In the course of the BJP’s Jana Raksha Yatra in Kerala, the state BJP chief, Kummanam Rajasekharan, described the 1921 Malabar rebellion as the first jihadi massacre in Kerala. The Sangh Parivar has, in the past too, insisted that this contested episode in the history of the freedom movement be remembered as an anti-Hindu revolt. Historians have, however, warned against such a reductive reading and encouraged an approach that recognises the numerous strands of this complex event.
The Malabar rebellion or Moplah revolt was inspired by the Khilafat Movement, which sought to bring Hindus and Muslims together to fight the British occupation of India. The Muslim-dominated southern Malabar region of the Madras Presidency wholeheartedly responded to the call of Gandhi and the Ali Brothers and revolted against the British administration. Scholars have argued that the rebellion was the culmination of a series of revolts by the restive peasantry of the region, mostly Muslims, from the 19th century onwards. By the time Khilafat Movement was declared, its relations with the British administrators and their local allies, the landlords, a majority of them upper caste Hindus, had frayed. When the British forces cracked down on the Movement, the class and religious divides came to the fore.
The religious undertone of the popular rebellion gave way to a communal overtone as it spread across the region. The anti-colonial impulse that triggered the rebellion receded to the background and the communal outrages committed by a section of the rebels became the focus of attention, especially since the post-Khilafat years saw a widening of the Hindu-Muslim divide. The British crackdown on the rebellion was severe: Many men found or suspected to have participated in the revolt were sentenced to death and a large number of them were shipped to the Andamans, then a penal colony of the British empire. Over a hundred prisoners died of suffocation in a railway wagon during the journey.
Communities in the region harbour very different memories of the rebellion. Recent scholarship on the rebellion has sought to contextualise it and explain its different strands — peasant unrest, religious dimension of the rebel leadership, anti-British impulse, and the communal outrages. Privileging a particular strand and relegating the others for political gain could amount to a communal reading of the event. The Jana Raksha Yatra has acquired a polarising pitch since it was flagged off last week. The BJP leadership must reflect on this outcome since it defeats the stated intent of the yatra, which is to end political violence.