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Even during the progress and regress of the Justice Party, a fore-runner of Dravidar Kazhagam and even in subsequent years, the one who steadfastly stood by Thanthai Periyar as his lieutenant was Sir A.T.Panneerselvam. It was an irreparable loss to the Dravidian Movement when he died at 52 years of his age in an aircrash in the Gulf of Oman. Had he reached London and served there as Secretary to the Minister for Indian affairs to the British Government, the history of Tamil Nadu would have, had a boost in its growth.
The life led by him was not of an individual. His was the life of a society and for the benefit of a society. A life dedicated for the welfare of future generation. Arockiasamy Thamaraiselvam Panneerselvam was born in a village Chettiyarpuram, later known as Selvapuram near Thiruvaroor in June 1888. Young Panneerselvam went to Cambridge (1908-1912), studied Law and became a Barrister with a Bar-at-Law. Began practising at Chennai for a short period and then he settled in Thanjavur. Besides being a practising lawyer, he was equally a social activist.
As chairman of Thanjavur Municipality, he saw to it that free education was extended to all sections of the society. Those were the days of Taluk and Distric Boards to administer the civic needs of the whole district. Sir A.T.Panneerselvam was chosen as District Board President on three occasions – 1926, 1928 and 1930. A college of higher learning at Thiruvaiyaru was a haven of Sanskrit only under the strangle-hold of Brahmins. Sir A.T.Panneerselvam took steps to teach Tamil Language and Literature and renamed the college as Raja’s College. Along with Mr.Umamaheswaram Pillai, he earmarked a few acres of landed property for extending boarding facilities to the students as well.
In 1929, Sir A.T.Panneerselvam presided over the non-Brahmin youth wing of the First Self Respect Conference of Madras Presidency at Chingleput. Thanthai Periyar was one of the chief dignitaries to address in the Conference. In 1930, Sir A.T.Panneerselvam contested in the State Assembly Election and became an M.L.A. of the Justice Party. Periyar wrote in the issues of ‘Kudi Arasu’ to support the candidature of Mr.Panneerselvam.
The First Round Table Conference was held in London in 1930 and the second conference was on the very next year. Sir A.T.Panneerselvam was a special invitee for both the conference. An occasion it was for Sir A.T.Panneerselvam to acquaint himself with Ambedkar and Sir Henry Sydney at London. Sir A.T.Panneerselvam was Home and Finance Minister of Tamil Nadu at different times when Justice Party was on the chair. His association with politics continued to be in various capacities until he breathed his last in the aircrash.
In whatever role he occupied, Sir A.T.Panneerselvam was mindful of the social, political, economic and educational advancement of the Tamils. He was one of the Chief confidants of Thanthai Periyar. When the Justice Party confronted a setback in 1937, Sir A.T.Panneerselvam believed that Periyar alone could lead the party in its odd and uneven days. Periyar was in jail in the aftermath of Hindi Agitation in 1938. When the 14th Conference of Justice Party was held at Madras as South Indian Liberal Federation, Sir A.T.Panneerselvam was asked to preside over the Conference in the place of Periyar, eventhough he was meant to extend a welcome speech.
As a formality in the Conference, Sir A.T.Panneerselvam was garlanded. Before reading Periyar’s speech in his absence, Sir A.T.Panneerselvam submitted that he may be permitted to garland the portrait of Periyar – the garland that he was presented with such a love and gratitude Sir A.T.Panneerselvam had towards Periyar.
Sir A.T.P.’s speech on that occasion was echoing whatever that Periyar thought of. In the Executive Meeting that ensued, as per the request of Sir A.T.Panneerselvam. Arignar Anna was chosen as Executive secretary of the Justice Party.
Just on the eve of the Second World War, when the British Government appointed Sir A.T.Panneerselvam as Secretary to the Minister for Indian Affairs, Arignar Anna wrote an article in Viduthalai highlighting his role as an efficient administrator and a benevolent statesman.
An example for the uprightness and boldness of Sir A.T.Panneerselvam may be cited here. Until his last breath, he was a loyalist in Justice Party right from 1916 when he joined in it. Gandhiji visited Thanjavur in 1927 when Sir A.T.Panneerselvam was District Board President Rajaji was also in the company of Gandhiji. But still, when Sir A.T.Panneerselvam was speaking about Rajaji’s political activities to Gandhiji, he boldly asserted how far Rajaji was supportive of Brahmins only. It may recalled that when Rajaji was Premier of Madras Presidency in 1937-38, Sir A.T.Panneerselvam was an opposition leader.
On his way to England, just before boarding the plane in Karachi on 29th February of 1940, he wrote a letter to Periyar. The very next day, he met with the fatal accident on the air. The Government has officially informed his demise. Periyar with a profound sorrow and deep regrets announced in the obituary note that “I have not given up my mind nor I have shed tears even when my wife passed away. So also I did not take it into heart and weep when my brother’s son returned from his study in England and died in India. But the demise of Sir A.T.Panneerselvam deeply affected my mind and heart. I could not bear the separation of Sir A.T.Panneerselvam. The reason is that my wife and that my cousin’s death is purely personal. Panneerselvam’s demise is of public welfare and of the Tamils. When I think of the Tamils my despondency gets aggravated. Oh! Panneerselvam, have you gone off? Is it a dream or reality?”
Such a very deep and emotional obituary is an indication how far Periyar’s emotional attachment was with Sir A.T.Panneerselvam.
Seventy six years have gone by since Sir A.T.Panneerselvam passed away. Let his memory linger long in our mind and heart. It is he who worked for the cause of Tamils. His memory will enthuse all of us to walk erect and worth towards ameliorating the poor and downtrodden in the days to come.
Translated by : Palany Arangasamy