The boy who brought Gandhi to a village near Coimbatore, instilled patriotic fervour in people

Srinivasa Thiyagi (1923-2002), known as Bettaiyan, convinced Tiruppur Subrahmanya Avinashilingam Chettiar, a freedom fighter and former Education Minister of the Madras Presidency, to give consent for his joining a delegation travelling to Madras. While in Madras, he met Gandhi and pleaded with him to visit his native place

Updated - May 15, 2024 06:12 am IST

Published - May 14, 2024 11:03 pm IST

The Bettaiyan memorial at Sokkampalayam. The freedom fighter’s legacy is not widely known, except for a mention on the Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav website.

The Bettaiyan memorial at Sokkampalayam. The freedom fighter’s legacy is not widely known, except for a mention on the Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav website. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Within the intricate fabric of India’s independence struggle lie the tales of unsung heroes, their deeds buried in the sands of time. One such hero is Thiyagi Bettaiyan, of Annur, an agricultural town not far from Coimbatore city.

Having been inspired by the freedom movement at an early age, Srinivasa Thiyagi (1923-2002), popular known as Bettaiyan (meaning hunter), was a boy when he played a role in getting Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, who was visiting Madras, to travel to Sokkampalayam village in Annur. Bettaiyan convinced Tiruppur Subrahmanya Avinashilingam Chettiar, a prominent freedom fighter and former Education Minister of the Madras Presidency, who used to frequent Annur, to give consent for his joining a delegation travelling to Madras. While in Madras, Bettaiyan met Gandhi and pleaded with him to visit his native place.

Campaign for road

After Gandhi agreed, Bettaiyan impressed upon the village elders the need to build a road for the leader’s visit. A donation was mobilised. “He recognised that the road also meant development,” remarks Bettaiyan’s niece R. Chandrakanthi. Preparations were made for Gandhi’s visit on the grounds where the Annur bus stand is. However, not content with Gandhi limiting his visit to Annur, Bettaiyan participated in a sit-in with elders, prompting Gandhi to make an impromptu stop at Sokkampalayam. “To everyone’s surprise, Gandhi agreed,” recalls K.P. Murugan, Annur chronicler.

Moving speech

The same day, a stage came up on a 20-acre plot, now the site of a government school — one of the district’s earliest — for Gandhi’s address. “The struggle commences at the grassroots, we must turn ‘tyagis’ for the nation’s advancement,” Chandrakanthi quotes Gandhi as saying. Moved by Gandhi’s words, the 200-odd villagers pledged their allegiance to the independence movement and made monetary contributions.

“Mahatma Gandhi himself visited this village, and together with Thiyagi Bettaiyan, they organised various events on constructive work. As a result, he became a devout follower of Gandhi,” says a contributory note by Suguna Devi on The Gandhi Museum of Coimbatore, published on the Government of India’s Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav website. “Thiyagi Bettaiyan dedicated himself to the development of the village, and it was through his relentless efforts that the museum came into existence,” she adds.

His commitment to the freedom movement meant Bettaiyan’s incarceration four times. According to records available with the Annur Town Panchayat, the first imprisonment followed his refusal to pay taxes imposed by the British for his pest-infested banana plantation. He was sent to the Coimbatore Central Prison. The second time Bettaiyan was arrested was in 1942 for spearheading a protest to demand a bus stand in his remote village.

A fight for bus service

Then followed a persistent battle for a bus service. Bettaiyan was keen on linking Sokkampalayam with neighbouring towns, like Mettupalayam, to secure the livelihood of the locals. Finally, in 1944, bus number 6 was operated to Mettupalayam through Annur.

“With this bus, my grandmother, who had lived in the village for 90 years, could get beyond its boundaries,” says Srinivasa Chetti, a fifth-generation descendant of Bettaiyan’s comrade. Yet, this action meant spending six months in Alipore’s formidable prison. There, he fell sick and was subsequently transferred to the Vellore prison where he crossed paths again with Avinashilingam, who, in his fourth jail term, was conducting Tirukkural classes for the inmates.

The third arrest happened in 1943, when he, for empowering women of Sokkampalayam with hand weaving machines, sought to establish a workshop for their livelihood.

“A wave of crop failures had engulfed Annur, leaving several farmers struggling to sustain themselves. A group of women appealed to the village leaders to establish a handloom centre to generate income. Recognising the urgency of their plight, Bettaiyan invested his savings in the equipment, with assistance from Avinashilingam. However, upon the arrival of the equipment-laden bullock carts, they were halted by officials who took this for a boycott of foreign goods in solidarity with the national movement,” recounts panchayat president M. Paramasivam.

Spurred by the outcry from the villagers, the authorities relented, leading to Bettaiyan’s release and the eventual establishment of the centre.

Bettaiyan was apprehended the fourth time for organising a fast at Annur, advocating the nation’s liberation from the British. But his health deteriorated in the Coimbatore prison. “Once again, villagers rallied, mobilising funds to secure his release,” says Mr. Murugan, also the headmaster of Desiya Vidhya Salai Primary School, established by Bettaiyan.

First all-girls hostels

Bettaiyan also established the district’s first all-girls hostels with the help of Avinashilingam. Currently, the village boasts six hostels for college students. “These deeds notwithstanding, his legacy persists just as a faint murmur, spare a brief mention on the Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav website,” says Ms. Chandrakanthi.

Nevertheless, Mr. Murugan, who frequently takes school students on field trips to the Sokkampalayam Gandhi Museum, believes that Bettaiyan’s legacy is not just text or images, but bus number 6. “The bus is still affectionately referred to as Bettaiyan bus.”

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