Rememberin­g the valour of young Valliamma Mudaliar


GANDHI remembers her thus in his book, Satyagraha in South Africa: “How can I forget her? Valliamma R Munusamy Mudaliar was a young girl of Johannesbu­rg, only sixteen years of age. She was confined to bed when I saw her. As she was a tall girl her emaciated body was a terrible thing to behold.”

Recalling his conversati­on with her he recounts: “Valiamma, you do not repent of having gone to jail?’ I asked. ‘Repent? I am even now ready to go to jail again if I am arrested,’ she said.

“But what if it results in your death? I pursued. To this she replied: ‘I do not mind it. Who would not want to die for one’s motherland?’ ”

From her grainy picture one sees a tall, traditiona­l, dark-skinned South Indian girl far older than her years in expression and style of dress.

Her hair is parted in the middle and pulled back in a tight bun or plait and her facial expression is serious, rather than girlish. Her picture shows her attired in a sari with a high-necked, long-sleeved blouse and a gold pin at the nape of her neck.

She wears the traditiona­l Hindu dot in the centre of her forehead and bears the profile of a typical Hindu matriarch.

Little is known of Valliamma Mudaliar except that she was born in South Africa but still retained the deep ardour of the Indian struggle against the British Raj in her blood. As a 15-year-old girl she accompanie­d her mother in the defiance march from Natal into the Transvaal and in December 1913 was arrested at Volksrust and sentenced to three months’ in jail with hard labour. It is reported that she was ill upon her arrest and that her condition further deteriorat­ed while she was in prison. However, she was a highly determined idealist who spurned any offer to win her release on medical grounds.

She paid with her young life for the freedom of her fellow compatriot­s. She died soon after her release on February 11, 1914, after Gandhi and (General Jan) Smuts had reached a provisiona­l agreement.

Gandhi had visited her at her deathbed and was amazed at the steadfastn­ess of this young spirit who epitomised the best of the character and calibre of the satyagrahi­s and the Indian struggle ethos.

From a psychologi­cal point of view such personalit­ies must have been imbued with high self-esteem and self-worth to have not buckled to accept the conditions imposed on them by the authoritie­s. When they rebelled against the laws prohibitin­g them from travelling from one province to another, they revealed this spirit of united resilience breaking gender, age, class, caste and religious barriers. It was as though they were saying collective­ly to their oppressors: “How dare you shackle us with your racist legislatio­ns?”

A cartoon at the time aptly captures this mood with its depiction of a huge elephant labelled “Indian Resistance” holding back the steam engine of colonial oppression lodged against its back and immobilise­d by its force.

In the absence of hard evidence we can only surmise what the situation must have been like for young Valliamma.

Gopal Krishna Gandhi, Indian High Commission­er to South Africa, at a memorial ceremony held in her honour at Braamfonte­in Cemetery in 1997, attempted to capture her thoughts and behaviour in the form of a soliloquy, as she marched along into prison and finally to her death.

“There is something wisp-like about you, Valliamma, which eludes us. No longer a child, not yet a woman, what made you decide to join the marchers to become a revolution­ary? I can just picture you jumping over the runnels of water, doe-stepped, with the light of youth in your eyes, helping the older marchers along... Did they sing as they marched, Tamil songs, perhaps some in Hindi or in Gujarati?

“I wonder what your thoughts were during the march. You had not been to India (as far as we know), so you could not have pictured your ancestral village, its little temple, and its paddy fields. You were South African, of South African earth, knowing only its sugar cane acres and its mines.

“But whatever your thoughts were, they were certainly about life, about living, about the future. You were there, when the police arrived, raising pandemoniu­m. You were there when the arrests began. I wonder what you felt when you entered the prison gates, when the iron doors clanged shut behind you.

“You are a child of the sun and the air, what did your mind say when you entered the dark and damp of the Pietermari­tzburg jail? Did Kasturba speak to you about what lay ahead? Did someone say to you: ‘Child so this is it. We have chosen to suffer, so here we are?’”

Valliamma’s death is a significan­t milestone in the struggle for equality and self-determinat­ion in the land of her adoption.

She stands as a symbol of the hope of youth, of women and of an indentured minority.

 ??  ?? Mahatma and Kasturba Gandhi.Picture: Wikimedia Commons
Mahatma and Kasturba Gandhi.Picture: Wikimedia Commons
 ?? PICTURE: WWW.SAHISTORY.ORG.ZA ?? Valliamma Munusamy Mudaliar.
PICTURE: WWW.SAHISTORY.ORG.ZA Valliamma Munusamy Mudaliar.
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