Eral, a small town in Thoothukudi district, was immersed in hazy moonlight that night. Hundreds of people had assembled to listen to a talk by a leader, who was their beloved. The man was quite old. With a clean-shaven face, hair neatly combed backwards and in khaddar shirt, the man had a magnificent air of simplicity. His gaze was penetrating and his voice was mesmerising.
He started his speech straight away plunging into the subject. He described the freedom struggle. He knew it. He had been part of it. But he cautioned the public — "do not overestimate the contributions of Gandhi. In reality, it was the INA rebellion of Netaji”. He also described the tragedy of Partition. Then he described the present plight of the nation in general and Hindus in particular.
"Chitragupta, the assistant of Yama, had misplaced my file and he has been searching for it for quite sometime. Anytime he may find it and then I will have to go. So before that I have to tell you people, particularly the youth of this nation, the true history of our country and its freedom struggle.”
Talking about the need for Hindu unity, he now dwelt on the contribution of the man in whose centenary celebrations he was speaking. "There are many doctors you know — Dr MGR, Dr Karunanidhi, Dr Jayalalithaa etc. These are doctors celebrated by the state. But this doctor from Nagpur — Dr Hedgewar, whose centenary is celebrated by patriots, you should know about him. He was a great man of divine qualities...”
Then he stopped. He fell to the ground unconscious. It appeared as if he had fainted. Doctors tried to revive him, but those were destined to remain his last words, "Dr Hedgewar ... a great man of divine qualities”.
‘Iyya’ Thanulinga Nadar, the great Gandhian freedom fighter, fierce Hindutva supporter from the Kanyakumari district, and a leader of sterling qualities and impeccable honesty, had become immortal on that night — the night of 2 November 1988.
When Thanulinga Nadar was a student in Tiruchi, he received a letter from a local community leader, Balaiah Nadar. Iyya's grandmother, Sitalakshmi, had complained to Balaiah Nadar about the missionary school in their village that forced her grandchildren to remove the religious marks on their forehead, and had also removed their flowers.
For Sitalakshmi, this was a reminder of some bitter memory of her younger days. When her marriage had been fixed with the son of Ramaswamy Nadar, her father Vedamanikkam Nadar had converted to Christianity. He christened his daughter ‘Kanni Mary’ . Her father wanted the family of Ramaswamy Nadar to convert to Christianity for the marriage. Ramaswamy Nadar did not budge. On the other hand, he insisted that Vedamanikkam Nadar and his family return to Hinduism. His daughter too in her heart never liked the conversion. She detested all the psychological trauma the conversion was creating in her personal life, family and the village.
At last, Veddamanikkam Nadar yielded, and ‘Kanni Mary’ became Sitalakshmi.
Thanulinga Nadar was Sitalakshmi’s eldest grandson. Now, when she saw her granddaughters and grandsons being deprived of flowers and vermilion by the missionaries, she wanted the community to respond.
Soon, Thanulinga Nadar returned to his village and decided to run schools for the villagers, which would not practise such religious persecution. With the help of Travancore legislative assembly member V Dhas, Thanulinga Nadar started Sri Krishna Primary School in the village.
For the villagers, the school was a great blessing. They started sending their children to this school. The result was that the missionaries had to close their schools in the village and the nearby one. In the school, ‘Iyya’ worked as teacher and principal without a salary. The Hindu Mission of Travancore came forward to support the school. It was renamed Sri Narayana Vilas School.
Today, this is a government school in the village of Karumpattoor. Thanulinga Nadar also started organising community prayers and satsanghs in the evenings. The imparting of religious awareness in Hindus effectively immunised them against proselytisation. Later, he became the vice-president of Hindu Mission of Travancore.
With South Travancore (as Kanyakumari district was then known) in the grip of missionary educational institutions, Iyya realised the need for creating an effective educational infrastructure for Hindus. Without such support, they would have never fared well in the areas of education and employment.
Through his efforts, the Hindu mission started a network of schools in the villages of Kanyakumari district and later, the Vivekananda College could come up because of the groundwork done by Thanulinga Nadar. He was also the captain in the agitation for merging the Kanyakumari district with Tamil Nadu.
In the 1970s, the Christian domination started disturbing the communal harmony of the district. Christian elements tried to defeat one of the tallest leaders of the Tamil Nadu Congress, K Kamaraj. They joined hands with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and ran an explicit anti-Hindu campaign targeting Kamaraj.
Thanulinga Nadar, as a lieutenant of Kamaraj, crafted an election strategy in such a manner that it yielded victory. Kamaraj wanted to make Thanulinga Nadar a minister in the Congress government in Tamil Nadu. But this time, determined Christian communal forces defeated him. Bitter, Thanulinga Nadar retired from active politics in 1972. When M Bhaktavatsalam opposed Vivekananda Rock Memorial project, Iyya’s influence on Kamaraj made the latter advise the chief minister to allow the construction.
As a member of Parliament, Thanulinga Nadar had noticed the Jan Sangh members. ‘Hindus with spine’ — he used to think of them and dreamt of the day when the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) would come to Kanyakumari district.
During the 1982 Mandaikaddu riots, the RSS, which assisted the Hindu victims of the riots, approached Thanulinga Nadar. Though he initially rejected attending any peace meetings, saying that such events were Christian hoaxes and political gimmicks, he later relented. Those who attended that peace gathering at Nagercoil collector office still remember how Thanulinga Nadar’s commanding voice had a mesmerising effect on MGR, who was then the chief minister.
At the fag end of the meeting, Iyya, who was completely silent observing everyone in the meeting directly asked the chief minister, "Can I be allowed to talk a few words?” And then his first salvo was asking that if the victims and perpetrators could be treated as two equal sides, was it not a travesty of justice.
Dr MGR was taken aback.
The majestic voice, the sincerity and honesty that drenched each and every word of Iyya had such an impact that at last the government commission looking into the riots recommended a law banning proselytising.
In 1983, when the government banned a Hindu unity conference and procession, Thanulinga Nadar showed what kind of material he was made of. He plunged into the epicentre of action and stood with the people facing police attacks, and was arrested. For the people, who had only seen leaders who only provoked crowds but never participated in an agitation, he proved to be a qualitatively different person.
In his old age, Thanulinga Nadar continuously championed the cause of Hindus in the Kanyakumari district, where in villages after villages, in which Christians had become dominant (not even a majority but say 40 per cent), Hindus faced persecution — from psychological humiliation to murderous attacks. Thanulinga Nadar would go there in person and fight for their rights. He himself was violently attacked and abused. But such attacks and abuses seemed to make his resolve to fight for the Hindu cause even firmer. His deep insights made people sit up and take notice of the subliminal texts running in speeches that would go otherwise unnoticed.
For example, Abdus Samad, the famous Tamil Nadu Muslim League leader, once said in Coimbatore that Muslims through their unity got Pakistan. Pointing this out, Thanulinga Nadar said had he been a patriot he should have said, those Muslims who demanded Pakistan were foolish and because of their foolishness we have lost the provinces which are today called Pakistan. He pointed out that this statement of Samad contained in it the same spirit reflected in the slogan raised by Islamist rioters during Partition — "laughing we got Pakistan and fighting we will capture Hindustan’ (Haske liya Pakistan, ladke lenge Hindustan).
The whirlwind tours of Thanulinga Nadar in Tamil Nadu during the 1980s created great Hindu awareness and he advocated the concept of Hindu vote bank for every election — whether it was panchayat, municipal, legislative assembly or Parliament.
He was attacked with fake allegations. For example, Samad alleged in Thuglak that Iyya had talked in an obscene way about Muslim women. Iyya did not allow such allegations to go unchallenged. He initiated legal action and ‘Cho’ of Thuglak made a statement that though Samad said he would produce a tape to prove his allegation, he could not, and did not. Iyya clearly emerged as a victor. After all, he never attacked any religion or people in his speeches. He always attacked the expansionist tendency.
The year 1987 in a way completed a circle for Thanulinga Nadar. That year, in a government school of a Hindu majority village, on 10 February, the headmaster made all the students stand in line, and forced them to accept copies of the Bible which he distributed. When two students refused to take the Bible, they were made to remain standing as punishment.
A Hindu teacher in the school exposed this incident and wrote a complaint to the district education officer (DEO). But the officer in charge, a Christian, refused to take action.
Hindu organisations started a chain satyagraha agitation in front of the school. At that time a new DEO arrived and promised action before 1 June. But then the speaker of Tamil Nadu assembly, Paul Henry Pandiyan (P H Pandiyan) interfered and made sure that the headmaster would not be given ‘punishment’ transfer.
The Hindus were shocked. At that time, Thanulinga Nadar was not healthy. He could not even sit upright. But he started a fast unto death until the copy of the transfer of the teacher would be shown to him. The entire district was paralysed. On 13 July, he started his fast unto death.
The scene of a veteran leader in a physically weak condition, but determined to stop an expansionist predatory monoculture with his very life, sent a wave of anger throughout the Hindu community. The district collector requested the Tamil Nadu government to immediately send the telegram of the transfer order to the fanatical headmaster.
On 14 July 1987, at 8 pm, the copy of the punishment transfer was shown to Thanulinga Nadar. The entire Hindu community of Kanyakumari district was jubilant. But Thanulinga Nadar in his speech on the occasion cautioned Hindus that this was a continuous fight. After all, did he not start his journey fighting the religious persecution of Hindus in missionary-run schools? But now, religious persecution and propaganda had seeped into government schools. He also noticed how the communists slyly sided with the missionaries saying that if they distributed the Bible the Hindus could distribute the Gita in schools. Iyya replied that in a secular educational institution, religious propaganda was wrong and that government should decide how scriptures should be taught in schools.
Then he suggested the modus operandi for Hindus when such religious persecution and proselytising propaganda happened in schools:
1. Create a local body of Hindus to study the problem and fight for justice.
2. Get the parents of the students involved.
3. Through the parents, petition the district collector, district education officer and chief education officer. The petitions should be sent by registered post.
4. Simultaneously, through posters, make the local people at large become aware of the problem.
5. Then arrange for a demonstration in front of the office of DEO.
6. If after all these, actions are not taken, then start fasting unto death and plan chain satyagraha agitations. Above all, bring about awareness among Hindus and then you will not have these kinds of troubles.
In his last year, Thanulinga Nadar frequently said to his colleagues that he should breath his last either when he was travelling or when he was in the midst of an agitation or when he was talking at a Hindu conference, but "she — the goddess of Mandaikadu — should never make me suffer ailment and die as a patient.”
As he desired, he died addressing the centenary year celebration of Dr Hedgewar and his very last words were words praising the founder of the RSS.
This 17 February is the 104th birth anniversary of Thanulinga Nadar.
The article is based on the biography of Thanulinga Nadar written in Tamil by Ko Sanakan, Vijayabharatham publication. 1991:2015
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