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Selected Writings by Sachi Sri Kantha
Mahatma Gandhi and Tamils
15 June 1991
Attenborough’s 1982 movie on Mahatma Gandhi was undoubtedly one of
the cinematic masterpieces of this century. So much has been written
and discussed about it, but one aspect which has not been brought
out was the movie’s failure in highlighting the influence Tamils had
on young Gandhi.
Long before Gandhi met Nehrus, Netaji and other Indian national leaders, he was influenced by the Tamil workers during his 22 year sojourn in South Africa. In numerous instances, Gandhi has recorded in his autobiography, how Tamils influenced his thoughts and actions during his sociopolitical agitations in South Africa. Gandhi noted,
“The affection that the Dravidians in South Africa showered on me has remained a cherished memory. Whenever I see a Tamil or Telugu friend I cannot but recall the faith, perseverance and selfless sacrifice of many of his compatriots in South Africa. And they were mostly illiterate, the men no less than the women. The fight in South Africa was for such, and it was fought by illiteratre soliders…”
Also, one chapter of Gandhi’s autobiography was devoted to an indentured Tamil laborer named Balasundaram. It was captioned simply as ‘Balasundaram’. Let us read again in his own words, how Balasundaram’s plight influenced Gandhi’s actions.
This incident occurred in 1894, the year after Gandhi had arrived in South Africa. How much self confidence the Balasundaram case would have brought to the 25 year old Gandhi, who failed miserably in his first case at Bombay and as a result left for South Africa is not at all difficult to guess. However,this incident failed to find a place in the 1982 Gandhi movie.
After 22 years of social service in South Africa, Gandhi returned to India in 1915 and set up his Satyagraha Ashram in Ahmedabad. Again, Sir Attenborough’s movie did not provide any clue to the original composition of the Ashram members, though Gandhi himself had recorded it for posterity. Gandhi noted in his autobiography,
“The Satyagraha Ashram was founded on the 25th of May 1915. There were at thistime about thirteen Tamilians in our party. Five Tamil youngsters had accompanied me from South Africa, and the rest came from different parts of the country (India). We were in all about twenty five men and women. This is how the Ashram was started. All had their meals in a common kitchen and strove to live as one family…”
The Madras Hindu and the Brahmin Establishment
[courtesy: Tamil Nation, April 1992]
Let me present a scenario in the vast Dravidian land, known for its antiquity and conservatism. A non-conformist revolutionary who espoused agitational techniques unfamiliar to the entrenched ruling class gets a cold shoulder.
The ruling class consists of two types: (1) The Establishment, who are aliens to the Dravidian land, but garbed with military and intelligence arm; (2) The brahmin brown sahibs, who control the press and other law enforcement agencies.
The non-conformist revolutionary was born to a ‘class’, considered as ‘low caste’ by the brahmin brown sahibs. The revolutionary’s idea of agitational techniques receive only a rebuke from the majority in the Madras land. Only about 120 people identify with the revolutionary and provide the founding, emotional support to him. To make matters worse, this revolutionary never stood for any election and canvassed for votes like an ordinary politician.
No, I am not writing about 1992 and Velupillai Prabhakaran. I refer to the year 1919, and a revolutinary (with the name Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi) who came to Madras Presidency for soliciting support for his agitational technique – civil disobedience. The brahmin brown sahibs, who did not mind Gandhi then (and who don’t mind Prabhakaran now) are the same – the owners of the Madras Hindu establishment.
At the beginning of 1919, Mahatma Gandhi wasan ‘outsider to India’s political establishment’. Though his satyagraha campaigns against the British in South Africa did make Gandhi a recognizable figure, the highest Congress Party leadership had yet to admit him into their cabal. Gandhi, a non-conformist, did not wait in line for a formal admission. He captured the leadership from the lethargic bosses of the Congress Party, using his organizational skills.
On March 17, 1919, Gandhi arrived in Madras city to campaign for his opposition against the Rowlatt Bills. He went on a tour to five towns – Tanjavur, Tiruchi, Madurai, Tuticorin and Nagapatnam. And when he left Madras on March 28, only 120 people in the whole Madras Presidency did sign his satyagraha pledge. Only 120 people out of a total population of the then 20 million. Compared to the LTTE’s current support in Tamil Nadu, Gandhi was in a worse situation then.
According to David Arnold’s 1977 book, ‘The Congress in Tamil Nad; Nationalist Politics in South India, 1919-1937’, while in Madras,
“Gandhi had suggested that a proscribed book should be printed and circulated to the satyagrahis in defiance of the law. When the publishers of the Hindu were requested to undertake this effort, ‘they protested that they have invested one or two lakhs in their presses and that confiscation would ruin them’.”
David Arnold had further observed that, “The Gandhians had limited access to the press in Tamilnad. Of the four principal English dailies in 1920-21, three – Mail, Justice and New India – were persistent, often vociferous, opponents of non-cooperation. The fourth, the Hindu…would not risk government displeasure and the possible confiscation by too daring an editorial policy.”
Gandhi had hoped that after the Nagpur Congress in Dec.1920, “the Hindu would swing over to non-cooperation, for it was an extremely influential paper among the western-educated in the Presidency, but its support was never more than lukewarm”, according to David Arnold.
Well, if the then ownership of the Hindu could not come to grips with Gandhi’s ideals then, it is no wonder that it cannot agree with the message of LTTE….One may confront me by saying that the Hindu is right in opposing the LTTE, because the Tigers are espousing violence, in their freedom struggle. If this be the case, then how can one explain the opposition of the Hindu to Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violence campaigns, in its early phases? Isn’t it nothing but hypocrisy?
At least, in one aspect, we can identify the similarity between Mahatma Gandhi and Prabhakaran. Both came from outside the brahmin class, and to the brahmin, leadership by non-brahmin talent is an anathema.