The legend of Variyamkunnath Kunjahammed Haji, the brave freedom fighter who stood up to the British in Kerala’s Malabar region in early 20th century and even established a short-lived regime of his own, is all set to be portrayed on the silver screen. The film, purportedly titled ‘Variyamkunnan’, directed by Aashiq Abu and starring Prithviraj Sukumaran in the titular role, is expected to hit theatres in 2021, the 100th-year anniversary of the Malabar uprising. Read in Malayalam
Kunjahammed Haji is an important figure in the echelons of Kerala’s colonial history as a rebel leader who took on the mighty British Raj. He was born into an affluent Muslim family sometime in the 1870s, and grew up hearing stories of the torture and injustice meted out by the British to the locals and to his own family. His father, Moideenkutty Haji, was deported and jailed in the Andaman Islands for his participation in a rebellion against the British. Such personal incidents, very early on in his life, played an important role in lighting the fire of vengeance inside Kunjahammed.
An interesting facet in Haji’s early life was his fascination with traditional music-based art forms like Daffumutt and poems like ‘Malappuram Padappattu’ and ‘Badr Padappattu’ and how he used art as an instrument to rally the locals against the British.
By invoking such poems, that spoke of the exploitation of the peasants by feudal lords under the British and which were later banned by them, Kunjahammed Haji was simultaneously challenging the British and igniting sentiments against them among the local population. These acts were a continuation of a stream of anger that had begun to strengthen against the colonialists and which is believed to have resulted in the Malabar uprising in 1921.
Dr Hussain Randathani wrote that Kunhahammed Haji was respected for his scholarship and knowledge in Urdu, Arabic and English. According to the historian, during a meeting in Manjeri, Kattilassery Muhammad Musaliyar and MP Narayana Menon, leaders of Khilafat movement and the Indian National Congress, introduced him to the Khilafat cause, “though he thought that it was a Turkish question (sic). “However, he promised to join with them against the atrocities of the British and the landlords.”
“When Haji got the news that his countryman and Khilafat leader Ali Musaliyar was arrested at Tirurangadi and the mosque has been looted and some police officers killed in the ensuing fight, Haji decided to take arms against the British and arranged a band of army with the help of some sepoys who enthusiastically rallied behind him. As the leader of the Khilafat, he was mostly heard all over Calicut and south Malabar.”
Though prominent British accounts cast him as a religious fanatic to create divisions within the movement, Haji was aware of the strength of Hindu-Muslim unity and ensured people of other faiths were given adequate security.
Don’t miss from Explained | Has the Sino-Indian relationship slipped into mutual suspicion territory?
Mujeeb Rahman, a professor at Calicut University, told IndianExpress.com that the Haji ensured that the movement had a secular character. “There was a possibility of the movement losing direction and perhaps even resulting in a communal riot. But Haji gave orders to his followers that people of other faiths were to be given adequate security and not be subjected to torture. But at the same time, he targeted all those who helped the British, be they Hindu or Muslim.”
As the rebellion helmed by the Haji and others began to spread across the Ernad and Valluvanad taluks of erstwhile Malabar district, British officers and the local police loyal to them escaped, leaving vast tracts of territory firmly under the control of the local rebels. The territory was declared an ‘independent state’ in August 1921 with Haji its undisputed ruler.
For nearly six months, Haji ran a parallel Khilafat regime headquartered in Nilambur, with even its own separate passport, currency and system of taxation. During the time, an extensive army with the participation of Hindu men was built with the express aim of thwarting any attempt by the British to overthrow the Khilafat rule. Tenants were granted the power over the lands they cultivated along with tax incentives.
But the rule did not last long. In January 1922, under the guise of a treaty, the British betrayed Haji through his close friend Unyan Musaliyar, arresting him from his hideout and producing him before a British judge. He was sentenced to death along with his compatriots.
📣 Express Explained is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@ieexplained) and stay updated with the latest
“When the police officer began to cover his eyes with a towel, he objected saying that he wanted to see the shooting. While Haji was chanting the holy words of Kalimah, he was shot dead… his comrades were also shot at the same place. The bodies were cremated fearing that the grave may become further inspiration for the rebels… all the records connected with the Khilafat raj was burnt in order to make the people forget the Mappila khilafat rule of six months,” wrote Dr Randathani.