A fascinating glimpse into the life and times of Lakshminarasu Chetty, a pioneer Hindutva from Madras, who looked out for the cause of Dharma and his fellow Hindu countrymen.
The perspiration on the bald head of His Excellency, Governor of Madras, George Hay, 8th Marquess of Tweeddale, was as unmistakably visible as the flame-like redness that was erupting all over his face. “How is this even possible?” he thundered. A shame. A veritable shame. The low-life dark-skinned ‘Hindoo heathens of Madras’; they had made the great British administration a laughing stock. If only he could lay his hands on the traitor who operated right within the premises of the fort of St. George! Governor Tweeddale, as he was called by the ‘natives’, wrung his hands. The plan was confidential. The British East India Company — only a facade for the Crown itself — would benefit immensely from it. It would strengthen their emotional and institutional hold on the natives thoroughly and more important than all this — it was the moral and spiritual obligation of the very presence of the British in this infidel land of Hindoostan.
The year 1847 was not going exactly right for Hay. What should have been a smooth Christian evangelical operation in Madras had now become a full blown scandal. He knew the man behind this. The confidential document that made the Bible a part of the compulsory curriculum in Madras University had appeared in that god-forsaken Crescent — a newspaper run by a native who had no proper education — at least not in the way of British education. Gazulu Lakshminarasu Chetty — that is the name that every South Indian Hindu should never forget and should be ever indebted to, if we cherish being Hindus today. His name sent shivers down the spine of every British administrator then in India. Chetty was born in 1806. His date of birth is not known. He did not seem to be the kind to celebrate his birthday. A Komati Chetty born to a Hindu merchant-class family, he received formal education for his trade in the traditional way. As the British rule was getting consolidated in South India — at least for more than a century — he had mastered English on his own. He ventured into cotton trade by leveraging on the feuds that were occurring between America and Britain in that field. He amassed the needed wealth and then turned from his kuladharma — his family trade of being a merchant — to his swadharma — of being a warrior for Dharma, fighting for the rights and dignity of his people. And so he commenced his activities. He found the way the judiciary and the education department were targeting Hindus particularly humiliating. English education was a must to enter governmental services. This in turn compelled ordinary people who sought government jobs for their children to send them to missionary-run schools, forsaking indigenous educational systems like the ‘thinnai schools’. In the missionary-run schools, the children were made targets of proselytising by the missionaries. The court rooms were no better. They often became evangelical halls. And these were filled with powerful men — the elite of the emerging Raj. Any judge who, on rare occasions, opposed this absolutely unethical drama of evangelical savagery, would be punished by the powers that were. And it was with these men of power that this peaceful-looking man, with a turban and a prominent Vaishnavaite mark on his forehead, decided to cross swords with, putting all his hard-earned wealth into the battle he had taken up.
The persons with whom he clashed included the who’s who of the power circles in the then Madras society. Consider this list: Sir William Burton, judge of the Madras Sadr Court, who made clear his missionary bias by occasionally delivering evangelical lectures from his seat in the court room to the Hindus on trial; J F Thomas, the then chief secretary to the government, who almost made it an unwritten policy that government appointments would be made to those Hindus who converted to Christianity; his close relative E B Thomas, who as the collector of Thirunelvelly (Tirunelveli), favoured a policy of rampant Christian conversion; Morehead, district judge of Chengalpattu, who would even suspend the court proceedings to have an open-house evangelical preaching; and finally, as we saw at the beginning of this article, the governor himself.
On 2 October 1844, thirteen years before the 1857 uprising and forty one years before the formation of Indian National Congress, Lakshminarasu brought out the first issue of the Crescent (Matiyam) whose stated aim was ‘the amelioration of the condition of the Hindus’. Chetty had a trusted friend in Edward Harley, who was an ex-naval officer and a Hinduphile. It was Harley who became the editor of Crescent. It was an extraordinary, almost superhuman achievement by contemporary standards. The magazine was brought out three times a month in three languages: Tamil, English and Telugu. It had established a wide network of reporters even within the government premises. This included even British sympathisers of Hindus. These reporters and planted informers often got their hands onto confidential plans made by colonial administrators aimed at subverting Hinduism and Hindu society. These plans would be published under various noms de plume like ‘Vindex’ and ‘Plain Speaking Man’. In one of its issues, Crescent published a confidential government document that had laid out plans to appropriate surplus revenue from Hindu temples for government expenditures. The magazine also published the Minute of the Governor, in which were plans on introducing the Bible as a class book in provincial schools and the Madras University – the very incident that is mentioned at the beginning of this article.
The modus operandi of Christian evangelists in Madras University was suave. It was made clear that only through English education could a government job be obtained. Then it was made clear again that those in the government who had access to state power were vastly superior to their non-English educated counterparts. So there was a groundswell for English education in the Madras province — particularly in the urban centres. Madras University had been established to further a cause. Missionaries and their facilitators had absolute access to the inner workings of the university. The questions for the students in examinations were framed with clear Christian theological orientation and those who could not answer them were denied government appointments. When the rate of ‘native’ students failing to become eligible for government jobs despite education became untenable, the plan to introduce the Bible was thought of as a solution for this problem.
Lakshminarasu Chetty did not stop with just exposing the designs of the governor. He also convened a public meeting on 7 October 1846 at the Pachaiyappa institution. He presided over the meeting himself. The meeting was followed by creating a memorandum describing how the actions of the governor betrayed religious neutrality and how it involved ‘unscrupulous violations of these sacred pledges during the regime of the Marquis of Tweeddale’. The memorandum also documented how the missionaries prevented unconverted ‘natives’ from passing competitive examinations, how there was an ‘active co-operation of government officials with missionaries’ and the conversion policy of the missionaries. This expose as well as the public meeting and memorandum shocked the government. One gentleman, Chamier, a senior member of the governor’s council, stated that the acts of the government had been perceived ‘as serious felt blows aimed at the religion of the people and as the breaches of Faith on the part of the Government.’ It was a warning, he cautioned the company-proxy-British government, that it should not cause popular movements by its own neglect. There was a commission to enquire into the leakage of the documents and a few were suspended. But not all informers could be caught and the office of Crescent was put under heavy police surveillance. The government tried its level best to suppress the magazine by denying it ‘the smallest privileges’ that were given to missionary publications. When the manager of the magazine sent an advertisement for insertion in the Fort St. George Gazette, it was returned as inadmissible, with the chief secretary to government saying that it was ‘of a character not usually inserted.‘ The colonial authorities alleged that Lakshminarasu Chetty’s speech at the Pachaiyappa institution and the whole proceedings that followed ‘were calculated to foster a rebellious spirit in the audience and to wean the allegiance of the Hindus away from their British Rulers.’ The sheriff of Madras, who was present at the gathering, had tried his level best to dissuade the people from signing the memorandum but had failed. During the 1840s, in Tirunelveli district of southern Tamil Nadu, Hindu resistance to missionary proselytizing, had erupted in the form of a ‘Vibooti protest’, which involved smearing the Hindu holy ash on the foreheads of transgressing evangelists by Hindus.
Soon a ‘Vibooti Society’ was also formed by Tirunelveli Hindus. While the British colonialists supported the missionaries, local Hindus in the state formed their own support base. A society called ‘Chatur-Veda Siddhanta Society’ was formed and it had established its own printing press, the Kalvi Kalanchiam Press (located at 14 Salay Street, near the Ganesha temple). It was started by Umapati Muthaliyar. These organisations supported the Hindus who resisted proselytising and were arrested by the company’s government. The arrested Hindus were ordered to be released by Judge Lewin of the Madras Court. Governor Tweeddale personally interfered and revoked the judgment in favour of the missionaries and against the arrested Hindu prisoners. Lakshminarasu Chetty joined hands with Muthaliyar and organised protests and collected signatures in a memorandum. To augment his journalistic work on the ground, Chetty also started the ‘Madras Mahajana Sabha’ (Madras Native Association), in 1849. He did this after his attempt to revive the then defunct ‘Madras Hindu Literary Society’ (MHLS) along with his friend Srinivasa Pillay, had failed.
At this point it is important to understand the history of MHLS itself. In 1833, the Madras Hindu Literary Society was formed and its first President was Cavelly Venkata Lutchmiah, who was also the member of the Royal Asiatic Society in London. It was supported mainly by Srinivasa Pillay who would later join hands with Chetty in his fight for Hindu rights. MHLS, despite its highly respected members, discovered that for the colonial government, all valued principles existed only on paper — particularly when it was concerned with Hindu self-efforts. The government was not at all sympathetic towards this attempt of self-organising by the Hindus. The society, despite its not-so-healthy financial conditions, started a school which taught not only in English but also in other languages — Tamil, Telugu and Sanskrit. When it faced complete financial collapse in running the school, it turned in desperation to the government for aid. Repeated requests went unanswered. Surprisingly advanced for its time, the petitioner, who was the president of the Society, pointed out that this was an attempt to spread ‘scientific knowledge in English and Oriental language to our youths’ in Madras. With only 235 rupees left in hand, the letter pleaded with the government for help. Despite attached letters of support from the Royal Asiatic Society in London, the government did not even give them an exemption from postal charges. By the end of the decade (1840s) the Society had ceased to function. Lakshminarasu Chetty’s Madras Mahajana Sabha (Madras Native Association, MNA) not only looked into the missionary activities but also the changes in the way land-people relations had transformed under the British.
In its very first petition in December 1852, the MNA documented the cruel conditions of torture under which the peasantry in South India suffered. In this submission drafted by Lakshminarasu Chetty, he pointed out,
…that grievances of your petitioners arise principally from the excessive taxation and the vexations which accompany its collections, and the insufficiency, delays and expense of the Company’s Courts of Law; that their chief wants are the construction of roads, bridges and works for the supply of irrigation and a better provision for the education of the people; they also desire a reduction of public expenditure and a form of local Government more generally conducive to the happiness of the subjects and the prosperity of the country.He also demanded that the rule be transferred to the British parliament directly rather than being done through the East India Company.
The same year Danby Seymour, a member of British parliament sympathetic to Hindus, visited India. Lakshminarasu made Seymour his guest and used the opportunities ‘of conveying to Mr. Seymour information regarding the high-handed manner in which the local authorities curtailed the civil and religious rights of the Hindu community’. Later, Chetty took Seymour on ‘a tour through Southern India visiting Cuddalore, Kumbakonam, Coimbatore and other places’ and made him witness firsthand ‘how the landholder was assessed at prohibitive rates and how defaulters in the payment of Government revenue were subjected to excruciating torture and otherwise inhumanly treated.’ In his letter dated 24 January 1853, written to the British government, Lakshminarasu had demanded an inquiry commission: ‘If a Commission could be obtained to take information in this country, all the more glaring complaints could be fully substantiated…’ Seymour took up the issue in the House of Commons in July 1854 and was able to give his own eyewitness account of the torture done to the peasants for the collection of revenue. As a result of this a Commission was created to look into the problem of torture, in September — it was famously called the ‘Torture Commission’. Even as these developments were happening, Lakshminarasu was not idle. He had submitted a petition with numerous signatures and had it sent to the British parliament. On 14 April 1856, the Earl of Albemarle presented it in the House of Lords. Meanwhile, the ‘Torture Commission’ too had presented all the evidence it had gathered to the Home government. The House of Lords was left with no choice but to condemn strongly the use of torture in colonial revenue collection. The reports of the police superintendent of Madras on the meetings organized by Lakshminarasu Chetty point out that his meetings excited all sections of the society — particularly they ‘did not fail to alarm the minds of the people from the lower orders as well as ignorant sections of the society.’ It was not in the least elitist or confined to the ‘educated classes’. In fact, the issues he took on so bravely affected the masses and the downtrodden in particular.
Simultaneously, Chetty was also fighting the missionary onslaught. In 1853 the governor again made an attempt to bring back the Bible into the education curriculum. This too was thwarted by the ever-vigilant Lakshminarasu. The final submission made by MNA was in 1859, to Stanley, the secretary of state for India. The charges were made against the loss of temple lands. It further criticized governmental support for Bible instruction in educational institutions and apathy towards Hindus in general. It also opposed strongly the appointment of a Hindu-hating missionary, Peter Percival, as a professor at Presidency College for ‘Sanskrit and Vernacular Languages’. The submission pointed out that Percival had ‘merely a smattering of the Tamil …just commencing study of Telugu, and … altogether incompetent‘ to teach Sanskrit. His appointment was an insult to Hindus. It was further pointed out how he had fraudulently altered the verses of Auvaiyar in his book. Interestingly, among the signatories to this petition were a significant number of Muslims. Lakshminarasu Chetty was also a staunch advocate of women education. He had started and financed several schools for girls. He also encouraged widow remarriage — quite revolutionary during his days. Chetty had a prophetic vision that had the interest of South Indian Hindus at its heart. During the Mysore wars of the British against Tipu Sultan, the British were immensely helped by the Nizam of Hyderabad. The British and the Nizam had come to an understanding that in any case or under any circumstance Mysore would not or could not be restored to the Raja of Mysore; it would be divided among the company and the Nizam.
Many years after the last Anglo-Mysore war, Lakshminarasu Chetty observed how the British were still vacillating in returning Mysore back to Raja Krishna Raja Udayar [Wodeyar]. So he went to Mysore and advised the King to adopt a son for the perpetuation of the royal line. Then he went to Sir Salar Jung, the famous minister of Hyderabad and asked him to press with the British for his share. With the decision of the Raja Udayar [Wodeyar] to adopt a son on the one hand and with the pressure from Hyderabad on the other, the East India Company was forced to return the core of Mysore region to the Hindu Raja and reinstate him. The British originally considered Chetty a seditious person and watched his writings and lectures minutely. His movements were also watched by the police. But after 1857 there was a change. The British decided to mend fences with him. He was awarded the Companion Order of the Star of India in 1861. In 1863 he was made the member of Madras Legislative Council. However, Chetty had lost all his wealth by this time. The magazine ‘Crescent’, which had reached a circulation of 10,809 copies through the Madras general post office alone in 1846, had fallen to 4794 in 1853. Eventually when it dropped down to 150 in subsequent years, with no financial means to continue, Chetty had to stop the magazine.
Lakshminarasu Chetty died In 1868 in financial poverty and patriotic richness. Love for the Rashtra and Dharma animated all his life. He gave his everything for the welfare and dignified future of Hindus. He fought against all odds, in situations considered too dangerous. He understood how the colonial system was tearing away at the cultural matrix of the Hindus by destroying temple lands and temple revenues, how it was also destroying the peasants by changing the land ownerships in villages, and creating insufferable human misery. His was an important insight – a Hindutva insight indeed, long before even Savarkar expounded Hindutva.