C.M. Poonacha wanted to be doctor, but ended up CM!
C.M. Poonacha’s role in the Freedom Movement
(By: C.P. Belliappa)
My father C.M. Poonacha’s ambition as a student was to be a doctor. He was good in his studies, and in the SSLC Board exam, he fared well to qualify for the Imperial Scholarship of fifteen rupees.
He joined St. Aloysius College in Mangalore for his intermediate. While his goal to be a doctor was steadfast, the freedom movement that was gaining ground all over the country gradually influenced him. In 1930, Gandhiji inspired students to come out in large numbers to show their solidarity with the freedom fighters. Young Poonacha spontaneously joined a group of students and took part in a street demonstration. The Principal of the institution was very much upset. Word spread that serious action was being contemplated on those who hurt the reputation of the college.
That night Poonacha took a radical decision. It was to be a life-changing decision for him. The desire to rid the country of colonial rule replaced his ambition to be a doctor. He decided to give up his studies and resolved to join the struggle in freeing the nation from the foreign yoke.
He packed his belongings, and early in the morning the following day, walked out of St. Aloysius with a heavy heart. Before leaving, he stood in front of the portals of his alma mater and bowed deeply. He said good-bye to his studies and to all the dreams he and his parents had for his future. His parents were shocked to see him back home, and were appalled at the drastic decision their son had taken.
Some of his young friends were already active in the freedom movement in Coorg. He enthusiastically joined Ajjikuttira Chinnappa, Mallengada Chengappa, Chekkera Monnaiah, Kakamada Nanaiah et al and started taking part in various activities. One of the senior members of the Congress Party, Kollimada Carumbaiah, noticed the youngster’s enthusiasm and started giving him tasks especially in spreading awareness amongst the Harijans regarding the harmful effects of alcohol. Poonacha was soon given full charge of a Harijan keri in Kaikeri which was close to his home.
Subsequent to the Salt Satyagraha, the freedom movement gained further momentum all over the country. In 1931 C.M. Poonacha took a group of Harijans to Madikeri and led them in a protest march in violation of government orders. He was arrested and was brought before the sub-judge Palecanda Medappa at Madikeri. Justice Medappa was a close relation. Poonacha’s worried father Chepudira Muthanna was summoned by Justice Medappa to his chambers. The Hon’ble judge allowed Poonacha to be released on bail, but instructed his father to advise Poonacha to give up participating in unlawful activities. A stern Justice Medappa instructed Poonacha to appear before him ten days later, and plead ‘guilty’. He assured that the young rebel would then be let off with a warning.
During the next ten days Poonacha’s parents and relatives drilled into him to give up his involvement in the freedom movement. He was repeatedly told to plead guilty and avoid being jailed. Poonacha remained stoic.
On the day of the hearing at Madikeri, Poonacha was brought before the Hon’ble judge. His ‘crime’ was read out. Justice Medappa’s piercing eyes looked over the reading glasses. He asked, “Do you plead guilty to the charges levelled against you?” Poonacha took a while to answer. He then said in a clear and unambiguous tone, “I am not guilty!” A visibly upset Justice Medappa brought the hammer down and thundered: “The offender is sentence to four months imprisonment.”
At Kannur prison, the youngsters from Kodagu had the opportunity to meet Kamalanath Tiwari, one of the associates of Bhagat Singh. Tiwari spoke at length about the atrocities of the British against Indians. Poonacha and his friends were deeply affected, and their resolve to continue fighting for freedom was further consolidated. After about a month in Kannur prison, Poonacha protested against the poor quality food being served in the jail. Seen as a troublemaker, he was promptly transferred to Vellore jail.
At Vellore prison Poonacha found himself in the company of several stalwarts of the freedom movement. Amongst the notables were C. Rajagopalachari, Kamaraj Nadar, E.M.S. Namboodripad, Prakasam, Satyamurthy, L.S. Prabhu et al. Listening to these scholarly personalities came as a boon to several young freedom fighters like Poonacha. This was a rare opportunity to learn from the intellectuals and nationalists of the time.
On the day Poonacha was to be freed after having completed his prison term, L.S. Prabhu wanted Poonacha to smuggle out a detailed report that he had compiled about the way freedom fighters were treated in the cells, the appalling conditions, and the deteriorating health of some of the older inmates. Prabhu pinned the report on to Poonacha’s shawl and carried it on his own shoulders as he came to see him off. After a thorough check Poonacha was about to step out of the prison gate. Just then, Prabhu shouted: “Poonacha, you have forgotten your shawl.” He then threw the shawl towards Poonacha. The guards did not suspect anything. Few days later, one of the national newspapers carried the full report, much to the chagrin of the jailers!
On his return to Kodagu, Poonacha plunged into the activities of the Congress Party. In 1932-33, he was appointed secretary of Kodagu Congress Samithi. Around this period, the party purchased a portable printing machine and Poonacha was given the task of writing, publishing and distributing a ‘mouth-piece’ of the party. The publication was named ‘Sarpastra’. Poonacha hid the machine in a forested area in his property. Once a week he would secretly print about 100 copies of the newsletter, which contained fiery articles against the British. He would fasten the bundle on to his bicycle and set out to Virajpet around four O’ clock in the morning. At Virajpet his friend Ramamurthy lawyer’s school-going brother – Mariappa – would collect the bundle from Poonacha. Mariappa would leave the copies hidden in the desks of students. Students would then distribute the ‘Sarpastra’ to people in their villages and neighbourhood. Soon ‘Sarpastra’ became a popular newsletter eagerly awaited by people. It not only kept the freedom movement alive in Kodagu, but also prompted many to join the struggle. The police could not trace the origin of this publication. After six months, the newsletter was renamed as ‘Veerabharati’.
One day Poonacha worked late into the night getting the copies of ‘Veerabharati’ ready. He set out for Virajpet well before break of dawn with the bundle tied on to his bicycle. By the time he reached Ammathi first hint of sunlight could be seen on the horizon. As he raced down the slope after Ammathi towards Virajpet the bundle of ‘Veerabharati’ came loose, and the hundred-odd copies were strewn all over the road. He was on all fours hurriedly collecting the newsletter. As he was busy gathering the sheets he felt a presence next to him. When he looked up it was a policeman in uniform with a baton in hand. Poonacha winced expecting the stick to come crashing on him. Instead, he found the policeman kneel next to him and join him in retrieving copies of the newsletter! It was constable Ganapathy. He looked at the young man and said, ‘So Poonacha, it is you who is behind the Sarpastra!’ He then added, ‘I am getting back after the night beat. Now, hurry up and disappear from here before anyone else sees you.’ Relieved, Poonacha peddled his cycle furiously towards Virajpet.
Poonacha continued this clandestine task for another month or so. Police were frantically looking for the origin of the publication. Congress leaders felt it prudent to shift the location of the machine. It was packed in a gunny bag and Mandepanda Cariappa was given the job of transporting it by bus to Virajpet. As luck would have it, the police came inspecting and wanted to check the contents in the gunny bag. The ‘cat’ was literally out of the bag. The bag also contained some incriminating clues that revealed Poonacha’s involvement. Poonacha was arrested and the munsiff at Virajpet sentenced him to nine months rigorous imprisonment at Kannur jail.
A British officer was the jailer in Kannur. He had been recently posted there from Bellary. He was known to be nasty man. To make matters worse, the jailer had had a confrontation with Poonacha’s uncle Barrister Chepudira Machaiah at Bellary. On discovering the relationship, he tried to take his revenge on Barrister Machaiah’s nephew. He targeted Poonacha and subjected him to backbreaking jobs. After a couple of days, Poonacha resisted and refused to obey the jailer. About sixty other detainees too joined in the protest and tried to impress upon the jail warden that they were political prisoners and not criminals. The warden was enraged and inflicted the protesters with the painful punishment known as ‘standing hand-cuff’. At six in the morning, after a breakfast of gruel, the protesters were handcuffed and their legs bound. They were then made to stand with their hands stretched above their heads. They were released for a short time for lunch. Again, they were put under ‘standing handcuff’ until five in the evening. After a few days this became unbearable. Along with Poonacha, others from Kodagu who were subjected to this punishment were Chekkera Monnaiah, Poojarira Ramappa, and Mallengada Chengappa. When some of the freedom fighters collapsed, a doctor was called in. The doctor warned the jail warden that if this punishment continued, some of the detainees could suffer heart attacks, and that the jailer would be in serious trouble. This retribution was stopped only after about fifteen days. The jail warden failed to break the spirit of the freedom fighters.
The jailer did not give up his determination to demoralize the detainees. He subjected them to another punishment known as ‘twenty-four hour lock up’. About a dozen freedom fighters were locked up in a small poorly lit room for 24 hours. They were let out only for their meals. Far from being despondent, the prisoners used this time to learn each other’s languages. Poonacha learnt to read and write Malayalam. Even after fifteen days when the jailer found Poonacha, Chekkera Monnaiah and Poojarira Ramappa sniggering at him, he was furious. He threw these young men into solitary confinement for fifteen days. It was one of the most traumatic experiences for Poonacha. His dark cell was next to those on the death row. The condemned prisoners would have been informed of their execution a few days earlier. It was heart-rending the way the condemned reacted as the day approached. Poonacha could barely sleep under these depressing conditions.
Nine months passed without having tasted anything sweet, without soap for bathing, and with just two pairs of prison clothes to wear. Like thousands of young freedom fighters all over the country who experienced similar hardship, it toughened Poonacha both mentally and physically. He was ready to face any challenge.
On his return to Kodagu, he continued to work for the Congress Party. His aging parents now wanted him to devote more time in developing their property. He worked along with the labourers having shed all qualms of physical work. In a couple of years, he brought new areas under coffee and orange.
Sometime in 1935, two of the senior Congress leaders Kollimada Carumbaiah and Jammada Madappa met Poonacha’s parents and requested them to allow their son to take up the job as sub-Editor of ‘Kodagu’ newspaper. Pandiyanda Belliappa was the Editor of the publication. This meant Poonacha had to spend more time at Madikeri. He received a salary of thirty rupees a month.
In 1938, Pandit Nehru was visiting Mangalore. Poonacha was deputed to meet Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and invite him to Kodagu. He was all excited at the prospect of meeting Nehru. He sought Kamalabai Chattopadhya’s help for an interview with Nehru. Kamalabai used to be a frequent visitor to Kodagu and Poonacha knew her well. She was in charge of Nehru’s programmes in Mangalore. Finally, a brief moment was found for Poonacha to meet Nehru. However, Panditji expressed his inability to make a trip to Kodagu. It was first of many meetings Poonacha was to have with Jawaharlal Nehru.
Around this time, Poonacha was selected as a member of the Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee. In 1938, elections were announced for the 24 member Coorg Advisory Board. Congress leaders in Kodagu were in a dilemma as to whether to enter this Board, which was to function in an advisory capacity to the British Chief Commissioner. To clear this doubt, Pandiyanda Belliappa and Poonacha were deputed to meet Mahatma Gandhi at Vardha. The day they were to meet Gandhiji was the day the Mahatma observed strict silence. However, they managed to meet Gandhiji who gave them a patient hearing. He then wrote on a piece of paper, ‘Adopt any peaceful means that will enable you to serve the people’.
On their return to Kodagu, Congress leaders decided to take part in the elections for the Coorg Advisory Board. Poonacha wanted to contest from south Kodagu, but he was asked to stand for the seat from Madikeri. When the results were announced Poonacha lost the election. He was deeply disappointed. This was the beginning of rivalry within the Congress Party in Kodagu.
Poonacha resigned from the position of sub-Editor of ‘Kodagu’ newspaper in 1939. B.D. Ganapathy took his place. In response to Gandhiji’s call, Poonacha continued in the freedom movement as a sworn ‘satyagrahi.’ In 1941, he took part in a demonstration in Madikeri against British policies, and in involving Indian soldiers in the war. He was arrested along with other satyagrahis like Pandiyanda Belliappa, Biddanda Cariappa, Korana Devaiah and Kollimada Carumbaiah. They were sentenced to four month’s detention at Trichirappalli. This detention was different from earlier imprisonments. Satyagrahis were treated as political prisoners and were classified as Class ‘A’ and Class ‘B’ detainees. All the detainees from Kodagu came in the latter category. Within the detention-camp, satyagrahis were free to move about and wear their own clothes. They were provided better food, reading material, and were allowed to have group discussions and discourses that were educational in nature.
For young satyagrahis like Poonacha, these detentions provided an opportunity to further their education under well-known intellectuals. Also present at this detention camp were C. Rajagopalachari, K. Santhanam, Prof. N.G. Ranga, V.V. Giri, Gopala Reddy, Sanjeeva Reddy, Srinivas Mallya, A.B. Shetty and R. Venkataraman. The highlight of every evening was C. Rajagopalachari’s ‘evening talk’. He spoke on a variety subjects including Indian epics, Shakespeare and history. V.V. Giri took classes on constitutional law. They had group discussions and debates. In addition, Poonacha learnt to speak, read, and write Hindi; and cleared the ‘Rastrabasha’ examination.
On his return from Trichirappalli jail, his worried parents insisted that he marry and settle down. In May 1941, he got married. He started spending more time improving his property. There was a brief lull in the freedom movement because of World War II.
In August 1942, as a member of A.I.C.C., he travelled to Bombay where Mahatma Gandhi was to preside over the meeting. On 9th August 1942, Mahatma Gandhi gave the momentous ultimatum to the British – ‘Quit India’. This historic venue is now known as the ‘August Kranti Maidan’. The entire country rose in unison to this call from Mahatma Gandhi. The British started arresting leaders of the Congress Party all over the country.
Most of the leaders of Congress including Pandiyanda Belliappa were arrested in Coorg. The police were searching for Poonacha, but he was still away in Bombay. As a relatively unknown member of the Congress, the police in Bombay did not arrest him. Some of the senior leaders of the party from Karnataka wanted to send sensitive documents to Dharwad. As they were sure to be arrested by the following morning, they identified Poonacha as the ideal person to carry these documents to Karnataka Congress Head Quarters in Dharwad. Poonacha readily agreed.
He boarded the train to Dharwad, and for the next two days travelled in third class under most uncomfortable conditions. He had to avoid attracting the attention of the police. By the time the train pulled into Dharwad station, it was two O’ clock in the morning. He carried his precious cargo and walked towards Congress Head Quarters. As he approached the office, he was dismayed to find the building brightly lit, and the place swarming with police. They were pulling out documents from cupboards and checking the premises.
He then thought of Srinivasrao Koujalige, an ardent Gandhian, who was in charge of the Khadi Bhandar. It was about three in the morning by the time he reached the house of Koujalige. He tentatively knocked the door. Koujalige family was sure it was the police. They were relieved to see Poonacha and welcomed him to their home. By then Poonacha was tired to the bone, sleep deprived and very hungry. Under the affectionate care of the elderly Koujalige couple, it took three days for Poonacha to recover from the fatigue of the arduous task. Having accomplished the responsibility given to him, he set out homewards. Just then, he received news from his friend Ramamurthy lawyer that his first-born child did not survive.
Back home, his wife and parents were worried. Ever since his trip to Bombay, there was no news of Poonacha. Coorg police were waiting to arrest ‘Sarpastra Poonacha’. To avoid arrest, Ramamurthy arranged a car to pick-up Poonacha at the check-post near Anechowkur. They drove straight to Palangala where his wife was staying with her parents. By then the police got wind of Poonacha heading to his in-laws place. They were there to ‘greet’ him! Police sub-Inspector A.S. Kalappa was ready to arrest Poonacha. By then familiar with the law-enforcers, Poonacha requested Inspector Kalappa to give him time until the following day when he would on his own surrender at the police station. Inspector Kalappa was kind and understanding of the situation, and agreed.
The following day Poonacha was arrested under the Defence of India Act. He was first taken to Kannur jail and from there to the jail at Vellore. He was sentenced to 20 months detention.
On his return to Coorg after completing the detention, Poonacha got busy with the impending election to the 24 member Coorg Advisory Board. This time he contested from Ponnampet and won. Congress garnered majority with 15 seats. When there was a contest between Pandiyanda Belliappa and C.M. Poonacha for the post of President of the Board, Poonacha was elected with an impressive majority.
The British finally announced Independence. Poonacha was deputed to New Delhi to participate in this important event at the Central hall of Parliament on 15 August 1947. It was one of the most cherished moments in his life.
Jawaharlal Nehru took charge as the first prime minister of Independent India. The central government now had the important task of formulating a constitution for the newly formed nation. 299 representatives were elected from different parts of India as members of the Constituent Assembly. C.M. Poonacha was nominated to represent Coorg. Affixing his signature on the Constitution of India in January 1950 was another defining moment in the life of Poonacha.
My father, C.M. Poonacha went on to occupy many important positions at state and national levels. However, ushering-in freedom on 15 August 1947, and signing the Constitution of India were his most treasured experiences.