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Velu Thambi Dalawa -The
Pioneer Freedom Fighter

By - Padma Mohan Kumar

The year 1857 is a landmark in Indian history as it is believed to have ushered in the freedom struggle. But it’s a little-known fact that, as early as 1808-09, Velu Thambi Dalawa, the Prime Minister to King Balarama Varma of Travancore in present day Kerala was one of the earliest opponents of British rule. Velu Thambi was born in 1765 to a family highly distinguished for its services to the state. The patriot began his career as a revenue official, went on to become a palace official.
 It was during this period that the kingdom was ruled by a corrupt minister named Sankaran Nampoothiri. This minister and his cronies drained the state coffers, while heavy taxes were imposed on the common people. They would summon the rich to the palace, and subject them to physical torture to extract money from them. King Balarama Varma who was a kind-hearted but a weak ruler could do nothing to curb these excesses.
One day Velu Thambi also received this dreaded summons. He was directed by the ministers to pay a sum of three thousand rupees into the coffers failing which he would meet with grim retribution. But the young Velu Thambi was more than equal to the challenge. He agreed to pay the money within three days and went home apparently to collect the required sum. But his actual purpose was entirely different.
Once back home, he called upon the people of his locality to rise against Sankaran Nampoothiri. He rallied them and marched to Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of Travancore state to protest against the misrule of the corrupt minister and his cronies. The latter were removed from their posts and given corporal punishment at his insistence. The year 1799 witnessed this first popular uprising against a corrupt government.
Velu Thambi assumed power as Minister of Power and Commerce after this revolution. His sterling qualities and hard work so impressed the king, that before long, he was made the Dalawa or Prime Minister. During his tenure as Prime Minister in the years 1801-1809, corruption was removed and the kingdom prospered. He undertook several reforms such as the reclamation of fallow land, and construction of roads and canals. Primary education was made compulsory while trade and commerce improved under his rule. But this happy state of affairs was not to last for very long.
Within a short time he came into conflict with the mighty East India Company, which had been establishing subsidiary alliances with various Indian states. The treaty which Balarama Varma, the King of Travancore had signed with the British reduced the ruler to a mere puppet. Velu Thambi opposed the treaty which stipulated that the king should pay a crippling sum of Rs. 8 lakhs as subsidy, in lieu of the protection offered by the British Company. His suggestion that the amount of subsidy be reduced, as it was beyond the capacity of the Travancore state to pay, provoked the ire of Macaulay, the British Resident at Cochin. Macaulay demanded that the Prime Minister raise more funds by disbanding many Travancore state soldiers and by imposing more taxes. Velu Thambi ignored both the demands He had been viewing with growing anger and resentment the active British interference in the affairs of the state. He instigated the people to turn against the English through written orders to the public officials. This resulted in clashes between the king’s soldiers and Company’s forces.
Velu Thambi turned to the neighboring kingdoms for support in his mission against the Company. The Prime Minister of the kingdom of Cochin, Govindan Menon, promised him full support as he too was fed up of British interference in matters concerning Cochin. The two planned to attack Fort Cochin, and kill Macaulay, who was staying there. On the night of December 28th, 1808, Govindan Menon led a large body of armed men, and surrounded Macaulay’s residence at the Fort of Cochin. His forces were reinforced by a detachment of soldiers sent by Velu Thambi. Macaulay, though caught unawares by this attack at such an unusual hour, managed to escape through an underground tunnel. He boarded a small boat which rowed him in safety to a British ship. Macaulay fled to Quilon town where British troops had a garrison. A section of the attacking forces followed in their own boats in search of the British Resident but their efforts failed.
Undaunted by this setback Velu Thambi issued on December 29th 1808 a proclamation known as the Kundara Proclamation. It was an open call to arms, exhorting the common people to rise up against the treacherous British and to overthrow them. There was a massive response to his rallying call. He led two attacks on the British forces at Quilon, the first time on December 30th 1808, and then on 15th January 1809, but both these attempts failed. He fled to Trivandrum after these reverses. But even at this moment his thoughts were for the safety of his king and country. He advised his king, “Maharaja, should the British ever question Your Highness, then please tell them that you had no hand in all these events”.
The Maharaja thoroughly alarmed at the turn of events denied having any knowledge of Velu Thambi’s activities. In February 1809 he officially dismissed him in order to appease the British. Velu Thambi left Thiruvananthapuram for the deep jungles of Travancore. The patriot carried a price of Rs.50,000 on his head and a massive man hunt was launched for him. The unfortunate hero had taken refuge in an empty house at Mannadi in central Travancore. Misfortune seemed to dog his footsteps. His servant, who was apprehended by the officers while walking through the streets, revealed to them his master’s hiding place. Velu Thambi on hearing of his servant’s treachery, fled along with his brother to a shrine inside the forests.
They had hardly spent a while alone at the shrine when they heard the thunder of hoof beats drawing increasingly closer. There was no doubt as to who was approaching. Velu Thambi calmly held his dagger out to his brother and said, “Please end my life and save me from infamy.” His brother was too horrified to even move so he turned his weapon upon himself. A little later, the British troops burst in to capture him only to see his bleeding remains. His brother was taken to Quilon and executed. Velu Thambi’s treacherous servant received the promised award of Rs.50, 000.
More than two hundred years have passed since these momentous happenings, but the people remember the martyr with deep gratitude even to this day. The Kerala Government has set up at Mannadi in his memory a research institute, a park, a museum and a bronze statue. His sword, which is kept in the Napier Museum at Trivandrum, is a mute reminder of the heroic struggle of this patriot against British dominance. Another statue of Velu Thambi now gazes down over the main thoroughfare in Trivandrum in front of the Government Secretariat. On festive occasions, the Secretariat grounds are illuminated and the brilliant lights throw the statue in sharp relief, symbolizing as it were, the deep reverence held by the present times towards the heroic past.

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