India had its first May Day celebration under the leadership of M Singaravelu Chettiar, now simply known as Comrade Singaravelar or Singaravelu, in 1925 in today’s Chennai. It was nearly four decades after the Haymarket incident in Chicago in 1886.
Singaravelar was far more than one of the country’s earliest Left thinkers. He was a multi-linguist who spoke German, French and Russian. Speaking to Newsclick and the Indian Cultural Forum, G Ramakrishnan, the Tamil Nadu State Secretary of CPI, recalls Singaravelar as a social reformer too. When Singaravelar gave his presiding address at the Kanpur Conference in 1925, also referred to as the First Indian Communist Conference, he spoke of the need to eradicate untouchability in Tamil Nadu. He was a fierce campaigner for scientific temper and knowledge. Calling him “a pioneer in this aspect”, Ramakrishnan points out that Singaravelar wrote extensively on these themes in EV Ramasamy’s journal Kudi Arasu,. Speaking to the Indian Cultural Forum, Pulavar Veeramni, one of the foremost researchers in Tamil Nadu on Singaravelar, also spoke of his commitment to science, rationality and social reform. Singaravelar was originally a Congressman, but left the party in 1928. Until the mid-1930s, he stayed with Periyar and the Self-Respect Movement, writing on critical topics like environmental conservation, translating works of people like Freud into Tamil, and writing scientific commentaries on themes such as the Theory of Relativity, the Nebular Hypothesis, and the contributions of Giordano Bruno, for Kudi Arasu. After leaving Periyar over ideological differences, he continued to publish similar articles in his own scientific journal called Pudhu Ulagu (A New World). He also translated works of Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, and Herbert Spencer into Tamil. Reportedly, his insightful critique of Das Kaptial was the reason he was invited to give the presiding address at the Kanpur Conference in the first place.
Pualvar Veeramani tells us that Singaravelar also wrote on and envisioned a “world without war” as a reaction to the terrible fallout of the First World War. He stood his ground when Sardar Patel did not want to include sex education in schools based on conservative sentiments.
His writings on caste, education, science and more are available in Tamil publications even today.
Singaravelar courted arrest for his participation in the South Indian Railway Strike in 1928, serving a four and a half month prison sentence in 1930. He died in 1946. The then Chennai Collectorate was named Singaravelar Maaligai in his honour, as was the M. Singaravelar Memorial Group House Scheme.