Saturday, May 24, 2008

Muhammed Abdurahman in the Days of Malabar Rebellion

This is the third chapter of the biography of freedom fighter Muhammed Abdurahman. For the earlier chapters, see blog archives February and March, 2008.

AROUND NINE p.m. on August 19,1921, a special train carrying a contingent of 500 men, including 100 British troops, 150 armed reserve policemen and others left the Calicut Railway Station. The forces were led by Capt. Mc Enroy of the Royal Indian Army and the team included Malabar District Collector E. F. Thomas, District Superintendent of Police Hitchcock, and other officials. They were going towards the south, to the Mappila heartland to arrest rebel leaders and seize arms and ammunition. The authorities were expecting another outbreak of violence, and measures were in place to suppress it.

The Government had issued orders for the arrest of 29 senior leaders of the Khilafat Movement in Malabar, including Ali Musaliar, who was the chief musaliar at the Tirurangadi mosque. Born in 1861 at Nellikkuthu, a small village in Ernad, Ali Musaliar was a well-known and highly respected ulema leader. He had worked for seven years in Mecca and later on at Kavarathi in Lakshadweep islands before he came to Tirurangadi in 1907. The army surrounded the mosque and arrested a number of persons, but they could not get Ali Musaliar. As rumours spread that the mosque had been defiled and religious leaders arrested, enraged Muslims started moving to Tirurangadi in large numbers, with whatever weapons they could get hold of. Nahara, a special percussion instrument used in wars was sounded, announcing to the Khilafat volunteers and members of the Mappila community that the army had arrived. The mosques were flooded with zealous crowds, ready to die in battle. A group of Mappilas who marched from Tanur to Tirurangadi was stopped by the police. In the encounter, 20 Mappilas died and 30 injured. On the Government side, two British officials and an Indian constable were killed. By the morning of the next day, August 21, the rebellion was raging. Ali Musaliar was declared the caliph of the liberated areas of Malabar in defiance of the colonial raj.

As news of the army movement spread, Mohammed Abdurahman sent a messenger to Ali Musaliar, urging him not to resist the army and to make every effort to maintain peace. He expected the army to march to Pukkottur, where a few days ago, the Mappilas had had a violent confrontation with the police and forced them to retreat.

Abdurahman was agitated by the news. As soon as the train left the station, he rushed to the KPCC office at Chalappuram along with E. Moidu Maulavi to report the developments and to plan urgent action to stop imminent bloodshed.

K P Kesava Monon, then KPCC secretary, writes in his memoirs: Around 10 p.m. on August 19, Mohammed Abdurahman came to see me at the Congress office. He said a military train had left for the south an hour ago but he was not sure where it was headed. He wanted me to go to Pukkottur, where he thought the military had gone, to stop any untoward incident and pacify the people…But I thought it would be pointless starting to Pukkottur at that time and urged him to come back to me with more specific information.

It was evident that Kesava Menon was not willing to take the risk. Moidu Maulavi has recorded that he had told Abdurahman that it was unsafe for him, a Hindu, to go to Putkkottur. Moidu Maulavi sarcastically notes that when they went to the KPCC office around nine p.m, Kesava Menon had locked up the house and had even removed the board of the KPCC. It was only after Abdurahman shouted loudly that he came out to meet them. Historian K.N. Panikkar feels that it was not his personal safety that Kesava Menon was worried about when he refused to go with them to Pukkottur. He was afraid that the Mappilas would not listen to him as they had little faith in Congress leadership. The rift that divided the Congress leadership had already developed. The dominant leadership was acutely aware of it.

Though Kesava Menon refused to act, Mohammed Abdurahman decided to go immediately. He told Moidu Maulavi and others that when their brothers were being shot dead by the army, he could not stay back.
Mohammed Abdurahman, Moidu Maulavi and Ponmadath Moideen Koya left for Pukkottur that night in a horse-drawn carriage. A few miles along that journey, the horse ran amuck. They had to leave the horse and travel in a bullock cart. They reached Kondotty at nine in the morning. At Kondotty they came to know that the military had gone not to Pukkottur, but to Tirurangadi. They heard about the developments in Tirurangadi and decided to rush to Pukkottur, a nerve-centre of the Khilafat Movement, where the Mappilas had been preparing to face the British Army.

Abdurahman had reasons to worry. He knew the Mappilas were making preparations for an armed conflict. He had stopped a group of Mappilas from a violent conflict with the police three weeks ago at Ponnani. The Khilafat volunteers who came there for an ulema meeting in a charged atmosphere had clashed with the police, and the situation was brought under control by the intervention of Abdurahman and K Kelappan who rushed to the scene.

Abdurahman and others reached Pukkottur by noon. A big crowd had gathered, brandishing arms, ready to march to Tirurangadi to seek revenge. Rumours spread that the Tirurangadi mosque had been destroyed, that the sacred jaram at Mambram had been defiled, and that Ali Musaliar had called for jehad against the foreign rulers.
Abdurahman climbed on top of the bullock-cart he arrived in, and addressed the gathering. He said he too would be happy to lay down his life for a sacred cause, but it was futile to fight the powerful British Army, which was well equipped to crush them. But his words were falling on deaf ears. Desperate to stop the crowds from moving to Tirurangadi, Abdurahman rushed to Manjeri in the same cart to seek the support of senior Congress leader K. Madhavan Nair.

Madhavan Nair had been released from the prison only three day ago. He was arrested in Kozhikode on February 15 along with Yakub Hassan and two other Congress leaders for defying prohibitory orders. He was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment. Released on August 17, a huge pubic reception had been arranged for him at the Kozhikode beach. The next day, Madhavan Nair had reached his home at Manjeri, a small town in the middle of Ernad which had become a political volcano on the verge of explosion.

Madhavan Nair remembers the eventful day in his book Malabar Kalapam: It was afternoon and I was sitting on the verandah of my house. Suddenly a huge cloud gathered in the sky and completely covered the sun. A fierce storm started and then darkness fell along with a tremendous downpour. As the rain started pelting, I saw a bullock-cart coming in my direction and two persons jumped out of it: the first was Mohammed Abdurahman, secretary of the Kerala Khilafat committee…

Madhavan Nair had already held a meeting with some Pukkottur Mappila leaders that morning. On the day of his release, M.P. Narayana Menon, secretary of Ernad Congress committee, met him at Kozhikode and urged him to go to Pukkottur. As he reached home, he sent word to Pukkottur requesting the leaders to meet him. He saw that the Mappila leaders of Pukkottur were divided, one group willing to listen to him and the other aggressive and defiant. They told him that arrest warrants had been issued against them. “If you are arrested the police may take you in a car, but if we are caught our bones will be crushed,” they said. He reasoned with them patiently to convince them that violence would only bring more disaster.

Madhavan Nair recalls that Abdurahman was sad and agitated. There was not even a moment to lose. They alerted M.P. Narayana Menon and all the three rushed again to Pukkottur in a last-ditch effort to stop the Mappilas from taking up arms.
They reached Pukkottur around six p.m. More than 200 people armed with swords, guns and knives had collected there. They were getting ready to march to Tirurangadi.
Madhavan Nair’s speech to the crowd there was fervent and emotionally charged. He told the crowd to stop their violent plans, and to drop their weapons. Violence would only bring disastrous consequences to them and their families, to the freedom movement and Khilafat, and to the Hindu-Muslim unity forged over the years. He tried to quell the rumours that the Tirurangadi mosque had been destroyed. Even if it had actually happened, what was the use of taking up arms? “I urge upon you in the name of God to drop your arms and remain peaceful. If you are willing to listen to me, I will be the first man to face the British bullets standing in front of you”, he told them.

Abdurahman told them that resorting to violence was against the interests of the Khilafat Movement. It was also against Islam. The appeals by leaders had brought some temporary reprieve, but they knew they had lost the battle to win their hearts. They decided to return. Abdurahman, Moidu Maulavi and Moideen Koya returned to Kozhikode and Madhavan Nair and Narayana Menon left for Manjeri. K N Panikkar says that it was a wrong decision not to stay back; as leaders, they were abandoning the crowd to their fate.

The next day Abdurahman reached Kozhikode. By that time the rebellion had spread.

Mohammed Abdurahman and senior leaders of the Congress and Khilfaft movements made two attempts to return to the rebel zone in the next few days, but their visits had no impact on the rebels. They had already established their own rule and Variankunnath Kunhahammed Haji, who had been declared as the king, had started issuing passports for travel in the rebel zone. Their first visit to Ernad took place on August 21. The leaders, including K.P. Kesava Menon, U. Gopala Menon, Mohamed Abdurahman and E. Moidu Maulavi, encountered teams of Mappilas cutting trees to put up roadblocks; people return with booty after looting government offices and courts. According to Kesava Menon, they had to walk through remote routes and they returned after visiting Kondotty and Tirurangadi, without meeting Ali Musaliar and other leaders of the rebellion. On their return journey that night, they found a bridge being destroyed at Ramanattukara. They had to travel by the Chaliyar River in a boat to reach Kozhikode.

The second trip was on August 26. Martial law had already been in force, the military had taken over the entire region and entry to the rebel zones was restricted. Special permission from the district collector and martial law administrators was required for entrance. There were 24 members in the team led by KPCC secretary Kesava Menon and Khilafat Committee secretary Mohammed Abdurahman. Kesava Menon describes this trip and their meeting with Ali Musaliar in his autobiography.

The KPCC had sent a letter to the District Collector Thomas, requesting his permission to enter the rebel zone with a message of peace, urging rebel leaders to surrender. The permission was granted two days later and the Congress activists wearing khadi dress and cap left for Ttirurangadi in six vehicles. They were stopped at Feroke bridge where the military was camping. The railway station there had been converted into a military camp. G.R.F. Tottenham, the commanding officer, gave them permission, with a note on the letter: Pass 24 non-cops [non-cooperatives] from Calicut taluk to Ernad along the Feroke bridge.

From Feroke, they walked towards Tirurangadi. They saw that the railway lines had been removed, roads had been blocked with huge trees, and people hid in deserted houses keeping vigil against the police and the military. They were members of Ali Musaliar’s guerilla forces and they recognized the Congress and khilafat volunteers. Since the rebels were roaming about and were likely to shoot anyone found suspicious, they sent a messenger to Tirurangadi alerting the rebels about the arrival of the Congress leaders from Kozhikode.

It was evening when the group arrived at Tirurangadi. At the Khilafat office, Ali Musaliar arrived to meet them. Kesava Menon, Abdurahman, Gopala Menon and Moidu Maulavi went to the office room for a discussion with the Musaliar. Kesava Menon and Abdurahman urged Ali Musaliar and his followers to surrender, to save the people from British retaliation. They would certainly meet with punishment, but they argued that for the safety of majority of innocent people, it was better to avoid bloodshed.

Ali Musaliar said he could decide only after consulting his lieutenants, Lavakkutty and Kunhalavi. But Kunhalavi told Kesava Menon that there was no question of surrender. They were determined to fight to death.

As the discussions continued, the followers of Ali Musaliar were restive as they suspected the motives of Congress leaders. Sensing danger, the team decided to take leave. That was the final attempt at making peace. Travelling through rebel zones, they returned to Kozhikode, taking a pregnant woman who was trapped there with them to safety.

In the next few days, the rebellion spread to the entire South Malabar region. The armed Mappilas attacked police stations, looted treasuries, destroyed Government offices and set fire to revenue records. Railway lines were removed, telecom links damaged, bridges destroyed and roads blocked. Within a week, the entire region was controlled by the rebels. Even the Chief Secretary reported to the Government that South Malabar, except the Palakkad taluka, was under rebel administration. Government machinery was at a standstill. Courts and Government offices were deserted, and police and revenue authorities withdrew to safety.

Government retaliation was brutal. Three squads of the Leinster Regiment had already been alerted. On August 21 the military commander Captain Mc Enroy took over the administration from the District Collector, Thomas. Martial law was declared all over Malabar on August 26. Special forces set to work to repair the roads, rails and bridges, and reinstate communication lines. A marine unit also arrived in HMS Comus to help army operations. The rebels had a direct confrontation with the army at Pukkottur on August 26 and again at Tirurangadi on August 31. This resulted in huge casualties. Later, they avoided direct conflict and took to guerilla warfare. As the military found it difficult to face the changed tactics of the rebels in an alien terrain, fresh forces were requisitioned; the Gorkhas and Garhwalis specializing in jungle warfare arrived and brutally quelled the rebels.

The army’s tactics can be seen from the way the men of the Dorset Regiment ran over the villagers of Melmury on October 25. They forced the Mappila women, children and old men out of their homes, bayonetted and killed a number of them. They set fire to houses on the suspicion that they had supported the rebels.

The rebels had started surrendering by late October. By the first week of December, as many as 27,000 Mappilas had laid down their arms and surrendered or killed. They included Ali Musaliar, Variankunnath Kunhahammed Haji, Chembrassery Thangal, Konnara Thangal, Seethikoya Thangal and others. Around 10,000 people were killed in the course of the rebellion and 50,000 were arrested or surrendered to the army. More than 14,000 were court-martialled and either sentenced to death or transported for life.

On the Government side, too, casualties were heavy. Around 50 special armed police officials were killed and 126 mortally wounded; 24 reserved policemen died and 30 wounded. Eight army officers including one colonel were killed; 200 men were either killed or seriously wounded. Hundreds of Government offices, including eight revenue offices, 10 registration offices and 53 local administration offices were looted or destroyed and around 1000 Hindus were forcibly converted to Islam in the course of the six months of rebellion.

The rebellion had a long-term impact on the social and political life of Malabar. It seriously damaged the atmosphere of communal harmony that existed in the region while forcing upon the ordinary Mappilas extreme levels of hardship. A large number of them faced jail terms or death, and others had to pay huge amounts of money as penalty for losses caused during the rebellion. The Government came up with a Mappila Scheme, known as the Andaman Scheme, as a kind of a “final solution” to the rebel threat. L Large-scale deportation and resettlement of the Mappilas in the distant Andaman Islands was planned. One of the most significant consequences was the setback to the nationalist political movement as the Mappilas who lost their faith in the Congress Party drifted away from it and were strongly attracted by the Muslim League and its two-nation theory in later years.

Mohammed Adburahman steadfastly remained a nationalist and had to carry on a fight against the divisive politics that crept into his community in the aftermath of the rebellion. It was a hard battle for him. On the one hand, he felt the Congress leadership was not fair towards Muslims. He had even bitterly complained that the relief efforts launched by the Congress leadership in the wake of the rebellion were addressed only to the Hindus. At the same time, he felt a strong disagreement with the policy of isolation and division that the Muslim League stood for in national politics in the years to come.

(Courtesy: Muhammed Abdurahman, a biography in the national biography series, National Book Trust-India, New Delhi.)

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