Among relatives of those who committed suicide during the anti-Hindi agitation of 1965, he stands out as someone who went beyond his personal grief and reached out to 10 other such families to offer succor.
Meet R Manickam — elder brother of ‘Viralimalai’ Shanmugham, who consumed poison on February 23, 1965 — who still maintains an active network with families of the ‘martyrs’.
Shanmugam left three letters — one to DMK leader C N Annadurai, second to Manickam and the third to his friend Murthy. He personally handed over the letter to Murthy a few minutes before committing suicide and asked him to open it at home. The other two letters were retrieved from his shirt pocket.
Even before he reached home, Murthy opened the letter. Alarmed, he started searching for Shanmugam, who was later found lying in a narrow street, recalls Manickam, his eyes welling up with tears.
Shanmugam, he says, was upset over Anna’s direction to withdraw the struggle and thought his suicide would ignite the anti-Hindi anger further.
“On that day, I had gone to a nearby village for some work. When I returned to Viralimalai around 8 pm, some people told me that my brother had consumed insecticide and was in the nearby hospital. We took him to the Tiruchy government hospital, where he was under treatment for one full day. Even in the hospital, he spoke about the anti-Hindi protest. Hundreds of people participated in his last rites despite police restrictions. His body was buried on the banks of Uyyankondan River in Tiruchy, where ‘Keezhapavur’ Chinnasamy’s body too was buried,” Manickam recalls.
On a postcard he wrote to his relative Singaram on February 20, 1965, Shanmugham, starting with a slogan ‘Tamil Dhrogikal Ozhiga’ (Down with those who betray Tamil) said, “One can learn Hindi or any other language. But if that language tries to wipe out Tamil and rule over our language, no one can accept it.” He also scored out the Hindi words printed on that post card and wrote ‘Hindi Ozhiga’ (Down with Hindi) on top of the stamp. Shanmugam was 22 and had studied up to Class V. “I was running a tea shop near our house at Viralimalai. Shanmugam was working in a grocery shop. Before Shanmugam, six others had sacrificed their lives during 1964 and 1965. Shanmugam and his friends, who were members of the MGR Mandram, put up protests at Viralimalai to pay homage to those martyrs and held a rally,” he recounts. Manickam, who has preserved Shanmugam’s paint-stained shirt, says: “His shirt was stained with paint as he often wrote anti-Hindi slogans on vehicles and walls.”
Later, Manickam met the 10 families — nine of them committed suicide and one died in police firing in Cuddalore — and formed the association in 1980. “Of the 10, only two, ‘Keezhapavur’ Chinnasamy and ‘Virugambakkam’ Aranganathan, were married. Chinnasamy had a daughter.”
A Arunachalam, now 80, attended Chinnasamy’s funeral. “At Keezhapavur, everyone was talking about Chinnasamy’s sacrifice,” he says. Udhayasuriyan of Keezhapavur, whose father was a friend of Chinnasamy, says the idea of self-immolation could have germinated in his mind from the examples of Vietnamese Buddhist monks.
“Inspired by Chinnasamy, Sivalingam of Kodambakkam immolated himself in Chennai on January 25, 1965. Aranganathan of Virugambakkam (24), who was working in the telephone department, saw Sivalingam’s body and set himself on fire two days later near National Theatre. He left behind a letter. He was married and had three children.”
Similarly, Veerappan (27) of Ayyampalayam, a teacher, ended his life by taking sleeping pills and then setting himself on fire.
Rajendran (20) of Sivagangai, a student of Annamalai University, died in police firing during the students’ rally on January 27. His father was a policeman. His statue still stands on the campus.
Chidambaram town businessman B Palani, who took part in the rally in 1956 as a student of Annamalai University, says, “Students started spontaneous protests on January 25. A day later, when they assembled for a mass protest, a police officer asked them to defer it saying it was Republic Day. The students dispersed, but assembled the next day and the rally got violent, with the police opening fire, which left Rajendran dead. It took two days for normality to return to Chidambaram.”
Another ‘martyr’ was Dhandapani (21) of Peelamedu, an engineering student. He committed suicide by consuming poison on March 2, 1965. Besides, Sarangabani (20) of Mayiladuthurai, a commerce student, set himself on fire on March 15.
“Muthu (23) of Sathiyamangalam, who was working in a lorry workshop, set himself ablaze, shouting slogans on February 11. Muthu (22) of Keeranur was a agricultural worker. He consumed poison and died leaving two letters — one to then CM Bhaktavatsalam and another to Anna. He urged them to prevent imposition and strive for Tamil’s growth ,” he recalls.