Some historians would say the major political change in Madras started with a hostel.
Around the year 1900, to see a ‘Brahmins Only’ board in eateries, especially the traditional areas of Triplicane and Mylapore, was very common. In such ‘Brahmanaal’ hotels, even Brahmins had to show their sacred thread to enter.
To counter that, in 1914, a doctor, Natesa Mudaliar ran a Dravidian hostel in Akbar Sahib Street in Triplicane for non-Brahmin students.
Not stopping with lodging, Natesan conducted debates and discussions and soon the hostel became a nerve centre of political activity urging all communities to unite under one umbrella to fight Brahmin domination.
Natesan’s lengthy telegrams on the movement to The Times, London were published verbatim, creatingquite a stir.
In the early decades of the 20th century, the regular census by the British was disturbing a population which was only guessing the size of the caste groups till then. Suddenly, the non-Brahmin groups realised that Brahmins were taking a lion’s share of the jobs in the bureaucracy, though comprising a mere 3 per cent of the population.
Due to the efforts of Natesan, Sir Pitti Theayagaraya (after whom T Nagar was named) and other leaders met to form a new party — The South Indian Liberal Federation. This meeting reset the history of the state for the next century.
To propagate party views, a journal Justice was started and soon enough, the party was known as the Justice Party. Zamindars, landed gentry, lawyers, doctors and merchants belonging to non-Brahmin communities joined it. As other leaders emerged, Natesan was sidelined and is remembered only by the Natesan Parkin T Nagar.
After the election results of 1921, Lord Willingdon, Governor of Madras, decided to appoint a Justice Party ministry though it had won only 15 of the 65 seats. He reasoned that most of the elected persons were not Brahmins.
An anti-Brahmin attitude shaped many of its policies and it became the first government to pass legislation for caste-based reservations in the country.
Anything that seemed to lean towards Brahmins, the Justice Party opposed. It resisted Annie Besant’s Home rule movement. Because of the Brahmin–dominated Madras Congress, it was at odds with Gandhi and campaigned against the non-cooperation movement and the Indian independence effort as well.
Under Justice rule, even Madras geography took a change. A 6.4 km lake in the city that stretched from Nungambakkam to Saidapet was drained for creating T Nagar.
The area was named after Theyagaroya Chetti and all the roads and parks were named after Justice Party leaders. The Justice Party initiated some remarkable reforms too.
Madras was the first Indian province to give voting rights to women. It implemented the mid-day meal scheme in a Corporation school in Thousand Lights area. The government also reined in the temple managements into one central endowment control.
For 13 years, Justice Party was in power till 1937, when it was beaten black and blue by the Congress led by Rajaji. Congress had won 159 seats while the Justice Party won 18 seats.
The collapse came through because they were often described as blue-blooded British puppets - the snobbish nature of the leaders and internal dissension. The Justice Ministers drew huge monthly salaries (Rs 4,333.60) at the height of the Great Depression.
A portion of the press, including The Hindu, in its headline, instructed its readers to “fill the Congress boxes”. The Congress’ chances were high and many Justice candidates opted to withdraw rather than contest.
Kamaraj was elected unopposed from the Sattur-Aruppukottai rural constituency. The Justice Party collapsed like a house of cards. The Raja of Bobilli, who led the party to defeat, went off on a European tour and the party came under the control of Periyar. Periyar led the startling transmutation of the long dormant Justice Party.
He withdrew the party from active election politics and insisted on Dravidastan secession. The Justice Party, despite having religious members who owned and built temples, moved into atheistic stands.
The last straw was the renaming of the party as Dravidar Kazhagam. However, some of the uncomfortable Justice members quit politics, while some tried to pull it along till 1952, when it contested and lost.
But, the legacy of the Justice Party is there to stay. When it lost in 1937, Congressman Sathyamurthy said, “The Justice Party has been buried under 500 feet of soil. It will never rise again.”
However, 30 years later, the political heir to the Justice Party, DMK, won the State and the Chief Minister-elect Anna, remembering this taunt, remarked, “What was buried that day was not a corpse but a seed.”
The writer is a historian and an author