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Monday, June 7, 2010

Calicut, Ooty and Jannat Biwi

'What a glad moment it is, to be sure, when the sick and the seedy, the tired and testy invalid from pestiferous Scinde or pestilential Guzerat "leaves all behind him" and scrambles over the sides of his Pattimar.'
Thus begins the travelogue of Richard Burton recollecting his journey to Calicut and Ooty. (Please see

Ever since Ooty was developed around 1830 as the favourite location for rest and recuperation (R&R) for British soldiers (much like Bangkok and Manila for US soldiers during the Vietnam wars) Calicut started receiving 'the sick and the seedy, the tired and testy' British soldiers from the Sikh and Afghan campaigns who would be sent on long R&R vacations to the salubrious hill station. Usually, they would land by sea at Calicut and take either the Nilambur or Mettuppalayam route. Burton himself was on R&R from Sindh and spent six months
in Goa, Calicut and Ooty.

William Logan's 'Malabar' is perhaps the most authentic source of history of the place, particularly for the period after the fall of Tipu and Pazhassi. Yet, Logan does not mention Calicut as the route for the R&R crowd, except to mention casually that when there was a Hindu-Muslim conflict in November 1841, the District Collector of Malabar was 'away at Ootacamund', suggesting that not only British soldiers, but even civil servants headed for the Blue Mountains.

Writing in 1887, Logan states: 'Shortly after the close of the war with Coorg (in 1834) the district administration entered upon a period of disturbance, which unhappily continues down to the present time.'(page 623, Malabar Manual) Then follows a long list of 'outrages' perpetrated by the Mappilas on the Hindus, all attributed to the phenomenon of Haal ilakkam (religious frenzy). The narrative culminates with the gruesome murder of Conolly, the Collector.

Were all the disturbances involving Muslims during this period due to haal ilakkam? Or was Logan being selective in the narration to suit his thesis about land tenure and to make out a cogent explanation for Conolly's murder? The Jannat Biwi episode jerks the needle of suspicion a bit.

Around the same time that Burton had reached the shores of Calicut en route Ooty, another fatigued soldier, one Captain S.W. Partridge attached to the 18th Bombay Native Infantry was also travelling on recuperation to Ooty. But unlike Burton, the young Captain was accompanied by a young Muslim girl from Sindh, where he had been posted. Apparently, the soldier had enticed the young unmarried girl who had left her house. Her people had reportedly written to the Ponnani Maqdoom, Ahmad Musaliar.

On 16th February 1847, the Maqdoom's men surrounded the Ponnani Travellers' Bungalow where the couple (along with one major Craig and family) had been put up. The crowd of more than 300 Muslims managed to abduct the girl - who gave her name as Jannat Biwi - and took her to the house of the Maqdoom's wife.

Both Major Craig and Captain Partridge appealed for immediate Army action. But, the District Collector was the sagacious Conolly who recognised the potential for great damage unless the situation was handled carefully. In fact, he had himself recorded a similar instance which had happened a decade ago when he was not the District Collector of Malabar. Another adventurous British military officer on medical leave was travelling to Ooty and had engaged as his companion a Muslim woman of easy virtue. But before they could proceed, they were attacked by an irate mob in Calicut which managed to free the woman.

Mr. Conolly was, therefore, circumspect in taking action. The Tahsildar of Koottanad who had jurisdiction over the case was inclined to resort to military action, presumably under pressure from the Army officers. But Conolly deputed a Muslim Tahsildar, one Mr.Kuttoosa to assist the Koottanad Tahsildar. Kuttoosa managed to defuse the situation and arrested about 34 Muslims including the Muqdoom of Ponnani.

The arrested were produced before the District Magistrate on 21 February 1847. Conolly deputed his Assistant Collector, H.D. Cook to conduct an enquiry and report.

The case came up for trial before the sub judge Mr. T.W. Godwin in early March 1847. Subsequently, the case was transferred to the Court of the Sessions Judge, Mr.H. Morris. On 27 July 1847 the Judge convicted 18 persons for imprisonment for a term between 2 to 7 years. (Aside: How quickly cases were decided in those times when there was no 'fast-track court'!)

Maqdoom himself was convicted for 3 years and sent to the Chengalpet jail under escort. Both the Madras Government and the Board of Directors of the East India Company confirmed the sentence as necessary for maintaining the rule of law. The only aggrieved persons, other than the accused, were the two Army officers who protested against the soft treatment meted out to the religious head.

Obviously, the above two cases could not have been isolated. It is possible that young Army officers (mostly bachelors) would have been looking for and acquiring companions to take with them to Ooty on R&R. After all, Burton himself was bored stiff during his R&R and has left a vivid description of the type of female company that was available for the young bachelors in Ooty: 'Among the ladies, we have elderlies who enjoy tea and delight in scandal:grass widows... and spinsters of every kind, from the little girl in bib and tucker, to the full blown Anglo-India young lady, who discourses of her papa the Colonel, and disdains to look at anything below the rank of a field-officer'! No wonder, Burton left Ooty much before the end of the furlough, casting 'one last scowl upon Ootacamund, not, however, without a grim smile of joy at the prospect of escaping from it'.

Was Logan glossing over these incidents of transgression by British men in uniform or was he being selective in only reporting cases which suited his thesis? How many of the 38 cases attributed to Haal Ilakkam during this period could have been legitimate social protest? More research may be called for. We should also research the impact on colonial Calicut of the opening up of Ooty as the premier R&R centre in India.

1. W.Logan : Malabar Manual
2. R.Burton : Goa and the Blue Mountains
3. Husain Randathani (Ed) : Makhdoomum Ponnaniyum (1998)
4. Mollie Panter-Downes : Ooty Preserved (1967)


  1. An interesting dig. I wonder what could have happened to Jannat Biwi/

  2. Thanks PNS for raising a very relevant question. My guess is that since the Army officer was not an accused in this case, the girl also must have been allowed to go with him. Remember, the case was against local vigilantes for violating the privacy of a Captain on R&R!

  3. The British officers must have felt that during the stay in Nilgiris the best recreation will be procreation.

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  5. I was also wondering about jannat biwi. I think this was the kind of thing that put the moplah into a bad light in those days and since then, mutiny in the name of religious brotherhood.

  6. One cannot agree with you more, Maddy. If you study Logan carefully, you find the myth of the Moplah as Monster being developed beneath all the superficial sympathy for the victims of an unequal land tenure. The moplah has been painted as an unruly and illiterate person, prone to excitement from fiendish religious leaders. Writing in the 1870s, Logan would have been influenced by the British mainstream antagonism for the Muslims which was a consequence of the 1857 revolt where the Muslims and Hindus came together. The tendency to dub all forms of protest to haal ilakkam is a manifestation of this prejudice. One can understand Collector Thomas's overreaction to the Tirurangadi mob in 1921 if read in the context of this prejudice which has been building up over more than half a decade. Of course, we need much deeper research to validate this thesis.

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  8. What is interesting is that a Muslim woman from Sind had the freedom to go away with a while man. Muslim women by and large have had very little freedom.There must be more Janaat Beewis.

  9. Are there any documentary evidence presented by Logan reg.the Jannat Biwi case ? Or was it just an imaginary figure; just part of gossip? The reaction of the community, if it really happened is just natural as they are prone to such collective reactions even now.

  10. Thanks, JP, for the comment. We cannot, obviously generalise on the status of Muslim women. It is possible that their status was different in the Sindh province. It is more likely that the girl in question was enticed by the young British officer. The fact that her people complained and took up the case of abduction shows that it was perhaps a case of elopement.

  11. Swansong - Logan did not report about the Jannat Biwi incident, as you will notice from the post. Enough details are available(such as the dates of the court case etc) to suggest that the story was not imaginary. We agree with you that the reaction to the incident by the community was natural and expected. Our question is how many similar cases of social protest must have been dubbed as communal events.

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