Kakkan: Dalit leader who lived by principles of frugality and service

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.
Kakkan: Dalit leader who lived by principles of frugality and service


The discourse around Tamil Nadu’s political history is often overshadowed by the accounts of the Dravidian stalwarts, from Periyar to CN Annadurai, MG Ramachandran, M Karunanidhi, and so on. However, somewhere in the annals of the region’s statecraft, there lies the story of an unassuming leader, who came so close to becoming the very first Dalit Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. P. Kakkan (June 18, 1908 – December 23, 1981), fondly remembered as Kakkanji, was a freedom fighter who served as a member of the Constituent Assembly, MP, President of the Tamil Nadu Congress Committee and in many ministerial posts in Congress governments in the erstwhile Madras state between 1957 and 1967.
Kakkan was born to a family with limited means. His father served as hereditary pusari (non-Brahmin priest) in a Veeramakali temple in a hamlet called Thumbaipatti near Madurai. The name of his village was inspired by Thumbai, a flower symbolic of whiteness and purity in Tamil culture.
Kakkan’s school life was marked by deprivation – he often wore the same clothes to school, one day after the other and traversed a distance of about 7 km on foot to reach the school. His father Poosari Kakkan sold a small patch of their ancestral land and borrowed heavily to fulfill the dream of seeing his son through college. But that wasn’t to be. By providence, Kakkan would run into a special visitor to Madurai and his life would change in the most dramatic fashion.
Kakkan’s encounter with Mahatma Gandhi, during Bapu’s visit to the temple town in 1934 transformed Kakkan’s approach to life. Education or economic standing no longer mattered to Kakkan. He had found a new calling in social reform and the pursuit of India’s independence. As expected, Kakkan’s father wasn’t in favour of his son abandoning his education, and the rift between them widened. His father was known to carry the grudge of his son’s supposed shortcoming of a university education till late in life. It was something that did not change even when Kakkan became a Member of the Constituent Assembly and then a Home Minister of State.
However, the turning point in Kakkan’s life, and in many ways, in Tamil Nadu’s sociocultural history took place on July 8, 1939. In an act, that sent shockwaves across the Hindu community, Kakkan and a few members of the Dalit community embarked on a simple activity, that had not been witnessed in the past century or so. The young man, joined by his fellow Dalit brethren stepped into the haloed corridors of the Arulmigu Meenakshi Sundareshwarar Temple in Madurai for a darshan. The act was seen as a culmination of rising tensions between members of the Dalit community and the so-called members of the higher castes who were categoric in their refusal to bar Dalits from entering such places of worship.
The supposed intrusion saw cases being filed on Kakkan and others. Madras Presidency’s Chief Minister, C Rajagopalachari or Rajaji would in turn be compelled into consulting with Governor Erskine, who was then holidaying in Ooty and pass an emergency ordinance which offered Kakkan and his mates immunity from prosecution. The results were profound and dramatic, to say the least. Within one week, almost all temples in Madurai district were thrown open to Dalits. Even Mahatma Gandhi would speak highly of this episode in his newspaper editorial.
As an active participant in the Quit India movement, Kakkan evaded the eyes of the British by disguising himself as a woman and spending nights on the rooftops of buildings. In 1940, he was jailed for the first time on account of publicly chanting the slogan Vande Mataram and distributing pamphlets. During his imprisonment, he was mercilessly caned, the scars of which he bore on his back for the rest of his life. When he was lodged in Alipore jail, he was housed in the penitentiary overlooking the gallows, which was aimed at intimidating the freedom fighter.
With liberty looming on the horizon, Kakkan began his political career as a Member of the Constituent Assembly. Post independence, he would also win his first Lok Sabha election in 1952. After a term in Delhi, he returned to politics in Tamil Nadu, and joined Kamaraj’s cabinet. It was here that an exemplary rivalry transpired between the two Gandhians. The contest was on leading a more simple and honest public life.
An example of Kakkan’s modesty was witnessed after he shifted his family to Madras, and he admitted his children to a Corporation school. One rainy day, when CM Kamaraj’s car cruised the Beach Road, he spotted his PWD minister Kakkan’s daughter, soaked to the bones, waiting by the kerb, for a city bus that would take her home. The CM proceeded to halt his vehicle and drop her at home.
A thorough Gandhian till his end, Kakkan was unfazed by the political power bestowed on him. On official tours, when he ran short of clothes, he would just wash and reuse the same. The writer Jayakanthan who once travelled with Kakkan, recalled the experience of witnessing the leader’s frugal lifestyle. While Jayakanthan relied on a fancy imported electric razor and fabbed himself with Eau de Cologne post the shave, Kakkan broke a safety blade into two, held one half of the blade deftly between two outstretched fingers and shaved himself without a nick. To the absolute surprise of Jayakanthan, Kakkan said, “It’s something I picked up in prison.” Even when he solemnised his daughter’s wedding, he followed a no-gifts policy and the invitees who bought gifts had them promptly returned.
Kakkan’s stint as PWD minister was instrumental in changing Tamil Nadu’s water sufficiency status. That a state with very few perennial rivers could have as much water security is due to Kakkan’s obsession with building dams on all the major rivers in the state. He even raised the height of the Mettur dam during his tenure.
As Agriculture Minister, Kakkan insisted on creating more awareness regarding artificial fertilisers as a means for inducing food security. This was a decade before the beginning of the green revolution. Interestingly, the man who along with MS Swaminathan architected the revolution was Chidambaram Subramaniam, a colleague of Kakkan in the Cabinet. During Kakkan’s tenure, wide bridges were built in all major Tamil cities to facilitate their growth and expansion. In many ways, the blueprints for the urbanisation of Tamil Nadu might have its drafts on Kakkan’s drawing board.
When Kamaraj stepped down as Chief Minister, Kakkan was a front runner for the post. But intra party politics scuttled his chances. To keep the party together, it was proposed that Bakthavatsalam would succeed Kamaraj as the CM. It was pretty much the closest a Dalit leader came to becoming the CM of Tamil Nadu. Incidentally, it was also the last term for Congress rule in Tamil Nadu.
Kakkan’s stint as TN’s Home minister came at a tumultuous time, when there were widespread anti-Hindi agitations and turbulent days marked by caste-incited riots. After his defeat in the DMK wave of 1967, Kakkan retired from politics. And it was then that people began to understand how little Kakkan had used his stature for personal gains. A month after the Congress debacle, Kakkan was found waiting at the bus stop for a ride home.
Post his active years in politics, Kakkan lived in a small, rented flat provided by the government. His innate sense of self respect prevented him from accepting any help while being treated for a paralytic ailment in a government hospital. Once, when MGR, who was serving as the CM was visiting an acquaintance in the VIP ward, heard that Kakkan was also being treated there, but in the general ward, MGR rushed to visit him. Kakkan was offered a free government bus pass by MGR’s administration. And just like his leader Kamaraj, Kakkan lived a life devoid of wealth and possessions and exited this world, as innocuously as he had arrived in it.

Are you in Chennai?  Then click here to get our newspaper at your doorstep!! 

Related Stories

No stories found.
DT next