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Civil Rights Movement

189 – The school teachers who went on a twelve-day satyagraha

My mother, K Jagadammal (right) with her peer and friend Jayshree Sawant (left), Bombay, Maharashtra. 1977

Image & narrative contributed by Nishant Radhakrishnan, Mumbai

This is a photograph taken in 1977 of my mother, K Jagadammal (right) with her peer and friend Jayshree Sawant (left) in Bombay. They were on a strike, outside a school compound, protesting the injustices served by the school they both taught in.

My mother, K Jagadammal was born in 1949 in Kalanjoor, Pathanamthitta District, Kerala. Her parents were farmers, and she was one of five sisters and a brother. Her father later ran his own grocery shop, exactly opposite Kalanjoor Government School, that all of his children attended. My mother and her siblings all grew up to have careers as school-teachers.

In 1972, following a matrilineal Dravidian tradition, the Marumakkattayam system (where women of the family are legitimate inheritors of property and therefore integral to families), my mother was betrothed to her cousin, her mother’s brother’s son, my eventual father, M. G. Radhakrishnan. My father had been living in Bombay (now Mumbai) since 1968 and worked in a clerical position at the Indian Cotton Mills Federation. After their marriage they moved to Bombay and on June 11, 1973, my mother armed with degrees in B. Sc (Science) and B. Ed (Education), joined the ranks of thousands of Malayalee migrants (mostly teachers and nurses), and became a Primary section teacher at Abhyudaya Education Society High School where she taught all subjects except Marathi.

From 1975, my parents lived in the teeming mill suburb of Kalachowky, among other migrants, in a one-room kitchen apartment. The 70s were also the years when the political party, Shiv Sena were mobilising their cadre against migrants, especially South Indians like my parents. But this was also the time that people away from their birth homes had begun to embrace and appreciate the other Indias. Yet like many others from Kerala, my parents had a high degree of political agency and found it hard to tolerate injustice. While it may sound like a cliché, it is second nature for us Malayalees to go on strike. The 1970s were a potent moment in India – the heady years of Emergency and after. In this photograph my mother (right) was 28 years old when the two teachers went on a strike demanding their reinstatement at the Abhyudaya Education Society High School, following three years of harassment and intimidation by a member of the school management.

In 1975, a new teacher, Kalyanikutty joined the school. She was related to a Mr. Nair, the school administrator, known to be an authoritarian figure. Allegedly, he would run the school like his personal fiefdom. On several occasions, he would command Kalyanikutty to return home over perceived slights or mistakes. The personal harassment was purely based on the close family relationship between them – found often in patriarchal Indian households. Unable to tolerate the injustice, and in solidarity with Kalyanikutty, all teachers, including my mother submitted a protest letter asking Mr. Nair to stop troubling Kalyanikutty. In retaliation, he called upon each teacher and asked them to withdraw their signatures. All the Secondary School section teachers refused to do so, but from the Primary section, with the exception of my mother, all teachers withdrew their signatures – and categorically refused to withdraw it. This began a long period of harassment for my mother – threats, show cause notices, random inspections on her classes, a trip to the police station. But my mother, with the support of my father, teachers, students and much of the management, maintained her stand. My parents’ position was clear – Mr Nair did not own the school or its employees – he was her co-worker, an employee, just like her – an equal in hierarchy.

So the stage was set – My mother, a teacher – K. Jagadammal versus Mr. Nair, the patriarch. Heavily pregnant with me, she was denied her rightful maternity leave and made to accept half-pay on leave, albeit was abruptly terminated from service. In 1976, shortly after my birth, pressured by committee members, she was reinstated, but demoted to a lower teaching position. Following Mr. Nair’s machinations, at the end of the academic year, she was terminated, again.

So in 1977, my mother was no longer an employee of the school, yet she simply refused to accept the unfair termination and continued to attend the school in protest. Every single day, she would go to the Headmaster’s office to sign-in on the attendance muster. When she was not allowed to sign it, she began submitting letters – every day – stating that “she had come to the school and not allowed to sign”. She would stay in the school all through the working hours. She tells me that inside the headmaster’s cabin, there were two chairs and she began to make herself comfortable on one of them. Weeks later, one chair was removed, so she would sit on the remaining available chair. Then that one chair, too, was removed. After this, the only chair available was the Headmaster’s own. It was also used by Mr. Nair, when he was present. My mother clearly had no choice – she says “ I simply plonked myself on the Headmaster’s chair.” The Headmaster or Mr. Nair would remain standing, while she would sit on “their” chair and would only get to sit on it when she had needed a rest-room break. These passive aggressive comedic moments notwithstanding – every single day, K Jagadammal ensured that her protest and attendance was marked.

Five months later, after submitting a forewarning as due process to the authorities, my mother and Jayshree Sawant (herself, a victim of nepotism) embarked on a civil disobedience movement of their own – a Satyagraha. When this photograph was taken, my mother ‘s brother, my uncle, would bring me – a toddler – to the school every day, through the twelve days protest, and point her out to me. Soon after, the protest by these two teachers blew up into a full-fledged students boycott, led by my father, teachers and others. The heat was really on.

During a meeting with the enquiry commission by the BMC, (Bombay Municipal Corporation), a letter alleging that my mother ‘was not teaching at all’, but instead ‘was taking rest-room breaks all the time’ was passed around, including onto students. The letter was a tipping point and she lost her temper – she removed her footwear and proceeded to chastise one of the administrators with it. To her (and the target’s) good fortune, she was dissuaded and the slipper did not reach its destination. The protest soon found political attention and was even discussed in the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly.

But the tides were turning – for this protest shed light upon several illegalities that the administration was indulging in – forgery of musters, salary embezzlement, autocratic, misogynistic behaviour by male officials. After the enquiry, both K. Jagadammal and Jayshree Sawant were reinstated and the 12-day Satyagraha was called off. Nonetheless, a price still had to be paid and neither of the two were paid salaries for that year. The good news was that the two officials including Mr. Nair, lost the managing committee elections and never found their way back.

My mother, K. Jagadammal eventually became a beloved (and much revered) teacher in the same school and Jayshree Sawant after two years, joined another school. Somehow, the two Satyagrahis lost touch since. My mother I feel paid yet another price for her beliefs. The events of 1974-77 did compromise her merited right to be promoted as Headmistress at the school, yet she served her commitment to teach, and after 35 years at Abhyudaya Education Society School she retired in 2007.

During my childhood, I witnessed K. Jagadammal wake up every day at 4.30 AM, cook meals for my father and me, go to work on the 6.10 AM train and return at 2 pm and my father eventually became a legendary Malayalam copywriter during the golden age of Indian regional languages advertising. This photograph is a reminder of an inspiring and just legacy my parents have given me and my own new family. The two ladies in this photograph – K. Jagadammal and Jayshree Sawant teach us the value of standing up for others, to seek justice and protest whenever needed. I have grown up watching them all, but most of all, I continue to find empowerment through my mother.


167 – The man who compiled the first English to Hindi & Marathi dictionaries

My great grandfather, Sukhsampat Rai Bhandari. Ajmer, Rajasthan. Circa 1955

My great grandfather, Sukhsampat Rai Bhandari. Ajmer, Rajasthan. Circa 1955

Image & Text contributed by Myra Khanna / Rachana Yadav, Gurgaon

This is the probably the only photograph we have of my maternal great grandfather Sukhsampat Rai Bhandari or as we refer to him Nana Sahib. Born in 1891, Sukhsampat Rai Bhandari was the eldest of four brothers. He was brought up in Bhanpura, a district in the Central Provinces of the subcontinent (now Madhya Pradesh, India). I never did get a chance to meet him, but stories my mother and grandmother tell me about him make me feel that would have been an honour to know him.

While there is some documentation that mentions our ancestor Rao Raghunath Singh Bhandari as the acting King of Jodhpur from 1713-1724, I am not sure how it all turned out because in our family’s current memory we had humble beginnings from a village called Jaitaran (Jodhpur District). The family then migrated to their maternal land Bhanpura where Nana Sahib was born. After his birth and as tradition was, his umbilical cord was cut and buried in the soil of our family home’s courtyard and a tree was planted. The house still stands in Bhanpura today, and in it’s courtyard so does a grand tree.

In 1904, at the age of 12, Nana Sahib was married off to 13-year-old, Roop Kavar, my great grandmother. Nana Sahib was not interested in the family business and ran away to Jodhpur to complete his education. He excelled at Marathi, Hindi and English languages and self-published his first works by translating Ralph Waldo Trine’s In tune with the Infinite in Hindi. He then went on to serve as editor to several newspapers & publications in Bombay (now Mumbai), Delhi, Patna, Ajmer and Indore. Through the course of his youth, he befriended and worked with several influential writers, poets, politicians, activists and royal families from all over the subcontinent. Deeply inspired and curious about world revolutions, cultures, literature & affairs he became a well-reputed writer and author. Two of his early books Bharat aur Angrez (India & the British) and Sansar ki krantiyan (World Revolutions) won him huge accolades and appreciation around the country.

Nanasahib was a follower of Mahatma Gandhi and a fierce congressman. My mother remembers him always wearing khadi (hand-spun cloth). In the early 1910s as an assistant editor at Sadharm Pracharak, a weekly newspaper in Delhi, his articles featured Gandhi’s civil rights movement in South Africa and his words spread far and wide. Funds to support Gandhi’s cause flowed in and the newspaper was instrumental in raising Rs. 60,000 to be sent to Gandhi. In 1920, he helped establish the Congress party in Indore, Nagpur and Jaipur. Most evenings at home would come alive with debates, discussions and heated arguments between the greatest of minds of that time.

In the 1920s, he was invited to set up and co-edit an independent Hindi Marathi Weekly Malhari Martand by the Royal family of Holkars in Indore. While serving as an editor he wrote two books on the History of Indian States commissioned by Maharaja Tukaji Rao Holkar III that won him appreciation and monetary awards from several Royal Families around the country.

One of Nana Sahib’s several great accomplishments was that he was the first to have translated and compiled two 10 volume dictionaries – English to Hindi and English to Marathi; The dictionaries went on to be used as the blueprint for other regional language dictionaries that are used until today, and was used as a reference by authors such as Rabindra Nath Tagore. The dictionaries are considered to be one of the greatest achievements in Indian Literature. After the dictionaries he embarked on researching, writing and compiling the first Hindi books on around 30 academic subjects, with contributed material from international and national scholars. These books too won huge publicity and accolades around the subcontinent and were even used as reference by UNESCO in their reports.

Indore state is where Nana sahib earned countrywide respect, but also lost his fortune. My mother tells me that Nana Sahib was an extremely honest and liberal man and his views on religion, marriage, education and relationships were very modern for his time. But his honesty and high standards also made him gullible, resulting in huge losses of wealth. Amongst the many stories I’ve heard, the one I’d wish to ask him about is the time he seems to have contradicted his own belief system.

In 1925, the Bawla Murder Case (aka The Malabar Hill murder case) created a massive stir in the country. A love triangle comprising the Maharaja Tukojirao Holkar III of Indore, his most beloved courtesan Mumtaz Begum and a wealthy businessman Abdul Kadir Bawla, ended up in a royal conspiracy to kidnap the courtesan and murder the businessman by men from the Holkar house. Everyone knew that the king had given the orders and it was a great opportunity for the British to take control of Indore state. With pressures of possible dethronement, the King sought the help of Nana Sahib whose word was held in high regard politically & publicly. Knowing well that the king was indeed guilty, Nana Sahib nonetheless mediated the king’s appeal to political parties and the public. Eventually, his word paid off and the only consequence was a voluntary abdication of the throne to the King’s son Yashwant Rao Holkar II.

One would wonder why a man, so self-righteous and honest would help a man who conspired to kill. My mother and I conjecture that perhaps Nana Sahib was obligated to the Holkar family for its patronage, and returned the favour by protecting the King. As a reward, the Holkars opened up their treasury to Nana Sahib. Overnight, my great grandfather became wealthier than he had ever imagined. Ironically, he got carried away with wrong advice and bad investments, and again overnight he was back to his humble beginnings; only now with additional debts.

While Nana Sahib was still extremely popular and respected, losing money and the debt caused him some embarrassment and he decided to leave Indore and move to Ajmer with his family – his wife and five children – two sons and three daughters. Their home was open to anyone who wanted to learn and study and he would spend a lot of time educating children from the neighborhood. His youngest daughter, Mannu Bhandari (my maternal grandmother) went on to become one of the greatest Hindi authors of our times and his other daughter Sushila Bhandari established  India’s first preschool “Bal Nilaya” in the country, in Lake Gardens, Calcutta (now Kolkata).

My Nana Sahib, Sukhsampat Rai Bhandari died of throat cancer at the age of 72 and spare a few copies scattered within the family, and in some libraries around the world, all of his literary works are either lost or were donated and bought by several publications. I am told he had a huge trunk in which he kept all of his works-in-progress and insisted on carrying it with him everywhere, including in his last days to the hospital. It seems that his last works-in-progress was translating the volumes of Encyclopedia Britannica into Hindi.