Manjeri Rama Iyer – A Social worker and freedom fighter
And how Annie hall road got its nameAnnie hall road – why was it called so? During my College days, Balan’s book lending library used to be situated on that road. My friend Venu used to go there often, me not so often, but I used to borrow books from Venu and read them at College. Most would have thought it was a name given to the road by the British and some of the older folk would have connected to Annie Besant. As I spent a while thinking about that memory flash from the past, I decided to delve deeper and check up on Annie Besant’s stay in Calicut. That was how I got sidetracked into studying Manjeri Rama Iyer, yet another doyen of yesteryears who was widely ignored in the annals of history barring a few mentions, mainly because he supported and promoted the aspirations of lower castes of Malabar. In fact there is not even a biography written about him to date while lesser mortals have voluminous books written detailing their smaller claims to fame. And then again, I also recalled my earlier promise to cover this illustrious person soon, so got on to the task in right earnest.
To meet him, you would have to go to the Calicut of the 1900-1950 time frame. I tried to recreate the feel and flavor for the place in my mind, from mentions my father and various relatives made, by reading sections of a poignant autobiography by an interesting soul named AR Subramaniam and from recalling Pottekat’s books. As they say in Hindi – who bhi ek zamana tha, or as shall we say, athum oru kalam ayirunnu. And as you will find, Ramaier was not just a freedom fighter fighting for Indian freedom from the British, but was above all one who helped large masses of people in Malabar and Kerala obtain freedom from the many social evils of that time.Yes, in the 50’s, Crown Theater existed but was owned by Cherukandan Maistry who also owned a hospital on Annie Hall road. That was the time when rikshawas and jutkas plied the various streets and Kallai road which was broader and busier intersecting Annie hall road had shops and vegetarian hotels which many remember, punctuated by the strident horns of a rare car that passed by or the tinkle of a cycle bell pedaled by an industrious peddler. Sometimes you could see a koya with his striped lungi pass by dragging his filaria afflicted leg or an Ithatha with her head demurely covered, quickly flitting by with her wares. Nair’s with dhothis and an ever present towel over their shoulders, clerks with shirts on, and Menon’s with a turban could also be seen often. It was just another day in that town which once upon a time was the cynosure of the medieval world’s eyes, the capital of the spice industry and a bustling entrepot. After the multitude of wars which decimated its treasuries and hastened the decline of the Zamorin’s the town was just a sleepy and muggy place, where the British could no longer be seen, barring an odd sayip like Bolland or Thorne or Evans. Imagine, this was where it all started, the colonial sagas of the Portuguese and the English.
But in the 20’s, life was changing and people led by the leaders in the North were clamoring for home rule and self-governance. Local leaders were being talked about and one of them lived in the very location we are at, the Annie hall road. Days passed to months and years, they all fought their wars and private and personal demons, they all strived for change and in 1947 India finally became independent.Fast forward to the 1950’s - Houses on Annie Hall road were mostly built on a higher elevation from the street, and if one were to look down, you will see what ARS Iyer saw and wrote about. He says ‘Annie Hall Road where our home Janaki Vilas stood was also home to a famous son of Calicut and his residence was less than 100 yards from our home. He was Manjeri Rama Iyer, lawyer, social worker and founder of the Theosophical Society in Calicut…… I have often watched the venerable old man walking on the Road clad in the skimpiest of clothes past our home picking up or pushing with his walking stick garbage on the road, a routine gesture of keeping the environment clean.’
Many of the landmarks of today existed, like the SM street, Radha theatre and Parsi temple, and people as we see even today, hung around at the Mananchira maidanam. What we miss are the news hawkers that Pottekat used to write about, the man shouting at the top of his voice that day’s important news - the one who was selling the Mathrubhoomi – those days the daily evening newspaper. The Anjaneya Vilas Brahmins and Modern Hindu Hotel are gone, but the public library existed in the corner and still does. Hawkers were selling and yelling about all kinds of things and well, like in London’s Hyde park, there were people also exhorting about religion and politics in that very corner where Pottekat’s statue now stands serenely looking on into the street which he so beautifully described in Oru theruvinte katha. That was also the time (this was earlier - Pre-40's) when there was no electricity distribution and one left the locale before it became too dark. There were lamp posts with kerosene lamps, and the fascinating chapter by ARS Iyer explains – “In those days the lanes and bye lanes were not lit well after dark and we normally make it home before it gets too dark. The lanes which we normally take as short cuts to reach home were dotted with lamp posts with only kerosene lamps encased in a glass container as electric street lights were a rarity in those days. A municipal worker carrying a tin of kerosene, a few wicks and a cleaning cloth and a ladder on his shoulders would stop at each of these posts to fill in kerosene in the lamps, change the wick if necessary and wipe clean the glass case of the lamp. He would lit the lamp by sun set every evening which would burn throughout the night giving light to people to walk safely. I have often watched these men at work fascinated by the clockwork regularity with which they provide the lights to the common man.”You may wonder why I mention these things instead of talking about the person we set about to rediscover, Mr Manjeri Ramaier (that was how he spelled his name, not Rama Iyer). We will, worry not - but you see, to experience something properly, you have to be mentally there, you have to understand the ‘mahol’ and if it is Calicut - my dear little city, well I will use some extra literary license in describing it at least for my sake, if not for the uninterested. So now that was done, and also assuming that you have tried to follow the accounts of the Moplah revolt, the 1921 rebellions etc. which I talked about at length in ‘Historic alleys’, I will get to the topic, which is all I could gather about the erudite Manjeri Ramaier, lawyer, social worker and politician of Malabar. Much more than all that, he was simply a nice man, one I would have loved to know and meet.
He was born on July the 5th 1877 to Sundaram Iyer and Lakshmi Ammal, passed his matriculation and FA with distinction from Manjeri and went on to do his BA in Madras Christian College, passing in 1896 and later, his Bachelors in Law in 1898. So we see him as the century turned, back at Calicut, making a decent living as a well-known criminal advocate in Calicut living at Annie Hall road.Manjeri Subin SundarRaj, his great grandson explains - It was from Kallingal Madathil Rarichan Moopan, an affluent landowner and chieftain of Kozhikode that Manjeri Rama Iyer bought the land where Annie Hall, the home that later became Besant Ashram and till recently the State Committee Office of Mujahid Centre is situated. The Kallingal Madathil family’s Kallingal Bhagavathi Temple, which later attained fame through K.N. Ramadas Vydiar and nalluveedu paramba which lay opposite and where Manjeri Rama Iyer’s house was situated, were all owned by Rarichan Moopan. There was a special room for Dr. Annie Besant atop Manjeri Rama Iyer’s house. Bishop C.W. Leadbeater, close friend, associate and member of the Theosophical Society too had stayed at Besant Ashram. It was during their stay at Besant Ashram that Dr. Annie Besant and Leadbeater authored the book ‘Invisible Helpers’.
|M Rama Iyer|
One thing the reader should understand that those early decades of the 20th century were not like today. There was no equality, the caste rigors were stringent and the Moplah unrest at its nadir. There was less amity and more enmity in Calicut, and Calicut in the past was always famed for its amity between cultures. In these depressing times, the principles of Theosophy started by Mme Blavatsky, the Russian émigré and propounded by Anne Besant from Madras were influencing the educated masses enmasse. While VK Krishna Menon embraced it at Tellichery and headed off to Madras leaving Malabar for good, people like Manjeri Ramaier and many other Malabar nationalists who were part of the Malabar Congress committee, took it up seriously. C Sankaran Nair, G Parameswaran Pillai and Dr TM Nair were also among those who took up the cudgels in addition to congress political activities and rose against the Brahmin and upper caste issues plaguing Malabar then. Exhorting people to think rationally and propounding Vivekannada’s teachings, Rama Iyer took on Buddhism and became a theosophist. In his efforts since 1911, he was joined by an equally famous character named Mithavadi C Krishnan. They started a struggle against child marriage, untouchability and many other social evils present then and even created the league of liberal Brahmins or the Bharat Samaj. But well, for eating and living with untouchables, he was soon out-casted from his community.
At Calicut, the Tilak brand of home rule did not find favor and after 1915, Rama Iyer was the fiercest proponent for the Besantine Home rule league. He championed it vigorously spearheading the local chapter of the 27,000 members working for fruition of Besant’s vision. Perhaps he too stood at the Town hall or Mananchira corners exhorting people to support self-rule. Ramaaier soon became the President of the Home rule league in Malabar while KP Keshava Menon its Secretary. Not only were self-rule aspects discussed, but also other issues such as sanitation, elementary education for all etc.
In the meantime, we see that Ramaier had adopted Buddhism and renamed himself Angarika Raman. His friend Mithavadi Krishnan vakeel did likewise by converting to Buddhism. Opposite the Connolly Park, there existed a well-stocked library and a Budha vihara with a Buddha statue brought from Ceylon by CC brothers. A couple of Bodhi trees and the Vihara were the handiwork of Ramaier and Krishnan vakeel (see the picture of the tree – courtesy Hindu May 26th, 2013). Govinda Menon, Ayyathan Gopalan, Appu Nedungadi (Kundalatha author and Nedungadi bank founder), Manorama Kunhikrishna Menon etc were all his friends or ‘team’ as we say in Calicut. Their next action was the well-publicized Tali temple entry. But first some background.The biggest issue in those days was getting people to unite in the midst of caste inequalities. Then again, the nationalist movement in Malabar during the Pre-Gandhian era was led and maintained as an upper caste organization. The Tiyyas stayed away and something had to be done to break the impasse. The Tiyya reasoning was that the British had actually helped them obtain a better standing in society, so they did not want to go against them (as explained by Murkoth Kumaran- Ente jeevithakatha) and secondly they feared that upper caste dominated Congress might revive caste-ism if they won. The Tiyyas formed a 'Passive Resistance League' and decided to launch agitations against the social separatism promoted by the higher castes and demanded representation for Tiyyas in the elected bodies. This was also the period when certain roads and temples were closed for such polluting castes, and one of them was the road leading to the Tali temple. Another problem was education and so another demand was to open Zamorin’s college to all castes.
The Annie hall group however, in the true spirit of a theosophist participated in many activities designed to highlight such problems and bring warring factions together. They travelled in the company of polluting castes; attended their marriage ceremonies and convened ‘Mishrabhojanam’ of mass lunches at Annie hall. And thus we get into the Tali agitation incident.
|C Krishnan Vakeel|
Manjeri Ramayyar did not waste any time in breaching this law and so he and his Tiyya friend C.Krishnan travelled along the Tali road in a horse cart on the same day when the board appeared. After the act, he wrote a letter to Thorne, “…since your notice limits the rights of a major section of the subjects of His Majesty the Emperor, we have immediately utilized our right by walking along the Padinjare Samooham Road (Western Samooham Road), one among which has been mentioned in your notice. We would be thankful to you if you take immediate action in this case of violation of law.” Neither the Zamorin nor Thorne reacted strongly, they thanked Iyer for his letter and the matter was judiciously dropped while the Tiyyas celebrated their success, but the act did not result in any great change other than bringing larger awareness.In between all this came up the issue with the Gibraltar confinement. At a meeting in Madurai during February 1918, George Joseph commented that for achieving Home Rule, people should agitate within India and recommended that representatives be sent to England to demand self-government for India. George Joseph was one of the three members of the first batch of Home Rule Deputation. B.V. Narasimha Iyer and Manjeri Rama Iyer were the other members accompanying George Joseph to London. This deputation set out for England in two batches on 10th March and 18th March 1918. Before reaching London, they had a halt at Gibraltar. At Gibralter, their passports were seized and cancelled by the British, so they had to turn back to India. Syud Hossain whom we talked about earlier was also a member of this unfortunate group.
The next case again involved Manjeri Ramaier and Dr K.V Choi, a Thiyya, who walked along the temple tank near Chalappuram in 1919. The temple authorities filed a criminal case against Choi in the Sub magistrate’s court, Calicut. The New India of 22nd February 1919 reported it as a sensational case of pollution and this was the first case of its kind in Malabar. C Krishnan recommended that Choi request his close friend Manjeri Ramaier’s help and Iyer defended Dr.Choi to win the case.As we head towards the 20’s, we can see that a split was starting to come about those who supported the Montagu Chelmsford political reforms and those who did not. The former, the Besant-ites which included Ramaier were for home rule and the latter the Gandhiites were for full independence. The cracks were evident in 1919 when Besant was rebuffed in a meeting at Manjeri in spite of strident speeches by Ramaier and support from the Nilambur Raja. KPS Menon, Rangaswamy Iyengar and Raman Menon supported the Congress independence moves and a miffed Annie Besant walked out. Soon after, the Khilafat movement started and it was finally time for Ramaier to slowly leave the scene, which he reluctantly did, but all the while remaining a theosophist.
The situation became ominous by the 1920’s. This was when the Malabar Moplah riots destroyed the calm in the region and set many self-rule actions back. The British blamed the congress and the ‘fanatical Moplah’, while the affected general public laid all blame squarely on the Moplahs. Manjeri Ramaier reacted strongly by stating that the sword that was used to cut human throats in Eranad was to be in fact directed against Mahatma Gandhi and Khilafat leader Shaukath Ali. Iyer was not just a supporter of the Hindu downtrodden, but also the affected Moplah. The Mappila Muslims, were subjected to extreme tortures under the British military expansions to Malabar in the early 1900’s. Manjeri Ramaier is quoted to have said as follows, “There were no provisions to win bail for a detained Mappila Muslim. No recommendations worked out in favour of him. None among the witnesses dared to give statements in favour of a Mappila Muslim, while they were trialed under riot charges by the British. When somebody came up to give statements in favour of the Mappila Muslim detained under trial, he too was made a culprit under similar charges. Once the Mappila Muslim gets detained under riot charges, he was obliged to prove his innocence on his own rather than the one’s making accusations proving him guilty”.
|The Bodhi Tree|
Manjeri Ramaier then took up the initiative in promoting Khadi and the boycott of foreign clothes. On 9 November 1929 The Kerala Yuvak Sangh was organized at Calicut with Manjeri Rama Iyer as president. The sangh was to carry on active propaganda for donning Khadi, prohibition of liquor and starting again the traditional Kalari system. As expected, this organization was declared unlawful through a notification in the Fort St George Gazette in 1932.Meanwhile, Ramaier continued on with his work to spread Besant’s ideology. The Mangalore theosophical society owes its success to Margaret Cousins and Manjeri Ramaier. But by 1930 Ramaier formally left Congress and in the Payyanur conference even opposed Nehru’s resolution of Purnaswaraj.
Returning back to Annie hall road and the fourth decade (I must apologize for not spending more words on Annie Besant and Leadbeater’s work in Malabar, which I promise to make good in a forthcoming article) Iyer took to journalism and law, having left politics. As Manjeri Subin Sundar Raj, his great grandson explains - Sir C.P. Ramaswami was brought to Kozhikode by Rama Iyer and at Besant Ashram he was entrusted with the vakalath to defend Annie Besant upon allegations propagated by renowned philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurthi’s father, that her people had kidnapped Jiddu’s brother Nityananda. It was the result of admiration and a sense of innate closeness with Dr. Besant that made Manjeri Rama Iyer named his house ‘Besant Ashram’ and the adjoining lodge ‘Annie Hall’. The Municipality widened the existing narrow lane and it was rechristened ‘Annie Hall Road’. He continues - At a point in history when inequality and abhorrent customs were rampant, Besant Ashram was the platform where strong voices were raised, revolutionary ideas were born and radical actions were taken against such oppression.I still recall going to the Sreekandeswaram temple grounds to listen to an S Janaki concert and later another where my wife had sung. At that time, I did not know that this was the handiwork of stalwarts like Ramaier who wanted a temple for everybody, to be built in Calicut (Sree Narayana Guru had, I believe, come for the consecration event).
Manjeri Rama Iyer who was ostracized by his own community for his affinity towards the downtrodden and the lower castes, never looked back. He held the position of Diwan for the Nilambur raja after leaving congress and in 1937 for a while after which he became an ascetic. He sporadically continued with journalism, writing and editing for West coast spectator and Santhana Dharma and with Manjeri Ramakrishna Iyer (Secretary -Buddhist theosophical league) wrote the first guide book on Buddhism called Buddhadharmam. He continued with his social work until he died in 1958, aged 81.His children, especially his daughter Kamalamma (Kamalambal) followed in his footsteps, working with Annie Besant (not to forget, Iyer’s wife was also very much involved in uplifting women’s inequality matters). She was the first president of the Malabar branch of the Women Indian Association. She passed away, just 9 years after her father. She merits an article on her times and interestingly, I started my own life in Calicut attending kindergarten in her personally managed school, the Balavrindavan, at Chalappuram. And look at it - here I am sitting and wondering how small this word is, as I see how our mundane lives crisscross at some point or other!
An example of his oratory and conviction can be seen in this simple utterance - Ramaier’s precondition for Home Rule was to break the shackles which bound us. He said in the 1917 Calcutta annual convention - "This resolution calls for social freedom by which we shall shatter the shackles that bind the lower classes. They are the foot of tile nation and if you and I would climb the hill of Home Rule, we must first shatter the shackles on our feet and then and then only will Home Rule come to us. You cannot be political democrats and at the same time social autocrats. Remember that a man, a social slave, cannot be politically a free man. We all have come here to see the vision of United India, not only politically united but united all along the line. Therefore, let those of us, who are Brahmins, who belong to the higher castes, go to our villages and shatter the shackles of the low castes, people who are struggling against our own men, the social Bureaucrats of our own land."Sadly, people like Rama Iyer cannot be found anymore, perhaps our creator Brahma is on an extended vacation…………………
ReferencesManjeri Rama Iyer and Home Rule Agitation in Malabar - TP Sankarankutty Nair
Manorama Article – translation by Manjeri Subin Sundar Raj
ARS Iyers autobiography
Social and religious transformation of Kerala with special reference to Brahmananda Sivayogi – VN Sujaya
George Joseph and the national struggle for freedom – R Renjini
The Quest for Social Justice: Malabar, 1882-1947 – PM Ismael
Women In public Life in Malabar- 1900-1957 – V Vasanthi
Print and public sphere in Malabar: a study of early newspapers (1847-1930) - Stella Joseph
Neo Buddhism in Kerala: The Legacy of Mithavadi C Krishnan
I apologize for the length of this article, for it far exceeds the attention span of a lay blog reader. My hope is that this will interest somebody someday.
Pics – Ramaier (KFCS Souvenir 2013), Bodhi maram (Hindu), M Kumaran (wiki),