The Thrissur Riot of 1921

Vadakkumnathan Shiva Temple at the center of Thrissur Town (Photo by author)

February 27, 1921, was a tense day in Thrissur town in Kerala. Around 3 PM, around 1500 Christians loyal to the British government, accompanied by the police superintendent, officers, and constables, started a ‘royal loyalty’ procession to publicly demonstrate support for the British Government. Starting near the East market, they moved to a mosque near the Southern gate of Vadakkumnathan temple.

This march was not benign. It would complicate the relations between the British, Hindus, Muslims, and Christians. Within days mobs would be waiting for instructions to burn Thrissur to the ground like Lanka. Just a few months later, the relationship among the Hindus and Muslims would transform. Was this the starting point of the Mappila lahala of 1921? How did the Thrissur riot, which has mostly remained unheard, resolve eventually? Why did this event not become prominent? This article goes into the history of this unheard event.

To understand the events of Thrissur on that day in February, we have to go back a month. It all starts in Malabar in the north of Kerala.

Malabar, January – February 1921

From January 1921, Advocate K Madhavan Nair had an enormous responsibility. He had come back from Nagpur Congress of December 1920 where it was decided to combine the princely states of Malabar, Cochin, and Travancore to form a state called Kerala. As a follow-up, Congress expanded its activities and formed both Congress and Khilafat committees in Malabar. This was due to Gandhi’s strategy of elevating the Khilafat movement as a thank you note for the support he got in previously failed attempts to become a national leader. Following a Congress committee meeting in Kozhikode on January 1921, Madhavan Nair took on the challenge along with Advocate U. Gopala Menon, who had put a lot of effort in Khilafat activities.

District Collector E. F. Thomas sensed that this would not end well. He had extensive knowledge of Eranad taluk and knew the dynamics among the people. He warned that the Khilafat movement would cause the uneducated Mappilas turning not just against the British, but also against the Hindu landlords. This would cause disruption of peace, and also of the loss of life. Fear is typically more of a perception than an actual threat, but what raised his awareness was the association of a person named Variamkunnan Ahmad Haji, who was from a family known to be traditionally associated with such incidents. Another red flag for him was the association of lawyers, like K. Madhavan Nair, who had given up their profession to join this Congress-Khilafat movement.

Ernad Taluk where the 1921 Hindu genocide happened

Thomas decided: these meetings had to stop. K Madhavan Nair or Gopala Menon or Variamkunnan Ahmad Haji, should not be allowed to speak.

This edict surprised Madhavan Nair. He had never heard of this man called Variamkunnan Ahmad Haji. Also, though the Congress-Khilafat committees were active for a few months, there was no violence. This was also a time when the Maulvis were giving speeches exhorting Hindu-Muslim unity. Though these speeches would control violence, Madhavan Nair agreed with the fear expressed by Thomas about the Mappilas. He thought that the District Collector was influenced partially by truth and partially by rumors.

Thomas wanted to enforce curfew in the entire region. He asked for permission from the Madras Government, but they replied saying it suffices to ban specific meetings. Thomas decided that if that’s the case, he would do so.

Madhavan Nair felt that this high-handed approach was going to inflame the situation. He felt that if people did not have a channel to vent out, it would cause disaster. Harassing suspects and leaders and imprisoning and beating them up, was just going to trigger a bigger catastrophe. He took on the District Collector by organizing Khilafat meetings in Parappur on February 14th, Thanoor on the 15th, and Kozhikode on the 16th.

They also invited Yakub Hussain from Madras for the Kozhikode meeting. Yakub Hussain had been a member of the Madras Legislative Council and city corporation. He had also visited England in 1919 as a member of the All India Khilafat Conference and met some Bolsheviks. He came back with the opinion that Bolshevism was the last hope for India.

Since Yakkub Hussain was arriving on the 15th, which was one day earlier than the Kozhikode meeting, Madhavan Nair invited him to the meeting on the 15th too. He went with Gopala Menon and received Yakkub Hussain at Thirur station. On their way, they received information that the meeting scheduled for that day at Thanoor was banned by the Government. The organizers of the Thanoor meeting asked Madhavan Nair for guidance. Thousands were gathered there. They also had spent a lot of money to get people — around 20,000 —- from faraway places to come and attend.

Madhavan Nair was clear – the meeting cannot happen.

Since the Thanoor event was canceled, Madhavan Nair, Gopala Menon, and Yakub Hussain focused on the steps for the next day’s events at Kozhikode. They decided that Yakub Hussain should speak about maintaining peace even when the Government was preventing these meetings from happening. Madhavan Nair argued that if a leader disobeys the law, how can he then convince the followers from maintaining the law. It was then decided that Yakub Hussain alone would break the law and speak at the meeting, while others would comply with Thomas’ edict.

The Kozhikode meeting too did not happen. By noon the next day, Madhavan Nair, Yakub Hussain, Gopala Menon, and a Moitheen Koya were taken by the police to Collector E. F. Thomas, the head of Malabar police Mr. Hitchcock and the Government advocate Govinda Menon. All these people would play a major role in the events to happen later in the year. This was their stage entry.

Thomas looked troubled. Maybe he was upset by the idea that command by the powerful Collector was disregarded by an ordinary Indian. Mr. Thomas read the charges against them and asked if they were planning to disobey. Yakub Hussain told Thomas about this plan to speak about non-violence. He also mentioned that the others in the room would obey the rules. Thomas asked what was the guarantee that they would obey. Madhavan Nair replied that their word was the guarantee.

Thomas gave them one hour to re-think, but they did not change their stance. They were sentenced to 6 months in prison. Thus, instead of speaking to a large audience in Kozhikode, they spent the evening in Kozhikode jail and were sent to Kannoor the next day. This would then trigger a set of events that would result in a tense situation in Thrissur.

Thrissur, February 1921

In Thrissur, a meeting was held on the 16th to commend the bravery of the arrested Congress and Khilafat members. Hearing this, a group of Christians, who supported the British disrupted the meeting and burned down the benches and chairs. The procession by these royal supporters on the 27th was a continuation of this. The Congress and Khilafat committees observed 17 February as the day of protest. Shops were closed, students boycotted classes, and lawyers refused to attend court. In various public meetings, speakers denounced the authorities.

On 26th February, four Muslims of Eranad— Pottayil Kunjahammed, Pottayil Abubaker, V.V.Hassan Kutti Sahib, and Kallarakkal Ahmed — were arrested and sentenced to six months’ imprisonment for refusing to abstain from political meetings and delivering speeches. This followed the same pattern as the case with Madhavan Nair and Yakub Hussain. Enraged Mappilas gathered in large numbers, armed with knives and sticks at a Calicut mosque. The mob dispersed only after a two-hour confrontation with the District Magistrate and police.

It was amid this tense situation that Christians took out the loyalty procession supporting the British on February 27th in Thrissur. Muslims stopped this loyalist procession, and a fight broke out. The marchers burned four Muslim houses and destroyed many houses and shops along their path. The police remained a mute spectator. By around 5:30 pm, the procession reached a hospital and to an audience comprising prominent citizens, a lawyer gave a speech on the need for devotion to the royals. Following this loyalty procession, the Muslims and Hindus formed one group against the Christian loyalists.

Dr. A. R. Menon of Thrissur realized that something had to be done to protect the Hindus. He gathered around 600 people to stay and protect Hindu homes. Christians did the same for their homes.

Dr. Menon watched the next day on how the situation would turn out the next day. He was pulling the load of an ox and walking on eggshells. Schools and shops remained closed. People converged at Thekkinkad Maidan and the situation started turning tense. The Diwan arrived and along with that, the police started firing blanks at people. People responded with stones. Seeing that the situation was going out of control, the Diwan started pacifying the people. Dr. Menon gave a speech on how women were insulted and after that people dispersed. A crisis was averted.

The loyalty people stuck again and decided that they would attack their countrymen to prove allegiance to a foreign ruler. The loyalty people had support from the Government and had to show this visibly. They attacked homes and shops. They destroyed bank records. They threw firecrackers filled with glass pieces and nails.

Soon people started leaving Thrissur town. Around 1500 women and children took available transportation to other parts of the state. With a shortage of food and other essential goods, this seemed like a better plan. Finally, the Hindus came up with a plan – get Mapillas from Malabar to deal with the issue.

It is not clear who sent the telegram. The Mapillas, who were incensed with the arrest of Khilafat members, soon arrived in the thousands from Malabar at Thrissur railway station. Most of them did not even buy tickets. They stayed at an inn near the Thiruvambady temple. On hearing this the Diwan and the Resident also reached the town in the morning. By noon around British reserve police also reached there. By then around 1800 Mapillas chanting Allahu Akbar took a procession around the town, drowning the town with their voice.

It was a tense situation. All that was left was to just light the match. The mob waited to hear instructions to destroy the town. Dr. A R Menon knew that his beloved town stood on the precipice of destruction. He along with Marayi Krishna Menon held these people back. The Resident and Diwan held a meeting with the concerned parties. The Mapillas were soon pacified and sent back. A huge disaster was averted. Before leaving, they took out a victory procession, chanting Allahu Akbar, and went to the railway station.

Finally

While reading accounts of the Mappila lahala, the Thrissur riot does not come up a lot. This is a critical missed story in almost all narratives because it raises many unpleasant questions. Three events were going on at the same time – revolts against landlords, the Khilafat movement, and the Non-Cooperation Movement. If for example, Mappila lahala was primarily a revolt against landlords according to Communist narratives why did the Mappilas come en masse to Thrissur based on the request of Hindu landlords? If the Congress-Khilafat movement unified the Hindus and Muslims, why was there a genocide and massive conversion of Hindus a few months later? That too in Malabar, from where these Mappilas came from? What was the differentiating factor?

One account written about this time by Gopalan Nair mentions this – “There was a feeling in Malabar that Yakub Hassan episode was the turning point in the Khilafat movement and it was from about that point that the attitude of the Khilafat became deadly hostile and aggressive”. Just see what happened at Malegaon a month later.

References

  1. Malabar Kalaapam – K Madhavan Nair
  2. Khilafat Smaranakal – M. Brahmadattan Namboothirippad
  3. Islam and Nationalism in India: South Indian contexts by M.T.Ansari
  4. The Mappilla Rebellion, 1921: Peasant Revolt in Malabar by Robert L. Hardgrave, Jr

One thought on “The Thrissur Riot of 1921

  1. This is really a fascinating story. I was completely unaware. You rightly point to the fact that there were three things happening parallelly in first quarter of the 20th century in India – pushbacks against landlords, the Khilafat movement and the Quit India Movement. However, where does this story fit in that narrative? Your conclusion left more questions in my head than answers.

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