An upheaval in Malabar remembered

Wanting to go a little beyond the structured narratives found in academic history, I asked a 92-year-old what she knew of the upheaval that took place in Malabar a century ago, mainly in August 1921. It goes by the name Mappila Lahalla in malayalam and ‘Moplah Rebellion’ in British colonial records. As she was not born then, all that she knew had been passed on to her as a child by her elders. It cannot serve as history, of course, but is a record of how one family recollected their experience. And this what I heard.

            The narrator’s family lived at Valakulam, in the Ernaad region of the vast Malabar District of the sprawling Madras Presidency. They were landed gentry, leasing  out to tenants mostly muslim, referred to as mappila in Malabar. Her father was the village adhikari, nominated by the colonial administration to collect land revenue, a hated imposition on India’s peasantry by an alien regime. The adhikari also doubled up as a mediator in petty disputes among villagers. This meant that he would be in regular and close contact with the populace. When the Lahalla commenced, a group of mappillas came to the narrator’s ancestral home late at night, asking to see the adhikari. He was only 25 years old but already the kaaranavan, or the oldest male member, of his thaivazhi, a matrilineal line of succession. Terrified of the prospect, wailing womenfolk begged him not to go out to meet the crowd but that is exactly what he did. We do not know if he did this out of a sense of his responsibility as adhikari or out of the calculation that were he to not do so the family had little chance of survival. Or, perhaps he did it out of sense of the honorable thing to do but what he encountered was to surprise him. Addressing him as Achcha, or father, they told him that they had come to protect his family but they did ask him to hand over his rifle. Whether this was done to leave him unarmed or to protect themselves and the family from the uprising we shall never know. For a few days they parked themselves in the front of the house in a protective stance. Then they came to say that they had heard that a band of hostile mappillas from outside their desam was approaching, and that the family must flee at once. Their tenants then escorted the family to a safehouse, the Kottakkal kovilakkam, which was the eastern outpost of the samudiri, the erstwhile ruler of Malabar. The prescience of their saviours was remarkable, for the family returned, after peace was restored, to find that an agricultural labourer who was left behind had had his hand lopped off.

Then there was the experience of the family the narrator later married into, who lived in Parappanangadi. They had only settled there when her father-in-law began practicing as a lawyer at the munsiff’s court.  It is unlikely that they had the support of the local population, which her own family is likely to have commanded at Valakulam. However they too took refuge in the kovilakkam at Kottakkal. We have no idea of how they reached there, having undertaken the journey of about twenty five kilometres. Travelling at snail’s pace in bullock carts, having to cross Tirurangadi, where the first spark of the revolt had been ignited, they would have been sitting ducks for hostile forces. We only know that having reached safely they survived, and prospered upon their return to their home. We have reason to believe that they were assisted in their journey by mappilas themselves for we are told that the narrator’s father-in-law travelled to Madras to defend some of them charged with sedition by the colonial government. This could only have been a form of recompense for their role in saving his family.

Finally, there is the story of the narrator’s maternal great grandmother, who lived alone in pious seclusion in a country estate near Kottakkal with only a few retainers for support. There were no roads to this desolate place, only crevices on the earth’s surface wide enough for a person to pass through.  As the situation grew tense, again, local mappilas rallied to ensure her safety. The story goes that, unaware of the gravity of the situation, she told her interlocutors blithely “just take me to my son Gopalan”. There is no record of where she was finally taken, but the narrator is sure that it was by pallak, a country palanquin! The old lady too lived to tell her tale, and a century later her progeny live happily where she once did. It is quite remarkable that though they found themselves living in the epicentre of an upheaval these scattered members of a large family all survived the gravest threat to their lives. Far from being acts of random kindness, the actions that saved them reflect the extraordinary empathy shown to them by unlettered peasants, who were both their tenants and mappila themselves.

            I must now disclose that the narrator is my mother, though this is not important per se. Even as I experienced a frisson listening to the accounts, I was struck by how her elders saw their experience during the cataclysmic events of 1921. They told her a simple story in human terms, of the heroism of their mappila tenants, who risked their lives in saving them, and their pride in the courage of my grandfather, a young man determined to do his duty. But it is also a ripping tale of adventure, of escape from almost certain death had they not got away in time! There is no rancour in this account nor a call for vendetta, no rationalisation of murder, no whitewashing of the oppressive landlordism of the time. Neither was there anger at Gandhi schooling, without expressing grief, the hindus of Malabar from the safe distance of a public gathering at Triplicane, Madras nor scorn for his having fanned identity politics for political advantage, without concern for lives endangered. It would not have been far-fetched for them to have concluded that the apostle of ahimsa had blood on his hands. On the other hand, they saw clearly that ultimately the upheaval of 1921 was a tragedy for all the people of their land. For the mappillas who rose against an oppressive agrarian system and fought bravely with crude weapons against a mighty empire, till they were finally crushed. Many of them died when the British Government of India transported the vanquished out of Malabar by rail in a goods wagon. For those innocent hindus who had nothing to do with the feudal order but yet underwent the trauma of having another faith imposed on them, and who would surely have been devastated when they were not accepted back into the fold by their onetime co-religionists. And, finally, for those who may have escaped the nightmare but had to see their places of worship desecrated, as in 1992 India’s muslims had to see the Babri Masjid being destroyed by a mob.  

Many countries have to deal with the awareness of a violent past. As a great nation by virtue of our long history and resourceful culture, we have the means to come terms with ours. Of the events that took place in Malabar in 1921, the stories I heard from my parent had in them humanity and a happy ending, but not all them do. We must accept all the stories, though, leaving out none for their inconvenience. They remind us of a shared past and leave us better prepared for a common future.