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Saturday, September 19, 2009

THE RED RAG & JOHN BULL

ThiruViKa, the Tamil Gandhi

&

His Times

Chapter II

THE RED RAG & JOHN BULL

A slow melancholy procession wended its forlorn way through the streets of Madras, all the way from Choolai to Mylapore on September 18, 1953. ThiruViKa had passed away the previous evening and it was his funeral procession. The workers came in their thousands. He was their father-figure. He gave them voice in 1918. S.C.C. Anthony Pillai (Toni), President of their union was arrested on March 29, 1947, three decades on. Though in frail health, ThiruViKa came to their rescue, donning the mantle of the President once again and was placed under house-arrest. The dubious credit goes to the Congress party, of which he was the Tamil Nadu President in 1927. They recalled those events and the strikes led by him, with misty eyes.

It is his spiritual concern for the oppressed that brought this self-effacing Tamil Scholar, tumbling forth into the confrontational world of unionism. A chance dharshan of James Keir Hardie (1856-1915) in 1908 settled the matter. ‘A scoundrel’ to King Edward VII, he was ‘still an honoured figure’ to Indians, reports his biographer, Kenneth O’ Morgan (later Lord Morgan) in 1967. Hardie was the first Labour leader in the United Kingdom (UK); he advocated of Indian self-rule, women's rights, free schooling and social security and had defied White Labourist ideology. ThiuViKa, a petty clerk in Spencer & Co, the shopping mall of those days, chanced upon him when he came shopping. Aware of Hardie’s work, he stood transfixed. He says that labour activism entered his soul, that very moment.

Great Britain shelters the persecuted as policy and granted asylum to Karl Marx, casting dire warnings from the Austrian Chancellor that he was seeking refuge in Britain for assasinating Queen Victoria, into the dust bin. The rest is history. He came out with the first volume of Das Capital in 1867 and its last volume was published posthumously 1894. The Soviet Revolution 1917, an uprising of the oppressed class, owes its political underpinning to that book. We find ThiuViKa devouring it–seventeen times, he says - and founding the first ever trade union in India, Madras Labour Union (MLU), close on the heels of the Soviet Revolution, in 1918. The British Communist Party, the laggard, came into being only in 1920.

Ki. Aa. Pe. Viswanatham (KiAaPe) (1899-1994), the renowned Tamil writer, recalls ThiruViKa leading the working class unlike the latter-day trade unionists, who deferred to militancy. Subbaraama Kamath (Kamath), owner of Desabakthan felt that he was the bridge between Gandhism and Marxism. Dr. B. Natarajan, the economist, put it this way. The human right activist in him sought integration of Gandhian non-violence with Marxist quest for social justice. He was inflexible in his standards for right conduct and thereby lost the confidence of a section of the working class. This is one of glossed-over areas in both of his biographical sketches. A Vedantin among Marxists, loosely termed as a Gandhian Marxist, he faulted Marxism for wanting in ‘sath’ meaning that it did not subscribe to right conduct of the highest form for the human.

Krishna, the Hindu God, lists three attributes of the human – the saint-like, the pragmatic and the undesirable in 20 verses in Chapter 14 of the Bhagavat Gita, the Song Celestial of Sir Edwin Arnold. ThiruViKa aspired for the saint-like in Marxists. He does not acknowledge this fountainhead and cites his new-found wisdom from the 19th century saint, Ramalinga Adikal (Vallalar) (1823-1874), as the inspiration for his brand of Marxism. It appears from the unfolding events that he used Marxism as the medium for his rallying for the poor. He devotes one-seventh of his bulky autobiography to his labour activism.

ThiruViKa met Bomamji Pestonji Wadia (Wadia) (1881-1958) at Kanchipuram in 1917 and traslated his speech. He was the Annie Besant connection, along with Kamath. He was of capitalist stock, a descendant of the famous Wadia family of shipbuilders. He got involved in the Labour Movement following a recital of their woes by the textile workers of Madras in his office at New India, the mouthpiece of the Home-Rule movement. Preliminary meetings in the fall of 1917 and on March 2, 1918 led to the founding of Madras Labour Union on April 27, 1918, with Wadia as President at Venkatesa Gunamirtha Varshni Sabha, literally translating - the Association Celebrating the Showers of Lord Balaji’s Attributes. ThiruViKa was elected as one of the two Vice-Presidents. The meet is best described in his words,

“Thousands of workers attended that meeting; they filled the ground, sat on the walls, some perching on the trees!”

The unwitting Chair, a government official, thought it was a religious congregation (my words: justifiably so, one would think, given the divinity of the venue!). Aghast at ThiruViKa’s radicalism, he duly entered his plea of disassociation, only to be hooted down by the crowd. Police misbehaved; the workers kept their cool. They openly asked for the Union”. [ThiruViKa (1944). pp. 352-3]

Trade unions were formed in many sectors – railways, tramways, electricity, police, textiles, printing, barbers, scavengers, rikshah-pullers, domestics in European households and so on. The strategist, for once, ThiruViKa, persuaded Kasturiranga Iyengar (1859-1923), the Editor of the Hindu, to head the Police Union. He undertook whirlwind tours to press on and an apex body was constituted on July 4, 1920 with him as the President. He had to contend with intrigues, rival unions, stubborn managements and a hostile administration. White Labourists in the guise of the Anglo-Indian Railway workers and the domestics in British households, pelted stones at him. Torn between the British sense of fair play and colonial hegemony, the Governor of Madras Presidency opted for repressive measures, beating a hasty retreat, when opposition came from unexpected quarters.

An incident in Buckingham Mill led to a lock-out and litigation. Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer (1879-1966), the reformist Anglophile Dewan of Travancore from 1936 to 1947, Sir Alladi Krishnaswamy Iyer (1883-1953), who was to draft the Constitution of India later, with two other luminaries, defended the Labour. In the meanwhile, repression was let loose. ThiruViKa was already under surveillance as a Congressman and a journalist.

Lord Pentland, the Governor, had told him off a few times. Lord Wellington, who succeeded him, summoned him along with others, on July 7, 1921 and admonished them for the violence and arson let loose. Irked by ThiruViKa’s, ‘in the wake of the Judgment Day…’ response, His Lordship threatened his expulsion. The air was already thick with such rumours. Lord Wellington consulted the then Premier, Panagal Maharaja of the Justice party and his colleague, Sir P. Theagaraya Chettiyar; both dissuaded him from this extreme step and offered to resign if he persisted. This displeased ThiruVika as he would take no favours. This was not a charitable response. For one, it was public knowledge that his interveners were more worried about escalating labour disaffection and onset of possible civil unrest. Secondly, he was hardly equal to the rigours of banishment. He had never courted arrest and was in poor health. Thirdly, Sir P. Theagaraya Chettiyar had told him then that his concern for ThiruViKa’s delicate health made him advise the Governor to drop the expulsion move. It is surprising that he did not revise this reaction, while reflecting over his life in 1944. This incident, however, brings out his life-long concern for the working class.