The progressive Kerala we see today is not the same Kerala from a century or two ago. Today’s Kerala is a result of long historical struggle against numerous discriminations on the basis of caste, class and other societal divisions. Such divisions still exist today, but the restrictions faced by lower castes back then can be equated with many slavery regimes around the world. Lower caste communities were restricted from getting education, from walking on road, taking water from public wells and entering temples. Women were raped, and men beaten up for the smallest of slights – and none of these atrocities could be questioned or the perpetrator be punished.
Such atrocities against lower caste communities were numerous and inhuman when the feudal (janmi) system existed in Kerala. One social reformer who played a vital role towards the upliftment of such communities in Kerala by organising Dalits and fighting for their rights was Ayyankali, also called ‘Mahatma Ayyankali’. In the words of E.K.Nayanar, “Ayyankali was the first leader of people-led liberation and revolution.”
Ayyankali born in 1863 in Vengoor, Trivandrum. He was one of seven children born to a Pulaya family, which is a Dalit/ “untouchable” caste mainly found in the regions of Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. He was also illiterate, like all other Dalits of the time. At a time when Dalits were restricted from walking on roads, Ayyankali passed through the public roads of Vengoor on a bullock cart, which was exclusive to the upper caste and were codified by caste-based rules known as jati marayada, which governed all aspects of social behaviour.
“These bullock carts, also known as villuvandi, carried young men-about-town, almost exclusively landowning, upper-caste Nairs. Dressed in a spotless white shirt, white mundu, and matching white turban, the Nair riding his villuvandi assumed the haughty air of a master surveying his subjects; out to observe his inferiors as much as be seen as a superior. These Nairs, and other upper-caste men and women, had the exclusive right of way, on bullock cart or on foot, the right to wear clean white clothes, and, of course, the right to ride a villuvandi. These rights were codified through caste-based rules or norms known as jati maryada, which governed all aspects of social behavior.”
(Caste as performance: Ayyankali and the Caste Scripts of Colonial Kerala)
Ayyankali mobilised many people and took a ‘walk for freedom’ to Puthem Market. This act angered the upper caste and led to a riot in which many people were injured. But the whole episode had clearly shaken the upper castes.
In 1904, a school was built under Ayyankali’s leadership as schooling was denied to “lower caste” at that time. It was soon destroyed by upper caste men. Ayyankali then formed Sadhu Jana Paripalana Sangham (SJPS) and submitted petitions requesting the government to allow Dalit children entry to schools. As a result, in 1907, the government passed an order in favour of the request. However, officials and school management that consisted of landlords refused to implement the order.
Realising that requests would not help, he called for a strike and challenged the lords, “If you don’t allow our children to study, weeds will grow in your fields”, leading to Kerala’s first worker’s strike. The upper caste men tried to use force and different methods to stop the workers from the strike, and believed it would not last long as the protestors would run out food.
“The landlords planted rice seedlings. Since it was already out of season, plants didn’t sprout grains. Landlords unused to working in the hot sun suffered health problems. When some landlords tried to adjust, the workers demanded high wages.
With food grains running short, both landlords and workers suffered. Destruction faced both exploiter and exploited. The kitchen fires had stopped burning. Prolonged hunger made many workers to waver.”
Ayyankali, with the help of the fishermen community, made sure the workers don’t go starving. In the end, it was the land owners had to give in at the end and accepted the demands to raise wages, and allow for education and travel.
As Sunil P. Illayidom rightly argues, “None of the rights enjoyed today was given by the savarnas out of goodness, but earned through numerous struggles.”
Remembering Ayyankali on his birth anniversary on August 28 last year, CM Pinarayi Vijayan said,
“Ayankali was at the forefront of great personalities who had ushered the southern state to era of modernity by shedding the light of renaissance upon the darkness of feudalism, caste system and evil practices prevailed in the then society. Not just for Dalits, but he also fought for the rights of women, farmers and grassroot level workers.”
Mahatma Ayyankali worked for the upliftment for Dalits and even if mainstream history forgets his contributions, his legend will never die. Ayyankali and his fight is yet another example of how freedom has always been earned and never given. With growing atrocities against Dalits in India these days, Ayyankali shows the way for continuous resistance and collective action.
Anne Mary Shaju is pursuing a Masters in History at Delhi University. She is interested in gender, and economic and socio-political oral histories.