Accamma Cherian: The Jhansi Rani of Travancore
“I am the leader, shoot me first before you kill others,” dared the fearless Accamma Cherian to British soldiers who took up positions to open fire on a sea of protesters led by her.
In my Facebook series on forgotten women freedom fighters, let me share the story of the braveheart from erstwhile Travancore (now Kerala), Accamma Cherian.
Accamma was born in the year 1909 to Thomman Cherian and Annamma Karippaparambil of Kanjirapally, Travancore. After completing her Bachelor’s degree in History, she started working as a teacher at St. Mary’s School, Edakkara.
Although, her career got a big boost when she became the headmaster of the school, she longed to see her motherland as a free nation and decided to fight against the oppressive colonial rule.
In 1938, Accamma Cherian quit her well-respected teaching job and joined the freedom movement. She became an active member of the Travancore State Congress, an organization which was leading the independence movement in that part of the country.
In Travancore, people were unhappy with the functioning of the then ruler, and Travancore State Congress was leading the protests. But the Dewan of Travancore had decided to suppress the agitation and banned the State Congress in August, 1938 by using his discretionary powers.
This gave birth to a civil disobedience movement, the first of its kind in Kerala. Various state Congress leaders including its President Pattom A. Thanu Pillai were put behind bars after which they decided to change their method of agitation. The President was given independent powers to choose a successor while the working committee was dissolved. Eleven Presidents of the State Congress were arrested one by one and the movement started to fall like a pack of cards. Kuttanad Ramakrishna Pillai, the eleventh president before his arrest nominated Accamma Cherian as his successor. A Strikers’ Union was formed and the Congress found their new leader in this bold, daring and charismatic woman. She organized a massive rally to put pressure on Dewan to release the jailed leaders and to bring a responsible government in Travancore.
It is said that a huge number of people, around 20,000, joined the protest. They began marching towards the Kowdiar Palace demanding the revocation of the ban on state congress and release of congress leaders. The brave Accamma was leading the protesters.
Famous author EM Kavoor once while describing the historic scene said, “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…”
The British Police Chief in order to stop the protestors from marching towards the Palace ordered his men to open fire on them.
On hearing the orders, Accamma shouted at the Officer, “I am the leader; shoot me first before you kill others”. Her courage forced the police authorities to withdraw their orders and a big massacre was avoided. People across the country admired her valour and Gandhi ji gave her the title of ‘The Jhansi Rani of Travancore.’
Accamma then set up a women’s volunteer group, Desasevika Sangh and began inspiring the women to join the freedom movement. Perceiving her to be a big threat, authorities arrested Accamma along with her sister Rosamma Punnose (also a prominent freedom fighter) on 24th December, 1939 and put them in jail for a year.
But nothing stopped this Veerangana from putting up a stronger fight for country’s freedom after her release. She continued to challenge the British forces and was again arrested for supporting Quit India movement in 1942.
Finally, India attained independence in 1947 but the mission was not yet over for Accamma. Dewan of Tranvancore was dreaming of an independent statehood. Therefore, now Accamma continued her fight for accession of Travancore to the Indian Union. She faced arrests during these protests too. Her patriotism and fighting spirit made her a popular figure in the region and she was elected unopposed to the Travancore Legislative Assembly.
Even after independence, Accamma continued to work for social reforms and promotion of literacy and education. She was a woman of high moral values who opposed injustice in every form as is evident in the introduction to her autobiography Jeevitham: Oru Samaram (Life: A Protest)–
‘Shakespeare has said that the world is a stage and that all the men and women merely players; but to me this life is a long protest – protest against conservatism, meaningless rituals, societal injustice, gender discrimination, against anything that is dishonest, unjust…’
Accamma Cherian is one of the many brave women freedom fighters of this country whose story of valour got lost in the pages of history. We need to understand that these great women went against all odds to fight for their motherland and made huge sacrifices–both personal and professional.
I feel that their inspirational stories should be included in our school textbooks so that coming generations get to know of the sacrifices made by these great men and women to free the country from the clutches of the British rule.