Thursday, February 16, 2023

Ambedkar's model?

Does the statue look familiar? To most of us, it might, even though we might not have heard about the man himself. Though he was born in St Thomas Mount, in 1883, his name referred to another part of Madras; Mylai Chinna Thambi Pillai Rajah (MC Rajah) was quite a way away from the Mylapore that is part of his name. He studied at the Wesley School and at the Madras Christian College, before starting off as a teacher in 1906. Keenly aware of the way in which the Dalits had been segregated and oppressed, he was vociferous in his demands for their empowerment. Recognising his work, the Government of Madras chose him for the Provincial Legislative Council in 1919, as their nominee to represent the Adi Dravidars. Early in the term, Rajah convinced the British to remove the terms "parayan" and "panchaman", substituting them with Adi Dravider. 

That gave him a further boost as a champion of the Dalits. In 1928, when the first national association for the Dalits - the All India Depressed Classes Association - was formed, Rajah was  invited to be its first President, with a certain Bhimrao as the Vice President. Rajah had initially (in 1930) supported the idea of a separate electorate for the Dalits; but in what was probably a strategic blunder, he went ahead and forged and agreement with the Hindu Mahasabha, to have the Dalits be represented on the basis of a joint electorate, with province-wise seat reservation for the Dalits. Maybe it was too early for this idea, but it paved the way for the Poona Pact between Ambedkar and Gandhi, which was along similar lines. There was a time when Rajah was the national leader of the Dalits; but somewhere along the way the British sidelined him, nominating Rettamalai Srinivasan along with Ambedkar as the Dalit representatives to the Round Table Conferences in 1930-31. Rajah continued to be an active champion of the depressed classes until his death in 1943. Rettamalai Srinivasan passed away in 1945. And then the field was clear for Ambedkar to be the sole champion of the Dalits. 

This building at the Nandanam-Saidapet border was set up in 1944 by one of Rajah's followers, as a hostel for Adi Dravida students coming to study in Chennai. Over the years, its hospitality had been abused to an extent that, in 2019, a clean-up of the facility found that there were 80 non-student residents - and 13 of them had criminal cases against them. That clean-up has put this hostel back on track to providing much needed support for the underprivileged students from the depressed classes trying to make their mark in life!

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