The recent move of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam to nominate one of its senior Dalit members P. Dhanapal for the post of Assembly Speaker has turned the spotlight on one of the unsung heroes of the State’s legislature – its first Dalit Speaker, J. Sivashanmugam Pillai (1901-1975).
There is also much curiosity over the Speaker’s use of a surname that is traditionally not associated with the Dalit community. On this, C.K. Tamizharasan, four-time legislator of the Assembly and Republican Party of India (RPI) leader, clarifies that in those times when Pillai lived, there was indeed a practice among Dalits to keep such a surname. There were some other Dalits too in public life having a similar surname, he said.
Pillai, an ardent follower of Mahatma Gandhi, plunged into political life after getting a postgraduate degree in arts from Madras University. A resident of Nungambakkam here, he studied at Loyola College and the Presidency College. At the age of 31, he became a member of the Corporation of Chennai. Five years later, he went on to occupy the coveted post of Mayor of the Corporation. On November 9, 1937, on a motion moved by the Congress party’s stalwart S. Satyamurti, he was unanimously elected Mayor, thus becoming the first Dalit Mayor of the Corporation. On hearing Pillai’s election, Gandhiji, who was then in Kolkata, sent him a message: “My warmest congratulations on your election to Mayoralty, which, I have no doubt, you will adorn with distinction.”
Convinced that problems and issues concerning Dalits should be presented to the British authorities in a constitutional manner, he articulated them ably before several panels including the Simon Commission and Lothian Committee.
When a committee was constituted in 1944 under the chairmanship of Tej Bahadur Sapru to moot Constitutional proposals, Pillai represented Dalits and presented a strong case for securing economic independence to “Depressed Classes” (which was the phrase widely used then to mean Dalits or Scheduled Castes). Pillai believed that unless and until this was done, the method of election made no difference to them.
At that time, the discussion was on whether to have exclusive electorate for Dalits or common electorate with reservation of seats. In his note to the Sapru Committee, he had mentioned that in the erstwhile Madras Presidency, there was enough of legal protection for his community with regard to public places and public wells but in practice, it was of “very little use.” What was required, Pillai contended, was not legal enactment but “change of heart” among caste Hindus.
It was no surprise that Pillai, given his deep knowledge and scholarship, was chosen Speaker of the State legislature after the 1946 elections. Pillai’s record of nine years as Assembly Speaker (from 1946 to 1955) still remains unbroken. As the Speaker, he had built up high traditions and was known for utmost impartiality.
As Congress leader Kamaraj had once said, “though a Congressman, he held the scales even.” At a public reception given to him in 1955, Rajaji hailed Pillai for having discharged the onerous duties “justly and with humility.” C. Subramaniam, who was then State Minister and Leader of the House, speaking on a motion of thanks in the Assembly, observed that Pillai becoming Chennai Mayor and Assembly Speaker was “a symbol of the aspirations of the community to which he belonged, and of their hope for the future.”
In August 1955, Pillai resigned the post of Speaker to become Member of the Union Public Services Commission (UPSC). After serving the UPSC till 1961, Pillai was Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha) from 1962 to 1968. On New Year’s Day in 1975, he died at his house in Chennai after a brief illness.