It was T.N. Godavarman Thirumulpad, of the erstwhile Nilambur Kovilakam whose initiative turned out to be a historic intervention by the Supreme Court to protect India’s forests. Nilambur forms part of Nilgiri biosphere reserve. Seeing the destruction of forests in Gudalur in the Nilgiris, Godavarman Thirumulpad filed a writ petition in 1995 in the Supreme Court. A bench led by Chief Justice J.S. Verma passed an interim order on December 12, 1996, directing that tree-felling and non-forestry activity in forests across the country be stopped. States were directed to form expert committees to identify forests as defined and file reports. Senior Counsel Harish Salve was appointed Amicus Curie to assist the Supreme Court (The Hindu July 5, 2016).
Godavarman Thirumulpad belonged to this same Nilambur Kovilakam, where, a hundred years back in 1921, succumbed to one of the bloodiest massacres in contemporary history marshaled by a section of Sunni Mappila fanatics in the name of Khilafat movement.
In late July I92I, in the village of Pukkottur in Eranad taluk, a dispute arose between the Nilambur Raja and a Mappilla, who was active in the Khilafat movement. Tension grew in the village, and on August 1, drums began to beat in the mosques of the area, and in the course of the day, more than two hundred Mappillas, shouting war cries, gathered at Pukkottur branch of Nilambur Kovilakam. A large portion of them wore the Khilafat badge on their skullcaps, and the majority were armed with war knives, country swords, long spears, formidable bludgeons, and other weapons, including several guns. An outbreak was averted by the interference of Congress leaders and police officials. But peace remained only for few weeks.
The first and major riot began in August 1921 at Pukkottur which lies adjacent to Nilambur timber zone at Eranad in Malabar, accommodating the richest timber plantations in the world. C.Gopalan Nair, Deputy Collector of Malabar in his work The Mappila Rebellion 1921 (1923) describes Eranad which comprised Nilambur. According to Nair “it is a tract made up of hills, clothed with forest, the eastern portion including the valley of Nilambur which produces teak and other timbers. There were disturbances in every amsom of the Taluk”.
On August 21, hundreds of Mappilas armed with guns and swords assembled at Pukkottur on a false hearsay that, the Thirurangady mosque has been destroyed . They marched towards Nilambur Kovilakam and on 21st night murdered sixteen members of the royal family which included twelve males, two women and two children . It was not tenancy issues, but widespread rumours regarding destruction of Thirurangady mosque that led to the outbreak and carnage.
According to Marxist scholar Conrad Wood, at Nilambur, “Moplah resistance moved along customary ‘fanatical’ lines with mobs assembling in niskarapalli (praying ‘sheds’) then advancing on the Tirumulpad’s kovilagom (palace) to demand its conversion to a mosque, and the head of its principal inmate, indeed of all kafirs… The emergent swaraj at Pukkotur was clearly Moplah raj”.
In 1880s, the Mappila elitists in Malabar, who got education, began to involve in local politics and established Himayathul Islam Sabha (also known as Mappila Sabha).This Sabha never raised Mappila tenancy and agrarian issues in Nilambur or other areas of south Malabar, and made little efforts on the tenancy question in 1910 to invite public attention to Mappila grievances. Issues of tenancy and agriculture were not confined to a particular religious group to be raised only through the most brutal violence.
One of the most important Khilafat leaders was Variankunnath Kunjahammed Haji ‘belonging to a family with outbreak traditions’ as described by K.Madhavan Nair, Congress secretary and president, in his classic work Malabar Kalaapam (Malabar Rebellion ). Kunjahammed Haji and his Sunni faction in Ponnani headed by Mambram Thangal were sworn enemies of Kondotti Thangal in Eranad, whom they allege, belonged to the Shia section and kept away from riots.
Conrad Wood argues that Variankunnath Kunjahammed Haji belonged to a prosperous family. According to Wood, “ reports on the 1894 outbreak indicate that the family of rebel leader Kunjahammad Haji, a number of whose close relations were implicated in that outbreak, had been comparatively prosperous cultivators and therefore almost certainly kanamdars”( leaseholders ).
The arguments of Wood is substantiated by Dr.Hussain Randathani, Islamic historian and left fellow traveler . In his paper titled ‘Varian Kunnath Kunhahammad Haji : Mappila Freedom Fighter of Malabar’ Randathani describes him as hailing from a rich family. Kunhahammad Haji was occupied with timber business, according to Randathani. During the riots of 1921 he made Nilambur his head quarters and ran a Khilafat regime. Why did Varian Kunnath Kunhahammad Haji select Nilambur timber belt as his abode for Khilafat, when plains were available? Randathani’s recent work, Communists and Muslims is forwarded by Sitharam Yechury secretary of CPI (M).
President of Central Khilafat Committee, Mian Mohammad Haji Jan Mohammad Muhammad Chotani and his younger brother Mia Ahmed Chotani had their business centres at Lahore, Madras, Karachi, Calicut, Belgaum, Ernakulam, San Francisco and London. They established an agency in Rangoon and ventured into the teak business, they were able to take advantage of the expanding teak trade, caused by the gradual opening of the Burmese forests after the 1830s . Their business was especially due to the boom in railway construction after the 1860s, which required vast amounts of timber for railway sleepers.
Khan Bahadur Unnikkamu timber tycoon at Mannarkkad near Nilambur was the supplier of railway sleepers that British required for the construction of railways throughout south India. By 1914, in the Southern India Chamber of Commerce, 28 secretaries, directors, and members, 9 were Muslims, while nineteen of the 80 resident members listed in 1915 were Muslims (Report And Correspondence of the Southern India Chamber of Commerce: March 1914-February 1915).
That the Malabar riots were launched by a section of rich Sunni Mappilas against Hindus and also against some Mappilas who sheltered Hindus is indisputable. According to Conrad Wood “any Moplah suspected of helping the government or even merely failing to respond to the rebel call for all Mussalmans, or “the Moplah brotherhood (udapurappa)”, to come to the aid of the Moplah cause was almost certain to suffer on falling into the hands of the insurgents. Most notorious was the murder by men of Kunhahamad Haji’s gang on 30 August 1921 of retired police inspector Khan Bahadur Kurimannil Valiyamannil Chekkutti Sahib who had the temerity to harbour government servants and hindus at his residence at Anakkayam, as well as to display on his gate a directive of the authorities that all arms were to be surrendered”. Anakkayam lies twenty miles away from Nilambur.
Prominent timber merchants of Malabar launched the Muslim league in Kerala. In I969, in accordance to the demands of the Muslim League in Kerala and as a reward for its political support, the Communist government of EMS Namboodiripad carved out the new Malappuram district accommodating major timber regions which included the world famous Nilambur teak zone.
Nilambur and Mannarkad were core areas of Mappila riots of 1921. The Silent Valley National Park and the Attappadi Reserve Forests are in Mannarkad. Silent Valley constitutes the nucleus of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, an integral part of the Western Ghats, and named a a World Heritage Site by Unesco in 2012.
Significantly, the largest encroachments are in Mannarkad (6,672.54 acres) and Nilambur divisions (1,691), where the Mappila riots took place and also at Wayanad (4,297.14) . Another curious fact is, encroachers have not taken the government to court for including them in list of encroachers. More than three years after the High Court directed the state to recover encroached forest land, the Forest Department has managed to take into possession just 280 acres, or just about 1.5 per cent of the total encroached forest land of 19,277 acres ( Kerala: Only 1.5 per cent forest land reclaimed in Deccan Chronicle, Sept 25., 2017)
The extent of forest encroachment was the highest in Eastern Circle with 3,819.75 hectares, as per the statistics compiled by the Department of Forests and Wildlife on March 31, 2016. The circle comprises Nilambur North, Nilambur South, Palakkad, Mannarkad, and Nenmara divisions falling under Malappuram and Palakkad districts (The Hindu, March 2, 2017).
Nilambur was also centre of forced religious conversions to Islam during the 1921 riots. A historic document has been provided by K.P. Kesava Menon. He joined the Indian National Congress in 1915 and served as the secretary of the Malabar branch of the Home Rule League as well as the Congress.
Menon was fully aware of the forced conversions into Islam during the 1921 Mappila riots in Malabar . He provided a critical account of the forced conversion of a Thiyya woman of Nilambur in the note, ‘Forced Conversion,’ ‘the Calicut Case,’ published on July 6, 1922.
Kesava Menon’s notes and an interview published in The Hindu were recently retrieved from the archives of the newspaper (Focus on K.P. Kesava Menon’s accounts of Malabar rebellion in The Hindu, July 8, 2020).The Thiyya woman narrated to Menon, who was secretary of the Kerala Provincial Congress Committee, that she and her children were taken to Edavanna, where she was called Rabia twice and made to “repeat Kilema”.
The heads of the children of the woman, who wanted to go back to Hinduism, were shaved by Mappila barber on the night they reached Kozhikkode and “on the next day they were given Mappila skull caps.”She also narrated her misery on how during the 14 days of her stay in the Pattanis house in Kozhikkode, she was compelled “to repeat Kilema” as reported in The Hindu.
In November 2019, CPM Kozhikode district secretary P Mohanan remarked that Maoists in Kerala were being encouraged and nourished by extreme Muslim outfits . Marxist octogenarian and former Kerala Chief Minister, V.S. Achyuthanandan, stated in July 2010 that radical Muslim outfits wanted to turn the state into a Muslim-majority through their communal and divisive activities.
Nilambur has remained a hot bed for Red Jihadi alliance. The largest encounters against Maoists take place in Nilambur forests. In 2013, 12 people from Nilambur in Malappuram went to Darul Hadees at Dammaj in Yemen, which Salafis refer as Lighthouse of Islam(The Times of India, July 12, 2016) The Deccan Chronicle (July 12, 2016) reported an exclusive commune of self-proclaimed “true” Salafis, surrounded by teak woods and rubber plants, near Nilambur forests, from where recent reports of men and women leaving for religiously terrorised havens in the Middle East have brought the commune under scanner.
Why this issue has been left out and marginalized by left and mainstream historians ? Michael Christopher Low and others argue that the “processes of resistance to British imperialism are all too often handled by historians as part of discrete colonial, national, or regional histories, thereby occluding the interregional connections among various locales within dar al-Islam. The importance of individuals involved in pan Islamic contacts during the period is either neglected or kept aside by the left, for interpreting events within an ideological frame work as in the case of Malabar rebellion”.