Moplah rebellion of 1921, also known as the “Mappila rebellion” or “Malabar rebellion“, was the culmination of a series of uprisings in the 19th and early 20th centuries by the Mappila Muslims of Kerala in the Malabar region (Northern Kerala). They revolted against British colonial rule and the prevailing feudal system controlled by the elite Hindus. Variyankunnath Kunjahammad Haji was the leader of this rebellion.
In the 7th century AD, Muslims arrived in Kerala as traders via the Arabian Sea route. The native rulers gave them permission to carry on trade and settle in this region. Many of these Muslim traders married local women, and their descendants came to be known as ‘Moplahs‘ (which means son-in-law in Malayalam). Gradually, Moplahs became dependent on agriculture and transformed into a community of cultivating tenants and petty traders.
In the traditional land system in Malabar, there were mainly three hierarchical levels of land ownership. The ‘Jenmi‘ was the highest level of the hierarchy and a class of people given hereditary land grants by the rulers. The other main sections of the Malabar society were ‘Kanamdar‘ (or Kanakkaran) and the ‘Verumpattamdar‘ (or Verumpattakkaran).
The Jenmis were upper-caste Hindus, consisting mainly of the Namboothiri Brahmins and Nair chieftains. Owing to their ritual status as priests (Namundris), the jenmis could neither cultivate nor supervise the land. Instead, they provided a grant of Kanam to a Kanamdar in return for a fixed share of the crops produced. Kanamdar were mostly the Moplahs. Generally, a Jenmi had a large number of Kanamdar under him. This land tenure system ensured that no Jenmi could evict tenants under him except for non-payment of rent.
The Verumpattamdar (cultivators), generally ‘Thiyya’ and ‘Mappila’ classes, cultivated the land and were its part-proprietors under Kanamdar. These classes were given a Verum Pattam (Simple Lease) of the land that was typically valid for one year.
According to the custom, the Jenmi (holder of janmam tenure), the Kanamdar (holder of kanam tenure), and the Verumpattamdar (the cultivator) equally shared the net produce of the land. The net produce of the land was the share left over after providing all the other birthright holders, such as the village carpenter, the goldsmith, and the agricultural labourers who helped gather, prepare and store produce.
During the Mysorean invasion of Malabar by Hyder Ali in the 18th Century, many Hindu landlords (or Jenmi) took refuge in the neighbouring states to avoid persecution and forced conversions. The Tipu Sultan‘s Kingdom of Mysore, having driven the Jenmi out of Malabar, reached an accord with the Muslim Kanakkars and provided the ownership rights of the lands to these Moplah tenants.
However, after the death of Tipu Sultan in 1799 in the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War, the British East India Company took over Malabar. The Malabar came under British authority as part of the Madras Presidency, which allowed the Jenmi to return to their homes and regain their lost lands during the Mysorean invasion. The British set out to restore the ownership rights to the Jenmis, who had earlier fled the region.
The East India Company introduced several western juridical concepts, such as that of absolute property rights, into the existing legal system of Malabar. The British system provided the Absolute ownership rights of the land to the Jenmi. Up until then, these rights had been unknown in the region. As a result, all land became the private property of the Jenmi. This legal recognition gave Jenmi the right to evict tenants, which was in turn enforced through the colonial civil courts.
The Moplahs peasants were now facing high rents and a lack of security of tenure. As conditions worsened, rents rose to as high as 75-80% of net produce, which caused great resentment among the Mappilas.
Moplah Uprising (1836-1896)
The hike in revenue demand by Jenmi (or Hindu landlords) and reduction of field size, along with the oppression of officials, resulted in widespread peasant unrest among the Moplahs of Malabar. The resentment among the Muslim population led to a long series of violent outbreaks beginning in 1836.
Between 1836 and 1854, twenty-two rebellions took place (with ones in 1841 and 1849 being quite serious). The second phase of the uprisings occurred in 1882-85, and another revolt outburst in 1896. These outbreaks followed a similar pattern, with a group of Moplahs attacking a Brahmin Jenmi or Nayar official and burning or looting landlords’ houses.
Malabar Rebellion 1921
In 1919, the Khilafat Movement began in India in support of the restoration of the Caliphate in Turkey. On 28 April 1920, the Khilafat movement was introduced into the district of Malabar by a Resolution at the Malabar District Conference, held at Manjeri (the headquarters of Ernad Taluk).
The Khilafat meetings in 1921 in Malabar incited the communal feelings among the Moplahs, and it became a movement directed against the British and the Hindu landlords of Malabar.
The heavy-handed suppression of the Khilafat Movement by the British government was met by resistance in the Eranad and Valluvanad taluks of Malabar.
On 1 August 1921, the police attempted to arrest Vadakkeveettil Muhammed, the secretary of the Khilafat Committee of Ernad at Pookkottur. But, a crowd of 2000 Mappilas from the neighbourhood foiled the attempt.
On 20 August 1921, a squad of police arrested several Khilafat volunteers and seized records at the Mambaram Mosque in Tirurangadi. A large group of Mappila converged on Tirurangadi and besieged the local police station. The police opened fire on the crowd, triggering a furious reaction, which soon engulfed the Ernad and Valluvanad Taluks, along with the neighbouring areas, and continued for over two months.
Following the mosque incident, the rebels attacked and seized police stations and government treasuries and entered the registry offices and courts, where they destroyed records. During the uprising, the rebels attacked various symbols and institutions of the colonial state, such as train stations and post offices. There was a large scale-violence that saw systematic persecution of Hindu landlords and British officials.
The prominent leaders of the Malabar rebellion were Variyankunnath Kunjahammad Haji, Seethi Koya Thangal, and Ali Musaliyar. On 24 August 1921, Variyankunnath Kunjahammad Haji took over the command of the rebellion from Ali Musaliyar. The uprising soon spread to the neighbouring areas of Manjeri, Malappuram, Perinthalmanna, Pandikkad, and Tirur.
By 28 August 1921, the Colonial rule virtually came to an end in Manjrei, Malappuram, Tirurangadi, and Perinthalmanna, which then fell into the hands of the rebel, who established complete domination over the Eranad and Valluvanad Taluks.
The British government sent the troops to quell the rebellion and martial law imposed. By the end of August, several contingents of British troops and Gurkha arrived. The clashes of rebels with the British forces followed one of the most notable encounters that took place at Pookkottur, often referred to as the Battle of Pookkottur by Mappilas, in which the British troops sustained heavy casualties and had to retreat to safety.
By the end of 1921, the British brought the situation under control. The British government raised a special-quasi military (or Armed Police) battalion, the Malabar Special Police, trained by the colonial army. The Special Police then engaged the rioters and eventually put an end to the riot.
Wagon Tragedy (1921)
On 10 November 1921, when the rebellion was near its end, almost 100 detained Moplah prisoners were sent by train from Tirur to the Central Prison, Bellary in the Madras Presidency. When the wagon opened in Podanur, 64 of the 100 prisoners suffocated to death in the closed railroad wagon. Few Hindus were also included in the 70 people killed due to Wagon Tragedy.