Whether it’s crossing the railway bridge over the Netravati in a speeding train from Mangalore, navigating the Walayar checkpost in the Palakkad district, driving north from Kanniyakumari towards Trivandrum or descending the hills from Gudalur to green fields and coconut tree-laced plains, few things thrill a non-resident Malayali more than entering Kerala. For the very existence of this common space for the Malayalam language and Malayali culture, Keralites owe a great amount of gratitude to one person in particular -- Kerala Varma Thampuran or Kerala Varma VII.
Born in 1870, he was the Maharaja of Cochin for a very brief (1946-49) but important period in the modern history of India. In 1946, when the country was on the verge of attaining independence, more than a fair share of the 567 princely states on the subcontinent flirted with the idea of independence. Even those Maharajas who wanted to join the Indian Union were wary of losing their power and privileges, but Kerala Varma VII was the staunchest supporter of a united Kerala.
Reluctance from other parts of Kerala
In 1946, Travancore openly expressed its desire not be part of such a united Malayalam-speaking state. It’s then Dewan-President, the exceptionally brilliant C. P. Ramaswami Iyer, spoke out against merging the Malayalam-speaking parts of India.
He said, “Travancore’s definite decision is that they do not want any administrative union of the sort proposed, but they are ready and willing to co-operate in any scheme having for its object joint consultation between the various linguistic areas on matters of common concern to all.”
There was also a possibility of a few districts that are now in Kerala, going to neighbouring states on the principle of partial linguistic contiguity. The biggest example being Palakkad and Kasaragod.
Kerala Varma VII remained steadfast in his efforts to form a united Kerala. In a speech made to the Cochin Legislative Council on July 29, 1946, he said: “There is in India, no more precise cultural or linguistic unit than Kerala. The people of Kerala are considerably agitated over the question of redistribution of provinces. Unless a way is found to establish a united Kerala, the neighbouring district of Malabar will find itself attached to a province where culturally it may have to remain a minority. It is good neither for the province nor Malabar that it should be so.”
The Maharaja of Cochin made it clear in his speech that he was not looking at abdicating his throne or requesting the same from his Travancore counterpart, who he called “progressive.”
“I believe in pure constitutional rule and throughout my life, I have sedulously cultivated an attitude towards life and institutions which is antipathetic to autocracy and personal rule.
Kerala Varma VII also spoke of the need for cohesion and strength in a united India. “I have said before that if India becomes great every part of it becomes great. It is equally true that if every part of it becomes cohesive and strong, it adds to the strength and greatness of India as a whole.”
Support from the Malayali diaspora
The Maharaja was willing to surrender a part of his privileges for what he believed was the common good. His speech was published by newspapers in other parts of India. The August 11, 1946, edition of the Bombay Chronicle devoted an entire page to the concept of a united Kerala.
In addition to the Kerala Varma VII’s speech, the paper carried a news item of a meeting of the Bombay Keraleeya Samaj held to lend support for the move for unifying Kerala. The paper said a resolution for a united Kerala was moved at the meeting by Bombay-based Malayali journalist and freedom fighter C K Narayanswami.
“This public meeting of the Keralites of Bombay, held under the auspices of the Bombay Keraleeya Samaj, wholeheartedly supports the present move for the unification of Kerala, incorporating British Malabar and the two Indian states of Cochin and Travancore,” the resolution stated. “The meeting further puts on record, its appreciation in this regard of the proclamation of the Maharaja of Cochin.”
A little over a year after the Maharaja’s proclamation, India became independent, but it would take another nine years before the state of Kerala was formed. The new state included parts of South Canara (Kasaragod) along with Malabar, Cochin and Travancore.
Kerala Varma VII, who passed away in July 1948, did not live to see his dream of a united Kerala come true, but he set the ball rolling for the merger of Malayalam speaking areas of India to form the state.
Today, when the people of the state mark Kerala Piravi, they should remember the Maharaja of Cochin who championed the cause even before India became independent.
(Ajay Kamalakaran is a multilingual writer, primarily based in Mumbai)