Just off Eldams Road in Teynampet is a small thoroughfare — HD Rajah Street. It commemorates a firebrand revolutionary who later became a highly successful entrepreneur.

HD Rajah (left) with TS Narayanaswamy, founder of India Cements
HD Rajah (left) with TS Narayanaswamy, founder of India Cements

Born in June 1904 at Kayamkulam in Tirunelveli to Harihara Iyer and Lakshmi, Dharmarajah lost his father early. The family shifted to Trivandrum and from there to Bombay for better prospects. But it was the freedom struggle that attracted Rajah. He initiated the Youth Movement of Bombay in 1924. In 1927, when the Simon Commission was sent to India to study constitutional reforms, Rajah and his Youth Movement were in the forefront protesting against the non-inclusion of any Indians on the Commission.

Rajah participated in the salt satyagraha in 1930. He also created the People’s Battalion of Bombay, which aimed to non-violently take over government institutions such as the High Court and the Income Tax and Customs Departments. Tried for sedition, Rajah was sentenced to four-and-a-half years of rigorous imprisonment. Lodged at Yervada prison prior to transfer to the Andamans, Rajah came into contact with Mahatma Gandhi. It was at the latter’s insistence that he was released in 1932. The Bombay Government exiled him to Madras.

On arrival here, Rajah became involved in the distribution of seditious pamphlets and was arrested along with Kamraj and others in what came to be known as the Madras Conspiracy Case.

The government alleged that the plotters had aimed to kill Sir John Anderson, the Governor of Bengal while he was holidaying at Ootacamund. A year’s imprisonment followed.

On release in 1934, Rajah took to business. In 1936, he invested in TR Ganapathy Iyer’s newly-founded Rane Madras Limited, and became its company secretary. His most successful venture was the Vanguard Insurance Company founded in 1937. It was headquartered on Second Line Beach, at Vanguard House, a handsome art deco structure that still survives as can be seen in the picture. In 1941, he founded the Vanguard Fire and General Insurance Company.

Vanguard House, Second Line Beach
Vanguard House, Second Line Beach

A year later, he entered advertising, setting up the Nalin Publicity Bureau. He then reverted to his first love – Indian independence and served a year’s term in prison for participating the Quit India Movement.

Rajah, like Mahatma Gandhi, believed that the Congress had served its purpose with the coming of independence.

He broke away and set up the Republican Party in 1950, becoming a member of the Rajya Sabha in 1952. His success in business made him wealthy and in 1957 he set up the HD Rajah Educational Trust.

The Lakshmi Harihara High School, set up by the trust, partially aided by the government and still managed by his family, runs at Elathur in Tirunelveli. Rajah could have achieved much more had death not intervened on 30 November 1959. But, he had packed enough and more into one life.

I am however unable to trace the link between Teynampet and Rajah, for he was a Boag Road resident.

This article appeared in The Hindu under the Hidden Histories column