Moplah Rebellion

The Moplahs, a Muslim sect descended from Arabs who migrated to India in the ninth century, lived in the extreme south of India on the west coast at Malabar. After briefly being recruited for the Indian army as the Moplah Rifles, they attacked their Hindu neighbors, and British forces restored order by using maximum force, which left a large number of casualties.

Summary of Event

The Moplahs (mappila in Malayalam) were mostly small agriculturists, landless laborers, and petty traders who were heavily influenced by local Muslim leaders. These leaders were members of groups of Khasis and Maulvis known as Thangals, indigenous to South India, and they became known for their fanaticism. In the fifteenth century, they resisted attempts by the Portuguese to convert them to Christianity, and they developed strong beliefs in favor of Islam and against their landlords. In 1792, the British took control of Malabar (in southwest India) when it was ceded by the Muslim ruler Tipu Sultan of Mysore. High-caste Hindu landlords (jenmis) and moneylenders, especially Brahmans and Nairs, became British allies, and this reinforced Muslim and low-caste Hindu resentment toward the upper classes. From 1836 to 1896, the Moplahs led some thirty revolts against the British and Hindus, especially in the southern Malabar taluks (district subdivisions) of Ernad and Walluvarad. By attacking the Hindus—many uprisings pillaged Hindu property and left Hindus murdered—the Moplahs expressed their hatred of British rule. Moplah rebellion
[kw]Moplah Rebellion (Aug., 1921)
[kw]Rebellion, Moplah (Aug., 1921)
Moplah rebellion
[g]India;Aug., 1921: Moplah Rebellion[05440]
[g]South Asia;Aug., 1921: Moplah Rebellion[05440]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Aug., 1921: Moplah Rebellion[05440]
[c]Colonialism and occupation;Aug., 1921: Moplah Rebellion[05440]
Variyankode Kunhahammad Haji
Erikunnan Ali Mussaliar
Kattillasseri Muhammad Mussaliar
Thomas, E. R.
Freeman-Thomas, Freeman
Gandhi, Mahatma
Besant, Annie

A tenants’ rights movement began in 1916. Later, this movement inspired both the anti-British Khilafat movement (1920-1922) and Mohandas Gandhi (later known as the Mahatma), who began his own noncooperation movement in 1920. When the spokesmen of the Khilafat and noncooperation movements were arrested, the field was left open to more radical and fanatical leaders whose millenarian and egalitarian ideologies struck a chord with the landless, dispossessed, and downtrodden. Although the governor of Madras, Freeman Freeman-Thomas, first marquis of Willingdon, blamed Gandhi’s movement for fomenting the Moplah uprising, national leaders believed that the rebellion was a result of the mismanagement of district officials and the insensitivity of government officers whose activities offended the Moplahs’ Muslim sensibilities.

The uprising began in the village called Pukottar, which was located in a densely populated area in Ernad taluk, where some 60 percent of the people were Muslim Moplahs and most of the land was owned by a rich Hindu landowner, Raja Nilambut. When a local Moplah leader of the Khilafat movement came into personal conflict with the landowner’s local agent, the police and district officials, especially the district magistrate, E. R. Thomas, became alarmed that this conflict might escalate. Expecting that the local conflict would lead to a communal riot, because most Moplahs were Raja Nilambut’s tenants or subtenants, these officials requested that the Madras government send in police reinforcements.

The Moplahs became enraged at the influx of police. They drew swords and spears and attacked government officials and government buildings such as police stations, railway stations, and post offices. Some 2,500 non-Muslims were forcibly converted to Islam, and more than 600 Hindus were killed. The Moplahs controlled the area for six months before the British brought in troops and declared martial law in October. The troops were almost entirely composed of Indians from groups such as the Gurkhas, the Garhwalis, Kachins, and other relatively distant communities. The soldiers restored order, but they did so very violently and without mercy. More than 2,226 Moplahs were killed, 1,615 were wounded, 5,688 were captured, and nearly 40,000 surrendered. Of those captured, 150 were locked in a goods wagon in the heat of summer and sent to Madras; by the time the wagon was opened, 66 had suffocated to death, and the rest were in serious condition.

The uprising had started as a protest against landlords and British officials, but it quickly became a much larger conflict. Although the rebellion mirrored Moplah agrarian protests of the nineteenth century, the British attributed it to the political agitation against British rule that had been fomented by British activist Annie Besant and Gandhi in the Home Rule League, founded in 1916, and the Indian National Congress, which became increasingly extremist after it was founded in 1885. By 1921, however, the Moplahs had become disillusioned with the noncooperation movement, and their frustration with the lack of change in their desperate conditions erupted in open rebellion. While nineteenth century rebellions were limited in their extent and generally confined to specific, local areas, the 1921 uprising was much more violent and spread over the two districts of Ernad and Walluvarad.

The British report documenting the rebellion described how the British had failed to understand the traditional land-revenue system in Malabar. They had created the class of landowners called the jenmis, who ignored local practices and began to regard the land as private property rather than communal land. This situation was exacerbated by the fact that the landowners were Hindu peoples, such as Nairs or Namboodris, who subjected the Moplahs to numerous rules and arbitrary eviction. Only after a great deal of bloodshed did the British realize that they had in fact facilitated the conflict between the Hindus and Moplahs and had put themselves in the middle of the Moplahs’ attempts to create a theocratic state based on Islamic principles.


In the early years of the twentieth century, the Arya Samaj Arya Samaj (founded in 1875) was increasing its activities of shuddhi (reconversion of non-Hindus), which led to a Muslim reaction and the founding of the Tablighi Jamaat (a missionary society) by Muhammad Ilyas. These groups alienated Hindus from Muslims and helped give the Muslims an increased sense of grievance toward Hindus, a feeling that ultimately fueled Muslim support for the All-India Muslim League All-India Muslim League[All India Muslim League] (founded in 1906) and led to the 1940 demand for a separate state for the Muslims of India. This state, Pakistan, was established in 1947, when India was divided in two. The Moplah rebellion, therefore, had national ramifications and became a part of the nationalists’ agitation for independence.

The Moplah disturbances helped destroy the Hindu-Muslim unity that had been created by the Lucknow Pact. This pact had been forged by the “ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity,” Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Jinnah, Mohammed Ali in 1916, when right-wing Hindus came to the defense of their fellow Hindus. One of the few positive consequences to emerge from the rebellion came in 1929, when the British passed the Malabar Tenancy Act, which controlled rents, fixed fair rents, and proscribed the eviction of tenants. Moplah rebellion

Further Reading

  • Dale, Stephen F. Islamic Society on the South Asian Frontier: The Mappilas of Malabar, 1498-1922. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980. Comprehensive discussion of Moplah history examines the factors that contributed to the Moplah rebellion and the events of the uprising itself.
  • Hitchcock, R. H. Peasant Revolt in Malabar: A History of the Malabar Rebellion, 1921. New Delhi: Usha, 1983. Reproduces the principal government report on the Moplah uprising. An introduction by noted historian Robert L. Hardgrave, Jr., provides a good summary and a good place to begin any study of the Moplah uprising. This book is one of the foremost sources for information about the rebellion.
  • Jones, Kenneth W. Socio-religious Movements in British India. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1989. Places the Moplah rebellion within the context of the political and religious movements of the time. Notes that the Hindu, right-wing Arya Samaj responded to the Moplah uprising by sending missionaries to the south for the reconversion of Muslims to Hinduism and by sending financial assistance to Hindus to help them rebuild destroyed temples. Makes the point that the Moplah rebellion brought to the south of India the intense competition between Hindus and Muslims that characterized the north of India.

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