Indian independence movement in Tamil Nadu

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The Indian independence movement had a long history in the Tamil-speaking districts of the then Madras Presidency going back to the 18th century.

The first resistance to the British was offered by the legendary Puli Thevan in 1757. Since then there had been rebellions by polygars such as the Marudu brothers, Veerapandiya Kattabomman, Oomathurai and Dheeran Chinnamalai and the sepoys of Vellore. Though there were no violent rebellions in the 19th century, still, there were continuous agitations by Indian independence activists such as Gazulu Lakshminarasu Chetty, John Bruce Norton, Eardley Norton, Sir T. Muthuswamy Iyer, P. Rangaiah Naidu, G. Subramania Iyer, Sir S. Subramania Iyer, C. Jambulingam Mudaliar, Salem Ramaswami Mudaliar, M. Veeraraghavachariar and C. Karunakara Menon. After a brief interlude of militancy in the early 1900s, independence activists from Tamil Nadu adopted the non-violent principles of Mahatma Gandhi. Some of the important Gandhian leaders of the region were C. Rajagopalachari, K. Kamaraj and S. Sathyamurthy.

Contemporaneous with the Indian nationalist movement, there were also pro-British political parties and movements, the most prominent being the Justice Party. Some important pro-British leaders were P. Theagaroya Chetty, V. S. Srinivasa Sastri, Raja of Panagal and E. V. Ramasami Naicker.

Early contacts with European powers[edit]

European travellers and traderss have had contacts with the Tamil country at least since the 1st millennium BC. Roman and Greek traders frequented the ports of Puhar and Musiri during the Sangam Age. The apostle St. Thomas is believed to have preached and died in South India and ports of the Tamil country were mentioned in Periplus of the Erythraean Sea. Globalization accelerated further under the Chola Empire which traded with South-East Asia, China and the most of the Arab world. Though sea trade declined after the fall of the Pandya kingdom in about 1327, foreign visitors continued to visit cities in the region throughout the Vijayanagar period and its aftermath.

Origin and rise of the British East India Company[edit]

Following the negotiations which Sir Thomas Roe had with the Mughal Emperor Jahangir on behalf of James VI of England, the British East India Company, founded by a charter in 1600, opened factories or trading posts all over India. The Masulipatnam factory, the first in the south, was opened in the year 1612. Later factories were established at Pulicat and Armagon. In 1639, due to harsh weather conditions, the Masulipatnam factory was moved to a site newly purchased from the Raja of Chandragiri. A planned administrative base, a fort and a few British residences were set up. The city of Madras, which grew from this new settlement, thus became the first British trading settlement to be established in the Tamil country. The agency of Fort St George set up in 1640, was upgraded to a Presidency in 1652 but demoted in 1655 before being upgraded once again in 1684.

In the initial years, the British in South India concentrated mainly on trade and not on territorial expansion and hence, rarely indulged in acts of military aggression. However, the rapid rise of the French influence forced[citation needed] the British at Madras to interfere in local politics and assert themselves in the region through negotiations and alliances or through more forceful means. The French victory over the British and their conquest of Madras in 1746 compelled the British East India Company to set up a regular standing army though Madras was returned to the British three years later. Eventually, the French were defeated in a long series of battles known as the Carnatic Wars and their influence in India virtually disappeared with the fall of Pondicherry in 1774. Apart from eliminating the French, the Carnatic Wars also strengthened British prestige and influence in the region as they had set up military alliances with local princes in their bid to outmaneuver the French. One of the princes was the most important and powerful ruler in the Tamil country, the Nawab of the Carnatic, who became a debtor and eventually pensioner of the British East India Company.

The first British possession in the Tamil country, apart from Madras, was Fort St David, near Cuddalore, which was established in 1690. The British acquired taxation rights over Chingleput district in 1763 and South Arcot in 1781. The two districts, along with rest of the Carnatic kingdom, came under complete British control in 1801. The Baramahals comprising Salem, Coimbatore and western Tamil Nadu, were ceded to the British by Tipu Sultan in 1793 following his defeat in the Third Mysore War while Tanjore was acquired from the Thanjavur Maratha ruler Serfoji II in 1799.

Resistance to British expansion[edit]

See also: Polygar Wars

The first resistance to British expansion was offered by the legendary Puli Thevan, polygar of Avudyapuram, who, in 1757, led a confederacy of Western polygar chieftains in defiance against the Nawab of Carnatic's right to levy taxes on them on behalf of the British. The British responded by appointing Muhammad Yusuf, the governor of Madurai and Tirunelveli, and entrusting to him the task of putting down the rebellion. Yusuf enlisted the support of the Eastern polygar chieftains and eventually succeeded in reducing the rebels. Later, however, Muhammad Yusuf, himself, rebelled against the British and was captured and executed. During the 1780s and 1790s, Tamil chieftains like Dheeran Chinnamalai and the Maruthu Pandiyar brothers also fought along with Tipu Sultan against the British. The Marudu brothers defeated a powerful British force at Kollangudi near Sivagangai in April 1789.

In 1799, Kattabomman Nayak, the polygar of Panchalankurichi, revolted against the British along with his brother Oomadhurai and a few neighbouring polygars. After a few successful skirmishes, Panchalankurichi was eventually besieged by Company troops and Kattabomman was defeated in a long, pitched battle. Kattabomman and most of his allies were captured and hanged and the fort of Panchalankurichi was levelled to the ground. However, the Maruthu Pandiyar brother and some of Kattabomman's allies evaded capture and along with Dheeran Chinnamalai, fought the Second Polygar War against the British. Though the rebels were initially successful and Chinnamalai inflicted a severe defeat on Colonel Makiskan, the rebellion was eventually put down in 1802 and all the leaders captured and hanged. The Maruthu Pandiyar brothers defeated the British troops at Virupatchi and repulsed an attack on Sivagangai but were defeated and captured at Cholapuram. The brothers were hanged in October 1801 along with other prisoners.

Vellore Mutiny[edit]

See also: Vellore Mutiny

On 10 July 1806, a sepoy mutiny broke out in the town of Vellore, 130 kilometres from Madras. The sepoys of the Vellore garrison were displeased with a recently-introduced law regulating the usage of Hindu caste marks or beards. Full-scale rebellion broke out after midnight on 10 July 1806 and Fateh Hyder, the second son of Tipu Sultan, who was imprisoned in Vellore Fort was crowned king. However, reinforcements arrived from the nearby town of Arcot within the next fifteen minutes and the rebellion was successfully quelled by Sir Rollo Gillespie. Over 100 captured sepoys were executed by blasting them with canister shots. William Bentinck, the Governor of Madras was recalled and replaced. The laws regulating Hindu religious marks was withdrawn.

Opposition to missionary activities[edit]

Gazulu Lakshminarasu Chetty

During the 19th century, the British rulers of India were actively endorsing the activities of Christian missionaries and enacting laws to empower them and favour proselytisation. In 1844, a law was introduced amending Hindu law to make it possible for Christian converts to inherit property from their Hindu ancestors. At about the same time, Christian theology was introduced as a compulsory subject in the curriculum of the University of Madras.

Gazulu Lakshminarasu Chetty, a popular indigo merchant launched a campaign against these measures and presided over a protest meeting in Madras city on 7 October 1846. The protestors even petitioned law makers and social and political activists in United Kingdom and enlisted their support. The laws were eventually withdrawn. Gazulu Lakshminarasu Chetty was made a Companion of the Order of the Star of India and nominated to the Madras Legislative Council, the second Indian to be in the council. Chetty was also assisted in his efforts by Madras lawyer and Indophile John Bruce Norton whose own participation in the Indian National movement is significant.

The conversion of a Brahmin student of the Madras Christian College in April 1888 sparked severe protests from Hindus in the Madras Presidency.[1] The agitators resolved to start national schools to counter evangelistic activities in missionary-run schools and colleges.[2][3] Most of the leaders were Indian nationalists who had recently founded the Indian National Congress.

The Hindu and the Madras Mahajana Sabha[edit]

Delegates at the first session of the Indian National Congress, 1885

Indian nationalists of the 19th century propagated their views and objectives by starting newspapers and forming social and political organisations. The first Indian-run newspaper The Crescent was started by Gazulu Lakshminarasu Chetty to counter Christian missionary propaganda and alleged British injustice. But the newspaper which played a major part in the history of the Indian independence movement in Tamil Nadu was the English-language The Hindu which was started by Indian independence activists G. Subramania Iyer, M. Veeraraghavachariar and N. Subba Rao Pantulu in 1878 in support of the candidature of Sir T. Muthuswamy Iyer as the first Indian judge of the Madras High Court. In the following years, The Hindu launched severe criticisms of economic policies of the government.

The Madras Native Association established by Gazulu Lakshminarasu Chetty in 1852 was the first Indian political organisation in the Madras Presidency. On 16 May 1884, the Madras Mahajana Sabha was founded by prominent Indian leaders of the Presidency such as P. Rangaiah Naidu of Madras, S. A. Saminatha Iyer of Tanjore, Salem Ramaswami Mudaliar of Salem and M. Veeraraghavachariar of Chingleput. Its first president was Rangaiah Naidu and the first secretary was Balaji Rao. Its founders later played leading roles in the Indian National Congress.

The Indian National Congress was established due to the efforts of Allan Octavian Hume and with the blessings of the then Viceroy of India Lord Ripon and held its first meeting at the Tejpal Sanskrit College, Bombay between 28 and 31 December 1885. Among the 72 delegates who attended the first session, 22 were from the Madras Presidency.

City/Town Delegate/s Profile
Madras (8) P. Rangaiah Naidu (1828–1904) lawyer, Madras High Court. President of the Madras Mahajana Sabha (1884). Member of the Madras Legislative Council (1892–99).
S. Subramania Iyer (1842–1924) lawyer, Madras High Court. Member of the Madras Legislative Council (1884–87).
G. Subramania Iyer (1855–1916) journalist and social reformer. Founder of English-language The Hindu (1878) and Tamil-language Swadesamitran (1882).
P. Anandacharlu (1843–1908) lawyer and journalist. Leader of the bar and founder of the Triplicane Literary Society. President of the Nagpur session of the Indian National Congress (1891)
M. Veeraraghavachariar journalist. Sub-editor of The Hindu
C. Singaravelloo Mudaliar Merchant and Municipal Commissioner, Madras
M. E. Shriranga Chariar Lawyer, Madras High Court
S. V. Athalye Medical practitioner, Madras
Chingleput (1) M. Y. Ramanujachariar Pleader, Chingleput
Coimbatore (1) S. P. Narasimhalu Naidu (1854–1922) journalist and social reformer. Secretary of the Coimbatore unit of the Madras Mahajana Sabha and editor of The Crescent.
Tanjore (2) S. A. Saminatha Iyer (d. 1899) public prosecutor and landlord. Founder-President of the Tanjore People's Association and corresponding member of the Madras Mahajana Sabha.
N. Narayanaswami Iyer landlord, Tanjore
Kumbakonam (1) K. Pattabhirama Iyer landlord
Madura (1) P. Subramania Iyer landlord
Salem (1) Kristnaswamy Rout
Tinnevely (1) Peter Paul Pillai headmaster and landlord

Important public personalities of the Presidency like Rangaiah Naidu, S. Subramania Iyer, G. Subramania Iyer and S. A. Saminatha Iyer attended the first session of the Indian National Congress. However, some prominent personalities like Eardley Norton, Salem Ramaswami Mudaliar, C. Jambulingam Mudaliar, Sir T. Madhava Rao and R. Raghunatha Rao did not participate in the first session. Nevertheless, the Indian National Congress, with its ideals actively propagated by members of the Theosophical Society grew by leaps and bounds, that the 1887 session of the Congress held in Madras city and presided over by Sir Madhava Rao was a tremendous success. The visiting dignitaries were welcomed by Lord Connemara, the then Governor of Madras. In 1889, Eardley Norton and Salem Ramaswami Mudaliar led an Indian delegation to the United Kingdom to set up an UK chapter of the Indian National Congress.

From the early 1900s, leadership of the Indian National Congress passed on to a new generation of politicians such as Sir P. S. Sivaswami Iyer, Sic C. Sankaran Nair, Sir M. Krishnan Nair, Sir C. P. Ramaswami Iyer, S. Srinivasa Iyengar and Sir P. Theagaroya Chetty. Enventually, with the passage of time and the influx of revolutionary ideas from the north, the movement turned violent.

Rise of militancy[edit]

The split between the moderates and extremists at the Surat session of the Indian National Congress in 1906 was also accompanied by a split between the moderate and extremist elements in the Indian independence movement in Tamil Nadu. Among the supporters of the Indian extremist Bal Gangadhar Tilak were Subrahmanya Bharathy and V. O. Chidambaram Pillai. Subrahmanya Bharathy was a prodigious Tamil poet and writer and is often regarded as the "national poet of Tami Nadu". His virulently anti-British writings in New India and Swadesamitran attracted the attention of the government which issued a warrant for his arrest forcing hm to flee to the French territory of Pondicherry. Chidambaram Pillai founded the first Indian- owned shipping company in British India, the Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company to challenge British monopoly over shipping. From the beginning, the company had to deal with the hostility and bias of British administrators and competitors . Eventually, the company was liquidated and Pillai thrown in jail.

V. V. S. Aiyar, an associated of V. D. Savarkar, joined the India House and participated in the Hindu German conspiracy. In 1911, one of Aiyar's associates, Vanchinathan shot dead General Ashe, the District Collector of Trichinopoly. Vanchinathan, later, shot himself to evade arrest.

Extremist activities in Tamil Nadu reached a climax during the First World War. The Irish theosophist Annie Besant who had been campaigning for social reforms and increased rights and privileges for native Indians, launched the Home Rule League in 1915, in order to pressurise the British government to grant self-rule to India. She was put under house-arrest on the orders of the Governor of Madras Lord Pentland and was released only after a long protracted legal battle waged by Sir S. Subramania Iyer and Mohammad Ali Jinnah. The Rowlatt Act and subsequent Jallianwala Bagh massacre provoked outrage in the Tamil-speaking districts of Madras Presidency. S. Subramania Iyer returned his knighthood and S. Srinivasa Iyengar, his CIE.

The Dyarchy[edit]

The Montague-Chelmsford reforms of 1919 introduced a dyarchical system of governance in all the three Presidencies of Bengal, Bombay and Madras. As per the new reforms, elections were held in the Madras Presidency in November 1920. In the absence of any contest from the Indian National Congress which had decided to boycott the elections, the Justice Party, an organisation with pro-British leanings, was elected unopposed and formed the government in the province. A. Subbarayalu Reddiar served as Premier for a short term and was succeeded by Sir P. Ramarayaningar. The formulation of a policy of caste-based communal reservations in 1921 appears to be one of the highlights of his tenure. During the 1923 elections, the Justice Party split into two factions – the Constitutionalists and Ministerialists. In the very same year, the Indian National Congress, itself, split into two with a group of "No-Changers" who claimed the right to use its name in favour of non-participation in the government and another faction called the "Swaraj Party" which was in favour of council entry. The Swaraj Party under S. Srinivasa Iyengar emerged as the single-largest party in the 1926 elections. However, the Swaraj Party refused to form the government prompting the governor Lord Goschen to install a regional aristocrat P. Subbarayan as the Premier and nominate members of his own choice to the council to support him. However, the government was beset with problems from the very beginning as both the Swaraj Party as well as the Justice Party tried to topple it.

The Simon Commission arrived in India in the year 1928 to make field investigations into the working of the Montague-Chelmsford reforms. The Indian National Congress and the Swaraj Party as well as the Justice Party, in the initial stages, decided to boycott the commission as there was not a single Indian in it. A motion was put forth in both the houses of the Madras legislature boycotting the Commission and was passed with absolute majority. But the Premier P. Subbarayan opposed the motion and prepared to welcome the commission prompting both of his ministers A. Ranganatha Mudaliar and R. N. Arogysamy Mudaliar to resign in protest. The Governor intervened to appoint S. Muthiah Mudaliar and M. R. Sethuratnam Iyer as ministers in place of the resigned member sof the cabinet and appointed Sir M. Krishnan Nair, an important leader of the Justice Party, to his executive council, in order to enlist the support of its members. The motion was eventually defeated and the Simon Commission was accorded a warm welcome amidst cries of foulplay by the Swaraj Party.

The Justice Party was voted back to power in the 1930 elections and B. Munuswamy Naidu served as Premier for a short term before being succeeded by the Raja of Bobbili. However, the economic conditions under the Great Depression combined with anti-incumbency and rising corruption in the Justice Party ranks resulted in its defeat in the 1934 elections. However, Justice Party was returned to power as the Swaraj Party, the single largest party, refused to form the government. However, by 1937, things had changed and a united and rejuvenated Indian National Congress participating in the elections for the first time held under the Government of India Act 1935 registered a famous win and a near-complete rout for the Justice Party.


  1. ^ A. Oddie, Geoffrey (1991). Hindu and Christian in South-east India: Aspects of Religious Continuity and Change, 1800–1900. Routledge. p. 204. ISBN 0913215554, ISBN 978-0-913215-55-5. 
  2. ^ Missionary controversy: Discussion, Evidence and Report, 1890. London: Wesleyan Methodist Book Room. 1890. p. 163. 
  3. ^ Missionary controversy: Discussion, Evidence and Report, 1890. London: Wesleyan Methodist Book Room. 1890. p. 176. 


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