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

Malegaon 1921 – a precursor to the Moplah Riots

Photo by Ishant Mishra on Unsplash

On March 15th, 1920, a Khilafat committee was formed in Malegaon to conduct lectures and religious sermons. Nine months later, one of the Khilafat leaders, Shaukat Ali, visited Malegaon and political activities got a religious boost. A month later, Khilafat proponents, who supported Gandhi’s non-violent, non-cooperation movement turned violent and the poor residents of Malegaon were the targets of their anger. This is an intriguing story of a Mahatma, who signed a pact with a bunch of pan-Islamists with disastrous consequences for the weavers of Malegaon and eventually the Hindus of Malabar.

Khilafat 101

There were two Muslim schools in Malegaon — Beitujullum and Anjuman — which received grants from the Government. The Khilafat members, who at that point in time were supporters of Gandhi’s non-violence and non-cooperation decided not to take the aid in reaction to the events in Turkey following World War I

The Last Caliph Halife Abdülmecid Efendi

At the end of World War I, Turkey ended up on the losing side and was carved by the victors. Some Muslims considered the Turkish Sultan as their Caliph and were distressed at his future as well as the future of the Muslim holy sites. Muslims living in Britain petitioned their government to let Turkey have only Turkish majority regions, but let the others like Armenians and Arabs have their freedom. Indian Muslims had a bigger ask. Though Turkey lost, they wanted it to be restored to pre-war status. According to them, the Armenians and Arabs could live under Turkish rule.

The supporters of this movement were Muslim League members Mohammad Ali and Shaukat Ali who argued for Muslim interests over Hindu interests. They were people who found issues in common with Muslims of Algeria and Tripoli instead of their own countrymen. After the Balkan wars, they changed their stance and aligned with the Hindus due to the hatred of the British government. To compound that, the brothers were arrested and jailed and that aggravated their hatred.

Mohammad Ali and Shaukat Ali were quite clear and unapologetic about their strategy. They told a judge that as per their religion, they were compelled to do certain acts and any law which prohibits them from doing those acts had no validity. By this, the Ali brothers were claiming that they only be judged by the Koran and nothing else. The goal of the brothers was definitely Swaraj, similar to Gandhi. But the second step of their plan was Mohammedan domination of India.

Gandhi supported this Khilafat dream of pre-war Turkey being restored. He seemed to ignore the fact that even the Turks did not want dominion over Arabia. But someone had to be more Islamic than the Caliph and that was Gandhi and his Khilafat supporters. The argument was that it was not just a Turkish question, but a question concerning all Mohammedans. So who the heck was the Caliph to make such unilateral decisions. Either Gandhi did not know this and just went along to get Muslim support for himself or he used this for channeling Mohammedan anger against the government.

There was another dynamic at play as well. When Gandhi returned to India from South Africa, he quickly rose to prominence in the nation. Gandhi promised support for the Khilafat in exchange for the support of the Ali brothers and the Muslims of India for his non-cooperation movement. This Muslim support helped him be a national leader in just four years.

In 1921, the Khilafat Conference, with Ali brothers as the moving force, passed a resolution to declare Independence. In the speeches at the Conference it was declared that Islam was opposed to non-violence, but had to go along with it, so that they could get Swaraj. Gandhi had promised the Khilafat supporters Swaraj by 1921 and hence it was a temporary move just for a year.

Malegaon 1921

Coming back to Malegaon, the boycott of Government funds created a problem. If the schools had to survive without Government aid, then money had to be raised. The Khilafat committee proposed the idea of a “paisa” fund. Every person selling a sari — every weaver in Malegaon — was to pay quarter of an anna to the fund. Anyone who objected to this were persecuted.

The first step in persecution was commercial boycott. The paisa committee called a public meeting on 27th February, where this decision was announced. Matters did not end there; the commercial boycott was enforced by picketing their shops. Businesses which did not co-operate faced hostility and were halted. Seeing how this issue was going to get out of hand, the Sub-Divisional Officer called a meeting on March 13th to discuss the issue of enforced collection. One of the suggestions was to put collection boxes. The leaders of the fund collection were asked to issue statements supporting non-violence of Gandhi.

No agreement was reached and at the same time lectures and religious sermons, raised the feelings of hostility. This was aggravated by the fact that some of these Khilafat volunteers were roaming around carrying swords and cudgels. The District Magistrate, sensing a law and order disaster in the making banned the carrying of weapons on March 30th.

On April 1, the non-violence agreement was published. Just three days later, one of the signatories publicly apologized for having signed it and he was pardoned. The boycott of the shops continued as usual, but this time a case was registered against the violators. With the establishment cranking up the heat, more provocations started. On 24th April, a speech was given by a leading Mohammedan with the ominous words, “May god give the volunteers the strength to promote their religion”

The next day, the case came up before the magistrate. Six volunteers were fined Rs. 50 or 4 weeks in prison. Obviously the fines were not paid, but served as the the adhan for violence. The mob that had collected shouted “Allah-ho-Akbar”. They assaulted all the police found in Malegaon. They killed the Sub-Inspector of Police, burned a temple, and looted the houses of all the people who were opposed to the fund. The rest fled to save their lives. This was the non-violence of the Khilafat.

The disaster called Khilafat movement is downplayed in our history books. It did not turn out well for Gandhi. The Ali brothers, whom he supported, publicly humiliated him. Mohamed Ali even said that a Muslim thief was better than Gandhi, simply because of the thief’s faith in Islam. Originally intended to be a show case of Hindu Muslim unity, it turned out to be something else. It resulted in the massacre of Hindus all over India, especially in Kerala.

References

  1. Fazal, D. Abul. “THE LEADERSHIP CRISIS IN THE CONGRESS: MUSLIMS AND THE RISE OF GANDHI.” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, vol. 62, 2001, pp. 456–462., www.jstor.org/stable/44155789.
  2. History of the Freedom movement in India, R. C. Majumdar
  3. Gandhi and Anarchy by Sir C. Sankaran Nair
  4. Gandhi, Khilafat and the Partition, N. S. Rajaram

How Gandhi became a Congress Leader in Four Years

Photo by Ishant Mishra on Unsplash

In January 1915, a 46-year-old Mohandas Gandhi relocated to India after spending 20 years in South Africa. He wanted to be the leader of the Independence movement, but it was challenging, as Indians knew him as a foreigner. known for his unconventional social activism in South Africa. But in four years, he became a national leader of the Congress, surpassing leaders like Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Lokmanya Tilak, Lala Lajpat Rai, Aurobindo Ghose, Abdul Kalam Azad, and Annie Besant, who had earned battle scars in India. What were Gandhi’s tactics? How did he win against constant opposition to his each and every move? How did he overcome his blunders? At the end who held the ladder so that he could ascend the throne?

The Initial Activities

Though Gandhi had fame from his activities in South Africa to the Indian leaders of that time, Gandhi looked “queer and quixotic, an eccentric specimen of England returned educated Indian.” He was not liked by many people. At that time there were two camps in Congress — the moderates and extremists. The moderates were an earlier generation of leaders like Gopalkrishna Gokhale and his followers who believed in a constitutional approach like appealing to the British Government. The extremists — Aurobindo, Tilak — believed in radical approached, like violent rebellion. Both of these groups did not like Gandhi.

A series of unfortunate events happened to some of the key players. Gokhale and Pherozha Mehta passed away in 1915. Tilak, who was released from prison was lying low. Lala Lajpat Rai was in exile. Aurobindo Ghose had moved to Pondicherry. The Khilafat supporters, Mohammad Ali and Shaukat Ali were imprisoned.

The disappearance of these leaders did not give Gandhi an automatic path to leadership. Annie Besant and C. R. Das were still there. Also, Indians had not seen Gandhi’s skills in action in India. Naturally, Gandhi’s first course of action was to build on what he knew well – satyagrahas. He launched satyagrahas in Champaran, Ahmadabad, and Kaira — small scale ones at local level — to show his agitational capabilities. He was able to mobilize people who were considered politically irrelevant and enhance both his following and reputation. These were good activities but did not have enough importance to catapult him to the national level.

Then an opportunity came in 1917. Gandhi’s competitor Annie Beasant was interned and he wanted to launch an all India agitation to release her. This was scuttled by Gokhale’s protege, Srinivasa Sastri and Gandhi lost another chance.

In the next year, 1918, which marked the end of World War I, the Montague Chemsfold report was published. This was a package for the gradual development of self-governing institutions. These institutions would be part of the British Empire though. To get some support for this report, Annie Besant was released, but that did not help. The nationalists felt that the report was inadequate and unsatisfactory. Annie Besant thought it was unworthy of India to accept it. Tilak called it sunless dawn. But Gandhi felt this was perfectly acceptable. Gandhi was ignored.

Next came the Rowlatt Act bearing the gifts of summary trial and detention. Even Gandhi flipped and thought this was perfect for launching a national agitation. On 24th February 1919, he announced that he was going to launch a nationwide satyagraha. Annie Besant warned that any such act would release forces that cannot be controlled. Gandhi still went ahead and on April 6th, the whole country observed a hartal — a testimony to Gandhi’s leadership.

Soon violence erupted in Delhi, Bombay and Ahmadabad and the worst of all happened at Jalianwala Bagh. Gandhi realized the importance of Annie Besant’s warning. Calling it a Himalayan blunder, Gandhi suspended the satyagraha on 18th April 1919. It was yet another failure as a leader. Thus from his arrival in January 1915 to the events of 1919, he had no major national success to show. But Gandhi was not a person who would melt away like ice cream on a hot day.

Soon a cause arrived that helped him. He could promise an unattainable goal to a set of people, who overwhelmingly supported him. That was the Khilafat movement, triggered by the events following World War I.

The Khilafat Movement

The Last Caliph Halife Abdülmecid Efendi

During World War I, the countries of the world were all aligned with one Asuric force or the other. Turkey was a German Ally and fought against the British. Indian Muslim soldiers in the British Army were tasked against fighting the Germans and their allies. The problem was not fighting Germany, but Turkey, whose sultan was the Caliph. This was a problem for Indian Muslims who looked up at the Turkish Sultan as their Caliph (Tipu Sultan had appealed to the Turkish Sultan for recognition of his Mysore sovereignty).

Knowing the sensitivity of Indian Muslims, the British administration promised them that the Caliphate would be respected in the peace treaty at the end of the war. But this promise turned out to be like a line drawn in the sands of Arabia. Not only was Ottoman Turkey broken up, but as per the Treaty of Sèvres, Islamic holy places were ceded to the Arabs. Upset by this, Indian Muslims returned medals, declined appointments and boycotted government institutions. They also formed committees to petition and pressure the British Government.

Soon, the Khilafat issue was going out of control. Muslims decided to boycott peace celebrations, British goods and refuse cooperation with the British unless the issue of Caliphate was resolved. They even warned of boycotting the British Amy. At the same time, Gandhi persuaded Congress to support a program of a boycott. He was channeling the widespread anger over Jalianwala Bagh and now the Congress was willing to go with him.

Seeing the energy around the Khilafat movement, Gandhi argued that if Hindus and Muslims united and did satyagraha, then there would be a victory. Gandhi entered into a pact with one Abul Bari that Hindu politicians would support the Khilafat issue if Muslims stopped slaughtering the cow. Mohammad Ali , a Khilafat proponent, agreed to support Gandhi in return for Gandhi’s promise of Swaraj in a year. This was the same Mohammad Ali, who said that if the Amir of Afghanistan invaded India, it was the duty of Indian Muslims to join him and fight the Hindus if they refused to co-operate.

Gandhi’s promise to deliver the Khilafat was equivalent to saying that he had a bridge to sell. The Arabs or Egyptians did not want to be ruled by a Turkish Caliph. Come to think of it, even the Turks did not want a caliph. They were the ones who got rid of him and converted to a secular democracy. The Ottoman Empire was broken up and some of the lands were under French control. There was no way a few petitions would cause France and Britain to sit and undo the damage they did. None of this mattered to Gandhi. He went so far as to suggest that Indian swaraj activity could be postponed if Khilafat ask could be advanced. Thus from a Swaraj which meant self-rule for India, it got converted overnight to support for an imaginary Caliphate in faraway Turkey.

This got Gandhi massive Muslim support — much more than the Hindu followers. Gandhi was invited to preside over the Khilafat Conference in Delhi in November 1919 and the annual session of the Muslim League in Amritsar in December 1919. He was able to get the Muslims to pass a resolution expressing gratitude to the King-Emperor and offering a hearty welcome to the Prince of Wales. The Khilafat committee also adopted his Non-Cooperation program. At the same time, Congress decided to postpone the adoption of the Non-Cooperation program. The resolution related to the emperor and prince of Wales also was met with considerable opposition.

Based on the resolution passed by the Muslim leaders, an ultimatum was sent to the Viceroy and the non-cooperation movement was started on August 1, 1920. Life came to a standstill on August 1 and it confirmed a mass approval for Gandhi. In the special session of the Congress that met on September 1920 in Calcutta, Muslims gave him the required majority to consolidate his leadership. Saifuddin Kitchlew, the Ali brothers, and the entire Muslim bloc supported Gandhi. Annie Besant, C. R. Das, Lala Lajpat Rai, and Madan Mohan Malavya opposed Gandhi. The resolution was passed by 1886 to 884 votes. Muslims seconded and defended the motion and voted for it en masse. 161 delegates from Madras voted for the resolution; 125 were Muslims.

At the annual session of the Congress in Nagpur in 1920, Gandhi consolidated his position. Muslims stood by Gandhi. They turned up in such large numbers that it looked like a Muslim session. The resolution passed at Calcutta was now ratified in Nagpur, making Gandhi an undisputed leader. While World War I removed the Turkish Sultan, it helped Gandhi become the Sultan of Congress.

Swaraj came back to the Congress agenda only in 1929. But in 1921, the Hindus of Malabar paid a price for this capitulation by Gandhi. Exactly, one year to the date — Aug 1, 1921 — at which Gandhi had promised Swaraj to the Ali brothers, the Muslim uprising started in Malabar.

References

  1. Fazal, D. Abul. “THE LEADERSHIP CRISIS IN THE CONGRESS: MUSLIMS AND THE RISE OF GANDHI.” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, vol. 62, 2001, pp. 456–462., www.jstor.org/stable/44155789.
  2. History of the Freedom movement in India, R. C. Majumdar
  3. Gandhi and Anarchy by Sir C. Sankaran Nair
  4. Gandhi, Khilafat and the Partition, N. S. Rajaram