The Railways has removed a painting of the 1921 Moplah Rebellion from the station of Tirur town in Kerala’s Malappuram after the Bharatiya Janata Party protested. In October 2017, the BJP’s state chief Kummanam Rajasekharan said the rebellion should not be celebrated. “If it were an agitation against British rule, why were thousands of people butchered and temples destroyed?” he asked. “It is high time we stopped glorifying this massacre depicting it as freedom struggle. If anyone is given pension on behalf of this rebellion, it should be given to those who had to flee their homes during the riot and the dependents of the victims of the jihadi massacre.”

The Moplah Rebellion is a contentious episode of India’s colonial history. A part of the Khilafat Movement, which demanded that the British preserve the Ottoman sultan as the Caliph of Islam, the revolt took place in Kerala’s Malabar and involved the Moplah or Mappila Muslims of the region. The BJP’s protests have revived what is an old debate about how the revolt should be viewed: as an anti-colonial uprising against the British or a widespread communal riot.

Civil disobedience

In 1920, the Congress launched its first mass civil disobedience movement under Mohandas Gandhi. In just a few years, Gandhi had transformed the Congress from a party of the English-speaking elite to an organisation that could mobilise lakhs of people across British India. Ahead of the Non-Cooperation movement, Gandhi had entered into an alliance with the Khilafat Movement, which had already mobilised large numbers of Muslims. On August 18, 1920, Gandhi, along with the Khilfat leader Shaukat Ali, visited Calicut in Malabar where he exhorted his 20,000-strong audience to non-cooperation with the British given the “imperial government have knowingly flouted religious sentiments dearly cherished by the 70 million Mussalmans”.

Malabar fell under British rule in 1792. By then, the Moplahs, once a prosperous trading community, had been reduced to penury as the English and the Portuguese wrested control of maritime commerce. Further, Malabar’s landlords under the British were almost exclusively Hindu. Throughout the 19th century, the Moplahs would revolt against this order, attacking either the Hindu landlords or European bureaucrats. Between 1836 and 1919, there were 29 such “outrages”, as British chronicles from the time describe these uprisings. Whether the uprisings were a reaction to Malabar’s oppressive land system or driven by religious fanaticism was debated even at the time by British officials. The historian Stephen Dale explains how the two elements mixed to create violence:

“For whereas the lower Hindu castes were part of a hierarchy in which an oppressive Nambudri landlord was also a social and religious superior, the Mappillas as Muslims would identify the same Nambudri as an unbeliever and could invoke Islamic tenets to justify a challenge to his authority.”

Frequent as they were, the 19th century uprisings were low in intensity, involving small numbers of people and put down easily by the Raj. This would change in 1921. While it is unclear how well the Moplah peasantry grasped either the pan-Islamist appeal of the Khilafat Movement or the Indian nationalist facet of Non-Cooperation, the political atmosphere created by these campaigns “removed all inhibitions”, allowing them an “opportunity to voice their economic grievances as well as to demonstrate their religious and cultural identity”.

Outbreak of violence

As the Moplah Rebellion became more militant and rumours spread that the British Raj was about to end, the colonial government took steps to arrest the revolt’s leaders. One incident in August 1921 lead to a widespread rumour that the police and Gurkha regiments of the army had raided a prominent mosque in Thirurangadi. Angry mobs clashed with the security forces, leading to the death of nine Muslims and two British officers. By evening, martial law had been declared.

As the rebellion spread, symbols of the colonial state – telegraph lines, train stations, courts, post offices – were attacked, as were homes of landlords. By the end of August, much of South Malabar was under the control of the rebels. In this initial phase, while Hindu landlords were attacked, rebels also included Hindus. “At the earliest stages, Hindus were clearly involved,” writes the historian RL Hardgrave. “But with time and growing violence their numbers rapidly diminished.” In the following months, the rebels would attack and loot even non-landlord Hindus and perform forcible conversions.

The rebellion was short-lived, though. By January 1922, the government had taken back the areas held by the rebels and captured all their key leaders. By the end of it, 2,339 rebels had been killed, pointing to the widespread nature of the disturbances.

Nature of the rebellion

The debate about what the violence represented began almost immediately. A resolution passed by the Congress Working Committee in September 1921 expressed a “sense of deep regret over the deeds of violence done by the Moplahs in certain areas of Malabar” but also blamed the Raj for repression.

Gandhi wrote extensively about the revolt. On September 8, 1921, he blamed the Moplahs for not remaining “strictly non-violent”, but did not criticise them directly for communal violence, instead calling them “among the bravest in the land”. On October 20, Gandhi raised the matter of forced conversions, seeming to indirectly criticise the rebels:

“The Mussulmans must naturally feel the shame and humiliation of the Moplah conduct about forcible conversions and looting, and they must work away so silently and effectively that such things might become impossible even on the part of the most fanatical among them.”

Gandhi’s lack of strident criticism of the rebels came in for censure from a number of quarters including present-day Hindutva ideologues but also from BR Ambedkar, who saw Gandhi’s support for the Khilafat Movement movement as a way to get Muslim support and as well as to make the “Congress a power in the country, which it would not have been, if the Muslims had not joined it”.

Gandhi’s backing to a movement for the preservation of the institution of Caliph is one of the odder moments of his career. To sell it to his Hindu supporters, he even promised that it would result in cow welfare. “The Hindu participation in the Khilafat is the greatest and the best movement for cow protection,” he wrote in May 1921. “I have therefore called Khilafat our Kamadhuk”. In Hindu mythology, Kamadhuk is a wish-fulfilling cow.

Agrarian revolt?

As Gandhi tried to square the Khilafat Movement with cow protection, some Marxists tended to ignore the religious element of the Moplah Rebellion, seeing it as purely an anti-imperialist, anti-landlord peasant campaign. “The revolt of peasants in Malabar, in 1921, constitutes, so far as India is concerned, the greatest manifestation of spontaneous mass upheaval in the first quarter of this century, against British Imperialism,” declared Saumyendranath Tagore, founder of the Revolutionary Communist Party of India.

But there was disagreement about this conclusion, even on the Left. In 1943, EMS Namboodiripad, the Communist Party of India leader who later became the chief minister of Kerala, praised the movement as a “fine example of an agrarian political mass movement” – but did not stop there. “The ‘Marxists’, however, have to answer simple but relevant questions,” he added. Pointing out that the Hindu peasant would have been as oppressed as the Muslim one, he asked, “Why was it that the movement was confined to an area with a Moplah majority?” Moreover, the forced conversions “cannot by any stretch of imagination be explained away as part of a purely agrarian movement”, Namboodiripad contended.

Why a movement that began as a united Hindu-Muslim effort turned communal was a “complex question” that could be answered by looking at the leadership structures among the Hindus and the Muslims. After pointing out that leaders of the Hindus were lawyers and intellectuals who left the movement once it began to “adopt the creed of non-violence”, Namboodiripad writes:

“The Moplah found that his Hindu compatriots, both leaders and the rank and file, deserted him; the military arrived to hunt him out of his abode; his Hindu neighbours helped the military against him. He naturally got enraged at them. This was worked upon by fanatical and adventurous elements among the rebels.”

Hardgrave describes Namboodiripad’s as “the most sophisticated analysis of the rebellion yet published”.

Nearly a century after the event, the BJP has picked up on the complexities of the Moplah rebellion. With its keen eye for history – since 2014 events from the past have dominated public discourse – the party hopes to use the communal facet of the event for current-day Hindutva politics as it tries to gain a foothold in Kerala.