Among the many who fought for Independence in the erstwhile Tirunelveli district, a few like Veerapandiakattabomman, Pulithevan, Subramaniya Bharathi and V.O. Chidambaram Pillai have been extolled in history.
There were many others — nearly 400 of them — whose sacrifice of life, limb, health, livelihood, property has been left unrecorded for posterity and has been allowed to pass into oblivion without much notice by scholars or ordinary people. A few others were lucky to have occasional and miserly references in a few pages of history.
One such great warrior who merits a much larger space than what he gets in Thoothukudi district’s history is Joseph Pichaiya Rodriguez popularly known as J.P. Rodriguez.
Born in Thoothukudi on May 2nd, 1891 and educated at St. Xavier’s school in Thoothukudi, and later in St. Joseph’s college, Tiruchirappalli, he married Roselin Corera in 1917, and had thirteen children — one among them was the famous actor Chandra Babu whose name was Panimaya Dasan.
J.P. Rodriguez joined the freedom movement in 1921, following Gandhiji’s call during his visit to Tirunelveli. His close associate in the Freedom Movement was Masilamani Pillai, a well-known Catholic freedom fighter of Thoothukudi; another was Pe. Kandasamy also of Thoothukudi. These three were the ring leaders in the freedom movement in Thoothukudi.
J.P. Rodriguez had close contact with Congress leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru, Kamaraj, Satyamoorthy, and Indira Gandhi. The rapport that J.P. Rodriguez had with Nehru was so good that Nehru who travelled with him on a ship from Ceylon, readily accepted his invitation to pay a visit to Thoothukudi.
During Nehru’s visit to Thoothukudi, Rodriguez arranged a grand and impressive reception for him. Responding to the call of Gandhi, he, as one of the Congress leaders of the district, led the masses of Thoothukudi in the agitation to boycott foreign cloth, and the agitations to picket toddy shops. In these agitations his wife Roselin also took an active part.
J.P. Rodriguez, started a journal Suthanthra Veeran in Tamil to conscientise and educate Tamil youth in the Freedom Movement. Worried by the fervent exhortations to Tamil youth to rebel, aired in the journal, and the tangible response they elicited, the British government unleashed a reign of terror on the journal and its founder, J.P. Rodriguez. His press was raided, the types were confiscated, cases for seditious activities were registered and the journal was banned and closed. Further, the British confiscated his properties worth Rs. 2.5 lakhs. Undeterred by all these suppressions J.P. continued his participation in the struggle for freedom.
J.P. Rodriguez assisted by one Valerian Fernando from Veerapandiapattinam formed The National Christian Army and recruited youth to fight against the British might. He even went to Ceylon to recruit youth from the island. In this he reminds one of Nethaji Subhash Chandra Bose.
During his sojourn in Ceylon he started another journal Yavana Barathan and wrote articles such as ‘Yeniin Pathai’ in Gnanathoothan.
He took part in the Salt Satyagraha in 1930 and was arrested along with Masilamanipillai and Pe. Kandasamy and sentenced to one-year rigorous imprisonment and fined Rs. 200 or two months under the Salt Act.
J.P. Rodriguez in 1957 in Gnanathoothan recalled this arrest and the hardship he and his friends underwent. He said, “When Masilamani, Pe. Kandasamy and I were arrested in 1930 in Thoothukudi, there was a big agitation in the town. They arrested and kept us in the police station for a long time and locked us in separate cells in the Thoothukudi Sub–jail at 11 a.m.”
“The Police and administrative officers did not give us anything to drink or eat. The floors of the cells into which we were pushed into were uneven and uncomfortable either to sit or to spread oneself. There were no mats, no pillows, no blankets. The cells were dark and damp and there was no light — not even a night lamp! There were no windows — no air or breeze. The sepoy ordered us not to shout or cry out even if a scorpion or snake stung or a rat bit us. The sepoy further instructed us that in the event of any such calamity we might have to keep silence till the next day till the prison doctor might turn up.”
Despite all these taciturn threats and warnings J.P. Rodriguez and Masilamanipillai protested against prisoners removing the urine pots.
After some time, J.P. Rodriguez was removed to Vellore Central jail and Tiruchirapalli Central jail to undergo the sentence.
In 1939, J.P. Rodriguez was arrested again and imprisoned for his participation in the Freedom Struggle. After his release he was exiled to Ceylon where he started a weekly magazine Kalachakram.
1n 1941, he was again arrested for participating in individual satyagraha. His famous saying was “I will fight for the liberation of my motherland till the last drop of my blood in my body.”
After having spent some years in Colombo and Hatton where he had a shop, he returned to India and settled in Chennai in 1943 and joined Dinamani.
Though he was settled in Chennai, he visited Thoothukudi often and engaged himself in the freedom struggle till India attained independence.
M. Pitchai Savariammal Associate Professor, Department of History,St. Mary’s College, Thoothukudi