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TM Nair: Doctor who helped shape Dravidian politics

In this series, we take a trip down memory lane, back to the Madras of the 1900s, as we unravel tales and secrets of the city through its most iconic personalities and episodes.

TM Nair: Doctor who helped shape Dravidian politics


Except the Nair Road in T Nagar, there is little left in Chennai that was Madras to remember how towering and colourful a personality Taravath Madhavan Nair – or TM Nair as he was popularly known – was during his time in pre-Independence India.

He was a doctor who worked more on politics, a social reformer who helped the birth of Dravidian movement, and a lieutenant on a warship during World War 1.

Though born into family of lawyers and judges in Palakkad, now in Kerala, he moved to Madras to pursue a Master’s degree in Arts from the Presidency College. His urge to become a doctor led him to Madras Medical College. For some reason, he exited MMC halfway and completed the degree in England. This was followed by a doctorate from Edinburg University and a specialisation in ENT from Paris. Surprisingly, Nair obtained his MD in 1896, with Sanskrit as the compulsory classical subject. (His family had many Sanskrit scholars too). He dabbled in politics in London and was associated with the grand old man of Indian nationalism, Dadabhai Naoroji, during his London days.

Back in Madras, he attended to his patients till noon and thereafter devoted much of his time in the library, reading and writing on a wide range of subjects. He published a very popular monthly medical magazine called The Antiseptic for more than 16 years. Though a journal for medical practitioners, Nair also used to slip in a couple of articles on politics as well. One of the articles it published was about a child abuse scandal at the Theosophical Society. Nair, a vigorous critic and opponent of Annie Besant, had alleged that her associate Charles Webster Leadbeater had been imposed his homosexual tendencies on some of the boys in the name of “initiating” them. In 1913, Besant sued Nair for defamation in the Presidency Magistrates Court, George Town. But she lost the defamation case, and the High Court refused to allow an appeal.

Never away from politics, Nair was a regular at the Indian National Congress gatherings. He represented Triplicane in the Madras Corporation from 1904 to 1916. In those days, the politics in Madras Presidency was thriving on communal division between Brahmins and non-Brahmins.

In the late 19th century, the disproportionate representation of Brahmins in government jobs caused a lot of heartburn. While the pro-Brahmin group was united, the others were divided in the Madras Corporation Council. One was led by Sir Pitti Theagaraya Chetty, and the other by Nair. The two leaders often quarrelled at Council meeting. Before long, however, common friends like Natesa Mudaliar realised that if these two leaders were brought together under one umbrella, it would give the non-Brahmin movement a thrust to fight Brahmin dominance. In the 1916 elections to the Imperial Legislative Council, Nair was defeated by VS Srinivasa Sastri from southern districts constituency. The same year Theagaraya Chetty lost to a Brahmin candidate in local council polls. Thus, their political foes had brought the two antagonists together.

Soon, Sir Pitti and Nair joined hands and a new party, the South Indian Liberal Federation, was formed. This was a major event in the political history of Madras Presidency which became the precursor of the Dravidian movement. To propagate their views, they launched Justice, a journal Nair edited till his demise. So popular was the periodical that even the party came to be known as the Justice Party.

During World War I, Nair was commissioned as a lieutenant and he served as one of the surgeons on board the hospital ship, SS Madras. For the services rendered, he was honoured with a Kaiser-i-Hind medal by the Emperor. This and his political activity earned him a lot of brickbats, and he was often called an anti-national and a collaborationist.

In 1918–19, Nair led a mission to England to speak before a Joint Parliamentary Committee in support of communal representations. While in London, he suffered a heart seizure and died on July 17, 1919. Though seldom remembered today, the impact of the work he did in those early days of social justice movement is felt even to this day.

—The author is a historian

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