100 Years of Wagon Massacre: The penal spectacle in Colonial Malabar

The crushing of the Malabar rebellion, its asphyxiation and the deaths through exhaustion were all part of a mad dream that the British imperial regime continued to have in Malabar in the early 20th century.

The Wagon Massacre Memorial in Tirur. Photo: Wikimedia

Popularly known as a ‘tragedy’, the wagon massacre of Malabar, under the supervision of British imperial officials marks its centenary today. This massacre was an imperial reaction to the massive resistance movement in the southern region of the British Malabar in the early 1920s.

The resistance was accrued out by peasant revolutionaries, majority of whom belonged to the Mappila-Muslim community. The wagon massacre happened in an especially designed train-wagon in which the British police stuffed about a hundred peasants, of whom four were Hindus.

These prisoners, huddled together in handcuffs and chains, were taken to Tirur railway station on the night of November 19, 1921. They were kept in the goods wagon, especially brought from Calicut, and connected to a Chennai-bound passenger train. The ‘Wagon-1711’ was airtight and its tiny holes were filled with sand and wires. The whole wagon was newly painted to stop fresh air from getting in. The prisoners were forced to travel in this sealed wagon overnight before it was opened at Podanur near Coimbatore, 140 km away from Tirur. By the time the journey ended, 70 peasants had died due to suffocation, and the surviving ones were gravely injured.

This incident has invariably been called a tragedy, and has been relegated to a mere footnote reference in south Asian history writing. Historian Sumit Sarkar has described this event as the “Blackhole of Podannur”, drawing parallels to the ‘black hole tragedy’ in the William Fort (1756), which according to most of the recent studies, did not happen as it was described in history books. Thus, the deliberate cruelties of Richard Harvard Hitchcock, the district superintendent of police of Malabar, who ordered and supervised the transportation of these peasants on a goods wagon, got wrapped within such innocuous categories as ‘error’ and ‘tragedy’.


However, the evidence—both documentary and narrative—are pointing towards a calculated penal plan that the British state carried out to stop the expanding network of resistance in the region. This massacre happened during the tumultuous days of what is generally known as the ‘Malabar Rebellion’ in which thousands of peasants and petty traders, predominantly Muslims, were killed in south Malabar region.

The Wagon Massacre was a continuum of colonial repression which is believed to have killed more than 10,000 Muslim peasants and traders in the 1920s. In a close reading of the events, one can see uncanny similarities between Wagon-1711 and the Nazi cattle wagons that were used to transport the Jews in western Europe to different holocaust centres in Germany and Poland.

These Nazi cattle wagons were presented as the ‘last transport ‘of the persecuted Jews who were made to believe that there was no return from these trains to their normal world. Coming unannounced, these wagons reached the Jewish villages and towns in the middle of nights, and the Nazi police threw them into those wagons, handcuffed. The sweat, blood, spit, urine, feces and other discharges from their body were, thus, said to have felt like precursors of an impending catastrophe that would take place in a crueler fashion, in especially designed holocaust chambers. The holocaust psychoanalysts figured out these slow-moving cattle wagons as a suitable contrivance to wreck Jewish resilience before they had met with their actual deaths.

Preceding the Nazi holocaust trains by two decades, the British imperial penal wagons that ran from south Malabar to different prisons within Malabar and outside, including Bellary, Vellur and Podanur, transported hundreds of peasants and their leaders. They experienced extreme torture and violence in those wagons before reaching their final destination—the British prisons. Having established these peasants as ‘barbarous’ and ‘uncivilised’ and represented them as less-humans, imperial administrators considered the brutalities on the wagons as an extension of their cultural disciplining.

The mnemonics from the region and new histories of the body, however, suggest a new way to look at these prisoner-wagons of Malabar. They suggest that these could be seen as a manifestation of imperial control over the peasant-body in south Asia. With these wagons, imperial power could engender a procrustean type of control over the resisting bodies of the peasants by mutilating, chiseling, smoking and stretching, as they liked.

These wagons were the ways to give the resisting Mappila peasants the experience of humiliation and powerlessness before they had met with prison torture, exile and public execution. Thus, hundreds of imperial penal wagons from Malabar can be taken as psychological devises for incapacitating the resisting body, before the peasants were taken for more advanced punishments in prisons.

Historians like David Arnold demonstrate how British imperialism used the oriental body as a site of violence and subjugation. Being the body-vanquishers, the British state was relentless in incapacitating their subject population through a potpourri of instruments that include text books, legal terminologies, and anthropological humiliations. However, when these soft methods did not bring desired results, they resorted to extreme corporeal violence. It was more so in places like Malabar where the British Raj had met with counter texts, narratives and epistemological resistance, initiated by the agrestic-literati from the Mappila community. When they met with such multivalent soft resistance, the imperial system had turned the whole region into a penal theatre where the bodies of protesting peasants were tortured and piled up.

In 1921, with the Wagon Massacre, the British made a calculated design to communicate to these peasants and their leaders that the British raj still had complete control over their body.

Thus, the massacre on the penal Wagon-1711, which carried the peasant prisoners to a remote jail in Tamil Nadu, cannot be taken as an imperial anomaly. It was rather an unapologetic continuum of the colonial penal violence across south Asia. Also, it was a continuation of death by suffocation/asphyxia method that the colonial regimes had put into practice, from southern America to Africa to Asia, since the 16th century. In the 19th century, the French colonial state had systematised such murders after facing serious native resistance in their colonies, and many ethnic tribes were wiped out under their notorious army leaders like Thomas Robert Bugeaud. Memoirs of prison inmates in colonial south Asia also suggest that the British empire in India designed asphyxial cells in their prisons and forts for solitary confinement in the twentieth century.

Therefore, the aforementioned sealed wagon can be taken as part of a time-tested imperial penal method, conceived to punish the disorderly subalterns from Malabar which emerged as the biggest resistance habitus in south India. Those peasant-prisoners had to fight with each other for breath, air, water and foot space. On this wagon, survival had become their only motive which left them with no option but snatch it from the other prisoner who could be his friend or brother. Imperial viciousness ensured that each prisoner had turned a potential murderer out of compulsion. Thus, the British empire ensured that each peasant on this wagon would die either in suffocation or live in a perpetual guilt of being a murderer. Hitchcock, who can be rightly called the ‘butcher of Podanur’, conceived of the Wagon-1711 as a moving spectacle of imperial might through mass asphyxia.

In short, the wagon massacre of 1921 was a calculated execution of a penal agenda which an asphyxial empire had designed to contain the expanding networks of popular dissent in Malabar. The cruelty involved in it was an extension of the British racial sensibility which found no ethical issues with mass suffocations and murder. To argue after Frantz Fanon, the resistance philosopher from Martinique, the crushing of the Malabar rebellion, its asphyxiation and the deaths through exhaustion were all part of a mad dream that the British imperial regime continued to have in Malabar in the early 20th century.

(The writer is an assistant professor with Delhi University.)

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