Muslim rebels captured by British police Image Credit: Wiki

When it comes to fighting for the motherland against the invading colonialists, they were second to none. But when it is the turn of being recognised for their commitments and sacrifices to the nation, they will never be seen on the queue.

In fact, they will be kicked out of all their rightful places. Sounds familiar? That is the fate of certain heroes of Indian freedom movement, especially if they are Muslims or come from the marginalised sections of the Indian society.

The latest incident that highlighted this painful but inherent religious bias in understanding India’s various freedom struggles is the issue of recognising the hero and martyr of the 1921 Malabar Rebellion, Variyan Kunnathu Kunjahammed Haji.

He was the leader of the rebellion that proclaimed an independent nation that he called Malayala Rajyam or the Nation of Malayalam, within the British India.

He administered the region in the northern part of the present day Kerala for as long as six months before being captured, tortured and executed by the British police at Kottakkunnu, Malappuram.

The issue came to the fore recently when a film on him — titled Variyan Kunnan — was announced by Malayalam filmmakers Ashiq Abu and Prithviraj sometime in June this year.

Cutting across party line, Kerala MPs are protesting this obvious move to saffronize history. There’s also an allegation that the government is planning to kill two birds with one stone: that it is actually planning to remove Communist martyrs of Punnapra-Vayalar, Karivelloor and Kavumbai rebellions from the book

- Jaya Chandran

Within two or three days, more films on the same subject were announced indicating the huge interest the hero invoked- as well as the strong opposition certain quarters held against the said freedom movement and the heroes.

Independent filmmaker and left camp follower PT Kunjumuhammed announced his project Shaheed Variyamkunnan while theatre director Ibrahim Vengara called his version The Great Variyam Kunnathu.

Not to be outdone, BJP fellow traveller and director Ali Akbar also announced his own project 1921, a film that reportedly casts Variyan Kunnathu Haji as the villain in his bid to ‘expose the true face’ of the Rebellion.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Suddenly the focus was on Malabar Rebellion — for all the good and bad reasons. Some chose to argue for reiterating his role in the freedom movement while others vilified him for alleged atrocities during the struggle.

And as always, Kerala BJP, the state faction of India’s ruling party chose this occasion as golden chance to further stress the Hindu-Muslim divide and issued a call to drop projects that hailed Variyan Kunnath as a hero.

Because they saw him as a bigot who perpetrated violence on thousands of Hindus. However, Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan steered directly into the controversy and categorically said that Haji was a valiant chieftain who fought against British imperialism in our country and the state had great regard for his contributions.

Another row erupted when it was pointed out that Variyan Kunnath Kunjahammed Haji and Ali Musaliar, another leader of the Malabar Rebellion, were in fact included as freedom fighters in the Dictionary of Martyrs: India’s freedom struggle 1857-1947.

India’s First War of Independence

This five-volume dictionary that contains details of the martyrs from India’s First War of Independence in 1857 to India’s Independence in 1947 was released in 2019 by none other than Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It was deemed as a blow to the Hindu nationalists who immediately started a campaign against the contents of the book.

Sure enough, following their calls, the soft copy of the book containing the part was promptly removed from the website of culture ministry and the explanation given was that it was done to ‘rectify mistakes in the dictionary’ and it will soon be re-released.

Cutting across party line, Kerala MPs are protesting this obvious move to saffronize history. There’s also an allegation that the government is planning to kill two birds with one stone: that it is actually planning to remove Communist martyrs of Punnapra-Vayalar, Karivelloor and Kavumbai rebellions from the book.

Perhaps to replace them with the likes of quitter Savarkar and killer Godse?

Who was he?
Variyam Kunnathu Kunjahammed Haji was born in 1877, 20 years after the first Indian uprising against the British, variously called Sepoy Mutiny to First War of Independence by the parties affected.

Haji’s family had a history of fighting the British and his father Moideen Kutty Haji was exiled to Andaman Islands by the British for taking part in an uprising of 1894.

He reportedly started his life as a bullock-cart driver but nothing much about his early life is known. He was exiled thrice for anti-British activities.

Malayala Rajyam
After taking over from Ali Musaliyar, he led the Malabar Rebellion against the British, commandeering an army of 60,000, by some accounts. He proclaimed the new country Malayala Rajyam in August 28, 1921, after taking control of Manjeri, Pernthalmanna, Thirurangadi and neighbouring regions.

“He styled himself Raja of the Hindus, Amir of the Mohammedans and Colonel of the Khilafat Army,” Deputy Collector C Gopalan Nair was quoted as saying about Haji.

Haji set up and ran a parallel government in a large area of land defying the British rule. He oversaw full-fledged government by appointing law-enforcing officers, installing tax system and issuing passports for the people.

During this period, he made efforts to ensure equal justice all communities in the society. A strict administrator, Haji issued public declaration that those who resort to looting and harassing innocent Hindus would receive exemplary punishments.

When a gang of Mappilas raided the Namboodiri Bank at Manjeri and looted it, his followers stood guard to it and ensured that all the looted properties were returned to the owners.

He is also reported to have intervened against forceful conversion by some of his reckless chieftains, in more than one occasion. Historians attest to the fact that he was guided by strong anti-British sentiments though some say that he had the idea of establishing a Muslim government.