Ninety-five-year- old R.Madhavan, a Salt Satyagrahi from Kerala, recalls those days, 80 years ago...
It is 80 years, time to commemorate the historic Salt Sataygraha which started with the symbolic production of common salt, without paying tax to British colonial rulers. It was the first mass movement and campaign of civil disobedience where all sections of society in different regions of India came together to defy British law. The Salt Satyagraha succeeded in electrifying the nationalist spirit among Indian people targeting state monopoly on salt. The Salt March of Mahatma Gandhi, traversing 241 miles from Sabarmati to Surat coast of Dandi, Gujarat, enthused the national spirit like never before, and volunteers in massive numbers, from all over the country undertook to break the Salt Law of 1919, of imposing tax on salt, which amounted to state monopoly. Removal of the Salt Tax was one of the 11 demands of the Indian National Congress, and observing Poorna Swaraj (Complete Freedom ) on January 26, 1930. Following Gandhiji, salt marches were held by freedom fighters in different parts of the country, in Vedaranyam, lead by Rajaji in Tamil Nadu, and K.Kelappan at Payyanur in Kerala. Among those who participated in the salt march in Kerala, was a 15 year-old boy K. Madhavan, hailing from a powerful feudal landlord family of Kanhangad, part of the South Kanara district of Madras Presidency. He is perhaps the only surviving Salt Satyagrahi in the whole country, and he vividly recalls those days.
The north Kerala town of Payyanur has made significant contributions to the Freedom Movement. The fourth Kerala State Conference of the Congress Party was held at Payyanur from April 25 to 27 1928. This conference, presided over by Jawaharlal Nehru, was a turning point in the freedom struggle. The decision to announce “Poorna Swaraj” as the ultimate aim of the Indian National Congress was taken at this meeting. The three-day conference saw the participation of personalities like the poet laureate Vallathol Narayana Menon, Mannathu Padmanabhan and Dr. Vardarajulu Naidu. The success of the three-day conference and the fervent national spirit of the local people were factors that made Uliyath Kadavu, about a mile away from Payyanur, the venue for launching the momentous movement of producing the “contraband salt'. It was on April 21, 1930, that the volunteers under the leadership of K. Kelappan, the ‘Kerala Gandhi', collected salty sand with coconut shells in gunny bags and distilled it and sold small packets in the evening. Ninety-five year-old Madhavan recollects that packets with a pinch of salt were sold then at the incredible price of Rs. 25 per piece and the demand could not be fully met. That was the fervour with which people of the area heralded mass participation in the Satyagraha movement.
Though Uliyath Kadavu at Payyanur was the locale of the most unforgettable action of the freedom struggle, it remained totally neglected till a few years ago. It was only in 2006 that a memorial was launched by K. Madhavan, under the auspices of the Salt Satyagraha Memorial Trust; they purchased 10 cents of land and a mandapam and a bust of Kelappan have been installed.
The fiery speeches of Kerala's freedom fighters of the 1930s like K.Kelappan, T. R. Krishna Swami Iyer, and Moyarath Sankaran at Kanhangad inspired the 15- year-old student from an aristocratic family, to participate in the freedom movement and Salt Satyagraha. Along with five elders he volunteered to go to Calicut, from where the Satyagrahis would start their march, on April 14, the Malayalam New Year's day. They were given heroes' farewell by the people of Kanhangad. At Calicut, Madhavan joined Kelappan and there were several hundreds who had already assembled.
Young Madhavan was apprehensive that he may be excluded from the 32-strong batch required in the group and Kelappan who was very fond of him tried his best to dissuade him, citing alarming consequences. But Madhavan was resolute and gifted his gold ring to the Salt Satyagraha fund!
There were three batches of volunteers and they started their march from Kozhikode on April 14, 1930 under the leadership of K. Kelappan to Payyanur.
K .T. Kunhiraman Nambiar was the General captain and P. Krishna Pilla (Who later was instrumental in the formation of the Communist Party in Kerala and profoundly influenced Madhavan), M.N. Pisharaody, and P Kesavan Nambiar were captains of each batch.
All the way the entire group received a rousing reception from the people of different villages and towns. At Thalassery, Madhavan recalls an incident: Moyarath Sankaran, a Satyagrahi himself, and his wife washed the dirty clothes of all the volunteers ( telling them there was a dhobi) in the night without their knowledge and when they protested, the couple expressed their pride in washing the soiled clothes of freedom fighters! Instances like a blind beggar donating his day's collection of half an anna to the funds are also illuminating. When the procession reached Payyanur, the venue of the Satyagraha, there were milling crowds. The welcome consisted of a rousing and grand reception with caparisoned elephant which ran amok, seeing the surging crowd. Though many people ran away Madhavan stood firm without fear! At the venue on April 21,1930, people had assembled in thousands. Police had also made elaborate preparations to prevent the Satyagrahis from making salt. But the will of the freedom fighters and the supporting crowds prevailed and policemen became mere onlookers, unable to control the large and swelling gathering. The British laws were broken and salt made. This continued for some days.
When the Satyagraha was shifted from Payyanur to Calicut, young Madhavan was one of the volunteers who picketed the liquor shop. He was arrested and subjected to police brutalities and jailed. To escape the long and hard life in the Borstal School, he was advised by Hassan Koya, a senior freedom fighter to mention his age as 19!
Nearing a century of an eventful life, not involving himself with any party and disillusioned with the current politics, does he regret his sacrifices? He firmly denies it and emphatically reiterates that given another birth, he wants to live the same life and fight feudalism, under the stimulating leadership of Kelappan, Krishna Pilla and A.C. Kannan Nair, of his own family.
He feels that the present Congress has irretrievably deviated from the sacrifices and model life of Kelappan and Communists from that of Krishna Pilla. They were models and symbols of the ideologies of Gandhi and Communism.
No wonder he is termed a Gandhian Communist, since he combines the ethics of both the ideologies.