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Gazulu Lakshminarasu Chetty, who championed the cause of natives in Madras Presidency

INDGazulu Lakshminarasu Chetty, who championed the cause of natives in Madras Presidency

In 1869, at the Pachaiappa’s Hall in Madras, former Advocate-General John Bruce Norton spoke about a man instrumental in establishing the platform for native Indians in the Madras Presidency. Calling him a true patriot and his close friend, the barrister hailed his efforts at resolving the problems of the locals.

The man was Gazulu Lakshminarasu Chetty, a political activist and merchant, who perhaps was the first to speak up for native Indians. He was born in 1806 in the city in an affluent family. It was a time of political subjugation, religious discrimination, and exploitation under British rule.

“His early years were marked by a deep resentment towards the oppressive policies of the colonial administration. The spectre of religious conversion loomed large over Gazulu’s childhood as he witnessed friends and acquaintances succumb to the missionary zeal of the British evangelists,” Madras High Court advocate B. Jagannath says in his book The First Native Voice of Madras: Gazulu Lakshminarasu Chetty. The missionary activities surged in the early 19th Century, with the advocacy for the expansion of Christian missions to convert Hindus on the West Coast. Efforts were made to build churches in Hindu localities against the wishes of the locals and the government was apathetic towards the native customs and beliefs. Through the 1830s and 1840s, which Mr. Jagannath believes to have been the periods when Gazulu became politically active, protests and memoranda were organised to condemn such activities.

70,000 signatures

The book highlights several petitions, including those in which Hindus opposed the introduction of The Bible at public schools; appointment of ministers of religion at public education institutions, thus affecting religious neutrality; and employment of missionaries in the educational department. A pivotal moment came in 1839. Under the aegis of the Native Education Petition Movement and the Pachaiappa School Agitation, 70,000 signatures were mobilised to demand access to education for native Indians. “Most of these petitions were inspired or spearheaded by Gazulu. He devised the knack of doing a British upon the British, a way to defeat them at their own game [by adhering to the rule of law, petitioning to get demands addressed],” Mr. Jagannath told The Hindu.

He devised a method to communicate with the British; that made the difference, says Venkatesh Ramakrishnan, historian and novelist. “For instance, in the early 1800s, petitions were treated with punishment. But Gazulu found a way to solve the communication conundrum, ensuring that the native Indians were heard,” he says. The impetus to Gazulu’s activism was the Madras Crescent, which he started as a tri-weekly on October 2, 1844, on Armenian Street. The printing press was named ‘Hindu’.

The aim was to counter the one-sided narratives of missionaries and highlight the voice of the native Indians across the Presidency. Harley, a retired defence officer, was appointed its editor. The expressive style of Harley, a man of strong convictions, combined well with Lakshminarasu’s punch to boost the circulation. “Soon, the Crescent’s readership rose to 10,704, while the missionary paper, Christian Herald, was selling only 7,030 copies,” reads a report from The Hindu Archives.

Complicity exposed

Despite hurdles like reduced privileges and advertisements, it attracted contributions from leading intellectuals, including the Diwan of Travancore. Among its investigative pieces, “the newspaper exposed the complicity of colonial officials and district judges in promoting rampant Christian conversions and the government’s plans to appropriate surplus revenues from Hindu temples, and condemned the behaviour of missionaries. Then Chief Secretary Chamiers would turn to the Crescent to understand the mindset of the natives,” Mr. Jagannath writes in his book. Through the newspaper, Gazulu also addressed the debates on slavery in America.

Gazulu’s Madras Native Association (MNA), which was modelled on the British Native Association, advocated native welfare. “The foremost objective of the MNA was to present the main grievances and wants of South India, arising principally out of excess taxation,” reads a report from The Hindu Archives. The MNA and the Crescent played a prominent role in the aftermath of the Charter Act, 1853, which restricted the activities of British missionaries. In a way, it helped Indians protest and petition, attracting the solidarity of a few Englishmen. In 1853, British MP Henry Danby Seymour went on a three-week tour of the Presidency with Gazulu to gather first-hand evidence of the “widespread atrocities by the British”.

Torture Commission

After interventions and struggles, Seymour’s first-hand account was read out in the House of Commons. This paved the way for the formation of the Royal Madras Torture Commission to investigate cases of alleged torture during the extraction of excessive revenue by the British. “He [Gazulu] realised early that the East India Company was not the final court of appeals, as there was a British Parliament that could be petitioned directly. Thanks to his frequent letters and articles, the MPs came to know about native cultivators tortured by landlords if they failed to pay their rents and taxes,” wrote historian V. Sriram in The Hindu (2013).

Gazulu ensured that the Indians were heard in a different way. His efforts set the tone for events like Indians entering the Bar in the 1900s, says Mr. Venkatesh. “However, Gazulu was not anti-British and had no ideas of an independent India. He was a true patriot who bridged the gap between the ruler and the ruled.”

Gazulu was also known to be involved in the activities of Monegar Choultry, a “gruel” centre that fed the poor. He also played a pivotal role in healthcare initiatives for women and children and vulnerable sections, writes Mr. Jagannath.

Gazulu became a member of the Legislative Council in 1864 and was honoured by Her Majesty’s Government in 1866 for public service. He was honoured with the Companion of the Star of India in 1866. His MNA became the Maha Jana Sabha, the predecessor of the Indian National Congress, Mr. Jagannath says.

Besides, Gazulu had served as the Board member of the Madras Cotton Cleaning Company, and the Native Lying Inn Hospital. He had also published the Carnatic and Madras Telegraph Exchange Gazette Newspaper. He died on September 6, 1868, and his son, G. Narasimmalloo Chetty, revitalised his family’s cotton trade.

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