Towards the end of 1758 AD, the Seven Years’ War between European imperial powers was being fought across the world. The global war was being fought across five continents in several countries, and the two pack-leaders were the British and the French. The war, which started in 1756, eventually ended in 1763 with a series of land exchanges and compromises, but paved the way for the British to become imperial superpowers and diminished the role of France in the European balance of power.
British supremacy did not come easy, and it was a culmination of several smaller victories, including the "Annus Mirabilis of 1759" – their several major wins over the French. And an important part of the series of British victories was the Siege of Madras in 1758-59.
The Siege of Madras is well-documented in history books, and has been recounted in several articles (like this one in The Hindu) over the years. Long story short: Count Lally, the then Governor-General of Pondicherry, destroyed Fort St. David in Cuddalore and made his way to Madras to attack Fort St. George in December 1758. He entered Madras and ravaged through Black Town. The British army fought them hard in spite of being outnumbered, and called for reinforcements from Calcutta. Thanks to French complacence and British forces’ bravery, by the time reinforcements arrived from Calcutta, Fort St. George stood, and the French retreated on February 16, 1759. It was a tough battle, and every soldier mattered.
What is not well-known, however, is the valiant contribution of the Parayars of Madras to the British victory. The residents of what was then called by the British as Black Town, which the residents themselves called Periya Parachery, the Parayars – who are Dalits – were among the most populous communities in Madras at the time.
The Parayars of Madras were ‘menial servants’ of the British, but during the Siege of Madras, they assisted the army as soldiers, and died by the hundreds.
This is documented by TP Kamalanathan in ‘Scheduled Caste’s Struggle for Emancipation in South India’ published by ‘The South India Sakkya Buddhist Association’.
In his book, Kamalanathan refers to an application submitted by ‘Depressed Classes Community people’ to the Government of the East India Company in 1810. Signed by 44 Parayars, the application is to request the government to exempt them from a tax being forced on them in 1810. But the application also recounts how the Parayars served the British towards their victories.
The petitioners talk about how in 1758, the then Governor General of Madras Lord Pigot, with the help of his Dubash Ranjestri Moodookrishna Mudaliar, requested the help of 2000 Parayar men to help defend Madras from the fast-approaching French forces led by Count Lally. Several Parayar men died. The survivors were promised land in return for their valour, but the promise was never met. All they got instead was a piece of cloth every year as an appreciation for their favour. You can read the entire application here.
For Parayars, the participation of our forefathers in the momentous battle to save Madras, as we know it, is a part of our proud legacy. Even today, the politics of Tamil Nadu is controlled from Fort St. George, and some credit for it to have not been reduced to rubble like Fort St. David, goes to us Parayars.
Today, the Battle of Bhima Koregaon has grabbed national headlines, following the attack on Dalits by Hindutva forces. Although not similar in its social dynamics, the Siege of Madras also invokes a sense of pride in Parayars, just like Mahars feel proud of their forefathers for defeating the Peshwas. In Koregaon, the Mahars fought with the British to defeat the Peshwas, who were notorious for the oppression of the Mahars. At Madras, we fought with the British against the French, perhaps in the hope that it would make our economic and social conditions better.
It did not. And yet, the legacy of the battle is very important for us. The battle is an important milestone in the struggle of the Parayars for their emancipation.
Today, certain martial caste groups in Tamil Nadu, which characterise themselves, and them alone, as castes of valour and bravery, paint a picture of servitude on the Parayars. We are told that we have no history or legacy, and that we are only fit to serve. The Siege of Madras proves that we were more than just that.
It is unfortunate, and certainly an indication of the caste dynamic of mainstream history, that the Parayar participation in the Siege of Madras is not a part of the popular history of Madras. India’s first census in 1871 shows that Parayars were among the biggest communities in Madras at that time, and yet, our share in the history of Madras is negligible. Our community and its valiant legacy has been wiped clean by the dominant castes of society who held monopoly over knowledge. Reclaiming our history is itself a form of struggle.
The Parayar community is now planning to commemorate February 16 every year in memory of the brave soldiers who died to save Madras as we know it, in the hope that our community and our valour will be given our due share in the history of Madras.
Views and interpretations expressed here are those of the author and not of The News Minute.
D Ravikumar is the General Secretary of VCK, a writer and an anti-caste activist.