Why did Kerala surrender Kanyakumari to Tamil Nadu without a fight?


(This story was first published on the occasion of Kerala Day, 2020)

The Tamil-Malayalam rivalry in Travancore has a long bitter, and, at times, bloody history.

Yet Kerala and its hard-nosed rulers managed to retain the whole of Peerumedu and Devikulam taluks (now part of Idukki district), where Tamil speakers outnumbered Malayalam speakers, and could also hold on to a large chunk of Tamil-speaking Shencottah taluk.

Kanyakumari alone was let off without much of a fight.

On November 1, 1956, when Kerala was formed, four southern taluks - Thovala, Agastheeswaram, Kalkulam, Vilavancode - that were seen as critical to Travancore's food security had vanished. The four of them, together forming Kanyakumari district, became part of Tamil Nadu.

Young historian Joy Balan Vlathangara, in his seminal work 'Kerala Samsthana Roopeekaranam: Athirthi Tharkkavum Bhasha Samaravum: 1945-1956' (Kerala State Formation: Border Disputes and Language Agitations: 1945-1956), argues that Kanyakumari's loss could have a lot to do with the selective indifference of Pattom Thanu Pillai, Travancore's first Prime Minister and Kerala's second Chief Minister.

Pattom's split personality

Pattom Thanu Pillai

If sufficiently driven, Pattom is a kind of leader who could take even the wildest of risks to achieve his goal. It was he who came up with a daredevil colonisation project to re-engineer the demography of Peerumedu and Devikulam so that no one, not even a hugely influential leader like K Kamaraj, could take away these taluks from Kerala.

But the very same person did practically nothing to save Kanyakumari for Kerala.

Joy Balan cites from Thiru-Kochi Assembly archives to show that Pattom, who was then Thiru-Kochi chief minister, had not submitted a written memorandum to the States Reorganisation Commission members when they visited Travancore on May 25, 1954.

Top Tamil leaders in Travancore, on the other hand, had given the commission a detailed memorandum arguing why they wanted not just the four southern taluks (Thovala, Agastheeswaram, Kalkulam and Vilavancode) but five others also (Chencottah, Peerumedu, Devikulam, Neyyattinkara and Chittur) to be merged with Tamil Nadu. They also met home minister Sardar Patel's secretary to press their demands.

Chief minister Pattom just met the commission members and made a polite conversation with them, perhaps as a matter of courtesy. "The chief minister himself had made it clear during Question Hour in the Assembly that he had not submitted a written memorandum before the commission either on behalf of the government or in his personal capacity," Joy writes in his book. He terms this a "serious failure" on the part of the chief minister.

Panampally Govinda Menon, who succeeded Pattom as Thiru-Kochi chief minister, made an aggressive push to retain Kanyakumari, but it was too late. The commission, guided by the passion of the Tamil-speaking Travancore natives and the apathy of Pattom, had already made up its mind.

Pattom's social distancing

Pattom's disdain for Tamil leaders from southern Travancore, and the deep suspicions Tamil-speaking Travancore natives had about him, came to the fore in 1948, when he was sworn in as Travancore's first Prime Minister. Pattom was then the leader of Thiruvithamcore State Congress (TSC).

Ministers of Travancore with the Prime Minister of Cochin, May 1948 - Sitting from left to right - T M Varghese, Pattom Thanu Pillai (Prime Minister of Travancore), T K Nair (PM of Cochin), and C Kesavan.

To begin with, Pattom's was a three-member ministry; C Kesavan and T M Varghese were the other members. Soon enough, there was public outrage about lack of adequate representation of caste and social groups.

Bowing to popular demand, Pattom expanded his ministry. Four more were inducted: G Ramachandran (Nair), A Achuthan (Ezhava), K M Korah (Jacobite Christian), and Nataraj Pillai (Tamil).

Kesavan and Varghese objected saying they were not consulted and threatened to walk out of the ministry. Pattom's quick compromise formula: Drop the Tamil member Natraj Pillai from the ministry.

Rise of Tamil identity and Pattom's dissent

Tamil identity politics was already bothering Pattom at the time. Though his TSC had secured the largest number of seats (97) in the 1948 elections, the first after Independence, the Thiruvithamcore Tamil Nadu Congress (TTNC) had emerged as the second largest party, the chief opposition.

The TTNC competed in 18 seats in Travancore's Tamil dominant regions and won 14 of them. The four southern taluks, they swept clean.

Pattom's ministry could not last for more than seven months. The TTNC continued to demonstrate their might in Tamil-speaking regions, including Peerumedu and Devikulam, during the 1952 and 1954 elections to the Thiru-Kochi State Assembly.

The Thiru-Kochi state came into existence on July 1, 1949.

Just four months before this, on February 9, 1949, a meeting of all leading political parties was held in Alappuzha to discuss plans for a unified Kerala. Joy Balan's book says that at this meeting Pattom, who had by then left TSC and formed Praja Socialist Party (PSP), had openly stated that the four southern taluks should be taken out of Kerala, the only senior leader at the meeting to say so.

Tamil Deliverance Struggle

Their dislike of Pattom was so intense that Tamil groups intensified their agitation after he came to power once again in March, 1954.

The 1954 elections, like in 1952, threw up a hung verdict. To prevent the Communist Party (the second largest party with 23 seats) from coming to power, the Congress, which had 45 seats, backed Pattom as chief minister though his PSP had only 19 seats.

Vivekananda Rock and Thiruvalluvar statue in Kanyakumari

Right after Pattom took over, the TTNC launched a civil disobedience movement, and called it the "deliverance struggle' (viduthal samaram). The TTNC units in the four southern taluks passed resolutions stating that the Pattom government was not for Tamils and therefore, was not bound by its laws. They also gave calls for the violation of all laws and exhorted Tamil speakers to stop paying taxes.

Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru personally intervened to dissuade the Tamil leaders but they paid him no heed.

Language martyrs

At the peak of the agitation, police firing caused the death of seven people in the four Tamil-speaking southern taluks on August 11, 1954.

The police brutality bothered the country's conscience, it became a national talking point. Pattom was forced to appoint a fact-finding commission.

The commission report, which was submitted three months later, justified the police action, terming it “just, appropriate and lawful”. The report stoked widespread anger and some Congress and even PSP MLAs withdrew their support and yet another Pattom ministry fell before it could complete a year.

Pattom's social engineering project

But even when he was busy suppressing Tamil agitations, Pattom had simultaneously launched an ambitious project to alter the population structure of the predominantly Tamil taluks of Peerumedu and Devikulam.

Called the Colonisation Project, the plan was to relocate 8,000 agriculture families with no government employment to the high ranges for the cultivation of cash crops. 50,000 acres, in various areas of these predominantly Tamil taluks, were measured and set apart for colonisation. Of this 10,000 acres were for utilities like schools, hospitals, police stations, roads, grazing lands and other government officers. The remaining 40,000 acres were divided into 8000 blocks of five acres each.

Besides the five acres given on an eternal lease arrangement, each volunteering family was also granted Rs 2000 as interest-free loan to begin cultivation. At that point, the Tamil population constituted 72 per cent and 44 per cent of Devikulam and Peerumedu respectively.

With the aid of archival documents, Joy Balan suggests that the colonisation drive could have been an attempt to improve the Tamil-Malayalam ratio in these areas.

Reason: Not a single Tamil speaker was allotted land under this project.

Flop project that won the day

The project, however, was not a success as many died fighting the elements and wild animals and most of them, though they fell into greater poverty, forfeited their rights over the land leased to them and returned.

Yet, ironically, the States Reorganisation Commission cited this project as one of the reasons why it recommended these Tamil-speaking regions be retained in Kerala. The project, the commission said, demonstrated the determination of the government to develop Tamil areas.

Pattom had exhibited no such single-minded focus in the case of the taluks that eventually became Kanykumari.

Joy Balan also wonders why the commendable tact shown by Pattom to defuse an equally volatile situation in Peerumedu and Devikulam during the 'Tamil Deliverance struggle' in 1954 were not put to use in the southern taluks where seven were killed.

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