Last week saw plenty of turmoil in our state and that has brought in its wake a number of suicides — all by way of expressing shock at what has befallen a leader. The latest tally is 16, adding to a long list of martyrs who gave up lives for political causes, a tradition that is unique to Tamil Nadu.

In her fascinating book, Passions of The Tongue, Language Devotion in Tamil India, 1891-1970, Sumathi Ramaswamy has it that the first instances of such deaths were seen during the Anti-Hindi agitation of 1937-38. Rajaji, on becoming Prime Minister of Madras in 1937, made a policy announcement about introducing Hindi as a language in secondary schools in the Presidency. This was to see strong protests. Stalin Jagadeesan announced his intention to fast unto death for the sake of Tamil. He became a role model for protestors with C.N. Annadurai announcing that if Jagadeesan were to die, he was prepared to take his place and die for the cause. In the event, Jagadeesan did not die and called off his fast after ten weeks, amidst rumours that he had been taking refreshments on the sly.

A far more serious matter was the death of two men in police custody, following their arrests for participating in the agitation. These were Thalamuthu Nadar and Natarajan. Interestingly, both were illiterate but were filled with an abiding love for Tamil. Arrested at separate places, they had both refused to accept certain conditions for their release and died while in prison. While the Government gave out routine medical reasons for their death, for the Anti-Hindi agitators, they were martyrs to the cause. An emotional Anna declared that their deeds ought to be inscribed in gold. The headquarters of the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority in Egmore is named after them.

Self-immolation as a form of protest began when M. Bhaktavatsalam was Chief Minister of Madras State in the 1960s and it appeared that Hindi would be imposed in school curricula. Trichy Chinnasami set himself on fire for the sake of Tamil on January 25, 1965. This was followed by at least five other men — Aranganathan, Sarangapani, Veerappan, Muthu and Sivalingam, doing the same. Four more people consumed poison. There are two Trichy Chinnasami Streets in Chennai, one in Perambur and the other in Korukkupet. Aranganathan is remembered in a subway in Saidapet. Sivalingam, Veerappan and Sarangapani are commemorated with street names in the Perambur/Agaram areas. Also remembered by way of a street name in Vadapalani is Sankaralinganar, the Gandhian who in 1956 fasted to death demanding that Madras State be renamed Tamil Nadu. That change in nomenclature had to wait till 1968.Since then, fasting has become symbolic, largely practised by the upper echelons of society and lasting for a few hours! Self-immolation and other forms of suicide however continue to happen as and when a beloved leader falls ill, dies or undergoes some privation. The ethics of such acts continue to be debated.

This article appeared under the Hidden Histories Column of The Hindu dated October 4, 2014