One Hundred Tamils of the 20th Century
Pasumpon Muthuramalingam Thevar1
October 30, 1908 – October 30, 1963
U. Muthuramalingam Thevar, also known as Pasumpon Muthuramalingam Thevar hailed from the Maravar community, the dominant warrior caste group in his home district in southern Tamil Nadu. Thevar became the leader of the All India Forward Bloc in Tamil Nadu, and was national deputy chairman of the party from 1952 onwards. He was elected thrice to Parliament.
Childhood and family life
Thevar was born in the village of Pasumpon, Ramnad district. He hailed from a wealthy landlord family. Thevar was the only son of Ukkirapandi Thevar and Indirani. He had one sister, Janaki.
His mother died before his first birthday and his stepmother the next year. From 1910 onwards he was in the custody of his maternal grandmother Parvathiammal in the neighbouring village of Kallupatti. Parvathiammal was furious on Thevar's father for having taken two new wives shortly after the death of his second wife.
During his youth, Thevar was aided by Kuzhanthaisami Pillai. Pillai was a close family friend of Thevar's father. Pillai took responsibility for arranging Thevar's schooling. First he was given private tuition and in June 1917 he began attending classes at an elementary school run by American missionaries in Kamuthi. Later he joined the Pasumalai High School and then he shifted to the Union Christian High School in Madurai.
Thevar would however, not complete his studies. In 1924 he missed his final examinations due to an outbreak of a plague epidemic. The following year he also missed his chance to attend the final examinations, as he returned to Pasumpon to fight a legal battle over issues of inheritance of family property. The case would linger and was not settled until 1927, when the court ruling in Muthuramalingam Thevar's favour.
Thevar's father, Ukkirapandi Thevar, passed away on June 6, 1939.
Early political activity
Thevar was introduced to political life through the bond built with his lawyer S. Srinivasa Iyengar during the disputes of family inheritance. Iyengar advised Thevar to participate in the annual conference of the Indian National Congress in Madras 1927. During that conference Subhas Chandra Bose lodged as Iyengar's house in Mylapore. Thevar was very impressed by Bose. After the conclusion of the INC session, Thevar followed Bose to Calcutta.
Following his return from Calcutta, Thevar began to study religious spiritualism, Tamil language and classical literature. He was strongly influenced by thinkers such as Swami Vivekananda and Savant Ramlinga Adigal. He began to adopt a simple and strict lifestyle, as well as interacting all castes in the local communities.
As an apprentice of S. Srinivasa Iyengar, Thevar was increasingly involved in the political activities of the Indian National Congress. He was active in the civil disobedience movement called by Gandhi, and acted as a courier between 1932-1934. Moreover he led temperance campaigns in Kallupatti, Mudukulathur and Kodhumazhur. His activities angered the colonial authorities, and he was jailed on several occasions.
Anti-Criminal Tribes Act struggle
One particular issue would have a special impact on Thevar's political career. Since 1920 the Criminal Tribes Act had been enacted by the government of the Madras Presidency and began to be implemented in the Madurai, Ramnad and Tirunelveli districts. After his entry into politics, Thevar began to mobilize resistance to the CTA. He toured villages in the affected areas and led protest rallies for the rights of the individuals registered under the CTA. In 1929 the Maravars of 19 villages in Appanad were forced to registered under the CTA. Thevar led a massive campaign in the villages, urging the people to defy the CTA. The authorities partially withdrew, and reduced the number of CTA registrations in the concerned areas from around 2000 to just 341.
In 1934 Thevar organised a convention at Abhiram, which urged the authorities to repeal the CTA. A committee consisting of Thevar, Dr. P. Varadarajulu Naidu, Perumal Thevar, Sasivarna Thevar and Navaneethakrishna Thevar was appointed by the convention to carry on the efforts to persuade the government to revoke the Act.
The CTA was, however, not revoked. On the contrary, its implementation was widened. Thevar again led agitations and awareness-raising campaigns against the Act. At the time the Justice Party was governing the Madras presidency, and their refusal to revoke the law created a strong animosity on Thevar's behalf towards the Justicites.
1936 District Board election
Infuriated over the attitude of the Justice Party government towards the CTA, Thevar came to the conclusion that the communities affected by the Act had to be mobilized by the Congress. After returning from a trip to Burma in 1936, he began to work to strengthen the Congress in the southern areas of the Presidency. He contested the election to the Ramnad District Board from the Muthukulathur constituency, defeating his Justice Party opponent. This was Thevar's first experience of being a candidate in an election.
After the election Thevar made a bid to be elected the president of the District Board. So did P.S. Kumarasamy, the Raja of Rajapalyam. Conflict erupted within the local Congress organisation over the issue. S. Satyamurthi, on behalf of the Tamil Nadu Congress Committee, intervened to preserve the unity of the Congress. Thevar was convinced to withdraw his candidature for president, and presented a motion nominating Kumarasamy as president.
When the Congress Socialist Party began to mobilize in the Madras Presidency in 1936, Thevar joined their ranks.
1937 provincial election
Ahead of the 1937 elections to the assembly of the Madras Presidency, Thevar enlisted youths from the Mukkulathor communities to work for the Congress. His activities created worries for the Justice Party government, which forbade him to travel outside of the Ramnad district and to make speeches in public.
In February 1937 Thevar contested the assembly election himself, as a candidate in the Ramathapuram constituency. He had a powerful opponent, the Raja of Ranmad. However, Thevar won a landslide victory with 11 942 votes against 6 057 for the Raja.
Following the election the Congress formed a government in the Presidency. Thevar had high hopes that the new Congress ministry would revoke the Criminal Tribes Act. But the new prime minister, C. Rajagopalachari, did not fulfil those hopes.
As a trade unionist
During the late 1930s, Thevar got increasingly involved in labour activities. He formed and led the Pasumalai Mahalaskshmi Mill Workers' Union, the Meenakshi Mill Workers' Union and the Madura Knitting Company Labour Union. During a prolonged strike of the Pasumalai Mahalaskshmi Mill Workers' Union, demanding the reinstatement of a section of fired trade unionists, Thevar was jailed for seven months from October 15, 1938. In the end, the management of the Mahalakshmi Mills accepted the demands of the union. In the same period a strike was led by Thevar at the Madura Knitting Company. In 1945, he would become the founding president of the TVS Thozhaili Sangam.
Tripuri session of the Congress and formation of the Forward Bloc
Thevar attended the 52nd annual session of the Indian National Congress, held in Tripuri in March 1939. At this meeting the presidency of Subhas Chandra Bose was challenged by Pattabhi Sitaramayya. Sitaramayya had the active support of Gandhi. Bose was re-elected as the Congress President. Thevar strongly supported Bose in the intra-Congress dispute.
However, due to the manoeuvrings of the Gandhi-led clique in the Congress Working Committee, Bose found himself forced to resign from the Congress Presidency. He then launched the Forward Bloc on June 22, calling for the unification of all leftwing elements into a united organisation within the Congress. Thevar, who was disillusioned by the official Congress leadership which had not revoked the CTA, joined the Forward Bloc. When Bose visited Madurai on September 6, Thevar organised a massive rally as his reception.
The growing popularity in Thevar as a leader of elements opposing the official Congress leadership in Tamil Nadu troubled the Congress-led government. Thevar was also increasingly associated with labour militancy. A criminal case, the so-called Madura Security Case, was proceeded against him. He was banned from leaving Madurai. When travelling to his birthplace, Pasumpon, in September 1940 he was apprehended and jailed for 18 months at the Central Jail in Tiruchirapalli. His capture sparked wide condemnation in Tamil Nadu.
Soon after his release he was again arrest, now under the Defence of India Rules. He was released from prison only on September 5, 1945.
After release from jail
In 1945 C. Rajagopalachari tried to make a comeback within the Congress organisation in Tamil Nadu. He had the support of Gandhi and Sardar Patel, but the majority of in the Tamil Nadu Congress Committee opposed him. A conference was held in Tirupparankundram, in which the leadership should be elected. Chaos broke about during the conference, as warring factions confronted each other. Thevar interrupted the disputes and passed a motion reelecting Kamaraj as the TNCC President.
Elections to the assembly of the Madras Presidency were again held in March 1946. Thevar contested from the Mudukulathur constituency, and was elected unopposed. Soon thereafter, the CTA was repealed.
In February 1948 the Congress expelled all dissenting fractions, including the Forward Bloc. The Forward Bloc became an independent opposition party, and Thevar became its president of its Tamil Nadu state unit (a position he would hold for the rest of his life).
On January 23, 1949, in connection with birthday anniversary celebrations of Subhas Chandra Bose, Thevar publicly announced that Bose was alive and that he had met him. Soon thereafter Thevar disappeared without any explanation. The returned to public life in October 1950. Rumours claimed that he had travelled to Korea and China during this period.
On the national level the Forward Bloc had been suffering from internal ideological divisions. In 1948 two separate Forward Blocs had emerged, a 'Forward Bloc (Marxist)' (out of which the Forward Bloc of today emerged) and a 'Forward Bloc (Ruiker)' (led by R.S. Ruiker). On June 23, 1951, the two parties reunified at a meeting in Calcutta. A central committee was announced for the united party, which included Thevar as one of its members.
1952 general election
In January 1952 the first general elections in independent India were held. The Forward Bloc contested with the aim of forming non-Congress governments at the Centre as well as in the states. Election were held simultaneously to the Lok Sabha as well as to the legislative assemblies of the states. Thevar contested the Aruppukottai constituency in the Lok Sabha election and the Mudukulathur constituency in the assembly election. He won in both cases. After the election, he decided to vacate his Lok Sabha seat and concentrate his efforts to the Madras legislative assembly.
After the election, Congress lacked a majority of its own in the Madras legislative assembly. Thevar cooperated with the communists in trying to form a non-Congress governing coalition. However, the governor intervened and made C. Rajagopalachari of the Congress the Chief Minister.
Split in the Forward Bloc
In 1955, internal divisions reappeared with the Forward Bloc. The Indian National Congress had adopted Socialism as its guiding principle at a session in Madras. Some leaders within the Forward Bloc, like the chairman Mohan Singh and Sheel Bandra Yagee, now argued that the time had come for the Forward Bloc to merge with the Congress. This proposal did however not win much support in other sections of the party leadership. Singh-Yagee unilaterally declared the party merged into the Congress.
An extraordinary central committee meeting was convened in Nagpur May 11-15, 1955. Singh, Yagee and their followers were expelled from the party. Hematha Kumar Bose was elected chairman of the party, Haldulkar the general secretary and Thevar the deputy chairman of the party. Thevar would hold that post until his death.
1957 general election
In December 1955 Thevar travelled to Burma for the second time, during which he took part in political and religious activities organised by the All Burma Tamil Nadu Association. He returned on February 18, 1956 and began to prepare for the coming general election.
A new dynamic in the efforts to build a non-Congress front had emerged in the Madras State(which had been reorganised in 1956). The Congress had been divided and C. Rajagopalachari had formed a new party, the Congress Reform Committee (CRC). Thevar now made peace with his former enemy C. Rajagopalachari, and the Forward Bloc and the CRC worked together to defeat Kamaraj and the Congress rule in the state.
In the election Thevar again contested both the Aruppukottai constituency in the Lok Sabha election and the Mudukulathur constituency in the assembly election. He won both seats, but this time he decided to vacate the assembly seat.
A by election was held in the Mudukulathur assembly constituency on July 1, 1957, as Thevar had resigned from his assembly seat. The election was won by D.V. Sasivarna Thevar of the Forward Bloc. The situation in the area was tense on the day that the results were released, and there was a sizeable presence of police forces in place. Clashes between Maravars, who largely supported the Forward Bloc, and pro-Congress Dalits began in a few villages soon after the election result was acknowledged. Gradually the violence spread to more and more villages, and by August the riots had spread throughout the entire district. Several persons were killed and thousands of houses were torched.
Thevar himself travelled to Delhi on July 17 to attend the session of the Lok Sabha. He returned on September 9. On September 10 he took part in a 'Peace Conference' together with D.V. Sasivarna Thevar and Velu (a Dalit legislative assembly member of the Forward Bloc). From the Congress side six Dalits took part. There was also a delegate from the Nadar caste. The conference concluded that the three castes should live in harmony.
Emmanuel, the leader of the Congress Dalits at the Peace Conference was killed the following day. On September 28, a few days after the clashes had ceased, Thevar was arrested by the police under the Preventive Detention Act. Thevar's was apprehended directly after holding a speech at the conference of the Indian National Democratic Congress (the new name taken by the Congress Reform Committee). Thevar was taken to the Madras Central Jail. He was later accused of having masterminded the murder of Emmanuel.
The Forward Bloc and its allies condemned Thevar's arrest as a political vendetta, engineered by the Congress. A 'Thevar Committee' was step up by the INDC. Thevar was acquitted of all charges and released in January 1959.
After being released from prison Thevar began mobilising for the Madurai municipal elections, held in March 1959. An alliance of the Forward Bloc, Communist Party of India, Indian National Democratic Congress and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam was formed. The alliance won the elections, and for the first time Congress lost its hold over the city administration.
Following the election, Thevar health deteriorated and he largely withdrew from public life. He was nominated for the 1962 Lok Sabha election. However he only attended a single campaign meeting, which also was attended by C. Rajagopalachari (who now had merged with his INDC with the Swatantra Party). Thevar was reelected, but due to health reasons he was unable to travel to the parliament in Delhi. U. Muthuralingam Thevar died on October 30, 1963, on his 55th birthday.A bye-election for the Aruppukottai Lok Sabha constituency seat vacated by his death was held in 1964, in which the Forward Bloc was defeated for the first time.
The pillars of Thevar's political thought were spiritualism, nationalism, anti-communism, anti-imperialism and non-Congressism (wanting to created a non-Congress political alternative). Although committed to the construction of a federal socialist India, Thevar rejected Marxism-Leninism as a foreign concept and he opposed the trade policy of the Soviet Union as discriminatory towards countries like India. But first and foremost, his animosity towards the communists was due to the rejection of the Indian communists of Subhas Chandra Bose (who they had called a 'quisling'). His relationship to Marxism was further complicated by his spiritualistic orientation.
As an Indian nationalist, Thevar condemned the Dravidar Kazhagam its successor DMK for simulating separatism. Moreover he distrusted the Atheist element of the Dravidian political discourse.
After his death, the Forward Bloc entered into a period of decline in Tamil Nadu. The party leadership was overtaken by Thevar's disciple P.K. Mookiah Thevar. The party organisation became ridden by splits and disputes. In this situation, the major chunk of the Maradar vote-bank of the Forward Bloc was overtaken by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.
Several official honours have been given to Thevar. In 1968 the Pasumpon Muthuramalinga Thevar College was founded in Usilampatti by the then DMK-led state government. His biography was included in the high school textbooks in Tamil Nadu. In 1971 his cemetery in Pasumpon was converted into an official memorial. A life-size portrait of Thevar was installed in the Tamil Nadu assembly in 1980. In 1984, after the bifurcation of the Ramnad District the 'Pasumpon Muthuralingam District' was created.
U. Muthuralingam Thevar is revered as a hero of the Thevar/Maravar community. Thevar was become an icon in the political life in Tamil Nadu. Many political parties seeking the support from that community at the time of elections will make pay their respect to him. But at the same time his legacy is not entirely uncontroversial. At times violence between Thevars and Dalits flare up in the area, and desecrations of monuments of Thevar have taken place.
References: Bose, K.; Forward Bloc. Madras: 1988, Tamil Nadu Academy of Political Sciences