The Wagon Tragedy and Malabar Rebellion

Context: A report submitted to the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) in 2016 had recommended the removal of the Wagon Tragedy victims and Malabar Rebellion leaders Ali Musliyar and Variamkunnath Ahmad Haji, and Haji’s two brothers from a book on martyrs of India’s freedom struggle. The report sought the removal of names of 387 ‘Moplah rioters’ from the list of martyrs.

  • The book, Dictionary of Martyrs: India’s Freedom Struggle 1857-1947, was released by Prime Minister Narendra Modi last week.


The Wagon Tragedy of 1921

  • In this incident, at least 60 prisoners suffocating to death in a windowless freight wagon.
  • These men were among 90 rebels, all Muslims, who had been sent by British officials to a prison in Pothanur near Coimbatore. They died in transit.
  • The Wagon Tragedy incident, which took place on November 20, 1921, two years after the Jalianwala Bagh massacre, is remembered as the Jalian Wallabagh of the South.
  • The British Raj tried to cover up this heinous event but finally relented to the pressure and gave a solatium of Rs 300 to the families of those who were killed.
  • The Sergeant of the Malabar Police who ordered the farmers to be transported in this inhuman way to the prisons in Coimbatore and Bellary was called Richard Harvard Hitchcock.

Mapillah Uprising

  • 2021 marks the 100th-year anniversary of the Malabar uprising. 
  • The Malabar Rebellion (also called the Mappila or Moplah Rebellion) broke out in the southern taluks of Malabar in August 1921.
  • It largely took the shape of guerrilla-type attacks on janmis (feudal landlords, who were mostly upper caste Hindus) and the police and troops.
  • The immediate trigger of the uprising was the Non-Cooperation Movement launched by the Congress in 1920 in tandem with the Khilafat agitation.
  • The Malabar Congress, many of whose leaders were Nairs, was the most active participant in these twin agitations with several Hindu leaders addressing Khilafat gatherings.
  • The anti-British sentiment fuelled by these agitations found fertile ground among the Muslim Mapillahs of south Malabar living in economic misery which they blamed in large part on British rule.
  • The British had introduced new tenancy laws that tremendously favoured the landlords and instituted a far more exploitative system than before.
  • The pre-British relations between landlords and tenants were based on a code that provided the tenants a decent share of the produce.
  • The new laws deprived them of all guaranteed rights to the land and its produce and in effect rendered them landless.
  • This change created enormous resentment among the tenants against British rule.
  • The fact that most of the landlords were Namboodiri Brahmins while most of the tenants were Mapillah Muslims compounded the problem.
  • The Nairs formed an intermediate grouping of well-off peasantry with their own economic and social grudges against the Namboodiri landlords but largely unsympathetic to the economic travails of the Mapillahs.
  • Non-partisan analyses of the uprising make clear that multiple factors contributed to the character of the movement. These included economic distress, anger against foreign rule and the tenancy laws it instituted, and religious zeal.
  • But above all it was an agrarian revolt that simultaneously took on the garb of anti-colonialism and religious fanaticism.

Variyamkunnath Kunjahammed Haji, the Khilafat leader who declared an independent state

  • Kunjahammed Haji’s father, Moideenkutty Haji, was deported and jailed in the Andaman Islands for his participation in a rebellion against the British. Such personal incidents, very early on in his life, played an important role in lighting the fire of vengeance inside Kunjahammed.
  • An interesting facet in Haji’s early life was his fascination with traditional music-based art forms like Daffumutt and poems like ‘Malappuram Padappattu’ and ‘Badr Padappattu’ and how he used art as an instrument to rally the locals against the British.
  • For nearly six months, Haji ran a parallel Khilafat regime headquartered in Nilambur, with even its own separate passport, currency and system of taxation.
  • During the time, an extensive army with the participation of Hindu men was built with the express aim of thwarting any attempt by the British to overthrow the Khilafat rule.
  • He declared his territory an ‘independent state’ in August 1921 with Haji its undisputed ruler.
  • But the rule did not last long. In January 1922, under the guise of a treaty, the British betrayed Haji through his close friend Unyan Musaliyar, arresting him from his hideout and producing him before a British judge. He was sentenced to death along with his compatriots.
  • All the records connected with the Khilafat raj was burnt in order to make the people forget the Mappila khilafat rule of six months.

What was the impact of the protests?

  • The rebellion of Mappilas inspired by religious ideology and a conception of an alternative system of administration — a Khilafat government — dealt a blow to the nationalist movement in Malabar.
  • The fanaticism of rebels, foregrounded by the British, fostered communal rift and enmity towards the Congress.
  • The exaggerated accounts of the rebellion engendered a counter campaign in other parts of the country against ‘fanaticism’ of Muslims.
  • That said, the traumatic experience of the uprising also persuaded educated sections of the Muslim community in Malabar to chalk out ways to save the community from what they saw as a pathetic situation.
  • The community’s stagnation was attributed to religious orthodoxy and ignorance. The thrust of the post-rebellion Muslim reform movement in Malabar was a rigorous campaign against orthodoxy.

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