Gandhi and the Tamils
The main showroom of Co-optex, located on Pantheon Road, is named the Thillaiyadi Valliammai showroom. Over the years, I’ve never really wondered who Thillaiyadi Valliammai was and I don’t think many others would have pondered too much over her identity either. A visit to the ‘Gandhi in Tamil Nadu’ photographic exhibition organised by the Roja Muthiah Research Library, Taramani, to celebrate Madras Week woke me to the reality.
She was a 16-year-old Tamil girl who had protested in South Africa against a judgement that declared invalid all Indian wedding ceremonies. She had been in jail for three months when Gandhi met and consoled her. Shortly afterwards, she passed away. Gandhi was to later write, “The loss of Valliammai would perhaps affect me more than that of my elder brother (Lakshmidass).”
Her death in the early 1900s was a reflection of the travails Indians — mostly descended from indentured labour — were going through at a time when Britain was more interested in soothing Afrikaaner feelings after the Boer War than offering Africans and Indians a fair deal. Several other Tamil leaders were involved in this struggle that Gandhi led. Featured in the exhibition are V.A. Chettiar whom Gandhi described as “a good role model at a time when (Indians) were demoralised with failure,” Thambi Naik of whom Gandhi said in a public address, “You will not find a person with so much of passion and self commitment to the freedom struggle even in India,” and P.K. Naidu who led a big rally in November 1913 after Gandhi was arrested, earning this appreciation from Gandhi, “P.K. Naidu was a symbol of non-violence.”
Over the years, other Tamils and others from the Madras Presidency were to be in the vanguard of the struggle for status that Gandhi led in South Africa, leading to Gandhi forging a special bond with the Tamil people.
Back in India, this bond was to be seen during Gandhi’s numerous visits to the Tamil districts of the Madras Presidency, where, staying a day or two in many of them, he visited 25 places. He first arrived in a Tamil district on October 14, 1896, when he set foot in Madras. He stayed in the Tamil areas of the Madras Presidency till October 27, 1896. His first public address during this visit was at the Pachaiyappa Hall in ‘Black Town’. Several visits were to follow — and, judging by a short film screened at the inauguration of the exhibition, what was amazing was the crowds he drew everywhere; they were a clear demonstration of the fact that he was truly a man of the people.
Among his other visits was one in April-May 1915 when he interacted with Annie Besant and the scholarly V.S. Srinivasa Sastri on education and social issues. In Srirangam, in September 1921, he stressed the wearing of khadi, avoiding liquor and eradicating untouchability. At Madura College, during that 1921 visit, he was greeted by over 50,000 persons; one of them was an ordinary Congress Party worker, K. Kamaraj. It was during that Madurai visit that, on September 22, 1921, he adopted the attire that was to make Winston Churchill call him “a half-naked fakir”. In March 1925, he addressed huge crowds at the Triplicane Beach twice, on the first occasion urging Tamils to learn Hindi and on the second one repeating his three favourite credos.
Two years later Gandhi was at the Triplicane Beach again. He also spoke at Wenlock Park, the headquarters of the Scouts and Guides. Baden Powell would not have exactly been pleased by his call to the Scouts and Guides to serve the country wearing khadi. In 1933-34, he travelled throughout the Tamil districts urging provision of clean water to Harijans, widespread educational facilities for them, and seeking entry for them in public places of worship.
In February 1946, he laid the foundation for the Thakkar Baba trades’ training institution for young Harijans, an institute funded by Rm. Alagappa Chettiar. Two days later, on February 3, he visited the Meenakshiamman temple in Madurai with Thakkar Baba, V.I. Munuswamy Pillai and Kamaraj, and wrote in the visitors’ book, “I am happy that a long time desire has been accomplished.” Entry of Harijans into the temple had been permitted. This was his last visit to the Tamil districts.
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