Kakkan: A Dalit leader who lived by principles of frugality and service
In the year 1966, the bustling streets of Madras state witnessed a remarkable incident that would forever be etched in the annals of history. The home minister of Madras state, a man named Kakkan, embarked on a humble government bus from his rented house in Mambalam, Chennai. Little did he know that this ordinary bus ride would soon become a symbol of his extraordinary integrity.
As Kakkan settled into his seat, he reached into his pocket, only to discover that he had insufficient money to purchase a ticket to his intended destination. However, fate seemed to intervene on that day, for the conductor of the bus immediately recognized the esteemed minister. With great respect and admiration, the conductor offered to provide him with a ticket using the meager coins he possessed. Yet, instead of accepting this generous offer, Kakkan chose a different path.
Unwilling to compromise his principles, Kakkan decided to purchase a ticket only up to the extent that his limited coins would allow. He alighted the bus at the nearest stop and made the remaining journey on foot. This act of selflessness and unwavering honesty showcased the character of a man whose name would forever be associated with integrity in public life.
Born on the 18th of June, 1909, in the village of Thumbaipatti near Madurai, Kakkan hailed from a Dalit family. His father, Poojari Kakkan, served as a traditional priest in the village temple. Despite facing the hardships of poverty, Kakkan managed to pursue his education, fuelled by a burning desire to uplift the marginalized sections of society.
Kakkan’s path crossed with that of Madurai Vaidhyanatha Iyer, a member of the Congress party and a close associate of Mahatma Gandhi. Encouraged by Gandhi, Iyer established the Harijan Sevalaya, a shelter that provided a haven for Kakkan and others like him. Later, Kakkan found employment at the shelter, which not only offered economic stability but also ignited his passion for the freedom struggle and the empowerment of his Dalit brethren.
Recognizing Kakkan’s fervour and determination, his father, Poojari Kakkan, supported his involvement in public life, even as he continued his studies. From that point on, Kakkan became deeply influenced by Gandhi’s philosophy, faithfully following him during his tours throughout the Madras Presidency.
On the 8th of July, 1939, during the historic temple entry of Dalits, Kakkan fearlessly led Dalits and Sanars, alongside prominent figures such as Muruganandam, Chinniah, Purnalingam, Muthu, and Virudhunagar Shanmuga Nadar. Their efforts, supported by Vaidhyanatha Iyer and Muthuramalinga Thevar, led to the passing of a bill in the Legislative Assembly, ensuring temple entry for all.
In 1940, he was arrested for participating in the individual satyagraha initiated by Gandhi. It was his first encounter with the police, marking the beginning of a long and arduous journey. Throughout his political career, Kakkan remained steadfast in his commitment to honesty and integrity. Unlike many ministers who preached about equitable distribution of wealth while indulging in privileges for their own families, Kakkan sent all his children to government schools. He never allowed nepotism or favouritism to taint his administration, upholding probity in public life as his guiding principle.
In 1952, after India gained independence and the first general election took place, Kakkan won as the Congress candidate from the Madurai parliamentary constituency. Over the years, he held various positions of responsibility, including serving as the Tamilnadu Congress president for three years and becoming a minister in the Kamaraj cabinet during the 1957 election.
It was during his tenure as the agriculture minister that Kakkan spearheaded epoch-making projects that still stand as a testament to his hard work and honesty. The Manimuththaru and Amaravathy dams, conceived and executed under his watch, brought significant benefits to the agricultural sector. He also implemented initiatives to secure irrigation for farming, such as increasing the height of the Mettur dam and establishing the Vaigai and Palaar projects. Furthermore, he championed the establishment of the Poondi reservoir research center and the Agriculture University.
The turbulent 1960s marked a turning point in the political landscape of Tamil Nadu. In 1963, Kamaraj proposed the K Plan, urging senior Congress leaders to resign from their posts and focus on revitalizing the party. Kamaraj’s selfless act inspired others, including Lal Bahadur Shastri, Jagjivan Ram, Morarji Desai, Biju Patnaik, and S K Patil, to follow suit. Bhakthavatsalam assumed the role of the chief minister, and Kakkan, known for his unwavering dedication, was appointed as the Home Minister.
Amidst the winds of change, Kakkan continued to discharge his duties with absolute dedication, unwavering loyalty to the state, and uncompromising integrity. He introduced measures to enhance police recruitment through transparent selection processes, established a separate intelligence force to prevent communal clashes, and formed an anti-corruption wing within the police department. Additionally, he played a significant role in the establishment of the Police training school.
The years that followed were marked by shifts in leadership, with the passing of Nehru and the rise of Kamaraj as the “Kingmaker.” Kakkan’s defeat in the 1967 elections, along with the subsequent split within the Congress party, signaled the decline of an institution built upon the sacrifices of countless unsung heroes. Despite the personal and political setbacks, Kakkan remained true to his principles, aligning himself with the organizational Congress faction led by Kamaraj.
As poverty and ill health took their toll, Kakkan’s circumstances grew increasingly dire. Sivaji Ganesan, a renowned actor, discovered that the former minister was travelling by bus and standing in line for basic necessities. In a heartwarming gesture, Ganesan auctioned his gold chain, using the proceeds to establish a deposit in a private company. The interest generated from this deposit was then utilized to sustain Kakkan’s livelihood.
In his final days, Kakkan found himself admitted to the Madurai Government General Hospital. Unrecognized by the staff, he was assigned a bed in the crowded general ward. However, fate intervened once again, as the Chief Minister, MGR, happened to visit the hospital and noticed Kakkan among the patients. Touched by the sight of the man who had dedicated his life to public service, MGR ensured that Kakkan received the utmost care and attention. Despite Kakkan’s refusal to accept monetary assistance, it is rumoured that MGR discreetly slipped currency notes under his pillow, a gesture that spoke volumes about the impact Kakkan had made on those around him.
Today, as we look back on the political landscape of Tamil Nadu, the discourse often centres around the Dravidian politics that emerged in later years. Yet, let us not forget the unassuming leaders like Kakkan, whose unwavering honesty and integrity illuminated the path of public service. He stood as an epitome of probity, a symbol of selflessness, and a reminder that true leaders are defined not by their wealth or power, but by their unwavering commitment to the well-being of the people they serve. In a world often tainted by nepotism and personality cults, the legacy of Kakkan shines brightly—a beacon of hope for future generations longing for leaders of his caliber.
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2. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of PGurus.
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