Even if we do not have freedom, we should stand up with valour for our rights: Immanuel Sekaran.
‘How much repression to keep his memory down!’
It is strange that a man whose memory attracts over a million people, and increasing every year, on his death anniversary to his memorial in a village in interior Tamil Nadu over half a century after his brutal murder should only attract concerns over ‘security’ and ‘tension’ in the mainstream brahminized media. Over the last couple of years, Round Table has linked to five news items that referred to Immanuel Sekaran, and each one of them revealed the ruling classes’ attempts, and barely concealed anxieties, to throttle his defiant spirit and message. To re-enact his assassination again and again, year after year. As a fellow contributor remarked, ‘How much repression to keep his memory down, amazing!’
Repression hasn’t managed to kill Immanuel Sekaran’s memory, but mainstream discourse, especially in the English language media, has carefully weeded out any but the barest references to him. Every exercise to make them forget Immanuel seems to have only strengthened the resolve of the Dalits of Tamil Nadu to remember him, cherish his memory. And today, yet again, they’ve braved bullets to prove how priceless his memory is.
Today, on Immanuel Sekaran’s 54th death anniversary, repression seems to have struck again, with renewed force. Police firing on participants observing the memorial day in Paramkudi has claimed three lives. We condemn this brutal act of repression. We mourn the lost lives. We shall remember those martyrs. We shall remember Immanuel Sekaran. We shall never forget.
As a tribute to Immanuel Sekaran, to bring his memory to our readers, we’ve brought together a few pieces of writing to offer a glimpse into Immanuel Sekaran’s life and struggles. We hope this effort shall be particularly useful for those non-Tamil readers who have been very effectively deprived, by mainstream media and academia etc, of Immanuel Sekaran’s memory until now. What we’ve brought together now is a little sketch in a way, and not a detailed illustration; we invite readers to share their memories of him, by contributing articles – Round Table India.
Who was Immanuel Sekaran?
The Government of India had issued a postal stamp in his name, honouring him as a freedom fighter, political leader and a civil rights activist, but such is the reach of the undeclared ban on him in the Indian internets that we have to turn to these details, ironically, from an affidavit filed, as part of a petition, in the Madras High Court by E.Pa. Jeevankumar, State Senior General Secretary of Bahujan Samaj Party (published as part of this news article in The Hindu) as a source of preliminary information:
Immanuel Sekaran was born to Vedhanayagam, a school teacher and founder of Devendra Kula Vellalar Sangam, on October 9, 1924.
He participated in the Quit India movement at the age of 18 and was imprisoned for three months by the then British government.
In 1945, he joined the Indian Army as Havildar Major.
After serving the Army for a few years, he returned to Paramakudi to become a Youth Congress leader.
He knew seven languages including Russian.
He worked towards uplifting the Dalits and organised ‘Annihilation of Caste Conference‘ in Madurai. The conference was presided over by B.R. Ambedkar.
He also coordinated many village-level meetings and fought against caste-based discrimination.
He worked strenuously for promotion of social justice and equality of the downtrodden people, especially Dalits, until being murdered during the 1957 riots.
Immanuel Sekaran in the vanguard of Dalit struggle
What did Immanuel Sekaran do that the State feels so compelled to stifle his memory? Karthikeyan Damodaran provides answers in this Hindu article:
Even if we do not have freedom, we should stand up with valour for our rights …- Immanuel Sekaran.
MADURAI: September 11 has a special significance in the annals of Dalit history in Tamil Nadu; a history buried under the rumblings of the Dravidian nationalistic past which thrived on a “language-centric” discourse.
Immanuel Sekaran, a Dalit leader from Sellur village in Mudukulathur, Ramanathapuram district, worked as Havildar in the Indian Army and also participated in the Quit India Movement as a young freedom fighter. He was murdered on this day 54 years ago for fighting against social injustice meted out to Dalits.
Forty two Scheduled Castes (Dalits) were killed in the aftermath of his death at Mudukulathur in Ramanathapuram district. Considered as one of the worst caste clashes in the post-colonial period, it marked a new phase in the struggle against caste based oppression in which Dalits started to question their subjective position.
During the colonial period of 1930s, Ramanathapuram district was one of the places notorious for caste based discrimination. Dalits were systematically denied any form of symbols that were associated with superior status. J. H. Hutton, the then Census Commissioner, in his book Caste in India; Its Nature, Function, and Origins (Oxford University Press, London, 1963) describes the eight prohibitions imposed on Dalits by dominant castes, which included ban on wearing jewellery, ornaments and getting educated. This was later re-imposed with a stronger set of eleven prohibitions.
Immanuel Sekaran, as a youngster, returning from Army service sporting boots and a newly acquired moral economy, defied the existing norms and fought for making the Dalits as emancipated subjects. This organised form of rebellious resistance and work towards the upliftment of Dalits resulted in his murder.
A. Jegannathan, Dalit writer and Ph. D. scholar, Guru Nanak Research Centre, Madurai Kamaraj University, says that Immanuel was actively involved in the ‘depressed classes’ movement in and around Sellur and propagated the importance of education among Dalits and asked them to fight against oppression. He had a close relationship with Congress leader P. Kakkan and Perumal Peter, a Dalit leader who was heading Poovaisya Indira Kula Vellalar Association.
There were attempts by the Congress to make Immanuel a member of the Legislative Assembly in future. In order to make him contest the elections, Immanuel converted to Hinduism and became Immanuel Sekaran. In 1956, following the demise of B. R. Ambedkar, Immanuel organised a condolence meeting.
Rise of Dalits in the South
Following the rise of Immanuel Sekaran, a significant social change, in the form of opposition to caste oppression by low caste and untouchable (Dalit) workers, did occur, especially in southern districts and also through the Left Movement in Thanjavur district.
This uprising, fuelled by the rise of Immanuel Sekaran, resulted in a raised level of consciousness among the Dalits, who utilised the available opportunities in the government sector through reservation policy. Social Scientist M. S. S. Pandian in his article Dalit Assertion in Tamil Nadu: An exploratory Note’, Journal of Indian School of Political Economy. July–Dec explains that migration to greener pastures and then returning back to their villages and making investments in agriculture strengthened their economic base, which eventually resulted in the changing power relations and forms of assertion on the part of Dalits.
This changing configuration of power relations resulted in a series of clashes involving Dalits and the dominant castes in the southern districts during the 1960s till mid 1990s. The struggles in the South were mostly against castes, which were on the threshold of untouchability and just above the Dalits in the hierarchy, a phenomenon that is prevalent in a state like Tamil Nadu where “martiality” takes a categorical form to commit atrocities.
The Mudukulathur riots and Dalits like Immanuel Sekaran did not figure even in the Dravidian discourse or Non-Brahmin Movement as a problematique. The Dravidian discourse’s influenced search for hidden pasts and lost moments, which involved in restoring the integrity of hoary past, indigenous histories and language that appear naturally in non-linear, oral, symbolic, vernacular, and dramatic forms have bypassed the Dalit question, says Dalit intellectual and writer Stalin Rajangam.
The shift in self-identity from the pejorative and humiliating, externally imposed word, “untouchable,” to a self-chosen identity of Dalit which gained momentum in the 1990s explains the transformation in the levels of political consciousness to assertion. Rise of parties like Puthiya Tamilagam and Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi mark those transformations.
Now, Dalits have become part of the public consciousness and entered the political sphere in a big way. Immanuel Sekaran’s guru puja on September 11, in southern districts, has seen an increased Dalit consciousness and his memorial acts as a rallying point to further their struggles against caste based oppression.
Dalit intellectuals feel that the effort to celebrate guru puja is aimed at transformation as a step to enter the social memory with a proliferation of visual images occupying the public spaces to celebrate their “fallen” heroes by erecting hoardings and statues.
‘He is not a leader to me. He wanted to destroy my whole community’
Lastly, a note from the book ‘Uproot Hindutva; The Fiery Voice of the Liberation Panthers‘, a collection of speeches by Thirumaavalavan (translated by Meena Kandasamy), which explains briefly Immanuel’s struggles and the circumstances leading to his assassination:
Immanuel Sekaran founded the Gospel Lutheran Christian Union on 26 September 1954 and served as its General Secretary. He functioned very bravely and questioned every casteist injustice heaped on the Pallars in the Ramanathapuram district. His increasing popularity and the militancy inculcated in the Dalits due to his efforts frightened the oppressor caste Maravars (Mukkulathors). Kamaraj, who heard of this resistance, asked Immanuel Sekaran to join the Congress Party so that he could be given protection as per the law. In 1957, Forward Bloc leader Muthuramalinga Thevar won from the Arupukottai parliamentary constituency and the Mudukalathoor assembly constituency. Because he resigned from the Mudukalathoor assembly constituency, a bye-boll was held on 1 July 1957. Immanuel Sekaran, now of the Congress Party, wanted to contest the election, but, Kamaraj preferred to nominate a Maravar. Immanuel Sekaran campaigned for the Congress. Sasivarna Thevar, a candidate of the Forward Bloc won the election. However, the Dalits and the Nadars had voted for entirely for the Congress. Angered by this, the Maravars started unleashing greater oppression against the Dalits and the Nadars. In order to offer sacrifices to the Badrakali temple, the Maravars kidnapped 9 Dalit men from the village of Katamangalam and took them along. The crops belonging to the Dalit people were destroyed. Caste riots and rampages took place, and 42 Dalits were slain in the Mudukalathoor riots. Due to the escalating oppression, the then District Collector C.V.R.Panikkar made arrangements for talks between the Dalits, Maravars and Nadars on 10 September 1957. Perumal Peter and Immanuel Sekaran represented the Dalits. Muthuramalinga Thevar suggested that all the leaders could address the people in a public meeting. The Dalit representatives feared that Muthuramalinga Thevar could use the meeting to create further tension, suggested that all the leaders sign an agreement, which could be distributed among the people. When Muthuramalinga Thevar had entered this meeting, everybody including the Collector stood up with the exception of Immanuel Sekaran. The Collector asked Immanuel why he did not stand up when a leader entered. Immanuel replied, ‘He is not a leader to me. He wanted to destroy my whole community.’ This angered Muthuramalinga Thevar very much. As a consequence, the talks came to an abrupt end without any solution in sight. Muthuramalinga Thevar who felt slighted is reported to have not even touched food when he visited a luncheon hosted in his honour immediately afterwards. He is said to have remarked that everybody was complacent when a small boy had dared to question him. The next day, on 11 September 1957, Immanuel Sekaran who was returning to Peraiyur, after having participated in a function to commemorate the poet Subramania Bharthi, was attacked by the Maravars and murdered on the spot. Periyar passed a resolution seeking the arrest of Muthuramalinga Thevar. Kamaraj, the then Chief Minister, immediately arrested Muthuramalinga Thevar and all the Maravars who were responsible for the riots. Later, the C.N.Annadurai-led DMK government released all those arrested in connection with the 1957 riots. Today, there is a memorial for Immanuel Sekaran in Paramkodi in southern Tamil Nadu.
“Please watch video of Thyagi Emmanuel Sekaran Memorial day, a BSP Function”
Round Table India gratefully acknowledges inputs from Paari Chezhian, Joshua Isaac and Karthikeyan Damodran.
Sources: The Hindu, Uproot Hindutva. Images courtesy of google images.