Among the pantheon of anti-colonial insurgencies of the Indian subcontinent, the Mappila Rebellion has cemented an unsettling presence, subject to several deeply conflictual narratives and discourses from various parts of Indian public sphere and civil society even today.
There are multiple reasons for the continued relevance of this century old historical event. The first being its uniqueness as a simultaneous anti-colonial and anti-feudal rebellion. This is in contrast to the majority of anti-colonial movements wherein native elites (and their interests) have come to stand in for the collective will of the colonized at the expense of the majority of its subaltern contingents.
The second is the fact that the questions, contradictions, hybridities and antagonisms that animated Mappila Rebellion have not ceased to exist after decolonization, but rather have become even more central and constitutive of the political and cultural discourse of the postcolonial republic. The critical questions of caste, labor, and property are ever-present; the fault lines of nation, religion, and minority question, and the political ontologies of colonial governmentality, subaltern violence, and revolutionary praxis – and many other fraught entanglements coalesce around the singularity of the Mappila Rebellion.
The Hindutva position and elements of Indian civil society have forcefully refused the categorization of Mappila Rebellion as an anti-colonial history and instead argued it as being an anti-Hindu movement. There is an element of truth to this argument, mainly because the caste order by which feudalism fortified itself was retroactively narrated through the emergent identity of Hinduism (36), and the protest represented the forceful refusal of such an order and its demands of subjection. Islam, on the other hand, was the name of an oppositional counter-culture that the mass of peasant rebels increasingly identified with (129) as a theology of insurgency (60) against the social contract of caste.
However, the colonial government, its anthropologists, officials, and later British historians largely rejected the idea that there was any political content or discontent behind the rebellion such as problems of feudalism and caste – but rather was purely motivated by what they perceived as the racial fanaticism of the Mappila.
Against the colonial narratives and Hindutva position on the rebellion, socialist historians have argued that the core of the rebellion was a peasant insurgency against the feudal order and the emergent colonial-capitalist government, which ensured its survival. Here, Islam was a secondary mediation for the rebels in the absence of a modern, universal political platform. Muslim historians and activists instead argued for the primacy of Islam as a liberationist ideological force in the rebellion, specifically focusing on the role of Islamic scholars and the influence of the caliphate movement in the later rebellion.
At the heart of the many debates on the rebellion lies the question and role of Islam, with varying levels of affirmation and detraction. The centrality of Islam for Hindu Right becomes the basis of the total refusal of the rebellion. For colonial governmentality, the deployment of the analytic of fanaticism is possible only in the context of the development of Islamophobia in the global political ontology of race.
Meanwhile, socialist historians see in Islam both the organic force that enabled rebellion but which also simultaneously obscured its underlying class character, while Muslim historians linearly affirm Islamic identity of the rebellion in its totality. Despite such extensive debates about the status of Islam, there has not been much inquiry into the theology of the rebellion itself, or to be precise the specific political theological amalgamations that enabled and legitimized the insurgency under and against the disciplinary power of state and social contract of caste.
Against both socialist and Muslim historical appraisal of the role of Islam in the rebellion, in this essay, I want to think through a much under-explored element of the rebellion; its apocalyptic (for lack of a better word) dimension (9). The apocalypticism of Mappila Rebellion complicates its neat appropriation into the political schematics of both socialist interpretation and Islamic affirmation.
While socialist historians were correct to place the class-caste politics at the heart of the rebellion, in its praxis there has not been a straightforward attempt at resolving peasant discontent.
Especially the early outbreaks that culminated in the Mappila Outrages Act, 1859, we find practices of militancy, as well as refusal and rejection of feudal subordination instead of appeal for rights, concessions or protection to the colonial state. In fact, despite recognizing the class-caste contradiction that instigated the rebellion, the colonial dismay at the uprising came from the fact that its praxis purported to unreasonably intensify social antagonism through militant opposition rather than seeking practical resolutions to injustice (39).
Such practices usually would not end in anything but militancy against feudal apparatuses and its colonial protectors, as it rejected both the social contract of caste that was assigned to the peasantry and the ‘appeal for rights’ ethos of the emergent biopolitical regime wherein rights and a caring governmentality was deployed as a way of maintaining existing power relations while promising future concessions.
As such, militant attacks against landlords, colonial officials, police, tax collectors, takeover of feudal castles and mansions, robinhood-esque bandit cartels, mass symbolic suicides, and refusal of work, all animated the early phases of the Mappila Rebellion. One of the most telling of these early rebellions is the infamous cult of hal ilakkam , which translates roughly as ‘disturbance of the existing state of affairs’ synonymously as psychic disturbance (“state of frenzy”); the event carried both these meanings as suspension of the social order and the caste-normative subject formation (193).
In hal ilakkam, the peasant rebels usually receive divine theophanies that demand discharge of social obligation and disobedience against the feudal order, sometimes as revenge for wrongdoings, sometimes as a refusal of work and sometimes without any immediate reason whatsoever. The peasant rebel who is the recipient of the theophany (halars), reaches a state of frenzy and often leads a mass militant procession against the feudal settlements. In other instances, peasant rebels desert their labor duties and caste-based social obligations and become involved in interminable prayer circles, much to the dismay of landlords, the colonial state, and even Islamic clerics. Prayers not for salvation, but the imperative of prayer as a negation of the imperative of labor/social obligations; a theology of insurgent idleness.
The originality of this anti-work theology needs to be seen in conjunction with its heretical dimension. That is to say, if the outbreaks of early rebellion were spontaneous and sporadic practices of antagonism and refusal, hal ilakkam can be seen as an attempt to convert the spontaneous revolts into a heretical theology for planned anarchy. The sect and its various offshoots caused massive problems for the peaceful reproduction of feudal relations and colonial governance, thereby becoming one of the catalysts for Mappila Outrages Act, 1859. Approps to the emergent biopolitical logic of norms, early colonial encounters with hal ilakkam identified it as madness, but later on the category of fanatic became the preferred terminology to properly locate the problematic of Mappila psychopolitics.
Islamic affirmations of the rebellion have also suppressed the anti-political core of the rebellion. Here, it is important to postulate a split in the history of rebellion, between the early constitutive outbreaks and the later constituted movement for Islamic sovereignty. Early outbreaks (target of the Mappila Outrages Act) of the rebellion rather than being a movement for restoring the lost sovereignty, as is usually the case with many anti-colonial movements, was the politics of dissolution of the “present state of things.”
The interpretation of the rebellion as a straightforward expression of Islamic theology thus ignores the constitutive heresy at the heart of rebellion. Even setting aside the historical reality that the rebellion was opposed by many Islamic scholars in the Malabar region, the antagonistic praxis of the early Mappila rebels could not easily be squared within Islamic tradition. Refusal was the central element of early rebel theology as opposed to the simple observation and compliance with traditions. In contrast, traditions were largely involved in the reproduction of the existing state of affairs, with its demands to comply with colonial rule, caste norms, and the obligation of labor, as could be seen in the statements and practices of major traditional centers throughout the time of rebellion (76) .
The claims of theophany, the refusal of work and caste, militancy against state and landlords, all converged in the creation of a renegade, heretical theology and the consequent situation. While the politics of a revolutionary sovereignty was central to the later phase of Malabar rebellion leading upto the events of 1921, early outbreaks were against the dual sovereignty of caste and colonial state without presupposing an alternative sovereign arrangement, or the restoration of its tradition.
Rather the events, which characterized early rebellion, was that of an eschatology that wanted to be done with the world. The Mappila eschatology operated on the promise of heavenly liberation as the basis of the refusal of worldly political existence, as opposed to its continued analogical reproduction. Some reports of martyrdom talk about how the rebel martyr who chose death, did so in a total protest against the “weariness of laborious life” or to prevent being caught, tried, and tortured by the colonial government i.e., martyrdom was not simply death qua death, but death as the traumatic extent of an irreconcilable opposition (89). Here, it is not apocalyptic in the sense of a movement for the end of the world, but the realization that a true protest cannot but negate the pragmatic order of the world.
If we understand political theology as the mobilization of theological ethos to manage political existence in the world, or theodicial redemption of being-in-the world of oppression and domination, the theology operational here could thus be tentatively called an anti-political theology. Anti-politics in the sense of the rejection of politics in favor of the immediacy of the oppositional freedom, and in its indifference in articulating sovereign futurities which promises liberation in another wordly political order. In its fatal determination to rebel, it speaks only (or is only able to) of the irredeemability of this world.
In the later rebellion, political theology of the caliphate and alternative forms of Muslim sovereignty through anti-colonial nationalism was rather unsuccessfully introduced to discipline or to fill the gap created by the Mappila eschatology, sublimating its anti-political irreconcilability into a practical political program. The rejection of the colonial racist category of fanatic by defenders of the rebellion became an attempt to restore the political meaning of the rebellion, against the accusation of meaningless and excessive negativity of the early outbreaks. But in both deployment of the fanatic and its rejection, the constitutive negativity itself remains deferred or repressed. However, rather than making the rebellion meaningful politically, what if we stayed in fidelity with its anti-political ingenuity and extended it? What is at stake in the radical refusal of the existing state of affairs? What new way of relating to politics as liberation can be unearthed in the ruins of refusal instead of continued reproduction of the political contract of state and caste society? A politics and theology founded on refusal, antagonism, and irreconcilability instead of appealing to the “moral sense” of the dominant structure or tradition as an order of compliance with the world (139). Anti-political theology can be potentially conceived as the affirmation of the abyssal depths of Fanonian tabula rasa, a tear in the movement of history enabling the possibility of true inventions instead of poor imitations.