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The 1938 Kadakkal riot

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Franco Rule - A nation is proclaimed, within the domains of Travancore

It was a curious incident, not oft mentioned in the annals of history. During the ironclad reign of Sir CP, a few individuals took an opportunity that came by and on their own, liberated their village from a brutal tax collector and proclaimed independence. The leaders then called themselves the king and chief minister respectively. The police retaliated strongly resulting in violence and deaths and eventual overpowering of the revolting hordes. It was somewhat inconsequential, in the large scale of things, and was hardly reported, for the press itself was being muzzled by Sir CP. But it signaled the start of many more acts against the royal government, the evolution of the Travancore state congress, the wane of the Dewan’s powers and even resulted in physical threats and assassination attempts against him. For a while, Sir CP thought of implementing an American style government in Travancore, but the public protested, as Sir CP planned to become the president. In the end Travancore was finally ceded to the Indian union and Sir CP rode into the sunset. History books call these acts and events as demands for responsible government. These acts continue ever so often even today in Kerala and serve to be safeguards of Kerala’s democracy, as checks and balances. People like us keep us looking at the state from afar, bemused, while comedians and mimicry artistes remind its citizens to be either satirical or lighthearted about all those, after the fact. The life of a Malayali, so to say.

But let us now go to this now forgotten place, an ‘onam keramula’ (where even the Onam festival is hardly celebrated, where even Mahabali does not visit) in erstwhile Venad, near Quilon and see what Franco Raghavan Pillai and his friend, Chandiran Kaliyambi, a Kurava (a Dalit hill tribe) by caste, were upto. The former proclaimed himself king, and the latter his minister and they administered their domain (within the Travancore kingdom) for all of eight days! What drove them carry out such a suicidal and subversive act? Let’s find out.

While Malabar was part of Madras presidency, Travancore and Cochin were kingdoms ruled by their kings through the dewans. At Travancore, discontent was brewing, simmering and finally came to a boil during Sir CP’s regime. CP Ramaswami Iyer served as Dewan of Travancore from 1936 to 1947 (he was earlier the legal and constitutional advisor to the young king Chithira Tirunal for the previous 6 years); and during his tenure, while many social and administrative reforms were enacted, his acts at suppressing any demand for responsible government made him quickly unpopular. While Sir CP himself is a magnificent personality fit for hours and years of study, let us not deviate on that path but let’s narrow down to the event in discussion, and zoom into the events of 1937-38.

In 1938, the Travancore state congress was formed and Pattom Thanu Pillai was its first president. The aim of the new organization was the achievement of a fully responsible government for the people of Travancore and they launched a statewide disobedience movement in August. The Dewan who wanted no questions raised, guided the legislature and the judiciary in ensuring that all protests were quickly put down. Religious bodies opposed to the Dewan also joined the protest for they had been in conflict with the Dewan, and large numbers of the lower classes, who mainly worked in industries employing manual labor, were to soon join the fray.

Gandhiji who did not approve this sent Rajkumari Amrit Kaur as an emissary, but this resulted in no improvement. Meanwhile, Sir CP, seeing that protests were picking up, quickly promulgated an Emergency Regulation entitled the Criminal Law Amendment Act I and X of 1938 on the lines of the Indian Criminal Law Amendment Acts of 1908 and 1932, which gave powers to the Government to declare political parties illegal and district magistrates to take possession of properties including land belonging to these associations or parties and also to prosecute all persons who had made donations or contributions to them. The Government also banned the Travancore State Congress and the Youth league but was careful in making sure that all this was not in the open with the intent mainly to pick up the leaders unobtrusively and imprison them.

In September, the first of the many turmoil’s which erupted, was seen at a remote area named Kadakkal. The imposition of ban orders on public meetings forced the leaders of the Congress to defy these orders who were quickly arrested and fined, elsewhere. Students joined in for the first time raising alarm at the Dewan’s office for it was becoming a mass movement, spreading beyond the state congress supporters. As the demonstrators turned violent, an officer’s car was burnt at Neyyatinkara. Retaliatory firing by the police resulted in 10 deaths and many injuries. Similar events occurred in Quilon and Puthupally. Even lawyers were arrested and rumors of Congressmen defeating the police spread in areas like Kadakkal. As the situation started getting alarming, talks were initiated between police commandant Col Watkins and the leaders, but nothing materialized. The Indian national congress and Gandhiji in the meanwhile exhorted the state congress to resort to nonviolent methods and stop violence. Meanwhile the leaders who were in jail were denied any access to justice and severely tortured. The dewan banned press reporting, took over newspaper offices or shut them down and even papers published outside the state were not allowed to be delivered into Travancore. Gandhiji tried to intervene and the Dewan offered to talk directly with the leaders though refusing any discussion about responsible government, which was however rebuffed by the leaders in prison.

On September 21st a state congress meeting at the Shankumugham beach was disrupted by the police and police firing resulted in three deaths. Events repeated at Attingal where five were shot dead. As days went by, the state congress leaders were considered pro leftist and with this the effectiveness of the agitation started getting questioned.

With this background, let us now amble down to Kadakkal, near Quilon, a village in the Kottarakkara Taluk, with a market where the locals from nearby villages came to sell their produce, typically rubber, coconuts other agrarian commodities, specially pepper. Chithara, Nilamel, Ittiva, Pangode, Pulimath, Kummil and Chadayamangalam are the neighboring Panchayats of Kadakkal. The Madathara reserve forest was nearby. The only government institutions there were a police outpost, a forest range office, a dispensary, a post office, a Malayalam middle school, a village office and a forest range office.

The market at Kadakkal was administered by a local contractor who exhorted the peasants by charging them an exorbitant amounts by way of illegitimate tolls if they utilized the market area (chanta) to sell their produce or country liquor. The 1930’s was a period of economic depression in the area and the common man who made money from his toils was suffering from the pangs of poverty as prices for produce crashed. This toll collection had been going on with the contractor working in cahoots with the Tahsildar and the village officer for some time and when the winds of militant protests started springing up around Travancore, some youths of the locality decided that tile was ripe to rise against the contractor.

As it appears the contractor employed a number of hoodlums to collect his toll which was arbitrary and had nothing to do with the small notice board which listed the actually applicable tolls. If you did not pay what the goons demanded, they beat you up and took away your produce, and sometimes, in addition, the police and the other officials simply took away quantities they wanted without paying.

Chankuvila Unni, Bedi Velu, Mulakuthoppil Kuchu etc were the first to organize a protest march on 26th Sept. they marched up to the market and shouted anti contractor and anti-toll slogans. The contractor seeing that things were getting out of hand summoned the police (the mob then pelted the police outpost with stones) who were no match for the irate mob.

On the 28th, a rally of around 1000 freedom fighters were proceeding from Nilamel entered Kadakkal. As it turned out, the participants of the rally and the traders joined hands to attack the police. From what we can glean off later memories and the case files, a bus with the magistrate and a couple of police SI’s and 16 constables were sent to the locale early in the morning. Upon hearing about the oncoming rally, they decided to accost it at Pangalkadu. The magistrate asked the police to disperse the large procession by force as their bus got pelted with stones. But the lathi charge was ineffectual and the police personnel and the dafedar were injured in the melee. They retreated to Kottarakara. The crowd eventually reached Kadakkal where they attacked the police outpost and ransacked the same. The mob took their fury on the government offices and buildings, looting and destroying them. The roads were blocked, only the post office (anchel) remained open.

By then, an interesting character took over the protest leadership, namely Raghavan Pillai a.k.a Franco Raghavan who was injured in the lathi charge. He spoke to the masses exhorting them to fight till the last drop of blood was shed. When the next market day dawned on the 29th, the contractor sent in more hoodlums and the protesters manhandled them with even more ferociousness. The supporting police were also manhandled and sent running, and soon the police outpost’s armory was opened up and the guns and swords were taken by the protesters. A march was carried out on the Nilammel – Mattatara road. An armed camp was set up at the kariath mission school and ruled over the Kummil Pakuthy taluk till the police came. The new rulers showed their strength with road marches, speeches at Ayirakuzhi and encouraging violence.

In the commitment order dated 29th May 1939 of Kadakkal waging war case (PE 111939) the Magistrate of Kottarakkara gives the following observations regarding the gravity of the situation: "There was no administrative authority at Kadakkal. Complete insecurity was reigning supreme. Schools were closed; police station was locked and practically demolished; school masters, taluk employees and Ranger had taken to their heels! Taluk ofice and Range Office buildings were attempted to be damaged; road communications were completely blocked up by felling trees and destroying a culvert - " The market was closed: In short every business at Kadakkal was at a standstill during this period . . . A rebel's camp was set up and armed crowds have been posting themselves . . . jealously, guarding their newly conquered territory."

A couple of military platoons were quickly dispatched from Trivandrum to quell the revolt. They took quite a while to reach the location due to damaged culverts and other obstacles, in fact over a week to reach Kadakkal. As the womenfolk of the village fled hearing about the oncoming armed forces, the revolters stood their ground. The police as expected created a mayhem upon reaching the place, perhaps that was what they were ordered to do, and a number of people were arrested and tortured. Five men - Velu, Sadasivan, Vasu, Gangadharan and Narayanan died after torture in police custody. Properties of the people who participated were confiscated while Franco Raghavan went into hiding. Without any further publicity, the Kadakkal riots and acts against the kingdom of Travancore was soon forgotten by the public. A police Raj ruled the Kummil area.

Mr. Changanassery K. Parameswaran Pillai, the veteran freedom fighter, as per the direction of Mahatma Gandhi, visited Kadakkal on 11 October 1938 and released a very detailed press statement about the occurrences of Kadakkal. The people remaining were leading an abject life of poverty and harassed often by the police.

Pillai concludes: "I do not think that any of the acts allayed above can be justified under any law even under military law." In the whole of Pakuthy more than 80 houses were burnt down. The Kadakkal rebellion was compared with the Fascist Spanish Civil War of 1937. General Franco, a military general of Morocco brutally overthrew the democratic Republican Government of Spain in 1937. The media and the spokesmen of the government alleged that both the deeds of General Franco and Raghavan Pillai were equal. So, they called Raghavan Pillai "Franco" Raghavan Pillai.

Chenganur was the next to witness revolt and violence but the arrival of large numbers of military forces prevented any more untoward events. Pangode followed. Anyway as a case was filed against 60 accused, for rioting resulting in stiff sentences, Raghavan Pillai and Chandran Kaliyamabi went into hiding until 1940 after which they surrendered. The accused were prosecuted under section 112 of the Travancore penal code.

Whatever happened to Franco Raghavan and Chandran Kaliyambi? Franco Pillai was sentenced to life imprisonment and all his property forfeited. He was however released in 1945 in the group which included Narayana Pillai and Annie Mascaranhas. Kaliyambi too was released, and lived on with a meagre freedom fighters pension, to finally pass away in 1995.

Interestingly the Kadakkal Riot Case is now listed by the Home Ministry of Government of India as one of the 37 movements that led to India getting freedom from the British Raj.

Pattom Thanu Pillai was later persuaded by Gandhi to withdraw the struggle for responsible government and start a struggle for prohibition instead. The Quilon bank crash shook the populace soon after, the Dewan as they say masterminding some of the actions against the owners, a tragic story in itself. The next was the announcement of the Dewans American model reforms coinciding with the start of World War II and the 60th birthday of Sir CP, celebrated in grand style. All these are stories which made Padmanabha’s Travancore a colorful place during those decades, will be retold another day. Padmanabha continued to observe his people and smile, as always, in that relaxed and reclining pose…

References
Triumph and tragedy in Travancore, Annals of Sir CP’s 16 years – Sreedhara Menon
The history of trade union movement in Kerala – K Ramachandran Nair
Kadakkal rebellion Kerala State archives – Ed J Rejikumar
From Petitions to Protest - A Study of the Political Movements in Travancore 1938-1947- M. Sumathy
Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, Volume 67, Kadakkal revolt - a marginalized event in Travancore history M Karunakaran
Role of peasants in the Kadakkal riot – R Natarajan (AIHC proceedings 1994)
Katakkal – Kallara - Pangod riots of 1938 – K K Kusuman (JOKS, Vol3-4 1976)