“Mappila rebels have declared self-government in Malabar,” The New York Times reported on August 29, 1921, after Variamkunnath Kunhamed Haji declared an independent state in the presence of a huge crowd of volunteers and the public in Manjeri . According to British records, the rebels controlled a 2,000 square mile area consisting of 200 villages of Eranad and Valluvanad taluks. It was an unprecedented challenge for the mighty British Empire and one of the greatest military campaigns since World War I was undertaken to retake lost territory. Fierce fighting and brutal repression followed. Variamkunnath was captured and shot after a summary trial on January 20, 1922, and British commander Col ET Humphreys officially declared “the revolt is over”.
Recent controversies have sparked a surge in research and helped uncover new documents that challenge many popular accounts of the Malabar Revolt. While Ramees Mohamed’s book “Sultan Variamkunnan” brought to light many interesting documents, including Kunhamed Haji’s letter to an American anti-imperialist organization on community propaganda against rebellion, the script for a 100 years discovered by researchers under the direction of Dr. P Sivadasan of the University of Calicut clearly exposes the colonial attempt to portray the rebellion as a purely fanatical movement.
While the colonial army unleashed brute force against rebels and the public, British officials were busy winning the war with well-oiled propaganda machinery. A few months after the revolt began, a 30-minute documentary film was produced by the publicity office under Gilbert Slater highlighting the atrocities against the Hindu landlords. With English and Tamil subtitles, “The Malabar Moplah Rebellion” was widely released in India and abroad.
“The cause of the present outbreak of Moplah was the excited state of religious fanaticism which has been stirred up among the Moplah,” thus begins the script prepared by propaganda officer Major Robinson of the Bangalore Regiment, but he does not nowhere mentions the exploitative, oppressive agrarian tax structure. the caste system, extreme poverty, Congress and Khilafat unrest, the factors which together contributed to the armed uprising. While Manjeri has been described as “the very center of the fanatical zone”, the script goes on to say that “almost every Hindu house where booty could be obtained was attacked and looted”.
It is to counter this aggressive British propaganda that Kunhamed Haji sent messages to the international audience. In a telegraph telegram addressed to the New York-based anti-imperialist organization Friends of Freedom for India, he urged the American people to await judgment on the war in Malabar until he obtains the exact details of the revolt.
“Some cases of conversion of our Hindu brothers have been reported to me. But after a thorough investigation, we discovered the real plot. The vandals guilty of this crime were the members of the British Reserve Police and the British Intelligence Department and they joined our forces as patriots to do such dirty work only to discredit our soldiers. There are Christians, Hindus and Moplahs among these British agents and spies. They have definitely been put to death,” reads the message reproduced in Ramees Mohamed’s book.
The American dailies Detroit Free Press and The Baltimore Sun published this report on December 7, 1921. The Hindu had also published a similar letter from Variamkunnath on October 7, 1921.
While the role of lower-caste Hindu peasants in the rebellion was widely recognized, Mohamed’s book gives details of the presence of Hindu leaders on the war front. The first official meeting of the rebel council was held at the Thekkekalam house of Pandiyatt Naryanan Nambeeshan and he himself chaired the meeting. Many upper caste Hindu leaders such as Parambott Achuthankutty Menon and Poonthanam Raman Namboothiri were also present at the meeting. Minutes of the meeting were prepared by Kappatt Krishnan Nair, a longtime aide to Kunhamed Haji, and the first two decisions of the meeting were strict warnings against forcible conversion of Hindus.
Naik Neelandan and Naik Thami, two former soldiers, played major roles in the rebel army. Thami who worked as a peon in a court before the rebellion shared many secrets about the British action against the rebels in Kunhamed Haji. Many such details have been documented by a prominent local historian, AK Kodoor, who had retrieved Thami’s diary notes during his research.
According to Thami’s records, a trained army of around 75,000 fought the British and the British had to bring in reinforcements in the form of Gurkha and Garhwal regiments and Chin and Kachin soldiers as the rebels turned to guerrilla warfare. American journalist Thomas Stewart Ryan of the Chicago Tribune, who traveled extensively with the British Army, had reported on the fierce resistance of Moplah fighters against the British Army.
When the rebels held a guerrilla training camp at Vellinezhi in September 1921, according to eyewitness accounts, there were over 1,000 Hindu fighters in the camp and food was provided by Olappamanna Mana, a prominent Hindu family from the region. In many cases, when rebels attacked government establishments, the main accused were members of the Hindu community. While Kurshikkalathil Keshavan Nair was the main defendant in the Cherpulashery police station attack case, Edachola Kuttappanikkar was named as the main defendant and Chenampara Achuppanikkar was named as the second defendant in the police station attack case. Churiyod Bridge. Alikunnath Krishnan Nair was charged in the Kuttippuram train attack case and Appulli Keshavan Nair was charged in the Nellippuzha bridge attack case.
“The propaganda war against the Malabar rebellion has a long history and writings based on colonial records have reinforced this narrative. But recent discoveries have gone a long way to dispelling that impression. It is also important to note that all the rebels were convicted of ‘waging war against the British government’, not on charges of religious violence,” Dr Sivadasan said. “The best way to counter the Hindutva narrative of the rebellion is to enrich the historiography of the rebellion by unearthing more sources and interpreting them using more valid analytical tools. This will bring more clarity to the existing scholarship. Rather than an emotional undertaking, it should be corroborated by historical facts,” said Dr. PP Abdul Razak, a retired history professor and executive board member of the Kerala Council of Historical Research.
The opinions expressed above are those of the author.
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