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Mainstream, VOL LX No 4, New Delhi, January 15, 2022

Negotiating questions of communal harmony, non-violence and justice: Mahatma Gandhi and the Malabar Rebellion of 1921 | Teresa Joseph and A.M.Thomas

Friday 14 January 2022, by A. M. Thomas, Teresa Joseph


The Malabar Rebellion (also known as the Mappilla/Moplah Rebellion) took place in the Malabar region of Madras Presidency, which is today a part of the state of Kerala in August 1921. The upsurge by a section of the Muslim community (Mappilas/Moplahs) of the region was the outcome of a long history of diverse factors and continues to be a contested issue. It caused a major turmoil at the time, both at the regional as well as national levels, particularly in the context of the ongoing non-cooperation movement and communal dissonance. Mahatma Gandhi had visited Malabar one year prior to the rebellion and the outbreak of violence troubled him immensely, calling into question as it did, his stance on non-violent non-cooperation and communal harmony. He attempted to go to the region, and spoke and wrote at length on the issues concerned. This paper revisits Gandhi’s engagement with the Mappila Rebellion and the insights that it provides particularly with regard to his perspectives on non-violence, communal harmony, justice and the relativity of truth. This is of particular significance given the increasing polarization and sectarianism in many parts of the world, including India and the recent revival of debates on the rebellion viewed from such perspectives. 

Keywords: Mappila, Malabar, Khilafat, communal harmony, Mahatma Gandhi, non-violence


Mahatma Gandhi had visited Kerala on several occasions, with his first visit being in 1920, to Malabar which was then a part of the Madras Presidency, directly ruled by the British. This visit lasted only for a day, being part of his travels throughout India to garner support for the Khilafat and non-cooperation movements. The Khilafat movement emerged in the context of Britain’s role in the defeat of Turkey during the First World War and the dismemberment of the Ottoman empire which had deeply offended the religious sentiments of the Muslims in India (Majumdar, 1978). They regarded the Caliph of Turkey as their spiritual head and were disturbed to learn that he would no longer have control over the religious places that he was to protect. The Treaty of Sevres with Turkey in 1920 further made it clear that the dismemberment of the Turkish empire was complete. Gandhi was sympathetic to their cause, particularly in the context of the breach of faith by the British (Chandra, et. al, 1988).

He wrote numerous articles in the newspapers that he edited - Navajivan and Young India on the question of Khilafat as well as on Hindu-Muslim unity. He pleaded that it was “the bounden duty of the Hindus and other religious denominations to associate themselves with their Mohammedan brethren. It is the surest and simplest method of bringing about the Hindu-Mohammedan unity” (The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi - hereinafter referred to as CW - vol.16: 207). He felt that: “If the Hindus understand that the seven crore Muslims are their fellow countrymen and that they will not be able to live at enmity with them, they will see that it is their greatest duty to live with the Muslims and die with them” (CW18: 63).

 In February 1920, Gandhi suggested to the Khilafat Committee that it adopt a programme of non-violent non-cooperation to protest against the Government’s policy. The Khilafat Committee unanimously accepted the suggestion and asked him to lead the movement. Meanwhile the Indian National Congress, sceptical of any possibility of gaining independence through constitutional means was also considering the option of non-cooperation. Both the Congress and the Khilafat Committee aimed to paralyse the Government and attain independence through non-cooperation. This included the surrender of titles and honours, boycott of government-affiliated schools and colleges, law courts, foreign cloth, and non-payment of taxes. The non-cooperation movement formally began on 1 August 1920 and Gandhi, along with the Ali brothers — Mohammad Ali and Shaukat Ali, undertook a nation-wide tour, during which he addressed hundreds of meetings and met a large number of political workers (Chandra et. al, 1988). It was in this context that Gandhi visited Malabar together with Maulana Shaukat Ali on 18 August. During his one-day visit, Gandhi addressed a public gathering of around 20,000 people in Calicut, in which he pleaded for support for the Khilafat as well as the non-cooperation movement (CW 18). However, one year later, in August 1921, the Malabar region was witness to one of the worst violent upsurges of the time.

The Malabar Rebellion

During the colonial era, the Malabar region was part of the Madras presidency, under the direct administration of the British. By the nineteenth century, most of the landholders of the region were upper caste Hindu Nambudiri Brahmins, Kshatriyas, and Nairs — a result of their ritual status combined with economic power. Their tenants tended to be Mapillas or low caste Thiyyas, while the Pulayas were virtual slaves (Jeffrey, 2010). Although the Mapillas of North Malabar enjoyed a certain level of prosperity, the same was not the case with that of the Mapillas of the South who were largely converts from the Tiyya, Cheruman and Mukkuvan castes for the “disabilities of ritual freedom” (Hardgrave 1977: 59). The grievances of the Mappila tenants included the lack of security of tenure, renewal fees, high rents and oppressive landlord extractions (Chandra et. al, 1988).

With the British East India Company assuming the direct administration of Malabar, the Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Nairs not only continued to enjoy privileges and immunities, but also became even more powerful as the British required their support and co-operation to sustain their authority. On the other hand, the oppression of the tenant classes continued unabated (Menon, 1967). Regular violent disturbances known as Mappila riots continued to be reported from different parts of Malabar. While some considered these to be the result of agrarian discontent others viewed them as acts of religious fanaticism or of anticolonialism. In the context of the violence and complaints received, the then District Collector, William Logan who had been appointed as Special Commissioner in 1881 to enquire into the land tenure and tenant rights in the region, considered the problem as being:

rooted fundamentally in the early British misunderstanding of the traditional relationship of the janmi to the land. Rather than seeing the janmi as one of several agricultural classes with rights to the land and its produce, British officials viewed him as rather like an English landlord, and he was, accordingly, protected with the force of law. Logan saw the outrages as the Mappillas’ attempt to counteract (Hardgrave, 1977: 63).

But while these earlier riots were suppressed without much delay, violence erupted on a much larger scale in August 1921. The Malabar District Conference of the Indian National Conference held in April 1920 had supported the cause of the tenants and demanded legislation to regulate the relations between the landlords and tenants. This was followed by the formation of tenants’ associations in different parts of the district. Meanwhile, the Khilafat movement was also expanding in the region and the social base of it was mainly the Mappila tenant. In February 1921, disturbed by the increasing popularity of the Khilafat and tenant agitations which received much impetus from the visits of Gandhi, Shaukat Ali and Maulana Azad, the government issued prohibitory notices on all Khilafat meetings. The prominent leaders of the Khilafat and Congress were arrested and the leadership passed into the hands of local Mappila leaders. A police raid on a mosque in August resulted in Mappilas from different parts of the region converging to demand the release of those arrested. The subsequent police firing on an unarmed crowd resulted in many fatalities and led to a major outbreak of violence whereby government offices were destroyed, records burnt and treasuries looted. The first stage of the rebellion targeted symbols of government authority such as courts, police stations, government offices and treasuries. But with the imposition of martial law and repression, in which many Hindus voluntarily or otherwise assisted the authorities, the nature of the rebellion changed. The anti-government and anti-landlord movement took on strong communal overtones with forced conversions, and attacks and murder of Hindus (Chandra et. al, 1988).

According to Panikkar (1989: 190) “although the Rebellion was not intrinsically communal its consequences were decidedly so.” The participants were largely drawn from the rural poor Muslim community who opposed the landlord class as well as the colonial state in view of their experiences of oppression. A majority of the victims of the Mappila violence were Hindus. While many were killed, some were forcefully converted to Islam, atrocities were committed on women and temples were attacked. On 19 November, seventy Mappilas who had been apprehended were transported by a goods train carriage, which was later found to have no ventilation, resulting in the death of all those in it (Desai, 2009). The violence and bloodshed continued for several months until it was crushed by the British, with the number of those killed during the rebellion ranging from 3000 to 10,000 depending on the source.

The Malabar rebellion reverberated throughout India and gave the British the opportunity to discredit the Khilafat movement as well as to create rifts in the Hindu-Muslim alliance. They blamed the Congress and the Khilafat movement for the outbreak of the rebellion. However the Ahmedabad session of the Indian National Congress passed a resolution on 24 December 1921 emphasising its firm conviction that the rebellion was not due to the Non-co-operation or the Khilafat movement, particularly since the Khilafat preachers were denied access to the affected parts by the district authorities for six months before the disturbance. It pointed out that the issue was the result of causes entirely unconnected with the two movements and that it would not have occurred had the message of non-violence been allowed to reach them.

There continue to be contending versions of the violent upsurge — whether it was an anti-colonial struggle, a peasant revolt, a reflection of Muslim fanaticism, or a multi-layered combination of all factors, as well as whether it could be considered to be part of the freedom struggle.

While some considered the Rebellion as part of the effort to defend the ‘Islamic frontier’ of South Asia (Dale,1980), others perceived it to be anti-feudal reflecting agrarian discontent and the Mappila resistance to oppression by the landlords, or as anti-British, or a combination of these factors, with varying levels of emphasis between them. Panikkar (1989; 1982) argues that the Mappila violence could be traced to the interlinkages between material life situations or their socio-economic conditions, as well as ideological factors, with religion being the ideological factor. Gangadharan (2008) viewed the Malabar rebellion to be basically political or anti-British in motivation, being much more that an uprising against the landlords or the state in protest against their oppressive socio-economic conditions. At the same time, he contends that it could also be argued that the administration, in anticipation of an uprising had taken certain measures which could have been the immediate cause for revolt. It could also be seen as an attempt to assert their move for political self-determination. Diwan Bahadur C. Gopalan Nair (1923) argues that it was not mere fanaticism or agrarian trouble, but the influence of the Khilafat and Non-coo-operation movements, the intention being to subvert the British Government and substitute it by a Khilafat Government. However, Radhakrishnan (2021) points out that most modern historians saw the uprising as caused by a combination of historical, political, economic and religious factors and warned against monocausal interpretations.

Gandhi and the Mappila Rebellion

Louis Fischer (2008) in his biography of Gandhi points out that the outburst of inter-community violence in Malabar deeply upset Gandhi. He nevertheless displayed a sense of empathy and introspection when he wrote in Young India, 20 October 1921: “We.... have neglected our ignorant countrymen all these long centuries. We have not felt the call of love to see that no one was left ignorant of the necessity of humaneness or remained in want of food or clothing for no fault of his own” (CW 21: 322). His apprehensions as reflected in Young India, 20 October 1921 call for particular emphasis:

We dare not leave any section of our countrymen in utter darkness and expect not to be overtaken by it ourselves.... If we do not wake up betimes, we shall find a similar tragedy enacted by all the submerged classes. The untouchables and all the so called semi-savage tribes will presently bear witness to our wrongs against them if we do not do penance and render tardy justice to them (CW 21: 322).

According to Tendulkar (2016), Gandhi had decided to go with Mohammad Ali to Malabar to pacify the Mappilas. However, prohibitory orders were in force in the region against the Congress and the Khilafat leaders. Gandhi wrote in Young India of 20 October 1921, in an article titled “The Meaning of the Moplah Rising” that he had wanted to visit the region in order to get to the bottom of the issue. However the government had prevented him from doing so. He felt that they in fact did not want to end the trouble and certainly did not “wish to give non-cooperators the credit for peacefully ending the trouble. They are desirous of showing once more, that it is only the British soldier who can maintain peace in India (CW 21: 320-1).

In fact, Gandhi felt that an important reason for the Malabar rebellion not having been brought under immediate control was that “the non-cooperators were deliberately prevented from going to those parts by the authorities” (CW 21: 120). A similar tone and tenor were evident in his speeches and writings during the following weeks. Acceding that the task of conciliation had certainly become more difficult, he felt that if non-co-operators were permitted to enter the disturbed area and reason with the Moplahs, they could be successful (CW 21). In an open letter in Young India of 1 December 1921, Gandhi pleaded to take into consideration “the broad humanities of the question,” and “compel the Government to suspend hostilities, issue promise of free pardon for past depredations upon an undertaking to surrender, and to permit non-cooperators to enter Malabar to persuade the Moplahs to surrender” (CW 21: 488). Gandhi also accused the government “of punishing the Moplahs after they have done the mischief instead of protecting the Hindus from Moplah outrage.... I am sorry to be forced to the conclusion that the Government are betraying criminal negligence alike in their duty of protecting Hindus and of treating Moplah rebels as human beings” (CW 21: 544).

Gandhi was emphatic in his position that “when dealing with the Hindu-Muslim problem, non-violence must be our final creed” (see CW 21: 113). He wrote in Young India in September 1921: “Violence and non-violence are two incompatible forces destructive of each other. Non-violence for its success therefore needs an entirely non-violent atmosphere” (CW 21: 70-1).

He consistently condemned the resort to violent methods by the Mappilas. He revealed that “the desolation of the Hindu households shows clearly to me that the message, the healing message, of nonviolent non-cooperation had not penetrated Moplah households in that area” (CW 21: 120). In his very first article on the rebellion in Navajivan on 4 September 1921, Gandhi conceded that it was clear that “we have not been able to make our influence felt by the Mappila. A change of heart has not been brought about in them to such an extent that they will never resort to violence” (CW 21: 48). As Nanda (1989: 315) points out “the safeguards with which Gandhi hedged his movement were thus totally missing in Malabar.” Gandhi further clarified his position in his article in Young India of 8 September 1921. He stated:

non-cooperators must wash their hands clean of all complicity. We must not betray any mental or secret approval of the Moplahs. We must see clearly, that it would be dishonourable for us to show any approval of the violence. We must search for no extenuating circumstances. We have chosen a rigid standard for ourselves and by that we must abide. We have undertaken to do no violence even under the most provoking circumstances. Indeed we anticipate the gravest provocation as our final test. The misguided Moplahs have therefore rendered a distinct disservice to the sacred cause of Islam and swaraj (CW 21: 70).

Gandhi further reiterated in Young India of 27 October 1921, that

...the message of non-cooperation was only vaguely delivered when its progress was arrested by the authorities. The Moplahs were never particularly friendly to the Malabar Hindus. They had looted them before. Their notions of Islam were of a very crude type. They were kept in utter darkness by the Government and neglected both by Mussulmans and Hindus. Being wild and brave but ignorant, they have mistaken the mission of the Khilafat and acted in a savage, inhuman and irreligious manner. It is quite improper to judge Islam or the Mussulmans of the rest of India by the present conduct of the Moplahs (CW 21: 355-6).

Gandhi felt that the rebellion was “a test for Hindus and Mussulmans” (CW 21: 321) and that it had “disturbed the atmosphere, as nothing else has since the inauguration of non-cooperation” (CW 21: 70). He repeatedly asserted the need for Hindu-Muslim unity, specifically addressing both the communities. He pointed out that “Islam has undoubtedly suffered for the brutalities practised by the Moplahs” (CW 21: 513) and that the activities of the Mappilas were a “sin against the Khilafat and also against their own country” (CW 21: 120). Yet, even while expressing his sorrow and condemnation of the atrocities committed by the Mappilas, he pleaded:

... but all the same let us have a due sense of proportion. Their acts are not the acts of all the Muslims of India even, nor thank God, of all the Moplahs. Every Mussulman of note that I know has repudiated every one of their acts. Let our loyalty to Hindu-Muslim unity therefore remain firm and changeless. Our loyalty to that creed may still have to suffer greater shocks, but so long as we are satisfied, that there is nothing in Islam to warrant any of the things that these misguided Moplahs have done, and so long as we are satisfied as I am satisfied that no sensible Mussulman approves of these acts, or any single one of them, our loyalty to the creed of Hindu-Muslim unity need not suffer any shock whatsoever (CW 21: 153).

Gandhi wrote in Young India that the Moplahs should not feel that the Mussulmans in general had not condemned their actions or that they had in any way approved of the crimes committed by them. He further pointed out that “Islam protects, even in war, women, children and old men from molestation. Islam does not justify jehad except under well-defined conditions” (CW 22: 267). He also felt that the Hindus were not without blame either as “they have hitherto not cared for the Moplah. They have either treated him as a serf or dreaded him. They have not treated him as a friend and neighbour, to be reformed and respected” (CW 22: 269). They had failed to improve the condition of the Mappilas.

Gandhi acknowledged the different versions of the issue and even published these disparate accounts in Young India in 1924, pointing out to readers that “it is impossible to arrive at the exact truth,” and more importantly that this was “unnecessary for the purpose of regulating our future conduct” (CW 24: 138).

He called upon all Muslims to “feel the shame and humiliation of the Moplah conduct about forcible conversions and looting,” and to work “silently and effectively that such things might become impossible even on the part of the most fanatical among them” (CW 21: 322). He also called upon the Hindus to “have the courage and the faith to feel that they can protect their religion in spite of such fanatical eruptions” (CW 21: 322).
According to him:

We are reaping the reward of our past neglect. Let us not now indiscriminately condemn the Moplah as a fiend unworthy of human sympathy. Islam has undoubtedly suffered for the brutalities practised by the Moplahs, but Hinduism is suffering equally with Islam for thirsting for Moplah blood. It is bad enough for one to commit rape or murder, but it is equally bad if not worse to seek to flay the rake or murderer and to rape his womenfolk and murder the rest of his family.... Let not the Hindus by their thirst for Moplah blood justify Dyerism and O’Dwyerism. If we may resort to frightfulness and humiliations in respect of the Moplahs, do we not justify the action of Sir Michael O’Dwyer and General Dyer who under a sense of fancied wrong and fear resorted to terrorism in the Punjab? The Hindu passions are, I fear, being exploited by the Government to keep up the Malabar trouble. Let Hindus of Malabar and Madras beware! (CW 21: 513).

He hoped that even assuming that all the stories of forced conversions that were emerging through government circles were true, Hindus should maintain their “loyalty to the creed of Hindu-Muslim unity” (CW 21: 120). He appealed to them to be calm and not to condemn a whole group of people because of a few. He called upon “both Hindus and Moplahs to realise their future responsibility not to brood over the past.... In other words, each party should become truly religious” (CW 23: 81). In an article in Young India of 8 December 1921, titled “Love Not Hate”, he wrote “I believe in loving my enemies. I believe in non-violence as the only remedy open to the Hindus, Mussalmans, Sikhs, Parsis, Christians and Jews of India” (CW 21: 551).

In May 1924 Gandhi issued a statement to the Press and wrote an article in Young India, titled “The Starving Moplah”, about the need to collect funds to alleviate the suffering of the Mappilas. His appeal was mainly addressed to the Hindus, pointing out that

in face of the awful fact of starvation and homelessness, all argument and all opposition must be hushed. Generations hence, when all our evil acts will have forgotten, posterity will cherish the treasured memory of every simple act of love shown by the one to the other. I therefore ask every Hindu reader who will extend the hand of love and fellowship to his starving Moplah brother and sister and their children, to send his or her mite, and I shall endeavour to see that it is properly distributed among the most deserving among the Moplahs (CW 23: 512).

Gandhi made it a point to acknowledge in the pages of Young India the contributions that he received towards the Mappila relief (see CW 24).


Gandhi’s engagement with the Mappila Rebellion reflects his views on communal harmony and non-violence, as well as his notions of justice and truth. His concern for social and economic justice was closely related to his philosophy of non-violence, with justice being a necessary precondition for non-violence. While he empathised with the grievances and injustice faced by the Mappilas, he strongly condemned the violent means that they adopted and the communal undertones of the rebellion. Acknowledging the relativity of the truth of the issue, he reinvigorated his efforts to promote communal harmony and the philosophy of non-violence. Through his speeches and writings, he appealed to both communities to adhere to the creed of Hindu-Muslim unity. As Nanda (1989: 319) points out Gandhi’s comments on the extremely sensitive rebellion were “remarkably objective, candid and compassionate. He did not extenuate the guilt of the Mappilas, but set it in a just perspective.” Given the renewed debates on the Mappila Rebellion and the polarised, sectarian lenses being used in these discussions, one could take a leaf out of Gandhi’s perspective on the issue, albeit a hundred years ago, that although we may not arrive at the exact truth on the issue, the manner in which our future behaviour is to be regulated was without doubt. Gandhi’s words of caution that “if we do not wake up betimes....” hold lessons for all societies in the contemporary world where the marginalised are often denied justice and fair treatment. It also brings to the fore Gandhi’s notion of an ideal society, one that is free from domination, exploitation, violence and discrimination, while at the same time reminding us that justice cannot be secured through unjust means.

* (Authors: Dr. Teresa Joseph is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science, and Director, Centre for Gandhian Studies, Alphonsa College, Pala, Kerala. 
Dr. A. M. Thomas is former Professor and Director, School of International Relations and Politics, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam, Kerala.)


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