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Portrait of George Joseph

George Joseph, a barrister, fiery nationalist, avant-garde journalist, pioneer trade unionist, and ardent champion of important public causes, has etched an indelible place in the history of India's war for Independence. He hailed from Kerala and was not just a pioneer in several fields, he was also a staunch supporter of Annie Besant's Home Rule movement and Gandhiji’s Non-Cooperation movement during India's freedom struggle.

He was born in Chenganoor (Kerala)in 1887, which at that time was part of the Travancore Kingdom. He completed his Law at the University of Edinburgh and it was during his stay in London that he became acquainted with notable freedom fighters like Madam Cama, S K Verma, S R Rana, and Veer Savarkar. He returned to India after finishing his education and though he established his legal practice initially in Chennai, he eventually shifted it to Madurai. George Joseph went on to become a famous criminal lawyer in Madurai. From the time he started practising there, he championed the cause of Madurai's tribes, such as the Piramalai Kallars and Maravars. In 1920, following the Perungamanallur firing (also referred to as the Jallianwalla Bagh of the South), the British implemented the Criminal Tribes Act, labelling these groups as criminals. He vehemently opposed the Act by voicing his opinions in newspapers and he also represented these communities in court proceedings. The residents of these settlements gave him the name 'Rosapoo Durai' (a Rose amongst Leaders), as a symbol of their gratitude.

In Madurai, he was also a key figure in the formation of one of India's first trade unions. In 1918, J N Ramanathan and George Joseph founded the Madurai Labour Union, the city's first labour union. George Joseph was deeply concerned about the ongoing situation in the country. He vehemently fought for civil and human rights, took up cases of the downtrodden, and battled against communalism, religion, caste, and gender. It is said that his knowledge of Constitutional Law was unparalleled. He is said to have organised the first mill workers' union. His mass appeal was such that he could sway the emotions of the people easily and had the qualities to persuade a crowd of 20,000 to sign the Satyagraha pledge at one go.

Statue of Barrister George Joseph at Yanaikkal Junction (Madurai)

A book about George Joseph

However, it was Gandhiji’s clarion call to join the freedom struggle that prompted him to give up his flourishing legal career. It is said that George Joseph was the first Christian to get involved in the freedom movement from the Southern states of India and he was one of the pioneers who tried to bridge the North-South divide. As the editor of The Independent, which was a task assigned to him by Motilal Nehru, he proved his mettle with his intellect, eloquence, masterly writings, and sound political judgement. He set high standards for national newspapers, which were emulated by others. In 1923, he also took on the Editorship of Gandhiji’s weekly publication, Young India.

In 1924-25, George Joseph got involved in the Vaikom battle for Dalits. This was a movement launched in Vaikom (Kerala) to get temple entry and also the right to use public roads for every Hindu irrespective of caste or creed. George Joseph was a man on a mission. A staunch supporter of women’s rights, he was also vocal about mixed marriages and had liberal views on the right to be socially emancipated. During his last days, he encouraged uniform treatment and legal status for all religious groups in matters of marriage, divorce and inheritance. He passed away on 05 March 1938 and was laid to rest in Keerathurai in Madurai.