CHENNAI: It was easy to identify Arumugam from any old photograph — he was almost always the man with the most hair, according to his son Rajendran. His father, Arumugam K, was among the 20 dalits who were rounded up and attacked before having their heads forcibly shaved and made to drink water mixed with cow dung in Needamangalam, Thiruvarur. It was December 29, 1937.
This was because the upper caste villagers believed the dalits had taken part in a sama pandhi virundhu, a feast open to people of all castes and communities in late Congressman T K P Santhana Ramasamy Udayar’s palatial house.
When word spread that some dalit labourers in his farm had ‘daringly’ taken part in the feast, Krishnamurthy Iyer, the caretaker of the Hanumanthapuram farm where Arumugam worked as a farm hand, called for all dalits who worked in his farm and participated in the feast to be rounded up and brought to him to be punished. Although the role of Swaminatha Iyer, the owner of the farm in the attacks was not known, it is believed that Krishnamurthy Iyer was informed by Santhana Ramasamy Udayar himself.
The cruel irony was that dalits themselves were made to carry out the attack. As reported by the Tamil daily Viduthalai at the time of the incident, when it was Arumugam’s turn to have his head shaved, Arumugam’s father and Rajendran’s grandfather Kathirvel fell at Krishnamurthy’s feet, pleading with him to spare his son’s hair since he was due to get married soon. So, Arumugam was let off with a small amount of hair in some parts of his head including the crown. The rest of his hair was shaved.
“If you think about it now, it must have been more humiliating to have hair just in some parts of the head,” Rajendran said of his father.
Rajendran, now 63 and retired as a master craftsman from the Heavy Vehicle Factory at Avadi, rarely has reason to go back to his native place of Hanumanthapuram in Needamangalam anymore.
He had heard of the incident many times from his mother, Samiammal, and his uncles — never once from his father himself.
“I don’t know why; he was not too keen on telling me exactly what happened but I have heard of the story many times from others,” he said.
But since he learnt of the incident, it has not been possible to look at the village without resentment.
“You see, the palace where the feast was thrown is right on the road. Although it’s now dilapidated, it’s difficult not to look at it and imagine the the attack on my father and the others that day.”
The house belonged to T K P Santhana Ramasamy Udayar, veteran Congressman, who was then the chairman of the welcome committee for the Congress’ third political conference that took place on December 28, 1937. Hence, it was he that hosted the conference and the feast that followed.
Known as T K P S Udayar, he belonged to one of the largest land owning families in the area with reportedly over 900 acres of farmland in places including Mannarkudi, Kumbakonam and Papanasam. It was said that the feast was repeatedly called a sama pandhi virundhu and some dalits who were watching from the sidelines were asked to join.
After the incident, Arumugam became closely associated with rationalist and Dravida Kazhagam leader Periyar, and went on to work as a police constable, retiring from service in 1978 in Keevalur village near Nagapattinam.
“For a long time, people would identify me as Arumugam’s son in Hanumanthapuram. Now, as that generation is fading, the stories are being retold less and less. Hardly anyone recognises me as his son anymore,” he said.
Rajendran’s own children have been shielded from the stories. “There is no need for them to know,” he said.
However, A Thiruneelakandan of M D T Hindu College, Tirunelveli and author of the book Needamangalam: Saathi kodumaiyum Dravida Iyakkamamum begs to differ.
According to Thiruneelakandan, the incident had immediate and far-reaching socio political consequences, making the incident an important milestone in the fight for dalit rights.
Soon after the incident, a sama bhojanam restaurant was opened in Needamangalam where people of all castes could eat under the same roof. Similarly, Pavadai, a dalit, was made member of the panchayat and was put on equal footing with other members in all aspects.
“When I went to the places in Needamangalam for my research, I felt there were fewer cases of caste-based disparity there,” he said.
What started as an essay as part of his research went on to span 140 pages and eventually, brought out as a book. The book is a compilation of newspaper reports and on-the-ground research by the author to retell the story. Along with Arumugam, Thiruneelakandan chronicles the experiences of two other dalits - Rathnam and Devasagayam. The three later went on to become the face of the attacks against Dalits in Needamangalam.
If Arumugam is remembered for the humiliating haircut, Rathnam is remembered for jumping into the Vennaru river after being pulled up and attacked right after the feast. Rathnam reportedly hid in a tent set up by theatre artistes on the other side of the river.
Today, eighty years later, there is not much to remember the attacks in the village. That is, barring the T K P S Udayar house that still stands, mostly covered from view by ungroomed trees. There is also a plaque installed by the Dravidar Kazhagam, much later in August 1988, to commemorate the incident.
“The incident is always there, at the back of everyone’s head in the village but nobody retells the story to the young anymore — not in detail anyway,” said Thiruneelakandan.