Mahatma Gandhi politically united India     

Vaikom Satyagraha in Kerala drew nationwide attention and a team sent by Akali Dal ran a langar for the satyagrahis

Vaikom Satyagraha in Kerala
Vaikom Satyagraha in Kerala

BRP Bhaskar

Although the British brought the entire subcontinent under their heels, there was no unified political India in a real sense even under them. To large sections of people, especially those living in myriad villages across the subcontinent, it mattered little who held the reins in Delhi or Calcutta. The origins of Indian nationalism can be traced to the growth of the Indian National Congress. A.O. Hume, who is given credit for its founding, had conceived of it as a forum of English-educated Indians, more particularly graduates of the first universities the British had set up. Soon, the feudal aristocracy came into its fold too. A process of gradual widening of the group was already on when Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi returned home after his unique political experiments in South Africa. The South African campaigns helped Gandhi to broaden his vision of India. When he set out to organise the Indian community there, he became conscious of their religious, linguistic and cultural diversity and the need to unite them politically.

On his visits to India to mobilise public opinion on the issue of Indians working abroad, he had made it a point to meet the Editor of The Hindu in Madras and enlist his support. In the circumstances prevailing at that time, this meant mobilising South Indian public opinion. It was Gandhi who first got India to come together in a united political action. He was travelling by train from Madras to Calcutta when the idea of a countrywide work stoppage to protest the Jallianwala Bagh massacre struck him. He named it hartal, a word he coined by combining the Gujarati words har and tal. On reaching Calcutta, he gave the hartal call through a press statement. It evoked a good response all over, including the South. Because newspapers carrying the hartal call reached different places on different days, the work stoppage did not take place on the same day everywhere. But it became evident that all of India can think and act alike.

Gandhi supported the Khilafat Movement, brushing aside objections of senior party colleagues, in the belief that it will help bring the Muslims closer to the freedom movement. It probably brought some Muslims to the movement but there were also consequences he could not foresee. In northern Kerala, then part of the Madras Presidency, the movement got out of hand, leading to communal strife. The venue of one of Gandhi’s early experiments in peaceful protests was the temple town of Vaikom in Kerala, which was then in the princely state of Travancore. After a Kerala delegation raised the issue of caste discrimination at its Kakinada session, the Congress decided on a Satyagraha to protest against the bar on use of roads around the Vaikom temple by people in the lower rungs of the graded caste system.

As Secretary of the Tamil Nadu Congress Committee, E.V. Ramaswami, who was to launch the Dravidian Movement some years later, played a leading role in the Satyagraha. Every day, three satyagrahis - a Caste Hindu, a Dalit and an OBC - courted arrest. Goons deployed by the high priest of the temple belaboured the Dalit and OBC satyagrahis before arrest.

The Vaikom Satyagraha attracted nationwide attention. A team sent by the Shiromani Akali Dal ran a langar for the satyagrahis and their supporters. Gandhi visited Vaikom during the Satyagraha. He talked to the high priest but he would not relent. At the state capital, he spoke to the Regent Maharani who was sympathetic but had her limitations. He asked the under-age Maharaja-inwaiting, Balarama Varma, if he would address the issue of temple entry and received an affirmative answer. The Satyagraha dragged on for two years and ended without a formal settlement. But caste-based travel restrictions ended. In 1936, soon after becoming the Maharaja, Balarama Varma threw open all the temples under his control to all Hindus regardless of caste. Gandhi hailed the decision. When Gandhi marched to Dandi on the Gujarat coast in 1930 and made salt from sea water, defying an official ban, his team of 80 included 10 from the South, five of them from Kerala. The South staged parallel Salt satyagrahas at Vedaranyam in Tamil Nadu, Payyanoor in Kerala, Ankola in Karnataka and various places along the Andhra coast. The Vedaranyam Satyagraha was led by C. Rajagopalachari. Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader E.M.S. Namboodiripad, who was then a Congressman, was among those who joined the Satyagraha in Kerala. In 1929, Gandhi undertook an extensive tour of the Telugu speaking areas of Madras Presidency. He kept a diary during that trip, which somehow escaped the attention of the editors of his Collected Works. It was published for the first time in 2014. Gandhi recognised Hindustani’s potential to serve as India’s lingua franca. At the same time, he demonstrated the importance he attached to the other Indian languages by learning to write his name in many of them.

At his instance, the Congress reorganised its units on linguistic basis. Thus, Madras Presidency had separate PCCs for the Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam regions. The Telugus who wanted a state of their own held their fire until after Independence as Gandhi promised linguistic reorganisation of states after winning freedom. When the government failed to keep the promise, Potti Sriramulu, a Gandhian, forced its hands by courting death by fasting. Gandhi was a leader who inspired people through deeds as much as through words. The number of persons who devoted their lives to the cause of freedom or service to the people, inspired by his example, is legion. There were leaders in the South who were sometimes referred to as Andhra Gandhi, Karnataka Gandhi and Kerala Gandhi. Many villages, too, produced their own Gandhi. No national leader, before or since, has had as great an influence on the South as Gandhi had.

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