Gandhi’s impact on the Tamil psyche

Not only did Tamil and Telugu speakers form a big part of MK Gandhi’s support base in South Africa, but both the Madras Presidency and the princely state of Travancore were central to his anti-untouchability agenda.
Mahatma Gandhi seen speaking to C Rajagopalachari.(NATIONAL GANDHI MUSEUM)
Mahatma Gandhi seen speaking to C Rajagopalachari.(NATIONAL GANDHI MUSEUM)
Updated on Oct 01, 2020 07:41 PM IST
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Chennai | ByTR Vivek

By successfully transferring in 1894 the indenture of Balasundaram, a labourer, from a violent European master who had broken his teeth, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi became a saviour in the eyes of thousands of other Indian labourers in Natal, South Africa. Thereafter, indentured labourers from the Madras Presidency not only joined the Natal Indian Congress in huge numbers, but also became a pillar of strength for Gandhi’s satyagraha in South Africa. Tamils, both in South Africa and Balasundaram’s homeland in India, began to regard Gandhi as one of their own.

Thanks to his Tamil clerk in South Africa, Vincent Lazarus, and the workers he represented, Gandhi was able to access the vast wisdom of an ancient Tamil literary text, such as Tirukkural and incorporate its aram (dharma) in his own non-violent struggles.

While the more affluent Gujarati traders in South Africa chose to support Gandhi while staying in the background for fear of losing business, it was the poor Tamil and Telugu-speaking labourer who formed part of the front ranks of satyagraha. Gandhi acknowledged their contribution in his 1896 visit to the seaside hamlet of Taragampadi in the Cauvery Delta to meet the widows of satyagraha martyrs. Formerly a Danish port called Tranquebar, it accounted for a large number of indentured labourers shipped to the colonies in southern Africa from India.

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During his month-long journey, Gandhi even tried his hand at learning Tamil and Urdu. The stories of Gandhi as the champion of oppressed Tamil and Telugu speakers in South Africa were instrumental some years later in the inroads the Congress made in the Madras Presidency.

The mendicant of Madurai

But the most profound Gandhian impact on the Tamil psyche was to come several decades later. On September 22, 1921, while in Madurai, Gandhi traded his simple attire of khadi kurta and dhoti for a more frugal loincloth made of barely a yard of khadi cloth that earned him the pejorative Churchillian sobriquet of “half-naked fakir”. For the Tamils, the fact that Gandhi turned a “fakir” in Madurai had special symbolism. “Madurai was the city of the great Manickavasagar [a ninth century Tamil poet who composed the iconic Shaivite bhakti hymns called Tiruvasakam] who described Shiva as the lord of beggars. It was only fitting that he adopted the attire of a mendicant in Madurai, as a representative of the poorest of poor in India,” wrote A Ramasamy in the 1969 book, Tamizhnattil Gandhi (Gandhi in Tami Nadu).

Not surprisingly, Madurai turned into a major centre of Gandhian activism.

KM Natarajan, the president of Tamil Nadu Gandhi Smarak Nidhi and a long-time associate of Vinoba Bhave in the Sarvodaya movement, was a high school student when he saw Gandhi in Madurai in 1946. “I was told there were about 500,000 people to see him. Although he didn’t address any meetings, people regarded him as an avatar of God and were content with his darshan,” he recollected. It was during that trip that he agreed to visit the iconic Meenakshiamman temple in Madurai after the Dalits and lower castes had been allowed entry after many decades of struggles.

Though it was only in the 1930s that Gandhi, drawing upon his favourite 15th century Gujarati bhakti poet, Narsinh Mehta, began to use the term Harijan (children of God) to describe the lower castes and Dalits, his impact was such that southern India turned into an important centre of the anti-untouchability movements, long before this.

Beginning in the 1920s, caste Hindu Gandhians such as A Vaidyanatha Iyer started fighting for temple entry rights for Dalits. The 1924 satyagraha in Kerala’s Vaikom — led by TK Madhavan, a journalist and supporter of social reformer, Narayana Guru, and Gandhian Congressman, KP Kesava Menon, for Dalits to enter the town’s Shiva temple — followed Gandhi’s methodology of protesting through non violence, fasting and courting arrest, and inspired many in nearby regions, including Madurai.

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In 1938, one of the first Harijan student hostels in the Madras Presidency called Sevalayam came up in Madurai.

Gandhi’s core political team during the Independence movement comprised Chakravarthi Rajagopalachari (Rajaji) alongside Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Rajendra Prasad and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad. As early as 1916, Rajaji had written a long essay in Indian Review outlining Gandhi’s message to India, which referred to the emphasis on Hindu-Muslim unity, non violence, and self-reliance. Of the five, Rajaji was among the last to meet Gandhi, in 1919. But such was the impact that Rajaji, a lawyer from Salem, had on Gandhi that he soon became not just the Mahatma’s “southern general” but “conscience-keeper” as well.

Gandhi and Periyar

Today, many pit Gandhi against the combine of EV Ramasamy (Periyar) and BR Ambedkar in the social justice sweepstakes. In this binary view, Periyar won the battle of ideology with political offshoots of his Dravida Kazhagam (DK) — the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) — being in power in Tamil Nadu since 1967.

However, the fact remains that southern Gandhians such as Rajaji were architects of the Temple Entry Bill that made it legally possible for people of lower castes to enter temples in British India, sparking a nationwide change in social attitudes. Rajaji travelled to Yerawada jail to meet Gandhi, then imprisoned, seeking to be exempted from the ongoing Civil Disobedience movement so that he could jump headlong into the temple entry issue. “If you feel you have a clear call, and it seems that you do, you must do Harijan work,” Gandhi told him.

According to Rajmohan Gandhi, Rajaji’s biographer and the grandson of both Gandhi and Rajaji, most Congressmen, including Nehru and Patel, viewed the temple entry bill as a “drain” on nationalistic energies.

Gandhi historian, Ramachandra Guha, recollected accessing a letter from a Tamil correspondent to Rajaji post-Independence that described Rajaji, Nehru, and Patel as Gandhi’s head, heart, and hands respectively. “Today, many see Gandhi and Periyar as political adversaries. That view is flawed. Their ends were the same. Gandhi wanted to reform India by remaining within the Hindu-fold,” said Guha.

“I, too, looked at Gandhi through the binary of Ambedkar/Periyar before I came to Madurai. In the course of my doctoral thesis on Iyothee Dasa Pandithar [also spelt Thass; he was a 19th and early 20th century Tamil Dalit social reformer who converted to Buddhism], I realised the contribution of Gandhi and Gandhians in changing Tamil society. Irrespective of what Dravidian parties would have you believe, without Gandhi there would have been little social justice or reform in Tamil Nadu that the state prides itself on,” says Stalin Rajangam, a Dalit scholar and researcher who teaches Tamil literature in Madurai’s American College.

Madurai’s Gandhi memory

The Gandhi Memorial Museum in Madurai is one of six national Gandhi monuments in India and the only one in south India. It is housed in a magnificent palace built in 1700 by the brave Madurai regent queen, Rani Mangammal. To add to the tourist attractions, there is a giant model of the Tyrannosaurus Rex in the campus. The museum, inaugurated in 1959, is in custody of the bloodstained shawl and loincloth worn by Gandhi when he was shot by Nathuram Godse in 1948. It is kept in display in an alcove with walls painted in black.

However, there are other pieces of Gandhi’s legacy scattered in the south.

Some 70 kilometres away from Madurai, near the town of Dindigul, is Gandhigram, a rural community to revive village industries and provide skilled livelihoods to people from backward communities. It was founded in 1947 by TS Soundram, a doctor and the daughter of TV Sundaram Iyengar (founder of TVS Group) and her Dalit Gandhian husband from Kerala, G Ramachandran.

The campus and the college, Gandhigram Rural Institute, which the trust founded (now under the management of the central government) were built on lands donated by zamindars who viewed Gandhi as an avatar of Hindu gods. The scarcity of good centrally funded colleges now draws students from around the country to the university.

The railway crossing that separates the university from the ashram bears a small concrete plaque. “This is where Mahatma Gandhi’s feet touched the ground,” it reads. It bears a Khadi garland around it that no one has bothered to replace for months. The managing trustee of the Gandhigram Trust, K Shivakumar, a man in his seventies with a chipped-tooth smile, wants to spread the message about Gandhi’s gram swarajya — the idea of villages as decentralised, self-sufficient governing units with the freedom of deciding the affairs of the locality — as the only viable alternative to problems posed by modern life, globalisation and Big Capital. But even at the khadi outlet near Mela Masi Street in Madurai, where Gandhi renounced his regular attire, most customers walk in looking for ayurvedic pills made by the ashram, for gastric troubles.

The Gandhian Khadi ashram set up by Rajaji in 1925 in the bone-dry hamlet of Pudupalayam in Tamil Nadu’s Tiruchengode district to employ “untouchable” women weavers and spinners from the region is now a central government-owned khadi and village industries unit. Rajaji built the experimental ashram on a four-acre piece of parched land donated by Ratnasabhapathy Gounder, a local landlord whose father had been a friend and client during Rajaji’s days as a successful lawyer in Salem.

The Pudupalayam ashram was meant to be the site for “penance” that Gandhi wanted his closest acolytes to perform. The thatched huts once occupied by Rajaji and his accomplices now have red-tiled roofs. The place has a charming fragrance from the agarbatti factory it runs. The administrators (all in their fifties) are thrilled by the unusual sight of tourists. They lovingly hand over the visitor’s book that is a collection of a few plastic files containing crumbing handwritten accounts of those who have visited the place (Gandhi, Kasturba, Rajendra Prasad, other presidents, governors, and foreign dignitaries). Today, there is an air of palpable jadedness at the ashram. There is no one under the age of 50 in the vicinity; visitors are few; and they possess the air of relics from the past. The library that Rajaji once kept and the volumes of the pro-prohibition journal he founded from here, Vimochanam, lie in tatters. It seems an apt metaphor for Gandhi’s legacy in Tamil Nadu

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Sunday, November 28, 2021