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When thousand lights were lit

GLIMPSES OF Indian National Movement by Prof. M. Abel, former Principal of Madras Christian College and a former Vice-Chancellor of Sri Krishna Devaraya University, is a simple, straightforward narration that will enable students and even the lay reader to remember a vital part of our history that has been forgotten. At its recent release, the Prince of Arcot, Nawab Mohammed Abdul Ali, made an appeal for Hindu-Muslim harmony and unity in a more passionate voice than I have ever heard him use. That he was applauded four times during his brief speech attested how well his words went down with the 200-strong audience.

That plea concluded with a response to an earlier speaker on a totally unrelated subject — but which, curiously, led me to an earlier appeal on the same subject. The earlier speaker, Prof. S. Gopalakrishnan of the Centre for Contemporary Studies, had, in reminding the audience of how we had forgotten the Mylapore 17 and the Mada Street house of Raghunatha Rao where they had met in 1884 to take forward the idea of an Indian national political organisation that Allan Octavian Hume had expressed at a Theosophical Society convention in Adyar, said that the area Thousand Lights derives its name from the thousand lights that were lit when an Indian National Congress Annual Session was held for the first time in Madras. Certainly, those December 1887 session were held in Mackay's Garden, just off Greame's Road, placing them squarely in Thousand Lights, but, whether there were a thousand lamps lit or not, I can find no reference except for the authority Gopalakrishnan quotes, the late Ma.Po.Si.

The conventional origin of the name is the lighting of a thousand oil-lamps in the historic mosque across from Greame's Road where the Shias assemble during Muharram. An Assembly Hall for the gathering was built here around 1810 by the Arcot family and a mosque in 1820, to which institutions belong the tradition — even if it is not followed today. Given the pre-dating, the religious practice would appear to have some priority.

But what was interesting in following this trail was to read The Hindu's review of the sessions, which sounded such a similar note to the Prince of Arcot's. The paper said, "The Third Congress has been very successful... One great effect of the recent exertions was the friendly attitude of a large number of our fellow Mahomedan subjects. What they saw of the Congress made an excellent impression on (their) minds... This is therefore the time when we should try to strengthen and widen these impressions... We must meet the masses of that community with all the resources of our organisation in the same way that the masses of the Hindu community have been met and partially enlightened, and converted to the views of the educated classes. If our leaders now seek rest after the arduous labour of the past few weeks... they will lose the immense advantage of the favourable disposition which the presidentship of Mr. Tyabji, the presence of so large a number of Mahomedans as delegates and other circumstances of the Congress have created among the Mahomedans of light and learning... They are no doubt a very important community and... will see as well as the Hindus the real significant of the call for cooperation if they are properly approached. The Hindus attach great importance to the cooperation of the Mahomedans because they want... the unanimous voice of the whole nation". The Hindu went on to express the view that it was "disgraceful" that there should be frequent clashes between Hindus and Muslims, on flimsy issues like taking out processions and playing music before mosques, when the need was a united front.

And here we are, 118 years later, talking about the same need for understanding.


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