“Shoot me first”: Accamma Cherian’s bold voice of freedom

In 1951, when she married Varkey Mannamplakkal—another freedom fighter and member of the Travancore Legislative Assembly—Accamma was proving the spirit of nationalism and freedom ingrained in every Christian of India.

“Shoot me first”: Accamma Cherian’s bold voice of freedom

By Joe Palathunkal
“Not hundreds but tens of thousands wearing white Khaddar Jubbahs and still whiter Gandhi caps were surging forward in massive waves… Akkamma Cherian was leading that white sea, standing in an open jeep, dressed in khaddar and a Gandhi cap, like Goddess Durga crushing beneath her feet evil and injustice; her hair played in the wind like black flags hoisted against autocracy…”

I don’t know whether there is a better description of India’s most vocal, woman freedom fighter Accamma Cherian’s first march towards freedom in 1938, against the oppressive rule of the King and Dewan of Travancore. This imagery from the great story teller of Malayalam, E. M. Kovoor (Iype Mathew) from Thiruvalla, says all about our bold voice of freedom born into the Karippapparambil Catholic family of Kanjirappally, Kerala, on February 14, 1909, to Thomman Cherian and Annamma.

After completing her education in Catholic schools and colleges, Accamma became a teacher for a period of six years and when the State Congress was formed in 1938, she gave up her teaching and plunged into the turbulent waters of freedom struggle. But the protest march against the king to Kowadiyar Palace did cost the Congress dearly and the organization was banned on August 26, 1938, India’s freedom month.

Prominent Congress leaders like Pattom Thanu Pillai and others were arrested and put in prison which forced the organization to change its method of protest, and they even chose a new name, 'Strikers’ Union', and Accamma was nominated its autonomous, all powerful president, about which she wrote later: “I was aware of the seriousness of the assignment and knew what the consequences could be, yet I volunteered to do the job.”

Taking upon herself the mandate given by Jesus in Luke 4: 18, “He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives”, when she marched with 20,000 people to remove the yoke of suppression, the British ordered to fire at the crowd and then came the boldest roar from this 29 year old lioness of Kerala: "I am the leader; shoot me first before you kill others".

[A statue erected in her memory at Vellayambalam, Thiruvananthapuram]

When the news reached Mahatma Gandhi, he called Accamma Cherian ‘the Jhansi Rani of Travancore’, an epithet she proved correct through the later events. In October 1938, she formed the women’s organization, 'Desasevika Sangh', to instil the spirit of nationalism and freedom, in the women of India. And this was a powerful invitation for the women to come out of the confines of kitchen to the public domain.

When the first annual conference of the State Congress was held at Vattiyurkavu on 22nd and 23rd of December 1938, Accamma and other Congress leaders were arrested on the next day, and they were imprisoned for a year for violating the ban orders. In jail, they were insulted and abused which Dewan C. P. Ramaswamy Aiyar later denied.

After the release from jail, in 1942, Accamma Cherian became the Acting President of State Congress and welcomed the Quit India Resolution, passed at the Bombay session of the Indian National Congress on August 8, 1942. She was arrested and imprisoned for revolting against the government.

When C. P. Ramaswamy Aiyar demanded independent statehood for Tranvancore, Accamma sensed it as a ploy against the Indian nationalistic spirit, and she raised her bold voice for which she was again arrested in 1947. After Independence, she was elected unopposed to the Travancore Legislative Assembly.

In 1951, when she married Varkey Mannamplakkal—another freedom fighter and member of the Travancore Legislative Assembly—Accamma was proving the spirit of nationalism and freedom ingrained in every Christian of India. When she died on May 5, 1982, India not only lost a freedom fighter but also a powerful icon of Indian women’s liberation from every shackle they are chained to, and Christianity in India lost a dynamic witness of nationalism which is doubted by some people for political motives.

When Dr. Ambrose Pinto SJ wrote as a response to such people the following, he was indeed reminding us about Accamma Cherian: “The Church of course was as nationalist as any other progressive groups and had aligned with all progressive elements. They were surely not a part of the colonial conspiracy. In fact, right from the beginning Christianity did not take the believers out of their national moorings but the religion provided the followers an altruistic philosophy to work for the poor and the deprived.”

(Joe Palathunkal is Associate Editor, Living in Faith)

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