The Malabar Rebellion, also known as the Mappila Rebellion, is one of the crucial episodes of anti-colonial history in India. The event, which occurred in the South Indian region of Malabar, includes a series of sporadic riots against the Hindu landlords spanning across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The culminating event in 1921 has often been treated as separate from the previous ones in public discourse. This is primarily due to the connection it was alleged to have with the Caliphate question prevalent then, as well as the claim of anti-colonial political sovereignty it extended by way of establishing a kingdom in the region of Malabar for a few months until it was bloodily suppressed by the British.
In what follows, I identify the constellation of the concepts of “riot” and “war” in the discourse of the Rebellion as curiously modeled on a highly touted dichotomy of “religion” and “politics.” The discussion below is organized around a local historical text titled Anglo-Mappila War of 1921 (in Malayalam “Anglo-Mappila Yudham 1921”) by A.K Kodoor, a late historian in Kerala. This book, written in the local language of Malayalam, is significant in this context for the claims it makes, prominent among which is that what happened in Malabar in 1921 was a war, not a riot or mutiny. Published almost 25 years ago, the book is the outcome of intense research drawing on both oral and written sources, including interviews with the relatives of the martyrs and some witnesses. Addressing the politics of narratives in the discourse of the rebellion, the author claims that the colonial and at times nationalist narratives shrugged off the size and nature of the event by terming it a “riot” or “mutiny” (or “lahala” in Malayalam) between Hindus and Muslims. In its commitment to defying the prevalence of such conceptions, the book, beginning with its title, attempts to reclaim the event as “yudham” or “war” against the British. Even though the colonial (often nationalist and Marxist) historians are insistent on the event as a “lahala” some of the colonial officials, according to Kodoor, had a slip of the tongue terming the event a “war” (2008. 222). Furthermore, many rebel leaders, including Ali Musaliar, were caught and tried by the British on the charge of “waging war against His majesty,” which corroborates Kodoor’s argument. This implies that despite the attempts at rendering the event as a “lahala,” the discourse of war was present in the colonial narratives in some shreds, which Kodoor wants to uncover. On another occasion, Kodoor cites one of the debates among the rebel leaders and traditional scholars on whether it is permissible or not to use modern weapons (such as guns) apart from swords to attain “shahada” (the Islamic conception of martyrdom), because the prophet Muhammad only used swords in the war (223). Such debates revealed the fact that the incident was reasoned among the rebels in terms of Islamic rules for waging war. The colonial narrative of the rebellion as a “lahala” gained traction because of the paucity of the native documents, since British officials ensured that the rebel memories wouldn’t survive, so claims Kodoor. The circulation of the imperial discourse in its stead terming the event as a “lahala” against Hindus, did two things: first, it helped the British maintain the invincibility of the empire by understating the event as a riot to be policed, not a war to be fought. For example, the colonial report about one of the battles between the soldiers and the rebels only mentioned four Britishers martyred as opposed to 40 Mappilas, while the actual loss of the military is much bigger according to Kodoor (228). Such reports reducing the size of the loss to the British side were forged to trivialize the war into a riot or “lahala,” so argues Kodoor (228).
Secondly, the rebellion was framed by the colonial writers as a communal riot between Hindus and Muslims to be suppressed by the government. This invariably diminished the question of sovereignty underlying the event and reduced it to a ‘social unrest’ between communities marked by religious affiliations. In response, Kodoor’s narrative of war has dual functions: one is to foreground the question of political sovereignty and the other to encompass various elements such as peasant insurgency, anti-caste struggle, anti-colonial sentiments, and pro-Caliphate movement into one. In other words, for Kodoor, “war” is a category that can encompass various elements of the rebellion so that it won’t get fragmented into multiple narratives that emphasize one element over another (i.e., peasant insurgency for Marxist scholars, the anti-colonial struggle for nationalist writers, etc).
My intention in the following part is to understand how the category of war contra riot helped Kodoor to imagine political sovereignty in Malabar as against the British imperial sovereignty. My suggestion, along the way, is that the category of “riot” which was understood as a fabricated framework with the overweight of religion, should not mean that it is dissociated from the discourse of political sovereignty. In other words, one may want to reclaim the category of riot by effectively effacing the seemingly secular distinction between riot and war and religion and politics. However, one cannot forget the fact that the charge of “fanaticism” against the rebels was rendered through the discourse of riot, not war in colonial records. An example of this was found in the report of G.R.F Tottenham who was a British officer then in Malabar. In his report on the event, he wrote that the rebel attacks on government offices, in particular, were not merely for “fanaticism,” but a deliberate attempt at a political project (that is, establishing “Khilafat Raj,” 46). In other words, the “political project” here appears as something other than or more than “fanaticism” associated with the discourse of riot. The distinction Kodoor made between “lahala” and “yudham” and his emphasis on the category of “yudham” seem to have helped him to save the rebellion from the charge of “fanaticism” and the rebels as “fanatics.” A student of political theology at this point cannot help but remember Carl Schmitt’s famous proposition that war is a sovereign decision on public enmity. And this decision can only be made between two “organized political entities,” as opposed to a civil war that can only take place within an organized entity (32). While I don’t want to dwell deeper in Schmitt to make sense of Malabar, it is nonetheless important to keep in mind the connection he as well as Kodoor later made between war and sovereignty by way of contrasting them with civil war or riot. Schmitt’s (in)famous example of public enmity or the sovereign war came from the history of the crusade that the Christians waged against Muslims. Similarly, Kodoor begins his narrative of the war with the event of a conflict between Christians and Muslims in the Thrissur region of Malabar. It is certainly a curious move since the rebellion was commonly narrated as a conflict between Hindus and Muslims in many dominant accounts and hence termed a “riot.” The insertion of the Christians into the narrative was therefore meant to recover the sovereign core of the rebellion, maybe as a way to remind the readers about the history of the crusades. Kodoor framed this conflict between Christians and Muslims in Thrissur, following some Christian leaders who declared support for British rule, as the “true beginning of the war” (Kodoor 108). This narrative projection on Christians indeed helped Kodoor determine the nature of the event right from the start: the event was “war” as opposed to “riot.” The category of war has been employed by scholars of anti-colonial orientation as well. A recently published book marking the hundredth year of the rebellion was titled after the most important leader of the rebellion, Kunjahammad Haji, with the epithet “Sultan” in a deliberate move to counter the framing of the rebellion as a “lahala””by the colonial historians. It is important to reiterate at this point the attempt made by Tottenham in his report to distinguish between “fanaticism” as the glaring feature of the riot and capturing the government offices as a sign of a non-fanatical political project of establishing a kingdom. The category of religion would obviously devolve into the former domain: the domain of fanaticism. Tottenham interpreted the rebel attacks on government offices as an attempt to establish a kingdom instead of dying for martyrdom or fanaticism. He also cites the instance of the rebel leader Kunjahammad Haji styling himself as a “King” or “Colonel”, not a “prophet,” so that Tottenham could discern the “political project” as different from “religious fanaticism” (46). Yet he appeared confused at some point and wrote, “It is of course really impossible to differentiate between religious and political motives when you are dealing with a true Muhammadan” (46). Nonetheless, he thinks that establishing a kingdom (a sovereign institution) is seemingly a secular act, perhaps far from the mere fanatical desire for death represented in religion. Though not explicitly articulated as secular by the rebels themselves, the kingdom or caliphate they established curiously mirrored the colonial state model existing then, with passports issued, judiciary established, the British revenue system being followed, and colonial administrative positions such as governor, inspector, viceroy, and so on being maintained. Apart from this, there was no unified conception of the caliphate existing among the rebels either: some of them understood the term as meaning “charity,” “non-violence,” “observing religious rituals,” and so on (Tottenham 45). Furthermore, the rebel king Kunjahammad Haji rejected the alleged connection with the Ottoman Caliphate during the interrogation after he was captured by the British. These have often been factored into the attempts at painting the event as non-fanatic or secular in many accounts that claimed to counter the colonial ones. Perhaps what is curious here is how Tottenham himself was bemused at the theo-political amalgam of the rebellion, unlike the usual colonial writers who were quick to dismiss it as religious fanaticism as well as anti-colonial ones who wanted to reclaim it as secular.
Returning to our early question of how war becomes a reminder/remainder of the presence of sovereignty in the event, I would like to keep in mind that war is also a comprehensive category that comes before any (secular) division between theological and political. This very appearance of war as a comprehensive category existing prior to such divisions is characteristic of the sovereign core in the event yet was discounted in the narratives. Maybe what the discourse of riot contra war in the narratives of the rebellion did was to reimagine war and riot as two fixated poles on the model of political and religious: an amalgamation of which can amount to a serious conceptual and ideological upset for the colonial as well as the Marxist and the nationalist writers who interpreted the event respectively as a fanatic, peasant, and nationalist struggle. This is equally true of placing war against riot in a bid to counter the colonial discourse as well, and that’s exactly why such attempts had to emphasize the secular model of the kingdom to recuperate it from the charges of fanaticism. However, an amalgamation of these two should not be understood as a mere nexus of two categories, but rather as a dissolution of them since the war is a sovereign decision. This was often overlooked in the contemporary correctives of the colonial narratives of the event. What is apparent here is the colonial determination to define religion through the conceptual means of riot in the same way as religion could define the nature of an event as a riot. In other words, riot could background as well as foreground religion in the event of its (religion’s) definition. What is more curious, is the anti-colonial attempts of every variant at reclaiming the event on the same model. The mission to decolonize the discourse of the event, spearheaded by scholars like Kodoor, now needs to take a second step and truly recover the sovereign spirit of the rebellion without leaving it to the dichotomy between war and riot. If “war” is not considered a “sovereign decision” (as Schmitt taught us) that precedes the divides and the categorizations enabled by secularism in the history of the narratives of the rebellion, this attempt is meaningless. Such a reformulation of “war” as political-theological by itself, especially as waged by the oppressed, poses a challenge to the narratives of colonial determinism that define resistance through the divides of religion and politics, or riot and war.