Thillaiyadi Valliammai, a South African Tamil girl who staunchly opposed apartheid

Born on February 22, 1898 in Johannesburg to a Tamil immigrant couple, Valliammai was just 16 when she protested against a judgment that declared all Indian wedding ceremonies invalid. She was jailed. The harsh conditions at the prison took their toll on Valliammai’s health. She died a few days after her release in February 1914

March 08, 2024 12:52 am | Updated 12:57 pm IST

A view of the memorial that was constructed for Valliammai in her village Thillaiyadi, now in Mayiladuthurai district.

A view of the memorial that was constructed for Valliammai in her village Thillaiyadi, now in Mayiladuthurai district. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

On a bright day in 1971, Tamil Nadu Education Minister V.R. Nedunchezhian was addressing a gathering at Mayiladuthurai. He said the people of a village, named Thillaiyadi, had carved a niche for themselves in the nation. Much of the credit for this would go to one South African Tamil teenager, with roots in the village, who embraced Gandhian philosophy and took on the apartheid system there. Born on February 22, 1898, in Johannesburg to Tamil immigrants Mangalam and Munuswamy, Valliammai Munuswamy Mudaliar, as late writer and journalist S. Muthiah documents in a report for The Hindu, was the 16-year-old girl who had protested against a judgment that declared all Indian weddings invalid.

“She was introduced to political activism by Mahatma Gandhi when the colonial South Africa invalidated all marriages conducted outside South African or church law, leading to the annulment of thousands of marriages. Valliammai, accompanied by her mother [and many other women protesters from Gandhi’s Tolstoy Farm], marched from Transvaal to Natal, defying regulations to prevent unauthorised crossings, to protest against the unjust [practices] in 1913. Valliammai, along with Gandhi’s wife Kasturba, was arrested,” says Professor S.S. Sundaram, Head, Department of Indian History, University of Madras.

A true ‘satyagrahi’

The roots of Valliammai’s Gandhian activism can be traced to her days in Johannesburg where she witnessed the Indian community’s resistance to rampant racism. Penned by Suzanne Franco, the teenager’s biography, Soul Force: Valliamma Found Herself No Longer a Child, Not Yet a Woman, But an Activist, charts her life from her first meeting with the Mahatma to her arrest, a harsh period of incarceration, and her death.

Based on an extensive research of Valliammai’s life, her period of incarceration, and interviews with her distant relatives, Ms. Suzanne Franco documents how the teenager grasped the idea of ‘Satyagraha’ — that Gandhi called ‘truth force’ — at an early age. “This symbolic spring day, the eleventh of September 1906, signalled the commencement of a peaceful protest, a campaign that Mohandas Gandhi named Satyagraha... At a young age, I was part of this unknown, untried, passive resistance, which was to become our greatest collective and personal struggle...,” reads an excerpt from the book, which points to the first spark of activism in Valliammai. The feeling intensifies after her acquaintance with fellow satyagrahis at the Tolstoy Farm. After she and her mother are assaulted by a few white boys, she resolves to take up full-fledged passive resistance. Subsequently, after jurist Malcolm William Searle’s judgment on Indian marriages, she and other women activists, in October 1913, tried to court arrest by entering Vereeniging, an area dominated by the white population, but in vain. The consensus was that the law “shamelessly sought to annul all Indian marriages” and make the “loving mothers nothing more than concubines...”

When their attempts turned futile, along with her “satyagrahi sisters”, she marched towards Natal to cross the border without permit, to passively showcase her resistance to the law. She was arrested and lodged at the Pietermaritzburg jail. “The success of passive resistance itself lies in arrest. Gandhi saw arrests as a victory. Imagine them [the protesters] travelling for days from Transvaal, and then in the end, there is no arrest. There would be no closure for the demonstration then...,” says Chithra Balasubramanian, a Gandhian researcher. Owing to the harsh conditions at the prison, Valliammai’s health deteriorated. A few days after her release, following Gandhi’s talks with General Smuts, she passed away in February 1914.

A deep admiration

Gandhi had deep admiration and respect for Valliammai. In a 2011 report in The Hindu, Muthiah narrates how one of the first places that Gandhi visited on his tour of south India in 1915 was Tranquebar (Tharangambadi) and Thillaiyadi (now in Mayiladuthurai district). “When he arrived on April 30, 1915, among the crowd, waiting for his arrival from Mayavaram, were over a hundred persons who had participated in the South African Satyagraha. But one whose face he missed there was a person who would never return...,” the report reads.

In fact, in another report, the historian recalls how Gandhi, in his letters, had said how Valliammai’s loss would affect him more than that of his elder brother Lakshmidass. In a volume of collected works on Gandhi, there is another instance of his deep admiration for Valliammai. “We mourn the loss of a noble daughter of India who did her simple duty without question that will, we are sure, not be lost upon the Indian community...,” recalls Professor Sundaram.

“She was young at the time of protest, and was among the first women participants in the Satyagraha march in Africa. She fought for the independence of Indians [in South Africa], despite not having visited her motherland even once. That would have impressed Gandhi...,” says D. Anuradha, Head, Department of History, Loyola College, Chennai.

Mr. Sundaram recalls Gandhi visiting an ailing Valliammai, shortly after her release from prison, when she pledged to be arrested any number of times to continue the fight for people’s rights. “Gandhi, inspired by her resolve, cited Valliammai as a source of motivation to persist in the struggle for equality in South Africa,” he says.

“One thing that is certain is that her name has become very prominent,” adds Ms. Anuradha. Besides a memorial built at her village, a locality and a school have been named after her in the State. Muthiah narrates how he was reminded of the 16-year-old girl, after coming across a Co-optex showroom, on Pantheon Road in Chennai, that was named after her too.

“Valliamma had the courage and strength to speak up and stand strong for justice. To be bold, be herself, and be heard, even at the young age of 16; [I feel] every girl or woman too can find their voice and be true to themselves. This is one thing that the women of today can learn from Valliamma...” Ms. Suzanne Franco told The Hindu.

A taunt from hospital worker

A noteworthy part of Valliammai’s story is that of her sari, and its connection to the Tricolour. “There are reported references of Valliammai ripping off a part of her sari, which had shades of saffron, white, and green, enraged by a conversation about Indians not even having a flag to represent themselves,” says Ms. Anuradha.

Ms. Suzanne Franco’s book also records such an incident. “The three treasured colours that covered my skin — white, orange, and green — left an imprint in my mind of our freedom. I grabbed my frayed saffron sari and waved it above my head triumphantly. Here is our flag, I yelled at the flabbergasted man.” This was how Valliammai responded to a taunt from a hospital worker during her incarceration.

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