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Republic Day Tableau: Why Tamil Nadu Feels Bitter

January 22, 2022 12:11 IST
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There is a deep-seated sense of rejection that the new generation Tamil youth have felt for a decade and more now, observes N Sathiya Moorthy.

IMAGE: A tableau from Tamil Nadu takes part in the 2021 Republic Day Parade. Photograph: ANI Photo

Political controversies and issues of federalism apart, the avoidable yet nationally embarrassing controversy regarding the choice of state tableaux for the Republic Day parade this year may have dashed incessant hopes of southern Tamil Nadu to re-tell and re-write the history of the freedom movement, where its contributions have been lost for eternity.

In the process, the 'neglected/rejected' freedom-fighters from the state may have attracted greater attention nationwide because of the controversy than may have been possible if presented through a fleeting glimpse in the R-Day parade.

According to news reports, the rejected tableau from the state sought to present early freedom fighters from the state, namely, the Marudu Brothers, Sivaganga queen Velu Nachiyar, the Vellore Mutiny, and also the 20th-century freedom-fighters, V O Chidambaram Pillai or VOC, popularly known in Tamil as Va Vu Si, and nationalist poet Subramania Bharati.

Multiple suggestions for modifications had necessitated changes at different stages of the selection process until the experts' team of the defence ministry finally rejected the tableau design from the state.

This is not the first time that tableaux from states are rejected for the R-Day parade.

But this is the only time the nation would be celebrating the 75th anniversary of Independence.

The present generation may have been past its prime when the Independence centenary arrives in 2047. The socio-economic matrix too may have changed beyond all recognition.

IMAGE: A Tamil Nadu tableau passes through Rajpath in New Delhi, January 26, 2020. Photograph: Kamal Singh/PTI Photo

Beyond the political controversy where shades of Dravidian/Hindutva electoral rivalry are all too visible in the state and have also got projected at the national level, there is the deep-seated sense of rejection that the new generation Tamil youth have felt for a decade and more now.

It may have had its roots in the 'North-South', 'Hindi-Tamil' Dravidian political posturing in the previous century.

But the immediate sentiments flow from the remnants of the unprecedented Jallikattu Mprotests of 2017 still burning in the hearts and minds of the Tamil youth.

To the rest of the nation, the 'Sepoy Mutiny' triggered in Meerut, 1857, marks the First War of Independence.

Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi, who ruled for a decade from 1843, was the first woman ruler who also became a freedom fighter.

Not for the Tamils down South, though. Even ardent critics of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindutva-aligned ruling BJP politics in the state had an unspelt out hidden hope that his government's promise to rewrite the nation's history to undo/redo the colonial version would include restoring the honour and place of freedom-fighters from Tamil Nadu, who had not been given due recognition all these years.

Alas, as the tableaux episode proved, it was not to be.

If anything, according to reports, the experts' team rejected some of the names included in the TN list to be presented in the proposed state tableau precisely for the reason -- that those heroes' names were not very well-known outside the state.

There is also recognition that neither their representation in an R-Day tableau nor the current controversy surrounding the same, would do them justice.

It could happen, if and only when school textbooks and the history of the freedom movement are rewritten to project the factual position.

Over 50 years before the Meerut Mutiny, occurred the Vellore Mutiny in 1806.

It was not triggered by religious sentiments involving the use of animal fat of cow and pig, an anathema respectively for Hindu and Muslim soldiers in the rag-tag army of the East India Company.

Instead, the Vellore Mutiny involved the sons of the Tiger of Mysore, Tipu Sultan, trying to get him freed from the Company's high-security prison in the northern Tamil Nadu town, so as to revive the anti-British wars in the Carnatic.

Likewise, Velu Nachiyar ruled the Sivaganga principality from 1760-1890 for 30 long years when she also fought after her husband Muthu Vaduganatha Periyavudaya Thevar was killed in battle with the Company's troops.

She and her contemporary, Kittur Rani Chennamma (1778-1829), from present-day Karnataka were decades ahead of the times of the Rani of Jhansi.

Yet, there is a shared grievance both in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka that the valour of their woman freedom-fighter has been pushed back to project Rani Laxmibai as the pioneer.

The Marudu Brothers, Periya Marudu and Chinna Marudu, respectively, the elder and younger brothers, were born in 1748 and 1753.

After leading successful assaults on Sivaganga years after the East India Company had taken over the principality, they were only next to Chhatrapati Shivaji (1630-1680) in adopting guerrilla tactics against the foreign rulers.

The British hanged them both after capturing them.

While Shivaji rebelled against Mughal ruler Aurangazeb in Delhi, those from Tamil Nadu had challenged the British, possibly knowing full well only sure death awaited them.

The case of Veerapandiya Kattabomman (1760-1799) was not different.

He too rebelled against the Company like the Marudu Brothers after the Nawab of Arcot, claiming contested suzerainty over much of present-day Tamil Nadu, had signed off revenue-collection rights to the white man.

After being captured, Kattabomman was 'tried' and hanged in public, as if to make an example for others who might have thought of rebelling against the Company rule.

IMAGE: A Tamil Nadu tableau in 2019 gives pride of place to the Father of the Nation. Photograph: PTI Photo

The ubiquitous Tamil filmdom honoured them all with firebrand movies.

Both Veerapandia Kattabomman and Sivagangai Seemai on the Marudu Brothers were released as far back as 1959.

Other films on 20th-century freedom-fighters who too were sought to be honoured through the R-Day tableau were V O Chidambaram Pillai (Kappalottiya Tamizhan, or the 'Tamil Who Sailed the Ship', 1961) and 'nationalist poet' Subramania Bharati (Bharati, 2000). A teleserial is set to be being planned on Velu Nachiyar.

A wealthy, successful lawyer in the port-town of Thoothukudi (then Tuticorin) in southern Tamil Nadu, who was also the first Indian to challenge the British on the maritime trade front, VOC launched the first Swadeshi steam navigation company and even floated the first 'Indian steam ship', only to be rendered a broken man, made to yoke the traditional oil mill (chekku in Tamil) alongside a bullock in a Coimbatore prison, before dying in penury.

According to news reports, someone on the experts' team that rejected the TN tableau had asked if VOC was a businessman -- as if to imply what place did a businessman have in the midst of freedom-fighters.

VOC was the only freedom-fighter in the country to have been sentenced to 40 years in prison, obviously because he challenged the ruling British on the economic front.

In prison, he was put in solitary confinement in a prison without windows, with both hands and legs shackled, served filthy kanji (porridge), and was denied even that if he complained.

Pillai's woes followed him after he was released early from prison as the authorities did not want him dead under their cruel care.

Without a job, he worked as a store-boy in a grocery shop, which too the British shut down.

At one stage, he went around selling kerosene along the streets of Madras, carrying the container on his head, for eking out a living.

In penury, the Congress party to which he belonged did not help him a wee bit, with the likes of Rajaji not acceding to his request to argue his case in the courts for the restoration of his licence to practise law.

It is said that Indians in South Africa sent Rs 5,000 -- a lot of money those days -- to Gandhi, for reaching it to VOC, but despite repeated reminders, the money never reached him.

Then there was Subramania Bharati (1882-1921), child prodigy of a poet and later-day journalist, the prophetic visionary who died young. Bharati celebrated India's freedom decades before it had been won through his song, Aaduvomaye, pallu paaduvomey (Let us sing and dance to celebrate freedom)...

Likewise, even as Gandhiji was finding his feet as the unquestioned future leader of the national movement, Bharati paid him encomiums in the poem titled, Mahatma Gandhi, with his immortal lines, Vaazhga nee emmaan (May you live long)...

Bharati was a prolific writer of both prose and poetry, who also worked as a journalist for a living, in Chennai and Pondichrry, now Puducherry, then under French rule, only to escape British prisons in Madras Presidency.

His rousing poems were a nationalist inspiration for the youth of the times.

Having spent some time in Varanasi, where he learned Sanskrit, his nationalist imagination described Bharat Mata as Goddess Durga in poetic lines.

Bharati also wrote very many poems on Lord Krishna, imagining him as child Kannan.

So were his Kannamma Songs, whose romanticised lyrics too were set to traditional Carnatic ragas and talas as most others.

His Paanchali Sabadham is possibly the earliest piece of Indian literature to take a vigorously feminist stand-point on the Mahabharat and in poetic form.

There are those in Tamil Nadu, cutting across caste and ideological lines -- Bharati was a Brahmin by birth, but agnostic in belief -- who swear that he (too) deserved the Nobel Prize for Literature like Rabindranath Tagore, who was conferred the same as far back as 1913.

They also concede that unlike Tagore's Gitanjali (original in Bengali), Bharati's poems got to be translated much later, and long after his times.

IMAGE: Temple, Karagam dance, mridangam and nadaswaram... A Tamil Nadu tableau showcases its rich heritage all at the 68th Republic Day Parade in New Delhi, January 26, 2017. Photograph: Kind courtesy Ministry of Defence/Wikimedia commons

For all the socio-political criticism of the decision not to display the Tamil Nadu tableau in the R-Day parade, there are those, especially on the social media, who blame the 'Dravidian ruling class', for not honouring these pioneers enough within the state for the rest of the nation to know about them and also take them seriously.

They draw comparisons especially with the way Maharashtra and Marathas swear by Chhatrapati Shivaji, day in and day out.

To them, the Dravidian political class is interested only in promoting contemporary leaders, not those who form a part of the region's history, going back to the great Chola kings, Rajaraja and Rajendra, from a thousand years ago.

To them, successive state governments putting up statutes of each of this persona in prominent junctions in the state capital of Chennai and/or elsewhere, and the state government observing their birth anniversaries is not enough.

They are, however, silent on successive governments at the Centre bringing out postage stamps on each one of them over a period.

State leaders of the ruling BJP at the Centre, starting with party president K Annamalai, have taken exception to DMK Chief Minister M K Stalin's protest over the rejection of the Tamil Nadu tableau.

They have also given the argument, claiming that the DMK state government removed the Hindu religious marks on Bharati and also Thiruvalluvar from their visual renderings.

As they point out, from the British era on, both sported religious marks on their forehead, with bare-chested Thiruvalluvar wearing the Brahminical sacred thread or poonool.

A section of the local media has quoted the kin of VOC as saying that the ruling DMK was playing politics with her ancestor's name -- and there was nothing more to the tableaux row.

Now that the Centre's decision is known, the state government has decided to put up the same tableau at its own Republic Day parade along Chennai's Marina, and also take it across the state.

That may be a political message, yes, but it may go some way in assuaging the hurt feelings of the larger population -- though there would still be those that would claim that it was not enough and the ruling DMK leadership from Stalin down had not done enough to defend the state's pride and rights at the same time.

N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist, political analyst, and author, is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation.

Feature Presentation: Rajesh Alva/

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