We are failing in performing a vital duty by not cherishing the valued contribution of Kakkan, a leader who has steered Dalit led empowerment in Tamil Nadu and India.

Remembering Kakkan Tamil Nadu needs more decisive people centric leadersImage- Indiapost.gov.in
news Opinion Monday, June 18, 2018 - 15:06

“One hundred years later, the N**** still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the N**** is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the N**** lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the N**** is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself in exile in his own land.”

These strong words spoken by Martin Luther King Jr. on August 28, 1963 are not just restricted to USA, but if one were juxtapose it to the scenario of Dalits in India, the meaning of his life’s mission will deeply resonate here, too.

June 18 marks the 109th birth anniversary of late P Kakkan, one of Tamil Nadu’s formidable leaders and Indian freedom fighters. King referred to the term ‘languish’, and today in India, Kakkan’s rich legacy and history is sadly left languishing from the hearts of the people.

“Sometime around 1978, MG Ramachandran (MGR) saw a woman among the morning crowd, got out of his car, went up to her and inquired about her husband. Invited her to eat and said that a car would take her home. She was former Congress minister Kakkan’s wife. Kakkan could not pay the Rs 170 rent and faced eviction from his government accommodation. Asking for a day’s time, his wife had approached MGR who settled all rental dues from his personal funds. The next day, a government order announced free housing to Kakkan, and granted a monthly stipend of Rs 500. MGR ensured that this continued to his family even after his death. To this incident, Tamil poet Kannadasan said, ‘Any party man would have to praise MGR for helping a martyr like Kakkan.’”

Above are excerpts from the book, MGR: A Life, written by R Kannan. These excerpts are pertinent to note because after Rajaji and Kamaraj, there is no one is Tamil Nadu’s cross political spectrum who has commanded the respect that Kakkan did. If one were to ask any observer of Tamil Nadu’s political landscape about Kakkan, ‘simple’, ‘straightforward’, ‘honest’, ‘non-controversial’ are the words that will intermittently be used to describe this noble son of India.

I was watching an interesting recorded TV debate recently on YouTube in which a Dalit youth brilliantly articulated the need to remember the various facets of Babasaheb Ambedkar, as he felt that the subaltern hero did not figure in the imagination of gen next in Tamil Nadu. I paused and pondered, wondering how and where personalities like Kakkan would figure if Ambedkar had not reached out to the masses, of his time and of today.

In a lot of ways, there is a sense of guilt because after seven decades of political independence, we are failing in performing a vital duty by not cherishing the valued contribution of Kakkan, a leader who has steered Dalit led empowerment in Tamil Nadu and India. Gen next barely even knows about him.

Amongst all, the influence of two people on Kakkan can never be relegated or ignored. One was Mahatma Gandhi and the other was his father, also named Kakkan. Kakkan junior was born in a Dalit family on June 18, 1908 at Thumpaipatti, near Madurai.  

He was introduced to Mahatma Gandhi during one of Gandhi’s visits to Madurai. Kakkan accompanied Gandhi during his travels and drew immense inspiration from Gandhi’s ideals. As a result, he entered the Indian Freedom Movement and actively participated in the Quit India Movement.

Kakkan senior was a temple priest. Had he wanted, he could have held his son back to be content in and around his native village, but he realised his son was born to serve the people of Tamil Nadu. He dreamed of enabling the downtrodden, his Dalit brethren, and steering them away from poverty. He understood his son’s passion for education and ensured that Kakkan junior was armed with it until he went on to pursue other activities as part of his public life. Kakkan junior ensured that his own children got educated in government schools as well.

Kakkan was a member of the Indian Constituent Assembly and distinguished himself as a shrewd and capable minister under Kamaraj by handling several portfolios like Home, Schedule Caste, Schedule Tribe, Agriculture, and Public Works departments. In fact, there are also media reports that when Martin Luther King Jr visited India during 1960, Kakkan was part of the reception committee headed by K Kamaraj, which welcomed the Civil Rights Movement leader.

Another striking quality was that Kakkan epitomised being charitable. If MGR donated the large amount of Rs 75,000 towards the victims of the 1962 Indo-China war, leaders like Kakkan were not far behind. He asked his own family members to do their bit. In fact his younger brother, P Vadivelu, in an interview recalled an incident from Kakkan’s life. "When Kamaraj was collecting funds for the 1962 Sino-India War, Kakkan took me to the podium and asked me to donate my gold chain."

Even today Kakkan’s family members proudly state that he never used his political clout for his personal gain or for the benefit of family members, ever. In fact, a question on Quora, ‘Who are all the honest politicians of Tamil Nadu we must know?’ brings up the answer with P Kakkan topping the list. Kakkan led an austere life even after politics. He did not request for any special favours or requests when he was admitted to a government hospital in Madurai. Even then, when MGR visited, he refused to take any help. Kakkan’s second son, P Pakkyanathan’s wife, Sarojini Devi, says, “MGR ensured that Kakkan went to rest and slipped in Rs 2,000 underneath his pillow for immediate expenses back then.”

Due to Kakkan’s relentless efforts to empower the Dalit community, Madurai - his home district - did not leave any stone unturned in making a place in history with the legendary Meenakshi temple entry movement in 1939.  “I could not believe it. It seemed too good to be true, a miracle had happened.” This is how C Rajagopalachari, the then Chief Minister of Madras Presidency, reacted to the news of a group of Dalits entering the Meenakshi temple in Madurai on July 8, 1939. This temple entry movement for Dalits was led by Kakkan and the Harijan Sevak Sangh, which was part of the Indian National Congress.

Even Mahatma Gandhi hailed this effort as nothing less than stupendous. In his words, “The opening of the State temples of Travancore was no doubt a great step but it was the prerogative of the Maharaja. But the opening of the celebrated temple of Madurai is a greater event in that it is the popular will that has brought out this consummation.”

In spite of tremendous opposition from all quarters, Kakkan made the unthinkable happen back then. It is a matter of tremendous disappointment that even after such efforts, in villages we continue to see Dalits being denied entry into temples. If we as a nation are to serve and take forward the rich legacy of a stalwart like Kakkan, then we must ensure that Dalits win this battle for dignity.

If not for petty intra party politics in the Indian National Congress, Tamil Nadu could have definitely had Kakkan as the state’s first Dalit Chief Minister soon after Kamaraj’s resignation.

Today, Tamil Nadu needs many more leaders like Kakkan; leaders who will be decisive, people-centric, informed and who will look into critical aspects such as how environment and industrial development can go hand in hand. Tamil Nadu needs leaders who will keep governance and the interest of Tamil Nadu as a priority and commitment, not as a pass time or a hobby and definitely not as a second priority.

Tamil Nadu today needs a Kakkan 2.0 to wipe clean the mistakes of the past and to pave way for a great future for the state and country.

(The writer is a Senior Research Fellow, India Foundation and Member, Tamil Nadu Young Thinkers Forum. Views expressed are the author’s own.)

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