Tamils in Tamil Nadu have had the benefits of national integration, wider exposure to language among others, denied to them by the Dravidian agitation. We will look at the long history of sabotage that the Dravidian leaders have carried out, beginning with the closure of V.V.S. Iyer’s Gurukulam at Cheranmadevi and till today.
Along this journey, we will see their behaviour and intentions in the Hindi agitations of 1937 and 1965, their propaganda of casteism behind the education policy introduced in the 50s, the opposition to Navodaya Vidyalayas till today’s opposition to the New Education Policy of 2019.
Almost always, their cries have been those of casteism and ‘Aryan hegemony’. We will investigate these claims and see the damage they have done over the years.
Abhinava Bharatam and the Nationalist Movement in Tamil Country
Our story begins with India House, which was a London-based student residence promoted to encourage nationalist sentiment among young Indians who were in London at the time. In 1906, V D Savarkar was a leading member of the India House, which served as a hub for meeting and exchanging views among young students.
Veer Savarkar and his brother had earlier formed a secret society called Abhinav Bharat in Pune. In this environment, a young lawyer called VVS Iyer, who had come to London to study for the Bar. The Abhinav Bharat society had the agenda of building the propaganda, popular support, logistics and weapons for an armed insurrection to free India.
In 1910, Iyer had already come under the British Secret Police’s surveillance and escaped to France and from there, to Pondicherry, where he lived for 10 years.
In this decade, he came into contact with the revolutionary poet, Subramania Bharati and Sri Aurobindo, who were in favour of militant means to achieve freedom. Subramania Bharati had an earlier history of collaboration with such leaders as V O Chidambaram Pillai and Subramania Siva.
One of Iyer’s students was a young man called Vanchinathan. Between Vanchinathan and Nilakantha Brahmachari, they plotted and assassinated the Collector of Tirunelveli District, Ashe. Nilakantha Brahmachari was jailed. Subramania Siva and V O Chidambaram had also been arrested and were in jail.
Iyer was under pressure by the British. When Emden bombed Madras Harbour in 1914, the British tried in vain to implicate him in a sedition plot.
Eventually, all the militant factions were pacified, with Subramania Siva dying a lonely death, Subramania Bharati dying young, V O Chidambaram eking out a difficult existence. The only political forces left in Madras Presidency by 1922 were the Indian National Congress, by then dominated by the Moderates that believed in a policy of gradual devotion of powers and the Justice Party, dominated by landlords, big businessmen loyal to the Crown, that wanted British rule to continue in order to perpetuate their privilege.
In 1922, Iyer was released from prison after a short spell of 9 months for sedition. At this same time, a young landlord from Erode, EV Ramasamy, became President of the Madras Presidency Congress Committee. Over the next few years, EV Ramasamy’s differences with the Brahmin leaders of the Congress widened due to varying opinion on caste-based reservations in Government jobs.
In 1920, as part of the Non-Cooperation movement, it was suggested that Indian children be removed from schools run by the British Government and placed in schools run by Indians on a nationalist basis.
In 1925, Iyer was given funds of Rs 10,000 from the Congress to start a residential school for boys that would be run on a nationalist basis. This would have boys from all caste backgrounds living and studying together. However, the parents of a couple of the Brahmin students objected to the dining arrangements and insisted that their children would have to be served food separately. Iyer agreed, on the condition that the boys would be given provisions from the common store and they could prepare food for themselves or they could take food from the common utensils and eat separately.
EV Ramasamy and Varadarajulu Naidu, Thiru Vi Kalyanasundaram among others objected to this situation based on a totally false allegation that Kalyanasundaram published in his Tamil separatist magazine ‘Tamil Nadu’. They alleged that there was a separate mess for Brahmin students alone, and that superior quality rations and food were served to the Brahmin boys.
Iyer offered to have the two boys be removed from the school after the academic year and for the school to continue in an article he wrote in The Hindu Newspaper. He also appealed to Gandhi, when Gandhi was in Vaikom in 1925. Gandhi was also not in favour of forcing the Brahmin boys to eat with the others. It was decided that common dining facilities be made a pre-condition for future admissions.
This had become such a major controversy that it was among the chief items discussed at the 1925 Madras Presidency Congress Committee meeting in Trichy.
At this time, the scholar, philosopher and social reformer ‘Kavyakantha’ Ganapati Shastri, also known as Ganapati Muni, who was respected by the Congress and often sought after for his opinions on the issue related to traditional shastras, was sought out for his opinion. Ganapati Muni suggested that the mess be run by a cook from the Adi-Dravida community so that all parties would have to make a compromise. This suggestion was, of course, ignored by all concerned.
It may also be noted that the Gurukulam had no students from the Depressed Classes (most of those communities are now in the Scheduled Caste List). Dr Varadarujulu Naidu, Thiru Vi Ka or EV Ramasamy, never saw this as an issue and made no efforts to correct this deficiency.
The Congress Committee passed a resolution against such restrictions. A separate committee composed of S Ramanathan, Thiagaraja Chettiar and EV Ramasamy was constituted to look into this issue. However, by this time, due to the pressure, Iyer left the Gurukulam which had been his brainchild. Without his driving force, the institution naturally closed down. Iyer himself died mysteriously after when he dived into a river to save his daughter who was drowning.
The Congress Committee never revived the Gurukulam. EV Ramasamy himself left the Congress in 1925, claiming caste-based discrimination against him.
The dream of an India-wide chain of schools, run on nationalistic lines and providing education that would help Indian gain a sense of historical pride, remained stillborn. In some ways, VVS Iyer’s dream has not fructified, close to a century after his death.