M. Emperumal Naidu, a doctor from Kottar, who fought for temple entry for all in Vaikom

Naidu, a freedom fighter and associate of Gandhi, joined the agitation with his wife Thirumalai Ammal. While studying in England, he was attracted to the freedom movement. In 1914, he set up a hospital in a small building at Kottar. It was probably the first private hospital offering treatment in modern medicine. He treated Dalits free of cost.

June 08, 2023 10:16 pm | Updated June 09, 2023 12:18 pm IST

M. Emperumal Naidu launched a unit of the Indian National Congress in 1920 at Nagercoil.

M. Emperumal Naidu launched a unit of the Indian National Congress in 1920 at Nagercoil. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

At Kottar, the ancient town situated on the national highway between Nagercoil and Kanniyakumari, stands a hospital, known as the Naidu Hospital, drenched in the freedom movement and the struggle for social justice. Its founder was Dr. M. Emperumal Naidu, a freedom fighter, an associate of Mahatma Gandhi, and one of the leading lights of the Vaikom temple street entry movement.

Like Periyar E.V. Ramasamy, who participated with his wife Nagammal in the Vaikom struggle, Naidu joined the agitation with his wife Thirumalai Ammal. “When the Sathyagrahis crossed the barricades, caste Hindus spattered limestone powder on their eyes. Gandhidas Muthusamy, whose eyes were covered with limestone powder, stood with Dr. Naidu in the waist-deep rainwater,” J.U. Sughaana, the biographer of Naidu, writes in her book, quoting Mahatma Gandhi from Harijan, a weekly magazine. “You are hitting a rock. Nothing will happen to the rock, but your head will break. We know the fall of the Belgians who suppressed the African people. Maharaja! You and your slaves will fall,” Naidu thundered, in a warning to the government.

A forgotten hero 

Ms. Sughaana’s book, published by the National Book Trust, has spotlighted the forgotten heroes of the freedom movement from Kanniyakumari district, which was part of the erstwhile princely state of Travancore. Seiku Thampi Pavalar, Kasi Pandaram, Siva Muthukaruppa Pillai, Muthusamy Adaviyar, Sivathanu Pillai, Theroor Sivan Pillai, Perumal Panikkar, Eraniel Subramanian, Sathuu Iyer, G. Ramachandran and Gandhi Raman come alive in the book.

Madathiammal, mother of Gandhidas Muthusamy, who participated in the Salt Satyagraha, underwent untold sufferings. Naidu advised her to take rest. “If I die, throw away my body on one side of the road and continue your march,” she told Naidu. It has been recorded by Ms. Sughanna.

Naidu’s ancestors belonged to Andhra Pradesh. His father Meenakshi Naidu was an artiste in the court of Travancore. He was instrumental in establishing the Vande Mataram Bhajana Madam at Kottar. Naidu was born on August 30, 1880.

He studied at Scott Christian College at Nagercoil and then joined the Madras Medical College. After qualifying as a surgeon and physician, he went to Edinburgh and cleared LRCP&S (Licentiate, Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons). It was while studying in England that he was attracted to the freedom movement. He refused the offer of his principal to join the medical college and went instead to Glasgow to obtain a degree in LFP&S. In 1914, he set up a hospital in a small building at Kottar. It was, perhaps, the first private hospital offering treatment in modern medicine. He offered Dalits free treatment. The prescription sheet always had the letters ‘HF’ (Harijan Free).

Even before meeting Gandhi at Tirunelveli in 1920, Naidu had emerged as an important leader of the freedom movement after he organised a rally to condemn the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. He launched a unit of the Indian National Congress in 1920 at Nagercoil. He was the president of the party while Sivathanu Pillai and Hyder Ali functioned as its secretary and treasurer respectively. Leaders, including Lala Lajpat Rai, C.F. Andrews, Sarojini Naidu, and Jawaharlal Nehru, had visited Nagercoil at his invitation.

Link to Gandhi

Naidu remained an important link to Gandhi in Travancore. The father of the nation had always inquired about him whenever some leaders from the area met him. He spearheaded all the campaigns in Kanniyakumari district launched by Gandhi and visited across the country to take part at Congress meetings. He also drew a lot of youths towards the freedom movement and Gandhij’s principles, and one of them was G. Ramachandran, the founder of Gandhigram.

When the Vaikom temple street movement was launched in March 1924, Naidu went there with his wife, Gandhidas Muthusamy, S.V. Muthukaruppa Pillai and others. Citing Tamil daily Swadesamitran, Pazha Athiyaman, the author of Vaikom Porattam, notes that four leaders played pivotal roles in the struggle. They were Periyar, Naidu, Kochu Govindan and Achutha Menon. Periyar was arrested and handed four months of imprisonment. Naidu, his wife and other volunteers from Kanniyakumari were arrested under the Detention Act. The daily also published the 15-day ban imposed by the government on Periyar, Kovai Ayyamuthu Gounder and Naidu from addressing public meetings in Travancore.

As the volunteers along with Thirumalai Ammal reached the temple streets of Vaikom, a police officer advised them to retreat. The scene is captured in Ms. Sughanna’s book. “Why are you wasting your energy and torturing yourself,” asked the police officer. A furious Thirumalai Ammal retorted by pointing to a dog entering the street. “You are allowing even a dog to enter the streets, but not fellow human beings. It is a human rights violation. We are ready to face any consequences. We are ready to face lathi-charge and the bullets.”

Naidu continued to organise protests and campaign after his return from Vaikom. In November 1924, he led a protest at Suchindram in Kanniyakumari district to open temple streets to all communities. Gandhi visited Kanniyakumari four times and Naidu organised reception and public meetings. “Nagercoil gave Mahatma a rousing reception. The whole town was decorated; streets as well as private residences. Three addresses were presented here, one by the Municipality, second by the agriculturists of Nanjil Nadu, the granary of Travancore, and, the third by students of Scott Christian College. Dr. Emperumal Naidu was responsible for the grand success,” reports The Hindu on March 16, 1925.

Naidu relentlessly fought for the temple entry and welfare of Dalits and the Travancore government issued a proclamation on November 12, 1936, throwing open the doors of temples and streets to all communities. Gandhi came again in January 1937 and addressed a public meeting, organised by Naidu, at Sethu Lakshmi Bai High School. After Independence, he was offered a berth in the government led by Pattam Thanu Pillai in Travancore. He rejected the offer as well as the 10 acres of land given by the government. He died on October 21, 1958. There was a proposal to erect a statue for him at Nagercoil, but it never came off. Today, only the hospital reminds people of the great freedom fighter and medical professional.

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