Anna and Madras

As extracted from Anna, the Life and Times of CN Annadurai, by R Kannan. A Viking imprint from Penguin

The recent biography of CN Annadurai or Anna, one of the icons of Tamil Nadu, by R Kannan has received its fair share of publicity, reviews, praise and criticism in the popular press. When read from the point of view of a person interested in the history of Madras, the book throws a lot of light on various incidents in the life of Anna in which the city had an important role to play.

It was an irony that the man who propounded rationalism should have arrived into this world at Kanchipuram, a town known for its shrines and mutts. Born there on 15th September 1909 to Natarajan, a self-styled village scribe and his wife Bangaru, Anna was brought up by his maternal aunt Rajamani. His early schooling was at the Pacchaiyappa’s School in Kanchipuram, named after the famed Dubash of Madras whose earnings still support educational causes. In 1928, Anna moved to Madras, where he enrolled for the two-year intermediate course at Pacchaiyappa’s College on China Bazaar (now NSC Bose) Road. The book says that he lived in a rented “small, inexpensive room, one of a row in a building occupied by low-income tenants with large families.” Regretfully, the location is not mentioned.

At Pacchaiyappa’s College Anna noted “the history of ancient Greece and the price of goods being sold outside reached the students ears at the same time.” He was to be greatly influenced by Professor Varadarajan who taught English even while studying Law at the Madras Law College. Anna described this mentor as “as holding the force of a storm against authoritarianism but being as gentle as a breeze with the students.” Varadarajan lived in a one room tenement at Mannady and this became the place where Anna was politically baptised. At the Pacchaiyappa’s College he was to also be influenced by Professor Venkatasamy who introduced him to the concept of social justice. The Tamil professors Mosur Kandasamy Mudaliar and Mani Tirunavukkarasu Mudaliar opened Anna’s eyes to the beauties of the Tamil language which was to become another lasting love in his life. In 1931, Anna having topped the intermediate exam was able to join the BA honours programme, thanks to the intervention of Chinnathambi Pillai, the Principal who ensured that a scholarship for the same was made available to the indigent boy. Pillai was to famously remark to a colleague that “a bright future awaits this youngster; he is going to savour the lusty cheers of lakhs of people, he will change the motherland into a happy place.”

In college, Anna shone as a keen debater and writer and acquired a steady fan-following. He became the general-secretary of the college students union in 1931 and two years later became president of the college’s Economics Association. During his college years, he was also married to Rani, a bride his family selected for him. After his graduation, Anna worked briefly as a Tamil tutor at the Govindappa Naicker Middle School which functioned in the same building as his college. He left it, attracted by the possibility of effecting social reform through an active role in politics.

The South Indian Liberal Federation or the Justice Party as it was better known, was then in the throes of decline. While in the 1920s it had formed governments, in the 1930s it could do so only when the Congress boycotted polls and in 1934, it suffered a complete rout at the hustings. On Professor Varadarajan’s recommendation, Anna became assistant editor of a daily brought out by the Rajah of Bobbili who was Premier of Madras between 1932 and 1934. He was also friendly with P Balasubramaniam who was bringing out the Sunday Observer, another publication that represented Justice interests. Through these channels, Anna became close to the powers-that-be of the party. In an effort to stem the rot, the party had then embraced EV Ramaswami Naicker (EVR)’s Self-Respect movement and this attracted Anna above everything else. He was to be a regular speaker at the Self-Respect Movement’s Youth Association premises at Mannady. EVR and Anna were in Anna’s biographer’s words, to become “political father and son.”

In 1935, at the instance of MA Muthiah Chettiar, Anna was given the Peddunaickenpet ward ticket by the Justice Party in the elections to the Madras Corporation. In a pitched campaign Anna was to ridicule the usage of ornamental lights in temples when slums were in darkness. This was used by his Congress rival M Balasubramaniam to his advantage, claiming that if Anna was elected he would remove lights from temples. Anna lost but in the process of canvassing made several friends in North Madras. In 1937, Anna was once again in the limelight, this time for the anti-Hindi agitation. The C Rajagopalachari led Congress government had made Hindi mandatory in schools from class VI to class VIII. Periyar EVR, who had always questioned the status of Hindi and believed that among South Indians it was only Brahmins who learned the language to further their employment opportunities, launched a province-wide agitation. The Hindu High School in Mint Street was one of the many places where picketing was done by way of protest, a method that to Rajaji smacked strongly of a parody of Satyagraha. In 1938, arrests of those protesting against Hindi began and Anna was interned on 21st September 1938 at Saidapet. He was released along with others following the resignation of the Congress government owing to the declaration of the Second World War. The Governor of Madras withdrew the decision to make Hindi compulsory and peace was restored.

The end of the anti-Hindi agitation saw EVR becoming the leader of the Justice Party and he floated the concept of a Dravida Nadu, a “separate, sovereign and federal republic made up of the four Dravidian language areas.” Anna, the faithful follower, espoused the cause and it was to find another and rather unlikely supporter in Mohammed Ali Jinnah, who while addressing the All India Muslim Conference in Madras in April 1941 said “I have every sympathy and shall do all to help…establish Dravidistan where the 7% Muslim population will stretch out its hands of friendship and live with you on the lines of security, justice and fair play.” Anna later also wrote that “Muslims are but Dravidians on an Islamic path.” Jinnah for his part also told the Governor of Madras that India needed to be divided into Dravidistan, Hindustan, Bengalistan and Pakistan. It was left to Sir Stafford Cripps leading his eponymous mission to pour cold water on the Dravidistan idea. He simply refused to countenance it and Jinnah, despite EVR writing to him for help, distanced himself from the idea. But to EVR and Anna, the concept of Dravida Nadu had come to stay and could not be so easily given up.

In the years leading up to independence Anna and EVR extended their reformist zeal to spirited attacks on the Kamba Ramayanam and Sekkizhar’s Periya Puranam. It was EVR’s opinion that these were works glorifying Aryan supremacy. On 9th February 1943, Anna debated with Sethu Pillai on both the works at the Law College, Madras. His oratorical skills carried the day. During this period, while he was editing EVR’s publications, Kudiarasu and Viduthalai, Anna also launched his own weekly, the Dravida Nadu on 8th March 1942 from Kanchipuram. He was by then residing at Karupanna Mudali Street, Madras. His unconventional writing style and his new thoughts were to attract several youngsters and they all flocked to his home. His biographer notes that “after Anna returned from a meeting or play, the house would grow boisterous. An old gramophone would come alive with film songs. Against this backdrop would ensue a serious discussion on everything under the sun…” Sometimes the whole group would decide to go to Kanchipuram. Anna would lead the band to Kotwal Chawadi where they would simply hitch a ride on a truck going back after unloading produce. They would sit in the rear after spreading some hay. If the trucks had left then they would proceed to Egmore to catch the 10.30 pm train to Chingleput. There they would spend the night on the platform before taking the first train in the morning to Kanchipuram.

Dravida Nadu needed money for its continued running and so Anna decided to script plays. He founded the Dravida Drama Troupe and performed roles himself. His maiden play was Chandrodayam debuting formally in EVR’s presence at Erode. With its success, Anna was to find himself attracting actors, left on a limb by the Congress with Satyamurti’s passing. Several famous names attached themselves to his bandwagon, sowing the seeds for the performing arts-politics connect that Tamil Nadu became famous for. EVR was not comfortable with artistes but tolerated them for Anna’s sake. In any case he had other matters to think of. In 1944, he announced that the Justice Party would be rechristened the Dravida Kazhagam. The old guard opposed this and the party split with the rump being retained by Sir PT Rajan. EVR and Anna walked off with the majority. But the two were to soon fall out. To EVR, 15th August 1947 was a day of sorrow as it was a ‘British-Bania-Brahmin Contractual Day’ and his agenda of a Dravida Nadu was still as inchoate as ever. But Anna differed. To him 15th August was a day of joy and he wrote as much in his weekly. He debated within himself and with his friends at compatriot Era Sezhian’s home at Sembudoss Street, Madras before voicing his dissenting view in public. The mentor and sishya came briefly together during the Anti Hindi Conference in Madras in 1948 to protest the compulsory introduction of Hindi in junior classes in schools. But after that they went their ways. The rift widened in 1949 with EVR’s decision to marry Maniyammai, his junior by several years and his entrusting the party to her. That year, Anna and his followers met at a house in Muthialpet, Madras and took the decision of floating a separate party- the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. The party was launched on 17th September at a meeting in Robinson Park, North Madras. The office of the new entity was at a member’s house on Coral Merchant Street. It later shifted to Mint Street and finally through funds raised from Anna’s plays, acquired its own property, Arivagam in North Madras. The same year, Anna also staged plays and collected Rs 20,000 for the Pacchaiyappa’s College. The party grew in stature and in 1951 when it organised its fist state-level conference at the Island Grounds, Madras, the space was filled with people. Anna began by addressing his men as ‘Kazhaga kanmanigal’. This was received with lusty cheers but the phrase has since become commonplace in today’s politics.

The success of the new party notwithstanding, EVR and Anna would collaborate again, and again, on issues. The first was in 1950 when the provision for affirmative action in the Constitution of India was challenged in the High Court of Madras. The Court’s judgement favoured the petitioners and this was protested against by EVR who called for a ‘full closure’ on 14th August 1950. Anna supported this call and joined the protest march down Broadway. The Supreme Court upheld the Madras High Court’s judgement but with Kamaraj, by then a very important player from Madras in the Congress throwing his weight behind Anna and EVR, the first amendment to the Constitution took place in 1951, overturning the Supreme Court’s ruling. It was to be the first of several such social revisions, many of them emanating from Madras where thanks to EVR, Anna and others, awareness was high. Next, EVR and Anna joined forces to protest against Rajaji’s ‘kula-kalvi thittam’, a scheme that envisaged vocational training based on hereditary caste-based professions. The idea cost Rajaji his job as Chief Minister and Kamaraj who had opposed it, succeeded him. The appointment of a man of the masses as CM was considered a success of their own protests by the DK and DMK men. EVR and Anna would also come together in their agitation against the imposition of Hindi repeatedly, in 1957, 1960 and most famously 1963. In the last instance, the protest was against Hindi becoming the official language of India. Anna would be arrested for the last time, at the Aminjikarai police station on 16th November, a day prior to the proposed burning of the Indian Constitution. The Bhaktavatsalam administration clamped down on the agitationists and several were arrested. This turmoil was also to claim the first death by self-immolation for a cause – that of Chinnasami of Tiruchi, a DMK cadre. Anna and others were to be released in 1964, only to be taken into preventive custody again in 1965 following the outbreak of protests caused by the Central Government circular making it obligatory for government staff above a particular grade to transact in Hindi. On 25th January, 50,000 students from Madras colleges marched from Napiers Park to Fort St George in protest, only to be fired at with tear gas shells by the police. That evening a mammoth meeting was organised at the Marina and a few Hindi books were burnt. The Congress government had alienated the students who in the subsequent elections would prostrate before voters asking them not to vote for that party.

The DMK was in the meanwhile making steady progress in Madras State, the new entity that emerged after the reorganisation of states in 1955. In 1956 it decided after an intra-party poll that the DMK would henceforth contest elections. It fielded candidates both for the Centre and the State in 1957 and won two seats in the former and 15 in the latter. Anna declared that the party would play the role of a constructive opposition. Madras city became one of its bastions. In 1959 the DMK won majority in the elections to the Madras Corporation. In 1962, the party improved its tally in the State elections though the Congress once again formed the government, albeit with a dented majority. Strangely, Anna was defeated, in his home town of Kanchipuram. The Dravida Nadu baggage had proved to be an effective tool to campaign against him. He was branded a secessionist by the Congress. But it was to be a blessing in disguise. Anna was elected to the Rajya Sabha. There the nation got to know of him. It was also here that he famously suspended forever the Dravida Nadu demand. The National Integration Committee headed by Sir CP Ramaswami Iyer had recommended the forbidding of secessionist advocacy and this was incorporated into the Constitution following the 16th amendment. Shortly thereafter came the Chinese aggression and it became a convenient excuse for Anna. He called for the suspension of the Dravida Nadu demand. On 3rd October 1962, he addressed a meeting at the Marina and compared his action to the suspension of the Dravida Nadu demand by EVR when the Second World War was declared.

In 1966, the DMK staged a four-day party conference at Virugambakkam, then a suburb of Madras. It took six hours for the procession to pass through and was an indication of the party’s strength. Rajaji was present in person to bless everyone. Rs 11 lakhs by way of election funds, was handed over to Anna by Kalaignar M Karunanidhi who was treasurer of the party. It was a record amount for the DMK and indicated that the party had come a long way from its beginnings in Muthialpet. In the 1967 elections, the DMK swept Madras state, winning all 25 parliamentary seats and 138 out of the 173 assembly seats. Anna became Chief Minister, on 6th March, being sworn in along with his cabinet by Governor Ujjal Singh at the Rajaji Hall.

Sadly, he was to remain in power and be alive for hardly two years. In July 1967, he would face his first administrative challenge when a fire engulfed one of the largest slums of South Madras. Anna called for an all party meeting and it was decided that no new slums would be allowed to come up in the city. The naivety of the decision is perhaps reflective of the fundamental innocence and idealism of the man at the helm. The first bye-election post his coming to power was at the South Madras parliamentary constituency and this was won by the DMK, indicating that the fire notwithstanding, the party’s popularity was intact.

In July 1967, the DMK government passed a resolution renaming Madras state as Tamil Nadu. In January 1968, the Government hosted the Second International Tamil Conference in Madras. A row of statues of those who contributed to Tamil was erected along the Marina. A day prior to this, Anna’s own statue was unveiled on Mount Road by Sir A Ramaswami Mudaliar. On January 3rd, there was a parade comprising floats down the Marina, all of them depicting Tamil history and heritage. Delegates from 40 countries participated in the six-day long conference. Rather coincidentally, the Government of India amended its Official Languages Act, stating in effect that Hindi would become the official language of the nation only when all non-Hindi speaking states adopted a resolution to that effect. The joy that this would have given Anna was however dampened by the succeeding resolution passed by parliament which aimed at the progressive use of Hindi as the official language. In Madras, disturbances broke out once again but this time Anna was not for any agitation involving students. He spent five nights talking to them and finally convinced them that adopting constitutional means was the best way. The Madras assembly passed a resolution on 23rd January eliminating Hindi from all school curricula.

Politics that had entered the Law College in Anna’s youth became heightened with time and in March 1968, Anna faced his last administrative challenge from Madras city. There was a clash between the college students and busmen and this spread to the Madras Medical College. Once again Anna was to display great sensitivity in handling the situation.

The book does not mention it but in 1968 Madras hosted the World Trade Fair. The venue became the city’s fastest growing suburb – Anna Nagar. In September 1968, Anna was diagnosed with cancer. He flew to the US for treatment and returned on 6th November to Madras to an overwhelming reception. He stayed at Agriculture Minister A Govindasami’s bungalow, Anbu, specially fitted with an air-conditioner as stipulated by his doctors. But his health was steadily deteriorating. On 2nd December he participated in the celebrations connected with the renaming of the State. The question over Anna’s health hung like a cloud over the state through most of December and January. On the 20th of January 1969 Anna fell unconscious and was admitted to the Adyar Cancer Institute. Ramnath Goenka flew in at his own expense doctors from the US and also funded the surgeries that followed. But it was all to no avail for Anna died on 3rd February 1969. The body lay in state for homage by millions of mourners. The greatest funeral procession the world had witnessed, entering into the Guinness Book of Records, unfolded the next day in Madras city as the state tearfully bid farewell to the man it loved. A grand memorial would later come up for him at the Marina, the beachfront where thousands of his followers had been mesmerised by his oratory and erudition.