A Gandhian’s diary recalls Mahatma’s visit to Bellary. Shama Sunder S delves into it for insight into the times that define our present.
Bellary or Ballari, a major district in the upper reaches of Karnataka, is known for its sweltering summers where temperatures can average up to 45 degrees Celsius. Humorist Beechi, also known as RayasamBheemasenaRao, said in one of his books that Bellary has only two seasons – summer and extreme summer.
The region was part of the ceded districts during the British rule, along with Anantapuram, Cuddapah, much of Kurnool and parts of Tumkur and Davanagere. To escape its searing temperatures, the British administrators in the past used Mincheri, 13 km from Bellary, as a hill station. T L Strange, who was the district collector, had constructed a bungalow in Mincheri and lived there. The British Gazetteer states that all subsequent collectors of Bellary, who also discharged duties of a district judge, would come down from Mincheri only when an officer signalled, by hoisting a flag on top of the court house, that a case was awaiting trial.
But it is not only the scorching summers that Bellary is known for. This district is also significant for two historic visits paid by Mahatma Gandhi here – once in 1921 and then again in 1934. Freedom fighter TekurSubramanyam, who was also a close associate of Gandhi, threw light about these visits in his diary.
Subramanyam was the first MP of Bellary and had served its people consecutively for three terms. He was also the political secretary to former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. In fact, it was he who had organised Gandhi’s visits to the city. Subramanyam’s son, TekurRamanath, has preserved his diary and several photographs of the freedom struggle.
Bellary was a prominent town during the British rule, especially after it was merged with the then Madras Presidency in 1800. Things started to change when Major Thomas Munro took charge of the region and established the Ryotwari land revenue system. The British officials also began constructing buildings across the city. The Bellary Central Jail, Saint Philomena’s School, the Wardlaw High School, Saint John’s School, Saint Joseph’s school are some of the examples of British colonial structures here. Even though many of these institutes now take classes in newly designed buildings, they have retained these heritage structures. The 19th century Allipur jail was converted from the infantry barracks of the British cantonment where prisoners of war from France, Turkey and Denmark were confined. This later became the Bellary Central Jail, where freedom fighters and political personalities such as C Rajagopalachari, Subramanyam, Potti Sri Ramulu, V V Giri, Kamaraj Nadar, Neelam Sanjiva Reddy, and others were imprisoned.
Case of two Congress committees
During the struggle for freedom, Gandhi visited Karnataka a total of 13 times, including the two visits to Bellary. During his first visit, Gandhi had famously sat at the Bellary railway station for eight hours. Subramanyam, in his diary, details the incidents of that day. There were two district Congress committees – one comprising of the Telugu speaking taluks of Rayadurga, Adoni, parts of Bellary and Allur, and another comprising Kannada speakers in Hospet, Bellary, Hadagil, Harapanahalli, Sandur, Siruguppa and Kudligi.
When Gandhi alighted at the Bellary railway station on October 1, 1921, both the Congress committees had put pressure on him to address its members first. Gandhi had then decided not to attend the programme at all, spread his shawl on the railway station and slept there. The next morning, he continued his journey. No Congressmen was present to see him off at the railway station.
The Railways, as historical evidence, affixed a four by five feet granite plaque at the Bellary railway station with the words: “This is the sacred place where the Mahatma spent about 8 hours on 01-10-1921 during his visit to Bellary.”
The Harijan cause
Subramanyam was also the in-charge of Gandhi SmarakSamithi in the region at that time. He later helped set up a Gandhi Bhavan in the city too. In his diary, Subramanyam reminisces how Gandhi spoke about his first visit to Bellary during their meeting in Wardha, Maharashtra, in 1935. At the end of their conversation, Subramanyam writes: Gandhiji asked me what my position was in the party. I mentioned that there was only one district committee functioning of which I was the secretary. To which he only replied “God be praised”.
An extract from Tekur’s diary, detailing Gandhi’s visit, was forwarded by the former deputy commissioner of Bellary, V N Manjula, to the railway officials and the commemoration was subsequently put up. She had also organised a ceremony to mark the occasion.
The diary also mentions about another visit in March 1934 when Gandhi was on a tour of the Karnataka province to address the ‘Harijan’ cause. After visiting Harapanahalli and Kudligi in Bellary district, he reached Sandur by evening. “Gandhiji told me that ideals and principals should be of primary value in our lives. He also mentioned how a merchant in Bombay had sent him a cheque for a large amount of money but with a condition that it should not be utilised for the cause of Harijans. Gandhiji returned the cheque,” wrote Subramanyam.
During his stay in Sandur, Gandhi was informed that the Maharaja of Sandur, Yeshavanth Rao Ghorpade, had thrown open the door of all temples in his region to Dalits. Pleased, Gandhi had addressed all Harijans by saying, “Raja of a small princely state in South India have welcomed Harijans inside temples. The heavens will not fall.”
(Shama Sunder S is a Ballari-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters)