Malabar Wagon tragedy

Posted by Maddy Labels:

The Mappila rebellion itself is a longish story and I am in the process of digesting the key aspects from a fine book by K Madhavan Nair titled ‘Malabar Kalapam’. The gist of the rebellion and revolt has been previously covered by my friend Murali Ramavarma in his blog.
Wikipedia summarizes - The Moplah Riots (also known as the "Moplah Rebellion", "Maappila Lahala"or ‘Malabar Kalapam’ in Malayalam) was a British-Muslim and Hindu-Muslim conflict in Kerala that occurred in 1921. During the early months of 1921, multiple events including the Khilafat movement and the Karachi resolution fueled the fires of rebellion amongst the Moplah Muslim community. A rumour spread amongst the Moplahs that the British rule had ended and the Islamic Caliphate had been re-established at Delhi.
The Kerala Government history site adds - Gandhiji visited Malabar in 1921, giving a further impetus to the movement. Khilafat Committees sprang up in large numbers and the fraternity between the Hindus and Muslims, through the work in Congress - Khilafat Committees, was a truly remarkable feature of the non-co-operation movement in Kerala, in its early stages
A tragic episode then ensued, namely the Moppila Rebellion or the Malabar Rebellion of 1921. Police attempted to arrest the secretary of the Khilafat Committee of Pokottur in Eranad on a charge of having stolen a pistol. A crowd of 2000 Moppilas from the neighbourhood foiled the attempt. The next day, a police party in search of Khilafat rebels entered the famous Mambaram mosque at Tirurangadi. They seized some records and arrested a few Khilafat volunteers. A rumour spread that the mosque was desecrated. Hundreds of rustic Moppilas converged on Tirurangadi and besieged the local police station. The police opened fire. The mob reacted in a mad fury. Violence spread and engulfed Eranad and Valluvanad taluks and neighbouring areas for over two months. Congress leaders tried in vain to check the violence. Towards the later stages of the rebellion, owing to unfounded rumour of Hindus having helped the police or sought police help, there were instances of atrocities perpetrated on Hindus. This marred the relations between the two communities. Meanwhile British and Gurkha regiments were rushed to the area. Martial law was clamped. A series of repressive measures followed and by November, the rebellion was practically crushed. Relief operations in the ravaged areas, undertaken mostly by voluntary agencies which received help and funds from Gandhiji, lasted for over six months.
It was in those final stages that the wagon tragedy occurred. Varmam had reminded us of the wagon tragedy in the bog with the same title. Though I do not recall it, this also figured in the fine Malayalam movie 1921.
A train started from Tirur on Nov 19th, 1921with the wagon full (over a 100)of rioting Moppilas, destined to the Coimbatore jails. Arrested Muslim rioters were to be transferred to the Central Prison in Podanur (near Coimbatore). They were bundled into a Goods/Freight wagon, and the train started its journey. At Podanur it was found out that the jail was full to its maximum capacity, and the prisoner’s were ordered to be taken back.

A survivor narrated the sad events that transpired ‘we were perspiring profusely and we realized that air was insufficient and we could not breathe. We were so thirsty that some of us drank perspiration from our clothes. I saw something like gauze over the door with very small holes so that no air could come in. Some of us tried to put it away but we were not strong enough’.
At Podanur, the wagon was inspected before return, where a horrible sight of many dead men awaited the authorities. Varying figures of dead are quoted, between 60 and 70. GS Chatra in his book states that 46 were DOA, 6 died as they were being taken out and two died enroute the hospital. After hospitalization, 16 more died totaling the dead to 70. The wagon with the dead was sent back to the waiting throngs at Tirur.

The Madras government took it lightly stating that the disaster was ‘a result of circumstances’ and that nobody could be held responsible.
Lord Willington instituted a commission amid the wild clamor for justice and in Aug 1922, a report listed the guilty and recommended actions against them (I never could find out who they were or what actions were taken). Each family was paid a ‘magnanimous’ compensation of Rs 300/-.
A monument (Wagon tragedy town hall) to this notorious tragedy can be now seen at Tirur. The Tirur wagon itself measured 18’x9’x7.5’. Comparing this to the holocaust trains used by the Nazis to transport Jews to Auschwitz, the Nazis’ usually had 50 people in one wagon, and only towards the later days packed a maximum of 100..

What started as the Khilafat movement soon spread into an agrarian and religious revolt. The revolt and the atrocities resulted in high handed actions like the above. The high handed actions brought down the British from their moral high ground and the resulting sympathy waves amongst Indians were one of the precursors for the mass uprisings against the British colonial rule
Most of you may not know that a person who was very much affected by this one event and many other Malabar atrocities was none other than our Carnatic nightingale MS Subbalakshmi. She later contributed to the Moplah relief fund. I chanced upon this snippet while browsing her biography, Fragments of a life – Mythili Sivarama (MSS’s granddaughter)
Encyclopaedia of Political Parties - By Ralhan, O. P.
Added note - Jan 8th 2009
A number of questions were asked by readers as to who the dead were and if they were rioters & prisoners in the first place. So I am adding some more details as follows.

Most books I referred to mention that the dead were ‘convicted’ and sentenced (under summary martial law rules though) political prisoners being transported for internment to the Podanur Jail. ‘New Outlook’ By Alfred Emanuel Smith mentions in page 698 that the wagon was freshly painted and hence even the small ventilation holes were blocked!! (In fact the British faced a previous disaster where a number of English soldiers were killed while transportation in a similar way in a Karachi troop train!!). The book MP Narayana Menon by MPS Menon provides partial information of the 61 dead as follows - 32 were coolies, 19 agricultural laborers, 4 mukri’s, 2 tea shop keepers, 2 mosque attendants & 2 preachers. This was the # 77 Calicut - Madras Passenger train. If I read right, the Hindu Correspondent filed the first report from Coimbatore. It was early in the morning of Nov 22nd that the tragedy came to light. That particular report stated that the prisoners were actually bound for Bellary.

Madhavan Nair’s book Malabar Kalapam provides the following information – The jails were over crowded and it was virtually impossible to house the convicted in Tirur. The personnel tasked with the transportation to Podanur were Col Humphreys, Mr Hitchcock (Police Supdt) & Mr Evans. The train was to be escorted by police, but no policemen were available. In the past open wagons were used, but Mr. Hitchcock in his hearing explains that he thought this not a good idea. He was of the opinion that they would be seen by the public who may rise to their rescue. The first wagons used were those meant for transporting cattle. Then came the goods wagon which was more secure from Hitchcock’s point of view. Such methods were regularly used in transporting all kinds of prisoners from Calicut to Cannnore (Stated by K Kelappan - Fortunately when he and others were transported, the door was kept open and a policeman kept as guard). In total 2600 prisoners were transported on 32 trips in such a fashion. On this fateful day the doors were sealed, the sergeant & constable moved on to relax in another compartment. The doors remained closed until the train reached Coimbatore. During a subsequent inquisition, the sergeant stated that at Cheruvannur, he had heard prisoners screaming for water. But as there was no time, none were given. A number of witnesses stated to having heard screams at Olavakkot & other stations. The prisoners went crazy & berserk in their quest for air and water. Brahmadattan Namudiri in his book adds that every two prisoners were handcuffed together in this wagon. They scratched, bit and clawed each other in their death throes, and the wounds were evident on the dead bodies.

The Coimbatore medical officer confirmed death by suffocation even though authorities wanted to pass it off as due to other causes. The news reached the press and public only because Coimbatore was not under martial law. Hitchcock was found not guilty in the later commission investigation. The wagon manufacturer, the traffic inspector and the poor sergeant were stated as the guilty parties. The compensation to the family of each of the dead was Rs 300/-.


  1. Murali RamaVarma

    Interesting post! The grim stories of the early mappila families sent to Andaman Islands could be had from a series of government letters published by the Kerala State Archives , titled "Archives Treasury".

  1. Sarah

    Maddy, not sure if you had read this book "Pan-Islam in British Indian politics by Naeem Qureshi. he had written about Mappila rebellion (page 445).. The book can be found on google book search.
    Newyork times Archive on Mappilla riots

    forgot to mention..Didn't know abt MS contributing money for the Mappila relief fund.. Enjoyed reading your article

  1. Maddy

    thanks Muralai - i have to try & get that book.
    Sarah - thanks for the comment - i tried accessing the Google book pages, but those pages seem out of bounds for me. however i have quite a few books on the moplah riots, this event was not covered well in any of them, though.

  1. Anonymous

    That was a very interesting article indeed. Please continue posting similar articles from Kerala history.

  1. Calicocentric കാലിക്കോസെന്‍ട്രിക്

    Moyarath Sankaran's description of wagon tragedy has some details not seen elsewhere. See herea scan from his autobiography.

  1. Maddy

    thanks Calicocentric - that is a nice addition to the write up - especially the mention of the doctor