How an assassination bid before I-Day dramatically altered Kerala history

This photograph was taken at the Raj Bhavan on the visit of the Maharaja of Kapurtala. Those seen in the photograph are Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma, Uthradom Thirunal Marthanda Varma, Diwan Sir CP Ramaswamy Iyer. Photo: Manorama Archives/N P Hariharan/1946

If a 25-year-old Brahmin youth had not attempted to finish off Travancore's autocratic Dewan, C P Ramaswami Iyer, a few days before India declared Independence, would the history of Travancore have taken a completely different course?

If not an Independent country, would Travancore at least have become an autonomous region within India with special privileges like Jammu and Kashmir? Or would Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru have moved the army into Travancore, like he did in the case of the small princely state of Junagadh in Gujarat whose ruler, Nawab Mohammad Mahabat Khanji III, wanted to accede to Pakistan even though his principality did not share a border with Pakistan?

A sculpture commemorating K C S Mani's attack on Travancore Dewan C P Ramaswamy Iyer at the Swathi Thirunal College of Music at Thycaud in Thiruvananthapuram on July 25, 1947. It has been erected in the middle of the road opposite the music college. Right behind the installation that celebrates an act of violence is a building dedicated to the propagation of the values of the apostle of non-violence, the Gandhi Bhavan. Photo: Onmanorama/Ayyappan R

Even three days before the Brahmin youth, K C S Mani, made an attempt on his life on July 25, 1947, it looked like C P Ramaswami Iyer, better known by his acronym CP, had no intention of giving up on his ambition of securing Independence for Travancore from India.

Travancore-Pakistan treaty

After a meeting with the Dewan in Delhi on July 22, 1947, here is what Viceroy Lord Mountbatten, the man chosen by the Crown to supervise a dignified transfer of power, had stated in his official report: “He (CP) declared that Travancore could never accede to the Dominion of India: he had indeed made preliminary terms with Mr Jinnah, including a trade agreement.”

CP had feared that India would impose economic sanctions as a retaliatory measure and, as cover, he opened a channel with Jinnah. In fact, as historian Ramachandra Guha had said in an article, Jinnah too had “egged on” CP to keep Travancore separate from India.

Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Photo: Manorama Archives

Guha writes that Jinnah wired Iyer on June 20, 1947, to say that Pakistan was “ready to establish relationship with Travancore which will be of mutual advantage”. This was just two days after the Travancore king made his 'Declaration of Independence' for Travancore on June 18. CP, in turn, proposed a treaty between “the independent sovereign state of Travancore and the Government of Pakistan”.

'Immoral' Gandhi, 'repulsive' Communists

During the July 22 meeting, when CP spoke of his deal with Jinnah, the Viceroy said the Dewan had nothing but utter contempt for Indian national leaders. He told Mountbatten that Gandhi was a “sex maniac who could not keep his hands off young girls”, and called Jawaharlal Nehru “unstable”.

It was clear CP could not stand the thought of being part of India. A week before he met Mountbatten, CP had written to British Prime Minister Clement Attlee on July 14, arguing why it was impossible for Travancore to go with India. The letter also revealed CP's deep disgust for the Soviets and the Communists.

Lord Mountbatten. Photo: Manorama Archives

“Travancore cannot be forced to join a dominion whose leaders have at this critical juncture in world history established diplomatic relations with the Soviet Republic. This step cannot but be followed by the establishment of Russian embassies and consulates all over India with results that need not be detailed. Within 50 miles of Travancore are the main centres of Communist influence in India,” CP, who at that time was busy using indiscriminate force to quell Communist rebellions, told the British PM.

Nation called Travancore

It was on February 18, 1947, that British Prime Minister Clement Atlee made the historic declaration of his country's intention to transfer power to India. The proposals for transfer of power to India and Pakistan was made public on June 3, 1947. The fate of the 500-odd princely states was left vague. It was simply said that the 'Crown's Paramountcy' over them would lapse.

On June 11 itself, CP announced that “In law as well as in fact, Travancore will become an independent country” the moment Britain officially relinquishes power.

A week later on June 18, Travancore ruler Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma made the official 'Declaration of Independence' through Trivandrum Radio Station at 8.45pm. “On and from 15th August, 1947, Travancore will reassume its independence and sovereignty in full measure"

Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma. Photo: Manorama Archives

It was not as if CP had sudden visions of Independent Travancore after Atlee made Britain's intentions clear. Though historians had called Atlee's declaration “stunning”, CP had seen it coming. He had by then struck secret bilateral deals with big nations hoping that these would give him the bargaining power to haggle out a separate Travancore once the British decides to leave India.

Briefly put, CP behaved like a potentate of an independent kingdom long before Attlee's declaration.

Lure of atomic bomb

If princely states like Hyderabad, Gwalior, Baroda and Patiala had immeasurable wealth, Travancore had monazite. This mineral was coveted by world powers because it consisted of thorium, a fissile material that goes into the making of nuclear bombs.

Travancore was one of the biggest suppliers of monazite in the world and, on top of it, the monazite mined from the Travancore coast was said to be of a considerably higher quality than that of its closest competitor Brazil.

CP had the realisation that he was sitting on perhaps the world's most valuable treasure. The world, he knew, was entering a period of atomic revolution. A few days after the Americans exploded the atom bomb over Nagasaki and Hiroshima, CP wrote to his king: “If thorium can be utilised for the manufacture of atomic bombs (there is no reason why it should not be) — Travancore will enjoy position very high in the world.”

C P Ramaswami Iyer. Photo: Manorama Archives

So when the newly formed board for Atomic Energy Research of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) announced in early 1946 that they would soon begin a survey of Travancore’s thorium deposits, CP objected.

He said Travancore was under no obligation to surrender control of its thorium deposits to any outside agency, including the British Crown. And then, in a demonstration of unprecedented brinkmanship, he concluded bilateral agreements with monazite-extracting companies in Britain and, as Guha noted, had invited the minerals attache of the US Embassy to survey Travancore's monazite sands so that bids would come from the US, too.

Nehru's anger, Britain's cunning

When Nehru came to know of CP's secret moves, he was scandalised. At a cabinet meeting of the interim Government of India in April 1947, a livid Nehru had reportedly said he did not mind using air power against Travancore to make the princely state fall in line. The threat worked and Travancore backed out of its agreement with the UK company.

But then it was just a tactical retreat. CP did not care for Indian leaders. He assumed that as long as he had monazite, the British would do his bidding. At that point, America had snubbed Britain's request for atomic bombs and Britain was keen to develop one.

Jawaharlal Nehru. Photo: Manorama Archives

Top British politicians had also acknowledged the strategic importance of Travancore and wanted Britain to be in the good books of CP. Take John Charles Wilmot, who was minister for aircraft production and also minister of supply under Clement Attlee.

He said that the richest deposit of monazite was in Travancore, and added that “our chances of getting monazite from Travancore ultimately depend on the goodwill of the state government and the Dewan in particular”.

So by the time he came to visit Mountbatten on July 22, CP was under the impression that he was in a position to dictate terms. In fact, right after he returned from Delhi and minutes before he was attacked by Mani near the entrance of the Swathi Thirunal Music College on July 25, the dewan had proudly told the audience at the music college of the “new era of sovereign independent status for Travancore”.

The Swathi Thirunal College of Music at Thycaud in Thiruvananthapuram. Photo: Onmanorama/Ayyappan

Only royalty worshippers, like most people at the music college event on July 25, were excited. Everyone else wanted Travancore to accede to India.

Despot with blood on his hands

As his ambitions soared, so did the public revulsion for the Dewan.

Few months back, in October 1946, CP had ruthlessly crushed the Punnapra-Vayalar uprising. Coir, agricultural and fish workers who had mobilised under the Communist party had rejected a power sharing formula mooted by the Dewan.

C P Ramaswami Iyer. Photo: Manorama Archives

Called the 'American Model', it seemed participatory in a superficial way but at the functional level had most of the power concentrated in the princely state, meaning CP himself.

The 'American model' was the prototype of the legislative structure CP wanted for Independent Travancore. Both the Congress and the Communists were outraged by CP's attempts to centralise power and also his ambition to have a country separate from India.

Sir C P Ramaswamy Iyer with Jawaharlal Nehru. Photo: Manorama Archives

The Dewan, in an attempt to make the workers fall in line, unleashed a reign of terror. In retaliation, the workers organised into camps and armed themselves with crude locally-made weapons like wooden spears. In certain areas, police stations were attacked.

The counterattack was disproportionately brutal. Machine guns were fired at workers. Noted historian Sreedhara Menon estimated that nearly 1000 people were killed.

Mani's revenge

It was this mindless killing that made K C S Mani, a young man with socialist leanings, volunteer to annihilate the Dewan. He used a cunningly acquired pass to enter the music college. Mani had hidden a machete, the kind with a curved end that workers use to cut down shrubs and small trees, under the khakhi shorts he wore beneath a 'mundu'.

The legendary Carnatic musician Semmangudi Sreenivasa Iyer was on stage. Just before Semmangudi finished his recital, the Dewan walked out with the police in tow. Mani was seated at the left end of the hall through which the Dewan was about to exit. As the Dewan neared, he stood up. Finding that his 'mundu' was preventing him from pulling out his machete, Mani unwrapped it and threw it away. Now just in his khakhi shorts, he lifted the machete from under it and started hacking at the Dewan with a mad man's fury. Some of his wild swings missed, some struck flesh and bone. Just then the lights went off and Mani escaped.

Sri Swathi Thirunal College of Music, Thiruvananthapuram. Photo: Manorama Archives

The surgeon general of Travancore put out a bulletin that said the Dewan had seven wounds. The cut on the left cheek was serious, causing serious bleeding. The back of the neck too had a deep cut, and some of his fingers on his left hand were nearly severed. The others, though big wounds, were not dangerous.

Attack and complete surrender

Two days later on July 28, when he had reasonably recovered, CP wrote a letter to his king from his hospital bed. He said there were just two options: join India or declare Independence. He told the king to brace for a bloody battle if Travancore opted to remain independent. He said a civil war would erupt in six months, and that Congress leaders would be massacred before the end of the year. He also reminded the king that these scenarios were laid before him even earlier but the king had then decided to fight it out.

K C S Mani, who made an attempt on the life of Travancore's autocratic Dewan, CP Ramaswami Iyer. Photo: Manorama Archives

Then, he comes to the point. He tells the king that unlike before death is now pushing its way through the palace gates. “The events that have happened (the assassination attempt on him) must have made a great impression on you. They have not changed my mind (on independence for Travancore) but made me fully realise that your lives are in jeopardy and those of persons near and dear to you. It is either death or victory.”

Two days later, on July 30, the Travancore Maharaja telegraphed his acceptance of the Instrument of Accession to the Viceroy. “They sheepishly changed their minds,” is how historian Manu S Pillai puts it in 'The Ivory Throne', his highly feted book on the House of Travancore.

If the most feared man in the whole of Travancore, and perhaps its most protected, could be so daringly attacked, the royals knew better than to hold on to their dreams of an independent country called Travancore.

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