Forgotten freedom fighters of the south

by Roshini Nair

Why is the narrative on India’s freedom struggle skewed in favour of the north and the west? Is this just parochial tu-tu-main-main? Roshni Nair talks to historians and a representative of the Thevar community to get answers

Whether or not Napoleon said the exact words is immaterial. For Dr R Varadarajan, the founder-president of Marathiya Manila Thevar Munnetra Peravai on a mission to rewrite the saga of Indian independence, history is indeed ‘a set of lies agreed upon’.

“Our contributions have never been recognised,” frowns the diminutive septuagenarian, sinking into his principal’s chair at NES International School, Mulund. “Why are narratives on the Indian freedom struggle dominated by north and west India?”

It’s a counter-question to “Why were there no freedom fighters from south India?”, “How did south India contribute to 1857?” and other gems that underline parochial tu-tu-main-mains. And so it was on April 17 that the Marathiya Manila Thevar Munnetra Peravai kick started a state-wide itihaas ratra of sorts, organising ceremonies in honour of Thevar freedom fighters and rebels.

“It’s important that youngsters know of them,” Varadarajan reasons. “Otherwise our history will be lost forever.”

***

The Mukkulathors or Thevars are a powerful community – and vote bank – in Tamil Nadu, a prize catch for parties tussling to release stamps, erect pillars and garland the busts of figureheads who are little-known outside the state. Just last month, in the run up to assembly elections, a gaggle of geese in politicians’ garb ‘paid respects’ at Madurai’s Perungamanallur pillar. The site commemorates 16 Kallars (a sub-group of the Thevars) gunned down by the British for protesting their status as a ‘criminal tribe’. The Perungamanallur massacre of 1920 is often referred to as ‘the Jallianwala Bagh of the south’.

Mumbai’s Marathiya Manila Thevar Munnetra Peravai is one of many Thevar-centric organisations fighting for community greats like Puli Thevar, the Marudhu Pandiyar brothers, Veerapandiya Kattabomman and Velu Nachiyar to get recognition.

“Why isn’t Rani Velu Nachiyar talked about like Rani Lakshmibai despite her fighting the British in the 18th century?” Varadarajan asks. “Why don’t we hear of Muthuramalinga Sethupathi, the Ramanathapuram ruler who was imprisoned in Fort St. George until death?”

Moving beyond the Thevars: what about the Vellore Mutiny of 1806, the first Indian mutiny against the East India Company? Or VO Chidambaram Pillai, the nationalist-industrialist who set up the Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company, India’s first indigenous shipping service? About Pazhassi Raja, who spearheaded the Cotiote Wars against the British? Or Alluri Sitarama Raju, who led the tribal-centric Rampa Rebellion between 1922 to 1924?

The answers to Varadarajan’s questions are few. And complex.

***

“The historical trend has always been from north to south. We talk about the Mauryas, but don’t mention the Rashtrakutas, who came all the way up to Kannauj,” says Dr Rakesh Batabyal, associate professor at the Centre of Media Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). “The Vijayanagar empire and the Chola dynasty – whose influence extended to Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Indonesia – aren’t talked about in the same vein as the Guptas or the Mughals.”

But things get tricky as we move ahead in time, he adds. Indian historians fight a three-headed Medusa: colonial history (where Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard chairs say there was ‘no national movement’), communal history and caste-centric history.

“Caste associations, once crucial for the Independence movement, were later seen as detrimental to consensus-building,” Batabyal explains. “Historical heroes were picked within the frame of ‘contributing to nation-building’. So a Thevar or Ezhava figurehead had to be seen as more than just a caste hero.”

Eulogising leaders as Varadarajan does, then, is little more than cataloguing. But this is tricky: when history ignores regional warriors, freedom fighters, or activists, they become relegated to myth and hyperbole. Take Puli Thevar, one of the earliest opponents of the East India Company, who is described by Varadarajan as “the warrior whose palace was made of tiger skins”.

History’s trash has become folklore’s treasure. A classic case of the snake feeding on its own tail.

***

KN Panikkar, one of India’s foremost historians, has a theory about why the 1857 uprising – not the Vellore Mutiny – is the mega-narrative of India’s independence struggle. “It was confined to a smaller area, didn’t include as many sections of society and didn’t set off a chain of events like the 1857 war did,” says the chairman of the Kerala Council for Historical Research.

As for the Thevar uprisings and Polygar Wars of 1799-1805, Panikkar believes the concerns of the time were limited to local administration. Just as they were when their kingdoms would be attacked by any neighbouring state.

But, he adds: “Pre-1857 revolts should be taken into account in terms of establishing a tradition of revolt against colonial rule, whatever the reasons.”

Regional universities are instrumental in giving local heroes a platform, feels Batabyal, who says such federalism must be nurtured. “A nationalism that bulldozes is a western concept, not an Indian one. We must be more inclusive of local history in tandem with nation-building. The problem is that such efforts either get impeded or hijacked by vested interests.”

But Varadarajan cares not for the troubled marriage of Indian history and polity. He just wants people to know. Plain and simple.

“Thousands pass by Dharavi’s T-junction without even knowing what the ‘T’ stands for,” he says.

“Is it ‘Thevar’?”

“Of course,” he laughs. “What else would it be?”

Whose history is it anyway?

The rift between Leftist and right-leaning historians is believed to have widened in the 1960s, after Dr RC Majumdar’s The Sepoy Mutiny and the Revolt of 1857 was published.

Majumdar, a veteran historian of his time, was of the belief that the 1857 uprising was purely religious in nature and not an attempt to drive the British out of India. His views led to a fallout between him and the secretary of the board of editors – allegedly from the Congress – leading to him publishing the book on his own.

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