The Devotee as Martyr
While not minimizing the sacrifices made by these better-known luminaries, the real “warriors” of tamiḻppaṟṟu were the hundreds of relatively unknown, even anonymous, young men who, from the 1930s on, increasingly took to the streets, courted arrest, undertook fasts, died under police fire, and burned themselves alive for the sake of Tamil and Tamiḻttāy. Whatever each individual’s intentions and motivations may have been, their deeds are remembered, textualized, and circulated by their fellow devotees to conform to the ideal of the “Tamil martyr” (moḻi tiyāki). Their names are invoked again and again in poem and song, in speech and writing. Since 1967, after the DMK first came to power, buildings and streets and bridges have been named after them; commemorative statues have been installed; and pensions have been given to their survivors. And since 1968, the party has routinely celebrated 25 January as “Language Martyrs’ Day.” The memory of these martyrs is repeatedly used to spur Tamil speakers to take up the Tamil cause and, if need be, to sacrifice their lives for their language/mother.
If a populist political movement reaches its apogee when it gains its first martyrs, tamiḻppaṟṟu attained that moment in 1939. Early that year, two young men, Natarajan and Dhalamutthu, died in prison, having been arrested along with numerous others for joining the anti-Hindi picketing in front of the Hindu Theological High School in Madras city. The government was quick to point out that both men had been in poor health when they had entered the prison, and that they died of cellulitis and amebic dysentery. In devotional writings, however, their deaths are presented as heroic sacrifices to the Tamil cause, and over the years these men have attained the status of devotees who selflessly gave up their lives for their language (Annadurai 1985: 34-36, 56-57; Karunanidhi 1989: 196-207; Parthasarathy 1986: 410-37). Their funeral processions in Madras city were attended by hundreds of mourners and marked by fiery speeches celebrating their martyrdom. Annadurai proclaimed that Natarajan’s name and deeds had to be inscribed in gold in the history of the world. Another admirer, Kanchi Rajagopalachari, a maverick Brahman in the Justice Party and archcritic of the government, declared that never before even in the glorious history of ancient Tamilnadu had anyone sacrificed his life for his language, predicting that Natarajan’s grave would become a hallowed site for all true Tamilians. Natarajan’s father, we are told, declared that his son’s spirit lived on in all true Tamilians and invited them to continue the battle for Tamil rights (Iraiyan 1981: 108).
Government records only tell us that Dhalamutthu Nadar was a native of Kumbakonam, an illiterate who was arrested on 13 February 1939, fell ill on 6 March, and died on 11 March. According to Tamil’s devotees, he was married, and when he was arrested, the judge asked him if he would return to his hometown if he was released; he refused the conditions. Sentenced to six months’ “rigorous imprisonment,” he entered prison shouting “Down with Hindi! May Tamil flourish” (Iraiyan 1981: 107). Natarajan, government sources note in passing, was an illiterate twenty-year-old “Adi-Dravida” carpenter and a native of Madras. He was arrested on 5 December 1938, fell ill and was admitted to the hospital on 30 December, and died on 15 January 1939. The 22 January issue of the Sunday Observer carried an interview with K. Lakshmanan, young Natarajan’s father, in which he declared that his son often sang religious and anti-Hindi songs at home. Three days prior to his arrest, his son had expressed his desire to go to jail for the sake of Tamil. Lakshmanan also said that when his son was hospitalized, he was told by the authorities that if he submitted an apology for his activities, he would be released from prison. But Natarajan refused. In its editorial of 22 January, the Nakaratūtaṉ declared that Natarajan, filled with “love for Tamil,” preferred to die a honorable death in prison rather than agree to a dishonorable release (Ilanceliyan 1986: 171-72; Visswanathan 1983: 244-47).
Along with Dhalamutthu and Natarajan, these early protests against Hindi also produced another martyr in a young man who called himself Stalin Jegadeesan. On 1 May 1938, he started a fast, demanding the cancellation of the government’s Hindi legislation. He was frequently put on display at anti-Hindi meetings, and his photograph was periodically published in sympathetic newspapers. A statement issued by him, published in the Viṭutalai, had him declaring that he had gone on his fast to prove to Hindi supporters that Tamiḻttāy still had loyal sons: “I will return with our Tamiḻaṉṉai [Tamiḻttāy], or I will die,” he concluded. Following his example, another man, named Ponnusami, also went on a fast on 1 June in front of Rajagopalachari’s residence, sitting under a tree and carrying the Tamil banner (with its characteristic emblems of the tiger, the bow, and the fish, signifying the ancient Tamil dynasties of the Chola, Chera, and Pandya). He is reported to have declared: “I shall fast unto death; even if released from jail I shall go and fast and die in front of the Premier’s house. If Jegadeesan should die…[a] thousand lives should go for it.”
Some anti-Hindi leaders such as Ramasami rejected fasting as a form of protest; others such as Annadurai used the example of Jegadeesan to spur Tamil speakers to join the cause. At an anti-Hindi meeting in 1938, Annadurai thundered, “If Jegadeesan dies, I am ready to take his place, and die along with ten other persons. As soon as Jegadeesan dies, you should also be prepared to die.” Jegadeesan, however, did not die; on the contrary, it was reported that he had been stealthily eating at night all along, and his fast was called off after about ten weeks (Nambi Arooran 1980: 208-10; Visswanathan 1983: 201-5).
Stalin Jegadeesan may not have given up his life for Tamil, but Shankaralinga Nadar certainly did, in the process of demanding that Madras state be renamed Tamilnadu. Nothing in the biography of Shankaralingam, as it has been documented by T. Sundararajan (1986) from information obtained from his grandson, offers a clear reason for why he took this course of action. A lifelong Gandhian, Shankaralingam was born in 1895. He was a social reformer and nationalist in his native Virudhunagar, but there seems to be little evidence of devotion to Tamil during his early years. The only possible explanation that Sundararajan himself obliquely offers is that by the 1940s, Shankaralingam was disillusioned with life, and perhaps the fast was one last effort to do something for his beloved Tamilnadu (Sundararajan 1986: 68-76). He died on 13 October 1956 after a fast of over seventy days; his demand for renaming the state was not granted until a decade later. Soon after Shankaralingam’s death, in 1958-59, two young men named Ilavalakan and Arangarathinam fasted in front of radio stations in Tiruchirapalli and Madras demanding that the Sanskritic work for radio, ākāṣvāṇi, which smacked of Hindi domination, be replaced with the pure Tamil term, vāṉoli. Others, including K. A. P. Viswanatham, joined in their protest, and more than sixty were arrested by 1960. Arangarathinam himself was hailed as the great hero who was a direct descendant of ancient Tamil warriors like Senguttuvan and Nedunceliyan, and Bharatidasan wrote poems and editorials celebrating his heroic act (Sambandan 1976: 120-25).
All these martyrs, however heroic and lauded, were soon overshadowed by Chinnasami, who set himself on fire in Tiruchirapalli on 25 January 1964, on the eve of municipal elections in the state. Chinnasami’s self-immolation inaugurated a dramatic new form of expressing devotion and offered a spectacular new model of the true devotee of Tamil, as one who turns himself into ashes for his language/mother. Verses have been written on him, including a long poem which portrays him and his family as the archetypal heroic Tamilians (Puthumai Vannan 1968). During the 1964 elections, the DMK plastered the walls of Madras city with posters showing the charred body of Chinnasami, and in the 1967 campaign, the party staged a play on his life and death. In April 1967, soon after the party came to power, a memorial to Chinnasami was set up near Tiruchirapalli (Karunanidhi 1989: 698; M. S. S. Pandian 1992: 17; Ryerson 1988: 132-33).
In his memoirs, Karunanidhi tells us Chinnasami’s story in a chapter entitled “Chinnasami, the Lion Tamilian” (Karunanidhi 1989: 498-501). A native of the small village of Kilpaluvur near Tiruchirapalli, Chinnasami had a primary school education up to the fifth grade and later worked as a day laborer. In his spare time, he avidly read Dravidianist literature and newspapers, and he had even named his only daughter Dravidacelvi, “Lady Dravida.” A few days before he immolated himself, he had visited Madras, and on a chance meeting with Chief Minister Bhaktavatsalam, he implored the latter to do something to save Tamil. He was taken into custody. On 25 January, in the early dawn, he doused himself with kerosene and set himself ablaze in front of the railway station in Tiruchirapalli. He was twenty-seven. Karunanidhi writes that as the flames consumed him, he shouted, “Let Hindi die! May Tamil flourish!” Karunanidhi also quotes from a letter Chinnasami is believed to have written to a friend on the eve of his death in which he declared, “O Tamil! In order that you live, I am going to die a terrible death!” In a speech that Karunanidhi himself gave soon after Chinnasami’s death at a public meeting, he declared, “Even when his youthful face was being scorched by the flames, from the bottom of his heart, he cried out, consumed by passion for his mother tongue, ‘May Tamiḻttāy flourish! Down with Hindi.’ He then surrendered his life.” Karunanidhi concludes that in his death, Chinnasami gave truth to every Tamil devotee’s reigning sentiment: “I want to die with Tamil on my lips! / My ashes should burn with the fragrance of Tamil!” (Karunanidhi 1989: 498). His wife Kamalam, it is reported, today takes pride in the fact that he was the first to immolate himself in the battle against Hindi. “[His] greatness is my wealth,” she notes with tears.
A year after Chinnasami’s death, in the early months of 1965, several other young men followed in his footsteps and immolated themselves. Today, in various devotional tracts, their names are repeated, over and again, almost like a litany: Sivalingam, Aranganathan, Veerappan, Mutthu, and Sarangapani. Three other young men—Dandapani, Mutthu, and Shanmugam—died after consuming poison. On January 27, an eighteen-year-old college student named Rajendran, himself the son of a policeman, was killed when police opened fire on a huge anti-Hindi protest march at Annamalai University in Chidambaram. The varying stories of all these young men have been narrativized in the devotional community to conform to the image of the selfless Tamil martyr, overwriting any individual aspirations or passions they might have had. Each of them, prior to death, professed his devotion to Tamil and lamented over Tamil’s fate at the hands of Hindi. Some left behind letters (which were found sometimes beside their charred bodies) in which they proclaimed their deaths to be “in protest against the imposition of Hindi, and [as] sacrifice at the altar of Tamil” (Barnett 1976: 131); others cried out “Long Live Tamil! Down with Hindi!” as their bodies were beginning to burn. When neighbors tried to save Veerappan, he reportedly told them as the flames were consuming his body that they should use their efforts to save not him, but Tamil. Young Sarangapani died in his hospital bed, saying, it is claimed, “I have given up my life for Tamiḻttāy” (Parthasarathy 1986: 412). Mallika, Aranganathan’s wife, told newsmen that her husband cared for Tamil deeply, even more than for his three children and herself. For days before his death, he had been troubled about the ruin that Hindi was causing Tamil, the DMK newspaper Muttāram reported. Many of these young men, it is claimed, were inspired by Chinnasami’s example, which they read about in DMK party newspapers. Aranganathan is believed to have immolated himself after seeing the charred body of Sivalingam. Sivalingam in turn was inspired to his act by Chinnasami’s.
With the exception of Veerappan, who was a schoolteacher, and Sarangapani and Dandapani, who were college students, all the others, like Chinnasami, had had only a basic education and held low paying jobs of various kinds. Like Chinnasami again, they all came from very poor rural families, and at least in the government’s reckoning, they “were also reported to be suffering from domestic troubles, illnesses, etc.” Finally, they all appear to have subscribed to the ideals of Dravidianism to various degrees. Like Chinnasami, they were rank-and-file members of the DMK. Some DMK leaders publicly expressed their horror over these immolations; others attended the men’s funerals. The party has in general condoned devotion in this form and even celebrates such martyrs, if the hagiography it generates on these young men is any testimony. DMK newspapers routinely carried photographs of the charred bodies and the funeral processions of the dead martyrs, and, as already noted, the date of Chinnasami’s self-immolation has become “Language Martyrs’ Day.” The speeches and essays of key DMK leaders are to this day sprinkled with celebratory allusions to these men. It is reported with pride that newspapers, both Indian and foreign, carried news of the immolations. The Tamil devotee had at last succeeded in drawing the attention of the rest of the world to the plight of his language/mother, by literally burning himself to death.