Translated from Tamil by Cynthia Stephen and Rajendran Prabhakar
The life of Immanuel Segaran (1924-1957) continues to inspire the younger generations of those who struggle for justice and equality in Southern Tamil Nadu, especially those from the still oppressed Dalit community of the region. His memories are kept alive in the stories of his brief but vibrant life. His immense talent and sagacity as well as his love for the oppressed community to which he belonged, and to the country as well, is well illustrated in his life – and in his early death, one can say martyrdom, for the cause of justice.
Early Life and Adulthood
He was the eldest son of Vedanayagam, alias Sethu Vedanayagam, and Gnanasoundari. He was born on 9th October 1924 in Selur, a village of Mudukulathur block of Ramanathapuram district. His early education was in the same village. Later, as the family moved to Paramakudi, he transferred to the local school, and completed high school from Schwartz’s High School, Ramanathapuram.
The district even was at that time a hotbed of feudal interests, with the domination of absentee landlords who lorded it over the countryside with the help of petty chieftains and strong-men. They totally exploited the hard labour of the people working the land. A large section of these was made up of the Dalit community known variously as the Devendar or Devendrakular or Devendrakula vellalar is the name of Dalit community mainly found in South Tamil Nadu. They are also known as Pallars.
The Pallar are one of the three major dalit groups in Tamil Nadu, the others being the Paraiyar and the Arundathiar. There are other smaller groups including Chakkiliyar and others. The Pallars however are mostly found in South Tamil Nadu. There is an internal hierarchy within these Dalit groups, with the Paraiyar being on the top, the Pallars next and the Arundathiars at the bottom. The other numerically groups are also discriminated against by all these three groups, depending upon the situation in the state. The local dominants are the Maravars or the Thevars, a land-owning Sudra caste rather like the Reddys or Gowdas of Andhra Pradesh or Karnataka respectively. They are the main source of social and economic oppression of the Dalits in the area, and are also politically quite ascendant in the area. The Nadars (toddy-tappers being their traditional caste occupation) form another significant caste in the region. This group, which was quite badly discriminated against by the upper castes, underwent rapid economic and social development owing to the efforts of missionaries who encouraged their education and also due to their own struggles against oppression.
Immanuel Segaran’s father, like a number of the people of his community, was a staunch nationalist and was very active in the freedom struggle. Despite being physically challenged, he was to be found in the forefront of any event, public meeting or conference. He always took his son along and encouraged him to speak. The young Immanuel was known for his fiery speeches against the colonial powers of the time. But it was also a time when the colonial powers were battling against the forces of fascism. The 2nd World war forced them to change the pattern of governance and give the people’s representatives a voice and space in governance. As a result, Ambedkar also became active in governance. He spoke out in support of the war effort of the British in a radio talk broadcast in November 1942. Immanuel Segaran responded to his call by joining the Army to fight on the side of the Allies. Not much is known about his wartime activities.
On 17th June 1946, he entered into matrimony with Amritham Grace, a teacher by training and profession. She was the eldest daughter of Samuel and Mariyal. The young couple was married in a ceremony where three other couples also took their vows, in Ithampaadal village near Sikkil. A few days after the wedding, he attended a conference at Madurai, in the company of Balasundararaju, one of the organizers. Dr. Ambedkar and Prof. Sivaraj were the speakers at this conference.
The following year, the couple’s first child, a daughter Mary Vasantharani was born, and in 1949, the second, another girl, Poppin Vijayarani, was born. His public life continued – around this time, he organized a public reception at Sellur, in honour of a unique couple, Krishnammal and Mugavai Chengappa Jagannathan. The bride was the daughter of Vathalagundu Ramasamy Kudumban and the sister of a lawyer, G R Muniyandi. She was the first girl from the Devendar community to get a college education. Her husband was a leader of the Bhoodan movement. He busied himself with maintaining contact with the people by conducting meetings at street-corners and community platforms (thinnais – a platform built around the trunks of trees in the centre of a settlement, usually a public meeting place for the locals of the community). He worked and spoke incessantly to groups, raising political awareness, even holding wayside meetings under trees and in fields and village pathways. In 1951, Mr. Balasundararaju, who had organized the conference in Madurai, passed away. Immanuel Segaran went to Meenakshipuram to attend the funeral.
In 1952, he travelled to Malaysia at the invitation of Aliya Thangappan. He returned in 6 months as he was not able to adjust to the place.
In 1954, he conducted a meeting on the subject “The end of untouchability”. He used part of his inheritance to do this: his father inherited a share of 20 acres from his parents, and gave equal shares to his two sons. Immanuel promptly sold a part of his share to meet the expenses for the conference which was held on 26th April of that year. He took direct action against the owner of a tea-shop who persisted with the practice – he entered the place and beat him up. Thus the practice was gradually given up. The same year, his third daughter, Sundari Prabharani, and the next year, a fourth baby girl was born, called Manikkavalli Jhansi Rani was born.
That year, Amritham Grace, his wife, was transferred to the school in Venkatakurichi and the family moved into the quarters on the school premises. The local Maravars – the dominant caste – made a daring but clumsy attempt to murder him – they dismantled the thatched roof of the house and tried to crush him to death by throwing large boulders on him! The Devendars of the village rescued them and the family then moved to stay in their portion of the village.
Battle against Untouchability
The Maravars oppressed the Dalits in many ways. They could not tolerate seeing the Dalits neatly dressed or living in decent houses. Often they used to set the houses and haystacks of the Dalits on fire at night, and damage their agricultural implements like ploughs. A frequent occurrence was the raids by the Maravars on the houses of the Dalits, when they would steal their livestock and foodgrains. They tried their best to crush them economically: destroying standing crops, making them pay fines in the name of infringing caste rules, stealing their livestock, molesting the women, humiliating them if they came looking for drinking water by breaking their pots. If youngsters and newlyweds were seen in new clothes, they were tied up to posts and made to pay fines for the “crime”. They were fined for wearing an upper cloth (thundu). When there were Maravar weddings they grabbed rice and chicken from dalit homes, and insisted on being given a pumpkin free for the Pongal festival. Segaran opposed all these practices and mobilized the people to rebel against them.
Immanuel challenged the Devendars to give up their servile practices – if there were any disputes among them, they used to go to the Maravars, humbly paying obeisance at their feet, and ask them to resolve the issue. Immanuel Segaran totally condemned this practice, and saw that it came to an end. He set up Devendar panchayats in every village to serve as a conflict resolution mechanism within the community. He also took direct action against the two-tumbler system and any other similar practice of untouchability in villages. He used to descend with a people’s squad, on shops where the practice was followed, and see that the practice was stopped. In some cases he even got shops closed. He took legal action against people who practiced untouchability. He led a theatre team of his supporters, and under lamplight held cultural programmes and plays on social themes.
In some places, where drinking water was a problem, he mobilized women to fight for water. He often got into the fray himself. In retaliation, the Maravars polluted the water sources with human excreta, kerosene, or poison. He did not take this lying down, and retaliated in kind.
If there was any death in the Maravar community, the Devendrakular women were expected to act as mourners, beating their breasts and crying as part of their caste duties. They sometimes received wages for this work. This emblematic practice entered into the language and gave rise to the most derogatory saying, used to ridicule insincerity: ‘Coolikku MaarAdippathu’ – breast-beating for a wage. Immanuel saw that this practice came totally to an end.
At that time, there was a common practice of getting the untouchable castes to provide free labour for the temple festival: Devendrakulars had to work on putting up the festive enclosure, and covering it with leaves and decorations. The Parayars had to play the drums, or the Arundathiars if there were no Parayars. Segaran put an end to the practice of free labour. He also said that beating the drums (melam or Parai) could be paid work, with fair wages. But the Maravars were stubborn about not giving up their age-old privilege of commanding the labour of the untouchables. The untouchables, led by Immanuel, did not accept this and gave up participating in the temple festival. In consequence, the village and temple festivals came to an end, causing much heartburn among the dominants. But this meant that the domination of the Maravars also came to an end in this matter. If they wanted to celebrate, the Devenders could have their own festival, said Segaran. Where the Maravars were in a minority, they compromised and cooperated with the Devendars. But where they were in a majority, they tried their best to impose their will.
Even as Immanuel led a struggle against untouchability, the Maravars hardened their stance, and practiced it the more. They stopped the staging of plays by the Devendars and burnt down the tents and stage arrangements. Further, in return, they went on a “cultural offensive”, and used a play “Harishchandra” as a tool to further humiliate the lower castes. They repeatedly staged a portion of the play, known as “Mayanakandam” which depicts the scene of Harischandra, who becomes a Parayar and tends to the funeral pyres, over and over, to derive a kind of satisfaction. Segaran opposed the staging of this play, and warned that if they persisted, he would not hesitate to resort to violence himself. The Maravars finally stopped staging the play, to Immanuel Segaran’s credit.
Leader of the whole community
He also put an end to the intimidation of small business people by hooligans who harassed them in the towns of Paramakudi, Mudukulathur, and Kamuthi. But Segaran’s concern extended to all who were in need. Once, a Muslim urgently needed funds to conduct his daughter’s marriage. Segaran pawned a paddy field, which had a standing crop ready for harvest, to enable the wedding to take place.
He took the responsibility of being the Secretary of the Church diocese, and worked for the development of Christian villages, children’s education, and their rights in the church, and even held a conference for the purpose. Though he was a Christian he crossed religious boundaries to be of help to many. He did not adhere to religious dogmas. In 1954, he issued a warning to the caste oppressors that they would convert to Islam if the caste oppression did not cease.
Immanuel Segaran and his political activities
The legislators of Ramanathapuram and Mudukulathur areas neglected the villages where the Devendars lived. But Segaran led many struggles for government amenities such as drinking water, roads, transport, post offices, etc, for these neglected populations. The local Congressman, the minister Kakkan, persuaded him to join the congress and made him the head of the Depressed Classes League of Mudukulathur. He also worked as the head of the Devendrakula Gellar Sang am of Ramanathapuram Dist.
In March 1957, the second general elections of free India were held. The Maravar leader Muthuramalinga Thevar (MRT), contesting as a candidate of the Forward Bloc, won the Srivilliputtur Parliamentary seat. He also contested the Mudukulatur Assembly constituency for the State legislature. An independent supported by him also won in one of the other assembly constituencies in Srivilliputtur constituency.
The Nadars were known to support the Devendars against their common oppressor community, the Maravars or Thevars. At the time of independence, they were influential in the Congress, and had a sagacious leader, Kamaraj Nadar, in a high position in the Congress party. An independent, R. S. Arumugam, of Tirunelveli, who had the support of the Congress, won an assembly seat in the Srivilluputtur Parliamentary consitutency. During the election campaign, when MRT went to campaign in Sellur, the birthplace of Immanuel Segaran, the Devendars of the place did not allow him to enter the village and sent him back. MRT held Segaran responsible for the humiliation and breathed vengeance against him.
MRT was furious that a Congress candidate had won in his constituency. As Immanuel had worked hard for the Congress, he felt that the reason for the defeat of his candidate was the effective campaigning and leadership of Immanuel Segaran.
Tension spread in the region as the Thevars led by MRT took revenge on the Nadars who had failed to support his candidate. They began to attack the Nadars and Devendars wherever they had the opportunity and the force. The Devendars came together to oppose the Thevars and violence began to spread. Segaran was involved in this mobilization both directly and indirectly.
MRT resigned the Assembly seat and this forced a by-election for the Mudukulathur assembly seat, and one Sasivarnam was the Forward Bloc candidate. Voting was on 1st June 1957, and results announced on the 4th. But on the 3rd, Sasivarnam made an appeal to the DSP of the district: “The Devendars, taking weapons from the Nadars, are coming to attack the Maravars. The police are supporting them”. But the result the next day showed that he (the Forward Bloc candidate) had won. Following this result, many disturbances occurred in the region. In Ramanathapuram dist., especially the Mudukulathur area, the existing simmering enmity between the Devendars and the Maravars came to a head and riots erupted. The by-election only added fuel to the fire.
At a meeting on 13th June 1957, MRT said: “We Maravars are born to rule the land, we have the right to rule. No one should vote for the Congress. Do not allow them to campaign or hold meetings. Threaten them, saying that if the Congress wins, they cannot survive in this place. Gather in Peraiyur on 28th June with weapons”.
Many were killed on both sides. Both sides employed lethal weapons. Hundreds of houses were burnt down and property destroyed. But the cloud of violence hovering over the area did not dissipate. A civil-war-like situation prevailed with wide-spread violence.
Six Maravar MLAs made a joint statement, painting their community as innocent victims of sectarian violence by the Devendars. The alleged that 10 villages had been emptied by the Maravars who had taken refuge with friends and relatives in other places, out of fear for the marauding mobs of Devendars. In response, the central government ordered security for the Maravars. On 2nd September, the Maravar MLAs Sasivarnam, Perumal, P K Muthaiah met the District collector of Ramanathapuram district, Mr. Pannikker, with their supporters and asked for a peace meeting to be convened. Accordingly, Pannikker called a meeting on 10th September. The DC held the meeting in the Mudukulathur Taluk Office, to look into the allegation that the Devendars were mobilizing to attack the Maravars in every village. The Deputy Inspector General (DIG) Holmes was also present.
Historic Peace Meeting
The meeting turned out to be historic. The Devendars were represented by Peraiyur Perumal Peter, Sellur Ve. Immanuel Segaran, Veerambal J Vedamanikyam, Aalathukudi Kambar, Chengappadai Veera Masilamani, Kooriyur Saathayya, Ariyakudi Ramanathan, Melaperunkarai Harikrishnan, Kozhunthurai Pazhaniandi.
On behalf of the Maravars, the MP Pasumpon Muthuramalinga Thevar (MRT), the MLA Sasivarnam, Sivagangai T. Subramania Raju, Aapanur Arjunan,Thiruvadanai Kariyamanikcam, Muniaswamy, T R Navashakti, T Muthusamy, Chittirankudi Subramanian, Muthu Doraiswamy, Elanchembur Karuppaiah, Gundukulam RAthinam, and others, including Peraiyur Velachamy and Kamuthi Soundarapandian, both Nadars; Srinivasa Iyengar, Mudukulatur Arunagirim MTR Ramaswamy, Chidambaranatha Durai, etc., were present.
The meeting began half an hour late as MRT arrived late with his supporters. Calling the meeting to order, the DC made some opening remarks, calling for peaceful coexistence on the part of all. He assured those present of his best efforts to resolve the problems and issues. He invited the participants to present their views. Speaking first, MRT made unsupported allegations that a section of the Devendars was being incited to attack the Maravars. He said that the Congress was responsible for encouraging the Pallars, who stole their cattle with armed threats in the region; further, that the Pallars, instigated by the Nadars, were threatening not only the men but also the women of the (non-dalit caste) Maravars, Konars, Servais, Naidus, etc. and attacking them.
For fear and shame caused by these activities, these castes had fled their ancestral lands and homes and taken refuge in other villages, leaving all their possessions behind, and badly affecting the livelihoods and agriculture of over 100 families, he claimed. Even the police were not coming out in their support or taking any preventive action. To the contrary, they are supportive of the Congress, the Pallars and the Naidu. “Poles and lathis were being transported in police vehicles and various weapons were being used; food was also being supplied. Hence the Pallars are easily able to damage and attack to the Maravars in the knowledge that they enjoy the full protection of the government. Pallar youth, in the name of equal rights of the oppressed, are instigated to target the Maravar women when they go to fetch water in the community wells. The Maravars are silent sufferers as they do not want to take law into their hands.”
On behalf of the Nadars, Peraiyur Velsamy Nadar said, “The Maravars threaten us with death for not supporting the Forward Bloc. The properties of the Nadars are being plundered by the Maravars. They are prevented from purchasing necessities in the shops.” MRT stoutly denied the accusations. “These claims are not true. They are raising a fund to finance the legal expenses to fight the cases filed against them,” he said. “If this charge is true, I will personally guarantee that these prohibitions and boycotts are dropped. There is no move to impose such restrictions on the Nadars. Have you received any complaints to this effect? (He asked the DC) If so, I will personally see to it that these things end.” The DC admitted that no such complaints had been filed on behalf of the Nadars.
On behalf of the Devendars, Segaran spoke, “The Maravars are angry with us for not supporting the Forward Bloc. They cannot tolerate it when we dress neatly, and attack us for this,”, he said, emphasizing the reason for the violence.
But MRT claimed to be very close to the Devendars and strongly denied the charge. “In my party, I am giving seats to the Pallars. In Mudukulathur constituency, the Maravars supported Devendars like Motta Kudumban and Perumal Kudumban over me. If Dalits have increased status, it does not follow that they can misbehave with the women of the Morava, Kona, Agamudaiyar and Naidu communities.” He claimed that the Pallars were being instigated to engage in these anti-social activities, hoping thereby to be considered their ‘saviour’.
Disputing this, Segaran said “The fact that Maravars are mobilizing the other castes and women (against us) can be established by making a personal visit to the field and also by the complaint the Mudukulathur Welfare Association filed with the government.” He added that the Devendars had in fact prevented the Maravars from attacking other castes.
Perumal Peter’s suggestion that a poster campaign be started, appealing for peace, was shot down by MRT on the grounds that the Pallars were illiterate and would not be able to read it. He suggested instead that an announcement be made by loudspeaker on a vehicle. Segaran countered, “Even our people are educated and can read as anyone can see. In fact, if we move around the villages we are likely to be attacked, so this is not acceptable for us.” Annoyed, MRT addressed Segaran in the singular, “You be quiet, let Perumal Peter speak.” Segaran responded in kind: “Just as you speak for your caste, I speak for mine”. They began to argue heatedly. When MRT spoke in English, Segaran responded in the same language. A short while later, the DC intervened to restore peace.
It was finally decided to put out a joint statement signed by the participants representing their own communities. But MRT did not agree to let the Nadars sign as representatives of the Congress. He insisted that only the elected representatives including himself as MP, the other (Maravar) MLA Sasivarnam, RS Arumugam and Perumal Peter as the Harriman MLAs and the MLA Velsamy Nadar to sign to represent the Nadars. When it was pointed out that Velsamy Nadar was not present to sign, he asked “What are we to do about that?”
It was suggested that the Sattur MLA, a Nadar, sign for the Nadars. MRT would not agree, because as he put it, “What relationship is there between Mudukulathur and Sattur?” He further said that he could not accept Segaran and Perumal as representatives of the Devendars. “Then we will not sign,” said Velsamy Nadar. “I cannot accept them because it will hurt the 80% Harridans (Devendars) who are with us.” However, he said that Immanuel Segaran could sign in his individual capacity. Segaran insisted on his right to represent his people.
When the group finally decided that a common text would be released, but signed separately, MRT refused to comply. The DC requested him, “”Peace will not come by building factions and making group clashes. To restore normalcy and to achieve great things, harmony is the only way. Please give constructive suggestions towards this. But even then MRT did not agree. Finally, the DC demanded, in a raised and steely voice, “Will you sign or not?” MRT finally complied.
The statement read as follows: “The recent general elections and the by-elections have been the cause of bitterness between the supporters of the Forward Bloc and the Congress. The last two months has seen chaos in the Mudukulathur taluk due to the animosity, causing clashes and general disturbance. This peace meeting has been called to find ways to bring an end to this difficult situation. WE, the undersigned, appeal to the citizens to abide by the rule of law, and bring about peace without indulging in clashes and conflict. They should see that no untoward incidents should take place. Conflicts should end immediately. It is requested that all the people of this taluk should live amicably. This is the expectation of this meeting.”
On behalf of the Devendars, Immanuel Segaran; on behalf of the Nadars, Velsamy and on behalf of the Maravars, MRT signed the documents. After the issue of the statement the DC accepted the responsibility for the wide dissemination of the statement. Individual copies of the statement were signed by all the signatories. The meeting ended at 1.30 pm, after over 3 hours. As soon as MRT and his entourage emerged from the Mudukulathur Taluk office, he was surrounded by his caste people, all agog to learn of the outcome.
“You have allowed a Pallar upstart to grow to the extent of defying me”, he snarled at his followers. He dismissed them to their homes and himself headed for the home of Atmanathapillai, the Village accountant of Mudukulathur, who was his supporter. The news of MRT’s capitulation flew around the settlement and caused a sensation.
After the meeting, Immanuel Segaran, and Velsamy Nadar went with Perumal Peter to his house in Peraiyur and stayed there overnight, and catching a bus to Paramakudi the next day, accompanied by his brother-in-law. He was spotted by Otthakadai Ayyasamy, who ran a small shop in Periayur. Ayyasamy passed on the information that Immanuel Segaran had caught a bus to Paramakudi. It was widely known that Segaran’s life was under a threat from the caste overlords of the region.
Once, in a case of mistaken identity, four assailants carried off a man sleeping on a string cot in the courtyard of the house to a nearby forest. When they discovered that the man they had kidnapped was not their quarry, they dumped the cot on the spot and fled. The owner of his family’s rented house in Paramakudi, as well as the owner’s son, was also frequently questioned about his movements. They had both informed Segaran about this and so he had taken some precautions. He had rented a small first floor house, located on the main road, and owned by a church official who lived with his family on the ground floor. He used this as an office during the day and slept here at night.
He reached home, had a brief conversation with his wife, and prepared to leave for some public meetings at which he had to speak – there were several functions that day as it was the anniversary of the death of Bharatiyar, the well-known nationalist poet of Tamil Nadu. He was scheduled to speak at a school function, but was delayed after a long discussion with friends on the events of the previous day. When he reached the venue, accompanied by a friend, he found that to cover his absence, the organizers had gone ahead with a play which the students had put up for the function. Even though they invited him to give his oration, he left saying he would return after participating in a function at Yamaneshwaram, a locality nearby, which had been organized by the Congress. But after the function at Yamaneshwaram he returned home at around 8.45 pm. As he entered his home, he enquired about his daughters’ studies. He quickly ate a meal of rice with mutton and rasam. His wife asked about the trouble in the meeting the previous day and he said, “It was nothing, Muthuramalinga Thevar did not want to accept me as a representative of the Devendars and we had an argument about it, that’s all.” He left for his office to retire for the night.
Just as he reached there, a couple of his friends – one Santhanam and a teacher, Karumal Sundaram, also arrived. The three of them went to Subramania Vilas Hotel, drank some hot milk and came out. Segaran was smoking a cigarette. Sundaram was still sipping milk on the other side of the road. It was after 9 pm. Just then, a bus from Mudukulathur passed by. In it were travelling people who were after Segaran’s life. He was spotted by them, and yelled for the bus to stop, and it rolled to a stop a small distance away. The armed horde rushed out of the bus and pounced on Segaran. In seconds, their job was done. Segaran collapsed in a lifeless heap on the road even as his friends watched in horror from across the road. The killers hopped onto the bus and escaped.
Blood and History
The news spread like rapid fire in the region. The killing of Immanuel Segaran in cold blood was not just the murder of a leading light of the anti-caste struggle in Tamil Nadu. It was a blatant provocation to escalate the level of caste conflict by the dominants to engage in violence to intimidate and subjugate the untouchables who were just beginning to mobilize against the injustices they suffered. The next few days saw a flurry of violent incidents as Devendars and Maravars clashed frequently. A civil-war like situation began to prevail again.
Immanuel’s warning that the Pallars would convert to Islam if casteist violence and discrimination did not end in the area became a reality about two decades later. A number of the Pallars converted to Islam in Meenakshipuram in the late 70s. This was a watershed event in the history of religious and caste-related conflict in India, and its reverberations are still felt not just in Tamil Nadu but in the whole of South India. The legacy of the violence is still evident, even 50 years later, in the region, which continues to be a cauldron of caste-related violence and conflict. Immanuel’s memory is kept alive in the form of a group, the Immanuel Peravai (Immanuel’s Troupe) which among the young people in the area, to involve them in socially significant constructive activities.
Source: The Tamil original was published by Dalit Resource Center, Tamil Nadu Theological Seminary, Madurai.
Cynthia Stephen is Consultant, Dalit Biographies project, IGNOU.