• 07-Jun-2023

Swadeshi Padmanabha Iyengar (1868-1937)

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“Madras has taken up the heroes out of our hands....... Gallant Chidambaram, brave Padmanabha, intrepid Shiva defying the threats of exile and imprisonment; fighting for the masses, for the nation, for the preparation of Swaraj, these are now in the forefront, the men of the future, the bearers of the standard.” Thus wrote Aurobindo from Calcutta on March 11, 1908 about the celebrations then going on in Tirunelveli in India’s deep south, on learning of the release of the revolutionary leader Bipin Chandra Pal in Calcutta with Swadeshi shipping pioneer V O Chidambaram Pillai (VOC) and two of his friends Subramania Siva and Padmanabha Iyengar in the lead.

Mr Wynch, the collector of Tinnevely district (as Tirunelveli was then called) had banned the three freedom fighters from organizing any public meeting celebrating Bipin Chandra Pal’s release. They defied the ban and organized a procession and meeting on the banks of the Tamraparni (Tamiravaruni in Tamil) on March 9, 1908 drawing huge crowds. Prior to this, the workers at the British owned Coral Mills at Tuticorin had gone on strike. Padmanabhan, along with the others, ably supported the workers, advising them and leading them to a successful conclusion in ten days. All three leaders were arrested on March 12. The riots that then followed in Tirunelveli are remembered by the civic authorities annually on March 13 as Tirunelveli Uprising.

Born in Trivandrum, (now Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala) to Sundararaja Iyengar and Srivaramanga of Idayankulam, Padmanabhan earned his B.A.degree by private study during the early years of his first job as Malayalam Translator at Madras High Court (1888-98). He joined the Indian National Congress and attended its Madras session in 1898, as a delegate from Ambasamudram. He joined the Lal-Bal-Pal group in the same year, and spent two years in Trivandrum and Tirunelveli districts meeting students and instilling Swadeshi ideals in them. Riots during one such meeting at Trivandrum led to his arrest for a brief period.

Padmanabhan rejoined the High Court in 1901 and worked for 5 years. He worked as Sub-Editor, Madras Mail followed by a stint as Assistant Editor and Editor, Madras Standard in 1906. The government and British police force carried out periodic interrogation and police surveillance on him for his close association with Chidambaram and Siva during 1905-1911. Finally in 1911 they foisted a case on him for an editorial he wrote in Madras Standard in 1906 exposing the misdeeds of the notorious Arbuthnot Bank. The crash of the bank had brought a lot of misery to a large number of innocent depositors in South India and the case against Padmanabhan for the editorial had to be dropped as it had no sympathisers in Madras. However, the High Court was persuaded to terminate his employment as a Malayalam Translator in 1911.

Padmanabhan’s work for the Freedom struggle was ably supported by his wife. During the hearing on the Bank case at Madras, when the Prosecution asked his wife Ambujam whether her husband was a Swadeshi, she is said to have gently retorted, “Are you all paradeshis (foreigners) then?”

Padmanabhan joined the Hindu High School, Triplicane after this event and taught English and History until 1917. Thereafter he freelanced as a writer, mostly for the Hindu, directing his efforts almost entirely to the cause of Indian Independence. In his last years spent with his youngest son, he started translating Rigveda Samhita into English. The book was published in 1935, two years prior to his passing away.

From the time he joined the Indian National Congress and took the Independence Pledge, Padmanabhan had been using his oratorical and writing skills to teach his countrymen, and especially the youth, the need to follow an assertive brand of Nationalism as propounded by the famous Lal-Bal-Pal triumvirate. He stayed Swadeshi right up to his last breath.