Tuesday, February 12, 2008

First Chapter: Muhammed Abdurahman

Malabar at Crossroads

Mohammed Abdurahman was drawn into the freedom struggle when the Mappilas of Malabar were involved in an armed confrontation with the powerful British Army in the great rebellion of 1921. This rebellion saw over 10,000 people perish and 50,000 put in prison. Immense brutalities followed in the wake of their defeat. In the 48 years of his life, Mohammed Abdurahman spent nine years in jail and sacrificed everything he had in the course of the struggles. Yet he did not live to see the dawn of freedom. He died on 23rd November, 1945, of a massive heart attack as he was returning after a public meeting in a remote village near Kozhikode.

Six decades after his death, the name of Mohammed Abdurahman is still remembered with reverence by the people of his homeland. His life remains an undisputed example of selfless and courageous public service. Outwardly rough, ruthlessly outspoken, he had as many enemies as friends; he evoked great antagonism and fierce loyalties. He was a man of great courage. He challenged both the British authorities and the entrenched vested interests within his own community. His life inspired many literary works. Novels and poems by some of the most venerated writers in modern Malayalam literature have been inspired by the life of Mohammed Abdurahman.

Vailoppilly Sreedhara Menon wrote:

With our hearts full, we sing the song of Mohammed Abdurahman,
The man who is the pride of the land of coconuts,
The man who shed his blood on the sands of Malabar,
The man who fought bravely for our freedom…

Eminent Malayalam poets like Edassery Govidan Nair, P Kunhiraman Nair and G Kumara Pillai recount the heroic acts of Mohammed Abdurahman on the beaches of Kozhikode, where he led satyagrahis during the Civil Disobedience Movement in 1931, breaking the salt law and facing the brutal assaults of the British police, refusing to give up the little pot in which he had collected salt, in defiance of the law. As the poets recall, his uncompromising stance and his majestic stature, the power of his oratory and charisma brought the masses to the streets in the cause of national liberation. Abdurahman’s entry to the political scene at the first conference of the Kerala Provincial Congress Committee held at Ottappalam in April 1921 was equally dramatic.

The first conference of the KPCC at Ottappalam was an important landmark in the history of freedom struggle in Kerala. It was the first all-Kerala congregation of freedom fighters, who came from all parts of the state. The earlier Congress conferences had remained confined to the Malabar region, which was directly under British rule. The Congress movement was not active in the southern parts, in Kochi and Travancore principalities, ruled by local maharajahs. The conference, held between April 23 and 27, 1921, took place in the backdrop of the Khilafat and Non-Cooperation Movement. The excitement it generated among ordinary Muslim peasants and lower caste people in Malabar was palpable as the Muslims took it as an occasion to take on the hated British regime.

The emotional bond to the khilafat and the feeling of injustice nursed by ordinary Muslims against the British was one reason for the massive turnout of poor people into the movement. But there were other reasons too. The extremely harsh tenancy regulations pauperized ordinary peasants, most of them Muslim. The peasants had no rights over the lands, and they had to pay back-breaking rents to the landlords, who were installed as owners of the land by the British administration. As a result of the tenancy system imposed by the British, all the cultivable, waste, fallow and even forest lands were declared the property of the janmis, mainly Hindu landlords who enjoyed absolute rights to evict peasants at their will. The poor tenants were no better than labourers on subsistence wages.

However, the problems of kutiyans, the verumpattom peasants who tilled the lands but enjoyed no legal rights whatsoever, were not issues on the political agenda of the national movement. The rich middle class professionals-- lawyers and land-owning classes--were at the helm of the nascent Congress movement in Malabar in the early twentieth century. K Madhavan Nair, one of the earliest leaders of the Congress movement in Malabar, noted that when a resolution on the problems of kutiyans was brought at the first Congress meeting at Palakkad in 1916, it had to be withdrawn following severe opposition from landowners who formed the majority of the delegates. It was only when tenants were organized under the Malabar Tenancy Association in 1919 that the question of land reforms became a mass movement in Malabar. At the Manjeri conference in 1920, a resolution on tenancy reforms was adopted in spite of opposition from the landowners. This indicated the growing mass base of the Congress. The khilafat and tenancy movements worked hand in hand in the Mappila belt of South Malabar. Both movements had the same leaders in many villages. Some of these leaders were ulemas, influential within the Muslim community and drawing more and more people to the national movement.

The Mappilas had a long history of anti-imperialist struggles. They had led a series of armed uprisings in the Malabar region throughout the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries. The khilafat movement had an undercurrent of violence right from the beginning. The Mappilas who joined the Khilafat movement had made every effort to arm themselves. As a contemporary observer said, “it was not for the non-violent non-cooperation movement, but for real militant action of the masses, that the Moplah peasantry was being organized by their local leadership.” This organization was so thorough that the soldiers of the British Empire took six months to quell the revolt.

The police had let loose a regime of terror in the Ernad and Valluvanad taluks of
South Malabar, where the khilafat and tenancy movements were the strongest. Prohibitory orders had been issued against a number of leaders; in Ernad and Valluvanad the district authorities had banned public meetings. A large number of cases had been registered against the khilafat volunteers; many were arrested and fines were slapped on them.
Hitchcock, Superintendent of Police in Malabar, has listed 25 such cases. The offences varied from stealing a pen from a village official, to holding office as secretary or treasurer of the khilafat committees.

Historians of the freedom struggle in Kerala are united in their view that the Khilafat and Non-Cooperation Movement were was responsible for the first massive public awakening in the region. It touched upon the most sensitive religious beliefs of the ordinary people of Malabar, mainly the Muslim peasantry. After the declaration of the movement, Gandhiji and Maulana Shoukat Ali had visited Kozhikode in August 1920. The public meeting they had addressed was attended by more than 25,000 people, a majority of them poor Muslim peasants from the remote villages.

There was a tremendous increase in the Congress and Khilafat membership. The feverish pitch of activities in even remote villages charged the political atmosphere. Khilafat committees were active in almost all the villages. Contributions to Gandhiji’s Tilak Swaraj Fund poured in. According to contemporary newspaper reports, the Congress committee in Malabar had been able to collect Rs. 20,000 in a few weeks’ time. When Gandhiji had arrived a few months ago as part of his nationwide tour, he had been offered only a paltry Rs. 2500. More than 200 Congress committees were established in various parts of South Malabar, with more than 20,000 members, within one year of the launch of the movement. Most of these new entrants to the political struggle were poor peasants reeling under a highly exploitative and unjust tenancy system.

The sudden emergence of the poorer sections of people on the political arena caused tensions within the movement. The urban-based, middle class people and the land-owing classes who controlled the Congress were not happy with this development. M P Narayana Menon, the driving force behind the Malabar tenancy movement, referred to the caste and class prejudices in the Congress movement in those days: “Many high caste Congress leaders were not happy with my identification with the Mappila cause and that of the lower caste Hindus. Caste Hindu leaders were unwilling to stay at my residence. Rajagopalachari and Kasturi Ranga Iyengar refused to stay with me when I was Congress secretary in Ernad because they thought my place was polluted by the presence of Mappilas and Cherumars at the dining hall.”

These internal conflicts in the nationalist movement came to a head at the Malabar regional conference of the Congress at Manjeri, in April 1920. This conference declared the rise of the new leadership, rejecting the Annie Besant-proposed resolution in favour of the Montague- Chelmsford Reforms, as well as calling for urgent reforms in the tenancy system. The Manjeri conference proved a decisive shift in political balance; there were over 3000 delegates, most of them from poorer sections. Among them were more than 1000 mappila delegates, many of them dressed in the traditional lungi and banians, coming straight from their fields, their ploughs on their shoulders.

Veteran leader EMS Namboodiripad describes the situation in 1920-21: “It was in Malabar that the distinguishing features of a national democratic movement—the combination in action of the middle classes in towns with the ‘million-headed peasantry’ in the villages—manifested itself. The political national movement in Malabar embraced all castes and communities and as a matter of fact, the fraternization of Hindus and Muslims was one of the specific features of the movement [there], while in other parts of Kerala it was more or less confined to Hindus, and that too, caste Hindus.”

It was in such circumstances that the first All-Kerala Congress Conference was held in Ottappalam, a small town in Valluvanad on the Palakkad-Shoranur rail route, from 23 to 27 April, 1921. There were different conferences meant for the khilafat and ulema activists, for kutiyan sanghams (tenancy activists), students and others. Senior leaders of the national movement like T Prakasam of Madras had come to attend the conference, which had the participation of over 4000 delegates, including members of all castes and communities. Marking the keen interest among the Muslims towards the Khilafat and Non-Cooperation Movement, a large number of Muslims, including many Thangals (Mappila religious leaders) and maulavis had come to attend the conference. “The mappila volunteers came in processions from Ernad and Valluvanad, arousing an intense sense of patriotism and identity with the Congress Khilafat movement.”

Police authorities were also ready for action. They knew that the sense of patriotism aroused among the common people would mean trouble. They made every effort to strike at the rising popular movement. G.R.F. Tottenham, a senior police official, expresses the anxiety of the administration: “The non-cooperation is becoming a farce and is confined to the burning of old clothes and the nervous attendance of a few ex-students at toddy shops to prevent drinking eliciting only derision from the public. Khilafat, on the other hand, is more serious. Non-violence is not considered a serious suggestion or practical condition but merely as a party cry to hoodwink the government.”

Malabar had seen a series of violent peasant uprisings in the past decades, the administration expected more. K N Panikkar, whose Against Lord and State: Religious and Peasant Uprisings in Malabar 1836-1921, arguably the most authentic treatise on the Malabar uprisings, says there were 32 outbreaks in the Malabar region between 1836 and 1919. All of them, except one, had taken place in the Muslim majority talukas of Ernad and Valluvanad. The notorious Malabar Special Police(MSP), armed with sweeping powers under the Moplah Outrages Act 1859, was created specifically to face the violent Muslim uprisings that shook the region throughout the nineteenth century.

As the Khilafat and Non-Cooperation Movement gathered momentum, the police and the MSP got themselves ready for action. Ottappalam conference became a scene of police provocation on nationalist volunteers, testing the discipline and commitment of the volunteers to the principles of non- violence and satyagraha. The conference was a big success. It was held in a peaceful atmosphere. However, on April 27, the final day, a khilafat volunteer was taken to the police station and beaten up. The public became restive; they marched to the police station shouting slogans and when the leaders at the conference hall heard about the developments outside, a team led by P Ramunni Menon, secretary of the reception committee, went to the police station to pacify the people. As they were talking to the agitated crowd, the MSP started a lathi-charge. Ramunni Menon was severely injured.

Ramunni Menon was carried by a Muslim youth on his shoulders into the conference hall and he was bleeding. The crowd became very angry and many were shouting for revenge and the situation was fast going out of control. Elder leaders like K P Kesava Menon, secretary of the KPCC, Kattilassery Muhammed Musaliar, leader of the Khilafat movement in Ernad, M P Narayana Menon, secretary of the Ernad Congress Committee, and others were struggling to pacify the crowd and hold them back. But rumours were flying thick and fast about police brutalities in the town and news came that many other leaders like the Congress volunteer captain C Madhava Menon and Khilafat leader Sayed Alavi Kunhikoya Thangal were also beaten up by the police, adding fuel to fire.

Mohammed Abdurahman, who had just arrived at the conference hall from Aligarh, stepped in: “We will hold a protest march,” he said, his voice booming and his manner authoritative and confident.
“He was a young man, tall and very energetic. His moustache was quite thick. Anyone who sets his eyes on the man would soon be influenced by his vibrant personality,” remembers K P Kesava Menon, who witnessed the scene.

Starting then, until his death 24 yeas later, Mohammed Abdurahman was a powerful figure in Kerala’s nationalist political firmament. His life was a tireless and constant struggle against foreign rulers as well as his own detractors within the community.

(This is the first chapter of the book, Muhammed Abdurahman, a biography of the freedom fighter published by National Book Trust-India, under the national biography series, 2006.)


Unknown said...

RVG Menon writes in an email:

Thank you for allowing me to go through those interesting passages.
Of course I was familiar with Mohammad AbduRahiman Sahib's contribution to the freedom struggle, but many of the incidents in his life which you have quoted, were new information for me. Thank you.

che said...

Informative and prompting research. Pushing me to read more. Thanks a lot.

Shine Shoukkathali said...

I read your book completely.It was nice.Want to meet you.
Shine Shoukkathali

Arun said...

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