The Moplah Rifles (1902-1907)

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A Short Lived experiment

Many have asked me why I continue to use the word Moplah, and not the word Mappila. I have no real answer to that, perhaps it is because it is more often used in historical text and finds more results in searches. I have also never been a great supporter of changing well accepted names like Bombay to Mumbai and Madras to Chennai, but then I should not digress. We will spend some time today studying the creation and the untimely disbanding of the Moplah Rifles in the British Army.

The Moplah rifles owes its lineage to the 17th Battalion, former the Cochin State Infantry of the Princely State Forces. This went on to become the 17th Carnatic Battalion and later the 17th Regiment of Madras Native Infantry in the Madras Army. In 1796 it was the 2nd Battalion, 1st Regiment of Madras Native Infantry. By 1824 it had become the 17th Regiment of Madras Native Infantry and in 1885 became 17th Regiment of Madras Infantry. It was in 1902 that the 1st Moplah Rifles were constituted and in 1903 became 77th Moplah Rifles. The first Moplahs were enlisted in 1900 as part of the 25th and the 17th Madras regiments and these were the ones which became the 1st and 2nd Moplah Rifles.

After the first Afghan War, the British decided to unify the various regional armies and foru wings were formed, the Punjab, Bengal, Madras (Burmese units were part of madras) and Bombay. Each command had a lieutenant general and they reported to the Commander in Chief. Now some clever guys might ask how the numbering was done. Well the numerical preference went to Bengal, followed by Punjab and Madras, then Hyderabad and finally Bombay. The cavalries were formed and Madras set itself apart by initially being non-siladar, meaning that their horses were government maintained. The other units were siladar with the soldier owning and maintaining his horse and were paid better. Most of the Burmese security battalions belonged to the Madras, and the British were becoming aware that the southern soldier was not as well cut out for military duty as compared to their Punjabi Sikh and Muslim (mainly from the NWFP) brethren with the result that even the Madras regiments were soon to get Punjabised. But let’s now track the entry of Moplahs into these forces (Many a British source called them the Mop’s). A quick aside, did you now there was even the 3rd Brahmans?

Stephen Luscombe opines - Although the Moplahs took on the position in the Madras infantry line of the 17th and 25th, it is unlikely that any Moplahs were in those regiments prior to 1902 as they had, as a race, a reputation for causing trouble. An official report had earlier dismissed them as 'a turbulent and fanatical community'. In the previous 60 years they had participated in no less than 33 outbreaks which required military assistance to suppress. Troublesome races had been successfully recruited into the army before (e.g. Sikhs and Gurkhas) so it seemed a good idea to try the Moplahs.

In 1885, District collector HV Connolly had been murdered and the British came down on the community with an iron hand. Soon, the Moplah outrages as the British called them, in Malabar, had subsided and there was some agreement in assimilating them into the British forces after having observed their vigor in battle during these skirmishes. The District magistrate observed thus (not sure if it was W Logan or CA Galton) about their entry into the armed forces - In 1900 the enlistment of Moplahs was commenced in the 25th Madras infantry, and that regiment and the 17th Madras Infantry are now being gradually reconstituted as the 1st and 2nd Moplah Rifles. The men when treated with discrimination, are found most amenable to discipline and are well behaved. Their soldierly qualities are evident from their history, and their physique leaves nothing to be desired. As these people number a total of over 200,000 males, they should be able to supply us with a number of battalions of efficient soldiers, and no doubt when the time comes, they will prove their efficiency in and value on the field of battle.

At the beginning of the 20th century the basis for recruitment was changed from Madrasis to Moplahs. The Moplahs had a reputation as an aggressive race and it was hoped to make use of their martial skills in the Indian Army. A problem from the beginning was that the population numbers available for recruitment were limited. In 1907, shortly before disbandment, the regiment numbered only 350 men.

Brian Stevens adds – In 1901-02 the 17th and 25th Madras infantry were re-designated the 1st and 2nd battalions Moplah Rifles, recruiting Moplahs or as they were known today, Mappilas, a Muhammedan people of Arab descent living in the Malabar district. The 1903 renumbering resulte din their becoming the 77th and 78th Moplah Rifles, although why the 78th was so numbered is not known, Strictly speaking, it should have been the 85th in accordance with the rule that the old Madras regiments added 60 to their previous number.

Two battalion-sized regiments of Moplah Rifles were thus formed and the 78th was posted to the North West Frontier in 1905 to be tested under active-service conditions. The experiment was not considered a success. It is explained that this was possibly die to the difficulties experienced by British officers in learning Malayalam ( a language they said did not include any military terms!). Another problem mentioned was that the Moplah sepoy, accustomed to the moist humidity of Malabar did not take kindly to the dry climate of the Punjab frontier.

In 1902, the 2nd Moplah Rifles were shipped to England for the Coronation of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra. Their costume attracted much attention, and their scarlet Zouave jackets and red tarbushes (Turkish style Fez cap) - a headdress not previously worn by the Indian Army stood prominent.

In 1903 when the two battalions became the 77th and 78th Moplah Rifles, the uniform of the senior battalion changed to one that was green faced with scarlet and that of the junior became red faced with green.

Getting back to the Moplah recruitment process, Major Pryor notes - Small isolated attempts," Major Holland-Pryor writes, " to recruit Mappillas were made by various regiments quartered in Malabar some years ago, but without success. This was probably owing to the fact that the trial was made on too small a scale, and that the system of mixed companies interfered with their clannish propensities. The district officers also predicted certain failure, on the ground that Mappillas would not serve away from their own country. Their predictions, however, have proved to be false, and men now come forward in fair numbers for enlistment." In 1896, the experiment of recruiting Mappillas for the 25th Madras Infantry was started, and the responsible task of working up the raw material was entrusted to Colonel Burton, with whose permission I took measurements of his youthful warriors. As was inevitable in a community recruited by converts from various classes, the sepoys afforded an interesting study in varied colouration, stature and nasal configuration. One very dark-skinned and platyrrhine individual, indeed, had a nasal index of 92. Later on, the sanction of the Secretary of State was obtained for the adoption of a scheme for converting the 17th and 25th regiments of the Madras Infantry into Mappilla corps, which were subsequently named the 77th and 78th Moplah Rifles. These regiments," Major Holland-Pryor continues, "at present draw their men principally from Ernad and Valuvanad.

Laborers from these parts are much sought after by planters and agents from the Kolar gold-fields, on account of their hardiness and fine physique. Some, however, prefer to enlist. The men are generally smaller than the Coast Mappillas, and do not show much trace of Arab blood, but they are hardy and courageous, and, with their superior stamina, make excellent fighting material." In 1905 the 78th Moplah Rifles were transferred to Dea Ismail Khan in the Punjab, and took part in the military maneuvers before H.R.H. the Prince of Wales at Rawalpindi. It has been observed that "the Moplahs, in dark green and scarlet, the only regiment in India which wears the tarbush, are notable examples of the policy of taming the pugnacious races by making soldiers of them, which began with the enlistment of the Highlanders in the Black Watch, and continued to the disciplining of the Kachins in Burma.

The last two annual reports on the Moplah Rifles sound negative, stating that 'fanaticism' amongst the sepoys made these units unsuitable for garrison duties in Madras. In view of the problems faced by the 78th MR when posted to the North-West Frontier Province, service with the field army was not considered a feasible alternative. The two regiments accordingly were included in Lord Kitchener's reductions of 'generally inefficient' Madras regiments and were disbanded in 1907, but there is as you can imagine, a sordid story behind this so called reorganization.

So a few words on why the reorganization and disbandment took place would be in order. It was during the period 1885-1911 that the ethnic composition of the army gradually changed from what is termed as a Hindustani majority/Hindu/Non-Muslim dominated army to a Punjabi Majority/Punjabi Muslim heavy army by 1911. The Martial races theory and recruitment policy states - The Punjabi was generally regarded as a better soldier not because he was a Muslim, but because they belonged to a rugged area where the weather, terrain and climate made him tougher and sturdier, and thus a better soldier. It was in this situation that a new threat assessment was made, with the possibility of a Russian conquest of India over the Northern border looming near as part of the ‘great game’.

General Lord Kitchener was in late 1902 appointed Commander-in-Chief, India and quickly he recommended preparing the Indian Army for any potential war by reducing the size of fixed garrisons and reorganizing it into two armies, to be commanded by Generals Blood and Luck, much to the dismay of Lord Curzon, the Viceroy, who had been the person recommending him. Until the arrival of Kitchner, the Indian armies were mainly for internal security aspects and not built to fight an external enemy. With the thinking that the Russians would set out to conquer India, the British reorganization of the forces took on some urgency. Agha Amin explains - According to Kitchener's perception, the Indian Army was ill organized to face the external enemy i.e. a likely Russian invasion of India, which was regarded as a serious likelihood by the British since the Panjdeh incident of 1885. The brigades and divisions as per Kitchener’s system were to train as complete formations in peacetime Staff College for the Indian Army was established on the lines of Camberley in 1905. Kitchener stressed the fact that general officers must lead in war the field formations that they had trained in peace.

Perhaps the problem was actually with Kitchener who was instrumental in pushing the MR to the NWFP to test them out as Conrad Wood opines in more details after a fine study. It is clear that Kitchener was one of the main reasons for the weeding out of the Moplah sepoy from the Indian army.

Even so, by the 1900s they had attracted the antagonism of the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces in India. It is clear from his own private papers that, at least as early as 1904, Lord Kitchener was most anxious to see Gurkhas take the place in the Indian Army of Madras regiments like the 77th and 78th Moplah Rifles to which he showed himself antipathetic. Meeting resistance to his plans from high government circles, Kitchener seems to have obliged the authorities to accept his plan for the disbandment of the Moplah regiments by what was contemporaneously described as “a cruel scheme for bringing the officers and men of the two Battalions into general contempt”. In 1905 there was arranged a sudden transfer of the 78th Moplah Rifles from the tropical south of the sub-continent to the North-West frontier where, Kitchener had disingenuously assured his superiors, the regiment would “have the advantage of being associated with frontier troops, and enjoy special facilities for training”.

In fact failure to provide adequate equipment to contend with the northern winter ensured the breakdown of the regiment with more than a quarter of its complement hospitalized. Lord Kitchener’s handiwork, described by the Madras Mail at the time as ‘‘nothing less than disgusting”, was completed by an ingenious manipulation of army regulations. This reduced both Moplah regiments to mere skeletons, the parading of which in cantonments where “low-class gharry wallahs” were driving about in discarded uniforms of the Moplah Rifles afforded merriment to every other regiment. The disbanding of the “sickened” troops of the two Moplah regiments was effected in 1907. However, even after the outbreak of the Great War, it was reported that Ernad and Walluvanad were filled with Moplah ex-sepoys who vividly remembered their treatment in the British army.

CJ O’Donnell questioning in Parliament shows that this is a fact- To ask the Secretary of State for War if he will state the necessity of moving a Moplah regiment last winter from the hot, humid climate of South Western Madras, where it was recruited; to Dera Ghazi Khan, in the Punjab, where the temperature was under freezing point when it arrived; what was the barrack accommodation prepared for this regiment; and whether 400 out of its strength of 820 men were in hospital a few weeks afterwards.

Sadly no formal answer was provided. Another sad fact was that these forces were hit by a plague outbreak while at Dera Ghazi Khan.

Maj Pryor adds - In the general overhauling of the Indian Army, the fighting value of the Moplahs has come into question, and the 78th Regiment is now at Dera Ismail Khan being measured against the crack regiments of the north." In 1907, the colors of the 17th Madras Infantry, which was formed at Fort St. George in 1777, and had had its name changed to 77th Moplah Rifles, were, on the regiment being mustered out, deposited in St. Mark's Church, Bangalore.

Another issue noted with the Moplah was the difficulty in assimilating them with other troops due to their ‘clannish propensity’. But they were recruited for a while and ironically, while they were serving reasonably well, the district authorities in Malabar had started to brand them as criminal in nature, due to the disturbances which culminated in the Moplah rebellion of 1921.

Whatever happened to the disbanded units now without any means of subsistence? The second battalion of the 10th, recruited from the eastern region of Rai and Limbu, was split in two and they became the two battalions of the new 7th Gurkha Rifles. The majority of officers for this new regiment came from the 78th Moplah Rifles which had just been disbanded. They brought with them mess silver and band funds and instruments. The sepoys drifted away back home and it is stated that some of them supported the armed factions of the 1921 revolt in Malabar.

Conrad wood explains - Although isolated cases occurred of Moplah ex-sepoys rallying to the side of government in the course of the rebellion, in general those with experience of service in the armed forces of the Crown showed little of the resistance to the rising which was evident among other categories of government servant. In fact there can be no doubt that the insurgents were able to draw on the military expertise of large numbers of Moplah ex-sepoys who joined their ranks which in some cases, such as with the gang of Kunhamad Haji, were made up largely of men of this type.

That it was considered to be one of the many causes of disillusionment among the Moplahs prior to the 1921 revolt is clear and evidenced by this missive in the British parliament in 1907 related to the reduction of Strength of Moplah Rifles. Mr. REES: To ask the Secretary of State for India whether the two battalions of Moplah Rifles have each been reduced to 200 non-commissioned officers and men by stopping recruitment, though a recruiting officer is maintained in Malabar, and by offering discharges to men who had not served their proper time; whether the Governments of Madras and India did not decide against the proposed disbandment of these battalions and, seeing that if the answer is in the affirmative, the action of the military authorities practically amounts to overriding the decision of the Government, whether he will make inquiry into the matter on account of the political objections to introducing discontent among the Moplahs, as well as on account of the merits of the case.

(Answered by Mr. Secretary Morley.) I have not the information required for a reply to this Question, but I will refer it to the Government of India….

The military colors of the 77th Moplah Rifles infantry Regiment, after disbandment (1907) are displayed on the west wall of St. Mark’s Cathedral Bangalore. But while the officers were commemorated, this soldier of the Raj was sadly forgotten as a dismal failure, mainly due to characters such as Kichtener who as history recorded went on to become a Field marshal (he was hoping to become the Viceroy!) and after spearheading Britain’s WW 1 efforts and lost his life at sea in 1916 when a German U boat 75 torpedoed HMS Hampshire (another conspiracy theory involving the ace spy Duquesne exists) which was taking him on a diplomatic mission to Russia.

But Conrad Wood concludes that some of these sepoys did not participate in the 1921 rebellion, and is emphatic - The history of the Moplahs in the Indian Army from 1905 to 1921 affords an explanation for the failure of one section of the Ernad Muslim community with experience of government service, to reject participation in the rebellion of 1921-22.

Journal of the United Service Institution of India, Volumes 30-33-Some accounts of the Moplahs and Corrgs – Maj RG Burton
Expansion of the Indian army during WW1- Brian DN Stevens, Journal of the society for army historical research
Ethnicity, Religion, Military Performance and Political Reliability -- British Recruitment Policy and The Indian Army -- 1757-1947 Maj (Retd) AGHA HUMAYUN AMIN
Sons of the John Company – John Gaylor
The Rise and Fall of Modern Empires, Volume I: Social Organization - edited by Owen White
Recruiting, Drafting, and Enlisting: Two Sides of the Raising of Military Forces - edited by Peter Karsten
The Moplah Rebellion and Its Genesis – Conrad Wood
Castes and Tribes of Southern India, Volume 4 – Some accounts of the Moplahs

77th and 78th Uniform, officers and sepoys – courtesy Stephen Luscombe


  1. Nick Balmer

    Hello Maddy,

    Have you come across material on the Wayanad Rifles?

    This was a unit formed in or shortly before 1812 and which survived until some time in the 1830's. It disappears then, and I have no idea if it was disbanded or merged into other units.

    I believe it was formed for counter insurgency in the Wayanad, and that it might have been locally recruited.


    Nick Balmer

  1. Maddy

    Thanks Nick
    No I have not come across Wayanad Rifles, could not find anything on it. During those period, I presumed that EIC troops from Madras or Bombay handled insurgencies, but much later the Nilgiri Malabar battalion was formed around 1860...