Chapter 6: Beyond the family: Politics in Pre-Independence Erode

Visalam Balasubramanian


Visalam Balasubramanian was born in Pollachi, on May 17, 1925. She was the second of three children. Having lost her mother at about age 2, she grew up with her siblings, cared for by her father who lived out his life as a widower in Erode. She was married in 1939. Her adult life revolved entirely around her husband and four children. She was a gifted vocalist in the Carnatic tradition, and very well read. Visalam passed away on February 20, 2005.

Editor's note: This is Part 6 of her memoirs, which have been edited for this website. Kamakshi Balasubramanian, her daughter, has added some parenthetical explanatory notes in italics.

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5

I find I am writing only about my own family. I must say something from what I remember about the freedom fighters of Erode and surrounding places, as also my memories of the British days.

There were some merchants - who might have easily lost all their wealth through their actions - who were dedicated nationalists. They wore handspun khaddar, flew the tri-colour flag of the Congress party on special occasions from their housetops and shops.

One was a family of four brothers, doing yarn business, known by the eldest brother's name, V.V.C.R. Mudaliar. One was them was an ardent முருகபக்தர் (Muruga Bhaktar devotee of Lord Muruga). After my father got the Shiva temple electrified (Ed. note: see Part 2) , he drew current from that temple and electrified the big பள்ளிகொண்ட ரங்கநாதர் கோயில் (Pallikonda Ranganathar Koi Reclining Ranganatha Temple) known as பெருமாள் (Perumaa short name by which Vishnu is known in Southern India), adjacent to the Shiva temple. Named Murugesa Mudaliar, he used to go to Palani for Krithikai (A particular day in every month considered auspicious for Muruga worship).

Another was one Krishnappa Naicker. His son, R. K. Venkataswamy was elected Chairman, Erode Municipality after our country became independent.

Another very devoted man was Uppu mandi (உப்புமண்டி presumably in the salt trade) Aarumugam. A Gujarati, Kalidass Sait was a Congressman. Some said because Mahatma Gandhi was a Baniya, this man followed him.

There were some Brahmin youngsters who braved the police lathi (a heavy stick) and went to jail. Poor boys. They were the personification of honesty but were suspect in the eyes of well-to-do Brahmin families. Their own families were vexed with them, and would only give them food and nothing more.

There was one Easwaran who was always called தியாகி ஈச்வரன் (Tyagi Easwaran Selfless Easwaran) People used to say that Easwaran was leading youngsters astray. (ஈச்வரன் பேச்சைக் கேட்டு இந்தப்பசங்க கெட்டுப்போகுதுEaswaran pechchaik kettu indha pasanga kettup pogudhu.) Many believed we could never drive the British out of India. Also, it was not the job of commoners, and there are the select so-called "leaders" who do the propaganda.

To my knowledge, most people used to say fighting the mighty British was a waste of time by those who have nothing else to do or want to show off. Most people used to say with certainty and conviction that the Britisher was born to rule. The other nations could never even hold themselves together but for the authority and/or fear of the British.

Even on occasion when the ancient glory of India was being discussed, people would say all that had been lost and the present is கலிகாலம்(Kali Kaalam the age of the demon Kali, not to be confused with the Hindu goddess Kaali) and only the likes of the British (the implication here being, that the British were a demonical race) would hold sway. Indians considered themselves as inferiors being the "coloured race." Sympathy for the freedom fighters was very little, and optimism about getting freedom for India was virtually nil among the elite of Erode.

The Brahmin lawyers used to say of C. Rajagopalachari that he was a man who had defiled the caste: "(ஜாதிகெட்ட பாப்பான்\; jaadhi ketta paappaan)."காந்தி இவனெல்லாம் பறயனோட ஒக்காந்து சாப்டறான். இதெல்லாம் உுருக்கு நல்லதா உலகத்துக்கு நல்லதா? அதான் நம்ப ஆசாரமெல்லாம் அழிஞ்சுபோச்சு. நம்மள வெள்ளக்காரன் ஆள்றான்." ("Gandhi, ivanellaam parrayanoda okkaandhu saapdaraan. Idhellaam oorukku nalladha, ulagathukku nalladha? Adhaan namba aachaaram ellaam azhinju pochu. Nammala vellaikkaaran aalraan." "He, along with Gandhi and their ilk, share meals with untouchables. What good is it for our place, our world? This is why the orthodox traditional practices are gone, and why the white man is ruling over us.")

While there was this contradictory and complex undercurrent of holding ourselves as superior to the Britisher, there was also an unmistakable admiration for the Englishman at every stage and at all levels.

March 1993 (date when Visalam wrote this section).

The most interesting part of history was being made in Erode at that time and I was witness to it! The formation and growth of Justice Party, whose sole aim was spreading hatred of Brahmins. Ostensibly, the Justice Party was formed to counter the Congress party's demand of Swarajya (self-rule), and support British rule in India. Mr. E. V. Ramaswamy Naicker, one of the leaders of the Justice Party, who later came to be known as Periyar (Elder), was a native of Erode!

He came from a small community known as கன்னடியநாயக்கர் (kannadiya nayakkar), meaning they spoke Kannada at home, and not Telugu. (Telugu was the commonly spoken language in the nayakkar community.) His father founded a charitable dispensary, and left most of his money in trust. It used to be said that he did not have any good opinion about his sons and that is why he did not leave them anything besides a single house. Very soon, EVR (EVR was the way the man was referred to nearly everywhere before he became respectfully known as Periyar) built up that house to three storeys with turrets and domes. Tongues wagged freely but the hate propaganda of his movement veiled all other sins. At that time, K. V. Reddy, Mohammed Usman, Raja of Bobbili, and R. K. Shanmukham Chettiar founded a party to challenge and combat Brahmin dominance in all walks of life. There were several other luminaries from non-Brahmins called பார்ப்பனரல்லாதார் (Paarpanarallaadaar "other than Brahmins").

The famous twins, A. Ramaswamy Mudaliar and A. Lakshmanaswami Mudaliar were also pillars of that movement.

At that time, Brahmins, kings, officers in seats of power were considered "divine". It was not all that easy to root out the age-old reverence one entertained. So, the representatives of this movement had to fortify themselves with additional quantum of hate. And they came out with the denial of the existence of God. They dubbed God as creation of the Brahmins for their hold on the masses. There again, very few had the courage to defy God, His existence and power. Some were hesitant. EVR alone could proclaim loudly that there was NO GOD. Everyone in his sense knows that God doesn't come down and strike a person for denying His existence. So what harm is there in saying something to provoke and incite people?

Although many big names in the field of education, finance, industry, with high qualifications and experience were there in the Justice Party, this E. V. Ramaswamy Naicker made an impact on the movement without any of those qualities or qualifications! He was uncouth. Hardly civilised in his speeches. There was no refinement in his appearance, habits or approach. He was unscrupulous. That was the ticket for his popularity.

The other stalwarts of that movement were more refined and couldn't stoop down to EVR's level of vulgarity or unprincipled utterances. But it was the virulence of EVR's attack that made the Brahmins give up their caste appellation in their names. Once Brahmins gave up identifying themselves as Iyers, Iyengars, Sarmas, other castes in the whole of southern India followed suit. Untouchability virtually vanished there.

Mahatma Gandhi had been campaigning for eradicating caste system vigorously throughout the country, but it was in the South, owing to EVR's vituperative assaults, that casteism broke down. Brahmins could never rise in revolt partly because they were a minority. Although this was reason enough for Brahmins bowing out slowly without a fight, one other reason in those days would have been that a non-Brahmin could defile (pollute) a Brahmin household by merely entering the kitchen or touching their drinking water. Then the Brahmin would have to go through elaborate, sometimes arduous, rituals to cleanse himself. That was certainly unthinkable. Brahmins, as a whole, would have decided that "discretion was the better part of valour."

Also, EVR's movement supported British strategy. Brahmins were in the service of government. They were clever, educated, generally intelligent and shrewd. But under Gandhi's influence, many Brahmins were vociferously advocating evicting the British from the Indian soil. Thus, the British wanted to check both the cry for independence, as well as the unity forging among all castes owing to Gandhi's teachings.

Even now, after nearly a century (80 years or so) of oppression, suppression and denial, the Brahmin is superior in intellect, sophistication and adaptability in India and outside. It would sound hollow to say that it is Brahminical ego to claim such superiority. It is a fact. Those who believe in the tenets of Vedas and Scriptures must be correct when they say that the Brahmin came out of Brahma's face, and thus is superior to others. That is not to say that others are inferior. Everyone is complementary to the other but there are gradations for the sake of smooth working of society.

Temples had fallen into ruin and many customs were getting hard to follow owing to foreign invasions and dominance. Disuse and apathy created a climate for EVR to sow the seeds of atheism in the minds of frustrated people.

He had an older brother, E.V. Krishnaswamy Naicker. Both the brothers used to come for a chat with my father. And EVR often went past our house to address a meeting in the school building. If he were walking straight on, he would raise both hands with his heavy walking stick held in place in his fist, to wish the customary "நமஸ்காரம்" (namaskar Greetings) to my grandfather, who would definitely be sitting on the திண்ணை (thinnai verandah sill).

And if EVR had a little time to spare, he would come and sit on the same திண்ணை (thinnai), speak or exchange pleasantries with my grandfather and take leave of him, saying போயிட்டு வரேனுங்க (poyittu varenunga "I'll take leave.") Shortly afterwards, speaking into the mike, EVR would say "பாப்பானை எல்லாம் தெருக்கூட்ட வெக்கணும். பாப்பாத்திங்க நம்ம வீடுங்கள்லெ பாத்திரம் தேக்கணும்" (paappaanai ellam theruk kootta vekkanum. Paappaathingal ellam namma veedungalle paathiram thekkanum Brahmin men ought to be made to sweep the roads, and the Brahmin women ought to be made to do dirty dishes in "our" homes). Yet, he never showed the slightest disrespect to any Brahmin in person. Person to person he was always correct. He used to be present in the Municipal council meetings which we have also gone to. There he would be solicitous of comfortable seating for us - as children.

EVR's brother, known as EVK, had a model dairy. They had a row of houses, which the brothers utilised for themselves. This dairy was in an adjoining open area. EVK was also a connoisseur of gems, especially emeralds. Since my father was interested in gems, EVK used to come to our house in that connection. When a dealer brought gems and stones, my father and EVK would test those and discuss their merits and value.

EVR knew very well that he could not exceed certain limits.

He planned his campaigns and strategies in such a way that they could not fail. Neither would they boomerang. Nor would they prove to be Aladdin's genie - difficult to put back into the jar once it is unleashed. He set his success limits. And he himself never led any agitation personally.

In all hotels and Railway refreshment rooms, there were rooms or halls earmarked for Brahmins where no other caste was served. "Brahmins only" was as prominently displayed as "Europeans only." Both had exclusive rights.

It was EVR's efforts that made such disgusting announcements disappear from all boards. There again he never exhorted non-Brahmins to enter forcibly into such places. He could have done that. But instead of that kind of rowdy, unruly behaviour by them, he chose to work for the removal of the offending boards. Same way, when he denigrated or abused Gods, he never said anything about any existing temple. Half his public meetings were held in an open space in front of a Mariamman temple. He carefully avoided such references. He suggested that they make பி்ள்ளையார் விக்ரஹங்கள் (Pillayar vigrahangal Vinayaka idols) out of clay, take them out in procession, and break them unceremoniously. That shows he knew he could incite people, spread hatred successfully without destroying heritage, disrupting normal life.

For all his low language, he perhaps knew human psychology better than many others did. Specially, the deified Mahatma Gandhi. While Gandhi's word was held in great respect only during his lifetime, EVR's ideas took root and grew in that particular soil well after him. Gandhi was revered even by the mighty British and was well known throughout the entire world. EVR never held a flag aloft in his hand, nor did he ever shout "பார்ப்பனன் ஒழிக" (paarppanan ozhiga "Down with the Brahmin"). He put in the idea. Others took it up.


In 1936-37, elections were held all over (British-ruled) India - people in the Income Tax assesse group alone could vote (those who were in the higher bracket of paying income tax) and elect members for legislative assemblies in the provinces. All the recognised parties wielded their candidates, and some independent candidates also sought election. As a large section of the population of the country was illiterate, the government allotted colours for the ballot boxes. Indian National Congress was given yellow, Muslim League some colour (I forget it now), Justice Party green, etc.

Many provinces elected the Congress Party. Madras was one of them. C. Rajagopalachari was made the Chief Minister of a council of ten ministers. He introduced Hindi as a subject from Form I to III (6th to 8th class) in all the schools.

By then, EVR had C. N. Annadurai, M. Karunanidhi, Nedunchezhian, and Krupananda Variar in his party, with considerable clout. They demonstrated against the introduction of Hindi as "domination" of North over the South. Some of them were imprisoned. Those demonstrations involved only shouting "anti-Hindi" slogans in the morning in front of the Premier's (C. Rajagopalachari's) house. No rioting. No carrying of sticks. No obstructing traffic nor taking out any procession. Such were the conditions of the government, the people, their protests or jubilations. Before long, all (Ed. note: This is not correct. For example, the Chief Minister of Punjab continued) the provincial governments were pulled down owing to the World War II. But, the move to strengthen Tamil and banish Hindi had caught up. Some changed their Sanskrit or God-related name to pure Tamil ones.

There also neither EVR nor Annadurai nor Karnanidhi changed their names nor that of their wives/children.

It was then that a senior Congress party member S. Satyamurthy once observed that the "so-called" Tamil lovers and protectors of Tamil culture were well versed in English only, and that they cannot express themselves in Tamil. That shamed the Brahmin haters and woke them up. They brought the issue of language into music and thus was born தமிழ் இசைச்சங்கம் (Tamil Isai Sangam Tamil Music Association). As a multimillionaire was patron of that movement and as he had a university "Annamalai University" named after himself, Raja Sir Annamalai Chettiar was able to devote the entire music section to the development, research and composition of Tamil songs. He also built a huge auditorium called அண்ணாமலை மன்றம் (Annamalai Manram Annamalai Hall) in Madras city where only Tamil songs would be sung.

One of the first members of the Justice Party, R. K. Shanmukham Chettiar (Ed. note: the last name is also written as Chetty) came from a low caste, and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru made him the first finance minister of free India. Thus, the party affiliations were overlooked in the interests of the nation. R. K. Shanmukham Chettiar had worked as Dewan of Cochin and other states during the British period. A. Ramaswamy Mudaliar was sent to the UN as India's representative during Nehru's time. These were people who fought the Congress tooth and nail. A. Lakshmanaswamy Mudaliar was a famous gynaecologist, and became the longest serving Vice-chancellor of the Madras University. He wore a turban and sported a நாமம் (namam a caste mark) on his forehead till the end, though A. Ramaswamy Mudaliar gave up both in his later days.

© Kamakshi Balasubramanian 2015

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An interesting and spicy reading of EVR that you don't get in the authorized histories!

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