This article is from the PhD dissertation by Patrick Hesse, submitted to the Faculty of Culture, Social Sciences and Education of the Humboldt University of Berlin, in 2015. The thesis is titled, “To the Masses” – Communism and Religion in North India, 1920–47.
Although communists had had no part in the moplah rebellion—in fact, the CPI hadn’t established so much as a single cell on the subcontinent yet—, it soon figured prominently in the localization of communism. In view of M N Roy’s anti-bourgeois stance in the Comintern debates on the agents of revolution in colonial countries, the Moplah rebellion was a much needed point of reference on two counts. First, it figured as a prime example of the militant mass struggle that Roy posited as the core of the khilafat and non-cooperation movements. Second, the uprising served to showcase the relative lack of radicalism in Gandhi and the Congress. Gandhi had condemned the insurgents because of their ample use of force. The communists, however, soon fashioned it into the beginning of revolution.
Neither the scarcity of reports nor the tenor of the few available pieces of information could detract from the communist determination to claim the rebellion. On the contrary, its initial perception through the lens of an Eastern revolutionary paradigm ensured that its pronounced fundamentalist component contributed to a positive assessment. A 1921 Inprecorr (International Press Correspondence, the international organ of the Comintern) article located the rebellion’s origins in religious outrage: Soldiers had entered mosques in a bid to arrest Muslim leaders and thus had desecrated the sites. This had caused “understandable” indignation among the Muslim population1.
Abdur Rab, founder member of the CPI, not yet fallen from Bolshevik revolutionary grace, felt vindicated in his view that Brahmins were no more than hesitant compromisers, whereas “the Muslims” had gone straight for “immediate revolution.”2 For him, the uprising was anti-colonial struggle par excellence. In a rare case of agreement between the two, Roy echoed this endorsement when he called for extending what had “burst out spontaneously at […] Malabar” to the entire subcontinent in the manifesto submitted to the 1922 Gaya Congress. Later, Roy even boasted to have had a hand in the uprising through his agents.3 While this seems presumptuous, his straightforward embrace of the rebellion leaves little doubt that its religious fanaticism did at least not contradict Roy’s aspirations.
Ironically, these first responses bore close resemblance to British assessments. The only difference was that they embraced the rebellion on the very grounds that led British officials to discount it as obstinate fundamentalism. Slogans such as the call for a khilafat republic had stirred the refractory Moplahs into action, and thanks to their inherent fanaticism they had taken the injunctions literally. The extent to which a social dimension of the conflict was gainsaid becomes apparent in a telegram to the Government of India, where F B Evans stipulated that there was no reason to suppose “that agrarian discontent was even a contributory cause of the rising”4 : Initially, the colonial and the communist point of view concurred in the cultural substance of the argument.
Only when cues to non-religious motivations of the revolting Moplahs became available did subsequent communist contributions switch to the emphasis of the rebellion’s purported materialist underpinnings. Referring to the report of a Kerala Congress committee tasked with an inquiry, the Vanguard approvingly quoted from a speech by the committee’s head, V. S. Gayatri Iyer, characterizing the uprising as a consequence of “long standing and acute agrarian grievances.”5 The systematic destruction of public records demonstrated that forced evictions had been a core cause of the outbreak. Roy jumped to the conclusion that Iyer had “proved [!] that the rebellion was neither for the Khilafat nor directly against the British government […] [but] primarily against landlordism.”6
Yet, in the mid-1920s the rapidly worsening inter-communal climate forced Roy to reconsider the religious factor. The surge in communalism after the end of non-cooperation made it difficult to uphold the conviction that religion was just a relic, an ephemeral phenomenon bound to be swept aside by the strides of history (that is, the class struggle). Since all it had been swept aside in the terminological regulations Roy had applied, in the end he came round to admit an “ugly character of religious fanaticism.”7 Still, this had been possible only because the conflicting classes had belonged to different religions. As to the basics, he remained convinced that despite a “certain religious character” the Moplah revolt had been “an agrarian revolt.”8 In the same measure that religious fanaticism had been emphasized earlier, communist commentary would henceforth belittle it to the extent that the rebellion acquired the halo of a revolutionary example for peasant communism.
And yet, the CPI-led Kerala state government’s bid to introduce pensions for veteran insurgents on the rebellion’s golden jubilee in 1971 met with unequivocal rejection from senior CPI(M) opposition leader Namboodiripad (1909–1998). His claim—understandable from his biographical experience as an indirect victim since his family of wealthy landlords had had to live as refugees for half a year, but very unusual for a communist—that the uprising had been a communal movement seemed to indicate a comprehensive reversal of the rebellion’s embrace in communist quarters.9 What had happened?
Indeed, his assessment appeared diametrically opposed to earlier communist stances. Saumyendranath Tagore (1901–1974) pamphlet Peasants Revolt in Malabar, 1921, written after an extensive tour of the area during the early 1930s, constituted the first ‘native’ communist commentary on the rebellion. Certainly it was the first to rely on firsthand accounts. The text was a manifesto of radical dedication to a communist ‘history from below’ and of equally radical determination to preserve the materialist pristineness of popular self-assertion: Throughout the history of revolt among Moplahs, the “apparent causes” of outbreaks had been not religious, but “purely agrarian.”10
Consequently, Tagore portrayed the uprising’s communal dimension as a malignant rumour. “The Moplah peasants were not anti-Hindu by any means […] Not a single Hindu was molested or plundered in those days just because he happened to be a Hindu.”11 Victims among Hindus inevitably had been either class enemies or pro-British, and only those who had collaborated with colonial institutions had been harassed and robbed. Evidently, Tagore didn’t waste time with questions such as how exactly the rebels had told those aiding the British from those loyal to the insurgents. Instead, he extensively quoted allegations by Ahmad Hazi, a peasant leader during the rebellion, that it had been the government which had engineered the destruction of temples and the looting of Hindu houses in order to defame the rebels.12
Tagore’s reductive simplicity soon invited Namboodiripad’s criticism. As it was written during the pro-Muslim euphoria of the CPI’s ‘nationality period’, it is all the more remarkable to see Namboodiripad’s 1943 classic, A Short History of the Peasant Movement in Malabar spell out the rebellion’s motivations in no unclear terms: “The beginning of the riot was partly political and partly agrarian but very soon it developed into a communal movement.”13 Namboodiripad attacked Tagore and other “so-called Marxists” for neglecting a couple of “simple but relevant questions”—such as why the tenant movement and the subsequent rebellion had been restricted to Muslim-majority areas. Neither the bureaucracy nor the landlords had been partial towards Hindu tenants. Nevertheless, the latter had experienced the uprising as predominantly anti-Hindu. Also, Tagore had ignored the forced conversions, which “cannot by any stretch of imagination be explained away as part of a purely agrarian movement.”14
Still, it was Namboodiripad’s very theoretical sophistication that eventually enabled him to arrive at a comprehensive absolution of the rebellious Moplahs, and in the end more or less confirmed Tagore’s position. To begin with, despite admitting that “a certain percentage of the crimes are of a purely fanatical type” he was quick to identify culprits outside of the ‘masses’: What the corruptive khilafatist influence had been to Tagore, the mullahs were to Namboodiripad. Allegedly, it had been in their interest to turn “the anti jenmi [landlord] sentiments of the peasants into the anti-Hindu sentiments of the Moplahs.” It had come as no surprise, then, that the uneducated peasants had fallen for this. Rather, the remarkable fact was that there had been relatively few “fanatical outbursts”: “It clearly shows that with all his traditional illiteracy, backwardness and priest-riddenness, the Moplah peasant is much more a class-conscious peasant than a community-conscious Moplah.”15 As to why the “class-conscious peasant” had taken a “partially communal turn,” then, Namboodiripad pointed to the withdrawal of Hindus from the movement when it turned violent. “The Moplah found that his Hindu compatriots […] deserted him; the military arrived to hunt him out of his abode; his Hindu neighbours helped the military against him.He naturally got enraged at them [!].”16 Having thus become victims both of the British military and the treacherous infidels, Namboodiripad considered it understandable that the Moplahs turned against Hindus, even common ones.
This rationalizing drive was topped off with a baffling appropriation of the movement’s leadership as suitable revolutionary material. Quite possibly this was a reflection of the CPI’s contemporary holistic embrace of resistive Muslim self-assertions, an embrace that tended to downplay rifts and differences in the exaltation of the greater Muslim cause. Consisting of “saintly Moplahs” strangely unconnected to the maligned ulema, the ideological (that is, religious) lapses of the uprising’s leadership were merely a matter of correct instruction and at any rate eclipsed by their merits as anti-British agitators and peasant leaders:
“Sincere anti-imperialists, they, however, think and speak in the terms of religion which had tremendous effect in rallying the Moplahs […] most of them were good material as peasant cadres if only there had been a good and efficient central leadership […] they showed their mettle as good organizers both before and during the rebellion.”17 (emphasis added).
Namboodiripad’s reasoning was all the more remarkable because it concluded a text starting out with an attack on “so-called Marxists” for their ignorance of disagreeable communal facts. As an apparently much better Marxist, Namboodiripad could even imagine the very same leaders doing the very same thing under a proper, that is, communist-organized revolution.
His later positions display a similar, if somewhat more sophisticated, rationalizing impulse. Emphatically sympathizing with the hunted and deserted Moplahs in a 1970 interview, his justification of their suspicions and aversions towards Hindus became more dogged in the same way that the latters’ fears and apprehensions were devalued. Namboodiripad averred that the crucial, communally divisive factor had not been actual forced conversions, but rather the fear of them on the part of Hindus. Similarly, he estimated the number of killed Hindus to be quite low, as “it was not so much the number that mattered but the atmosphere [sic!] of tension.”18 Hence, he attributed the spike in the Malabar Arya Samaj’s popularity after the rebellion, which furthered the intercommunal divide, solely to Hindu phantasmagorias, outsourcing the irrational factor to the non rebelling population segment that had developed essentially unjustified fear. The betrayed and beleaguered Moplahs, on the other hand, had had a rational foundation for their communal outrages as the few Hindus remaining in the area had actively cooperated with the British.19
In view of this background, it can be safely said that Namboodiripad’s seemingly contrary stance on the matter during the above-mentioned 1971 pension controversy originated in motivations of political distinction. Considering his other efforts to acquit the common Moplah peasant (if not the rebellion as a whole) from the charge of communalism, this was clearly an anti-CPI move designed to expose the rival party’s reactionary trends for political reasons rather than because of an evolution in his own positions. Mutual recriminations of the same pattern abounded in the years after the 1964 party split. Hence, the principal merit of Namboodiripad’s “most sophisticated analysis” (Robert Hardgrave) lies in the attainment of an impressive level of rationalization and exculpation, and in the inadvertent exposition of the mechanisms at work there.20
By temperament not prone to complicated theoretical analysis, popular Kerala communist leader A K Gopalan (1904–1977) confirmed the Moplah rebellion’s importance as a reference point for communist identification of resistive subjectivity. His 1973 autobiography confessed that the “Moplah rebellion excited [his] imagination.” Even while the rebellion had been “bereft of intelligent political leadership [and] well-conceived policy or programme, the brave deeds of my Muslim brethren who fought against imperialist oppression enthused me.”21 Notwithstanding their shortcomings, the rebelling Moplahs, braving the constraints of time and place, had managed to come out progressive in a political and a social sense:
“The class sense of Muslim peasants [of Malabar] has sprung from a century-long struggle against feudalism [!] [.…] The last of these struggles against feudalism took place in 1921 [….] There is no memorial yet to the countless martyrs who laid down their lives in the fight for land for the peasants.”
Strikingly, Gopalan didn’t bother to explain away (or even mention) religious militancy. To him, one of the most renowned popular leaders of the South Asian communist movement to date and a native of Kerala to boot, the defining criterion seemed to be ‘activity from below’ plain and simple: The political self-assertion of a socially declassed population segment through a rebellion that counted landlords and foreign rulers among its enemies compensated for possible uglier aspects. Ideological motivations apart from those acknowledged by coarse Marxism seemed either irrelevant or non-existent to Gopalan’s perspective, mirroring the entire party’s blind proximity to fundamentalist currents.
1. “The Revolutionary Movement in India,” Inprecorr, Roll No. 1921/3-B, 18.
2. Izvestia, May 11, 1922, quoted in Home/Poll/1922 Nr. 884, 5–6.
3.Home/Poll/1924 Nr. 261, 110 (quote); Petrie, Communism in India, 283.
4.“Telegram to the Government of India, Home Department, No. M. 163,” in Tottenham, The Mapilla Rebellion, 200. See also “Note on Malabar affairs,” in ibid., 32, and “Letter from the District Magistrate,” in ibid., 17.
5. Quoted in “Materialism vs. Spiritualism,” Vanguard, 1 August 1923. This was long after Roy’s embrace of the rebellion in his manifesto for the 1922 Gaya Congress.
7. “Economics of Communal Conflict,” Masses of India, January 1925.
8. “The Calcutta Riot,” Masses of India, May 1926.
9.The state government had considered the rebels freedom fighters and as such entitled to special pensions. The central government refused to comply because compatriots had been among the rebellion’s victims as well, triggering an intense debate in Kerala whether the great rebellion belonged to the national movement or not. See Menon, Malabar Rebellion, 475–7.
10. Saumyendranath Tagore, Peasants Revolt in Malabar, 1921, PCJ CPI 2A, 5 (quote), 10–12. 351 Ibid., 16–18.
11. Ibid., 24.
12. E. M. S. Namboodiripad (interviewee), 3, 5 (quote).
13. Namboodiripad, “A Short History,” 179, 182.
14. All quotes ibid., 174–5.
15. Ibid., 184. This motive was dominant in Namboodiripad’s writings on the matter; see Namboodiripad, A History of India, 177.
16. Namboodiripad, “A Short History,” 184.
17. Namboodiripad (interviewee), 20, 22.
18. Ibid., 26.
19. Hardgrave Jr, The Mappila Rebellion, 90.
20. A K Gopalan, In the Cause of the People: Reminiscences (Bombay: Orient Longmans 1973), 9.
* Note: It is V S Sreenivasa Sastri, not Gayatri Iyer- Ramachandran