Moplah Rebellion



  • Widely hailed as one of the first nationalist uprisings in southern India, the Malabar Rebellion of 1921 started off as a peasant movement against the British and the upper-caste Hindu landlords, owing mainly to the new land laws introduced by the British government in the early 19th century.
  • August 2021, marks the centenary of events known as ‘Mappila Lahala’ in Malayalam and Moplah Rebellion in British Colonial records, which took place in Malabar in 1921.
  • Some celebrate it as an “agrarian movement”, even an “anti-imperialistic rebellion”, and the Kerala government in 1971 had recognised the rebels of 1921 as “freedom fighters”, but others have termed it a “communal riot”.


What led to the Malabar Riots?

  • Land ownership in Malabar
    • Malabar’s agricultural system was historically based on a hierarchy of privileges, rights and obligations for all principal social groups.
    • The Jenmi, consisting mainly of the Namboothiri Brahmins and Nair chieftains, were the highest level of the hierarchy, and a class of people given hereditary land grants by the Naduvazhis or rulers.
    • Owing to their ritual status as priests (Nambudris), the jenmis could neither cultivate nor supervise the land but would instead provide a grant of kanam to a kanakkaran in return for a fixed share of the crops produced.
    • However, during the 19th century, conversions to Islam increased dramatically from lower caste, and they freed themselves from traditional disabilities of caste.
  • Other reforms introduced
    • Tipu Sultan’s Kingdom of Mysore, drove the Jenmi out of Malabar, and reached accord with the Muslim Kanakkars.
      • A new system of land revenue was introduced for the first time in the region’s history, with the government share fixed on the basis of actual produce from the land.
    • However, within five years, the East India Company took over Malabar, defeating Tipu Sultan and ending his reign over the region.
      • This allowed the Jenmi to return to their homes and regain the lands lost during the Mysorean invasion, with the help of the Company administration and its duly-constituted courts.
    • The Company introduced several Western juridical concepts, such as that of absolute property rights, into the existing legal system of Malabar.
      • As a result all land became the private property of the Jenmi.
      • This legal recognition gave them the right to evict tenants, which was in turn enforced through the colonial civil courts.
      • Also, as conditions worsened, rents rose to as high as 75–80% of net produce.
    • This caused great resentment among the Mappilas, who were the indigenous Muslim community in Kerala’s Malabar region, who trace their origin to the coming of the Arab traders in the 9th century, credited with having brought Islam to the west coast of India.
      • The Mappilas were mostly agricultural labourers on land owned by the upper-caste Hindus under the British.
    • Thus, as a result of British policies, the Moplah community, lost their formal or customary rights, which they had enjoyed for a long time.


Areas in red show Taluks affected by Massacre


The Rebellion

  • The uprising, which started on 20 August 1921, carried on for several months, forcing the British authorities to impose martial law to end the rebellion.
  • Without economic resources, pushed to the corners, and radicalized by an extremist minority, the men who sparked the outrages exemplified a combination of factors that birthed violence.
    • To this was added the trigger of the Khilafat Movement in 1921, with protests against the post-World War I unseating of the Ottoman Caliph.
  • Initially, the rebels robbed and looted government establishments to stockpile arms and other necessities with the intent to create a Khilafat state.
    • They did not attack Hindus or rob landlords
    • Nevertheless, they killed police officers and collaborators and destroyed property
  • The Malabar Rebellion witnessed many attacks on British officers in the region.
  • During the early phase of the rebellion, the targets were primarily the Jenmi and the colonial government.
  • By October 1921, the rebels and their leaders were making an impact, and unrestrained violence on the general populace was unbearable.
  • The uprising reportedly led to the death of around 10,000 people, including 2,339 of the rebels.
    • Also, Many Hindus were forced to convert to Islam.


Reaction and Aftermath

  • In the aftermath of the uprising, the Suddhi Movement was created by the Arya Samaj.
    • They converted over 2,000 Hindus who had been forcibly converted to Islam by the Mappilas.
  • Various leaders of the movement, were sentenced to death following the Malabar Rebellion.
  • By the end of 1921, the situation was brought under control.
    • The colonial government raised a special quasi-military (or Armed Police) battalion, the Malabar Special Police, initially consisting of non-Muslims and trained by the colonial army.
    • The Special Police then engaged the rioters and eventually put an end to the riot.
  • On 19 November 1921 when the uprising was near its end, almost 100 people were sent by train from Tirur to the Central Prison, Bellary in the Madras Presidency.
    • But, after opening the wagon in Podanur, it was found that, 64 of them had died.
    • This is known as the Wagon Massacre or Bellary Train Tragedy.
    • Also, their deaths through apparent negligence discredited the British Raj and generated sympathy for the Indian independence movement.


Related Developments

  • The 1921 rebellion is back in the eye of a storm in its centenary year, with the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) deciding to remove the names of 387 participants who lost their lives from The Dictionary of Martyrs of India’s Fre­e­dom Struggle (1857-1947), including prominent leaders such as Variam­ku­nnath Ahmad Haji, who was shot dead on January 20, 1922, and Musliyar, who was hanged in Coimbatore on February 17, 1922.