The previous articles to the series “How The Indian Communists Embraced Islamists?” are as follows –

Part 1 – How the Indian Communists embraced Islamists?

Part 2 – How the Indian Communists embraced Islamists? Part 2

Part 3 – How the Indian Communists embraced Islamists? Part 3

Part 4 – How the Indian Communists embraced Islamists? Part 4

Part 5 – How the Indian Communists embraced Islamists? Part 5

Part 6 – How The Indian Communists Embraced Islamists? – Part 6


Islamic Communism

The Mappila rebellion which began in Malabar on the early morning of August 20, 1921, went on for almost six months, till the leader of the rebellion, Variyankunnath Kunjahammad Haji was arrested on January 2, 1922. It was a jihad against the British and the Hindus, culminating in a Hindu genocide. The Communist Party would form a cell in Malabar only 15 years later and it had not a single cell in India in 1921. Communists had no part in the rebellion. As Patrick Hesse has pointed out, the rebellion soon figured prominently in the localization of communism. In view of Roy’s anti-bourgeois stance in the Comintern debates on the agents of revolution in colonial countries, the Mappila rebellion was a much-needed point of reference on two counts. First, it figured as a prime example of the militant mass struggle that Roy posited as the core of the khilafat and non-cooperation movements. Second, the uprising served to showcase the relative lack of radicalism in Gandhi and Congress. Gandhi had condemned, though late, the insurgents because of their ample use of force. The communists, however, soon fashioned the communal revolt into the beginning of the revolution.

The founder of the Party at Tashkent, Abani Mukherji’s note on the rebellion to Lenin in October 1921, which was published in the Communist Review of March 1922, guided the communist determination to claim the rebellion. (1) Lenin, on November 14, 1921, had handed it over to Nikolai Bukharin, his ideologue. The Party’s initial perception through the lens of an Eastern revolutionary paradigm ensured that its pronounced fundamentalist component contributed to a positive assessment.

Abani Mukherji during second Congress of Comintern

Mukherji was the first to portray the communal revolt as a class war, which was repeated time and again by Marxist historians like Conrad Wood.

Mukherji began the article by saying, “a number of Moplah peasants, incited by the nationalists of Khilafat movement, had taken up arms against the Government as by law established. Their aim was said to be the overthrow of British rule in India.”

While saying “the primary aim of these fanatical Mohammedans was to re-establish the independence of Turkey on its old footing,” Mukherji also identified the communal colour of the revolt. He said: “After the first skirmish, we were informed, the aims of the Khilafat movement had been forgotten, and the mullahs, the bigoted leaders, had directed the attack of the Mohammedan rank and file against their peaceful Hindu neighbours, who were being offered the alternative, “Death or Islam.” The result had been the forcible conversion to Mohammedanism of the members of some eighty Hindu families, and the slaughter of a few dozen more who had preferred death to disgrace and the loss of religion”.

Mukherji continued:

In addition, we were told that the Moplah masses were well-armed, not only with staves and with war-knives and swords improvised out of saws in the village smithies but also with fire-arms secured by raids on police stations and upon the arsenal of the military depot of Malappuram, in the centre of Moplah territory. These facts were reported in order to show that the uprising had been carefully planned by the leaders of the Khilafat movement, who for months had been preaching a boycott of the British throughout the country.     

The details of the report are historically correct, but the fallacious interference is deliberately supplied by the Government whose interest is to mislead the population. The main object of the Government in spreading the false notion of the causes of the rising is to break up the newly-acquired unity in the fighting forces of the inhabitants of India. And the Government policy was shrewd, for all the nationalist papers, and especially those published by Hindus, were agreed in condemning the Moplahs, and in demanding that the government should take such measures as would effectively prevent the recurrence of similar disasters.

Being personally acquainted with the Moplah country and the Moplah people, I was amazed to find that even Pravda had allowed itself to be fooled by these Governmental lies. Data collected from available periodicals, in conjunction with the current reports received during recent months from the areas affected by the present rising, show clearly that it was, in the first instance, a peasant revolt directed against landlords and moneylenders. One point which should suffice to show that religious fanaticism was not the primary cause of the trouble is that the first victim of the insurgents was Khan Bahadur K. V. Chekutty, a retired police inspector, landowner and moneylender – a Mohammedan. Moreover, the Moplahs were just as fiercely incensed against Moplah landlords as against Hindu landlords, although the former belonged to their race and religion.

We must also bear in mind that the insurgents had a special interest in burning the offices where the Governmental registers and the family archives of the native magnates (capitalists and landowners) were kept, thus destroying the legal evidence of mortgages and other debts of the peasant population. The first action taken by Moplah Swaraj (Home Rule Organization) was to issue a proclamation for the remission of taxation. The Moplah rising was but a continuance of the peasant disturbances which during recent years have occurred in various parts of India. In 1920, there was a peasant uprising in Oudh (Northern India), when the insurgents adopted a similar tactic to those of the Moplahs and burned the houses of the wealthier natives. The main distinction between the Oudh rising and the Malabar rising is that the Oudh peasants were better organized. They had established a definite union known as Kisan Sabhas (Peasants Union).

Moplahs are found in considerable numbers in only five of the thirteen taluks or districts of the Malabar coast, namely, in Valluvanad, Ponnani, Ernad, Calicut and Wayanad. The chief town of Malabar is Calicut, the well-known seaport at which Vasco da Gama first landed in India in the year 1498. This is the leading commercial centre of the region.

The area is predominantly agricultural so most of the population is directly dependent upon the soil for a livelihood. The members of what is termed the higher castes, those which have social precedence, are likewise the owners of the land. They thus exercise simultaneously a social and economic domination over the poorer classes. There has been in Malabar an active movement against the injustices from which the poorer members of the population suffer; but, owing to the economic dependence of this latter, the victims of social tyranny have not been able to achieve any notable improvement in their condition.

The land in Malabar is in the actual possession of a class of persons known as Jenmis. They pay the Government rent, the amount being arbitrarily fixed by the local authorities every ten years. Some of the Jenmis are Hindus and others are Mohammedans, but they all belong to the upper class. They sub-let the land in smaller lots to the cultivators. In most cases, indeed, there are several stages in the sub-letting process, so that by the time we reach the peasant who tills the soil, three or four different persons have acquired an interest in the produce of his holding. Of course, by this disastrous system, the amount payable in rent is continually enhanced, until at length the total falls with a crushing weight upon the head of the unlucky peasant.

The tiller of the soil has to devote most of his energies to paying these charges upon the land so that there is but a narrow barrier between him and the famine.

Besides the Jenmis, we have to consider another factor in the life of Malabar peasants. I refer to the Kanomdars or money lenders, whose power over the land is obtained by making loans at usurious interest (ranging from 100 per cent to 700 per cent), either to the Jenmis or directly to the peasants. In some cases, the Kanomdars buy from the Jenmis the right of sub-letting the land and the right thus acquired is known as the Kanom-leasehold-right. The Kanomdars, to whom the landlord rights are transferred in this fashion, is nothing more than moneylenders. They are not peasant farmers at all. 

The Kanomdars began to emerge as a class about a century ago, at a time when wealth was accumulating at the hands of the intellectuals, the forerunners of the bourgeois of India. These intellectuals who are numerous in themselves, though they form such a small proportion of the population, make money as officials, lawyers, doctors, traders, etc., and like to invest their savings in land. Indeed, since the manufacturing industry is still comparatively underdeveloped and is hampered in various ways, and since the interest on the Government loan is too low to be attractive, the land is practically the only field of investment. Such persons have become Kanomdars. They are eager to increase their capital by fair means or foul, and they try to squeeze the uttermost farthing out of the unhappy peasants.

It is obvious that Kanomdars, as a superfluous and unproductive class, must exercise a disastrous influence upon the agrarian system of Malabar. In fact, they have helped to promote the economic ruin of the country.

Saumyendranath Tagore

Having described the agrarian system of Malabar thus, Mukherji turned to the revolt:

Thanks to this abominable agrarian system, peasant revolts have been a frequent occurrence in Malabar. For the last seventy years, the Government has found it necessary to maintain a European garrison at Malappuram, and the first important rising occurred in the year 1836. This led to the passing of an agrarian law which was to protect the peasantry from extortion. In 1854, after another uprising, the Moplah War Knives Act was promulgated, forbidding the Moplahs to manufacture or own the long war knives, which were almost the only weapons obtainable. But in 1887 came yet another and very serious uprising, when thousands of Moplahs were shot down. The insurgents had refused to surrender, feeling that the only choice open to them was death by the bullet and death by slow starvation. The slaughter was followed by Governmental enquiry, and subsequently, a new law was promulgated, the Tenant Right Act, which was intended to protect the tillers of the soil. None of these measures had any practical effort towards improving the situation of the exploited peasants, for the interpretation of the letter of the law was almost entirely in the hands of the lesser officials – natives personally interested in the system of extortion. Thus, the legislation was farcical. In 1900, when there had been further disturbances, another law was passed, the Farming Improvement Act. This did not pretend to give the peasant any economic security, but merely to safeguard him against eviction.

We have to remember that Malabar is almost exclusively an agricultural country and that nearly all the population makes its living out of the soil. Ninety-nine per cent of the Moplahs are poor peasants. The law of 1900 was advantageous to Kanomdars and to a lesser degree to the sub-lessees. It did absolutely nothing to improve the lot of the working peasants.

The peasant troubles arose out of the fact that the Kanomdars were specially favoured by the Farming Improvement Act of 1900, and were planning to make themselves the sole lords of the soil. For this purpose, a meeting of Kanomdars was held on July18, 1921, in the Valluvanad district of Malabar, a district largely populated by Moplahs. The meeting took place at Tutakal, in the residence of N. P. Ahmed Kutti, a wealthy timber merchant, a Mohammedan. Eight hundred Kanomdars were present, both Hindus and Mohammedans. The chair was taken by a Hindu, K. Koru Nair, a noted lawyer of Ottapalam. A resolution was passed to petition the Government for a law to confirm the Kanom-farmers (!) of Malabar in their possession. Bahadur M. K. Nair, a Hindu, retired Government official, Kanon-farmer and moneylender, member of the legislative council of Madras, was appointed to push the matter of the “Tenancy Bill” in Government circles. We must carefully note that whenever such persons use the term “farmer” and have it employed in legislative enactments they are referring to Kanom-farmers and not to the poor peasants. It is the contention of the Kanomdars that the legislation they propose is the only way by which the agrarian difficulties of Malabar can be overcome. The resolution adopted at this meeting was duly brought before the legislative council of Madras and was favourably received by the Government notwithstanding the vigorous opposition of the Jenmis and the more enlightened among the peasants. Although the law had not yet been put in force, the Kanomdars confident of their coming success had begun to exercise the expected rights, so that the patience of the oppressed peasants was at length exhausted. The outcome was the Moplah rising of August 19, which has now become a matter of history.   

The non-political character of the rising can be read between the lines of the report of a speech made by Lord Reading, the Viceroy, to a joint meeting of the Council of the State and the Indian Legislative Assembly. I quote from The Times of September 6, 1921: “The spark which kindled the flame was the resistance by a large and hostile crowd of Moplahs, armed with swords and knives, to a lawful attempt by the police to affect certain arrests in connection with a case of house-breaking. The police were powerless to affect the capture of the criminals, and the significance of the incident is that it was regarded as a defeat of the police, and therefore of the Government.”

The actual facts were as follows: Since the hot-headed Moplahs had no other resource against the oppression practised on them by the Kanomdars and the Jenmis, they took the law into their own hands and burned some of the oppressors’ houses at Tirurangadi, a town in Ernad district. When the authorities set the police in motion and mobilized a company of Leinster regiment, (the British troops stationed at Malappuram) to arrest the ringleaders, a mob of two thousand persons resisted the police and the soldiers, who were forced to withdraw. Certain fanatical mullahs, such as Ali Musalier, Kunki Tangal, etc., seized the opportunity, with the aid of a few brigands, to raise the standard of the Khilafat movement for the overthrow of the Government.  

These adventurers were in a favourable position, to begin with, for they were able to seize firearms and ammunition from the recently evacuated police stations and military outposts of Ernad district so that the British forces had to retreat. Moreover, the insurgents got possession of a sum equivalent to £40,000 from the strongbox at Malappuram.

While affairs were taking this course in the towns, the coolies on the outlying plantations jumped at the chance of retaliating for the grievances they had suffered at the hands of the European planters, and they killed a planter named Eaton. 

Mukherji then went on to interpret it as an agrarian revolt :

The nationalists and the leaders of the Khilafat movement declared Swaraj (Home Rule) and hoisted the green flag [the religious emblem of the Mohammedans], but the leaders were not able to prevent their followers from engaging in rapine and seeking immediate gain. Another official bulletin throws further light on the agrarian character of the movement: “A local Moplah landowner, his son and their retainers, numbering over 100, had a miraculous escape. A rescue party found them in the jungle, hiding from the rebels, who had already declared Swaraj (Home Rule) and published a proclamation remitting taxation.” (The Times, September 5th, 1921)

The Hindus suffered most from the wrath of the insurgents, not because they were of a different religion from these, but because most of the oppressors are Hindus. In the interest of the bourgeois, the Moplahs have been shot down by machine guns, but the Government has not succeeded in suppressing by this slaughter the revolutionary sentiments of the poor peasants and workmen of India. 

This is the first Marxist interpretation of the Mappila rebellion as a class war, and it is regrettable that Conrad Wood or K N Panicker have not even mentioned the name of Mukherji in their distorted Marxist interpretations. The reason is that Mukherji while trying to interpret it as a class war, got hold of the fanatic content of the rebellion. He has observed that the Khilafat movement was hijacked and subjugated by the fanatic Muslim clergy. He avows that the mullahs, forgetting the aim of the movement, diverted their rank and file, against their peace-loving Hindu neighbours. The Hindus were given the option,” death or Islam”. Thus the Hindus were massacred, forcibly converted and if they refused, were hacked to death. They ransacked the Military depot at Malappuram and looted the treasury, of 40,000 pounds.

Mukherji has tried to soften the fanaticism by saying the Muslim jihadists had killed retired Police Inspector K V Chekkutti first and hence, it was not a jihadist conspiracy. Mukherji is wrong-Chekkutty had been decorated with a Khan Bahadur title by the British for his services to the East India Company and was in their good books. He had informed the British of the movements of the jihadists, and hence got killed.

Mukherji has unabashedly compared the Malabar revolt to the peasant uprising in Oudh, proving Marxists don’t read Marx properly. In the article on Oudh, Marx has rightly pointed out that Governor-General Canning had attached all the property of the peasants in Oudh. Mukherji should have known the difference between jihad and revolution. (2) Maybe Mukherji and the later Marxists imagined a revolutionary jihad-a Red Jihad.

The contention of Mukherji that the Muslims of the Malabar coast are the descendants of Arab fighters is unfounded; they are the descendants of the Hindu fishermen who were forcibly converted. There were massive conversions and widespread massacres during the campaigns of Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan if one is to go into the roots of the 1921 Malabar Jihad. Panicker has described in his book on the rebellion, the massacre of 32 Hindus on a day at Tuvvur. Genocide is never a class war. Of Course, for Lenin, massacres were class conflicts, if we are to assess the killing of the Tambov peasants in revolt. For Stalin, purges of his enemies including Trotsky and the genocide of Jews were class wars. He even executed Bukharin.

Mukherji came to India, after the rebellion in 1922, met Manilal Doctor (3) and M Singaravelu Chettiar in Madras. Chettiar had probably provided him with the details of the rebellion. It is not known whether he was in Malabar, though Cecil Kaye, Director of Central Intelligence during the rebellion, has alleged that M N Roy, had a role in the rebellion. (4)

A 1921 Inprecor (International Press Correspondence, the international organ of the Comintern) article found the rebellion’s origins in religious outrage: Soldiers had entered mosques in a bid to arrest Muslim leaders and thus had desecrated the sites. This had caused “understandable” indignation among the Muslim population. (5) Abdur Rab, not yet fallen from Bolshevik revolutionary grace, felt vindicated in his view that Brahmins were no more than hesitant compromisers, whereas “the Muslims” had gone straight for “immediate revolution.” (6) For him, the uprising was an anti-colonial struggle par excellence. In a rare case of agreement between the two, Roy echoed this endorsement when he called for extending what had “burst out spontaneously at […] Malabar” to the whole India in the manifesto submitted to the 1922 Gaya Congress. Later, Roy even boasted to have had a hand in the uprising through his agents.(7) His straightforward embrace of the rebellion leaves little doubt that its religious fanaticism did at least not contradict his aspirations.

The call for a khilafat republic had stirred the Mappilas into action, and thanks to their inherent fanaticism they had taken the injunctions literally. In a telegram to the Government of India, F B Evans, the British revenue official who toured Malabar during the rebellion, stipulated that there was no reason to suppose “that agrarian discontent was even a contributory cause of the rising”: (8)

Only when cues to non-religious motivations of the revolting Mappilas from the Congress camp became available did communist ideologues emphasize the rebellion’s purported materialist underpinnings. Referring to the report of a Kerala Congress committee tasked with an enquiry, the Vanguard approvingly quoted from a speech by the committee’s head, V. S. Gayatri Iyer, characterizing the uprising as a consequence of “long-standing and acute agrarian grievances.” (9) The systematic destruction of public records by revolting Mappilas gave room for interpretation that forced evictions had been a core cause of the outbreak. Roy jumped to the conclusion that Iyer had “proved [!] that the rebellion was neither for the Khilafat nor directly against the British government […] [but] primarily against landlordism.” (10)

Yet, in the mid-1920s the rapidly worsening inter-communal climate forced Roy to reconsider the religious factor. The surge in communalism after the end of non-cooperation made it difficult to uphold the conviction that religion was just a relic, bound to be swept aside by the class struggle. In the end, Roy admitted an “ugly character of religious fanaticism.” (11) Still, this had been possible only because the conflicting classes had belonged to different religions. As to the basics, he remained convinced that despite a “certain religious character” the Moplah revolt had been “an agrarian revolt.” (12).

References –

1. While digging up information on Mukherji, I found the article in the Marx Memorial Library and Workers School, London.

2. Marx, The Annexation of Oude, in the May 28, 1858 issue of The New York Daily Tribune

3. Manilal Maganlal Doctor (1881 –1956) was a British Indian barrister and politician, who travelled to numerous countries of the British Empire, including Fiji, Mauritius and Aden, providing legal assistance to the local ethnic Indian population. He met Gandhi, who asked him to go to Mauritius, where he represented Indo-Mauritians in court and edited a newspaper, The Hindustani. Gandhi later informed him of the need for a barrister in Fiji and he arrived in Fiji in 1912. In Fiji, he also represented Indo-Fijians in court, started a newspaper, Indian Settler and established an organization for Fiji Indians, known as the Indian Imperial Association. In 1916 when he was by-passed for nomination to the Legislative Council of Fiji, his relationship with the Government of Fiji deteriorated. The Government accused him of the violence and sabotage of the 1920 strike and deported him. He was barred from practising law in several British colonies. He later managed to practice law in Aden, Somalia and Bihar State in India but spent his final days in Bombay.

4. Kaye, Communism in India

5. The Revolutionary Movement in India,” Inprecorr Roll No. 1921/3-B, 18

6. Izvestia, 11 May 1922, quoted in Home/Poll/1922 Nr. 884, 5–6.

7. Home/Poll/1924 Nr. 261, 110 (quote); Petrie, Communism in India, 283

8. Telegram to the Government of India, Home Department, No. M. 163,” in Tottenham, The Mappila Rebellion, 200

9. Quoted in “Materialism vs. Spiritualism,” Vanguard, August 1, 1923. There was no leader called Gayatri Iyer; it could be V S Srinivasa Sastri, who quit the Congress afterwards.

10. Ibid

11. Economics of Communal Conflict, Masses of India, January 1925

12. The Calcutta Riot, Masses of India, May 1926

DISCLAIMER: The author is solely responsible for the views expressed in this article. The author carries the responsibility for citing and/or licensing of images utilized within the text.