A medallion of distinguished service brings back memories of the 1921 Malabar uprising

Beena Sarasan, a noted numismatist with a passion for Travancore history, regularly scours exhibitions, artefact markets and the Internet for coins and other collectables of historical interest.

On one of her many quests for curios dating back to the British colonial period and beyond, the former Income Tax Commissioner and author of a book on numismatics encountered a collector who had an exciting offer to make. He wanted to swap a military medallion from the British period in Malabar for a rare copper coin in Ms. Sarasan’s collection. Ms. Sarasan agreed to the barter.

The medal remained almost forgotten in her hoard until the raging controversy surrounding the ideological moorings of the 1921 Malabar rebellion erupted in the public domain. The furious debate centred around the question whether the hero of the uprising against colonial rule, Variyamkunnath Kunhahamed Haji, attempted to impose the code of Islam on Hindus in his area of influence. Four impending films on the freedom fighter’s life and times ignited the bickering over Haji’s secular credentials.

In a letter to the editor published by The Hindu on October 7, 1921, Haji had rebutted the ‘report that Hindus are forcibly converted’ by his men saying it was ‘entirely untrue.’ Ms. Sarasan said she discovered the artefact was a Kaiser-I-Hind military medal awarded to one Inspector K. Vasudevan Nair for services rendered to the British crown during the Malabar rebellion 1921-22. The officer’s name is etched on the coin.

But Ms. Sarasan’s best efforts to dig up the officer’s past and his role in quelling the uprising led by the martyred “Pandalur Commander” was yet to yield any tangible result.

Ms. Sarasan said perfunctory research found that the colonial rulers customarily awarded the silver medal emblazoned with the visage of King George V to British and native officers who distinguished themselves on the battlefield. The British mints in Calcutta and London struck such medals.

The upcoming 100th anniversary of the storied freedom struggle in 2021 appeared to have imbued the artefacts from the period with some measure of present-day political relevance.

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