Under the banyan tree

Many morning walkers strolling past the grand old banyan tree in the wooded Theosophical Society in Adyar may not know that the great political movement that changed the course of India’s history was born under its shade. Alan Octavian Hume, a former British Civil Servant but remembered in history as the founder of Indian National Congress, was a staunch Theosophist. In 1885, during a discussion with his friends from Mylapore, under the banyan tree, he mooted the idea of Congress.

Thirty years later, the same banyan tree was witness to the birth pangs of another political movement, Home Rule. Dr Annie Besant, described bitterly by her rivals as a “woman of deep penetration, quick conception and easy delivery” held consultations with her colleagues, under the tree, for a movement that would make “India to be a sovereign nation within her own boundaries owing only allegiance to the imperial crown.”

New generation Congressmen may not remember, but history acknowledges that it was Dr Besant who played a pivotal role in reunifying the Moderate and the Extremist factions of the then Congress, which had split at the Surat session. Madras was the venue of this reconciliation.

Dr Besant”s political manoeuvres sowed the seeds for another movement, the Justice Party , on the other side of the Adyar river. Prof Eugene F Irsschick of University of California at Berkeley (who was born in Tamil Nadu and had his early education here) observes, the catalyst which triggered the formation of the Justice Party was the foundation by Annie Besant of the home rule movement.

Justice Party, the mother of all later day Dravidian movements, had its genesis in Madras Dravidian Association founded by Dr C Natesa Mudaliar of Triplicane. A significant task of the association was the running of the hostel for non-Brahmin students at Akbar Sahib Street in Triplicane. This was a long-felt need at the time, as students who moved from districts to pursue higher studies in the city colleges were not served food at Brahmin hotels.

Congress and Dravidian movements have moulded the mindset of millions of Tamils over many decades. But what is not said often is the role played by the Dravidian movements in steering the destiny of the nation. Dravidian political leaders, dismissed off as regional chieftains by the national newspapers, were able to foresee much ahead of others the course of national politics. They predicted the end of confrontational politics and the beginning of the era of multi-party coalitions as early as in 1980, when DMK and Congress, the arch rivals, forged an alliance to face the Parliament elections.

Chennai has been regarded as a cultural capital by many for many years. Although not widely acknowledged, it has also been the hub of many political movements and activities.

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