When the 10-foot bronze statue of Colonel James Neil perched on a 12-foot pedestal was erected near the Spencer building on Mount Road in 1861, everything that surrounded it was dwarfed by its imposing presence. Today, the statue stands inconspicuously amidst the curated precincts of the Anthropology department of Chennai Museum in Egmore. The account of how it got there reveals a tale of nationalist defiance, the kind that moves mountains – or statues as it were.
According to reports in The Hindu, at 9 a.m. on August 11 1927, two Congress volunteers from Madurai, Mohammed Saliah and Subbarayulu, armed with an axe, a chisel and a ladder scaled the façade of the Neil statue and hammered away at it. Addressing assembling crowds, the two raged against the atrocities committed by Colonel Neil and demanded that the statue be removed.
The object of their rage — Colonel Neil — was a British military officer who had led the Madras Fusiliers in quelling the revolt of 1857 and died during service. While celebrated by the imperial government as a martyr, the Colonel earned notoriety among Indians as a brutal officer.
With the national movement gaining momentum, the statue, an emblem of colonial oppression, became an affront that had to be vanquished. Historian A.R Venkatachalapathy explains that the statue of James Neil was a prime opportunity for the Congress to further its nationalist cause. “Neil was an especially vicious general and the prominence of the statue was ideal for rallying support.”
The Neil statue campaign and the conviction of the two activists became a sensation with people across the State mobilising in support. By September 1927, as many as 21 people had been arrested, including women and children. Even The Tribune, a Lahore-based daily weighed in with its support. Mahatma Gandhi, who blessed the movement, insisted that non-violence had to be upheld. “Instead of hammers, the use of clay balls may be more appropriate” he suggested.
In October that year, the removal of the statue seemed imminent. The Madras Corporation went as far as passing a resolution in favour of its removal. However in the Madras Legislative Council, the resolution was vetoed by 67 votes to 29.
Social historian V. Geetha however locates the movement within the larger context of cultural signifiers emerging between 1910 and 1920.
She says, “The visual culture of that time articulated an impulse to challenge imperialism and simultaneously imagine a nationalist alternative. Bharatiyar’s cartoons popularised in the Indian press, or Ravi Verma’s prints of the time exemplify this.”
It was only after an entire decade that the statue was ‘banished’ from Mount Road to the museum at Egmore in 1937.
Once a symbol of colonial might, it now stands displayed as benign memorabilia, belying an insolent past.
It was in 1927 that the first attempt was made by two Congress workers to bring down the statue