The Moplah Rebellion 1921 – A British Soldier's viewpoint

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Donald Sinderby in Malabar

There are so many books with deal with the revolt in Malabar, or what the British Raj termed a rebellion (i.e. waging war against the crown) with a purpose to clamp down the area under martial law.  Some of these were written by Malayali congressmen and survivors, some others by the British administrators who were in the thick of things. There are very few firsthand accounts from the British side perhaps because such reporting was not encouraged. There is one, a work of historical fiction which gained a certain amount of popularity but vanished from the shelves after a while. Having obtained a dog eared 1927 copy of that book, I decide to peruse it carefully without tearing those ancient pages, with an intention of finding out what a common soldier thought about the whole thing. What you will read on is not a review but a summary of Sinderby’s opinion of Malabar, the Nairs, the administrators and the revolting Moplah, not about the love story which he wrote. In a way this book is unique since it is one of its kind, though the contents are not summarily of great value.

Steve at bearalley provides biographical material on Sinderby as follows. Donald Ryder Stephens was born in St. Albans, Hertfordshire, on 11 September 1898, the son of Martin Frank Stephens, a publisher's manager, and his wife Mary Ann (Annie) Beney. Stephens grew up in St Albans and Wimbledon. His parents subsequently moved to 2 Nevill Park, Tonbridge Wells, and, later still, to Bexhill. Stephens was an Old Tonbridgian, having attended Tonbridge School, and was a well-known member of the Tonbridge Rugby F.C. After attending R. M. C. Sandhurst, he served in the Dorsetshire Regiment during the Great War achieving the rank of Lieutenant and, after the Armistice, is believed to have served in India. After five years in the Army he began working in the Central Editorial Department of the Amalgamated Press in 1923-26. He also began writing for their children's papers, producing serials and short stories and was a staff writer on the Children's Newspaper. He also began publishing stories in Hutchinson's Magazine and The Regent Magazine in 1924 using the pen-name Donald Sinderby, derived from a family name which was borne by his great-grandmother, who died in 1861.His occupation was given as author when, in 1927, he married Audrey Margaret Elmslie (1901-1991), only daughter of Major and Mrs. Stuart Elmslie. Stephens served for four years in Malta during World War Two. He died in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, on 30 November 1983. He used an alias of Donald Ryder Stephens in his early works, choosing to remain behind the curtain.

The Jewel of Malabar was described as "An exciting love story of unusual interest" as it portrayed the love, devotion and self-sacrifice of a beautiful native girl and her lover, British officer Sir John Bennville, who is infatuated with her. Its background is the Moplah Rebellion of 1921 in South-West India. The book was well-reviewed as a convincing and vivid account of the fierce fighting with many hair-breadth escapes which characterized the campaign in which the author was personally engaged from first to last.

The heroine of this story is Kamayla, a beautiful Hindu girl with whom Sir John Bennville, a young English officer, involved in fighting in South-West India, falls desperately in love. Kamayla is so devoted to him that she becomes a Christian. After her conversion, however, she comes under Roman Catholic influence, and, being told that her marrying Sir John would ruin his prestige and prospects, she proves her love by renunciation and enters a convent. In its simple way the story is pleasing enough. But the romantic element in it is the thread upon which the author has strung his own vivid and stirring memories of the Moplah Rebellion of 1921; and it is these first-hand scenes that give special interest to his book.

Before taking Sinderby to Malabar, I should set the scene, which I will now proceed to do. In writing this, you the reader should humor me, for I may seem to be looking at the sordid period from a slanted British viewpoint, it is on purpose, for this is Sinderby’s tale.

1919 proved to be a disaster for the British what with the aftermath of the massacre at Jalianwala. The Simla administration was careful in employing any kind of military involvement to suppress rebellions and revolts. It took a lot of debating before a decision was taken, and as it turned out in the case of Malabar, decisions were late and taken after matters had crossed the boiling point. Local administrations struggled to get their voices heard, especially requests for armed forces. Down south in Malabar, the Khilafat movement was heating up and it was not clear how Turkey would rise in support. Gandhiji had thrown his weight behind it and the wary British were watching developments very carefully and were quite worried that Hindu Muslim rapport would become a huge problem for the crown.

It was in 1921 July that the British Army first got involved in these matters starting with a case of a stolen pistol in an area called Pookottur in the Ernad Taluk. The police attempted to arrest Vadakkeveettil Muhammad (an ex-employee of the Thirumalpad), the Secretary of the local Khilaphat Committee, on the pretext that he had stolen a gun from the palace of the Nilambur Tirumalpad. They searched the house of Muhammad but found nothing. Later, thousands of enraged Mappilas of the locality, who were summoned by the beat of drums in the mosques of the neighborhood went up in arms and the mob marched to the kovilakom. The family members in the palace fled and the mob plundered the palace and distributed the booty.

The events at Pukkottur, Hitchcock wrote, 'have created an entirely new situation in Malabar; Khilafat was completely swallowed up by the old fanatical spirit on this occasion’. EF Thomas the collector was understandably very nervous as his summons to those who were implicated at Pookottor went unheeded. His superiors in Madras finally decided to allow a deputation of military to support the beleaguered police in Eranad and to take action at Tirurangadi where in their opinion Ali Musaliar was fomenting a rebellion and igniting fanaticism. Led to believe that the Khilafat movement would lead to the downfall of the British the Eranad Moplahs had decided to take law into their own hands and gathered at Tirur on 20th August.

A force comprising 79 from the Leinster regiment of Gurkhas headed by PC McEnroy in the company of some 170 Malabar police arrived in Tirurangadi just before dawn on the morning of August 20, and immediately set out to arrest 24 persons, 6 of whom had been involved in the Pukkottur incident and to search suspected houses in Tirurangadi, Chembrasseri, and Pukkottur. It did not go very well and only three were arrested. Rumors went around that the Mambram (Tirurangadi Kizhakkepalli) mosque had been desecrated by the British and the mobs gathered and started wanton destruction of public property, and went on to sabotage and remove railway lines and cut the telegraph lines. Firing was resorted to and in addition to a number of rioters, Second Lieutenant W. R. M. Johnson and the Assistant Superintendent of Police, Mr Rowley were killed. Within days widespread revolt spread across Malabar, particularly Ernad and Valluvanad in south Malabar, which had the highest concentration of Moplas. The treasury at Manjeri was looted and torched.

This was when reinforcements in the form of the Dorsetshire regiment were rushed out in the HMS Camus to Calicut, from Bangalore under John Burnett-Stuart (GOC Madras District) who was appointed Military Commander of the troubled areas. Before they were formally deployed, the marching Leinsters were ambushed by a large band of rebels and in the attack a large number of Moplas were killed, many wildly rushing onto machine gun fire. Seeing that this did not work, the Moplah rebels decided to change tactics and from then on it was mainly guerrilla style warfare in the dense jungles of the area. The marching Dorsets (as railway lines were cut) took a few days to reach the area, and were later split out as two columns and then sending small detachments to affected villages. They found the going very difficult, with heavy monsoon rains, mud and difficult jungle terrains, all eminently suited for the local Moplah rebel gangs. In simple words, they were bogged for a while, but were gaining an upper hand slowly, since they possessed good firearms and howitzers compared to the Moplahs who had sticks swords and antiquated rifles (Martini-Henry breech loading rifles stolen from the police, shotguns and even muzzle-loading smoothbore guns). Some of the Moplahs did have military training for they had returned after serving in the First World War, but they were too few to hurt. In September, some of the affected areas (Ernad, Walluvanad and Ponnani) were put under Martial law but with functioning civil courts. They were now on unsound terrain, they could kill a rebel in an encounter, but if they captured some, they had to be handed over to a civil court. The so called effective methods used in Punjab (Dwyer’s and Dyer’s tough methods) were not to be used. Through the month of September, Stuart’s forces conducted many operations to capture rebel leaders and restore order, but was unable to make real headway.

Later Stuart requested Gurkhas and Burmese reinforcements to conduct proper jungle warfare as the insurrection continued to spread, now alarmingly towards Calicut where British planters also started raising a hue and cry. Large scale sweeps took place in November and by December, the situation was under better control. Stuart commented that surrenders were beginning to increase rapidly, and intelligence became much easier to get. On 19 December, the Chembrasseri Thangal, a key Moplah leader, surrendered. It was also becoming clear that no support was coming from anywhere, that Turkey was not interested in any Khalifa (see my article)

Stuart stated - The surrendered Moplah’s are outwardly cheerful and respectful, and I could detect few signs of resentment or sulkiness. The Moplah is a simple minded stout-hearted ruffian, and embarked on rebellion in the genuine belief that the British Empire was retiring from business, having now discovered that he has been misinformed; I think that he is quite prepared to admit his error and accept things as they are. The revolt petered out in 1922 and martial law was withdrawn. An unfortunate event which occurred was the Train tragedy (see article)  and another at Melmuri where the Dorsets dropped grenades down chimneys.

Donald Sinderby served with the Dorsets and his book covers many of the events during the months of September to November 1921, in Ernad. Let’s now get to the book and see what he had to say. In some ways it is interesting to note that Sinderby foresaw a split of the country into two, a Muslim and a Hindu India even in those early days. But all that is distilled out in his last book Mother in Law, which is another topic by itself (dealing with a Muslim half ruled by the Nizam with Malabar, Cochin and Travancore under him), the development of an atom bomb, the arrival of Americans and finally India getting divided amongst other world powers!

Sinderby enters the book in the character of John Bennville, a rich Baronet in the military service and a Lieutenant in the regiment of the Royal Musketeers. His first impressions of Malabar are eloquent – This country, which is so like and yet so strangely unlike England! Malabar that emerald gem of sad beauty in the south west of India! Small brown houses again fantastically reminiscent of England, nestled in the shade of coconut palms. He observes the first Moplahs clad in their best waist clothes (dhoti) the stately moplahs their peculiar caps perched on the back of their heads, strode silently along on their way from the Friday mosques.

At a locale named Calipuram, we are introduced to a beautiful high caste Nair girl Kamalya (Kamala?), and her betrothed – Nahran a Nair police officer on a motorcycle. They are talking about the Moplah rebels on the move and the arch villain of the tale, the old Abdul Ahmed Hajee (perhaps V K Haji) who desires the girl, the destruction of the treasury at Manjeri (magahdee) and the arrival of Shaukat Ali (Shankat Ali). He mentions how the British raj is powerless and just going about the motions, not doing much to suppress the rebels. Kamalya’s house is a standard two storied nalukettu with wooden parquet flooring (??) and teak paneled walls (!!), a pooja room and a grandfather clock, but no chairs and tables. They are a relatively well-off family but somewhat isolated in the jungle area and the mother is named Lukshmi. The family is scared and worried about potential trouble and violence. Nahran the police officer states that the telegraph lines have been cut and the reserves have been given arms, but is worried that their outpost has just 6 officers who are doomed unless the British army arrives quickly. They believe that the forces will take another month to come, so this is obviously August.
Pandikkad 1921
As expected Abdul Hajee storms the police station, kills the Adhikari and Kamalya and her family flee to the forests abandoning their home. After a while they return to see that their home is untouched, but notice a letter from Abdul Hajee who has proclaimed himself governor of the country (Ali Musaliyar proclaiming himself Khilafat king) stating that he will spare them if Kamalya becomes his wife. The next morning, a single column of the Royal musketeers with Capt West in command, redeployed from Chahnipet arrive in Calipuarm. His men are looking forward to some action after boring barracks life. Benneville a young officer in the marching column, rightly observes that the rice in the paddy fields are ready for harvest, and wonders where all the people have gone for the road is deserted. Soon they team up with Naharan the police officer who is their main informant, and get ambushed by Moplahs on the trees above firing their antique firearms. Many die in the battle that ensues and Benneville is saved from death by Nahran who explains that the rebel Moplah is worked up to such a pitch of madness that they feel no pain, and simply want to kill or be killed. Victorious, they reach Calipuram where they drink tea at a couple of tea shops run by local non rebel Moplahs. Benneville comes up with an interesting observation, all the Moplahs wear a Dhoti which has a dark blue border and he mentions now and then of picking up the smell associated with the Moplahs compared to the cleanliness of the Nairs.

The story picks up speed as Abdul Hajee abducts Kamalya, and Nahran explains why the Moplah is rebelling. He explains – The Moplahs are nearly all poor people sir, and that is because of a law in their religion which orders that a man’s property, when he dies, be divided up amongst his relations and not left to any one or two people. So they never accumulate property, but are mostly small holders. They become discontented with this state of affairs, but blame their Hindu landlords instead of their own religious custom, and state that they are charged too much rent. ..They are fanatical and do what their religious teachers tell them…Then Gandhi’s agents have been here for many months preaching rebellion against the government and this caused the outbreak. Many Moplahs think that the British were defeated in the Great War….

What is interesting in this is the fact that the British officer does not believe the outbreak had anything to do with religion, but is due to agrarian causes and goading by politicians and revolutionaries. In fact there is quite a bit of firsthand information that will be useful for those interested, if you do not focus on the love story that unfolds and stick to the story behind the story. A person who has lived in a Malabar village can easily get immersed into the scenes and visualize it as it all unfolds, but for others it would be drab fiction.

We can see that the entire operation proceeds on, based on information gathered from trusted informers, as skirmish after skirmish takes place. As we saw, Kamalya is abducted and in an attempt to rescue her Nahran is injured and dies soon after. Benneville but naturally falls head over heels in love with the distressed maiden, and stops one of his men from stealing a brooch off a Moplah kid stating that their objective is to protect the natives, not to rob them. Benneville wrestles with thoughts of marrying Kamalya, and worries of practical issues in having a native wife and losing his army job, if that were to happen. In between he hears that the Krembassery (Chembrassery Thangal) has now been proclaimed chief and has started issuing edicts and also that Abdul Hajee is in consultations with him.

During a lull in fighting, he starts to learn some Malayalam, and digs up information on the Nairs of Malabar, and plans to go ahead and profess his love to Kamalaya. We also note that old copies of Madras Mail are the only ways a Brit could get some news. Kamalya rejects Benny’s advances, stating that white does not mix well with brown and only unhappiness results. Another abduction attempt follows, Kamalya is kidnapped again and Benny rescues her a second time. During a third attack, Benny is injured and he is repatriated to the HQ on a little hill overlooking Tammanorum (perhaps Malappuram barracks). We also note that he spends some time in Bannore (maybe Tanur).

He now notifies his superiors of his plans to marry the Nair girl and they are aghast, and soon enough Benny takes matters into his own hands and decides to challenge Abdul Hajee. He is captured by the warlord who offers to spare his life if he would spit on the cross, which he refuses to do in a sudden surge of religiousness. Kamalya now rescues him and upon his return to the barracks is arrested by his superiors for taking matters into his own hands. Fortuitously an attack by the Moplahs allows him to show his excellent skills in fighting with the enemy and in this encounter bayonets Abdul Hajee to death, thus finishing off his beloved’s nemesis, once and for all.

After the event Benny is packed off to Belladroog (Bangalore?) where he slowly settles down to barrack life and a prospective match up with one Miss Catesby Jones, when he receives a letter stating that Kamalya is being victimized and is in a bad shape at Calipuaram, now branded as Benny’s ex-mistress. He takes the train bound for Tarantore (station close to Calipuram), then gets a hold of a car and speeds off to Calipuram, where he is reunited with Kamalya again. They then proceed to Manningtown (Some suburb of Bangalore- probably Cook’s town or Fraser town) where Benny has rented a house. In the meanwhile Kamalya has decided to convert and Benny is glad that this would reduce his problems somewhat. Now he decides to resign from his position and the couple decide to move on to Adayar in Madras. Meanwhile Kamalya meets an old friend who is now a sister in the Church. Upon hearing Kamalya’s story, the nun asks if she wants to convert because she is marrying a Christian. Kamlya answers that she wanted to convert no matter, after which the nun asks if Kamalya wants to see Benny happy or sad. She explains that a marriage between them will be no good and that Benny would be ridiculed by his people, because of their mixed marriage. A lot of discussions take place between them and Kamlaya decides to become a nun and drift away. In the last paragraph of the book, Benny is seen desperately searching for his love, while Kamalya is starting her new life of religion, mercy and self-sacrifice…..

Even though the tale itself is quite contrived, it brings to the fore the problems faced by the mixing of races, but deviates towards evangelization towards the end (perhaps due to influence of Sinderby’s mother). The marches, the attacks, the assessments of the rebels and so on are quite interesting when looked at as first hand opinions and provide a basis for somebody who would want to make a movie, perhaps.

The book ‘Guns and its development’ by Greener narrates an earlier event, which I am quoting below to illustrate typical attacks - The enormous consumption of ammunition with even a comparatively slow-firing arm, as the Lee-Speed-Metford, may be appreciated from the following fact. In the Mopla rising in Malabar, in 1894, fewer than thirty fanatics charged a force of fifty men of the Dorset regiment, armed with the Lee-Metford magazine rifle, and about a hundred native police with Sniders. They had less than fifty yards to run, yet a few of them actually reached the line and fell upon the bayonets, although there were fired at them over seven hundred shots from the Metford rifles and three hundred from the Sniders.

Baillie Ki Paltan by Lt Col Murland is another book which provides limited graphic records of the actual field situation in Eranad and you can easily see that these are quite believable and matter of fact, devoid of politics and any kind of spin. Interestingly this account an officer calls it a Khilafatist agitation. The 64th Pioneers (later renamed as Madras Pioneers) took a while to reach the location since rebels had removed rail keys and damaged bridges enroute. By 27th august, the rail line until Tirur had been repaired and the arriving party found looting of houses underway. It also states that the 9 rebels arrested in Tanur were taken without incident and the mob had already dispersed by the time troops reinforced by the Leinsters, got there. During the first week of Sept, they rounded up many rioters in the area. During the second week a group a rumor was heard that 1000 Moplahs had proceeded south to sack Palghat, but no such thing took place, in fact they were marching to Angadipuram.

Since then three platoons (actually A, B & C) were formed, #1 located at Manjeri, assisted by the Dorsets which reported nothing of great consequence. #2 was located at Wandur and Mambad, and here it is recorded that Hindu agitators supported the Moplah rebels, in some cases. A serious ambush occurred (and detailed by Sinderby). By Oct the Chin Kachin battalion arrived to support this platoon and small skirmishes occurred. This group covered Kottakkal and Malappuram areas and were involved in many attacks and ambushes. #3 platoon was based at Pandikkad and was involved in a few skirmishes. What is clear is that the many books we read out there deal mainly with the politics, the mind of the politicians involved and the general fallout, but hardly mention the day to day events during the rebellion. John T Burnett-Stuart the GOC of Madras who masterminded the British counter insurgency measures at Malabar, went back to England to direct many an operation during the WWII and masterminded many military strategies and reforms in place today. Various records mention that about 10,000 guerrillas were involved and the counter attacks led to some 2,300 executions, 1,650 injured, 5,700 captured and 39,000 surrenders. 137 soldiers died in the campaign

A quick study shows that Sinderby was perhaps serving under Lt Col Herbert of Platoon 3(C) above and was camped at Wandur. Stephen Dale explains the background - Thus, while V. K. Haji might say after his capture that Khilafat was a Turkish matter, he met with the Chembrasseri Tangal at Pandikkad on the 21st to form a Khilafat government and took charge of the area between Pandikkad and Manjeri, while the Tangal was to administer the eastern section between Karavarakundu and Mellatur. The attacks which followed and masterminded by V K Haji and Chembrasseri Thangal. 

During this posting, Sinderby was a subaltern, a 2nd Lieutenant posted in Malabar and narrowly missed death after “one of the Moplars fired point blank at him, and missed.” Sinderby's next novel ‘Mother in law’, set twenty years into the future, depicts various states falling under the control of two factions; in the north control is held by the Confederation of Princes and Landowners; and the south is seized by the Nizam of Hyderabad. Trouble develops between north and south threatening the country with a civil war which turns into an inter-caste conflict between Hindus and Mohammedans. The desolate and ravaged country is restored to order by the intervention of America, France and Portugal.

What all this tells us was succinctly expressed by Calicut heritage Forum’s CK Ramachandran when we met in Calicut a couple of months ago, that a factual work devoid of spin, covering the Moplah Revolt in its entirety, is yet to be written.

The British Empire as a Superpower - Anthony Clayton
Colonial Counter-insurgency in Southern India: The Malabar Rebellion, 1921–1922 - Nick Lloyd
Peasant revolt in Malabar – RH Hitchcock
Islam and Nationalism in India, South Indian Contexts – MT Ansari
Baillie-Ki-Paltan: Being a History of the 2nd Battalion, Madras Pioneers 1759-1930 -Lieutenant-Colonel H. F. Murland

Pandikkad pic Courtesy- E.Chambre Hardman Collection, Military on the move (The educationist)


  1. blogoftreez

    Hi sir

    On a totally diffrent topic, can you recommend Malayalam movies which show the traditional times of Kerala. For eg. as portrayed in M T Vaasudevan Nair's books, the Namboodri and Thampuran lifestyle and times.

  1. Maddy

    If you are talking about the turn of the 20th century, there are a few from the black and white era..See Kottarakkara's brahstu. Youtube used to have many of those old ones. And then there were the vadakkan pattu movies too