The Justice Party: History in the making

November marks the 106th year of a get-together of like-minded leaders in the Madras Presidency, which led to the formation of the South India Liberation Federation (Justice Party) which has rewritten the politics and socio-cultural patterns in Tamil Nadu for over a century. The party was pro-British and though it ruled only for 13 years before its electoral collapse, its impact was more as a movement and less of a political party. It has indelibly changed Madras society and history forever. Issues that even today come to the fore have their origins in the Justice Party days.
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The kingdoms of Tamil and Telugu kings crumbled to dust and they lived only in the memory of history books. It was a time when the British were the all-powerful rulers of Madras and a large population of the colony depended on them alone for sustenance. The British gave preference to those who learnt in the education system developed by it and gave them better wages and a new status in society. Some communities that prioritised education excelled in education, were ahead of others in society and became the neo-nobility. For example, by the late 19th century the representation of Brahmins in Madras civil service was increasing (2/3rd of graduates in the Madras university as well) and this caused dissatisfaction in other communities.


The two towering leaders of the non-Brahmin movement — Sir PT Theagaraya Chetty and TM Nair — were always at loggerheads. They fought over every issue in the Madras corporation. The flashpoint came when Chetty, who was heading the Madras Corporation, opened up municipal water pipes to fill the Triplicane temple tank. Nair launched a tirade that it was a waste of public resources. The battle lines were set and the rivals actively worked to defeat each other. Other Dravidian leaders were frustrated that the rivalry between the two leaders was affecting the non-Brahmin movement. In the 1916 elections to different bodies, both leaders lost to Brahmin candidates and then united. Thus, their political foes brought the two antagonists together.


Dr Natesan made great efforts to eliminate the animosity between the top Dravidian leaders. He was aided by the fact that all three top leaders lost their respective elections to Brahmin candidates. Theagaraya Chetty and TM Nair were joined in their efforts by Raja Sir Panaganti Ramarayaningar, a zamindar from Kalahasti on whom the British government bestowed the honorific title of ‘Raja of Panagal’. It was under his chief ministership (1921-1926) that many landmark legislations were passed for the upliftment of the marginalised.


Raja Sri Ravu Svetachalupati Sir Ramakrishna Ranga Rao was a zamindar of Bobbili. Ranga Rao, calling himself a raja, served as the last chief minister of the Justice Party and is often held responsible for the final and crushing defeat of the Justice Party. Often touted as a despot, he was unapproachable to both partymen and the public alike. He was perhaps the only chief minister who took a four-month holiday to London in the middle of his term. During his tenure, Madras was in the grips of the Great Depression and mindless of this, he allowed his ministers to take very high salaries. His misrule led to Justice Party winning just 18 out of 215 assembly seats in 1937. The Raja, himself, lost his seat to VV Giri (later President of India) by over 6,000 votes. Unperturbed, the Raja went off on another European jaunt leaving the party rudderless.


It is very common to see a ‘Brahmins Only’ sign at the door of Triplicane restaurants. Even Brahmins on demand had to show their ‘poonool’ (sacred thread) to enter such Brahmanal hotels. It was very difficult for non-Brahmin students to obtain boarding and lodging when they migrated to Triplicane. In 1914, Dr Natesan opened the Dravidar Hostel on Akbar Sahib Street in Triplicane for non-Brahmin students to cope with the accommodation problem. Not only providing shelter to the boys, but Natesan also conducted lectures and debates for them to develop general knowledge and invited many experts to speak at the hostel. The hostel soon became a centre of political activity urging all communities to unite under one umbrella to fight Brahmin dominance.


The year 1916 changed much of south Indian history. On November 20, 1916, Victoria public hall was the locale for the newfound unity of the leaders. 30 prominent non-Brahmin leaders including Dr Natesa Mudaliar, Sir PT Theagaraya Chetty, TM Nair and the Raja of Panagal and even a lady Alamelu Mangai Thayarammal met and in an era where party-based elections were few, proposed to start a joint stock company to ventilate the feelings of the non-Brahmin community. It was called the South India People’s Association. The SIPA published a manifesto addressed to the non-Brahmin gentlemen throughout the Presidency. Soon another organisation, South India Liberal Federation, was formed with political ambitions.


The Malayali face of the Justice Party, Taravath Madhavan Nair was an England-educated doctor. During World War I, Nair was commissioned as a lieutenant and served as a surgeon on board the hospital ship, SS Madras. For the services rendered, he was honoured with a Kaiser-i-Hind medal by the Emperor. Striving to alleviate the sickness of his patients, he was also an outspoken social reformer. Annie Besant sued Nair for defamation in the Presidency Magistrates Court, George Town once. He represented Triplicane in the Madras Corporation from 1904 to 1916 and for his blatant expression of views, Dr Nair was often called an anti-national and a collaborationist.


P Theagaraya Chetty was one of the earliest graduates of Madras University and for over 40 years, his spotless white dress, turban and walrus moustache was a familiar sight in the Ripon Buildings. Chetty served as the first president of the Justice Party till his death in 1925. Theagaraya, despite his talk on Dravidian politics, founded the Aryan Club in north Madras. When the Prince of Wales visited Madras in 1921, the entire city boycotted the visit marking it with a hartal. But Chetty would go meet the Prince and read out the city’s welcome address to him.


The first large-scale election for Madras Presidency was held in 1920. Only a quarter of the population was eligible to vote of which only a quarter actually turned up at the booth. The Congress boycotted the election saying the British had no right to conduct it in the first place. The Justice Party secured a majority (63 seats of the 98) and Theagaraya Chetty was invited to form the government. But Chetty stepped aside and A Subbarayalu Reddiar became the first Chief Minister of the Presidency.


A landmark legislation of the Justice Party was accepting the equality of women in deciding their political futures. In June 1921, the women of Madras were the first in India to win the right to vote. This revolutionary decision came just two years after a similar move in England and three years after one in the US. It was however not universal suffrage; women, like Madras men, could vote only if they had finished schooling or held landed property. Other important legislation included communal representations and reining in major temples of the Presidency under one umbrella. The landmark mid-day meal scheme, so characteristic of this region, was introduced in schools in the Thousand Lights area. Under the Justice Party rule, even the geography of Madras changed with the T Nagar lake being filled to form a residential district named after Theagaraya Chetty. The names of Justice Party leaders are made immortal by naming roads and parks in T Nagar.


Congressman Sathyamurthy was the nemesis of the Justice Party. Recognising early that boycotting the polls as the Congress advised would only strengthen the Justice Party, he joined the Swarajists, a splinter group of the Congress which contested elections but would not form governments if they won. Sathyamurthy would at the drop of a hat move a no-confidence motion against Justice Party governments. Finally, he led the Congress party to a decisive victory in 1937, thus sealing the fate of the Justice party. But he stepped aside to allow Rajaji to become the chief minister. On the victory, he reportedly remarked “we have buried the Justice Party in 300 feet of soil.” The comment was long remembered even after he was dead and gone. CN Annadurai, heading the DMK which claimed the mantle of the Justice Party, would on his inauguration remark: “What you buried that day, was not a corpse but a seed”.


When after its big defeat in the elections, the reins of the Justice Party were handed over to EV Ramasamy, it was slowly withdrawn from electoral politics and the name changed to Dravidar Kazhagam. The growing lean towards atheism worried Justice Party leaders like PT Rajan and a few others from deeply religious families. It was PT Rajan’s family that had even made the Ayyappa idol for Sabarimalai Temple. Rebelling against Periyar, PT Rajan tried to revive the Justice Party which dragged on till 1952. But the two pillars of Tamil politics then, nationalism and the social respect movement, denied him a chance to make a comeback.


When the Madras press condemned the manifesto as distorted and bound to create bad blood between the communities, the Dravidian leaders decided to launch their newspapers. With an investment of Rs one lakh, they set up a printing press and early in 1917 the first issue of Justice newspaper came out. The Justice paper was named after la Justice, launched 30 years earlier in France by Clemenceau. So popular was the newspaper that the South India Liberal Federation itself was referred to as the Justice Party. Soon regional language papers in Tamil (Dravidian), Telugu (Andhra Prakasika) and Malayalam (Keralodayam) were launched.

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