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(ARCHIVE) Vol. XXI No. 7, July 16-31, 2011
When the Congress met in Madras
(By Karthik A. Bhatt)

The Indian National Congress was 125 years old on December 28, 2010. This landmark event did not receive much attention, scams and scandals no doubt hogging the limelight. This article is to mark that milestone, belated though it is.

Madras was where the seeds of the Indian National Congress were sown and, in the years leading up to Independence, the city was to play host to eight sessions of the party. I look at some of these historic venues here.

The idea of an Indian National Congress took shape in late December 1884 when 17 men met at the house of Dewan Bahadur Raghunatha Rao in Mylapore to chart out a plan for the formation of a political National Movement. Most of the 17 men were delegates to the Annual Convention of the Theosophical Society that had just concluded at Adyar. Though what exactly was discussed at the meeting is not known, it is generally accepted that this gathering of the 17 men sowed the seeds of the formation of the Congress. The residence where the meeting was held does not exist now, and in its place today stands an apartment complex – Vishwakamal. Residents of the complex remember a plaque commemorating that meeting, but it has long vanished.

After its formation, the first Congress session to be held in Madras was in December 1887. This was the 3rd Congress Session, the first two having been held in Poona and Calcutta respectively. The chairman of the reception committee of the Madras Session was Sir T.Madhava Rao, civil servant, administrator and Dewan of Travancore, Indore and Baroda at different times. The event was held at Mackay’s Gardens. This is an area that exists by the same name even today and lies just off Graeme’s Road. 607 delegates attended it, Madras leading the numbers with 362 participants. An interesting trivia, though not verified, is that today’s Thousand Lights area takes its name thanks to the Thousand Lights that were lit to commemorate the occasion. It was in this session that Congress got its first Muslim President with the election of Badruddin Tyabji to the post.

Entertainments were hosted by the Governor of Madras, Lord Connemara, Rajah Sir Savalai Ramaswamy Mudaliar, the philanthropist and the then Sheriff of Madras, and Eardley Norton, a leading lawyer.

The next Congress Session in Madras was in 1894. This was the 10th Session of the party and was held in Hyde Park Gardens on Poonamallee High Road, a place that exists even today as part of the Kilpauk Medical College campus. It was the property of the Rajah of Panagal, Panuganti Ramarayaningar, and it was later made over to the Indian Medical Practitioners’ Association for the setting up of a college that would teach Indian systems of medicine. Sir Alfred Webb, an Irishman was elected the Chairman of this Session. Little else is known about this session other than the various resolutions that were passed.

The Congress returned to Madras for its 14th Session, held in December 1898. Ananda Mohan Bose was the Chairman of this session, which was held at Patter’s Gardens, Royapettah, the residence of the wealthy Gujarati Lodd family. The scions of this family were known for their philanthropy and support to social causes. Patter’s Gardens still survives, though its vast gardens have now been swallowed up by constructions. The headquarters of the Congress Party, Satyamurti Bhawan, stands adjoining the Gardens on land donated by Lodd Govinddoss, the best-known member of the family. His tomb, surrounded by dense shrubbery, still stands on the campus.

Madras played host to the 19th Session of the Congress in 1903. The venue this time was Spring Gardens, Teynampet, where a pandal accommodating nearly 6000 persons was put up. Interestingly, Burma was represented for the first time in a Congress session here. Lal Mohan Ghose was elected President of this session. Spring Gardens was a property dating back at least to 1822, then owned by one J. Sherman. It later seems to have changed hands many times, having been mentioned as the residence of the Rajah of Pithapuram, Rajah Ram Venkata Kumara Mahipati, Surya Rao Bahadur Garu, as revealed in a book published in 1915. Sir C. Madhavan Nair, Judge of the Madras High Court, also seems to have owned the property at some point of time as mentioned in his short biography of his father-in-law, Sir C. Sankaran Nair. Springs Gardens later became home of the Motion Pictures Combine, promoted by film-maker K. Subrahmanyan, and finally metamorphosed into S.S. Vasan’s Gemini Studio. In the heart of this sylvan campus stood a house that was once supposed to have been lived in by Edward, the second Lord Clive. Today all this has been overrun by several highrises and a star hotel that in its own way celebrates Chennai’s film heritage – The Park.

Two notable matters discussed in the Spring Gardens session were the Coronation Durbar held in Delhi earlier that year and the Madras Municipal Bill which was to be introduced. On the subject of the Coronation Durbar, the Congress took strong exception to the treatment accorded to the Indian Princes – “subjected to a humiliation they had never known before under the British Government” – and to the Indian visitors, who returned with “bitter memories of the different treatment received by Indians and Europeans.” The Madras Municipal Bill was called “retrograde and reactionary” by the Session President and a resolution was passed condemning its introduction. The Bill evoked strong criticism as it proposed to reduce the number of popular representatives to 16 (from 24) and proposed 8 to associations wholly or mainly composed of Europeans. Strong exception was also taken to the Bill due to the fact that it was not in consonance with the principles of Local Self Government laid down in the time of Lord Ripon.

The 23rd Session of the Congress was held in Madras in 1908. This session was held in exceptional circumstances, it having been adjourned from Surat where it was originally scheduled in 1907. The move to Madras was caused thanks to the rioting and chaos that took place in Surat due to a split in the Party over the election of the President, thus leading to the adjournment of the Session. Following this, the Convention Committee met at Allahabad in April 1908 where a Constitution was drawn up for the Indian National Congress. Thus, Madras had the distinction of playing host to the first session held in December 1908 under a formal Constitution. The session was held at Elphinstone Grounds, Mount Road, later the home of two theatres of the same name and, of course, the place to which young Madras flocked for its fix of Jaffar’s ice cream and, in particular, Peach Melba.

The next Congress Session held in Madras was in 1914. This was held in a pavilion erected in the grounds of Doveton House in Nungambakkam. This is one of Madras’s historic buildings thanks to its origins that can be traced to the 1790s, when it was built by a Benjamin Roebuck. The home got its name when it became the residence of a John Doveton, who had purchased it on his becoming a Lieutenant General, from its owner Linghi Chetty in 1837. John Doveton had served as the guardian of Tippu Sultan’s two sons who were taken into custody by Lord Cornwallis. After his time, the property changed hands with the Government acquiring it. It acquired a degree of notoriety when Khande Rao Gaekwad, the usurper of the Baroda throne, was housed in it after he was deposed by the British in 1870. The Women’s Christian College moved into this campus in 1916 and Doveton House survives even today.

The 1914 session was well attended with 866 delegates participating. The platform was crowded with several Madras noteworthies when the President-elect Bhupendranath Basu reached the venue in a procession and was escorted to the pavilion door by a guard of Congress volunteers on cycles. The session was a historic one as it was visited by the Governor of Madras, Lord Pentland. It was the first ever visit by a Governor to a Congress session.

The Congress did not return to Madras till 1927, when the 42nd Session was held in the dry bed of the Spur Tank in Chetpet. It was here that for the first time the Congress called for Purna Swaraj, or complete freedom, with Jawaharlal Nehru moving the Independence Resolution. It also paved the way for the formation of the Music Academy, as an offshoot of an All India Music Conference that was held in conjunction with the Congress Session.

The Congress last met in Madras in 1955. The famous Avadi session saw the adoption of a resolution moved by Jawaharlal Nehru on the ‘Socialistic Pattern of Society’. In 1988, a meeting of the All India Congress Committee, presided over by Rajiv Gandhi, was held at Maraimalainagar, following which the area developed rapidly as an industrial estate.

In this historic year, it would be good if the Congress thought of unveiling plaques at the various locations that it met in Madras, as a record for posterity.

Acknowledgements: How India Wrought for Freedom – By Annie Besant. The Theosophical Publishing House, Adyar, 1915.

In this issue

Delhi & Ahmadabad steal a march
Whatever the views on this building, to good use it must be put
When the Congress met in Madras
Chennoise – that's who we are
Biking in search of the tribals
Other stories

Our Regulars

Short 'N' Snappy
Our Readers Write
Quizzin' with Ram'nan
Dates for your diary

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