Game of two languages: When Tamil Nadu got Madras

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
Game of two languages: When Tamil Nadu got Madras

The harmony that the freedom struggle inspired amongst various groups was unparalleled. It seemed like every dissimilar sect — either religious or regional had buried all their disparities. But when the British chose to exit, it was apparent the groups had just deferred them, only to resurface when the common enemy left the scene. The communal disturbances of the partition unnerved India, but luckily the south was spared. But, just when the communal fire had been doused, close on its heels linguistic divergences arose, and that too ironically first in the southern end of the country.

The first to ask for a separate state were the Telugus. The demand for a separate state gained impetus in the 1940s. A separate Andhra state with Telugu as its unifying factor was in the making. The Telugus of Madras had gotten together for many occasions including the historic Marina Salt March. They were better organised and had home-grown leaders. In fact, with the Telugu legislators always in the majority in the elected bodies, most of the chief ministers both in the Justice Party and Congress were Telugu speakers.

Their towering leader Andhra Kesari, T Prakasam had taken charge as the first chief minister of the independent state, had been humiliated and Gandhi himself had asked him to resign. And all this was within a year of being sworn in. This added to the indignation.

Different ideas floated from Andhra. One was to make Madras as the shared capital of Andhra and Madras States or to allocate the city along the river Cooum. The territory in the north could become the capital of Andhra and the Tamils could take the south. The Tamils in contrast asked for Tirupati and Tiruttani to join the Tamil state.

Freedom fighter Potti Sreeramulu had commenced his fast unto death demanding states be segregated on a linguistic basis. Roused by his hunger strike for the formation of a separate state for Telugus, the forceful Madras Manade (Madras is ours) movement was gathering energy on the Telugu side of the Presidency.

The parallel slogan from the Tamil side was, “Thalaiyai koduthu thalainagar kaapom” (even if they chop off our heads we will save our capital). For numerous motives, there were no significant movements to extort support for Madras for the Tamils. Periyar had other class-based agitations to manage. While DMK was still a new party. The Congress with its amplified sense of patriotism did not stick its neck out for the Tamil cause.

Ma Po Sivagnanam, a politician known mainly for drawing attention to the histories of the forgotten independence stalwarts like Kattabomman a VO Chidambaram took on the mantle. He would become the convenor of the north border protection group. The group intended to have the division line between the two states well away from madras.

Despite being a stickler on the issue of the Capital and the leader of the north border protection group, MaPoSi would visit Potti Sreeramulu for a tearful reunion as the duo had once been fellow jailbirds in Vellore.

The central government of Nehru which was tending to its wounds from the partition was unwilling to let one monster rise when the other had just been tamed. Nehru firmly resisted the linguistic division of the states.

He formed a committee in which he himself was a member. The JVP Committee took its name from its members Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel and Pattabhi Sitaramayya. The committee recommended that the creation of linguistic provinces be postponed. This report provoked a violent reaction in the Andhra regions of the presidency as the Telugus were not prepared to forgo their claims. But everyone knew it was only a matter of time with Potti on to his last days.

MaPoSi would take an inflexible posture on the takeover of Madras. He raised a point of order in the legislature to have a hunger striking Potti Sreeramulu be detained and force-fed to protect the relationship between Telugu and Tamil peoples. He even combated a mention in the council expressing regret on the demise of fasting Sreeramulu in December 1952, saying it would be like provoking hostility upon Tamils. Historically on October 1, 1953, 11 districts in the Telugu-speaking segment of Madras State became the fresh Andhra State with Kurnool as the capital.

It is irrefutable that Madras would have had a wholly different flavour had it become a slice of Andhra Pradesh instead of Tamil Nadu. That Madras should come to characterise Tamil Nadu and command it into a Dravidian future was decided both on the streets and in parliament.

— The writer is a historian and an author

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