Thursday, March 13, 2008

Muhammed Abdurahman as Khilafat Secretary

This is chapter two of the biography of freedom fighter Muhammed Abdurahman. For the earlier chapter, see blog archives, February 2008.

Mohammed Abdurahman was born in a traditional Muslim family at Kodungallur in 1898. In the school records, the date of birth is recorded as the first of Edavam, the month of the onset of the monsoon season in Kerala, in the Malayalam year 1072. The practice of recording the time of birth was not widespread those days, and parents often were reminded of it only when they took their children to school for admission. Abdurahman was the first son of Karukappadath Punnachalil Abdurahman and Ayyaril Kochayisumma, a rich and conservative family at Azhikode in the Kodungallur taluk of the erstwhile Cochin state. His parents called him Kunhimuhammed. When he went out of Kerala for his higher education, he came to be known as Mohammed Abdurahman.

Kodungallur had an important place in the history of Malabar . Its beaches are still vibrant with the memories of thousands of years’ relations with the outside world, across the Arabian Sea. Its historical eminence is recorded even in the Bible. It was known as Muziris in ancient records. The place became the capital of the Second Cera Empire and it was then known as Mahodayapuram, according to local historians. It was a well known port; the ancient Jews, the early Christians and the first Muslims came to the land then widely known as Malabar through the port of Kodungallur. It was a major port of call in the east for ancient Roman ships, which came in search of spices like pepper and ginger. Recent archaeological excavations in the area have proved this rich and long association with the western world. Evidence of the rich and colourful past is found in magnificent churches and mosques that the Christians and Muslims built in Kodungallur as they entered, to a hearty welcome from local chieftains who were eager to develop these contacts because they brought flourishing trade, without threatening the peace. According to historians, the first Muslim settlements in Kerala were at Kodungallur; the first mosque was built there by Malik Ibn-Dinar who came in the early years of the rise of Islam in West Asia. It was from here that the last Cheraman Perumal, king of Kerala, embraced Islam and set sail to Mecca.

Abdurahman’s family had a rich folklore of its own heroic past. The young Kunhimohammed imbibed tales of heroism as a young child. This family, according to tradition, could be traced to Kalanthan Pocker, of the Marakkar family of Kottakkal, famous as the naval chieftains of the Zamorin of Kozhikode. The family had fought the Portuguese in famous sea battles, but weakened by war, the Zamorin permitted the Portuguese to build a fort in Calicut in 1529. The Marakkars continued the resistance, but the alliance of a weak Zamorin and the powerful Portuguese resulted in the capture and execution of the last Kunhali Marakkar. The families of the Marakkars were forced to leave the country to escape persecution at the hands of the Portuguese and the king. Kalanthan Pocker was one of those who left home and family to save himself from the wrath of the king. He was welcomed by the king of Kodungallur, who was not on good terms with the Zamorin. With his support and land endowments, Kalanthan founded his new home, known as Karukappadam in Eriyad village in the taluka of Kodungallur.

Abdurahan’s parents had three sons and three daughters. His brother Kunhikkomu became active in the Cochin Prajamandalam, a political movement for responsible governance in the Cochin state. His youngest brother, Ebrahim, came to Malabar to work with him in the national liberation movement.

Unlike the Muslims in the interior who were extremely poor and illiterate, the comparatively affluent families in the coastal belt, were the descendants of the early settlers who had rich land endowments and trade-related prosperity. They also enjoyed chances for better education. Eventually Kodungallur became a major centre for social reform in the Muslim community. Many of the Kodungallur Muslims had travelled widely. They were exposed to the goings on in the outside world, and some members of Abdurahman’s family, his uncles Kuttikkammu Haji and Kunholan Haji, for instance, had been to Mecca and Medina on the Hajj pilgrimage. Among the important religious leaders who helped Kodungallur become a centre of Muslim reform efforts was Sheikh Muhammed Hamdani Thangal who established the Lajnathul Hamdani Sabha and Lajnathul Islam Sangham in the area as part of his educational and social reform efforts. A scholar in Arabic, the Thangal set up a school in the area on the model of the Mohammedan School in Aligarh. It imparted religious as well as modern education to young students. Abdurahman first went to this school and then joined the Azhikode Primary School in the third standard. His name is entered in the documents as K.A. Mohammed. There were only five Muslim students in the class, and all of them were Abdurahman’s relatives. Among them was K. M. Seethi, an important figure in the Muslim reforms movement in later years. Seethi was Mohammed Abdurahman’s friend and colleague in the reform efforts in the Aikya Sangham, a movement for Muslim unity which was built up as part of their social reforms efforts. They later parted ways, Abddurahman emerging as a staunch nationalist leader and the president of the Provincial Congress Committee while Seethi became a founder-leader of the Muslim League in Kerala.

After a year at the Azhikode Primary School, young Mohammed went to the high school at Kodungallur. In the early years of the First World War, he left high school and went to the religious institution, the Madrassa Islamia at Vaniyambady, where he learnt his first lessons in public life as captain of the volunteer corps at the South India education conference of 1916. Sir Akbar Hydari, the president of the conference, praised his leadership skills. The conference was a big success. Mohammed continued his friendship with Sir Akbar Hydari in later years, this gentleman guided him in his studies for entry into the coveted Indian Civil Service. While he was at Madrassa Islamia, Mohammed lost his father. He was 16 years old.

An incident at the Madrassa Islamia had a profound influence on the life of Mohammed. It brought to light his qualities as a leader: his will and determination; his refusal to compromise with injustice and his willingness to accept the consequences of his actions. Though a small incident, it caused the young man to quit college and organize the first protest march of his life. The Madrassa Islamia, situated in a Muslim-dominated, Tamil-speaking town had many Malayalees and Tamils as students. An unfortunate rift developed between the young students, and divided them on the lines of language. When the headmaster of the institution, Qureishi, took a view in favour of the Malayalee students, he incurred the anger of the management, and the dispute led to his eventual resignation. Mohammed, a leading student, decided to leave the institution in protest. It was at Madrassa Islamia that Mohammed changed his name to Mohammed Abdurahman.

Leaving the religious institution at Vaniyambady, Mohammed Abdurahman went home. As a private student he scored high marks in the matriculation examinations. Then he went to the Basel Mission College in Kozhikode, a famous educational institution established by Christian missionaries from Basel in Germany, where he spent one year as an intermediate student.

It was in this period that Mohammed took the initiative to set up a social organization in Kodungallur, the Cochin Muslim Education Society. Promotion of education among the backward community of Muslims was its professed aim. Along with some friends, Mohammed petitioned the Cochin Diwan for educational concessions for Muslim students in the principality. It was a successful venture in public activity as the Diwan was pleased to order annual scholarships for Muslim boys and two-rupee monthly scholarships for Muslim girls.

Though Mohammed Abdurahman was interested in social work and concerned about the backwardness of his own community, he had never before shown any interest in the gathering storm in national politics, following the First World War. Indian aspirations had been completely ignored, although the national leadership had supported the British Empire in its war efforts. Though Home Rule League activities had been confined to the drawing rooms of a few upper caste lawyers in Malabar, it was a big force under Annie Besant in Madras, where Abdurahman had reached in the wake of the War as a senior F.A. student at the Madras Mohammedan College.

E. Moidu Maulavi, his life-long friend and comrade in the freedom struggle, in his autobiography wrote: “I knew Abdurahman from the days of the Home Rule movement. He was a student at the Christian College and I was at the Darul-Uloom Madrassa. We used to meet then, and he had shown no interest in politics at all. Often his friends teased him, calling him a bookworm…”

The metamorphosis of the bookworm, hidden under books in his Victoria Hostel room, into a colourful political butterfly was sudden and unpredictable: it happened in the span of one night.

Mohammed Abdurahman, under the guidance from Sir Akbar Hydari, had joined the Madras Presidency College to pursue his B.A. (Hons). It was much in demand as a stepping stone to the ICS. Mohammed was a bright and energetic student. In those days in Madras, he had already learnt Urdu, Tamil, Arabic and German. He was quite at home with his mother-tongue Malayalam, and English.
K. Muhammed, another Malayalee student at the Presidency College, who was Abdurahman’s close friend, keenly followed political developments. Muhammed persuaded him to join the national movement, quit the college and jump onto ranks of the Non-Cooperation Movement. The friend was ardent in his speeches at the hostel room, he asserted his determination to leave college and join the struggle himself. He challenged Abdurahman to follow him in the arduous journey for freedom.

Abdurahman, however, was unmoved. He was keen on the ICS, and when his friend persisted with his impassioned speeches, he listened with amusement, but never left off his studies. Then one day Muhammed brought a book, Khilafat and Jazeerathul Arab, by a young nationalist, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad. Abdurahman’s first biographer, T. Muhammed Yusuf, describes the scene dramatically:
“Read this, even if you don’t agree with what it says,” said his friend.
Abdurahman took it, lazily looked through the pages and kept it aside. But that night, he was up till the wee hours, quite absorbed by the book.The powerful words of Maulana Azad transformed him completely. The young man was unable to sleep. The next morning, as his friend walked in, Mohammed Abdurahman declared:
“Yes, my friend, you are absolutely right. It is the time for struggle, and let us quit college tomorrow.”
Mohammed could not believe his ears. He had never expected this bookworm friend to be so transformed.
“But…” he faltered. He said he had to write to his parents, get permission from his father.
Mohammed Abdurahman said, “Whatever you decide, I am quitting college and going back home tomorrow.”

The very next day Mohammed Abdurahman submitted a letter to the principal of Presidency College, announcing his decision to quit studies as he was following the call of the national movement for non-cooperation with British authorities. This was in November 1920. His mother, close friends and relatives made every effort to dissuade him, but he would not relent.

As for his nationalist friend, he never took the step. He continued his studies at Presidency College, managed to get a scholarship from the British Government, and pursued his studies in England. He returned to India as a senior officer in the Education Department. Later on, Mohammed Abdurahman had a meeting with his old friend; it turned out to be an unhappy reunion.

After leaving the Presidency College, Abdurahman decided to join the Jamia Millia Islamia set up as part of the nationalist movement. Maulana Muhammed Ali was the vice chancellor and eminent nationalist leaders like Maulana Azad, Hakim Ajmal Khan, Qwaja Abdul Majeed and others served as instructors.

Abdurahman could spend very little time in Jamia as he had to return to Malabar under instructions from Maulana Muhammed Ali. The Khilafat Movement had become powerful there, and Congress leaders were finding it difficult to control the Mappilas who were restive against British authorities. They needed a leader who could communicate with the Mappilas, identify with them. This onerous responsibility fell on the young shoulders of Mohammed Abdurahman.
The Congress leadership in Malabar was predominantly upper-caste and Hindu. Most of them were practicing lawyers, while the large majority of the people attracted to the Non- Cooperation Movement were Mappilas. They were poor peasants, and their main concern was the safety of the Khilafat. Unlike in the past when the Congress meetings were thinly attended, there was huge popular enthusiasm. The Manjeri conference of the Congress held in April 1920 had an unprecedented attendance. A large gathering of Muslim peasants arrived in small processions, K Madhavan Nair, who became secretary of the KPCC in 1921, recalls in Malabar Kalapam (The Malabar Riot).

The authorities as well as the Congress leadership were aware of the dangers of the Mappilas turning restive. The had a long history of violent confrontation with British authorities in Malabar. When Gandhiji and Shoukat Ali came to Kozhikode in 1920 with a call for non-cooperation, leaders like M P Narayana Menon, the secretary of the Ernad Taluk Congress Committee, had expressed reservations about exciting the Mappilas. M. P. Narayana Menon, according to his biographer, met Gandhiji at Kozhikode and apprised him of the nature of Ernad moplahs and the inherent danger of exciting them without proper training in non-violent methods. Janab Abdurahman (then a junior Congress Khilafat worker and disciple of Mohammed Ali) supported these arguments “but we were outnumbered and outgunned,” says M P Narayana Menon . Menon was arrested under the martial law on 10 September 1921, and transported for life. However, his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment later, following a public outcry.

The local Congress leaders were aware of the dangers of a violent Mappila agitation. They had invited Yakub Hassan, a prominent Khilafat leader from Madras and a former Member of the Madras Legislative Council, to visit Malabar to address the Mappilas. Though Yakub Hassan arrived in Kozhikode on February 15,1921, he could not address any meeting, as the district authorities had promulgated prohibitory orders. The authorities arrested Yakub Hasan, U. Gopala Menon, K. Madhavan Nair and P. Moideen Koya, all of them important Congress leaders, on charges of violating prohibitory orders. They were sentenced to six months imprisonment and sent to Kannur jail. The arrest of Yakub Hassan infuriated the Mappilas and they came in large numbers to the city in defiance of the prohibitory orders. A violent confrontation occurred with the police in Kozhikode beach.

Madhavan Nair was the secretary of the KPCC. Since the situation was turning very grave in Malabar, K P Kesava Menon, a lawyer in Madras, returned to Kozhikode and took over as secretary of the KPCC. An energetic leader was sought to handle Khilafat affairs. Mohammed Abdurahman was asked by his mentor, Maulana Mohammed Ali, to go to Kozhikode immediately to take over as the secretary of the Khilafat committee there.
Kesava Menon writes in his memoirs: “Mohammed Abdurahman was a student in Aligarh when the Non-Cooperation Movement was launched. Dropping his academic studies, he soon arrived in Kozhikode to take part in the Congress, Khilafat activities. He was a tall man, with a heavy moustache and energetic ways. His contribution to the Congress and Khilafat movement during those days was immense.”

In the brief period he had spent in Aligarh, Abdurahman had become close to many national leaders. He had also attended the Nagpur session of the AICC, along with K. Madhavan Nair. At the Nagpur session, Madhavan Nair brought about a resolution that all the three parts of Kerala—Malabar, Cochin and Travancore—be considered one state, and a united Provincial Congress committee be set up. The resolution was supported by Mohammed Abdurahman and adopted by the AICC. The same year, the All-Kerala conference of the Congress was held at Oottappalam. Madhavan Nair was elected the first secretary of the KPCC.

As soon as Mohammed Abdurahman arrived in Kozhikode, an office was arranged at Palayam in the heart of the city for the Khilafat activities. The Malabar District Khilafat Committee was reconstituted, with Kattilassery Muhammed Musaliar, a well known Khilafat leader in Ernad, as president. Mohammed Abdurahman became the secretary and T. Hassan Koya Molla was the treasurer.

Among the active Khilafat leaders were E Moidu Maulavi, Ponmadath Moideen Koya, (leaders in Kozhikode); Thaliyil Muhammed Kutty Musaliar alias K M Maulavi, Ali Musaliar, P M Pookkoya Thangal (leaders in the Ernad& Valluvanad taluks); K V Kunhippocker Haji, Pottayil Kunhahammad, K Koyatty Maulavi (based in Tirurangadi); and others. Kattilassery Muhammed Musaliar, who steadfastly exhorted his co-religionists to eschew violence, stood firm in his resolve for peaceful agitation. He went underground after the suppression of the rebellion, and reached Vellore from where he escaped to the French Protectorate of Pondicherry. Moidu Maulavi was arrested in September 1921 and released in 1922 after the revolt was suppressed. Ali Musaliar, who became the leader of the armed resistance in Tirurangadi, surrendered to the British forces and was later hanged to death at the Coimbatore jail. K.M. Maulavi escaped to Kodungallur in Cochin state to avoid capture. K Koyatty Maulavi, who witnessed the incidents, was one of the first to write an account of the rebellion.

Abdurahman and his friends started organizing Khilafat committees, trying to keep them firmly on the non-violent path. During this period he established a nationalist school at Chirakkal in North Malabar with the help of the Central Khilafat Committee.

But tension rose and a violent conflict between the ordinary people of the Malabar villages and the British Army appeared inevitable, lacking only the first spark to begin the conflagration. Rebellion engulfed the region for six months resulting in a bloody battle. Those months saw the young and inexperienced Abdurahman emerging as a powerful leader, a man who refused to bow before the elemental furies of his own people as well as the organized terrors of the British Empire.

(From Muhammed Abdurahman, biography published by National Book Trust-India, November,2006.)


pvakalam said...


Calicocentric കാലിക്കോസെന്‍ട്രിക് said...

Your reference to Moidu Maulavi's jail term could be wrong. If we are to believe his account in his autobiography in Malayalam, he was sentenced to two year's rigorous imprisonment and was released only in December 1923, which incidentally was the time Al-ameen company was registered.