As the world prepares to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, many British publications rightfully celebrate the role of the British Indian Army, which fought valiantly against the Axis powers. Malayalis were also part of the effort to defeat Adolf Hitler. Many families have stories from the 1940s of relatives fighting in the Asian, European and African fronts.
My granduncle was captured by Mussolini’s army in Abyssinia and then handed over for internment to the Germans, who tortured him by hanging him upside down and swinging his body. The gentleman lived to tell the tale, although he was psychologically scarred for the rest of his life. There’s no record of how many Malayalis were killed in the Second World War, but one relatively unsung hero’s case stands out.
How it all began
The story of Michilotte Madhavan begins in 1934 when Mahatma Gandhi who was on a mission to uplift the Harijans of India, visited the French colony of Mahe. The trip led to the formation of the Youth League in French Indian territories and set the stage for the freedom struggle.
Madhavan was a member of the Youth League in Mahe, before he moved to the then Pondicherry for higher studies. In Pondicherry, he joined the Harijan Sevak Sangh, an organisation that was founded by Gandhi to help depressed classes get access to temples and education.
As was the practice in French colonies in Asia and Africa, the brightest students in universities were invited to study at the prestigious Sorbonne University in Paris. It’s ironic that many of these students were later at the forefront of freedom movements from France. Madhavan enrolled at the Sorbonne University, just before Nazi Germany invaded and occupied France.
Already inspired by socialist ideals, Madhavan joined the French Communist Party and became a member of the resistance. Little is known about his role in the resistance. In 1942, members of a pro-Nazi special brigade arrested him and handed him over to the dreaded Gestapo.
“The Nazis captured the bespectacled young man, tortured him in jail, and then shot him dead on October 2, 1943,” celebrated Malayalam writer M Mukundan wrote in 2015. He added that Madhavan’s name is inscribed in a memorial in France.
However, Madhavan’s name does not pull up a single result in French in any online French search engine. Given the fact that archives in France are well preserved, it may well be worth the effort to try and get some more information about this unsung Indian hero, one of many foot soldiers, who helped defeat Hitler.
A 2016 article in The Asian Age cites the diary of a fellow prisoner of Madhavan, P S Shamop. The note describes the last moments of the brave Malayali’s life. “All were handcuffed and when they were boarding the vehicle, the rest of the prisoners wished them bon voyage. As Nazis had declared that no one would be given capital punishment, everyone was under the impression that Gestapo was extraditing them to some other part of the world. All of them were carried to the Mont-Valerien where they were shot dead and the corpses were burnt.”
It wasn’t until 1944 that Madhavan’s family came to know of his execution.
Madhavan, who was killed at the age of 28, is not a forgotten figure in his hometown Mahe. The district of 40,000 inhabitants is proud of its French legacy and fondly remembers its heroes. However, efforts from Madhavan’s relatives to get even a small road renamed in his name have been unsuccessful.
Mahe does have a statue of Marianne, a symbol of Republican France that stands for liberty, fraternity and equality. It was these ideals that Madhavan fought for risking his life when he joined the resistance against Nazi Germany. These were essentially ideals that were shared by the Youth League and the Harijan Sevak Sangh, which aimed to bring social justice in India.