Begin typing your search...

Those were the days: Madras and the struggle for independence

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

Those were the days: Madras and the struggle for independence


It’s often said the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence. Madras was a colonial city - its prosperity was determined by the British who chose to convert a forlorn sandy strip of beach land into a megapolis.Migrants thronged the city from all parts of the subcontinent and even across the globe in search of a secure future. In reciprocation, Madras was grateful than the rest of the country to the British. During the 1857 mutiny, sepoys from Madras led the assault on the mutineers and the Mughals alike. Many tales can be recalled on the Madrasi’s professed loyalty to the British empire.

 Competitions were held in Carnatic music circles to write verses as a tribute to the KingEmperor on the occasion of his coronation and gold coins were offered as a prize. The natives jostled with each other to install statuary of British personages. British royalty was welcomed to Madras like the age-old Indian kings. 

When the country was aflame, freedom movements were lackluster here. Troubled by the thought of lack of response in Madras, the congress even shifted to Trichy to coordinate the salt march in Vedaranyam. It is always assumed that the protest in Madras was symbolic as in poems and literature by personalities like Bharathi and Kalki.

 And there rises a question. Did Madras ever play a role in securing freedom for the nation? During the sepoy mutiny, there was an agitation in Triplicane -- crowds took to the streets and gathered opposite the Prince of Arcot’s then residence, Shadi Mahal on Triplicane High Road, urging him to join the war against the British. The East India Company soon dispersed these crowds with lathis and shots in the air.

 Home rule movement led by Annie Besant in Madras had many Europeans including George Arundale participating and getting arrested. When they were placed under arrest in a cottage in Ooty, the duo insisted they would agree only if the home rule flag was hoisted in the garden.

 The initial voices of an organised protest against colonialism did come from the Indian National Congress. Madras was the origin of the congress when 17 delegates of the Theosophical conference in Adyar met in the Mylapore house of Dewan Bahadur Raghunatha Rao where they discussed the formation of a national movement with political spirit. The congress met half a dozen times in Madras in the course of the freedom struggle. To Gandhi, Madras was an important cog in the wheel of his struggles to oust the British. It was during one of his 16 visits to Madras, that Gandhi dreamed of a ‘Struggle Of Truth’, the Sathyagraha against the British. During the visit to Madurai, he adopted the simple dress that was ridiculed by Churchill as the “halfnaked fakir”.

 When Rajaji decided to hold his salt satyagraha in Vedaranyam, the citizens of Madras held a parallel salt march on the Marina. Led by Andhra Kesari Prakasam, the salt makers faced police assault and firing as well. The march was commenced with a patriotic Telugu song by a teenager named Suryakumari, who later became Miss Madras.

 Seeing the volume of hatred shown to him, The Prince of Wales suffered a mental break down in Madras, according to the memoirs of his aide de camp ‘Dickie’ Mountbatten. The first hartal that Madras ever faced was to protest the visit of their future emperor in 1922. The crowds cheering the future emperor were fully stocked by the Madras government with scouts and pensioners because the local population boycotted his visit. Congress announced January 26 as Swarajya Day which is a sort of symbolic Independence Day.

 In 1932, a teenager named Arya Bashyam stitched a tricolour out of his dhoti and climbed the 148-foot flag mast in Fort St George at 2 am and hoisted the flag after tearing down the British union jack. He was hauled down and arrested. Bashyam was an artist and was responsible for the familiar picture of Bharathiyar that we see today. The agitation to bring down the statue of the ‘Butcher of Allahabad’ (a nickname he earned because of killing hundreds of Indians during the sepoy mutiny), the 10-foot bronze statue of Colonel James Neil which was perched on a 12-foot pedestal near the Spencer building on Mount Road was one of the longest agitations in Madras. In 1927, nationalists Mohammed Saliah and Subbarayulu even climbed on the statue to break it with a hammer and an ax. 

The last thrust to eject the British, the Quit India Movement was a political flop in Madras. Ex-congressmen like Rajaji called it hooliganism. The Communists, Justice Party and the Muslim League were against it. The leaders who proposed to run it had been jailed. Only by the remarkable effort of the students of Pachaiyappa’s, Law and Presidency Colleges, Madras was put on the Quit India map. They were ably supported by the Queen Mary’s College students who marched on the beach road showing their protest to British rule.

 Madras celebrated August 15, 1947, with ships blaring in the harbour and fireworks echoing across the midnight skies. A city which had duly participated in a struggle for self-determination rightfully celebrated the granting of it.

 — The writer is a historian and author

Visit to explore our interactive epaper!

Download the DT Next app for more exciting features!

Click here for iOS

Click here for Android

Next Story