HISTORY OF THE MOVEMENT LEADING TO THE VIDURASHWATHA TRAGEDY
Vidurashwatha, a sleepy village in the then unified kolar district of Old Mysore state, carved a niche in the annals of national struggle for independence during the Gandhian phase. On April 25, 1938 a shocking incident, something like an abridged version of Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, took place here killing thirty two people and injuring many in the indiscriminate firing resorted to by the police. The village thus came to be known as the Jallianwala Bagh of Karnataka. This tragic incident embedded with political dimension caused vibrant changes significant enough to strengthen the struggle for independence in the princely state of Mysore. It also vigorously vocalized the demand for Responsible Government which convinced the reluctant Gandhi to intervene and find a solution acceptable for both the Congress and the Mysore administration.
The conflict with the British started in this part of Carnatic as early as 1768 by the annexation of Kolar and Mulbagal areas by the East India Company’s forces. The alien domination was stoutly opposed by Haider Ali who trounced them reclaiming his command over these areas and later losing it to the enemy. The wars between the British and Haider Ali and later his son Tipu Siltan went on for more than three decades. Kolar area thus became one of the prominent sites of bitter conflicts in the South to check the British out from the native land.
After the fall of Tipu Sultan in the 1799 battle the principality of Mysore was brought under the supremacy of British East India Company and the King was humbled to sign the Subsidiary Alliance Treaty. As the king bound by the treaty had to be loyal to the core to their British masters so were the subjects to their king. Though struggles had surfaced in the northern part of the Kannada Country which was part of British-India (the British Karnataka) during both the Tilak-phase and the earlier Gandhian phase of the Movement, Old Mysore region, verily a buffer state (consisting of eight districts: Bangalore, Chitradurga, Hassan, Kadur, Kolar, Mysore, Shimoga and Tumkur) did not see much of activity against the British rule during this period. The congress-line activities were limited to a few elite groups in some urban centers. Moreover the National Congress following the advice of Gandhi had decided not to encourage its aggressive activities beyond the provinces directly ruled by the British. The Movement therefore was not so much impressive in the areas ruled by the native kings. However the activities of the non-Brahmin leaders in Old Mysore region did exist in the form of mobilizing the masses for social justice sans any pivotal political agenda. It was only in 1917 Praja-Mitra Mandali emerged as the first political party in the princely Mysore.
In 1934, sinking their differences Praja-Mitra Mandali and its sibling Praja-paksha formed the United Mysore Praja Party (Mysore Peoples’ Federation) to demand for Responsible Government, and equal representation to all castes both in administration and governance. Nevertheless it also demonstrated its earnestness to propagate the aims and ideals of the congress. The Provincial Congress Committee which on
the other hand had come into existence officially in 1930 (‘Tilak Association’ prior to that, and engaged in public celebration of Ganapati festival and Tilak’s birthday) became actively engaged in Gandhian programmes like temperance, removal of untouchability, communal harmony, popularization of Khadhi etc. aimed at arousing some form of national consciousness among the people. While the congress outfit was striving to visualize national freedom it was unable to give a definite shape to it in the province. The non-congress outfit on the other hand stood for the aspirations of democratic autonomy and was working out a non-Brahmin (which was also non-dalit) caste consolidation.
Gandhi’s journey in the region in 1927 and 1934 had instilled confidence to a great extent among the congress leaders. Nonetheless it had also propelled other groups to realize the importance and potentiality of a united front. But the two political parties existed as separate entities because congress was dominated by the Brahmins and United Mysore Praja Party (MPF) which was influenced by the Justice Party (South Indian Liberal Federation), a political outfit of the Non-Brahmin Movement in the neighboring Madras presidency, was vociferously opposed to this. Gandhi had raised his voice time and again against this disunity as detrimental to the united fight against the colonizer while on his tour across both the province and the presidency. However the critical division in opinion and interests continued till mid-1937 in the province until Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya and N S Hardikar midwived to unite the two parties. The arrest of leaders like K T Bhashyam and N C Timmareddy in the month of
October pressed forward the unification process and H C Dasappa was elected the first president of Mysore Congress Committee.
The arrest of leaders began to blow the winds of change. Congress till then was popular only in urban areas and hence its influence was peripheral vis-à-vis the MPF which commanded support both in the urban and rural bases. The unification helped integrate and widen the support base. Itinerary across villages in this part planned byleaders like N C Nagaiahreddy, N C Thimmareddy, T Siddalingaiah, K C Reddy, T Ramachar, K Pattabhiraman and others helped galvanize mass base and in 1938 Congress emerged as a massive organization to reckon with. Even then the King’s Court rejected the demand of thecongress to adopt reformative measures. The campaign against the high handedness of the Dewan, curtailing of the freedom of speech, exploitation of the rural masses and draining of the state coffers on showcasing-projects and royal luxury that started in September 1937 went on for more than seven months till April 1938 culminating in the Vidurashwatha incident.
The first step towards pressurizing the Mysore Administration to recognize Congress and asserting the right to hoist the Congress ‘National’ flag was demonstrated by organizing the first ever Mysore Congress Session at Shivapura in Mandya district. The government responded by imposing ban on hoisting of the congress flag and issued orders to respond with bullets if there was an attempt to disobey the orders. There were flag-hoisting attempts by turns following arrests on all the three days of thesession. But Mekri, the deputy commissioner refusedto fire at the peaceful gathering
and hence had to incur the ire of the Dewan punitively. Encouraged by the tremendous response and active participation of the people at Shivapura the committee decided to launch Dwaja-Satyagrahas all over the province and the leaders hailing from Kolar district many of whom had state level participation decided to organize one such at Vidurashwatha which witnessed police excess and indiscriminate firing at the crowds of people who had gathered there.
Vidurashwatha gets its name from Vidura (Mahabharata) who it’s believed came here andstayed for a considerable time in Maitreya’s hermitage on the banks of the river Pinakini. The local myth has it that a pipal sapling (Ficus religiosa) planted and consecrated by the hermit was tended and worshiped by Vidura in the days of yore during his sojourn here. According to the traditional belief it is the samemythical pipal tree (Aswatha-Vriksha) that goes with the name of Vidura and hence sacred. There is also awidely held belief that if the childless perform thefertility ritual by way of consecrating a cobra-stone (Nagapratistha) at this place they will be blessed witha womb. Over the years this place has had grown into one of the pilgrim centers of the South attracting large number of believers. A ritual car-festival and a fair in the month of April which include a cattle-fair have become the annual feature of Vidurashwatha during which time number of small traders and villagers attend the fair in a big way.
The popularity of the place and the prospect of getting huge crowds for audience during the fair propelled the local congress leaders to choose Vidurashwatha as the venue of the Dwaja-Satyagraha programme. Team
of leaders traversed throughout the district creating awareness among the villagers about thecauses of their impoverishment and backwardness. They urged the masses in their spirited speeches to support the struggles launched by the congress in order to end exploitation of all kinds, assuring them that only congress could provide sure-cure for their sufferings. There seems to be one more reason for them to choose Vidurashwatha as the venue of this programme. Since Vidurashwatha was a border village just less than two km from the British-India they could easily pass on the message of its success and further muster the already existing support of the people across the border. The movement was also picking up against the British regime on the other side of the border and leaders like Kallur Subbarao were part of the movement on this part of the border as well. Moreover the villages in the border area shared seething discontent over the repressive measures of the rulers.
As the countdown began the leaders planned to organize a ‘Patriots’ Day’ on April 18,1938 which the tahasildar thwarted by promulgating prohibitory orders in and around two km of Vidurashwatha banning public speeches and assembly of people for fifteen days. Strategically no attempt was made to defy the orders. But the efforts to mobilize the masses for the flag-hoisting programme continued without much ado. Vidurashwatha remained peaceful with no untoward incident for two days that followed.
On April 22 N C Nagaiahreddy led the congress workers to Vidurashwatha brandishing tri-color flags and distributing handouts urging the satyagrahis to violate prohibitory orders. When he entered the grove behind the temple
followed by satyagrahis the police authorities ordered his arrest. He and other prominent leaders were amid protests taken to Chikkaballapur and produced before the Magistrate. But they not only refused to obtain bail but also rejected the Magistrate’s offer to apologize for ‘showing disobedience to law’ and preferred to stay behind the bars.
On April 23 two massive processions consisting of thousands of people one led by Jwalanaiah from Ramapura and another by Sriramaiah Setty from Gauribidanur arrived at Vidurashwatha. Despite protests by the activists both were arrested when they began to address the gathering and were also taken to Chikkaballapur. The news of their arrest spread swiftly and hundreds of villagers enroute raised antigovernment slogans condemning their arrest. A group of five hundred activists from Hindupur led by Kallur Subbarao too tried to enter Vidurashwatha but their effort was scuttled by the police. The local police who were apprehensive requested the district superintendent of police to send Reserve Police Contingency to tackle the situation if it turns rough since the people were restive over the arrest of their leaders. Rumor went round that the tahasildar was churning out disinformation claiming that local congress had come to an end since all its leaders were put behind the bars. This further infuriated the congress workers and they came out with pamphlets asking the people to ensure massive participation in the Dwaja-Satyagraha programme. Some more RP Men arrived at the request of the tahasildar at Gauribidanur. There were no disturbances on 24th as it happened to be the day of weekly fair.
On April 25 thousands of people from surrounding villages left in procession to Vidurashwatha. The procession led by T Ramachar reached the venue from Gauribidanur around 10.30 am. It was joined by thousands of people who had arrived there to take part in the Satyagraha. An RP battalion consisting of 85 Men was kept ready to meet any emergency. The crowd began to swell. It was officially around seven thousand which in later version changed to ten thousand but the eyewitnesses put it at around twenty-five thousand. Attempt to hoist the tri-color flag by turns began as scheduled followed by arrests. Vedalaveni Sooranna, Narayanaswamy, Srinivasarao and Kallur Subbarao, the front-liners were arrested. The mob grew tense over their arrest. T Ramachar who was expected to lead the next batch was told by the Magistrate to desist from addressing the mob and to leave the place. The highhandedness of the authorities infuriated the mob and it refused to disperse from the venue immediately. When the police resorted to lathi-charging to quell the agitated mob it turned berserk and resorted to brick-batting. Upset over this outbreak the district superintendent of police, Khaleel fired from his revolver directly at the mob killing a person on the spot.
The indiscriminate firing followed. There was panic all around and people ran helter-skelter to save their life and limbs. 96 rounds were fired from guns between 1pm and 5.40 pm killing thirty two and wounding forty eight as maintained by both the congress leaders and the defense counsel in his argument before the enquiry commission later. Apart from human casualty it is said hundreds of birds, bats and monkeys sheltered in the thick of the grove rained groaning on the ground. The whole scene turned gruesome.
The people were horrified by this incident. The bodies of the dead were groped and furtively carried away by the respective families in the dusk and in the dark lest the police would frame and harass them. The newspapers both regional and English including the International News Agency Reuter carried this horrifying incident on news desk and the BBC broadcast it from London. Ramarao a congress leader and a journalist was said to be instrumental in giving the news wide coverage which in effect drew Gandhi’s attention.
The wide coverage in the media of the ghastly repressive measures of the Mysore government that culminated in the Vidurashwatha incident shocked the congress leaders at the national level. Gandhi who was in Wardha issued press statements on 29 condemning the incident and sent a message to the leaders of Mysore congress that the sacrifice at Vidurashwatha will not go in vain towards achieving freedom by peaceful means. The government by releasing a press statement maintained that only ten persons lost their lives and fifteen were wounded in the firing. It further banned the publication of Kannada dailies like Tayinadu, Viswakarnataka (under surveillance and blacklisted as the ‘Gandhian Paper’) and Navajeevana which however was revoked after a fortnight unable to withstand the agitation which spread like wildfire. Curfew was imposed in and around Vidurashwatha. Lancer and military were deployed. Punitive tax was imposed by the IGP on villages to curb agitation. The last week of April and the first week of May of the year turned infernal to villagers of the area. N C Timmareddy was prohibited from addressing public meetings at Vidurashwatha for two months. The students throughout
Kolar district came out of their schools and colleges and held demonstrations protesting his arrest in Bangalore.
Rev. C F Andrews who was called the ‘Friend of the Poor’ had profusely admired Mysore administration particularly its development paradigm as worth emulating by other princely states. The Dewan on the other hand was always harping on to keep Gandhi (‘I cherish the friendship of Sir Mirza’) in good humor. Gandhi in this backdrop had formed a high opinion of Mysore and even likened it to his Ramarajya. This was one of the reasons why Gandhi was going smooth on the affairs of Mysore administration though the local congress leaders blamed it as “…autocratic, personal and dictatorial in character”. But Vidurashwatha killings disturbed Gandhi. He wrote letters to the king and the Dewan to shun dictatorial pursuits and create space for people’s participation in governance.
The congress committee constituted a five-member fact-finding team which included S Nijalingappa as one of its members. It started collecting information about the incident, visiting many villages in Gauribidanur taluk. But officials at all levels were formally instructed by the Chief Secretary to the government not to co-operate and share any information with the team. On May 6, 1938 a five-member Enquiry Committee, Sir Vepa Ramesham a retired judge of Madras High Court of Judicature as its chairman, was appointed by the government of His Highness the Maharaja of Mysore. The factfinding team constituted by the congress was therefore felt unessential and was asked to wind up.
The repressive measures continuously adopted by the government were nothing short of deliberately demonstrating its irrational ability to crush the movement with iron hand. The protests against the Dewan’s arbitrary decisions and the demand for the Responsible Government took severe turn and the Dewan had nothing but to request Gandhi to intervene to find a solution to the problem. Gandhi responded positively to his request and sent Vallabhabai Patel and Acharya Kriplani as his emissaries to Mysore state to assess the facts personally towards solving the problem and also to visit Vidurashwatha to talk to the local leaders. They arrived at Bangalore on May 6, and on May 17, Patel-Mirza pact emerged as the result of the talks between the emissaries and the government. It was agreed at the conclave to recognize Mysore Congress as a political entity. It was also agreed to withdraw prohibitory orders promulgated against the agitators, to release all political prisoners and to permit hoisting of the tri-color congress flag along with the Mysore state flag.
The Enquiry Committee conducted proceedings at Sir Puttanna Chetty Town Hall in Bangalore and facilitated fifty seven hearing sessions and examined one hundred and forty seven witnesses in all. L S Raju, president of the Bangalore chapter of the Indian Union for Civil Liberties and a leading advocate appeared as defense counsel. The court turned down his submission to conduct a couple of sessions in Gauribidanur town since the wounded and some of the witnesses afraid of the police were unwilling to attend the sessions at Bangalore. His request to summon the high level police authorities responsible for the incident was also turned down. The proceedings continued for five and a half months and finally the Committee
submitted its report to the government. It exonerated the district officers, justified the firing and placed the number of deaths conclusively at ten. The government expressed ‘in general’ its ‘agreement with the findings of the Committee’ by issuing a notification on November 19, 1938.
The Committee during its sessions considered the names of thirteen persons allegedly killed in the incident of firing either mentioned by witnesses during deposition or published in newspapers: Bajantri Bheemanna, Gachagari Narasappa, Gowramma, Hanumantappa, Lakshmayya, Nagam Mallayya, Nama Aswathanarayana Setty, Narasappa, Sulagithi Narasappa, Venkatagiriyappa, Kasimsabi, Baiyyanna, Chinnanna. But it rejected the counsel’s claim that Kasim Sabi of Virupasandra as well as Gowramma of Maralur died of bullet injuries and dismissed both the cases due to lack of ‘beyond-the-doubt’ evidence. Finally it published the names of these persons as killed in the firing: Bajantri Bheemanna- Idaguru, Chinnanna- Badamarlur Gachagari Narasappa- Gollahalli, Hanumantappa- Maraluru, Lakshmayya- Gudibande, Nagam Mallayya- Karedapalli, Nama Aswathanarayana Setty- Gauribidanur, Narasappa- Ramachandrapura, Sulagithi Narasappa- Chowluru, Venkatagiriyappa- Gauribidanur, and put the figure at ten. [A memorial in honor of these martyrs was raised in 1973. A cenotaph was erected and Veera-Soudha, ‘The House of Martyrs’ was constructed in 2004].
Meanwhile on October 26, 1938 ‘Vidurashwatha Day’ was observed at many places including Vidurashwatha to pay homage to those who were killed in the firing. Congress as expected was vehemently opposed to the report of the Committee which had only reflected the government version of
the incident. When the Dewan visited Gauribidanur on November 26 to lay the foundation stone for the Govt. hospital the leaders organized a massive rally and a Gauribidanur bandh to protest against the miscarriage of justice. The leaders condemned the disgusting attitude of the Dewan in their speeches, tore up the report and burnt his effigy. Despite the agreement reached in the Patel-Mirza pact the government once again resorted to arrests, prohibitory orders and punitive measures to prevent the growth and influence of the congress. No reformatory measures were in sight and the congress members in the Legislature and the representatives of the local bodies decided to resign protesting against the government’s breach of the pact. They started the programme of constructive work like forest agitation and temperance congress had adopted and under the local leadership the programme ran successfully during which time they also decided to host the second State-level Mysore Congress Session in the month of May 1939 at Vidurashwatha.
The government did everything at its command to make the Session a fiasco. But the three-day Session turned out a big success. H C Dasappa who chaired the plenary session lauded the people for their resolve to fight against oppression. Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya addressed the Socialist Conference disregarding prohibitory orders. It was followed by a Harijan Conference and a Women’s Conference. An exhibition was also inaugurated as part of the session by Dr. Pattabhi Sitaramaiah on Gandhian themes like Khadi and village industries. Responding to the success of this event the government further intensified its coercive methods to put down the defiant character of the movement.
The government’s effort to stop Shivapura Satyagraha was in vain. The incident of firing at Vidurashwatha held it out as brutal and lowered the esteem it enjoyed in the eyes of Gandhi. The statelevel session at Vidurashwatha revitalized themovement and triggered off the KGF agitation led by K C Reddy followed by hundreds of protests across the province against the anti-people stance of the government. Forest-satyagrahas and agitation demanding temperance were organized in a big way in Vidurashwatha under the leadership of N C Timmareddy, N C Nagaiahreddy, Annapurnadevi and others as part of the state-wide agitation.
In 1942 the Mysore Congress participated with valour and vantage in the Quit India Movement and thousands of agitators went behind the bars. There were also instances of disrupting telephone lines and railroads by some groups even in Kolar district. After the Vidurashwatha incident the Indian National Congress which ever since was averse to militantly organize its movement beyond the British-India changed its position and decided to concentrate its active agitational politics even in princely states. This shift to a considerable extent promoted awareness among the people of these princely states about the demand for Responsible Government. Gandhi came out openly in favour of the agitation launched by the congress in the state of Mysore and its ultimate demand for the Responsible Government. He not only wrote to the Maharaja and the Dewan of Mysore to positively respond to the demand of the people justifying it as the dharma of the new age but also declared that he would thereafter monitor the agitation in all the princely states of India.
Came August 15, 1947 dawning the new era of independence to India but the aspiration of the people of Mysore state to have a Responsible Government remained an unfulfilled dream. The Mysore Congress had earlier suspended its agitation for Responsible Government in the wake of the Second World War by virtue of a resolution passed in the All Mysore Congress Convention held at Holenarasipur (Hassan District). The agitation resumed soon after independence and on September 1, 1947 the ‘March to Mysore’ Mysore Chalo (inspired by the Delhi Chalo Movement of Subhas Chandra Bose’ Indian National Army) and continued for over a month with the arrest and imprisonment of hundreds of agitators. The government finally had to bow to the inevitable. On October 24, 1947 the Responsible Government, K C Reddy as chiefminister, came into existence ushering in the age of new political dynamics of full-blown Self-Rule, the Purna Swaraj, in the state of Mysore.