This village in Karnataka was the first in India to declare itself independent! The story of Esuru

In August 1942, when Mahatma Gandhi called for the Quit India movement, a tiny village in Karnataka’s Shivamogga had already decided to break free.  it became the first village in India to declare itself independent.

At Esuru there is an engraved black stone at the renovated courtyard of a temple honouring those who sacrificed themselves for the dream of freedom from the British Raj.

While Gandhi was calling for the British to ‘Quit India’, a small village in Shikaripur Taluk of Shimoga (Shivamogga) district had already declared Independence from colonial rule.

This bold decision by the farmers of Esuru resonated across the nation. But the consequences were brutal and bloody.

On September 28th, 1942, Esuru declared its Independence and set up its own ‘prati sarkar’. It was at a village gathering protesting against the high taxes that year when the decision was taken not to pay taxes and appoint ‘prati sarkar’.

Expecting a backlash, they prepared to face the British. They put up a board reading, ‘Swaraj Sarkar’ and hoisted the tricolour.

When British officials tried to enter Esuru, there was a ‘riot’ which led to the death of a revenue officer and a revenue ‘amaldar’. Red-faced, the British government sent police troops to reclaim the village. Esuru paid a price for the rebellion — five youth were hanged and hundreds were imprisoned.

The youths who had worn the Gandhi caps, hoisted the tricolour flag on the Veerabhadreshwar temple. They also displayed placards, warning irresponsible officers of the government not to enter the village.

Appointed to this provisional government were two 16-year-olds—Jayanna (appointed Tehsildar) and Malapayya (appointed sub-inspector). Influential grassroots leader Sahukar Basavenappa took the decision to appoint these teenagers because they were minors, and thus couldn’t be jailed.

Alongside his fellow freedom fighters, Basavenappa came up with a set of rules and regulations for the village in complete defiance of the administration.

Officers of the revenue department who came to collect taxes met with the anger of the farmers of Esuru. These farmers entered into a spat with the officials and tore up the documents of taxation.

As a result a complaint was lodged against the village for non-payment of taxes, and 10 officials, including a tehsildar, sub-inspector and eight policemen, were sent to manage the situation.

Basavaradhya, a descendent of Basvenappa narrates the incident,

A crowd had assembled at the open field near the temple again. This time the villagers forced the Tehsildar and Sub-inspector to wear Gandhi caps.

Threatened by the heated atmosphere that had started to build up, Kenchegowda fired a few shots in the air. However, it only worsened the situation which ended up in the lynching of both officers.

This enraged the British administration.

In response, they sent the army four days later to quell the rebellion, and these government soldiers took part in looting and atrocities against the locals who hadn’t managed to escape.

Those who did manage to escape were hiding out in the nearby jungles. After the raid by the British administration, the local police made several arrests, following which five of the mutineers Gurappa, Malappa, Suryanarayanachar, Halappa and Shankarappa were sentenced to death for their role in the death of the two British officials, while three women were given stringent life sentences.

However, upon hearing the news of Esuru rebellion, the Mysore Maharaja Jayachamaraja Wodeyer coined the phrase, “yesuru kottaru Esuru kodevu” (We may give you many villages but not Esuru)”.

Although he couldn’t save the five men, but he managed to convince the local governor into commuting the death sentences of many who had fought aganist the British.

There are those in Esuru who even today have a vivid memory of the incident. Plays have been written and staged on what was considered the first native freedom struggle.

Lakshminarayanappa wrote and staged Esuru Shooraru about the uprising.

  1. Veerupakshappa’s doctorate, on the freedom struggle in Malnad region, describes Esuru as “the first village in Karnataka to declare Independence, and running a parallel government”.

Basavaraj Vaibhav is directing Esuru Dhange (Esuru rebellion), based on the struggle. The movie focuses on role of Suryanarayanachar, one of the village residents who was hanged on March 9, 1943.

These are the stories we won’t read in a standard textbook. This is a tale of simpleton village farmers who dared to take on an empire.

Dr Sindhu Prashanth