On August 26, 1942, a group of freedom fighters from Kannampalayam in Coimbatore set the Sulur Aerodrome on fire. This was just a few days after Mahatma Gandhi’s ‘Do or Die’ call as part of the Quit India Movement, the decisive final phase of the struggle for Independence. After the incident, the British government launched a brutal crackdown on the residents of Kannampalayam and imposed a tax called Thimir Vari on the entire village. With the Tamil term, Thimir, meaning insolence and Vari meaning tax, the name implies it is “a tax to be collected to deal the rude ones with an iron hand”. The government served a 48-hour notice on the residents to pay the tax.
K.S. Palaniyappan, a washerman, was among the most important members of the team that set the aerodrome on fire. When freedom fighter K.V. Ramasamy, popularly called Sulur Netaji, presided over a meeting to chalk out strategies to set the aerodrome ablaze, it was Palaniyappan who volunteered to make Vendayams.
Rings of cloth
Vendayams are rings made of pieces of cloth, soaked in kerosene, strung on a forked stick, and lit up. The forked stick, which is called Paachaangol in the Kongu Tamil dialect, would be swung fast and the burning vendayams would fly high in the air, fall on the spots targeted, and burn them to ashes. The washerman was given this assignment as his traditional occupation was carrying flambeaus in the wedding and funeral processions. At Kannampalayam resides Saradamani, the granddaughter of Palaniyappan, with her widowed mother Angathal, the daughter of the freedom fighter. Saradamani’s husband and maternal uncle Murugesan, who is also the son of Palaniyappan, died recently. She is making a living by sewing clothes at home. She says they stopped carrying on their traditional occupation of washing clothes a few decades ago.
Recalling the incident, Pulavar Ponmudi Subbayyan, 87, a retired Tamil teacher and author of the book Thiyagam Vilaintha Sempulam on Kannampalayam, says, “On an evening after the aerodrome was set ablaze, I saw some police vehicles speeding up to the village. The police thrashed whomever they caught and threw them into their trucks. The scene is indelible in my memories from the minute I came across it. I was seven or eight years old. It happened near the Kannampalayam graveyard while I was accompanying my elder sister to a nearby farmland.”
Mr. Subbayyan says the British government should have coined an English term for Thimir Vari, but no one knows it. The tax could have been collected through the Maniyakarar (Village Administrative Officers in the modern day). However, there is hardly anyone who knows how much the tax was. He adds that the month Aadi was very much favourable to the rebels as the fire they set spread fast, fanned by the speeding winds, and soon reduced the aerodrome to ashes. As many as 30 men who were accused of setting fire to the aerodrome were arrested and lodged in Alipore Prison. The jail terms for the accused differed from three years to 20 years. However, with the completion of four years in prison, all the freedom fighters were released in 1946 when the Indian National Congress formed the Interim Government of India.
“Stalin Chinnayyan, a member of the team that set the aerodrome on fire, was arrested. Someone informed his father Pazhani Gounder that his son would be released if he was ready to pay ₹100 to the government. As suggested, Pazhani Gounder arranged the money by selling his cows. Still, the money was not enough and he had to borrow to make up the difference. At last, he did pay the money to the official concerned, but in vain,” writes Mounasamy, author of the book Suthanthira Poril Kannampalayam.
“Neither his son was released nor did he get back the money. Since a day’s wage of labour was 8 annas (50 paise) those days, Pazhani Gounder reeled under the responsibility of repaying the loan. The hardship affected his mental and physical health, resulting in his death,” records Mr. Mounasamy, a CPI leader, who is also the former panchayat president of the village. “Similarly, Kuppusamy Nadar, an innocent commoner who was on his way to work at Cambodia Mills, was thrashed black and blue by the police. As a result, he became mentally ill and died of the disease,” he writes in the book.
“The Thimir Vari was paid, not just by the people of Kannampalayam but also by the residents of other adjacent villages such as Irugur, Pallapalayam and Athappa Goundan Pudur,” adds Mr. Mounasamy. In memory of the freedom fighters stands an open stage named ‘Kannampalayam Suthanthira Poratta Thiyagigal Kalayarangam’ (Kannampalayam freedom fighters’ auditorium). The names of the freedom fighters are inscribed on the wall. Besides, the branch office of the Communist Party of India exhibits the pictures of 19 freedom fighters. “Of the 30 freedom fighters, the photos of only 19 were available. The rest are known just by their names. But I was able to discover the photos of three more freedom fighters last year,” says Mr. Mounasamy.
(The author is a freelance journalist and chronicler of the Kongu region).