A controversy that has broken over a painting of the 1921 Wagon Tragedy, which was removed from Tirur railway station in Malappuram, Kerala, is a throwback to past debates over the character of the Mappilah Rebellion, which had led to at least 60 prisoners suffocating to death in a windowless freight wagon. These men were among 90 rebels, all Muslims, who had been sent by British officials to a prison in Pothanur near Coimbatore. They died in transit. The Wagon Tragedy incident, which took place on November 20, 1921, two years after the Jalianwala Bagh massacre, is remembered as one of the many horrific acts of the colonial administration.
However, the Mappilah Rebellion, also known as the Malabar Rebellion, has been a contested affair from the very beginning. Left historians see it as a continuation of the struggles the Mappilah peasantry had waged since the mid-1850s against the predominantly Hindu landlords of British Malabar and the colonial administration. The nationalists see it as an episode of British outrage against the Khilafat Movement, which later took on a communal character. The Hindu right perceives it as a merely communal incident in which Muslim fanatics targeted Hindus.
This contested history of the Mappilah Rebellion explains the diametrically opposite response from the BJP and CPM to the Wagon Tragedy painting. BJP Tirur mandal committee K P Pradeep told this newspaper that the painting is “highly objectionable and outrages the sentiments of Hindus” because the people remembered “had been involved in massacre of Hindus during the Mappila riot”. In a Facebook post, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan described “the Wagon Tragedy… an important chapter of our freedom struggle. The decision (of the Railways) amounts to insulting the struggle in 1921.”
Tirur was at the heart of the Mappilah Rebellion that broke out in August 1921. Martial law was first imposed in four talukas of British Malabar — Kozhikode, Ernad, Valluvanad and Ponnani — and later in Kurumbranad and Wayanad taluks. Though the leaders of the rebellion, including Ali Musaliyar, surrendered by the month-end, the British administration continued making arrests. However, outrage among the Dorset Regiment in Eranad, Valluvanad and Manjeri against Muslims caused a resurgence in rebel activities and massive retribution. In a military action in Melmuri near Malappuram on October 25, 246 persons, including old men and children, were shot dead by British soldiers. By December, at least 27,000 Muslims had been arrested by the colonial administration. The breakdown of law and order and the religious fervour among many of the rebels turned the rebellion communal in its later stages. Many of the rebels seem to have believed that Hindus, including Congressmen, were siding with the British administration. There were reports of forced conversions and killings of Hindus, which further sharpened the Hindu-Muslim divide and later influenced the assessment of the rebellion. The communal aspect also reinforced the stereotype of the Mappilah rebel as a religious fanatic. It is also pointed out that rebel leaders such as Ali Musaliyar and Variankunnathu Kunjahammed Haji actively worked against the conversions. The fear and anxiety among the Hindu minority in the region, many of whom fled the rebel areas, found an echo in the writings of poets such as Kumaran Asan and novelists like Uroob P C Kuttikrishnan.
Historian M Gangadharan, who has written extensively on the rebellion, notes that the six months when the rebellion was at its peak was a period of intense trauma for both Hindus and Muslims. At least 10,000 Mappilah Muslims were killed and almost a same number were expelled from the region, including to the Andamans. Gangadharan argues that the rebellion was almost the making of R H Hitchcock, the police superintendent who led the British police during the revolt. Using Hitchcock’s own official history of the rebellion, he notes that the British misread the impact of the Khilafat struggle in Muslim-dominant areas of Malabar, which led to excessive police action, arrests and so on, triggering a backlash from the Mappilah Muslims. The large presence of Muslims in the Congress meeting at Kozhikode, which was addressed by Mahatma Gandhi and Maulana Shaukat Ali, was interpreted by colonial officials as a call to arms. Khilafat leaders such as K Madhavan Nair, Kunjahammad Haji and U Gopala Menon were disallowed from speaking at Khilafat functions. The success of the AICC meeting in Ottappalam in April 1921 also rattled the colonial administration, which later arrested influential Congress/Khilafat leaders such as Madhavan Nair, Yacub Hasan, Moidu Maulvi and Gopala Menon. The deliberate move by colonial officials to remove the Khilafat leaders, in addition to police and army outrage, also left the rebellion without a mature and experienced leadership. The communal twist made it easy for the British to use the rebellion to discredit the Khilafat movement and divide the Hindus and Muslims.
In 1971, the coalition government led by CPI leader C Achutha Menon recognised the Mappilah rebellion as part of the freedom struggle and extended pension to the survivors. A decade later, the Centre too recognised the rebellion as an anti-colonial struggle and offered support to the survivors and families. But the debate on whether it ought to be seen as a peasant struggle, an anti-colonial uprising that took a communal turn or merely an action by religious fanatics has never had closure, as the Tirur episode reveals.