ali Musaliar, sparked off large-scale riots.
    • 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.
  • Initially the targets of Moplah attack were the symbols of British authority— courts, police stations, treasuries and offices—and unpopular landlords (jenmies who were mostly Hindus) were the targets.
    • The Hindu landlords who were lenient in their relations with the Moplahs were spared by the latter.
    • But once the British declared martial law and repression began in earnest, the character of the rebellion underwent a definite change.
      • Many Hindus were seen by the Mappilas to be helping the authorities.
      • What began as an anti-government and anti- landlord affair acquired communal overtones.
  • 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.

Crushing of the rebellion:

  • 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.
  • 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, totaling 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….’

The 1921 Moplah rebellion was “in essence an expression of long-standing agrarian discontent which was intensified by the religious and ethnic identity.

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