It was an unprecedented surge of student power on Chennai’s beach road. With the slogan Hindi Oliga, Tamil Vaazhga (Down with Hindi, long live Tamil) rending the air, the atmosphere was charged with linguistic ferver on 25 January, 1965, recalls L Ganesan, the prime force behind the mobilisation of the student protest.
He estimates that there were one lakh students on the road. They were flowing in groups from all the lanes and by-lanes continuously to join the column that was marching towards Fort St George. That students from Loyola, Engineering, medical and veterinary colleges too had joined the protest against Hindi being made the official language showed the widespread support the cause of Tamil had among the student community.
The policemen, who were keeping a watch over the agitation and reacting sharply to the students’ aggression, suddenly blocked the procession. “Armed police prevented us from proceeding towards the Secretariat. When the emotionally charged students attempted to surge ahead, breaking the police barricade, police manhandled them,” recounts Ganesan. He and his close aides, who were watching the sloganeering getting aggressive and the collective anger targeting the ruling Congress government led by Bhaktavatsalam, quickly sensed the gravity of the situation. He knew the police was waiting for an opportunity to open fire. So he rushed in to pacify the students in the forefront. “I diverted the procession toward Marina beach. When we were holding a meeting on the beach, the news about Congress functionaries disrupting the students’ procession in Madurai and hacking some among them reached us to create a flutter,” he said.
Popular among the students for his eloquence, Ganesan galvanised the emotions of the students through his oratory and urged them to boycott schools and colleges till the Centre gave up its plans to make Hindi the official language.
After the students dispersed from the beach peacefully, Ganesan, who was then a practicing advocate in Madras High Court, accompanied Pachayappa students and stayed with them in their hostel. “Sensing that the situation was going out of control and it could take a turn for the worse if students were allowed to continue their protest, the State government declared holiday for schools and colleges till February 7 and ordered closure of all college hostels, he said. Later that night, police raided Pachayappa College hostel, arrested all the students including Ganesan and lodged them in the Chennai Central Prison.
“In jail, we met DMK leader C N Annadurai (popularly known as Anna), who along with other DMK senior leaders were arrested as a preventive measure because the DMK had announced January 26 as a ‘day of mourning’, instructing party cadre to hoist black flags in their houses condemning imposition of Hindi”, Ganesan recalls. Three days later, he was released from jail. Then he went from one college hostel to another, drawing up plans to continue the protest.
Since only few students were in the hostels after they were closed and the then Congress CM Bhatvachalam had ordered police to arrest Ganesan ‘dead or alive’, he, along with a few other student leaders like Vaiko from Presidency college and Navalan from Thayagaraya college, held meetings outside campuses.
“Without drawing police attention, we met in public places like the zoo, Marina Beach and Nehru Park. Instead of holding discussions in a particular place, I would pass instructions, walking along with the crowd there,” he recounts.