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How a statue of Muthuramalingam Thevar came to be worshipped in Kolkata | Kolkata News


At a three-minute walk from the All India Forward Bloc Committee office in central Kolkata is a statue, around 10 feet tall, partially hidden by irrelevant billboards and tangled cable wires. Painted golden, the copper statue is that of U Muthuramalingam Thevar, a politician and a leader of the Thevar community, who was known for his contributions to the country’s freedom struggle.

Thevar was also the secretary of the Harijan Sevak Sangh of Ramnad district in what is now Tamil Nadu and was a crusader against the practice of untouchability. In 1939, he led a congregation of Harijans into the Meenakshi Temple in Madurai. He was also known for his fierce opposition to the implementation of the Criminal Tribes Act of 1920 and was instrumental in getting this discriminatory act abolished.

Every year on October 30, hundreds of people belonging to West Bengal’s Thevar community travel to Kolkata in the early hours of the day, with tall pitchers of milk and other religious offerings, in a long procession, to pay respects and offerings to Thevar’s statue, in a manner similar to that of a deity, on an occasion that is called Thevar Jayanthi Guru Puja.

statue Every year on October 30, hundreds of people belonging to West Bengal’s Thevar community travel to Kolkata in the early hours of the day, with tall pitchers of milk and other religious offerings, in a long procession, to pay respects and offerings to Thevar’s statue.

In Tamil Nadu, the festival is marked on a significantly larger scale, in Ramanathapuram where Thevar was born in 1908, as well as across towns and villages in the southern part of the state, with police and local authorities stepping in to assist with the law and order and other civic arrangements.

Presently in West Bengal, there are a little over 3,000 people belonging to the Thevar community, who are scattered across the state. In Kolkata, the community lives in the pockets of New Market, Janbazar, S N Banerjee Road, New Alipore, Bhowanipore, Lake Gardens and Anwar Shah Road. Outside Kolkata, they reside in towns like Howrah, Bandel and Jalpaiguri. “Many run their own businesses, while others work in the catering business. In central Kolkata, many roadside stalls that sell idli-dosa are run by the Thevar community,” says P Balakrishnan, joint secretary, Netaji Pasumpon Muthuramalinga Thevar Tamil Sangam, a local organisation that represents the community in Kolkata.

Festive offer

How a statue of Thevar came to be established in central Kolkata has much to do with the community’s history in the city that can be traced to 1949, says Balakrishnan. In the 19th century, the First Anglo-Burmese War (1824-1826) witnessed small numbers of Tamils, including the Mukkulathor, who are commonly known as Thevar, move to Burma, as soldiers, indentured labourers and civil servants, followed by an increase in migration of people from what is now Tamil Nadu state, over the subsequent years. After Burma attained independence from British rule in 1948, the country underwent a period of political instability and domestic strife, causing many in the Thevar community to return to India.

“They came to India but were not able to travel beyond Kolkata because they did not have enough money for their onward journey to their villages in Tamil Nadu. So they stayed back in Bengal. Many who remained here built their lives and then invited their other family members or acquaintances from their villages to Kolkata and that is how the community grew here,” says Balakrishnan.

Every October, eleven days before Thevar Jayanthi Guru Puja, the community begins preparations for the festival. In addition to the large 10 ft-high statue, the community has a smaller three-foot-tall statue made of fibreglass, that is used for the religious ceremony. It is kept in storage throughout the year, and is only brought out for the ceremonies on October 30. “We stop cooking fish and meat at home. We carry a pitcher of milk for abhishekam. The smaller statue of Thevar is cleaned with lemon, coconut water, milk, sandalwood and vibhuti. Then we put garlands on the large and the small statues and we offer bananas, coconut and sweet pongal,” says Balakrishnan. The community pays respects to the larger statue of Thevar with a garland as well but limits all other rituals to the smaller statue for ease of process.

statue The community pays respects to the larger statue of Thevar with a garland as well but limits all other rituals to the smaller statue for ease of process.

The festival is important for the community and the Thevars do not consume any food till it is complete. Members of the community who travel from outside Kolkata cross the Vidyasagar Setu by bus and get off at the bus stop near Fort William in the city. From there, they walk all the way to Central Avenue barefoot, without any footwear, and begin the rituals. “It is just like you would enter a temple without shoes. Even children come this way,” says Balakrishnan.

The six-hour commemorations begin at 9 am and run up till 3 pm, after which the community can eat. The way Thevar is remembered, particularly in southern Tamil Nadu, is very much like that in the case of B R Ambedkar, says K A Manikumar, former professor of history at Tamil Nadu’s Manonmaniam Sundaranar University, who has conducted extensive research on caste and electoral politics in the state. “Post the 1980s, we saw the deification of Thevar and the building of his statues. Over the years, especially after the establishment of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party, the Thevars have become an important caste group,” says Manikumar.

Statue The six-hour commemorations begin at 9 am and run up till 3 pm, after which the community can eat.

The Thevars are a caste group that was criminalised in British India and were concentrated in the southern part of what is now Tamil Nadu. There are three types of agrarian caste groups known as Mukkulathor: the Agamudayar, who were tenants and cultivators but were not landholders; the Kallar, who were designated as thieves and robbers; and the Maravar, who were soldiers in armies of local zamindars. A common name for Mukkulathor is Thevar. “Now you cannot make a distinction between the sub-groups because they call themselves Thevar and are now categorised under the Most Backward Caste,” says Manikumar.

Thevar was born close to four decades after the Criminal Tribes Act was introduced in British India in 1871, stripping the rights and dignity of groups that the British had included in this category. The world in which Thevar grew up was divided strictly on the basis of caste and class.

Thevar’s activism against the injustices he was witnessing in front of him began in the 1930s when the thevars of 19 villages of Appanadu, Muthuramalinga Thevar’s province, were brought under the purview of the Criminal Tribes Act, causing Thevar to start a village-level agitation to protest this.

In 1936, Thevar joined the Congress party that had made the abolishing of the Criminal Tribes Act a goal, and contested the election for the Ramanathapuram District Board from the Mudukulathur constituency, defeating his Justice Party opponent who was the raja of Ramanathapuram. After his election to the Madras Legislature, Thevar as an MLA, took an active part in trade unions, including those at Madura Knitting Company and the Meenakshi Mills. During strikes at the Pasumalai Mahalakshmi Mills, Thevar’s role in the strikes resulted in him being imprisoned for seven months from October 1938. His support of trade unions resulted in conflict with the colonial government, which eventually resulted in imprisonment for eighteen months in Tiruchirappalli central jail.

Between 1946 and 1949, his differences with the Congress party increased, in part because of the party’s decision to give more importance to K Kamaraj. In 1949, Thevar quit the Congress. A few years prior, in 1939, Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose had also quit the Congress and had started the All India Forward Bloc, which Thevar ultimately joined. Thevar would go on to serve as the vice president of the All India Forward Bloc in 1955. “Thevar supported Bose and believed in his politics,” says Manikumar. It was the start of an association and friendship that would remain till the very end.

“Thevar and Bose were fighting the same fight,” says Debabrata Biswas, former Member of Parliament, and general secretary of the All India Forward Bloc. “On the one hand, Thevar was a social reformer, fighting against social evils like caste discrimination. On the other, he was a supporter of the philosophy of no compromise against imperialism. Thevar was very much in touch with Bose throughout the formation of the Indian National Army (INA). They were both supporters of socialism.”

It is also why on October 30, the Thevar community in Kolkata first makes a stop at the statue of Bose located in the Maidan area of the city, close to the Raj Bhavan. “We pray to Bose before praying to Thevar. The coconuts, milk and other offerings that are placed in front of Thevar, are first given to Netaji. We also carry flame torches that we call ‘jyoti’ and continue walking barefoot to Thevar’s statue. Then we pray to Thevar. This is because of the relationship that Bose and Thevar shared,” says P. Poovalingam, secretary of the Netaji Pasumpon Muthuramalinga Thevar Tamil Sangam, who lives in Howrah.

bose statue It is also why on October 30, the Thevar community in Kolkata first makes a stop at the statue of Bose located in the Maidan area of the city, close to the Raj Bhavan.

In 1942, when the INA was formed in Southeast Asia during the Second World War, and calls were issued for recruitment in the organisation, many Tamil men and women who had settled over the years across Southeast Asia felt the need to join the INA. Biswas believes that Thevar had been instrumental in drumming up support for Bose and the INA in the region. “When it comes to all of the activities of INA and Bose in Southeast Asia, there are immense contributions of the Tamils and Thevar. That is why the INA radio had a Tamil bulletin,” adds Biswas.

In 2009, during a national congress held by the All India Forward Bloc, the Netaji Pasumpon Muthuramalinga Thevar Tamil Sangam approached Ashok Ghosh, the state secretary of the bloc, with a request. “We told him that we do not want anything else, only that just like in every street we have a statue of Muthuramalinga Thevar and statues and photos of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose in every village in Tamil Nadu, we should have a statue of Thevar in Bengal. Then the Forward Bloc got together with us and built it,” says Balakrishnan.

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The Thevar community of West Bengal then travelled to Tamil Nadu, collected donations from whoever wanted to contribute and put together funds to create the statue that now stands in central Kolkata, an initiative that cost them Rs 20 lakh.

In Ramanathapuram, festivities celebrating the birth and life of Thevar have been ongoing over the weekend, with local news reports saying that some 12,000 police personnel have been deployed for the occasion. In other towns and cities across Tamil Nadu, similar celebrations are being held under tight security. “No political party which hopes to get votes from these castes can afford to avoid participation in Thevar Jayanti celebrations,” says Manikumar. This year, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M K Stalin is scheduled to visit Ramanathapuram’s Pasumpon to pay respects to Thevar’s memorial. With political leaders across party lines who are expected to visit the memorial on October 30, security has been significantly high in and around Ramanathapuram.

Back in Kolkata, the All India Forward Bloc has joined the Thevar community on October 30 to pay respects to Thevar’s statue in central Kolkata, with party officials coming together to say a few words in the leader’s honour. “In our party congress, we have to keep a photo of Thevar next to that of Netaji. The party congress will not happen without it,” says Biswas. A sure sign that, in West Bengal today, the memory of U Muthuramalingam Thevar is very much alive.





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