The Malabar rebellion and some Hindu leaders

Posted by Maddy Labels: ,

You know, when you look at the situation today, you will despair somewhat, for large numbers of Muslims are going militant over some misguided idiot’s making of a movie or perhaps just a very offensive youtube clip. But then again, you wonder, why so much of focus on religion or so many issues in the name of religion? There is so much to do, to improve ourselves and our standards of living and those of our children. Instead of focusing on all that, people spend their time fighting over matters of smaller consequence, typically cases mixing politics with religion, where people whip up the emotions of others, and exhort them to commit violence. The Moplah rebellion was also one such case, when our own senior politicians did exactly that, mixing Khilafat, quickly becoming a lost cause, with the Indian independence movement. Life I guess continues on, without any change, nobody has learnt anything, wasting time, money, valuable resources and eventually, lives.

I wrote in the Andaman blog about the presence of a Nambudiri and four Nairs among the first batch of Moplah convicts who were supposed to be transported to the Andamans. I was initially under the impression that they were transported for life, but it was not so. Let’s take a look at those interesting persons. It is interesting to note that some of these people at the fore of the Khilafat movement were Hindus. There were many others like KP Keshava Menon etc on the fringes, but let’s focus on those who were in the midst, for now.

We have so many books of the Malabar rebellion, and I am sure many more interpretations are on the way or on the anvil, being shaped. Many of them slight the actual truth in some way or the other. They cover the Muslim activists; they cover the events and the high handed British authorities. But if you read the earlier versions, even Hitchcock’s own records, you will understand that there was more than what we thought or were led to believe. Nevertheless, it was a story from long ago, an ugly story at that, cast eventually in the mold of an independence revolution. But the reader’s interest will perk up knowing that the Khilafat movement had Hindu leaders, and an inquisitive mind will wonder why nobody mentioned it in all those books, in greater detail.

One of the Hindus in the midst was MP Narayayana Menon, who is covered well in the MPS Menon book, another was Brahmadattan Nambudiri who himself wrote his memoirs about the events. I am not too sure who the third and the fourth Nayars were, perhaps Elaya Nair, Kesavan or maybe Kelu Nayar. Perhaps there was Parambote Achutankutty Menon in this mix. Let us take a look at a couple of those Hindu leaders and figure out why & how they were involved in what was primarily a Moplah revolt.

First a few quick words about the Khilafat movement and the start of the revolt, in the Wikipedia words

In the First World War, the Sultan of Turkey, who was also the spiritual leader (Khalifa) of world Muslims, sided with Germany against Britain. This helped to align the Indian Muslim population against Britain, which started protesting against the British war against Turkey. To assuage their feelings, the Indian Viceroy, representing the British parliament, repeatedly announced that the war was only against the Turkish Government and not against the Caliphate (Khilafat), and promised that Muslim holy places and the Khalifa would be protected. But this promise was broken after the war, the Turkish Empire was broken apart, and the Khalifa was reduced to a puppet ruler as per the Paris accord. Indian Muslims started a protest movement requesting the restoration of the powers of the Caliphate, and the Khilafat Conference conducted on 30 June, 1920, at Allahabad announced non-violent non-co-operation against the British Government. Indian National Congress, led by Mahatma Gandhi, also offered its support to this movement, though key leaders like Motilal Nehru and Annie Besant opposed it.

In August, 1920, Mahatma Gandhi, Rajagopalachari and Maulana Naushad Ali visited Malabar as part of a campaign to support Khilafat movement, and this invigorated Khilafat-Congress committees across Malabar. The Khilafat Committee in Malabar was led by Kunji Koya Thangal, Hassan Koya Mulla, Melekkandi Moideen Koya, U. Gopala Menon, M P Narayana Menon, K Madhavan Nair, Kattilasseri Muhammad Musaliar, Variyam Kunnath Kunju Muhammad Haji, Edarakkunnam Ali Musaliar, and Muhammad Abdul Rahman Sahib. On 30 January, 1921, the Congress committee met in Kozhikode and decided to set up Congress Khilafat committees in South Malabar. In response to this, the district collector banned Khilafat meetings, but Khilafat movement gained strength in spite of the ban and various suppressive measures.

On February 16, 1921, British police arrested the leaders Yakoob Hassan, Madhavan Nair, Gopala Menon and Moitheen Koya, and clamped curfew on Valluvanad and Eranad taluks. This led to simmering tension. In August 17, 1921, a major reception was given to Gopala Menon and Madhavan Nair who were released from jail, and it was attended by people from all parts of Malabar. In response, the government conducted an Army flag march from Parappanangadi to Thirurangadi. On 20th August, police surrounded East Mosque and houses of many Khilafat workers, raided the mosque and Khilafat committee office, and arrested three people.

And that was the start of a period of mayhem and revolt…Soon the revolt spread,but that is a long and complicated story. It was a time when the Independence movement mingled with the problems faced by the poorer working class or the Kudiyans. It was a time when the English had reestablished themselves after defeating the Mysore Sultans. It was a time when the Moplahs who had savored their independence from the erstwhile Jenmis under the Mysore rulers suddenly found the situation reversed in the 19th century when the English established status quo (reestablishment of the old land tenure system or Janmam Kanam Maryada) to what it was in the old Malabar. The Jenmis where tougher after their return from Travancore, the matters were taking a rougher turn for the Moplah working classes. As the situation was simmering, a lawyer came to their assistance in Ernad, at Angadipuram to be precise, and his name was MP Narayana Menon.

His story is certainly a sad one, for he wasa person who was selfless in his actions, steadfast in his thought and what a leader should be, not afraid of the consequences, as he fought for a cause, the uplifting of the state of the poor Moplahs of Ernad. He did not support their militancy or any kind of violence, but just wanted them to have a better life, he wanted the men to be treated fairly by the Jenmis, he wanted their wives or the Ummas to be better off, working and independent and all ‘ummachikuttikal’ as he termed them, or small children to better educated to handle the future. He lived and worked among them, got ostracized in return, was termed a mlecha by his own family for consorting with the Moplahs and roundly criticized by all and sundry, including other leaders of the time and ironically, by many a Muslim leader. Thankless, that was his situation, in that atmosphere fraught with political tension where people were jockeying for their own legacies, be it Rajaji or Gandhiji or Keshava Menon. In the middle of all this came the strident clamor for a split of the country, and locally, even talk of cordoning off a Moplistan in the middle of Malabar.

MPN Menon started his career as a lawyer and soon became the Kerala Pradesh Congress secretary. Since then his aim was to take the message to the Moplahs of Ernad, change their ways and to build up Hindu Muslim solidarity against the British. Later he became the Khilafat secretary of Ernad where he formed Khilafat cells with his friends Kattisseri Mohammed Muslaiyar, Ali Musaliyar, Pareekutty Musaliyar and KM Moulawi sahib. While their efforts unfortunately showed results as a few days of uncontrollable violence in 1921, the end result was establishment of agrarian reforms that made life easier for the Moplah after independence. Gandhian in his support for non violence, his efforts were torn apart by other vested interests but to revisit the Moplah rebellion would take many pages of text, so I will stick to the individual for now. It is a pity that people who covered the rebellion after that hardly mentioned this great man, barring a few like EMS and KN Panicker. MPN was the person who was once called ‘The Abu Talib of Malabar’.

When the problems in Malabar started and became worse, there was no further support from the Congress leaders, in fact there was apathy, and the mayhem became worse. Nobody came to support MPN Menon and after the fracas, when he was sentenced to 14 years of rigorous imprisonment, nobody really bothered (Gandhiji suggested that efforts from Sir CP be sought to argue his case!). After he came out, he accepted no honors, or anything to assuage his feelings and slipped out of public life, to work for the troubled to look after his ailing wife.

It must have been difficult for Narayana Menon, since the days when he decided to wear a lungi at home (today it is the main dress of a malayali at home, but in those days only Moplahs wore it – the chequered one) and play with Moplah boys - getting chastised often. Like many other boys from prominent families, Menon was educated to become a lawyer at Presidency College Madras. MPN then moved on to MCC Madras, learning political science under Prof Hogg. Returning, he established practice at Perinthalmanna and his days were spent fighting tenure & eviction cases for Moplah pattakars or farmers. It was to earn him many enemies from his caste, many being landowners. Soon he was instrumental in creating Kudiyan sangams trying to fight for their causes, while the congress concentrated on recruiting the richer and more prominent people for a visible fight against the British.

It was now 1918 and MPN had become a family man, father to four children. But life was to change and affect the young family, for the worse…In two years their world was to be torn apart and the father imprisoned, and the mother and children fleeing to Udumalpet, outside the British martial law zone.

In the meantime, far away in the west, at the locale where Asia met Europe, the allies were slowly laying claim on various parts of the remaining Ottoman Empire. Mustafa Kemal Pasha or Ataturk was the person who decided to take the reins of the resistance movement which was to continue through into 1922. Kemal Ataturk was very busy with the problems of his own country and was certainly not in support of having any kind of Caliph in power. Meanwhile, in India, the Khilafat movement was being spearheaded with vigor by the congress, but what Gandhiji and other leaders did not explain to the Moplahs was that Kemal Ataturk himself was slowly moving away from the Khilafat principles. It was around this time (Aug 1921) that Gandhiji and Shoukat Ali came and asked the Moplahs to fight for the movement. MP Narayana Menon explained to Gandhiji whom he met that it was not a very good idea. He explained that they are simple people and for them a fight is with weapons and their hands, not with nonviolence which the layman would never understand. So unless proper training is given to them, the call for revolt would result in disaster. Well, as events would prove, that was exactly what happened.

As revolt spread in Malabar and emotions got worked up, the Khilafat movement got mixed up with the agrarian struggle; they directed their ire at the landlords and the British in various forms of violence. MPN had no chance anymore; his ideals were lost in the violent melee of desperate rebels. Interestingly Gangadhara Menon writes in his book (probably an erroneous mention if you look at the words of MPN’s speech) that the MPN had his interest mainly focused on Moplah tenancy rights (and the desire to have M Krishnan Nair elected) and was not aligned to the Khilafat or nationalist movement. The revolt spread and MPN who tried to exhort the Moplahs against armed revolt could do little against the strident religious overtones whipped up by their own leaders, but following a speech

As the court records show 

The rule of the white man had come to an end. Moplahs have been known to be brave men.
They alone drove the white men from Tiruvengadi. If we all unite and stand together we will accomplish our cause. White men have only a few soldiers. If we withstand them for a few days we will get help from outside. I believe you will do it. Those who work against Khilafat are our enemies. They should not be spared…or words to this effect.

where he told the masses to rise against the British, was soon imprisoned in 1921 and sentenced to transportation to the Andamans. The Pookottur and Nilambur Kovilakom stories, as well as many others are all well documented, so I will not get into them today. Somewhere around this time, the Moplahs were led to believe that the Hindu leaders and the Congress no longer had any interest in the Khilafat and were actually supporting the British. With this the revolt took a communal direction. But the person who could explain to them, MPN, was behind bars, the public launched a signature drive and a petition for his pardon was submitted to the British since the judgment was erroneous and fixed by the police and the witnesses, as MPN sided with the Moplahs. He was told that he would be pardoned if he agreed to stay away from Malabar for 2 years, but MPN would have nothing to do with such an idea. Soon he was put into solitary confinement in Coimbatore and later transferred to Egmore jail where he spent the next decade.

After release in 1934 he tried to get his lawyers license back, but the court turned his request down. He then indulged in Moplah rehabilitation programs and the Quit India movement, was imprisoned again in 1942 and sent to Vellore. Here he taught prisoners and also became their barber, shaving and cutting their hair.

After he was released in 1946, he worked briefly in Madras, but was a reticent man, and by 1955 had slipped out of public life seeing the direction the politics of Free India was taking. He lost heart eventually, mentally and physically and left this world in 1966.

Ask anybody in Kerala or Ernad if they remember MPN. You will, most probably not see anybody or hear any kind of reaction. Regretfully, today there is nobody like him who tries to build firm and wide bridges between the communities, or exhorting that religion should not be the reason for any kind of separation. But then again, Malabar fortunately has more amity than enmity, as I wrote some months ago.

And with that we come to the next in line, Brahmadattan Nambudiri – Strange is his case, for I will start first with impressions of him by MPN which are not flattering actually. Nambudiri was involved in verbal attacks against the British in Aug 1921 and imprisoned. Briefly he met MPN at the Coimbatore jail and asked him to help him avoid the hangman’s noose. MPN castigated Namboothri for his fears and scoffed as to why he got involved if he was so scared.

Namboothiri incidentally was the Cherplasseri Pradesh congress secretary who led efforts against the British. He was a Gandhian who slipped into the British dragnet unlike MPN who worked for the Moplahs. When Gandhiji told the masses that they have to support their brethren in the Khilafat struggle, Mozhikunnath Bhramadattan was the one to take it up at Cherplasseri. When Bhrahmadattan a spoke at the temple rally (it was Tilak’s death anniversary), he as actually getting right into the middle of British crosshairs. Soon the revolt turned to mayhem and after the resulting losses in death and property and the eventual lull, the police arrested many, Brahmadattan included.

Narayanan Somayaji his father would have like him to become a Vedic scholar, but who was to know that this person would enter the violent scenes that swept the region, end up in jail and get excommunicated from his Nambudiri society. Well that was Nambudiri’s story.

As Nambudiri writes, it was a time when two revolts were running the same course, the agrarian and the Khilafat – nationalist struggle. When by chance religious animosity was thrown into the cauldron, the resulting mix was an uncontrollable explosive. As expected it blew up when the British police unleashed their atrocities against them and the resulting fires lasted some 4-6 months killing many, maiming many, destroying families and property, inciting the British against the locals even more, and ended with thousands in jails and many transported to the Andamans.

Nambudiri was eventually sentenced to transportation, but this was later reduced to imprisonment and he was interned at Bellary. His experiences can be read in his book which is very much available in stores, so I won’t get into those details. As you read it you will come across a simple man who followed his ideals, his bravery was in his heart and not mind or body. He suffered like a common man, not unflinching or anything like that, but crying and wailing like a commoner he was. His story after his return, his excommunication due to his lower standing in society is all only too revealing of the many different types of people who got jailed.

These two books about Narayana Menon and Brahmadattan Nambudiri tell us quite a bit about the events and the people involved but many others have written their own versions about the revolts, but there is one person who is not talked about much in those books. That is an individual named Mannarghat Kochunni Elaya Nayar, and so let us see what we can mine about him from the treasure trove of archived resources.

We saw what happened at Perinthalmanna and Angadipuram where Narayana Menon took the lead, Nambudiri was the spearhead at Cherplasseri and the person who took the reins at Mannarghat was one Elaya Kochunni Nair . He had associated himself with Seethi Koya Thangal and marshaled the support of the traders and trading Moplahs of Palghat. It appears that he was also a junior member from the local Janmi family. His case is not like the former, he was supposedly one of those who ended up in the middle of it all, partaking also in some of the atrocities.

Mooppil nayar and the Elaya nayar were congressmen who exhorted rebellion against the British but were not supported by Moidutty who was a local timber merchant with many Moplahs working for him. However a few others like Thonnikara Ayamu, the karyasthan for Moidutty supported the Khilafat and joined the nayars, for which he was dismissed from service. Later he was shot dead while leading a gang in Nilambur. Elaya nayar was the leader, supposedly involved in attacks against government property like bridges, attacking police stations, having others collecting money in his name for making swords, and aligning himself with Seethi Koya Tangal. The mob then attacked Moiduty’s granaries and property, demanding money. Moidutty fled to Pollachi, fearing further violence.

One disturbing fact that you will come across while reading all the records is that there were some gangs who systematically came into troubled areas, searched for and destroyed land records, which you can see was a ploy to take over land from the jenmis. Even in the case of Mannarghat, as the problems were underway, gangs came in from Angadipuram and destroyed the sub registrar’s office. But it turned out later that Elaya nayar was implicated in the whole thing by Khan Saheb Kalladi Moidutty (apparently there were long ongoing litigations and quarrel between the Muppil Nayar and the Elaya Nayar and Moidutty the timber merchant was allied with the Moopil Nayar). The basis was a letter written by Nayar to one Keshava Panickkar asking him to hand over all their guns to the Moplahs.

After he was arrested in Sept, he had Srinivasa Iyengar representing him at the court who argued for his release successfully on a technicality which was that Palghat was outside the martial law limits. So he was released. The case story is interesting; those interested can read it here.

All these stories form small parts of the large canvass called the 1921 Moplah rebellion. It is not very easy to understand or explain, unless you are somewhat neutral in your thoughts and today with a collection of first hand reports from the archives, the story becomes clearer than the duller versions published previously.

Anyway the rebellion ran its course, many were put to trial and imprisoned or transported, and finally Britain’s waning grip on the Jewel of the Crown were soon loosened. I wrote about the other end, the kalapani or the Andamans in my history blogs, covering both the Indian and the CBI angles.

But what happened to the Khilafat? Things were to take a different turn in Turkey. An Indian was to figure in it in a very interesting but tragic way and hardly a soul in India knows about it today. So I will cover that soon, in another article. As far as Ataturk the founder of modern Turkey was concerned, the old caliph Abdul Hamid had been deposed, and his interest were rightly with his country and its development, not some age old sentimentalist ideas of a Caliph or global protector. The caliphate as Querishi writes, was no longer a potent instrument of Turkish foreign policy. The Ali brothers tried hard to persuade Mustafa Kemal asking him to become the caliph, but he would have none of it. The movement as well as the concept of Moplistan that was bandied about died, though the quit India movement quickly took over.

The Turkish Ottoman Caliph, Adulhamid eventually retired with a small monthly allowance provided, ironically by the Nizam of Hyderabad. Nilufer, the last Ottoman princess, what a lovely lass she was, married the Nizam’s son and moved to Hyderabad. Her story is well, yet another of those interesting stories…


MP Narayana Menon a forgotten pioneer – Dr MPS Menon
Khilafat Smaranakal – Brahmadattan Nambudiri
Malabar rebellion – M Gangadhara Menon
Peasant revolt in Malabar – RH Hitchcock
Pan-Islam in British Indian Politics: A Study of the Khilafat Movement - M. Naeem Qureshi

Pics - from books by MPN and Brahmadattan, acknowldged with thanks

The Moplah Resettlement at Andaman

Posted by Maddy Labels:

The Malabaris of the Kalapani

The TSS Maharaja, a ship built in 1879 was on a slightly different route this time. It went south to Madras, with it usual load of Bengali and Punjabi convicts, together with inanimate provisions and mail loaded from the EIC and the P&T in Calcutta. At Madras, it loaded a motley group of confused souls, clothed in no more than dirty single dhotis and small bundles of belongings. They were mainly the Moplah convicts being moved out of Bellary. These convicts were consigned to the hot lower decks and the onboard jails, where they lounged for a day as the ship cut through the serene blue waters of the Bay of Bengal. The Moplahs were not sure where they were going, rumors were wild, some said Botany bay, some said Singapore, some felt it was Mauritius, many others were sure it was to the black waters – the Kala Pani, a place that had such a sinister reputation as a place of no return. Some of their lot were put in the prisoner cages, while others were asked to sit and lie on the floors or empty bunks. The Maharaja chugged along, the weather held good, heading to the destination - the port between the 92nd and 94th meridian E, and between 6th and 14th North – the penal colony of Port Blair - Andaman and Nicobar islands. Yes, they were headed to the Kala Pani.

TSS Maharaja

It was here that many of these people from Malabar’s Ernad areas would continue their lives to create towns named after places they came from, places such as Calicut, Wandoor, Mannarghat, Tirur and Manjery. Today there is no Calicut except in history books as well as in the minds of older people like us, for as far as mainland India is concerned, Calicut has formally been changed to Kozhikode… So perhaps only one Calicut exists on the world map today, apparently in the Indian union territory of South Andaman islands, around 20km north of Port Blair!!

Lower deck accomodations
We are now at Andaman & Nicobar Islands, where in ancient epics, it is mentioned Hanumanji took a breather during his leap across to Lanka from the abode of Sugriva and his tribe. In fact the name Andaman, is associated with Handuman or hanuman… the Andamans – is a series of scenic tropical islands mentioned by early travelers and writers such as Sulaiman, Buzurg and Ptolemy, later by Marco Polo, an abode to naked man eaters in their mind, now a vast archipelago of 572 islands in the Bay of Bengal. It is a popular tourist destination these days, but once upon a time, it was also a home for political prisoners, for rebels and a place abhorred by the occupants, where many were wasted by disease. That was kalapani..a place from where there was no return…A penal colony established by the British late in the 18th century, briefly occupied by the Japanese, where Bose made a visit to unfurl an INA flag, before finally forming part of the Indian union. It hides many stories and mysteries, and is also home to a Moplah community who were displaced from Ernad and replaced there. These were the people who elected to remain in the Kalapani, people who still talk in the old Moplah dialect of Malayalam, somewhat frozen in time…

Moplah prisoners - Malabar
The story of the movement of people to Andaman is a sad and cruel one; especially the initial century of its existence, as Andaman was to serve as the English Penal colony for Indians who acted against them. The English had chosen isolation to be a part of incarceration and in early days many a white convict was transported to Australia. As far as the Indians were concerned, the Andaman islands and the Hijli camp (near Kharagpur) were particularly infamous and followed the earlier days when they were sent to Singapore and a few other places like Botany bay in Australia, where they were tasked with clean up as well as hard labor (some even say that ‘klings’ is a derogatory usage for Indians that came from that period due to the sound of the chains that Indian convicts wore). Interestingly, the aspect of isolation was arrived at as people abhorred the prospect of back breaking labor in faraway places from which there was no return (for lifers), especially in the case of Hindu middle class caste conscious political prisoners not used to work or doing things like crossing the black waters or Kala Pani, against the tenets of early religious texts (see my article on ocean crossing taboo).

The transfer of settlers started after the British established a colony to secure the eastern seaways in 1789, but due to the difficulties in maintaining it and curbing disease and death, it was closed in 1796. For the next 60 years, it was back to where it was - an isolated island. In 1857, after the sepoy mutiny, it was reopened due to the large numbers of political prisoners and jail overcrowding. After 1858, the events took a swift course, and a penal colony was built with prisoners being dealt with on a 3rd class category or lower and as self sufficient as possible without any drain on the state. Capt Walker and his successors set a stiff pace, which wore down even the strongest of convicts when it came to clearing land and forests and driving the Andamanese out of their meager settlements. But it was not too bad after the initial work, some of the reformed were promoted to 2nd class and allowed to settle outdoors as well, and news trickled back home that it was not too bad. When prisoners now started to opt to go to the Andamans, the administration got alarmed and decided to tighten things up and make it a tougher place to live. That was why the cellular jail was built for the non self supporters, for the worst criminals.

The star fish shaped cellular Jail at Port Blair when completed in 1910 included 698 cells designed based on the madras close prisons, for solitary confinement; each cell measured 4.5 m (15 ft) by 2.7 m (9 ft) with a single ventilation window 3 metres (10 ft) above the floor. The prisoners referred to the Island and its prison as "Kala Pani" (Black waters) mainly due to the remote possibility of return and because of the difficulties in survival. Even those who made it back were wasted by malaria and various other diseases and trauma of isolation and confinement. The tenure included 6 months of solitary confinement, next 4 ½ years of gang labor, five years of paid labor, and the last 10-15 years as a self supporter, setting up his own home (assisted by the state) after which he could return. Women convicts had a three year sentence, after which they could marry locally or return after 15 years or when their husband’s term was completed. The early years were tough for the convicts, mainly political prisoners, they were treated badly by a sadistic overseer named David Barry and their lives were pretty miserable, many regretted that they were born even.

All the convicts were made to carry out hard labor, mainly related to cleaning up the islands and creating new facilities. As you will note, a large number died in this effort, supposedly in the thousands, due to harsh treatment and diseases. It is said that the name, "cellular jail", was derived from solitary cells which prevented any prisoner from communicating with each other as they were all interred in solitary confinement. The lives of the prisoners were manly reconstructed from the letters they sent home, written by themselves or by scribes. I have not been able to access the Moplah letters, though Murali’s blog mentions details of their existence, but I have to make do for now without them.

By 1912, news got out into the newspapers of the inhuman treatment and the prisoners decided to revolt, by going on hunger strikes. Jail reformation started quickly and things started to look a little better. Many women prisoners were brought back, and clothing as well as permission to cook one’s own food was given by 1914-16. It was at this juncture that the Moplah rebellion started and by 1921 many thousands were interred at jails North of Malabar. Again overcrowding of jails meant that many had to be transported, where to but Andaman?

The Moplah rebellion or outbreaks is a long story but I had given a short summary earlier. So let us continue from the Conolly death which I wrote about in detail, and with a time stamp of Sept 15th 1955.

Maharaja - Lower deck prison cells
The British reaction was forceful and with a firm intent to stop the Moplah problem. Collector Clarke was clear about taking strong handed action. The emergency act was applied and many prisoners were taken, many died, many were sent to other prison camps like Cannanore and Bellary. Some were released, some languished and a few were transported to Andamans and places like Botany Bay – Australia. Heavy fines were imposed on them and their villages as well. Slowly the land tried a return to the pre Mysorean situation. Finally things boiled over, post Khilafat movement in 1921 (a subject that is better explained in many books on the subject) and major outbreaks, also classified as rebellions, took place in Malabar. The British retaliation was severe. Some 252 were executed; many lost their lives in the rioting and close to 4500 were imprisoned at Bellary. But there were facilities for only 1500 in that camp and as a result, a decision was taken (Hitchcock seems to have promoted the idea) to transfer a good number to Andamans. In addition a final solution or the Mappila scheme was planned to transport even more Moplahs to Andaman, but due to fierce resistance by the Indian national congress, the plan was dropped in 1925.

The TSS Maharajah docked at Port Blair and discharged the passengers. It was April 1922. At first sight, it was no different from the weather of Malabar, hot humid and full of greenery. The convicts were not taken aback, but they were yet to see the Cellular jail. Initially the cellular jail housed many convicts from the North and a few Moplahs from earlier Moplah outbreaks as they are termed, but the larger Moplah transfer started after the 1921 riots in Malabar. The stories from the cellular jail are many, but we will concentrate on the people from Malabar who ended up in Andaman and their life thereafter. This article mainly concerns the Moplah convicts sent to Andamans and not really about the others, who have been covered in detail in a few books.

This was a period when a few different types of rebels were transferred to Andaman, there were the Wahabi movement convicts, those convicted of the Rumpa revolt of Andhra and those from the Tharawady rebellion of Burma. The first batch of prisoners consisting of 160 convicts disembarked at Port Blair on 22 April 1922. A very interesting fact is that the very first batch of Moplah prisoners included a Nambudri and four Nairs as well!!

Richards replying Simpson in the British parliament during 1924 stated thus - In July last there were in all 1,235 Moplahs in the Andamans—all in Port Blair. Seventy-two were in the cellular jail, 12 in the adolescent gang, 40 agriculturists and self-supporters, and the rest in convict barracks. There were no special arrangements for segrating Moplahs from association with other convicts. They were treated like others, except that the initial period of cellular confinement was frequently shortened. The Government are willing to settle any who desire to stay, with or without their families; with this object agricultural and other tickets are issued freely, and the families of all who ask for them are sent to the islands at Government expense. Up to July, one family—a wife and four children—had been settled, and the settlement of three more was expected shortly.

In reality, except for the first few lots of Malabar prisoners who had to spend little time at the cellular jail, the others were luckier and had shorter solitary terms. In all about 1133 prisoners were transported from Malabar to Port Blair. By 1926 out of 1,133 Moplah convicts in the Andamans, 379 had been given the status of self- supporters. The British government had meanwhile abolished the penal colony and renamed it as a voluntary settlement. Wives and relatives were provided fares to travel; self supporters were allowed not to wear uniforms. They were also allowed to celebrate festivals, build places for worship etc.

In the first official report, there were 1302 out of which 90 had died, 79 had returned to the mainland, resulting in the 1133 out of which 754 were laboring convicts and 379 self supporters. The figures of Moplahs transported were thus 1133, which increased to 1885 by 1932.

Another report summarized the situation in 1932, thus - The Moplah were a group of 1885 Muslims from Kerala, who had fought in the Malabar rebellion against the colonial regime and Hindu landlords (Dhingra, 2005:161). They were brought to the Andamans for rehabilitation between 1921-6 and settled on agricultural land (Mukhopadhyay, C., 2002: 29). Under the circumstances of their settlement, they were given the possibility to practice their religion and to reconstruct a certain part of cultural traits from their homelands. They still speak a dialect of Malayalam, which, according to some interlocutors, is clearly reminiscent of their region in the 1920s. The Moplah are today the biggest Muslim community in the islands. The deportation began in February 1922 and continued till 1926. According to the census of 1931, there were 1885 Moplahs, of whom 1171 were males and 714 female. According to varying reports, around 2500 persons were deported here. Moplahs, who started as prisoners, planned to stay back even after the expiry of their sentences and brought their families from Kerala. They built villages and contributed their might for the development of these Islands.

The Mappila convicts on the whole are contended and most of them have resigned themselves to their fate, but I think they preferred life in Andamans considering the situation in Malabar then. A prisoner’s letters to his mother reveals that on June 20 1925 twenty-five Moplahs had been sent to Malabar to search for convicts' families which resulted in some 300 family members traveling to Andamans. After all, they were given land and buffaloes to start a new life with as well as occupancy rights, fish and meat rations, and tax relief. Two months later he was writing again to say that four hundred convicts from Bellary, north of Bangalore, had actually applied to be transferred to the Andamans with their families. Thus they settled in villages west of Mount Harrit, creating place names that we started to look at during the start of this article.

Abrahams visit to Port Blair and its impact on Moplah resettlement - Mr EH Abrahams who was appointed as a colonization officer was tasked in 1922 to submit a report on the situation of the Moplahs which he did after his return in Jan 1923. The details of his report can be read in Zubair’s article cited under references. It explains how he managed to get them work under the forest department and how allowances and promotions were arranged for hard workers. I have not been able to access the full report myself.

By 1926, over 468 had become self settlers, but the conditions were not really conducive for their well being and subsidies were not sufficifinet for growth. A fact finding mission as sent in 1925 to investigate. The first three were in agreement with the original assessment. However the second comprised a leading doctor from Calicut, the Parsi doctor KK Mugaseth. He was in favor of the system as existing and his contention was accepted by the British. However more Moplah convicts from the mainland jails did not move to Andaman in search of better living prospects

The southern part of the South Andaman was thus colonized, mainly by settling self-supporting convicts there. Soon many more Moplah convicts were directly classified into the 2nd class category and termed self supporters. However things took a turn for the worse in the cellular jails where strikes were resorted to, but things stabilized by 1939. But the whole structure and situation changed with the start of the 2nd world war and the entry of Japan by 1941 into it. Port Blair was bombed in 1942 and the British evacuated themselves in March 1942. By now there were a total of 6,000 convicts and about 12,000 local born population. The Japanese were good at the start, releasing all prisoners and stating that nobody had anything to fear. Things changed during the next few years and many Indians were tortured and butchered by the Japanese (to reduce headcount and maintain food reserves for themselves), a story that I will cover in a later day, for Operation Baldhead is an interesting story. In 1943 NSC Bose came to Port Blair, went to the cellular jail, but did not meet the local populace. Despite all that the killing of Indians suspected of supporting the British continued in large numbers.

Nevertheless, over time, the Moplahs settled down and form a major part of the Andaman populace, some remembering their legacy, others choosing not to. Perhaps they are right for it was a chapter to forget, a time when religion and agrarian struggles came together to foment a revolt, a rebellion of sorts that killed a lot of innocent people and resulted in the loss of homes for many, and their transfer to new homes so far away…

Strictly speaking Andamans is still talked about as a penal settlement extending the anti imperialistic struggles of the Indians, but as Strange puts it, those were only about 500 such political convicts. Many of them returned to India subsequently. The many thousand ordinary convicts which included the Moplah convicts were later settlers, and they were those who toiled through difficult conditions to later created these beautiful islands we know today. They have all been forgotten in the nationalistic fervor and are hardly mentioned except in passing, in history texts.


Isolation: Places and Practices of Exclusion - C. Strange
Mappila mulsims of Lkerala – Roland E Miller
Kalapani – LP Mathur
The Andaman & Nicobar Islands Gazateer – Kiran Dhingra

Further reading – Zubair Ahmed’s articles

A man frozen in time
Moplahs in 1922
The complete story - For those who want to know it all

The TSS Maharaja

The story of the TSS Maharaja that took the convicts is equally interesting. Studying the records of the owners Asiatic Steam navigation, it states that in 1925 the company returned to its pre war strength when they took delivery of other ships and two years later another Maharaja -II relieved her namesake on the Andaman mail run, the original ship was first renamed Maharani in 1926, then was sold to Japanese owners Machidi Shokai in 1927, renamed as Zuisho Maru, later the ship again changed hands, passing through Macao and Hong Kong owners, before being owned by the Japanese government and was eventually sunk by a US submarine USS Ray SS271 in August 1944 off the Borneo Ryuku Islands.

Ironic isn’t it?

Pics - from the net, many thanks to the uploaders..... TSS maharaja pics from merchant navy officers site - Source: Acknowledgement: W. Laxon & World Ship Society