Forgotten tales - The freedom movement in Madras

When the country was aflame, freedom movements were supposedly lacklustre in Madras.
Forgotten tales - The freedom movement in Madras

CHENNAI: The Madras presidency had always been called a benighted province, one lost in moral darkness. When the country was aflame, freedom movements were supposedly lacklustre here. During the 1857 mutiny, sepoys from Madras led the assault on the mutineers and Mughals. But was Madras actually quiet, when the upcountry jails were being filled with patriots? Or was it a case of bygone events not being recorded or have important events seeking to evict the British been ignored by the mainstream historians? It’s recently been noted that during the Sepoy Mutiny, there was an upsurge of patriotism in Triplicane and crowds gathered opposite Prince of Arcot’s Palace the Shadi Mahal trying to coerce him to join the war against the British. The crowds were dispersed with shots in the air


There were reasons why the patriotism of Madras was always suspected. In a town founded and enriched by the British, the loyalty of the city was indeed profuse. British royalty were welcomed to Madras like ageold Indian kings and paraded through the Black Town under parasols of gold. During the visit of a Prince, it was decided that the age-old Indian quarters of the city hitherto known as a Black Town would in future be called George Town. The Imperial Durbar of 1911 marked the pinnacle of the Madras’ loyalty to the Raj. The Muthialpet Sabha of George Town even announced a contest among Carnatic composers for launching a song on Emperor George. The winning entry would ask Lord Rama and Lakshmana to safeguard their emperor, ‘Jayatu Jayatu Sarvabhauma George Nama, Sundari Mary Ragni Sahita Vijayi Bhava’.


The Theosophical Society founded by Ukrainian Helena Petrova Blavatsky moved to the Adyar river banks from New York. During the heydays of the missionary assault upon Asia, the Theosophists, contrary to the existing colonial mindset, sought out the wisdom of the East. The founding theosophists had no intention of promoting Indian Independence. But with Theosophy’s vision of ancient India as a magnificent society, it was only a matter of time before that pride was converted to patriotism. Also, the gathering of people beyond the racial and religious divide in the society helped to establish previously impossible links. Gandhi as a student just 20 years old in England would become interested in Theosophy and meet Madame Blavatsky and Annie Besant. Nehru when young, had a Western Theosophist tutor who guided him. It was AO Hume, a Theosophist delegate to the convention under the Adyar banyan tree who had resolved that “a national movement for political ends” should be created. He along with 16 delegates would meet informally in Mylapore in the house of Dewan Bahadur Raghunatha Rao where they discussed the formation of a national movement. In a month, the Indian National Congress was born.


In 1921, Edward, the Prince of Wales would visit India but would confront a whopping boycott, one the British royalty never faced before. Gandhi asked people to welcome their future king with silence, empty streets and shuttered shops. To gear up the city to boycott the prince Dr TSS Rajan and trade unionist Singaravelu were in charge. Much of the inside details are obtained from the aide de camp of the Prince, Dickie, who would later return to India as Lord Mountbatten.

Madras Government had made excellent arrangements for the royal visitor with receptions, firework shows and polo matches.

However, On January 13, 1922, when the Prince landed in the harbour, an unprecedented hartal paralysed the town. Throughout the royal route of three-and-ahalf miles, there were only schoolchildren, ex-servicemen and pensioners. The royal visit was becoming embarrassingly a farce.

An unprovoked firing was resorted to by the home guards and at least two deaths and scores of injuries were reported. Mountbatten later recalled, “Policemen were stoned, cars and buildings vandalised, and British flags were torn and stamped into the mud by a crowd. The Prince of Wales nearly had a nervous breakdown in Madras.”


The Home Rule Movement (on the lines of the Irish Home Rule Movement) was influenced beyond proportion by Annie Besant’s Irish political exposure.

Besant, arguably an important voice of the 20th century started the Madras chapter of the home rule league to demand self-government within the British empire. If it had succeeded, it would have left India a dominion like Canada or Australia under British royalty.

Though it lasted only two years up to 1918, it set the stage for the independence movement. But they were testing the patience of the empire and in 1917, Besant and Arundale were put under house arrest in Ooty (much ahead of the millions of Indians who would go to jail for the cause). While imprisoned, they remained defiant and raised the green and red flag of the Home Rule Movement outside their cottage.

Sedition was punishable with confiscation of the building from which it was propagated. And clever CP Ramasamy Iyer, who edited New India in Besant’s absence, would hang the board of the newspaper on a tree in his garden and edit the paper seated in its shade.


In the aftermath of their independence, post-colonial regimes hauled down imperial iconography, to erase remnants of their colonial heritage. But Madras was the only place in the empire to agitate and remove a British statue and that too, a decade before freedom dawned. The statue was of James Neil of the Madras Fusiliers Regiment, who played a major role in putting down the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny. Neil was celebrated by the imperial government as a martyr but with the Indian independence movement gaining momentum, the statue, as an emblem of colonial oppression, became an affront. S Sathyamurthi said that Neil was a “monster in human form whose statue disfigures one of the finest thoroughfares in Madras”.

Several agitators and amongst them Mohammed Saliah and Subbarayulu who tried to break the statue with a hammer and an axe were imprisoned. Activism was not working and Neil’s statue remained in the same place till 1937, when the newly elected Congress government (under the 1935 Act) of C Rajagopalachari moved a resolution in the Madras Corporation demanding the statue’s removal and then on one night the statue of the “Butcher of Allahabad” was moved to the Madras Museum.


No quantity but quality, please. And I assure victory,” said Gandhi while launching ‘Individual Satyagraha’. The satyagrahis had to be approved by Gandhi himself and courted arrest in various areas after serving notice of their seditious intention to the police.

The arrest and trial would ensure publicity on a persistent basis and would be the foundation of a mass movement.

Congress announced 27 satyagrahis for Madras city in January 1941. To irk the British, Mrs Balammal — daughter of a retired superintendent of police and granddaughter of much-knighted Judge was chosen first. The British were initially alarmed and prosecution happened overnight. But soon they were craftily stopped using the Defence of India Act and protestors moved around the town and repeatedly made a seditious speech but finally went home as the police disregarded them. Chinna Annamalai ignored in Devakottai walked 300 miles protesting all along the way till he was arrested in Chinthatripet. The embarrassing response had the campaign losing steam and the resultant Indian anger perhaps erupted as the Quit India movement the very next year.


Hundreds of demonstrators, both recorded and forgotten, did acts of extreme bravery to oppose the British. The symbol of British supremacy was their Union Jack fluttering atop the 148-foot flag mast in Fort St George.

Irked by this, In 1932, a youngster named Arya Bashyam chose the eve of January 26, the Independence Day as announced by the Congress, made a tricolour flag out of his dhoti and climbed the Fort St George at midnight and hoisted his flag after pulling off the British Union Jack. There are two stories thereafter. That the police detected him and they hauled him down and put him in jail. And the second, he made good his escape and the British never found the culprit. Later in life, Bashyam was a painter of portraits and was responsible for the recognizable picture of Bharathiyar that we see today.


The Mahatma visited Madras 14 times over 50 years. The change he brought over the city is equalled by the change the city brought over him. Gandhi for the first time faced some of the biggest crowds that had ever come to see him in Madras and it stunned both Congress and the British alike. So crowded were the meeting spots that Gandhi could not sometimes get on stage.

Some of his key elements like non-cooperation and Poorna Swaraj emerged during his city visits. Gandhi used his Madras visit for fund collection very effectively, charging a princely Rs 5 for an autograph and auctioning trowels with which he had laid foundation stones. When he saw a woman bedecked in jewellery, Gandhi would single her out and remark, “both mother India and you are in chains”, and the embarrassed girl would offer all her jewels for the national cause.


Tamil poets and writers had been on the sidelines of the freedom movement and though they may not have directly participated, inspired thousands to make sacrifices.

During the thirties, somehow sneaking past the censors (the already overworked police superintendent) theatre and talkies started having what looked outwardly harmless scenes. But mythological characters wore Gandhi caps and statues of Gandhi appeared in showcases in the backdrop. Bharathi songs tiptoed past watchful eyes. In one early Tamil film of the 1930s, the entire cast used to sing the Jana gana mana in their own tune in the last scene. Cinema and drama stars were used by the Congress to perform on freedom stages to gather more crowds. The British woke up and many films including Thyaga Bhoomi were banned just because they showed a Congress march. Temples which were being renovated also saw a secret but strong fervour of freedom. Sculptures started appearing on pillars with a striking resemblance to Gandhi. A statue of Bharath matha was carved in secret by a patriotic sculptor in the Mylapore temple.


In 1942, Gandhi told the British to QUIT INDIA and to the Indians said DO OR DIE. The British weren’t too concerned with handling Madras. Four local forces opposed the movement in Madras — the Justice Party, the Communists, the Muslim League and surprisingly the most unexpected of critics. Rajaji, then out of Congress, asked citizens not to participate in the hooliganism.

The British realised that a leaderless agitation was like a rudderless ship. Congress leaders were arrested en route to Madras, the organisation was banned and holding public assemblies was outlawed.

But the students of the city colleges and schools clad in khadi and wearing Gandhi caps were in the vanguard of protest. Girls added inclusivity and in many places like Pachaiyappa’s, they were at the forefront. The docile girls of Queen Mary’s crowded the beach road shouting ‘Inquilab Zindabad. There was a two-day hunger strike in Women’s Christian College.

Presidency students blocked roads with parked bicycles locked with each other. Pachaiyappa’s students assembled near the Chetpet railway gate, threw stones, and were lathicharged, many ending up in hospital. Without doubt, the Quit India agitation would have become a damp squib but for the patriotism of the students.


Andhra Kesari Prakasam took the non-violent satyagraha pledge and then was literally lionized because of one incident. Opposing the Simon Commission, demonstrators had gathered on the China Bazaar-Broadway junction and when a protestor was shot by the police, his corpse lay untended on the road. The police warned that another step forward by anybody else would mean a bullet in his ribs. Livid Prakasam undid his shirt buttons bared his chest as a challenge and moved forward to retrieve the martyr’s body. The police threat turned out to be empty. The road where he performed this perilous deed is renamed Prakasam



There were different types of freedom fights. The vehement opposition took to the sword valiantly and paid for it with a trip to the gallows. One category of the freedom fighters reiterated that the Indians possessed the right to rule themselves. However, they argued that in breaking laws while demanding freedom from the fetters, Indian nationalism was setting the wrong precedent for future citizens when it became free. Unsurprisingly, the liberals as they were called were always at loggerheads with the satyagraha-style mainstream movement.

The Gandhian road roller flattened those who tried to fight for Independence through constitutional methods and turned them irrelevant and soon forgotten.

Srinivasa Sastri and GA Nadesan were two top leaders of the liberals and they had to face accusations of being British backers. They had to face mob fury and even bombs were thrown in their meetings.

When he realised the first of the three Round Table Conferences was highly ineffectual with Gandhi boycotting it,

Sastri played a big role in bringing Gandhi to the table for the second conference.


Gandhi’s nonviolent method to break the 1882 British Salt Act was mirrored in every state. Rajaji’s plan for salt satyagraha excluded Madras city. Perhaps doubtful of the response there, he chose Vedaranyam to break the salt law. Rajaji had miscalculated, for even before he reached Vedaranyam, Madras had seen many salt marches and police brutalities. Under the leadership of Telugu leaders Prakasam and Nageswara Rao, crowds gathered in Marina. Two Telugu teenagers Durgabai (later Deshmukh), along with Surya Kumari (later a Miss Madras), electrified the gatherings with patriotic Telugu songs.

The agitators boiled brine in vessels and loud slogans rent the air as the salt was crystalised. The police confiscated the salt. But from then on there were daily confrontations with the police who used horse-mounted personnel, lathi-wielding constables and even guns to attack the crowd, killing three and wounding hundreds. The salt satyagraha of Madras had a bigger impact than at Vedaranyam, but history chooses to remember the latter.

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