Akkamma Devi: The first and last woman MP from the Nilgiris
On her centennial birth anniversary, Akkamma's village is oblivious to her. Design credit: Prathap Ravishankar

Akkamma Devi: The first and last woman MP from the Nilgiris

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The woman couldn’t believe what she was hearing when the former chief minister of Madras state K Kamaraj said, “Akkamma, are you ready to contest on a Congress ticket for the Nilgiris Parliamentary seat?”

The year was 1962. The nation was getting ready for the third Lok Sabha election. Madras state’s Congress committee was in search of a suitable candidate for the Nilgiris constituency. When the party heard about Akkamma Devi, a well-known figure in the district, it decided to field her, the first and only woman member of parliament to emerge from the Nilgiris.  

Sarojini Varadappan, daughter of the last Congress chief minister of Madras, M Bhaktavatsalam, informed Akkamma that the state’s Congress headquarters had decided to field her in the elections, but Akkamma thought that it is for the Assembly elections. When Kamaraj asked her to contest for the Parliamentary election, she was stunned because, for her, Delhi was another world, one that she never imagined. Growing up, Akkamma never thought she would find her way to the nation’s capital.

Humble beginnings

Born on September 5, 1918, in Bearhutty village, Akkamma was the second of seven children to Motha Gowder and Subbi. Though she was interested in attending school, ‘duties’ such as taking care of her younger brother and helping her mother with household chores prevented her from receiving formal schooling. However, she learnt to sing rhymes sitting outside the school, with her brother in her lap.

Her father, who worked at the lab of Pasteur Institute, Coonoor, was a liberal since he had the opportunity to interact with British officers. He encouraged the idea of educating women. Seeing Akkamma’s interest in learning, he decided to get her admitted to St Joseph’s Convent in Coonoor. But there was one problem: the school was established exclusively for the British and Anglo-Indians. So, he sought the help of Dr Cornwall, then director of the Pasteur Institute. Akkamma was the first Indian to join the school. She used to walk five miles to reach school everyday.

After her schooling, she joined St Teresa’s College at Ernakulam, majoring in economics. A couple of days before joining college, she was betrothed to Joghi, an ace sportsman from Hubbathalai village and the son of Bellie Gowder, the first Badaga to earn the title of ‘Rao Bahadur’. The Bahudur built one of the first high schools in the Nilgiris district, in Hubbathalai, which was later renamed in his memory, and stands even today.         

Against all odds

It was the time of World War II. It was the time of the Quit India Movement. The girls of the college were evicted for some time, so that the soldiers could stay there. Against such kind of atrocities, Akkamma, along with her friend Leela Menon (who later went on to become a member of the Rajya Sabha), participated in the Quit India Movement and got arrested.

It was during this period that she contracted filaria. Despite people advising her to return home, she resisted and, against all odds, passed her exams with good marks, becoming the first woman graduate of the Badaga community.

A year and a half after her marriage, she had a child, because of which she was unable to accept any job offers. However, she didn’t let her knowledge go to waste. She taught the women of Hubbathalai about gardening, basic sanitation and literacy. She also started the Nilgiris chapter of the All India Women’s Conference.

Hema Raman, in a biography of her mother titled ‘Daughter of the Mountains’, says, “In 1953, Sarojini Varadappan met my mother. She was then associated with the Congress. After hearing my mother’s accomplishments she urged her to take part in the welfare extension programmes of the government. My mother happily accepted her request and that was how she got in touch with politics.”

First time, first woman

Hesitant at first, when the opportunity to run for MP came knocking on her door, Akkamma rose to challenge. That was the first time the Congress chose a candidate from the Nilgiris to represent the constituency. The Nilgiris parliamentary constituency at the time consisted of Ootacamund, Coonoor and Gudalur of Nilgiris district, and Mettupalayam, Thondamuthur and Avinashi (now comes under Tiruppur district) of Coimbatore district. Until 1962, the party usually chose a candidate from Coimbatore to represent Nilgiris. That year, Akkamma won with a thumping majority of 1,63,420 votes.

“As an MP she brought a lot of development measures to the district. She played a vital role in starting Indco tea factories, establishing a polio vaccine unit at the Pasteur Institute (until then, which produced only anti-rabies vaccines) and helping find a suitable place for Providence College for Women, the first women’s college in the district, through which lakh of Badaga women have graduated till now. The college was once a palace of the Maharaja of Cochin and it was because of Akkamma’s perseverance that the building was allocated for the college,” said Hema in an interview with The Federal.

During her tenure she was appointed as a member of the Public Accounts Committee for two years, between 1964 and 1966. She was the only woman member of that committee. “But that in no way hindered her. She always stood for values and showed the strength of women power.” Hema added.  

All in the past

Her political career came to a halt when DMK came to power in 1967. From then on, the Congress was never able to return to power in the state. Interestingly, the Congress won the most number of times (seven times from 1957 to 2009) in the Nilgiris constituency in the Lok Sabha elections. In 2009, the constituency was announced as a reserved constituency for scheduled castes.

Even after her tenure, Akkamma didn’t give up her social service activities. She served in Coffee Board and started a home for the tribals of Gudalur in memory of Mahatma Gandhi, which turns 50 this year. After a brief illness, she died in November 23, 2012, at her residence.

Akkamma was an iconoclast who dared break taboo customs of her community, such as not getting her nose pierced and being the first girl in her native village to not stay in ‘olluvugudi’, an enclosure for menstruating women. She could have easily become a role model for the girls of her community today, but on her centennial birth anniversary, her village is oblivious to her.

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