This article on Gazulu Lakshminarasu Chetty was published in the current issue of Madras Musings. He was an early Madras activist and one of the earliest Indians to own a newspaper, the Madras Crescent.
Gazulu Lakshminarasu Chetty was born in 1806 at Periamet in an affluent family. His father, Sidhulu Chetty, was into the trade in Madras handkerchiefs, indigo and dyes, and was carrying on business under the name Sidhulu Chetty & Co. The business was a prominent one of the times and Sidhulu Chetty was one of the two Indians to become founder-members of the Madras Chamber of Commerce in 1836. A street in the Choolai area of the city commemorates him even now.
Lakshminarasu had his elementary education at the Native Association Society’s School. Even at a young age, he joined Debating Societies taking a keen interest in the various political matters of the time. After his schooling, he joined his father’s firm as an apprentice and was soon made an active member of the firm. He later took over as the sole proprietor after the death of his father. The cotton export trade was booming at that time and Lakshminarasu, investing in it, amassed a tremendous fortune. He also succeeded his father as a member of the Madras Chamber of Commerce.
With the business flourishing, Lakshminarasu Chetty had time and resources to devote to political activities. He was an exception in the midst of the ignorant public who believed that the issues of public interest were wholly at the mercy of the Governor and the Council at Fort St George, unaware of the existence of a Court of Directors of the East India Company (EIC) in England to whom grievances could be addressed when necessary. Lakshminarasu set up the Madras Native Association in 1852 as a branch of the British Indian Association, Calcutta, to serve as a forum for expressing Indian opinion. He later split with the BIA and made the MNA an independent body.
Lakshminarasu was completely against proselytising missionaries who, he felt, were functioning in Madras with the active connivance of the Government. The Government was contemplating a legislation whereby Hindu youth could convert without prejudice to their right to hereditary property. Lakshminarasu convened a public meeting, and a memorandum signed by those present was sent to the EIC in England. The Government had to give in and drop the legislation.
To fight the missionaries, Lakshminarasu bought the Native Circulator, a newspaper founded by one Narayanaswamy Naidu and renamed it The Crescent. This paper took on The Record, which was the missionary media vehicle. The first editor of The Crescent was one Mr. Harley, an ex-army man. The first copy of the journal was brought out on October 2, 1844. The paper was to face difficulties from its inception as the Government denied it privileges granted to other newspapers. On one occasion, an advertisement for insertion in the Fort St.George Gazette was returned as inadmissible as it was “of a character not usually inserted.”
The Crescent was published from Lakshminarasu’s Hindu Press on Armenian Street. Initially, it was a bi-weekly published on Wednesdays and Saturdays, in addition to a special half-sheet edition every Monday evening. Leading people of the time such as Madhava Rao, Sadasiva Pillai, Seshayya Sastri and Rama Iyengar were regular contributors. It enjoyed a circulation of more than 10,000 in its heyday.
The paper was one of the earliest in the Presidency to adopt investigative journalism. Lakshminarasu Chetty succeeded in getting employees of the government to supply him with news from the Government files. One of the agents to be employed by him was a Vencataroyulu Naidu, a translator in the government’s petition department, who was later transferred to the Chingleput Collectorate in the same capacity. His modus operandi was to bring the public papers in his pockets in a secret manner, make copies and return them the next morning. Lakshminarasu also appointed agents in other departments who supplied him with papers. The whole process worked efficiently for quite some time until confidential remarks made by the Governor, the Marquis of Tweeddale, found their way into the journal. Serious cognisance was taken of the issue and an inquiry was ordered.
Samuel Bowie, an employee of The Crescent turned approver and the complicity of Vencataroyulu Naidu and others stood revealed. Enquiries showed that Vencataroyulu used to publish letters containing information from public records under the columns “Vindex” and “Plain Speaking Man”. The public was divided over the issue and many anonymous letters both in support of and against the accused were addressed to the Government. The Chief Secretary of the time I.J.Thomas summarily dismissed all people connected with the affair. Vencataroyulu Naidu was disqualified from holding any public office for a further period of 7 years. Soon after, he began practising law in the Sadr court. But the bug of journalism had bitten him hard and he established a press called the Rising Sun, bringing out a magazine under the same name focussing on social problems of the Hindu community. This venture did not last long and came to a close with his death in 1863.
In 1852, Lakshminarasu played host to Danby Seymour, MP, when he visited India. Seymour had heard of Lakshminarasu thanks to the frequent memos raised by him on various matters. Lakshminarasu accompanied Seymour on a tour of Southern India visiting places such as Cuddalore, Kumbakonam, etc. The plight of the land owners who were assessed at prohibitive rates and the defaulters who were physically tortured disturbed the duo. Seymour made notes of what he saw and presented them in the House of Commons in July 1854. The matter was debated upon and a Torture Commission was set up in September that year to conduct an inquiry. The Madras Native Association played no small role in making this happen, thanks to the frequent complaints and memos in the matter.
In 1854, Lakshminarasu Chetty was appointed one of the Trustees of the Pachaiyappas Trust at the behest of his good friend, J.B.Norton. In 1855, Lakshminarasu sent a petition signed by about 14,000 persons praying that the administration of the British Territories be handed over by the East India Company to the Crown. This was one of a series of agitations led by Lakshminarasu in Madras and by others in Bombay and Bengal which led to radical changes such as throwing open appointments in the Civil Services to competitions and reducing the strength of the Court of Directors to eighteen from thirty, six of whom were to be nominated by the Crown. This was one of the key factors, along with the Mutiny of 1857, that led to the placing of India under the direct control of the Queen. These activities were, however, not viewed in favourable light by the Government and Lakshminarasu was labelled a seditious person whose activities needed watching.
The appointment of a new set of Executive Officers’ posts in 1857 brought about a change in the attitude of the Madras Government towards Lakshminarasu and he was awarded the Companion of the Order of the Star of India in 1861. He was also made a member of the Madras Legislative Council in 1863 on the death of the Hon. V. Sadagopa Charlu. By 1864, Lakshminarasu was in poor financial state, his active espousal of social causes having no doubt made him neglect his business. His newspaper, The Crescent, had also ceased to do well and was wound up in 1863. The family trade, however, seems to have been later revived by a person named G. Narasimooloo, who became an agent of the Madras and Mysore Silk Company set up by the De Vecchi Brothers of Italy.
Lakshminarasu Chetty passed away in 1868.
1. Representative Men of Southern India by G. Parameswaram Pillai published in 1896.
2. Origins and Growth of Political Consciousness in Andhra during the Nineteenth Century – A Thesis Paper for doctorate degree submitted to the University of Hyderabad by K.H.S.S. Sundar, 1994.