During the Mysorean interlude (1788–1792), when the Muslim invasion of Malabar led to widespread atrocities among the Hindu population, the landowners were forced to take refuge in neighboring states. The tenants and the Nair warriors who could not escape were forcibly converted to Islam as described in William Logan’s Malabar Manual.
Thus, the Malabar government under the suzerainty of Tipu’s Islamic Sultanate, having driven out the Hindu landlords, reached an agreement with the Muslim tenant farmers. A new system of land revenue was introduced for the first time in the region’s history with the government share fixed on the basis of actual produce from the land.
However, within five years, the British took over Malabar defeating and ending Tipu’s reign over the region. The Hindu landlords were allowed to return to their homes and retake the lands lost during the Islamic rule, all with the help of the British government and its duly constituted law courts.
The British superimposed several Anglo-Roman legal concepts, such as that of absolute property rights, upon the existing system of Malabar. Up until then, such rights had been unknown in the region and as a result all land became the private property of the Janmi (landlords). This legal recognition gave them the right to evict tenants, which was enforced through the British civil courts.
Thus, the landlords felt entitled to take as much of the produce of the land as they could get, which inevitably encroached on the one-third share the tenant farmer had been used to receiving via the middle-level Nair caretakers.
As conditions worsened, rents rose to as high as 75% to 80% of net produce, leaving the tenant farmers “only straw,” causing great resentment among the Moplahs, who in the words of Logan were “laboring late and early to provide a sufficiency of food for their wives and children.”
General resentment among the Muslim population led to a prolonged series of violent outbreaks beginning in 1836. These always involved the murder of Hindus, an act which the disgruntled Moplahs regarded as religiously meritorious and as part of their larger obligation to establish an Islamic state.
The Moplah Rebellion began in 1921 as a series of clashes between the Moplahs in Eranad and Valluvanad provinces of Malabar, and the British as a direct response to safeguard the Caliphate’s interest in distant Turkey.
But it soon spread across the region. The Moplahs took control of British police stations, courts and government-run treasuries. Then they turned on the Hindus, with Ernad and Valluvanad being declared Khilafat kingdoms.
British and Gurkha regiments were deployed, martial law was declared and some members of the Hindu community were enlisted by the army to provide information on the rebels. The British Army was also called on to train up a quasi-military armed police battalion, the Malabar Special Police (MSP), initially comprising non-Muslims, which was responsible for quelling riots and the situation was brought under control by the end of 1921.
An estimated 10,000 people lost their lives during the rebellion, although official figures put the numbers at 2,337 rebels killed, 1,652 injured and 45,404 imprisoned. Unofficial estimates put the number imprisoned at almost 50,000 of whom 20,000 were deported, mainly to a penal colony on the Andaman Islands, while around 10,000 disappeared.
In the aftermath, a conference held at Calicut presided over by the Zamorin of Calicut, the Ruler of Malabar issued the following resolution:
“The conference views with indignation and sorrow the attempts made at various quarters by interested parties to ignore or minimize the crimes committed by the rebels such as: brutally dishonoring women, flaying people alive, wholesale slaughter of men, women and children, burning alive entire families, forcibly converting people in thousands and slaying those who refused to get converted, throwing half dead people into wells and leaving the victims to struggle for escape till finally released from their suffering by death, burning a great many and looting practically all Hindu and Christian houses in the disturbed areas in which even Moplah women and children took part and robbed women of even the garments on their bodies, in short reducing the whole non-Muslim population to abject destitution, cruelly insulting the religious sentiments of the Hindus by desecrating and destroying numerous temples in the disturbed areas, killing cows within the temple precincts putting their entrails on the holy image and hanging skulls on the walls and the roofs.”