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The Brink

Religion, Rebellion, and Sovereignty: Malabar Rebellion and the Problem Space of Political Theology

The symposium initiates a conversation on the forms and practices of sovereignty in South Asia in the context of a peasant Muslim insurgency against British colonialism in 20th-century Malabar in South India.

In South Asia, debates on sovereignty are largely situated in its colonial history, particularly with regard to the emergence of the “rule of law.” The colonial system of governance developed not only through the coercive practices of applying the “rule of law,” but also through its attempt at actively integrating the natives into the grammar and culture of the rule of law in a way that produced new forms of subjection/subjecthood. This process also had to encounter specific forms of religious and cultural subjecthood of the natives, some of which were redefined and integrated into the colonial grammar, while some were not. It is at this historical juncture that we find the genesis of the divides and categories such as religion vs politics and secularism vs communalism which one can identify as the problem space for political theology in South Asia. In other words, the objects and categories of political theology, as we understand them in this forum, are not already fully formed concepts. In other words, political theology as a mode of inquiry is not approached here as an investigation of intersections between two seemingly opposing and fully formed concepts (such as politics and religion). Rather, we consider political theology as a mode of examining the very construction of those concepts in specific historical contexts (such as early twentieth century Malabar). In that sense, not the intersection of the concepts that is regarded here as the problem space, but the concepts themselves.

This symposium facilitates a set of reflections addressing the problem space of political theology in the context of Malabar, a South Indian region under the British Empire. The legacy of the region in terms of its connection with the global political structures over the sea network in the early colonial period was well studied. Many of such studies on Malabar and sovereignty were largely anchored around the global network of power cohered through the sea trade. To elucidate, the question of sovereignty in Malabar was predominantly studied in terms of how the region was connected to a much larger political structure (i.e., Ottoman Caliphate). It is therefore unsurprising that such studies were concentrated on coastal trade relations. While such studies are important in addressing the problem space of political theology in the context of the coastal trade networks, this symposium intends to reinvent questions of sovereignty, religion, ethics, law, etc. in the context of inland and forests in Malabar where peasant Muslims were largely concentrated. 

The series of outbreaks the Malabar region witnessed throughout the 19th century and the early 20th century between the Muslim inhabitants and the British–landlord nexus in what is called the Malabar rebellion constitutes the site of inquiry for this symposium. Because of the active agency of the native Mappila peasant Muslims in the rebellion, most of whom were the converts from various lower caste communities to Islam, the rebellion is also called Mappila rebellion. One of the major provocations for the incidents of the rebellion was the new colonial land policy, which legalized the landlord, or ‘janmi,’ many of whom belong to the Hindu upper caste community called Nambūdiri Brahmins, as the absolute owners of the land. This worsened the already existing agrarian crisis in Malabar, and the condition of the peasants thereby deteriorated. The caste relation in Malabar was ordered and cemented through the agrarian relation convened by the British. Many lower-caste peasants began converting to Islam in the spirit of challenging this caste-feudal-colonial orbit, which often culminated in bloody outbreaks. The eventual and evental outbreak that took place in 1921 resulted in the death of thousands of Mappilas and hundreds of British soldiers. 

The rebellion offers a curious instance of a complex entanglement of anti-colonial nationalism, peasant struggle against native elites and landlords, Islamic struggle for the universal authority of the Caliphate, and the anti-caste struggle against the Hindu upper caste. Such diverse references seem to be unique to the Malabar rebellion in the history of anti-colonial struggles in India. However, historians often resort to the approach of “causal history,” making it a single story by focusing on one shred of the event to understand the cause of it. The problem with such an approach is that the event is reduced to a single coherent cause invented through analysis. For instance, nationalist writers assumed that the Malabar rebellion was primarily motivated by the emerging spirit of anti-colonial nationalism while for Marxist scholars it was the long-standing peasant discontent that triggered the rebellion. Colonial administrators explained the rebellion in terms of “fanaticism” or what they thought was a uniquely Muslim desire for martyrdom. 

The rebels’ association with the Caliphate movement (or Khilafat movement) in India spearheaded by the leaders of the nationalist movement (Gandhi, Mohammad Ali Jauhar, Shaukat Ali etc) opened up new debates about the nature and course of the rebellion. Many of them initially thought that the mobilization of the peasant Muslims in Malabar could make a greater contribution to the struggle against the British. But the militant insurgency of the Mappilas came to be criticized by the nationalist leaders themselves as the violation of the non-violent and the non-cooperative methods of the anti-colonial movement. The violence, which was indispensable to the course of the event, was collectively denounced by those who once espoused its nationalist aspirations as well as by those who described the event as a class struggle and the ones who tried to reclaim it as against the colonial narratives. Colonial writers, followed by others, constructed a “fanatic” essence as a defining feature of Mappila peasant Muslims to explain the violence. 

Notwithstanding the “fanatic” aspect, Marxist leaders and writers lauded it as a “class struggle” and Lenin, for instance, expressed further curiosity about it. All these are certainly centered on what happened in 1921. In 1921, the rebel leader Variankunnath Kunjahammad Haji declared an autonomous rule freed from the British, with the rebels seizing the land from the Hindu upper caste landlords and distributing it among the tenants. However, the 1921 event was just an organized culmination of a series of sporadic riots against the landlords and the upper caste taking place throughout the preceding century. While 1921 cannot be dissociated from those numerous riots across the century, it is definitely distinctive in terms of the questions (i.e., Caliphate, self-rule etc.) it raised. 

The approaches of the articles in the symposium range from analyzing what kind of Caliphate imagination was localized in Malabar to understanding the issues in the historiographical treatment of the rebellion. They also look at the narrative practices and strategies that enacted a certain notion of sovereignty in the discourse of the rebellion. An attempt was also made to capture the elements such as the ritual practice of “Haal Ilakkam” as a refusal of any given genre of explaining the rebellion in terms of political projects. 

Instead of joining the trend to read the event reductively by privileging one historical factor over another, this roundtable aims to see what questions emerge from the rebellion vis a vis sovereignty, ethics, and history. The major question that animates the symposium is this: ‘How did various antagonistic forces (such as religion, peasantry, landlordism, and colonialism) enable and disable certain practices of sovereignty in the Malabar Rebellion?’ 

Symposium Essays

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.