In one corner of the 120-year-old Moolakothalam Hindu cemetery in north Chennai stands a special grave with a white conical tombstone built on a wide cement platform. This is the memorial of Natarajan and Thalamuthu Nadar, the two protesters who died in police custody in 1939, during the anti-Hindi agitations in the state.

The large scale protests began in 1937 as a response to the government’s move to introduce Hindi as a compulsory subject in all schools in Madras Presidency. This was opposed by social reformer Periyar and the Justice Party, who went on to back the agitations. Around 1,200 protesters, including Periyar, were imprisoned. And upon their deaths, Natarajan and Thalamuthu were hailed as martyrs of the agitation.

Every year, on January 25, leaders of various political parties celebrate Language Martyrs Day, to mark a massive uprising in Tamil Nadu on this day during the second round of anti-Hindi protests in 1965. Politicians visit the memorial of Natarajan and Thalamuthu – which is supposed to have been inaugurated by Periyar himself – to commemorate the sacrifice of the two protesters. The memorial is decked with wreaths of flowers, as leaders salute the martyrs for their love for the language, Tamil.

But for the rest of the year, the tomb lies forgotten. This was the main defecation area of a settlement of around 800 families that lay within the cemetery. “Just for that one day of the year, this place is cleaned up,” said 40-year-old Jagan, a resident of the settlement. “For the rest of the year, it looks like this,” he added, pointing to the cement platform covered with human faeces.

The tomb has been in the eye of a recent controversy, for an entirely different reason. Vaiko, leader of the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, alleged that the memorial was going to be demolished by the state to build a housing board apartment for the settlers in the cemetery. Deputy Chief Minister O Panneerselvam, however, clarified that the settlement would be built only at a distance of 300 m from the tomb. “The memorial will be protected,” he said.

Language martyrs

The worn-out inscription on the memorial stone refers to Natarajan and Thalamuthu as “friends who lost their lives in the Anti-Hindi agitation”. The series of stirs began in 1937, when thousands of young people took to the streets to protest against the imposition of Hindi by the Congress government led by C Rajagopalachari.

Natarajan, a native of Madras, was a 20-year-old illiterate carpenter. He often sang anti-Hindi songs at home and expressed the desire to be jailed for the sake of the Tamil language, Natarajan’s father told the media in 1939. He was arrested on December 5, 1938, for picketing in front of the Hindu Theological High School in Madras. In Sumathy Ramasamy’s book Passions of the Tongue Language Devotion in Tamil India, 1891-1970, she notes that Natarajan had been told that if he submitted an apology for his activities, he would be released. He refused. Natarajan died in jail, reportedly from a stomach illness in January 1939.

Memorial of Natarajan and Thalamuthu. Credit: By special arrangement

A month after Natarajan’s death, Thalamuthu Nadar was also arrested for picketing the Hindu Theological High School. Thalamuthu was a native of Kumbakonam, and also illiterate. When he was arrested, wrote Ramasamy, the judge asked him if he would return to his hometown in Thanjavur if he was released. But he, too, refused. He was sentenced to six months in prison, and he supposedly entered prison shouting “Down with Hindi! May Tamil flourish.” Dhalamuthu fell ill while in prison and died on March 11.

“In devotional writings, however, their deaths are presented as heroic sacrifices to the Tamil cause, and over the years these men have attained the status of devotees who selflessly gave up their lives for their language,” wrote Ramasamy.

Hundreds of mourners thronged the streets during their funeral processions in the city. Some politicians claimed that their names should be “inscribed in gold in the history of the world.” Another said that Natarajan’s grave would become “a hallowed site for all true Tamilians.”

In the 1960s, buildings and complexes in the city were named after the young agitators. But almost 80 years after their death, while their grave is cared for just once a year, the sentiment attached to it survives. Linguistic assertion features in the political campaigns of many Dravidian parties even today. And regional parties like the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam frequently flag instances of Hindi imposition by the Centre, be it the Devanagiri script on highway milestones or promoting Hindi in schools.

‘No relation to us’

On a Saturday morning in March, the cemetery was the site of a spirited game of cricket among the neighbourhood children. The batsman took up his position in front of an old grey tombstone, and struck the ball down the leaf-strewn road into a cluster of multi-coloured graves of different shapes and sizes. As the fielders skipped between the cement shrines with agility, bleating goats scurried out of the way.

The cemetery ground of Moolakothalam. Credit: By special arrangement

But despite the calm, the older residents of the cemetery grounds were worried.

Between the slum and the tombs, a space was cleared for the apartment building to be erected for the slum dwellers. Even after Panneerselvam’s reassurance, the slum dwellers feared that they would not get the promised houses. They said that the more prosperous residents in the neighbourhood were opposing the project, claiming that their children would no longer have a playground. The fears are not without basis.

Aadi Prakash has lived in a brick house on the street outside the cemetery for around 52 years. She does not want an apartment building to be constructed in the cemetery. Many children in the neighbourhood, including hers, have grown up playing there, she said. “Sports events are held here frequently. We definitely need the ground.”

The slum dwellers claimed that these neighbours played a hand in spreading the rumour that the memorials would be demolished, bringing in political parties to oppose the project. “They are afraid that we will also have houses like them,” said Jagan. “We have grown up here, we don’t want to move anywhere else. We aren’t afraid of any ghosts or demons in this graveyard.”

The settlement inside the Moolakothalam cemetery area. Credit: By special arrangement

Jagan claimed that some political leaders even visited the memorial during the controversy, and saw its state as a defecation space. “If they are speaking so passionately about preserving the memorial, why don’t they keep it clean for the rest of the year?” he asked.

What did the shrine of the two young men Natarajan and Thalamuthu mean to them? “We don’t know much about them, just that they were martyrs for the Tamil cause,” said S Bhaskar, another resident. “There’s no relation between the shrine and our slum. We just know that it should not be disturbed.”