In 1894, when a young advocate named Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, who was yet to become synonymous with India’s struggle for Independence, encountered a labourer, little did he realise that the meeting would change his life forever.
Balasundaram, a Tamil man fell at his feet and pleaded Gandhi to rescue him from his European employer based in South Africa’s Durban. The latter had broken his teeth and the indentured labourer had no other option but to continue working with him. He could be sued by his employer if he left without notice. So, Gandhi came up with an agreement with another European who was willing to take on Balasundaram. The news reached far and wide including Madras, and everyone came to know about a saviour in Natal.
Gandhi has recorded this meeting with Balasundaram and how it impacted him in his autobiography ‘The Story of My Experiments with Truth’. “There was a peculiar pathos about the circumstance which also showed our humiliation. I have already narrated the incident when I was asked to take off my turban. A practice had been forced upon every indentured labourer and every Indian stranger to take off his head-gear, when visiting a European, whether the head-gear were a cap, turban or a scarf wrapped round the head. A salute even with both hands was not sufficient. Balasundaram thought that he should follow the practice even with me. This was the first case in my experience. I felt humiliated and asked him to tie up his scarf. He did so, not without a certain hesitation, but I could perceive the pleasure on his face. It has always been a mystery to me how men can feel themselves honoured by the humiliation of their fellow beings.”
VR Devika, founder of The Aseema Trust that conducts activities centred on Gandhian principles, says that meeting with Balasundaram began his long term association with Tamils and Tamil. “Tamil was the first language he learnt in South Africa. Later, when he visited Madras Presidency in 1915, he was mobbed by a group of students, who insisted that they will draw the carriage with him to his host, journalist, publisher and freedom fighter GA Natesan’s house in Mint.”
Gandhi’s transformation can be seen clearly through his several visits to Madras Presidency. A 20-odd times he visited this part of the country, and each time he displayed a change that was radically opposite to his earlier self. R Venkatesh, a historian based in Chennai says, “He first delivered an address in a western formal wear, a long one for over 1 hour and 30 minutes at the Pachaiyappan Hall on Indians in South Africa in the end of the 19th century. This is described as an excruciating one in the newspapers the next day and the editorials wonder how the students sat through it. And in this trip, he has a lavish stay at a star hotel called Buckingham where he spends 1 rupee four annas – an amount more than enough to feed a family for a full month, during those times. We know this because he has maintained a meticulous record.”
When he visits the city of Madras again in 1915, he wore a Kathiawari dress and addressed gatherings in places like Victoria Public Hall. However, the biggest of impact Gandhi had on Tamils was in the next decade when he appeared as a half clad fakir asking for the inclusion of Dalits and harijans in mainstream society and their entry into temples. This was when people started to like Gandhians like Vaidyanatha Iyer, who spearheaded the movement in Madurai by seeking the entry of Dalits in the Madurai Meenakshi Amman Temple. Says Poo Ko Saravanan, translator, “His push for ending caste based discrimination met with stiff resistance from Sanathanis and the pioneers of the Self Respect Movement. The former didn’t like him questioning the varnas and the latter wanted him to focus not only on untouchability. The upper caste resisted this move both in Madurai and Chidambaram, where they closed the temple to stop the entry.”
Saravanan says that the highlight of the whole social movement was that Gandhi spearheaded them when there was civil disobedience. “He though the movement was important as well and began his Harijan yatra from Tamil Nadu, upon the insistence of Rajaji or C Rajagopalachari who joined Congress inspired by Gandhi’s ideals,” he adds.
In Kutralam, he refused to have a bath in the falls after he was told that Dalits were barred from using the road that led to it. P Maruthi, state president, Harijan Sevak Sangh, says that Gandhi inspired people like Lakshman Iyer, who was the municipality chairman of Gobichettipalayam in Erode, to end manual scavenging in the town. “His whole family was dedicated to the cause because they were inspired by Gandhi, and Iyer even adopted a harijan boy and raised him in his house,” he says. “Vocational education for them was an idea mooted by him in 1933 and a Harijan Industrial School was started to economically empower them. Even today, the school functions on the campus of Thakkar Bapa Vidyalaya in Chennai. Many such initiatives were started all over the state in Viluppuram and Madurai.”
Gandhi’s willingness to change his stand and see reason is well documented, says Saravanan. “Subramania Bharati, the revolutionary Tamil poet was quite critical of Gandhi’s opposition against widow remarriage in the earlier days. “When Gandhi addressed a group of college students in Chennai in the 1920s, he advised them to marry widows and if their family didn’t accept them, they should stay single,” says Saravanan. “Yet, you cannot help but see the impact he had on his critics too. Bharati was the first to portray him in his cartoons in the magazine he published. Periyar, who was seen as an opponent, also wanted the country to be renamed as ‘Gandhi Nation’ and acknowledged the Gandhi era.”
The Gandhi Memorial Museum in Madurai and Gandhigram in Dindugul have remained a testimony to the huge impact Gandhi’s visits and ideologies have had. Devika says, “The ashram in Tiruchengode is a place that leaves me in awe. Even today, reaching it by car is a uphill task. I wonder how he visited the place back then?”
When the news of his assassination broke, the crowds rushed to the Marina Beach where the community radio had been set up. Venkatesh says, “50,000 of them had a bath in the sea and several thousands shaved their heads, as a gesture to mourn the death of their father. There was also a proposal sent out by the Corporation of Madras to rename the city as Gandhipattinam, but that was not followed up.”