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The Chalappuram Gang and the Ameen Lodge

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Those turbulent years, Calicut (1920-34)

Calicut under British governance was a different place than you see it today. My own memories of childhood in Calicut take me to the days I spent with my aunt at Ambalakkat house, Chalappuram. I still remember the walk down the road from Ambalakkat towards Tali, turning right and going past the Chalappuram post office, past the gates of the Achutan Girls school and drifting to the Ganapati School, during my younger days in Calicut. And I recall the temple behind N Ambalakkat, the house of Karunakara Menon my grand uncle, Keshava Menon, Norman Achutan nair, the Anakara Vadakath people, and the homes of so many others who are going to be mentioned in this article, though they belonged to a bygone era. As I wrote in a previous article, it was a time when there were horse driven jutkas, cycle rickshaws and hand pulled rickshaws on the road. On those serene mornings, an odd Ex-servicemen bus roared by, scattering the people on the road hither and thither, and people were sometimes witness to a man (people held their noses as the wheelbarrow like cart with the galvanized iron pots passed by) held in much disgust, the ‘thotti’ who would trundle by, head hung low, pushing his night soil cart. Horns were hardly heard, the rickshaw drivers yelled ‘kooyi’ or rang a bell to get a right of way. The 30’s was still different, there was no electricity and the one person who gave a personal account and provided a vivid description of life in Calicut in the 1930’s is ARS Iyer.

Some miles away down the Chalappuram road was the Zamorin’s Padinjare Kovilakom in Mankavu, a place I heard about now and then when the elders talked. Across the road from our South Ambalakkat house was the residence and office of the ageing Advocate and freedom fighter Karaunakara Menon. It was said that he had been jailed often as a freedom fighter. My grandfather Gopala Menon, Karunakaramama’s brother, who used to be the sub registrar of Calicut had passed away before my birth.
KP Keshava Menon

But well, we are not going to talk about such mundane matters, we are instead going to talk about the people who got involved in governance, noncooperation, the independence movement, satyagraha’s, Quit India moves, regional politics and the nasty business of religious and caste divides. All of this came to the fore in a decade commencing in 1920 and ended with a muted crash in 1934 or thereabouts after which the political scene of the region and thence the state changed forever. In the process of generalizing the story, I will introduce to you the members of the Chalappuram gang and the Ameen Lodge, the very people whose dithering and bickering ways, which in reality had started after the 1921 Moplah revolt, culminated in a divide in the Congress organization of Malabar. Their acrimonious relationship held taut during the time when Muslim group called the Hindu Congressmen as Sunday Congress or the Chalappuram Gang, while the Hindu’s called the Muslim faction, the Ameen Lodge.

To get to these turbulent years, we have to touch upon the Khilafat days preceding the 1921 Moplah rebellion and I promise to be brief, as it has previously been covered in other articles. Indian nationalism was on the rise following the Jalianwala Bagh massacre in 1919 and the imposition of the Rowlett act. Emotions were running high and the desire to kick the butt of the British was omnipresent. In summary, the Khilafat movement was a pan-Islamic, political campaign launched by the Muslims in British India to influence the British and to protect the Ottoman Khalifa or Caliph following the aftermath of World War I. The effort won the support of Mahatma Gandhi, the Congress and was quickly embraced in Malabar.

1920 was a critical year in Calicut. Annie Besant, Gandhiji and Shaukat Ali came by, exhorting the masses against the British and to support the Khilafat movement. Of Gandhi’s visit to Calicut, the Moplah revolts and the Khilafat days, I had written articles referenced, which may be perused if interested.

Annie Besant chaired the Malabar District Political Conference held at Manjeri on April 28, 1920.  Various prominent leaders of Calicut such as K.P. Kesava Menon, Manjeri Ramayyar, M.P. Narayana Menon, K Madhavan Nair, Abdul Khader, P Moideen Koya, took part. A non-cooperation resolution was adopted. The meeting passed a resolution protecting the rights of the tenants of Malabar, which of course raised the ire of landlords and as a result of which they dissented and left the Congress. The Moplah outrage act was also discussed. The District Congress Committee was now reorganized as the Kerala Provincial Congress Committee. Keep in mind that while a District Congress Committee had already been formed in 1908 it was not until 1916 Palghat conference with the founding of the All India Home Rule League that Malabar began to awaken politically.

Various matters occupied the minds of our elders and activists in Malabar. On one hand the desire to oust the British was foremost, on the other hand, the local issues relating to the tenancy act, the urge to get out of the matrilineal society norms was on the other. Pressures were building from both the lower castes as well as the Moplahs regarding the tenancy aspects. The middle class Nair community was at gearing up for a formalization of inheritance norms, away from the matrilineal principles. The wealthy landlords were getting increasingly nervous and then there was the looming issue regarding the concept of marriage in the community. In all, it was a heady mix of local issues specific to Malabar and the pressures to support a larger national cause.

The original Malabar Congress was in reality a Hindu organization, dominated largely by Nair vakils
AV Kuttimalu Amma
(attorneys) from the kanamdar class. The Janmis were the Namboodiris, and the serfs or the Verumpattom holders mainly Moplahs, Tiyyas and Cherumans. With the arrival of the Khilafat, and its forged relations with the Gandhians, the social status of the educated Moplah lot were quickly elevated to the same category as the Nairs and many of them found seats and cemented relationships in various congress committees and working groups. Thus the non-cooperation activities in Calicut were taken forward in relative amity, hand in hand by the Hindus and Muslims. The Muslim activists and leaders who made their presence felt were Moidu Moulavi, Mohammed Aburahman, Hassan Koya Mulla, NP Abu, Nurudheen. It also had other supporters such as AC Raman, Keraleeyan (Kunhappa Nambiar), PC Koran etc.

In 1920 after Gandhiji had come and left, the Malabar DCC became the KPCC and was headquartered in Calicut. Madhavan Nair, Gopala Menon and Moideen Koya were soon arrested for dissent and with that the noncooperation movement started in Malabar. But it was quickly shadowed by the 1921 Moplah revolt.

The 1921 conflict is a very complex subject which I will not get into here, but suffice to say that for various reasons the Moplahs revolted and refused to pay taxes to the British. This snowballed into a violent conflict (starting at Tirurangadi) where religion was used to foment anger and retaliation by the British and some leaders, resulting in the Military being brought in and vicious repression which followed. The horrid tragedy continued for months. Thousands of Moplahs were killed, and wounded by troops, thousands of Hindus were butchered by the rebels, women subjected to shameful indignities, thousands forcibly converted and entire families burnt alive. It was a massive tragedy, the results of which we will now see.

The Congress-Khilafat movement formed by ‘interlocking the discontent of the Moplahs and the common interest of the people of Malabar’ (as EMS put it) ended up in the traumatic events of 1921. The Moplah leader’s cries to leave Hindus alone were not listened to as the bands became undisciplined and uncontrollably violent while the panic-stricken Hindus quickly withdrew their support to the Moplah’s and some even supported the British authorities.  A wedge had been firmly and deeply driven between the two communities as amity degenerated into animosity and eventually enmity.

AbduRahman Saheb
The eventual visible result in the Nair and upper Hindu classes was the edict ‘the Moplahs cannot be relied upon’. Thus there was a lot of nervousness post 1921 in Hindu minds, when it came to working with Moplahs, while at the same time, the Moplah leaders felt the same having seen some Hindus work with the British to protect themselves only during the riots and decry the Moplah leaders. 

Another complaint of the Moplah was that they observed many of the Hindu Congressmen appointed as members of the Hindu Mahasabha, supporting the Aryasabha in reconversions or working as members of the Nair Service society. The gulf between the two groups became so wide that though each claimed to be a group of congressmen, one could not cooperate with the other even in organizing the Congress day to day matters. KPK Menon concluded - Enmity towards the Congress was evident everywhere.... Some Hindu leaders accused the Congressmen of treason for not joining the Khilafatists.... The Muslims complained that those who had induced them to join the Congress, abandoned them when police oppression and firing by the troops started".

The Hindu congressmen who were vociferous in supporting the Khilafat Moplahs and who had lost their faces and voices, now went into a shell and the congress machine of Malabar ground to a complete halt. Who incidentally were these Hindu congressmen? Keshava Menon, U Gopala Menon, Madhavan Nair, MP Narayana Menon, Ambalakkat Karunakara Menon, AV Kuttimalu Amma and so on. Almost all these gentlemen and ladies resided in the aristocratic area of Chalappuram. As a result, their organization, working sometimes from the home of Madhavan Nair, was termed the Chalappuram congress or the Chalappuram Gang. Many of them were lawyers who had once left the service of the courts and worked fulltime with the noncooperation movement. Now with the turbulent situation, they had gone back to working in the cutcheri, working as lawyers on weekdays.

The British had succeeded in one aspect, planned or unplanned, they had by now managed to split the congress along communal lines in Malabar and arrested its workings, one that was now being touted as Khadi against Khaki.  On top of that they had classified the Moplah as a troublesome character and the situation was such that if a Moplah donned khadi he would be jailed.

It was at this juncture that two newspapers arrived on the scene, each to voice the concerns and objectives of these two leading religious communities, they were the Mathurbhumi started by the above group of lawyers and the Al Ameen (The voice of honesty) by the Moplah leaders. Papers like Malayala Manorama, Mithavadi and the Kerala Patrika were present at that time, but not considered nationalistic enough.

The Mathrubhumi was started by Keshava Menon and Madhavan Nair and had as directors Madhava Menon, Sundaram Iyer, A Karunakara Menon, AR Menon, P Achutan, AV Kuttimalu Amma etc. It commenced publishing thrice weekly from 1923. The paper was conceived as a tool to serve national movement for the attainment of freedom and not as a business for profit. Ramunni Menon and Karoor Neelakandhan Namboothiripad also worked for its promotion.

The Al Ameen was the brain child of Mohammed Abdurahman (Kunju Mohammed) from Kodungallur who had settled down at Calicut. Initially educated at the BEM (now MCC) college in Calicut, continuing his studies in Madras at the Muhammaden College and later the Presidency College. He left Presidency in 1920 following the boycott appeal of Gandhiji and joined the Aligarh University for his Honors degree. He arrived in Malabar in time for the Ottapalam conference, and was quickly thrust into the Congress-Khilafat movement, moving to Calicut, and later into the Moplah revolt at Eranad which he tried bring about some control, but could not. After the revolt, he was punished with a 2 year jail sentence at Bellary and Madras for disseminating false information about the government. When he arrived in Calicut after a rigorous sentence in 1923, he found the apathetic Hindu congressmen and the withdrawn Moplah congressmen doing nothing much for the cause of Indian freedom.

The Al Ameen ironically was started with the help of an appeal by Mathrubhumi to support Abdurahman’s effort. The founders and supporters lived at the Al Ameen lodge owned by Moidu Maulavi and that is the reason why they were called the Ameen lodge gang. The first issue came out in Oct 1924 and Mathrubhumi officially welcomed it with an article. In June 1930 it became a daily and was perpetually in debt. It is stated that the British dreaded many a provocative article published by it (e.g. the communist manifesto in Malayalam) and its support for the Muslim voice.

The 1927 provincial congress conference brought about a small amount of reconciliation. The Simon commission recommendations had to be protested against, boycotted and Swaraj had to be declared.The Malabar Tenancy act of 1929 was released and came in support of the kanamdars to provide them the required protections against eviction. But it also resulted in creating a new substrata of mini landlords. The divide now reduced from three to two and a semblance of haves and have-nots (the verum pattakars) an unbalanced situation which a younger groups of socialists led by Kelappan and EMS in the congress were soon to target. The lower classes were observing all this, lukewarm in supporting the congress which they believed were only favoring the landlords as mentioned earlier. A concept that there would be a congress for the rich and a congress for the poor was being bandied about by leaders like Krishna Pillai and the younger leaders.

The plan to start the next phase civil disobedience movement was debated for a while, and it was finally under the leadership of K Kelappan that the youth started their march for the Salt Satyagraha at Payannur joined by Abdurahman. Slowly Calicut caught on and a salt Satyagraha was organized in Calicut in May 1930 by Abdurahman, Krishnaswamy and Kelappan. Abdu Rahman was jailed again.

Meanwhile the two papers coexisted but were different in character. The Al Ameen paid no heed to authority, while the Mathrubhumi was cautious, desiring longevity. Al Ameen frequently decried Mathrubhumi’s silence on certain topics as a sign of its servitude to the British. But they were not too acrimonious and settled up usually, at the end of the day. It was on one such occasion that Abdurahman called the cautious Chalappuram members as the Chalappuram gang of Sunday Congressmen. The lawyers worked for the courts on weekdays and halfheartedly for the congress on Sundays, so said Al Ameen and the socialist cadre youngsters. It was in those days that the Hindu part of the KPCC exhibited the two stark factions, the upper caste Chalappuram gang and the so called Kelappan or Gandhian group.

The Guruvayoor Satyagraha was another event which made the upper caste Chalappuram gang stand apart. The fight to get entry for all Hindus into the temple heated up, with even Gandhiji involved and during this event, most of the Chalappuram congressmen sided with the trustees and the Zamorin in opposing it or by not protesting. This was something that further alienated it from some of the younger working class members of the congress led by Kelappan, EMS, Manjeri Ramayyar etc.

The Calicut Municipal Election in 1931 and the consequent developments which caused a loss of homogeneity and unity among Congressmen of Malabar is something to be briefly looked into, next. Abdurahaman was allotted the VI ward, where he had little chance of winning. Protesting, he got the VII ward from where he won handsomely. Regrettably, he did not get the nod due to a communal divide and Abdurahman stayed away from Congress activities for a while. The writings in the newspapers became acrimonious and Abdurahman did not lose the opportunity to attack the Chalappuram gang as often as he could. The rivalry continued into the 1934 elections where again Abdurahman was allotted Kelappan’s ward and got defeated, protested and left. Then came the CLA elections, where again Abdurahman lost to Sattar sait.

As squabbling was going on between the seniors, the younger group with socialist leftist views 
supporting the working classes strengthened with AKG, Krishna Pillai and EMS Namboothiripad. Very soon, they had occupied a position of popularity and control. The CSP and subsequently the Muslim league formation is yet another story, and we will get into that in the course of time. That was eventually to deal a death blow to the ageing rightist group, though anti British activities continued their course, though slightly dampened as Nehru was heard to remark once.

During and after the Salt Satyagraha, women increasingly enrolled themselves as volunteers. Many went to jail braving police harassment. Kuttimalu Amma was a classic character and was associated with the Chalappuram gang not only as the wife of K Madhava Menon, but as an activist in her own right. Many others can be listed, like Karthiyayani Amma, Narayanikutty Amma, Gracy Aron and Meena Ammaal.

As it is time to wind up, let us check what happened to all these people as time passed by. Abdurahman continued with the CSP faction, his Al Ameen folded in 1939 and Abdurahman soon drifted towards NSC Bose and the INA, getting jailed again. The Mathrubhumi thrived, but the Chalappuram gang aged and struggled with the internal left right rivalry and the rising young Turks of the CSP. Keshava Menon as you will recall went to Malaysia and Singapore, got involved with the IIL and INA. U Gopala Menon continued with his legal work and the bar association. Madhavan Nair passed away in 1933. Madhava Menon was imprisoned often but continued with Congress and Mathrubhumi administration at Calicut. Ambalakkat Karunakara Menon was also involved with administrative capacities and was arrested in the Satyagraha movement and Quit India movement, and eventually got to working for the Harijan Sevak Sangh. Kuttimalu Amma also went to jail fighting the British and continued with the KPCC for a long time. Many of those old aristocratic houses are not to be seen in Calicut anymore. I heard recently that Karunakara mamas North Ambalakkat house had been sold off. The South Ambalakkat house where I grew up is still there and I had seen it a couple of years ago, but I guess it is all a matter of time when these things will be just history.

It was in the course of these studies that I came across an interesting tidbit. During these troubling 20’s, we knew of course that covering the upper half of their bodies was neither the norm nor permitted for women of the lower classes. In fact men were also supposed to be bare bodied, as serfs. Only Nair’s and upper classes could wear shirts. As these freedom movements strengthened and took hold, all men took to wearing shirts and of course, the women too were clad in blouses. But there was another matter of interest. I read that only Nairs could sport a mustache in old Malabar and that it was during the freedom movement when many other classes took the opportunity and started sporting mustaches. It was a big thing, and to this day you will see most Malayalee’s continuing to sport mustaches, for it was not just something manly, it was perhaps a little act of protest and equality!

Well, those were different days when egos, ideology, religions, classes, castes and communities clashed. For a while the singular desire to be free from the British united everybody, and in that path to freedom, true character and grit was exposed. But as we all saw, those undercurrents continued to direct or misdirect many of the characters as days passed by, and as we know, they still do. It is true that each party had justifications for their actions, and the debates will continue on for ever. Maybe it will all change one day, when such petty aspects don’t matter anymore, maybe it won’t. Who knows???

References
Stealing Congresses’ thunder – Ronald J Herring, (When parties fail – ed. Kay Lawson, Peter H Merkl)
Congress and Kerala Politics – KS Nayar
History of the Communist movement in Kerala – Dr E Balakrishnan
Kerala society and politics – EMS Namboothirpad
Mohammed AbduRahman- NP Chekutty
How I became a communist - EMS Namboothirpad
Who’s who of Freedom fighters in Kerala – K Karunakaran Nair
Peasant Protest and Revolts in Malabar during the 19th and 20th Century - Dr. K. N. Panikkar
Political journalism and national movement in Malabar (Thesis) –Thilleri Vasu
Mobilisation against the State and not against the landlords: The Civil Disobedience Movement in Malabar – K Gopalankutty
The Task of Transforming the Congress: Malabar, 1934-40 – K Gopalankutty
Muhammed Abdurahiman: Pursuits and Perspectives of a Nationalist Muslim Thesis - Muhammed Poozhikuth