Sidhalu Street in the Choolai area commemorates Gazulu Sidloo Chetty a man in the business of indigo, dye and cloth in the 1830s.
He was also to become the first Indian member of the Madras Chamber of Commerce, founded in 1836. In the picture is his son Gazulu Latchminarasu Chetty, born in 1806. He succeeded to the business and the Madras Chamber’s membership in the 1840s. But it was through his activities outside of business that he attained immortality.
In 1852, he began the Madras Native Association to counter missionary activity in the Presidency. Evangelists were then bringing out a periodical, The Record, and to oppose it he bought a foundering local publication, the Native Circulator and renamed it The Crescent, publishing it from The Hindu Press, Armenian Street.
He realised early that the East India Company was not the final court of appeal as there was a British parliament that could be petitioned directly. Those were also times when backbenchers in the House of Commons, especially those in the Opposition, could be induced to ask an uncomfortable question or two about conditions in India. Thanks to his frequent letters and articles on the subject, MPs came to know about native cultivators tortured by landlords if they failed to pay their rents and taxes. This led to Danby Seymour, an MP, coming to Madras to investigate.
Seymour and Latchiminarasu toured the Presidency and the former was much moved by what he saw. Back in England, Seymour got Parliament to set up a Commission of Enquiry. The Madras Native Association provided material for what became known as the Torture Commission, which held most of its hearings on Mount Road. While nothing much came from this, Latchminarasu became famous enough to attract the friendship of advocate-general JB Norton. This was to get him a seat on the board of Pachaiyappa Charities.
However, his paper, which specialised in investigative journalism, was to land him in trouble. The governor, the Marquis of Tweeddale took exception to its reporting confidential government information and an enquiry was launched. A mole in government service was discovered and The Crescent had to close.
Undaunted, Latchminarasu launched a new paper – The Rising Sun. In 1855, he got a petition signed by 14,000 people sent to England demanding that the governance of India be taken over by the Crown directly. This was to become a reality after the Mutiny of 1857.
With the East India Company fading away, the new administration favoured Latchminarasu. He became a member of the Madras Legislative Council in 1863, the second Indian to do so.
Such a life of activity though, did not leave him with enough time for his business, which collapsed by the 1860s. It was to be revived later by his kinsmen. His paper folded up in 1863 and he died in 1868.
This article appeared in The Hindu under the Hidden Histories Column
Thanks also to Karthik Bhatt, who first gave me details of Gazulu and who also wrote an article on the man for Madras Musings. Later, a page on Gazulu appeared in my book – Championing Enterprise, 175 years of the Madras Chamber of Commerce and Industry.