xbn .
The Brink

History, Memory, and the Everyday: Life in the Time of Rebellion

This article demonstrates how the living memories of Malabar rebellion evade the logic of the historical narrative. The native memory of the rebellion appears to have subverted the neatly drawn schemes such as ‘Hindu’ vs ‘Muslim’, ‘cruelty’ vs ‘compassion’, and ‘horror’ vs ‘fascination’ etc. that animate the logic of historical writing.

One of the prominent Marxist scholars of the Malabar rebellion, KN Panikkar, describes the event in his well-known work this way.

“Six hundred eighty-eight thousand seven hundred thirty-one Mappilas were  living in four taluks in the southern Malabar that witnessed the rebellion. One hundred seventy-two thousand and one hundred eighty-three were adult men. But those who actively participated in the rebellion, including the ones who got arrested or surrendered, are only counted as fifty thousand. “This is only around one-third of the adult men in the region” (10).   

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.

“However, the real turning point in the behavior of the military, and in the course  of the rebellion, came with the raid on 25 October 1921 by men of the Dorset Regiment on Melmuri amsom in which dwellings were burnt wholesale and widespread of the slaughter of the Moplah population, including an unknown number of those who were not active rebels, occurred. The Melmuri raid was only the first of a series of similar incidents…” (210)

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,

“Here my dad, and two relatives of his from Alyathody, one from Karythody, and elder brother of Moideen kuty haji from Alyathody. White men shot them, didn’t  they? Why were the white men ruling over them in those days? Wasn’t it like  whoever saw them doing so was getting shot? Men folks, then the high priest (Thangalpappa) from the other side of the river, came and said that you need not bury them in the usual way, and he gestured like making a pit in the size as used for planting a coconut sapling. He was scared himself, if the white men happened to see these men, they will shoot them for sure. There is nothing to think about here. You need not wash the dead bodies in the traditional way. Even my father poured running water on the body of his father the next day. My father is called by the name Kunjalan by my father-in-law” (Malappuram, 282).

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,

“Ladies were not included in the dead. But it was said that someone from      Chellangathody was among the shot. She was the daughter of Bappuhajikka. She never leaves her father and was holding on to him all the time, making efforts to save her in vain. Normally they won’t shoot women. But she never released her hold, and she was beaten by the grip of the gun. Then they moved. As the soldier pointed the gun at her father she rushed, saying I will not live here if my father was shot. She was almost at the age of marriage. However, the soldiers shot her father while he was in her inseparable embrace. She died, and her father too” (Malappuram 282).

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:

“All the men were away from the house. Then she was in the post-partum period, so there were many jars of oil, ghee, coconut oil, etc., also one lady maid was staying with her because she was from a well-off family. They were the only ones there then. Men were running around randomly in fear of the British. Two ladies alone in a big house. They were in a panic thinking if they get shot. Do you know what they did finally, they applied yellow-colored baby poop everywhere on their body and dress (laughing). Then they (British soldiers) came, they talked something in their language, and we don’t know their language. They asked them to go out. As the mother with baby and maid went out of the house, soldiers entered the house, destructed certain things they saw around, misplaced other things, and murmured. The soldiers went out. That mother died very recently. It is not my eye account; I am only repeating what I heard from others” (vadakkemannu 371).

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.

“Those are white beasts of this much height (gesture showing height). I could not see anyone of that height among our Muslim folks. Their teeth are of chikhali seeds’ color (laughing). I have not seen beautiful beasts like this. White, whiter, very white”(Ummachu, Malappuram 284).

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,

“Haven’t you seen the small valyava (brother). Once, he was given a loaded gun  and asked to shoot. Immediately, he shot, but he got shot himself in the chest. Then he ran. He ran through the lane between our home and Arakkal house and fell to our upper courtyard. When he fell, you know what he said? No, it is not  ‘Allah’, but he said ‘Eeshwaraa’ (a Hindu expression for Oh God!). He came  wearing armor and all” (Kondotty 268).

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:

“The shooting was from inside the mausoleum (jaram). The military came, it was told. Inside was full of the military. They were told, there were Jinn too, so need  not worry. Still, they (rebels) all ran, but could not reach the point, it was water, everywhere, they reached the other side by half swimming and half rolling. They  swam. When they got hold of something while swimming, it seemed to them it was a snake. This is how they fled frightened. No one knows all these, but me. Then I was only forty days old since my mother delivered me” (Khairunnisa, Kondotty 269).

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.

Malabar Rebellion, Self-Cultivation and Multiple Meanings of Khilafat/Caliphate

Khilafat in the narratives during the rebellion represented freedom, dignity, justice and universal brotherhood instead of the restoration of an empire. The article briefly examines multiple possibilities the term Khilafat or Caliphate offered to the indigenous anti-colonial struggle of Malabar in India in the 20th century.


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 promise liberation in another worldly political order. In its fatal determination to rebel, it speaks only (or is only able to) of the irredeemability of this world.

History, Memory, and the Everyday: Life in the Time of Rebellion

This article demonstrates how the living memories of Malabar rebellion evade the logic of the historical narrative. The native memory of the rebellion appears to have subverted the neatly drawn schemes such as ‘Hindu’ vs ‘Muslim’, ‘cruelty’ vs ‘compassion’, and ‘horror’ vs ‘fascination’ etc. that animate the logic of historical writing.

“War” in The Time of The Rebellion: Between Colonial and Decolonial Narratives About Malabar of 1921

This blog post investigates and problematizes a certain narrative strategy in the historiography of Malabar rebellion, in which “war” (“yudham”) and “riot” (“lahala” or “mutiny”) were configured on the model of “politics” and “religion”. The post asks what kind of sovereign formation was imagined in such a narrative strategy and why it needs to be addressed.

Like what you're reading?

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This

Share this post with your friends!