Chennai or Madras originates from Fort St. George, built on land that was leased by the East India Company on August 22, 1639 — now celebrated as Madras Day. On this occasion, we step back from neighbourhoods and streets, and take a look at the city as a whole — its past, present and future

About 70 years ago, Chennai or Madras as it was earlier known faced anxious moments when Telugu-speaking citizens demanded the city as theirs and wanted it to be the capital of their future state.

The demand in itself was not problematic, but the solutions proposed to solve the dispute between Tamil and Telugu-speaking citizens over the future of the city were.  

The city came close to being split into two along River Cooum – the northern part assigned to Andhra and the southern to Tamil Nadu. However, a combination of factors settled the issue in Tamil Nadu’s favour.

This not only saved the traumatic partition, but also avoided two other equally vexatious possibilities: declare Madras as a plebiscite or a centrally administered province. As the city celebrates its past, it would be worthwhile to recall how the city survived its testing moments and retained its cosmopolitan nature.

Madras was a presidency town – the largest colonial city in south India with Telugus, Tamils, Kannadigas and Malayalees all living here. As the struggle for independence intensified, the formation of States on linguistic principles became imminent. Telugus were among the first to raise the demand for the need of a separate province.

As early as 1912, Telugu leaders and newspapers started to complain that the ‘progress of Dravidians overshadowed’ that of the Andhras (Telugu speaking) and the creation of a separate province would ‘cure this handicap.’  

However, they did not step up the demand immediately, but wanted to do so only after independence. Until then, they decided to keep the issue alive.

In the initial years, the status of Madras city was not a central issue. The situation changed in the 1940s. An intriguing tale in November, 1941 brought the city of Madras to centre stage. T. Prakasam, the Congress leader, who later became the first Chief Minister of Andhra told the Mahasabha conference in Vishakapatanam that the cabinet of the Madras Province had met a few months ago to discuss the formation of Andhra province. They invited Lord Erskine, the Governor, to attend the meeting as a matter of goodwill.

Erskine suggested that both provinces — Andhra and Madras — be located in the city. Everyone including the Tamil Ministers agreed to this idea, Prakasam claimed.  Prakasam then alleged that an ‘evil genius in the cabinet’ poisoned Erskine’s mind later and made him write a letter to the Secretary of State against the move. Prakasam refused to divulge the name of the ‘evil genius’ but told the gathering that Erskine cautioned the British government that ‘blood would flow in the streets of Madras’ if Andhra was formed.  

Remarks by O.P. Ramaswamy Reddiar, the premier of Madras province in September, 1947 complicated matters. He told a group of press persons that if Andhra claimed Madras then Tamils would claim Nellore, Chittor and Tirupati in return.

Positions hardened and Telugu leaders demanded that the government settle the future of the city first.

For their part, Tamil writers and leaders aggressively opposed Andhra’s claim over Madras. Notable writer Kalki Krishnamuthi remarked that the Tamils and Telugus had turned ‘strange brothers’ and the city had greater contact with Tamilians than with Telugus.  Rajaji dismissed the claim over Madras as untenable and citied population figures in support.

A few readers writing to The Hindu said that the politicians must be kept out of this issue and the government should hold a referendum. This did not happen.

A solution was in sight in 1949. The Indian National Congress set a three-member committee comprising Nehru, Patel and Pattabi Sitaramiah to look into linguistic provinces. The committee report — known as the JVP report — recommended the formation of Andhra province but concluded that Madras would not be part of it. With Nehru and Patel involved, many thought the JVP report would be accepted. On the contrary, the fight over Madras escalated.

While the JVP’s position pleased Tamil leaders, the Telugus agitated. Sitaramiah, who was a signatory to the report tried to clarify that though the JVP report said Madras could not be part of Andhra, it did not specify that it should be part of the Tamil province. The city should be a centrally administered area, he demanded.

Matters came to a flash point in 1952 when Potti Sreeramulu, a Gandhian who was fasting for an Andhra province and the inclusion of Madras, died.  Sreeramulu, was born in Madras.

He quit his well-paying job in the Railways in 1930 to join Gandhi in his Sabarmati ashram. Later, after independence, he took up social work. On October 19, 1952, Sreeramulu decided to indefinitely fast in support of the Andhra issue. His fast neither altered the position of the national Congress or the Madras government.  After 51 days, Sreeramulu died.

His death sparked violent protests across Telugu-speaking areas of the Presidency. Nehru appealed for calm and assured people that the issue would be settled soon.

Following this, in January 1953, the government appointed Justice Wanchoo to look into the formation of the Andhra province. The Wanchoo committee identified boundaries of the new State, but concluded that Madras could be the temporary capital for three to five years. If that was not possible, until a permanent city was found, Guntur or Vishakapttanam could the temporary capital, the committee suggested.

This was not acceptable to Rajaji and other Tamil leaders.  Finally, in December 1953, Nehru announced that Madras would not be the temporary capital. In October 1954, the Andhra province was formed with Kurnool as its temporary capital.

V. Kaleeswara Ro, the vice-president of the Andhra Pradesh Congress committee was practical. He told other Telugu leaders that they should now work ‘increasingly with the Karnataka brethren for the disintegration of Hyderabad State’ and combine the Telugu-speaking areas with Andhra.

This way, Andhra could get the twin city of Hyderabad and Secunderabad as its permanent capital. He was right. After two years, a larger Andhra Pradesh with Hyderabad as its capital emerged.  Madras remained with Tamil Nadu.