Unsung heroes of South India

Historians of the national movement have hardly looked beyond Subramaniya Bharathi, Rajaji and a few others, but there were thousands who rebelled and even gave up their lives for our freedom.

Published: 12th August 2022 01:05 AM  |   Last Updated: 12th August 2022 01:05 AM   |  A+A-

National flag, Indian flag

The Indian flag (Photo | P Jawahar, EPS)

As we celebrate the 75th anniversary of our Independence, it is time we remember some of the unsung heroes from South India. Historians of the national movement have hardly looked beyond Subramaniya Bharathi, Rajaji and a few others, but there were thousands who rebelled and even gave up their lives for our freedom. In fact, the earliest revolts took place in the south, long before 1857. Yet, Madras was called “benighted” and historian David Washbrook said that “not even a single anti-British dog could be seen in the streets of Madras.” How untrue!

In 1775, in response to a request from Bombay, the Madras Council decided to send the Ninth Battalion of native infantry stationed at Tiruchirapalli. They refused to go and the acting commandant Makhdum Sahib and his associates were blown away from the mouth of a cannon. Similarly, in 1795, the Indian sepoys of the Madras army refused to participate in an expedition against the Dutch in Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Needless to say, this too resulted in their death and severe punishments.

The best known opposition to the British in the Tamil region was by the ‘Palayakaarars’ (Poligars in English), who were independent entities protecting the lives and properties of the people in their respective paalayams (regions). They also collected taxes, which the East India Company (EIC) coveted. Thanks to Sivaji Ganesan, the revolt in 1799 by Veera Pandya Kattabomman, Palayakaarar of Panchalankuruchi, and his subsequent hanging are well known in Tamil Nadu. But there were others like Puli Thevar of Nelkattamseval, Chinna Thambi Varaguna, Palayakaarar of Sivagiri, and the Kallar tribes of Madurai who waged battles against the British, which ended in indiscriminate public hangings and massacres. Dheeran Chinnamalai, Palayakaarar of Palayamkottai in Kongunadu, rebelled against both Hyder Ali and the British. He won the battle but was finally captured with the help of an informer. He and his brothers were imprisoned at Sankagiri. In 1805, they were asked to accept British rule but refused, and were therefore hanged at the top of Sankagiri Fort. 

When Muthu Vaduganatha Periyavudaya Thevar of Sivaganga was killed by the EIC in 1780, his wife Rani Velu Nachiyaar went away and planned her revenge for eight years. Helped by the Marudhu brothers and Thandavarayan Pillai, she attacked the EIC with her 4,000-strong batallion of women whose commander Kuyili covered herself with oil and ghee and jumped into the British ammunition depot, blowing it up and probably becoming the first suicide bomber in history. The Rani defeated the British and regained her kingdom. The Marudhu brothers, Periya Marudhu and Chinna Marudhu, were probably the first to appeal to the people of India, when Chinna Marudhu declared in 1801: “The castes, nations, Brahmins, Kshetriyas, Vysyas, Sudras and Musselmen [Muslims] that are in the Island of Jamboo/in the Peninsula of Jamboo Dweepa this notice is given. Wherever you find any of the low wretches (Europeans), destroy them and continue to do so until they are ‘exported’. Whoever serves the low wretches will never enjoy eternal bliss after death, I know this.” This was followed by the Second ‘Poligar’ War. 

In 1806, the Indian army stationed in Vellore rebelled against their British masters—it was a large-scale and violent mutiny. Hindu sepoys were prohibited from wearing their religious marks on their foreheads, while the Muslims had to shave their beards and trim their moustaches. Further, their turbans were replaced by a hat! The rebels killed 14 officers and 115 men of the 69th regiment. A relief force of British gunners and cavalry rode from Arcot to Vellore in two hours. The gates were blown open—British superiority in armaments had won. As usual, some men were shot from the mouth of cannons, some hanged, some shot and some deported. 

It is believed that the South was untouched by the Great Revolt of 1857 but, according to the records in the Tamil Nadu archives, 1,044 sepoys of the Madras army were court-martialed for their sympathy or support to the 1857 Revolt. In North Arcot district, secret meetings were held and plans were prepared from as early as January 1857 for a war against the British. The districts of Madras, Chingleput and Coimbatore were declared as disturbed regions. In Thanjavur district, a revolutionary named Sheikh Ibraham was convicted in March 1858. Arunagiry and Krishna were rebel leaders leading the revolt in Chingleput, where an uprising took place. The Chingleput magistrate informed the Government of Madras about the seriousness of the insurgency and the two were apprehended and put to death. 

If Bhagat Singh is celebrated for shooting dead a British police officer, very few remember Vanchinathan who assassinated Robert Ashe, Collector of Tirunelveli in 1911, who was responsible for closing V O Chidambaram Pillai’s swadeshi shipping company and arresting him. Vanchinathan then shot himself, leaving a letter “dedicating his life as a small contribution to my motherland.” V V S Aiyar, a revolutionary from Tamil Nadu, was involved in the plot to assassinate Ashe. He advocated and carried out militant resistance to British rule, influenced by V D Savarkar whom he met during his term as a lawyer in London. His anarchist activities forced him to seek exile in Pondicherry. When the German ship Emden entered the Madras harbour and blew up two oil tanks, damaged three more and a merchant ship, the British colonial government blamed this on the activities of the exiles in Pondicherry, and urged the French Governor to deport Aiyar and his companions. The French brought several charges against Aiyar and the other revolutionaries but did not convict them. 

At a recent lecture in Chennai, Professor N Rajendran, former vice chancellor of Alagappa University, blamed modern historians of Tamil Nadu for failing to write about the southern contribution to the freedom movement. True. How many children or their parents have heard of these names and their revolt against colonial rule? We do not find their stories in either books of history or literature. But they were great revolutionaries, many of whom set in motion the opposition to British rule in India. Azadi ka amrit mahotsav is an appropriate time to remember them.

Nanditha Krishna
Historian, environmentalist and writer based in Chennai


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