Why Malayalam Film With 1921 Moplah Riots Background Has Run Into A Controversy

by M R Subramani - Jul 1, 2020 12:12 PM +05:30 IST
Why Malayalam Film With 1921 Moplah Riots Background Has Run Into A ControversyActor Sukumaran Prithviraj.
  • A plan to make a Malayalam film based on the life of Kunjahammed Haji, the controversial ‘rebel’ leader of Moplah riots, courts controversy.

Malayalam film director Aashiq Abu has announced that he will be making a film Varian Kunnan with popular actor Sukumaran Prithviraj in the lead triggering off a controversy in Kerala.

The film, which will go on floors next year, will be based on the life of Variyan Kunnathu Kunjahammed Haji or Chakkiparamban Variyamkunnathu Kunjahammed Haji, who rebelled against the British in Kerala’s Malabar region.

His rebellion is seen as part of the Independence struggle by some historians but others, who have particularly scrutinised the 1921 Moplah riots that was part of this struggle, are of the view that this had nothing to do with the freedom movement.

Their contention is that the Moplah riots took place in support of the Khilafat Movement to reinstall the caliphate of Ottoman Caliph in Turkey and plans were to carve a separate Islamic kingdom province by those who led the violent struggle.

Ironically, four Malayalam film directors have announced plans to do a film based on Kunjahammed Haji’s life. All but one are seen as an attempt to glorify the Malabar rebel leader. The other film plans to depict him as an antagonist.

Haji was considered an important rebel leader in Kerala’s colonial history who took on the mighty British Raj. Born in an affluent Muslim family in the 1870s, he saw his father, Moideenkutty Haji, being deported and jailed in the Andaman Islands for rebelling against the British.

Kunjahammed Haji played a major role during the 1921 Moplah riots and he proclaimed himself as the “Sultan of Eranad”, which witnessed heavy clashes between the British and the Moplahs (Mappilahs), a Kerala Muslim community. For his role in this, he was executed by the British in March 1922.

The Moplah riots or rebellion, in protest against the British crackdown of the Khilafat Movement, took place for six months since August 1921 in 40 per cent of the south Malabar region that saw thousands imprisoned, deported, killed and missing.

The riots witnessed many prominent leaders taking part and Kunjahammed Haji was one of them. However, the roles of these prominent leaders such as Kunjahammad Haji, his mentor Ali Musliyar, and Sithi Koya Thangal have always been under a cloud.

It is in view of Kunjahammad Haji’s questionable role in the Moplah riots that such a hue and cry has been raised against the making of a movie based on his life.

Interestingly, a movie 1921 was released in 1988 based on the Moplah riots with popular actor Mammootty in the lead. Then, the movie did not face any problem as people across the country were not fully aware of the distortions to Indian history.

There have always been arguments for and against the 1921 Moplah riots. This is because Hindus seem to have been targeted and butchered. By various accounts, thousands of them lost their lives during the riots. This is the reason why so much of heat and dust has been raised against the making of the film on Kunjahammad Haji.

Dr B R Ambedkar, founder of the Indian Constitution, in his book Pakistan or The Partition of India, had to say this on the Moplah riots: “The outbreak (riots) was essentially a rebellion against the British Government The aim was to establish the kingdom of Islam by overthrowing the British Government.”

He goes on to add further on the tragic event:

A certain Ali Musaliar was proclaimed Raja, Khilafat flags were flown, and Ernad and Wallurana were declared Khilafat kingdoms. As a rebellion against the British Government, it was quite understandable. But what baffled most was the treatment accorded by the Moplas to the Hindus of Malabar. The Hindus were visited by a dire fate at the hands of the Moplas. Massacres, forcible conversions, desecration of temples, foul outrages upon women, such as ripping open pregnant women, pillage, arson and destruction — in short, all the accompaniments of brutal and unrestrained barbarism, were perpetrated freely by the Moplas upon the Hindus …
Dr B R Ambekar’s book Pakistan Or The Partition Of India.

Ambedkar adds that “this was not a Hindu-Moslem riot. This was just a Bartholomew. The number of Hindus who were killed, wounded or converted, is not known. But the number must have been enormous.”

A Servants of India Society committee under Dr Annie Besant was asked to investigate the Moplah riots and submit a report. The report said that 1,500 Hindus were murdered, 20,000 people were converted to Islam and properties worth Rs 3 crore were destroyed.

“They murdered as they wished, plundered and Hindus who refused to convert to Islam were driven out of their homes naked. Nearly one lakh Hindus became refugees this way,” the report by Annie Besant said.

The British government report said that Hindus were attacked brutally. “Barbarism was at its worst as seen in the murders, forced conversions, destruction of temples, rape of women, damage to properties, and other such acts.

“How many Hindus were killed or converted cannot be ascertained, but the Government understands that they were in large numbers,” the statement said.

These views have been supported even by some left historians. Kerala Minister of Higher Education K T Jaleel in his research work “Malabar Rebellion - A re-reading” agrees with Ambekar on the intention of Moplah riots.

Jaleel said the aim of the rebels was to sabotage the British government with the help of armed force and to establish a Khilafat administration.

Veteran Congress leader and former Kerala minister Aryadan Muhammed told Janam TV in an interview that what happened during Malabar riots was a "catastrophe".

“It is a fact that Hindus were harmed and tortured at that time and nobody should disagree with this fact,” said Muhammed, whose earlier generation had converted from Hinduism.

Noted historian K N Panikkar wrote that the most unfortunate consequence generated by the Moplah riots was the “communalisation” of the social fabric of Malabar in the twentieth century that created an insurmountable deep chasm between Hindus and Muslims in the region.

Late Congress leader S Madhavan Nair, who founded the Malayalam newspaper Mathrubhumi, in his book Malabar Kalapam says the Moplahs ran riot – soon after Ali Musaliyar surrendered to the British – looting, converting and murdering until the rebellion was brought under control.

He also says that Malabar district judge T L Strange, appointed to investigate the riots, found that religious bigotry, rather than feelings against the landlords (as argued by Left historians), was responsible for these riots.

Left historians have always tended to term the Moplah riots as an agrarian revolution. Communist stalwart and late E M S Namboodiripad termed the Moplah riots as “fine example of an agrarian political mass movement”.

But the late leader, who went on to become Kerala chief minister in 1957, said the Marxists have to answer simple but relevant questions as to why the movement was “confined to an area with a Moplah majority”.

He contended that the forced conversions “cannot by any stretch of imagination be explained away as part of a purely agrarian movement”.

Some historians such as Fredrick Dale record the Moplah riots as a campaign against the Dar al-Harab (territory of chaos) rule of the British to establish Dar al-Islam (territory of peace) rule. A call was made for a jihad (holy war) that immediately resulted in Moplah Muslims attacking British officials and organisations with weapons.

It is because of these findings that the history of Kunjahammed Haji is being questioned, though the Leftists say he was a “secular” person who fought for India’s freedom.

Historian Manu S Pillai says the British had termed Kunjahammed Haji as the “chief rebel leader” but he had denied it saying he only attempted to “stop conversions”.

Pillai says the rebel leader even wrote to The Hindu daily in 1921 denying reports of forcible conversion.

While a member of the film crew has termed the controversy as a “Right-wing plot”, critics belonging to the Bharatiya Janata Party and Hindu Aikya Vedi argue that attempts are being made to glorify a person who had indulged in “genocide” and they would result in “fissures in the society”.

Also read:  The Moplah Revolt: Separating Fact From Fiction

M.R. Subramani is Executive Editor, Swarajya. He tweets @mrsubramani

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