Malabar -War years 1941-1944

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A famine and the cholera epidemic....1943

Everybody talked about the Great War as the summer months of 1942 scorched the southern regions of India. The eastern allied bastions fell one after another, by February 42 Singapore had capitulated and in March 1942, Rangoon had fallen and Port Blair in the Andamans had been taken. The overjoyed INA factions in Malaya and Burma were waiting for directions from their new leader Subhas Chandra Bose ensconced in Rangoon, while at the same time, hundreds of thousands of panic stricken Indian refugees (Burmese workers) were in full flight across the seas and borders into India, their ancestral home. Their belief was total that the British Raj would do nothing to help them, for their brethren had not received any great support either at Malaya or Singapore. One could hear the refrain – that invasion was imminent, the Japanese were coming, and that the British are set to flee India. With censor controlled war news channels focused on the action in Europe, rumor machines in India took over and wild tales were told and retold. The Japanese soldier, though smaller than a Burmese elephant, evoked a bigger fear, rivaling a dragon.

Calicut should have been insulated from all this, but it was not. Many of the youngsters from affluent families were employed in Madras and they reported frantically that the situation there was no good either. In April a small incident involving some air strafing at Kakinada and Vizag set off bigger alarms in Madras. There were rumors that Jap ships had been sighted a few miles off the Machilipatnam coast. Madras trembled and the people fled from the city in trains and every other means of transport, inwards to villages and their ancestral homes. The Governor left for Vellore and the Secretariat machinery left by the Blue Mountain Express for the Nilgiris. And as Pulla Reddi mentioned ‘the Police Commissioner, insisting that the animals might break loose if Japanese bombs fell, refused to wait and sent a platoon of the Malabar Special Police to the Madras zoo ’who to his great horror ruthlessly did their job in a few minutes’

Such events should and did have repercussions in our home in Chalappuram as well (My aunt breathlessly explained how events transpired, last week). Everything of value at Ambalakkat was locked up and boarded, dark cloth was put over windows and the whole family left for Manjapra in Palghat, my dad’s maternal home near Vadakkancheri. My bachelor uncle Balamama remained behind to keep watch over the house. But it was a false alarm, nothing happened either in Madras or Calicut. All that happened over the months which followed was the southerly trek of a forlorn stream of refugees from Burma, into Madras.

The monsoon which hit Calicut (I can’t be sure if it was 41, 42 or 43, my aunt explains that her memory is a bit foggy these days) was particularly ferocious. She tells me that the flood waters came right behind our house in Chalappuram and boats plied the waters to take people and goods back and forth. As panic ensued, some burly Khalasi Mappilas were deployed to cut the (azhimurikkal) sand banks on the mouth of the Kallayi River and let the flood waters recede. They struggled initially, witnessed by a great mass of people on the shore, some khalasis were swept away into the raging sea, never to return again, but the others succeeded eventually and the waters ashore receded.

The war panic in Malabar too receded as the British pulled up their socks and geared up in the North East to fight the Japanese at Imphal and Kohima. The role of the Malayali in this war is unknown to many. Strange is the fact that the first IIL/INA subversions from Singapore to challenge the British in India, were launched by a Malayali from Calicut (See my article on TP Kumaran Nair), and even stranger is the fact that the first roads laid in the inhospitable mountain jungles at the far outreaches of Assam were the efforts of a couple of Malayali platoons (together with a Tamil and a Telugu platoon). It was this road that provided a means for the British and allied forces to launch a counter attack on the Japanese and the INA! It is a fascinating story which I will soon present. But for now let us get back to Malabar, briefly forgotten by the British in the chaos of war, where the situation was becoming dire, for other reasons.

The year 1943 is best remembered as the middle year of the Second World War, a period when the fortunes of the Allies changed for the better. The Axis powers were slowly driven back, from the various fronts where they had gotten stalled. The military generals and politicians had until then focused on their own existence and their mother countries, were more worried about events and strategies of the war, preparing on a daily basis to save themselves from annihilation. People ended up showing not only their best, but also their worst behavior, in this eagerness to save themselves. 

Subash Chandra Bose and his INA were sequestered in Rangoon, trying to find common ground with the Japs. The Congress Party's Working Committee were all under arrest, all major leaders of the INC had been arrested and detained. The confused masses were leaderless and protests started to take a violent turn. In large parts of the country, local underground organizations took over. The political deadlock in the country continued throughout 1943. The detained Congress leaders continued in jail with the exception of Mahatma Gandhi, who was eventually released on medical grounds in May 1944. The quit India movement which had been launched, was petering out. Meanwhile famines hit many regions in British India, Malabar, Travancore and Cochin included.

Not many bothered about the South, especially Malabar, Cochin and Travancore.  These were usually considered as areas typically blessed with good monsoons and had in the past managed splendidly according to the many English administrators who passed through, such as Innes, Evans and Logan. And so, Malabar was never seriously considered when the famine act was prepared in the previous century. The first major allocation of funds to Malabar was also connected with the famine act. The money thus obtained by declaring Malabar famine prone was later diverted from the famine insurance fund towards railway construction. In 1881, the Tirur - Beypore rail link was laid and by 1888, Calicut and Palghat were connected. Beypore was soon relinquished and six more lines were laid. The argument was that with the railway, equitable distribution of supplies would keep any future famine at bay.

During the wars, the British in general did not believe in alleviating any Indian situation of distress and concentrated on shipping food to war-torn Britain, sometimes even trans-shipping them out of India in full view of starving masses. Some British leaders even mentioned, that for a future balanced population in India, which was full of teeming breeders, some had to die, following on Churchill’s words that India was a country with beastly people and a beastly religion, who bred like rabbits. When told about the famines in India, he shot back ‘if so many were dying from lack of food, why is Gandhiji not already dead?’  Pundits explained that a potential reason for his apathy at the growing tragedy in India was due to his anger at Gandhiji’s efforts in taking away the jewel called India from the British crown, which he perceived, was his duty to defend. The lack of response in his dealings with the spreading famine was perhaps his way of getting back at Gandhi.

But how did Malabar end up with a deficit in food? Unlike many other places, Malabar indeed cultivated a lot of money crops those days, but they were commercial crops such as spices, tobacco, coffee, tea, sugarcane, castor to name a few. Of course there were coconuts, areca-nuts, jackfruits, cashew, mango and so on, and some amount of rice (food crops) was cultivated in Eranad and Valluvanad. With the outbreak of WWII, food prices spiraled upward and taxation rose. Though the British failed to act in the 1941-42 years, the situation was largely nascent because Burma, the rice bowl of undivided India was producing the required amounts of rice and they were being shipped to various ports in India, including Malabar, Cochin and Travancore. The Chettiars were still in control in Burma and rice of dubious quality continued to arrive in Malabar and Cochin ports. Problems started when the Japanese raided Burma.

The Southeast Asian campaign of WWII started when the Japanese bombed Victoria Point during Dec 1941, cordoned off Burma and followed up with the capture of Singapore, Malaysia and launched a land attack on Burmese targets. The Japanese intent was to get to the oilfields in Burma, a strategic conquest to ensure they had resources for the grand entry westwards across India. Within a span of three months, the British in Burma were in a hasty retreat, and Burma was in Japanese hands. The British, the Chettiar landowners and bankers as well as many hundreds of thousands of Indian laborers fled across the borders to mainland India. Paddy cultivation and its harvest was forgotten and the rice fields and mills in Burma, were at the mercy of the native Burmese and the Japanese conquerors.

With the evacuation of Rangoon in March 1942, there was now practically no hope of some 1.5 million tons of rice imports into Malabar, Travancore or Cochin and the industrial populations of Madras and Bengal. You can now imagine how matters spiraled downwards in rapid fashion. The deficit was not only in the South but in the whole of India.The wholesale price index of rice more than doubled in India and deficit financing surged from Rs 4 crores to Rs 438 crores in 1942-43. The Indian army increased in size 10 times to some 3 million solders and they naturally needed a lot of food, which the British had to provide in required quantities. As rice stocks got depleted, prices soared and the price ceiling acts did not work. As food intake reduced, malnutrition was rampant and the region of Malabar was now facing what usually follows, disease.

Adding to the misery was an uneven monsoon (too little and too much and at wrong times) the previous two years, and domestic production was some 40% lower. As imports from Burma stopped entirely and procurement from Mysore could not take place due to wartime disruptions, speculation and hoarding exacerbated the situation. The Gujarati and Mappila rice traders of Calicut were also to blame for the difficult times, for many were recorded as hoarding stocks.  There were many other reasons too, and one you may find hard to believe was that rice was diverted to feed many European prisoners interned in India (Satara, Bangalore, the Nilgiri hill stations etc)! It was also noted by researchers that during the war years, workers used to work from 7 am to 5.30 pm; while post War, physical weakening due to malnutrition had reduced it to 8 am to 12.30 pm, showing the effects of the famine.

Interestingly the situation was brought up in the House of Lords – Huntingdon stated in Oct 1943 - I have no wish to give more of these harrowing figures. Those I have given are enough, I think, to confirm the dreadful stories of starvation and misery which are coming from India today, especially in the Deccan, and the States of Cochin and Travancore, and even more so in Bengal. Rice has risen over 950 per cent above pre-war prices and in some places even more. Not only is there a shortage of grain and rice, but there is also a great shortage of milk and milk products, and in fact foodstuffs of all kinds seem to be in great scarcity and at exorbitant prices. And whenever food is short cholera makes its appearance. In the Malabar districts 3,000 cases have been reported. Grim stories have come of patients not wishing to be cured of cholera, as the only alternative would be a slower death from starvation. There are also worse stories of parents deserting dying children, and children deserting parents, and even of children being sold for the price of food. But we do not need to stress these stories; I think the figures are enough to stir our imagination and to show how appalling the conditions in India must be.

Many others agreed, but as it appears, nothing came out of those pithy debates!

The administration turned a blind eye and to make the situation even worse, with agricultural work dwindling, many from the lowest classes became destitute. The cost of living index in Calicut, doubled. Rice cultivation in Malabar actually stabilized later in 1943, but all the produce was shipped to Assam for the military folks amassed to fight the Japs at the border. Meanwhile Bengal was also facing an acute famine, which got some amount of press and attention, but hardly any support. Millions died. Bose and the INA offered to ship rice from Burma for Bengal, but Churchill shot back that if he saw a single merchant ship in the Indian Ocean, it would be diverted to the Atlantic for needy Englishmen. To allies who were offering help to India, he stated that he could neither offer ships nor escort. And he informed them, crossly, that Indians, especially Bengalis, do not eat wheat.

In the twentieth century the import trade in rice was dominated by the Cutchi Memons, Gujaratis and Mappila merchants, at Calicut. They preferred Burmese rice because it was cheaper to ship them to Malabar rather than obtain rice from other northern centers. Interestingly, superior rice grown in Malabar was exported to other areas and the people of Malabar purchased cheaper rice imported from Burma. Cochin imported its rice/paddy requirements from Burma, Siam, and Indo- China. In Trichur a portion of the imported paddy was milled and re-exported to adjoining areas in pre-war times. The superior varieties grown in Chittur taluk were exported to Pollachi and Coimbatore markets. Cochin also received imported paddy and rice from Burma for re-distribution to Malabar.

Academically the situation in Malabar was starkly simple - Owing to the stoppage of imports amounting to about 300,000 tons of rice from Burma, the district of Malabar suffered very badly from shortage of food. The supplies obtained by Government to replace the imported rice came to 15,000 tons a month, which was reduced in 1942 December to 10,000 tons. In reality more than half of Malabar, Cochin and Travancore’s needs were being met by Burmese rice imports, and a loss of this as you can very well imagine, was not possible to counter. The results were malnutrition and disease.

Nobody was really bothered about the situation in Malabar, which by the way was simply dire. Malabar already in the throes of acute famine, was hit by a double whammy as resistance and disease immunity levels dropped. Disease stuck in waves as Malaria, Cholera and plague arrived. By February 43, Cholera had become an epidemic in Calicut. By June, July and August 1943, this virulent cholera strain dropped multitudes like flies in the heat. Initially, Cholera appeared in early June among the street beggars of Calicut. To prevent spreading of the epidemic in the city, these beggars were moved out to southern camps beyond the municipal limits of Calicut. This resulted in the infection spreading to the country villages.

Shankar - Cartoon depicting the Travancore situation
The inoculation drive was another problem. The ill trained vaccinators were not trained, they made the process extremely painful and used no disinfectants, scaring people even more. Tanur was hit as Calicut residents boarded the trains and got off there. Village officials refused to venture into any house where an affected person lived. Collector Mc Ewan and KV Suryanarayana Iyer the Municipal councilor tried hard in getting additional supplies, but getting any bureaucratic machinery to work during these panic stricken situations was perhaps impossible. The Malabar food committee had the Nilambur raja as chairman, and political parties as we saw formed their own helping committees. The taluks of Eranad, Ponnani and Calicut were most affected with a daily death toll of over 50. In Calicut, VR Nayanar’s Servants of India society, the Ramakrishna Mission, the Communist Party and the Malabar relief committee rose up to help. The congress led Cholera relief committee set up over 118 relief centers. Many orphanages sprung up. But one big issue in those days was the non-adaptability of Malabar food habits. Neither would they eat North Indian crops like Bajra, millet or wheat nor would they consume Travancorean Tapioca. As the situation became desperate the poorest of the poor subsisted on green leaves and grass on certain days, according to official records. Eventually, it just became a record of sorts, and it is simply mentioned that in 1943, in the midst of this epidemic, nearly 40,000 people died of cholera, dysentery and diarrhea.

Why Malabar got hit with this kind of a Cholera epidemic was an issue very much discussed in those days. While some administrators blamed unhygienic living, improper disposal of night soil in Calicut and so on, another story doing its rounds was that one last consignment of old Burmese rice sent from Madras to tide over the famine, early in 1943 was unhygienic. Some opined that the symptoms were not typical of Cholera but acute diarrhea.

Statutory rationing was started 1944 and a one pound rice limit was fixed for ration holders in Calicut. But this was conditional on them buying a certain amount of wheat and Ragi. Cochin interestingly led the efforts of weaning away its hungry poor from rice by starting Cochin restaurants making new wheat and millet dishes. Slowly the difficulties abated and matters stabilized in Malabar.

In neighboring Travancore, similar issues cropped up, as they were also affected by the rice export stoppage from Burma. They had an even harsher predicament for a short while as the Madras presidency refused to provide any rice to the kingdom of Travancore due to shortages in the Madras State.

Interestingly landowners prospered to a certain extent, while the Japanese attacks decimated the large food growing areas in SE Asia. South India was the only undisturbed place and despite the 43 famine, they prospered due to higher prices and guaranteed purchases by the government. For example coconut prices rose three fold, rice by 450% and rubber by 750 times. So you can imagine how these landowners fared and why that resulted in the creation of so many small private banks in the state. And this possibility of becoming a landowner and obtaining regular work, coupled with a linient Malabar tenancy act made a number of Travancoreans move and resettle in Malabar’s hilly traits.

But one should also observe how different people gained or lost from the Great War.  Nelliyampathy in Palghat is a prime example. In 1943, the State of Cochin started a farm in Nelliyampathy to feed the British troops.  Many private entrepreneurs, inspired by the market for oranges, converted abandoned coffee plantations to orange plantations. Though there has been a noticeable decline in the area under orange plantations, Nelliyampathy still has orange trees growing in about 240 acres of land.

Another classic is the story ‘Maram’ penned by NP Muhammad, of a saw mill worker in Kallayi who quietly stole driftwood owned by others and became a rich man, a ‘moilali’. A period short story with a love triangle, it details the 1940’s Calicut, mentioning among other matters, itinerant Moplah workers, demonstrating how fortunes can change a man and so on, ending with a gentle twist. Those interested can see the movie online if you google it and see the visuals from the old Kallayi.

All in all, it was a harrowing time. Large percentages of population were decimated, but perhaps some good came out of it after all. Food distribution took effect, rationing and food control came about, there was a realization that rice was not the only form of food and many people found some sense in education, immunizations, hygiene and being responsible for themselves.

And there was something else, the tremendous awe which the British were held in, rapidly dissipated. To the people the state, for once, due to the special circumstances of war, looked brittle and the British no longer in any semblance of control. Some of their selfish acts were exposed during this troubled time as their true color surfaced. The government as many saw, now looked marked for oblivion. Finally, the Indians came out of it with a reborn vigor and a resolve to drive the colonial powers back to Britain.

Most of all, as Robin Jeffrey observes, the war broke down many caste values, restrictions on travel, the value of education and a possibility to work anywhere. It was a direct result of this that the Malayali decided that he never wanted to be hungry and poor again or beg for food handouts. They moved and traveled after this, to seek better fortunes. Many enlisted in the army, and many joined labor battalions to work in Assam and Burma and with it started a new Kerala economy, that of incoming remittances from these hard workers, toiling not only in others parts of India but decades later, in difficult terrains and conditions, abroad.

It has remained so ever since and lo and behold, a few decades later, the Malayali food symbol  morphed into the wheat (maida) porotta. Wheat based dishes such as the Upma (salt mango tree), Poori, Chappati, and the such entered mainstream. The traditional meal comprising a humongous heap of Burmese boiled rice on a plantain leaf with a curry or two, slowly receded to a distant memory.

State failure and human miseries – M Raghavan
Malabar Famine of 1943, a critique of the war situation in Malabar 1939-1943 - Priya P
Food control and Nutrition surveys Malabar and S Kanara – KG Sivaswamy and others
The Cry of Distress - K Santhanam
Politics Women & well-being – Robin Jeffrey
Food Crisis in the Malabar District 1945-47 - N Balasubramaniam

Authors Note
Initially I wanted to write a factual article, steeped in details. As I started to peruse the dense but erudite works of KG Sivaswamy, Kasturiranga Santhanam and the very detailed analysis of M Raghavan, as well as some of those terrible pictures of the sufferers, I grew increasingly pensive and angry. The initial draft had lots of statistics and reasoning which I assumed would be terribly boring to a young reader who I hope will never see, hear or experience a famine, ever. Their minds, I thought, steeped in modernity and some amount of excess would never understand all this, so I dropped the topic and deleted the old draft. But then again, it did not leave my mind, so what I rewrote was a milder version, which you see above. I can assure you my friends, that it was terrible in Calicut in the first three quarters of 1943, far worse than my pen picture, it was a time when hoarding and theft was rampant, when friends turned enemies and when hope left the masses of Malabar.

I was surprised to note that  famed writers of that era did not record this in their books or stories. Basheer it seems did make some mention, but why did SK Pottekat abstain? Or am I wrong? Reader opinion solicited. Was it fear of censorship?


  1. Nothin

    Once again thanks for this wonderful informative article .

  1. Maddy

    Thanks Soorya Narayan
    appreciate it..

  1. navnith

    Thanks for the well researched article.

  1. sumal

    Remarkable article. May such travails never visit India