The last decades of the 19th century saw the emergence of nationalism in India. The Indian National Congress was established in 1885 and it soon became the spearhead of the Indian Nationalist Movement. These developments did not go unnoticed in Kerala. A conference was held at Kozhikode in 1904 under the auspices of the Congress and in 1908, a district Congress committee was formed in Malabar. Beyond this, there was no political activity worth the name in Malabar.
In Travancore, political agitation began with the Nairs who found their dominance on the decline and resented the monopolization of higher officers by the Tamil Brahmins inducted from outside. Their appetite for political participation was whetted with the formation of the Travancore Legislative Council in 1888 - the first ever legislative started in an Indian State. The Malayali Memorial, a memorandum bearing the signatures of over 10,000 people, including a sprinkling of Ezhavas, Christians and Muslims, was submitted to the Maharaja in 1891. It was really a Nair plea for privileges and positions. This was soon followed by an Ezhava Memorial (1896), submitted with over 13,000 signatures pleading for extension of civic rights, Government jobs, etc. to the lower castes. Both the memoranda came to naught. But in the historical perspective, the impact was considerable as they laid the bases for the constitutional style of political agitation in Travancore. Political activity in Kerala received a new impetus with the outbreak of the First World War and the spread of the Home Rule Movement. Home Rule leagues sprouted in different places in Malabar and the activities of Congress men received enthusiastic encouragement from the people. In 1916 and 1917, the annual meetings of the District Congress Committee were held with great fanfare under the name of the Malabar District Political Conference. Resolutions were adopted at these conferences, demanding self-government for India and the release of political prisoners. In Travancore and Cochin also, political activities were taken up under the aegis of the Congress. Congress Committees were started in Thiruvananthapuram and Ernakulam. In 1920, the following resolutions adopted at the Nagpur Session of the Indian National Congress to organise Provincial Congress Committees on a linguistic basis, a Kerala Provincial Congress Committee was formed integrating Congress activities in the three territorial divisions of Kerala. The first All-Kerala Political Conference held at Ottappalam in April 1921 was attended by delegates from Malabar, Cochin and Travancore. In a sense, this was the herald of the movement for a united Kerala which - became a reality, 35 years later.
The non - co - operation movement was in full swing during this period of time. It was particularly strong in Malabar, where the Moppilas were agitated over the Khilafat issue. The Gandhian movement had a tremendous impact in Kerala, with large numbers joining the satyagraha campaign. Gandhiji visited Malabar in 1920, giving a further impetus to the movement. Khilafat Committees sprang up in large numbers and the fraternity between the Hindus and Muslims, through the work in Congress - Khilafat Committees, was a truly remarkable feature of the non-co-operation movement in Kerala, in its early stages. The speed with which the Khilafat agitation spread, especially in the Eranad and Valluvanad taluks, created alarm in official circles. A perplexed officialdom clamped down prohibition orders in the two taluks. Meetings were banned and many people were arrested in the name of law and order. A tragic episode then ensued, namely the Moppila Rebellion or the Malabar Rebellion of 1921. Police attempted to arrest the secretary of the Khilafat Committee of Pokottur in Eranad on a charge of having stolen a pistol. A crowd of 2000 Moppilas from the neighbourhood foiled the attempt. The next day, a police party in search of Khilafat rebels entered the famous Mambaram mosque at Tirurangadi. They seized some records and arrested a few Khilafat volunteers. A rumour spread that the mosque was desecrated. Hundreds of rustic Moppilas converged on Tirurangadi and besieged the local police station. The police opened fire. The mob reacted in a mad fury. Violence spread and engulfed Eranad and Valluvanad taluks and neighbouring areas for over two months. Congress leaders tried in vain to check the violence. Towards the later stages of the rebellion, owing to unfounded rumour of Hindus having helped the police or sought police help, there were instances of atrocities perpetrated on Hindus. This marred the relations between the two communities. Meanwhile British and Gurkha regiments were rushed to the area. Martial law was clamped. A series of repressive measures followed and by November, the rebellion was practically crushed. Relief operations in the ravaged areas, undertaken mostly by voluntary agencies which received help and funds from Gandhiji, lasted for over six months.
The epilogue (in the sense that it came to be known only later) was the 'Wagon Tragedy' in which 61 of the 70 Moppila prisoners packed in a closed railway goods wagon and carried to Coimbatore jails, died of suffocation on November 10, 1921. In the wake of the suppression of the Malabar Rebellion and until almost the end of the decade, struggle purely for political freedom was on a low key. This lull was largely because of the brisk activity on the social front. The emphasis was on constructive programmes in which all people could join together and work irrespective of political views or affiliation. The cry for social equality was particularly strong. This was the background of the famous satyagraha at Vaikom Temple (1924) to be followed up later at the Guruvayoor Temple in 1931. Both of them exemplified the immense potentialities of satyagraha as an instrument of social change and both were started with the blessings of Gandhiji. At Vaikom, the particular demand was only for the grant of right to passage to the untouchables along the approach roads to the temple.
The second phase of the civil disobedience movement, started by Gandhiji with his famous Salt March in March 1930, found enthusiastic response from all parts of Kerala. In several places, particularly at Payyannur and Kozhikode, salt laws were broken and hundreds of agitators courted arrest. A Youth League was formed in Travancore which was able to enlist the dedicated services of quite a good number of spiritual and radical minded young men who later became the prop of the Travancore State Congress. In the wake of the Civil Disobedience Movement, a parallel movement for responsible Government had begun in Travancore and Kochi. In Travancore, the Nivartana (Abstention) movement began as a protest against the inadequacy of the constitutional reforms of 1932. The Ezhavas, the Christians and the Muslims apprehended that the new reforms, owing to the provisions for restricted franchise on the basis of possession of property and other qualifications, would secure for them far less number of seats in the enlarged legislature than the Nairs. They therefore demanded that the seats be apportioned on the basis of population strength. The Government, however, did not view their demands favourably. Those who took part in abstention then organized a Joint Political Congress to exhort the voters to abstain from voting. Since the three communities together formed about 70 per cent of the population, their agitation had the characteristics of a mass movement. The Government at first adopted a repressive policy but later yielded to the demands of those who supported abstention to some extent. In the election held in 1937, most of the candidates fielded by the Joint Political Congress were elected. The Haripura Session of the Indian National Congress (1938) had resolved that the Congress as such would keep itself aloof from involvement in the affairs of the princely States. The struggle for responsible Government in the States would therefore, be the responsibility of the people of the respective States themselves. It was in this context that the leaders of the Joint Political Congress decided to form a new organization, merging the identity of the Joint Political Congress. Thus, the Travancore State Congress came into being in February 1938. It was pledged to the goal of achieving full responsible Government for the people of Travancore. In neighbouring Kochi, the Kochi State Congress was formed.
An important feature of the freedom movement in Kerala in the 1920s and 1930s was the increasing involvement of peasants and workers. This was to release a tremendous mass force into the mainstream of the national movement, giving it a new momentum and a social content. The peasant and labour movements of the 1930s were to a great extent the cause as well as the consequence of the emergence of a powerful left wing in politics. In 1934, the left nationalists joined together and organized the Congress Socialist Party. A powerful factor that helped the growth of the left movement was the support it received from the radical section of the nationalist Muslims in Malabar. Left groups started functioning in several parts of Malabar and soon the Kerala Provincial Congress Committee was dominated by them. The lull in the political horizon had largely been made up. By 1938-39 Kerala was fully drawn into the national struggle for freedom as well as the struggle for responsible Government in the princely States. The leftists preferred to remain organizationally within the Congress and call themselves socialists. Thus both the left and right groups joined together in order to ensure the success of the Congress candidates in the election of 1936 in Malabar. But the rift came into the open with the out-break of the Second World War, the resignation of the Congress ministries in the provinces and the starting of individual satyagraha. The Left met in a secret enclave at Pinarayi and in December 1939, the Communist Party was born.