In this excerpt from ‘Karunanidhi: A Life’, AS Panneerselvan writes about how Karunanidhi planned, executed and was subsequently arrested for the 1953 agitation.

A young Karunanidhi and a group of DMK cadre stand before the Dalmiapuram railway station signboard during the Kallakudi agitationAnna Arivalayam Library
news Book Excerpt Tuesday, March 23, 2021 - 11:39

The DMK decided to launch a three-pronged agitation against Rajaji’s government: 1) to oppose Rajaji’s ‘kulakkalvi thittam’ and force the government to withdraw the plan; 2) to condemn Nehru’s arrogant description of agitating Tamils as a ‘nonsense lot’; and 3) to rename the Dalmiapuram railway station as Kallakudi, since Ram Krishna Dalmia represented the north Indian hegemonic and exploitative business interests. Anna assigned the task of leading the Kallakudi agitation to Karunanidhi, which became yet another turning point in Karunanidhi’s political life. Recognizing the importance of this agitation, Karunanidhi has devoted nearly eighty pages of his autobiography to detailing how the agitation was planned, executed, his subsequent arrest and the days in jail that helped him work on prison reforms much later when he became the chief minister of the state.

Drawing from his earlier experiences in Tiruchirappalli and Thanjavur, Karunanidhi decided to reach the area at least a month before for mass mobilization. He decided to use Tiruchirappalli as his base for the agitation. On 15 June 1953, the party launched its official organ Nam Naadu (Our Country) and the preparations for the removal of the name Dalmiapuram too began in right earnest at a village called Manalmedu, located along the Tiruchirappalli-Salem highway. Karunanidhi explained the rationale for the struggle and its political import; the meeting that started around six in the evening went well beyond midnight. People from neighbouring villages started coming in, and the explanatory meeting turned into a session of mutual learning. Removed and distanced at first from the controversy over a mere name, there was a distinct shift towards realizing its import and the necessity for the change. With the support of the district secretary of the party, Anbil Dharmalingam and other local stalwarts, a daily plan was charted out.

***

The deliberations ended, and Karunanidhi stepped out to announce that the committee had fixed 15 July for the agitation, if the government did not change the name by then, and that it would seek General Secretary Anna’s permission to go ahead with the plan immediately. Anna not only agreed on the day finalized by the agitation committee but also directed the other arms of the party to launch the three-pronged agitation on the same day by staging a rail roko. 

The state police swung into action. Anna, Nedunchezian, N.V. Natarajan and some other seniors were arrested on 13 July. Karunanidhi, mindful of the state and the way the police operate, kept a very low profile and reached Lalgudi on 14 July night for the penultimate meeting. The meeting was presided over by the legislator Palaniyandi, who was also the president of the Dalmia Labour Union. Kannadasan and Rama Subbiah also reached Lalgudi to join the agitation. It was decided that the agitation would run in batches: the first batch to be led by Karunanidhi, the second by Rama Subbiah and the third under the leadership of Kannadasan. Each batch would go in a procession towards the railway station, raising rehearsed slogans, and on reaching the station they would paste the poster saying ‘Kallakudi’ over Dalmiapuram on the name boards. They were also told that they may be arrested and prevented from pasting, and it was advised that more than two groups of volunteers should be carrying posters, so that if one was prevented the other should be able to paste it.

The plan worked well to a point. The procession led by Karunanidhi raised the slogans and reached the station, and they did not encounter any resistance to paste their posters. Apparently the police had changed their tack; they had reasoned that if they refrained from taking any action, the agitation would fizzle out. Karunanidhi instinctively sensed this and improvised. After plastering the ‘Kallakudi’ posters, further subdivided his batch into five groups, each comprising five members, and directed them to lie down on the track in front of the train. This move took the police by surprise.

The first group consisted of Karunanidhi, Sakthi, Kasturi Raj, Kumaravel and Kuzhandaivel. They went ahead and lay across the track close to the engine. The armed police immediately surrounded them. A posse of officials led by the district collector came to the track and asked them: ‘Why are you blocking the train?’

‘To express our message and realize our dreams,’ Karunanidhi replied.

‘But your action is causing disturbance to the passengers and the general public.’

‘Our sincere apologies if you think so. But please ask the general public here as well as the passengers inside the train. if they are convinced that there is no need to change the name of Dalmiapuram, we will leave this place at once.’

‘If you do not want the name Dalmiapuram, write to the higher authorities.’

‘We have exhausted all the available routes. How many letters? How many resolutions? But Delhi refuses to see anything. This is an attempt to draw their attention.’

‘Will this secure your demand?’

‘We don’t know whether Delhi would hear either of the two sounds that might emerge here: the screeching halt of the train or the noise of our bones being crushed. But we are sure this sound will reach the people and it will come back and sting Delhi like a thousand scorpions. That’s enough for us.’

The stalemate continued. The officials left the tracks and signalled the train to start. The huge crowd gathered to witness the agitation closed its eyes, and even those who were lying on the tracks, thoroughly determined, closed theirs. The train stopped after moving ahead for a couple of metres. The officials arrested all the five who were on the track. Immediately, the next group occupied the space and its members were promptly arrested too. This process was repeated thrice and all the twenty-five activists were packed into a police van and taken to the nearest police station. And the train left the station.

The police officer informed the activists that they were arresting only Karunanidhi and the four others in the first group and asked the rest of them to leave the station. It was time for the next train to come. The batch led by Rama Subbiah began their procession, and their slogans could be heard very clearly inside the police station. Those who were released earlier also joined Rama Subbiah’s team, and they repeated the earlier mode of struggle and were promptly arrested and brought to the station. Thirty-one of them were packed into the small room of the Kallakudi police station. Anbil Dharmalingam had organized lunch for all taken into police custody and while they were having their lunch, the last group led by Kannadasan started its procession.

Within minutes, a constable came running into the station and whispered something to the sub-inspector. It was clear that a firing order had been issued against the agitators. Anbil rushed out to assess the situation and those who were inside, stricken with anxiety, stopped eating and waited with trepidation to receive the bad news. Later it was confirmed that two people were killed in the firing, and Kannadasan was hurt in the action even before the firing began. Kannadasan was admitted to the nearest government hospital. Police action was severe not just in Kallakudi, but also across the state against the three-pronged agitation. Six people were killed; seventy-two suffered grievous injuries and more than 5000 cadres and leaders were arrested.

For the first time after India gained independence, jails in Madras state were filled to capacity with political prisoners. Karunanidhi and others were produced before a magistrate’s court prior to being remanded at the Ariyalur jail. Kalaignar refused to plead guilty. His contention was that it may be seen as a criminal act by the state, but it was an attempt to realize the genuine aspirations of the people, and hence he was not guilty of any crime. Refusing to accept Karunanidhi’s argument, the magistrate sentenced Karunanidhi and the four others in the first batch to six months’ imprisonment and three months for the rest. 

Excerpted with the permission of Penguin Random House from Karunanidhi: A Life by AS Panneerselvan

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