One of the prominent Marxist scholars of the Malabar rebellion, KN Panikkar, describes the event in his well-known work this way.
Only adult men were identified as participants in the uprising in the vicinity of so many mothers and children. Women were absent in the analysis of the social structure of the rebellion. When we observe how such a group containing women and children vanished from the narratives of a major liberal Marxist and progressive historian like KN Panikkar, this approach cannot be understood as a flaw with Marxian analysis or patriarchal tendencies alone. Rather, it needs to be assessed as a problem of history as a form of knowledge itself. As a dominant and normative mode of academic practice, History seeks to make explanations accurate, logical, and thus scientific. This largely stems from the attempt to provide a comprehensive view of an event from the standpoint of an assumed ‘center.’ History, thus, appears comprehensive of everything that was viewed from that center.
To tell the complete tale of the Malabar rebellion, the historical narrative becomes monumental of only those who perished in the rebellion. In the process, the goal of History becomes only to explain the cause of the uprising and how the uprising came to an end: with the assumption of a ‘beginning’ and an ‘end.’ History in the course of its unfolding overlooks the determination, adversity, setbacks, sacrifices, sufferings, and resistance developed in a group of individuals. The past, however, is neither personal nor scientific in any way. All attempts to homogenize and categorize the Malabar Rebellion along the line of the logic of history, nevertheless, could be found to be thwarted by several rich folktales around it. This essay is a brief attempt at showing how the rebellion was expressed in vernacular compositions, folktales, and oral narratives in a way that defies the said logic of the historical narrative.
To show this, let me show an “official” historical account, provided by Conrad Wood, of an assault carried out by Dorset Regiment on Mappila Muslims in Melmuri, Malappuram, during the rebellion.
The record of the horror of the attack, however, was limited to the total death toll. But the narrative of a Mappila woman named Ummachu who recalled the incident in a conversation with me provided an altogether different sense of what happened. According to her narrative, the incident is not only about the men who were lined up and shot, but also about a daughter who never let her father be separated and therefore had to die alongside.
As Ummachu describes,
They were buried together in a trench with running water as per Thangaluppa’s (priest’s) orders since the funeral customs per the religious principles could not be followed in the circumstance. As Ummachu explains,
Historical methods fall short of capturing the intensity of this personal bond and its emotional and visceral content. While the official history tries to pinpoint the period of the invasion and track the movements of the British troops, this narrative tries to dig into the specifics of the event through new and vernacular storytellers. For instance, another Mappila, named Mammathu tells the story of how they eluded the British troops:
It is a terrifying experience indeed. An account of someone standing by herself in a big house, facing the soldiers. To escape them, she rubbed the baby’s feces on her body. Nevertheless, the pinch of compassion shown by the troops is also significant to note here. Even though she couldn’t comprehend what the soldiers were saying, she thought they were being considerate of her. The resistance was therefore complex and multifaceted, evading neat categories of historical descriptions.
The women of the household faced the onslaught as a group, with the older women in the home protecting others. According to Pathummu in Nilambur, the women banded together and drove away those who were trying to harass a woman. These are the tales of how they pulled together and deftly handled a danger. These accounts make fun of the soldiers while being harshly critical of them. In one such account, Mammathu ridiculed the soldiers for running out of bullets and firing at an upturned boat. The soldiers mistook the boat for a shield protecting the Mappilas hiding behind. Ummachu in her story directly criticizes the police officers. “I still remember what my youngest uncle told me back then. No one fears seeing your red hat or the flower on it, you may go wherever you wish, no one cares,” Ummachu says (Malappuram, 285).
In another story, Ummachu expressed resentment toward the British for killing her loved ones. At the same time, there was a particular kind of fascination for the Other (here for the white soldiers) expressed in some accounts, as well.
The desire and passion for foreign and exotic bodies are visible in this intriguing description. The Gurkha army was described as having a black complexion and intimidating women, while the white officers as respecting women and were distinctly separate from others.
Soldiers were also described as handsome by Pathummu of Nilambur. By showing hatred, fear, and mockery of soldiers and at the same time expressing passion for them, this narrative defies the dichotomies that the logic of history has erected (such as hatred against passion, for instance). It also upends the dichotomies such as good/bad, colonizer/colonized, and national/parochial, etc. The denial of such dichotomies was also visible among Mappilas who refused to join the rebels. For instance, in the narrative of Khairunnisa from the region of Kondotty, it was the rebel leader Kunjahammad Haji and his group who were the culprits. She narrates the death of Kunjahammad Haji’s close companion Kammu thus,
Kondotty Thangal, a spiritual leader in the region, who was fed up with the disturbance from the rebels, was behind this incident according to Khairunnisa who opposed the rebellion. Kammu screams “Eeshwaraa” (a Hindu expression for ‘Oh God’) just before he dies. Khairunnisa and her faith in Kondotty Thangal and the magical tales it inspires were also part of the rebellion. They think Kondotty Thangal was assisted in this by supernatural forces. Another account:
Asking questions, interjecting before you’ve finished, and combining different narrative methods, their modes of expression are distinct from one another. The simple act of telling violates the conventions of storytelling. These narratives also subvert the categories of Hindu and Muslim as two watertight compartments. Hindus and Muslims were usually portrayed in the colonial archive as opposing and mutually hostile communities. In the process, differences are either ignored or supplanted by the authenticity and power of the historical narrative. History adopts a formally recognized grand narrative. It also demonstrates an enduring relationship between the means of knowledge and the tactics of power. However, these stories convey a multiplicity that makes traditional Hindu and Muslim discursive poles obsolete. In other words, people like Parangodan never had to reject the rebellion because he was Hindu just as Khairunnisa did not have to support it because she was a Muslim. Some of the non-Muslim folks painfully described how their father’s friends were brutally murdered by the rebels while being sympathetic to the rebel cause. These regional expressions refute popular and monolithic conceptions about the Malabar Rebellion as a Hindu-Muslim riot.
History translates the aspirations and fears of ordinary people into standard categories. These tales, however, would manage to elude the logic of such representations. These are things that are almost on the radar of one’s interpretation and yet elude one’s categories no matter how hard one tries.
Many thanks to Sibahathulla Sakib Thangal, graduate student at Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi for help translating of the oral narratives into English as cited above.