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

Part 7 – How The Indian Communists Embraced Islamists? – Part 7


Islamic Communism

E M S Namboodiripad, the later Marxist ideologue and Chief Minister of Kerala, was an indirect victim of the rebellion since his family of wealthy landlords had had to live as refugees for half a year. He was just a 12-year-old boy in a bourgeois Brahmin family in 1921. He described the plight of his family during the rebellion, in his autobiography, thus: (13)


“The Mappilas in general in Malabar and in our region Valluvanad, in particular, were in a frenzy. We stayed at Elamkulam itself for four or five days after the outbreak began. There were no untoward incidents in those days, in our area. But we had heard that atrocities have been committed in various places. Everyone feared that it is going to happen here too. Hence, to thwart any attempts by the rebels to attack us, we placed Mappila guards at the gate. Reports came that the rebellion, instead of subsiding, was spreading. Bridges were broken, Taluk offices were attacked and the rebels were forcibly taking money and paddy-these were the stories that we heard. It was decided that it was better for the women and children in our family to shift for some days, though the Mana was being guarded well.

“We started on a fine morning. We crossed the river to Shornur, 7-8 miles away. We halted for lunch at my mother’s house in Vallapuzha. After that, we walked to Shornur.

“There were both Hindus and Muslims on the road and there was no difference. We became aware of the rebellion only when we reached Shornur. The British troops were posted in all the key positions at the railway station. Apart from these troops on guard duty, there were troops who had come to deal with the rebels. I was confronting the British form of administrative power for the first time in my life.

“From Shornur we boarded a train to Irinjalakuda. A horse cart took us to a relative’s house in Vellangallur, 8-10 miles away. We stayed there for five months. I heard stories of the atrocities committed by Mappilas; I read about them in the newspapers. These stories carried the message that Mappilas are not trustworthy. This thinking had transformed as a creed against Gandhi and his non-cooperation movement. My mind too had absorbed the essence of this creed.

“After five or six months, we returned to Elamkulam. I have to admit that, listening to stories of the incidents that had happened in our absence, my confusion was confounded. Hindu-Muslim unity, the very basis of the non-co-operation movement, had been destroyed. Hindus were rendering real-life stories of the Mappila atrocities; the Muslims were spending days waiting for arrests and wailing about their relatives in jail. The British loyalists were blaming Gandhi and the Congress. The nationalists found it extremely difficult to justify the Congress. This was the situation then.”

After becoming a Marxist, EMS betrayed the Hindus thus: (14)

“The local leaders may have organized these Mappila farmers, not for a non-violent non-co-operation movement, but for violent struggle. It took six months of hard work for the powerful soldiers of British imperialism to repress the revolution. The organized strength of the Mappilas was total. The rebel leader (Variyan Kunnath) Kunjahammad Haji could establish a people’s administration in the areas under Mappila control. The geography of South Malabar enabled them to do intelligent guerilla warfare; it proved that once driven by frenzy, the Mappila farmers would be able to find ways and strategies to conquer any powerful enemy.”

For EMS, the Jihad had become a class war. As the Chief Minister in 1967, he gifted the Mappilas even a Muslim majority district called Malappuram.

And yet, the CPI-led Kerala state government’s bid to introduce pensions for veteran insurgents on the rebellion’s golden jubilee in 1971 met with unequivocal rejection from senior CPI(M) opposition leader EMS- very unusual for a communist—that the uprising had been a communal movement seemed to indicate a comprehensive reversal of the established communist position. (15) The head of the government was his former classmate and arch-rival, C Achutha Menon. By that time the two were in opposing communist camps.

The fresh assessment of EMS appeared diametrically opposed to earlier communist stances. A pamphlet on the rebellion by Saumyendranath Tagore (1901–1974), Peasants Revolt in Malabar, 1921, written after an extensive tour of the area in 1937, constituted the first ‘native’ communist commentary on the rebellion. He opined that throughout the history of revolt among Mappilas, the “apparent causes” of outbreaks had been not religious, but “purely agrarian.” (16)

He portrayed the uprising’s communal dimension as a malignant tumour. “The Moplah peasants were not anti-Hindu by any means […] Not a single Hindu was molested or plundered in those days just because he happened to be a Hindu.” (17) Victims among Hindus had been either class enemies or pro-British, and only those who had collaborated with colonial institutions had been harassed and robbed. Evidently, Tagore didn’t waste time speaking to real victims. Instead, he extensively quoted allegations by Ahmad Hazi, an unknown entity, that it had been the government that had engineered the destruction of temples and the looting of Hindu houses in order to defame the rebels. (18)

Tagore’s reductive simplicity soon invited EMS’ criticism. As it was written during the pro-Muslim euphoria of the CPI’s ‘nationality period, it is all the more remarkable to see EMS’ 1943 book, A Short History of the Peasant Movement in Malabar spell out the rebellion’s motivations: “The beginning of the riot was partly political and partly agrarian but very soon it developed into a communal movement.” EMS attacked Tagore and other “so-called Marxists” for neglecting a couple of “simple but relevant questions”—such as why the tenant movement and the subsequent rebellion had been restricted to Muslim-majority areas. Neither the bureaucracy nor the landlords had been partial towards Hindu tenants. Nevertheless, the latter had experienced the uprising as predominantly anti-Hindu. Also, Tagore had ignored the forced conversions, which “cannot by any stretch of imagination be explained away as part of a purely agrarian movement.” (19)

Still, it was EMS’ theoretical distortion that enabled him to arrive at an absolution of the rebellious Mappilas, and in the end more or less confirm Tagore’s position. To begin with, despite admitting that “a certain percentage of the crimes are of a purely fanatical type” he was quick to identify culprits outside of the ‘masses’: What the corruptive khilafat influence had been to Tagore, the mullahs were to EMS. Allegedly, it had been in their interest to turn “the antijenmi [landlord] sentiments of the peasants into the anti-Hindu sentiments of the Moplahs.” It had come as no surprise, then, that the uneducated peasants had fallen for this. Rather, the remarkable fact was that there had been relatively few “fanatical outbursts”: “It clearly shows that with all his traditional illiteracy, backwardness and priest-riddenness, the Moplah peasant is much more a class-conscious peasant than a community-conscious Moplah.” (20) As to why the “class-conscious peasant” had taken a “partially communal turn,” then, EMS pointed to the withdrawal of Hindus from the movement when it turned violent. “The Moplah found that his Hindu compatriots […] 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 [!].”(21) Having thus become victims both of the British military and the treacherous infidels, EMS considered it understandable that the Moplahs turned against Hindus.

This absurd rationalizing drive was topped off with a baffling appropriation of the movement’s leadership as a suitable revolutionary material. Consisting of “saintly Moplahs” strangely unconnected to the maligned ulema, the ideological (that is, religious) lapses of the uprising’s leadership were merely a matter of correct instruction and at any rate eclipsed by their merits as anti-British agitators and peasant leaders: (22)

Sincere anti-imperialists, they, however, think and speak in the terms of religion which had a tremendous effect in rallying the Moplahs […] most of them were good material as peasant cadres if only there had been a good and efficient central leadership […] they showed their mettle as good organizers both before and during the rebellion. 

His later positions display a diversionary impulse. Sympathizing with the hunted and deserted Mappilas in a 1970 interview, quoted by Patrick Hesse, his justification of their suspicions and aversions towards Hindus became more dogged in the same measure that the latters’ fears and apprehensions were devalued. EMS averred that the crucial, communally divisive factor had not been actually forced conversions, but rather the fear of them on the part of Hindus. He estimated the number of killed Hindus to be quite low, as “it was not so much the number that mattered but the atmosphere [sic!] of tension.”(23) Hence, he attributed the spike in the Malabar Arya Samaj’s popularity after the rebellion, which furthered the intercommunal divide, solely to Hindu phantasmagorias, outsourcing the irrational factor to the non-rebelling population segment that had developed essentially unjustified fear. The betrayed and beleaguered Mappilas, on the other hand, had a rational foundation for their communal outrages as the few Hindus remaining in the area had actively cooperated with the British. (24)

EMS’ contrary stance on the matter during the 1971 pension controversy sprouted from political rivalry. Considering his other efforts to acquit the Mappila peasant from the charge of communalism, this was clearly an anti-CPI move designed to expose the rival party’s reactionary trends for political reasons rather than because of an evolution in his own positions. Mutual recriminations of the same pattern abounded in the years after the 1964 party split. Hence, the principal merit of EMS’ “most sophisticated analysis” (Robert Hardgrave) lies in scoring debating points over the rival. (25)

Though not a theoretician, popular Kerala communist leader A K Gopalan (1904–1977) confirmed the Mappila rebellion’s importance as a reference point for communist identification of resistive subjectivity. His 1973 autobiography confessed that the “Moplah rebellion excited [his] imagination.” Even while the rebellion had been “bereft of intelligent political leadership [and] well-conceived policy or programme, the brave deeds of my Muslim brethren who fought against imperialist oppression enthused me.” Notwithstanding their shortcomings, the rebelling Mappilas, braving the constraints of time and place, had managed to come out progressive in a political and a social sense: (26)

The class sense of Muslim peasants [of Malabar] has sprung from a century-long struggle against feudalism [!] [.…] The last of these struggles against feudalism took place in 1921 [….] There is no memorial yet to the countless martyrs who laid down their lives in the fight for land for the peasants.

Gopalan didn’t bother to mention religious militancy. He had embraced the Party’s blind proximity to Islamic fundamentalism.

References –

13. EMS / Autobiography, p 76-79

14. EMS, Kerala, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

15. M Gangadhara Menon, Malabar Rebellion, 475–7

16. Saumyendranath Tagore, Peasants Revolt in Malabar, 1921, 10–12

17. Ibid., 16–18

18. Ibid., 24

19. EMS, “A Short History,” 179, 182

20. ibid., 174–5.

21. Ibid., 184

22. EMS, A Short History,184

23. EMS (interviewee) 20, 22.

24. Ibid., 26.

25. Hardgrave, The Mappila Rebellion, 90

26. A K Gopalan, In the Cause of the People: Reminiscences (Bombay: Orient Longmans 1973, 249

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.