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Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Mambram Thangal and Mahatma Gandhi

When Mambram Pookoya Thangal had challenged British authority in the 1840s, his followers had believed that he was invested with powers to perform miracles. It was even said that he could stop the British bullets with his bare hands and that on his orders the guns of the soldiers would be silent. A similar folklore was spread during the Khilafat movement in 1921 in an effort to boost the morale of those fighting the British. Surprisingly, this folklore was not confined to Ernad or Valluvanad and similar stories could be heard wherever Khilafat volunteers were arousing the people. The central character would change but the miraculous powers remained more or less the same.

Old Memorial at Chauri Chaura
History tells us that Mahatma Gandhi persuaded the Calcutta session of the Congress to adopt the non-cooperation movement and that it was formally launched in August 1920. The Khilafat Committee which had met in Lucknow agreed to join hands and make their agitation part of the larger non-cooperation movement. 

We also know that Gandhiji decided to call off the non-cooperation movement after the unfortunate violence at Chauri Chaura on 4th February 1922. What history does not highlight is that the Chauri Chaura event was very much a Khilafat agitation. ( What follows is taken from the judgement of the Allahabad High Court in an obscure case named Abdullah vs The Emperor,  Criminal Appeal No.51 of 1923 in which the perpetrators of Chauri Chaura were tried and convicted.)

Evidence given before the Court by many witnesses speaks of two Musalmans having visited the village (one wearing spectacles and the other having a beard) who sang songs of the brave deeds of Shaukat Ali and Mohammed Ali.  After this, all the volunteers who were about three thousand, got up and started from there crying out, Mahatma Gandhi ki jai’.
‘We take it that there was perceptible in the spirit of this crowd (which was marching towards Chauri Chaura Police Station) that sort of magnetic force which the ancient Greek ascribed to supernatural influence, and which has often been noted as emanating from an army destined to be victorious in an impending encounter’. (What a classic description of the haalilakkam!)
The judgement continues: ‘Psychologically, it has its basis in the recognition on the part of each member of the force that those around him are animated by the same resolution which he feels in himself; he knows that if he elects to go forward, he will not go forward alone’.
But how does all this connect with Mambram Thangal and his powers to perform miracles? We need to go back to the judgement for evidence. If it was the utter lack of tact and strategic thinking on the part of Collector Thomas which had led to the massacre in Tirurangadi, it was similar tactlessness and boorishness on the part of Sub Inspector Gupteswar Singh that ended in the tragic events in Chaura where he and other 22 members of the force (including village chowkidars) lost their lives.
From the Judgement: ‘The firing of the first volley in the air was met by the cry that Mahatmaji Gandhi was working miraculously in favour of the volunteers and was turning bullets to water. We have plenty of evidence on this record as to the wide-spread belief in this gentleman’s miraculous powers. We have no doubt that such a cry was raised and that it put the finishing touch to the resolution of the mob’.
grandson of accused Lal Mohammad
In an obiter dictum the Allahabad High Court Judgement (delivered by the Chief Justice Sir Grimwood Hears Kt. , and Mr.Justice Piggot on April 30th, 1923) reaffirms the culpability of Gandhi and his miracles: ‘The appellants are in the main ignorant peasants; the great majority of them were drawn into the business by misrepresentation of facts and preposterous promises concerning the millennium of ‘swaraj’ the arrival of which was to be forwarded by courage and resolution on their part. Some indeed were apparently influenced by the belief that Mr.Gandhi was a worker of miracles. We cannot take leave of the case without an uneasy feeling that there are individuals at large at this moment, men who have not even been put on their trial in connection with this affair, whose moral responsibility for what took place at Chaura Police Station in the afternoon of February 4th 1922, is at least equal to that which rests upon such men as Nazar Ali and Lal Mohammad, who acted as leaders openly, in the light of the day and at least placed their own lives on the hazard along with the rest’.
The irony was that when the judgement was being delivered, Gandhiji was serving a prison sentence  for his role in the non-cooperation movement. Another interesting tidbit is that Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya, who had opposed the non-cooperation resolution in the Calcutta session of the Congress on the ground that it could lead to large-scale violence, was the lawyer who unsuccessfully defended the 225 persons who were put to trial in the Chauri Chaura Case. 19 ring leaders were sentenced to death, 113 for transportation for life to the Andamans and the rest acquitted.
What history does not tell us is how Gandhiji was suddenly jolted into action after the loss of 23 lives in Chauri Chaura and called off the movement when six months before this event, many more innocent lives had been lost in Malabar on the same Khilafat cause? As Gandhi wrote, explaining his decision to call off the non-cooperation movement, ‘God spoke clearly through Chauri Chaura’. Perhaps, God was less coherent in Malabar! Sir C. Sankaran Nair wrote about Gandhi in his book Gandhi and Anarchy (1922 ) : Mr. Gandhi, to take him at his best is indifferent to facts. Facts must submit to the dictates of his theories.

Ref: 1. Judgement in the case Abdullah vs Emperor Criminal Appeal No. 51 od 1923, Allahabad High Court, reported in Indian Cases, Vol 92
2.  Mahatma Gandhi: Selected Political Writings edited by Dennis Dalton (1996)
4. Sir C. Sankaran Nair : Gandhi and Anarchy,  Mittal Publications, New Delhi


  1. There appears to have been a deliberate attempt to ignore contributions from Malabar.

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  3. those fiery days are so difficult to analyze. there were all the pent up feelings coming out, generations of discomfort had festered & seeped. from a political point, any leader would choose 'visible' events. if he has a choice between two events, he would chose the one more impact-ful to a bigger voting community, i suppose. Sedate Malabar was by then an unknown commodity, lost in the madras presidency. The various menons and nairs with the congress or the British were not, I am sure keen to bring this up to MKG..

  4. Thank you, PNS and Maddy. I am guilty of mixing up two different strands and in the process not focusing on either. The first is the fact that the so called miraculous powers attributed to Mambram Thangal or other Khilafat leaders was not confined to Malabar, but it was a pan-India affair. Some force must have spread this story during the time, describing even Gandhi as a man of miracles.
    Secondly, there is a lot of contradiction in Gandhi's attitude towards Khilafat which he had himself fanned, much against the wishes of a large majority of Congressmen.
    Finally,we must not forget the forceful comments of K.P.Kesava Menon when Gandhi sought to justify the communal statements of some of the Khilafat leaders after the Malabar massacre.Unfortunately, history of those times has been written by a generation steeped in Gandhi Bhakti. We need to bring out many facts/opinions which were then found unpleasant and hence suppressed.

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