(A brief biography of a Dalit freedom fighter).
He was born Kali on 28 August 1863 to Ayyan and Mala of Venganoor village, 13 KM North of Thiru-vanantha-puram, in Travancore. (Today’s Kerala was formed by combining Southern Travancore, central Kochi and northern Malabar) Later he came to be called Ayyankali. He was one of the seven children of Ayyan of Pulaya caste (agricultural labour).
Ayyan had a benevolent landlord in Govinda Pillai. The landlord cleared jungles to make fields with the help of Ayyan. Later he gifted a small plot to Ayyan. Land owned by a Pulayan created unease among the landed.
Ayyankali grew up to be a tall, well built and handsome young man. He was known for his physical prowess and proficiency in martial arts. He was playing football with children of his age when the ball kicked by Ayyankali fell on the roof of a Nair house. The Nair warned him not to play with upper caste young men.
He took oath never to play with them. He went into a period of deep thought. He came out of a month of contemplation, a la Buddha, with a secret agenda – civil liberties for the untouchables.
(In1888 Ayyankali got married to an ebony coloured beauty Chellamma. He had seven children. The only daughter Thankamma was later married to TT Keshavan Sasthri, speaker of Kerala Assembly.)
He and his group of friends spent their time acting in plays about Raja Harischandra and some plays they themselves had created. The plays had sufficient content of social protest to activate an awakened community of untouchables of Travancore state and the neighbouring states of Kochi and Malabar.
He bought two white bullocks and a cart and tied big brass bells around the animals’ neck. The savarnas were horrified at the arrogance of this Pulayan (pronounced as it is writ- Pu_la_yan). He wore a dhoti, wrapped angavasthram around his shoulders and tied a thalppavu (turban of sorts) and drove the cart up and down the small market.
On his way back home, he was stopped by the upper caste tough guys.
“What? wearing a mulmul dhoti?”
Ayyankali pulled out a long dagger and told them in his booming commanding voice (in a mixture of Tamil and Malayalam prevalent around Thiruvananthapuram) that any one who stops him will get the benefit of the sharp weapon in his hands.
That day he exercised his civil liberty, banned so far for untouchables, and got away with it. The harness bells of his bullock cart rang loud each day in the street and market.
His success gave birth to pride and conscientised other Dalits and rankles the savarnas.
Though Kali could ride in a cart through the streets, other lesser beings were not allowed to walk there. So he took a ‘walk for freedom’ to Puthen Market. When they reached the Chaliyar street of Bala-rama-Puram, an upper caste mob was waiting to prevent them from moving further. There was a riot in which both the parties drew blood in the first armed rebellion of Dalits.
Kali didnot wait for sympathy.
Inspired by Chaliyar Riot, youngsters got out on the streets to win their just basic rights in Manakkadu, Kazhakkoottam, Kaniya- Puram etc in the vicinity of the capital. In the process of upper castes trying to put down the ‘freedom movement, the unrest spread and reached civil war proportions. This new situation emboldened the Dalits to ask for other freedoms and rights denied to them.
During Ayyankali’s younger days, the Dalits were not allowed entry into schools. He wanted atleast the next generation of Dalits to have education.
In 1904 the Pulayas under Kali’s leadership made efforts to start their own schools since they were denied entry into government schools. These schools had no black boards. Sand on the floor was the book and finger the pencil. Thus Dalits challenged the rule that they can not even study in secret. The First school in the history of Dalits was established in Venganoor. But it was destroyed.
Physical attacks by the upper castes tried to prevent further erosion of their feudal monopolies. To this provocation Dalits organised small fighting units to counter them.
He came from Kochi state. He was a Nair who took on himself the job of slowing down the flow of Hindus into Christianity at a high rate. He came to the capital Thiru-vanantha-puram and started preaching in front of the East Fort.
“If the Dalits are not given their rights and civil liberties, the outcome will be very terrible,” he proclaimed.
At this time Ayyankali’s maternal aunt got baptised. Thomas Teacher of that family came to the meeting of the Swamy in a red salvation army coat. He returned and explained the details of the speech he had heard to Ayyankali.
In 1904 itself, the swamy held a week long elaborate Hindu Revival Sammelan next to Kaudiar Palace of the king. Thomas Teacher was there for all seven days in disguise. No one suspected him to be a Dalit being of light complexion. During one meeting, he handed over a letter to the Swamy.
Meanwhile under the leadership of Thomas Teacher a body was formed to oppose un-touchability and denial of human rights with Nandankode Henri, Moolakkonam Harris, Black Thomas Teacher etc.
The Swami got a very hearty welcome from Kali and his group. He interacted with the black people and understood their situation.
“The Dalits must rise up with their own efforts, must get awakened and unite. They must throw up their own leader from among them.”
When the swamy said, “…your leader must be one who can write and read,” Kali felt helpless. There was none among them who could read and write. But there was one Thy-Vilagathu Kali (T.Kali) who had some reading and writing ability that he learned secretly. Swamy named him the leader. There was one more rival to Ayyan Kali – Moolayil Kali (M Kali). The Swamy arrived at a time when the fight between Ayyankali’s opponents was at its zenith.
At the meeting of Dalits there was total chaos. People stood milling around in small groups and refused to sit down. The new leader T Kali tried his level best to bring the meeting to order.
When Swami heard some criticism of Ayyankali, he asked Ayyankali to control the crowd. He took a staff and stared at them and they sat wherever they were. At the same time T Kali was made the ‘Big Kali’ and Ayyankali was made the ‘small Kali’.
There was heavy conversion of all castes to Christian religion. The new converts called the non converts, ignorant, non-believers, outsiders etc and distanced themselves from their un-converted kin. Ayyankali wanted all Dalits, converted and non converted, to be one.
He was invited to a meeting by a ‘Madam’ Colonel of the Salvation Army. She persuaded him to get baptised. He asked for time to make up his mind. At the meeting he was given a special seat. A coconut fell on his head and he became unconscious.
Next day he sent a Huge petition to the Maharaja that conversions are reducing the number of Hindus an that ‘no one should be forcibly converted’ was the order of Queen Victoria.
Following this, the king proclaimed the following order:
“Missionaries should not force anyone into conversion, and, conversion by one’s own will should not be refused.”
The swamy fully utilised the opportunity to form “Bhrahmanishta-matham Sangh”. The swamy also attracted the attention of Majaraja to his novel schemes and got the Sangh registered with the senior officials of the Maharaja associating.
The Maharaja was called the ‘visible manifestation of God’. It was the Custom of the time that this ‘God’ must not be allowed to see Dalits. The ice had to be broken, Swamy decided. But the roads were not open to Dalits. So, the swamy used a ruse. The Dalits took a large picture of the Maharaja in procession on his annual Pooja day. Swamy’s people also joined the fray. Nobody dare remove the picture of Maharaja from the streets nor damage it for fear of punishment or worse. The procession reached East Fort, near Padmanabha Swamy Temple, though Some stone throwing was there on the way.
The black processionists, in their soiled clothes, stood in the fields by the side of the road through which the Royal procession was to proceeded from the Temple to Pujappura where the king attended the annual Pooja. The King was surprised to see the ‘black sheet covered fields’ as a poet described the black people watching their King for the first time. The King wondered at the strange sight of black people who were so far kept far from his view.
Thrilled at their first sight of the Maharaja, they returned in a celebrant mood. All the same, they had committed a double crime. They had walked on the streets and made the Maharaja to set his eyes on them! Soon they were pounced upon by a group of ruffians at Manakkadu. A fierce battle ensued. The ruffians were surprised that Ayyankali’s procession turned out to be a mini armed brigade.
Being forewarned that they would meet more opposition on the way, Ayyankali, like a general in battle, headed towards the sea. After borrowing catamarans from them, they proceeded by sea to Vizhinjom (beyond Thumba Rocket Launching Facility) and to Venganoor, their home. (This fraternisation among the workers is a basic tenet that preceded Mao by qurter of a century, and, Lenin by a decade…though only a variation of Chanakyan and machiavellian ‘enemys enemy being a friend’.)
Sadhu Jana Paripalana Sangham (SJPS).
Though the neo converts to Christianity made fun of the non converts, soon it became obvious to them that the only advantage of conversion was on the spiritual plane. When no economic or social problems were being tackled by the church, Ayyankali also decided to keep his distance from the Hindu Math of Swamy.
To bring together the Dalit Christians and Dalits, he formed SJPS in 1907. SJPS was formed many years after Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Sangham (SNDP) of the backward caste (Theeya in North and Ezhava in South Kerala) was formed. The similarities in the names makes one feel that Ayyankali had in mind the coming together of all the oppressed and depressed segments of Travancore State’s social fabric.
Confident, brave and possessing commanding power, Ayyan Kali was the natural choice as the leader of SJPS. He started not as a leader of any particular caste but was aiming at the deliverance and protection of all Dalits.
The SJPS passed a resolution on a six day week for their members. Sunday was chosen for rest and to conduct meetings to discuss their problems. These meetings were well attended by women and men. The Attendance fee of half Chakram for men and quarter Chakram for women was collected(14.5 Chakram = 1 Rupee).
Kerala’s First Workers’ Strike.
SJPS submitted many petitions to the government to allow Dalit children to study in schools. In 1907 the governmentt passed an order to admit Dalit children to schools. The Dewan of Travancore, Mr. P Rajagopalachari, was supportive. But the officials at the periphery sabotaged the order. Some how Ayyankali got whiff of the order and asked the authorities in Education Dept to enforce the order.
He knocked at the door of schools. The school management consisting of landlords refused to implement the order.
“If you donot allow our children to study, weeds will grow in your fields.” he warned. He cut asunder the last strand of kinship between the landlords and labour.
He added one more demand: ‘make the employees permanent’ by giving pay during off season when there is no work.
The other demands were:
1. Stop Victimisation on whims.
2. Stop Involving workers in false cases.
3. End whipping of workers.
4. Freedom of movement, and,
5. Admission for children in schools.
The landlords didnot agree. The polarisation had gone too far to be reversed.
Ayyankali gave a call to Pulayas and other agricultural worker for strike. His was a historic call, for, he had heralded the first agrarian strike in the history of the world.
The First ever agrarian workers strike.
No processions. No jeeps. No microphones. No pamphlets or banners. Yet, in the fields of Kandala, Kaniyapuram, Pallichal and Mudavooppara to Vizinjom, no worker was seen.
Initially the landlords laughed at the workers. They calculated that when the foodgrains run out, the workers will be back.
Puthalam Krishna Pillai, a landlord, formed a group and did try to intimidate the workers by beating them up at random. ‘Can’t sit back and watch.’ So about twelve landlords got into the fields of stinking clay to work.
They tried to use some backsliders among workers in the fields and met with resistance from Ayyankali Sena. This led to violent encounters between the workers and landlords’ men. At the instigation of landlords, there were some bad blood created between some workers. Soon the workers saw through their ploy and brooked no compromise. The fields turned into jungles.
Starvation stared workers in the face.
The landlords planted rice seedlings. Since it was already out of season, plants didnot sprout grains. Landlords unused to working in 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 a workers to waver.
Now Ayyankali played his trump card. He approached the fishermen community of Vizhinjom and came to an agreement with them. One person from each family was to be put in each fishing boat and given a share of the days catch till the strike was over.
Landlords saw impending defeat at the hands of their dependants. This sent them into helpless rage. They committed atrocities on many workers and set fire to workers’ huts. The commandos of Ayyankali set fire to many houses of landlords in the interior and sent shivers down their spines, not knowing when and where the attack will come from.
Soon, the mood changed to one of compromise. Ayyankali wanted the landlords to come to him, which they did with peace proposals.
The Dewan sent a magistrate to mediate between the two parties.
Raise in wages they agreed to. School entry and travel rights were accepted in principle.
After the victory, the landlords gave what was equivalent to a “Supari” in Mumbai underworld parlance.
Rs 2000/- to bring Ayyankali alive, Rs 1000/- dead.
There followed a lot of blood letting on both sides. But Ayyankali walked Tall ahead of his gang.
His bodyguard was a goonda named Yakub of Dhavuvacha-puram. He had an encounter with some big shots of the area. Police arrested him in the case of one captain Veluppillai losing his hand. Ayyankali protested against the arrest and went on a continuous satyagrana outside the police station till Yakub was released before they applied any third degree.
Mitchell, the director of education, reminded the Dewan about the order he had signed. This reminder brought to the notice of Dewan the fact that his order had been buried safely.Three years after the order to allow Dalits entry into schools was signed, it was released to public in 1910.
Even Ramakrishna Pillai, editor of Swadeshabhimani, came out against the order with ‘…to put together those who have been cultivating their brain for generations with those who have been cultivating their fields is like putting a horse and buffalo in the same yoke.” This coming from one who first published the biography of Marx in Malayalam!
When Ayyankali reached the Ooroot Ambalam school in Balaramapuram with Panchami, the 5 year old daughter of Poojari Ayyan, for admission, accompanied by his supporters, upper caste thugs were waiting there. An intense fight followed with both parties getting injuries.
Around the same time, there was a riot going on in the road junction between Pulayas an Nairs. Nairs attacked Pulaya huts, destroyed many and took away fowls, goats and bullocks. They molested women and belaboured the menfolk. Many ran and hid in the fields to escape the wrath. Those who fought back were destroyed.
After seven days of rioting, the smoke and dust settled down. Though riots ended, temporarily albeit, in Ooroot
Ambalam, it created grave repercussions in Marayamuttam, Venganoor, Perumbazhuthoor, Kunathukaal etc. The back ward caste Ezhavas joined hands with the savarna gangs. The official court historian wrote that “…it was the gravest riot of that period”.
After this riot, known as Pulaya Mutiny (it took place before Sepoy Mutiny of English to become the real 1st War of Independence), the struggle of Dalits for a free society became acute.
Praja Sabha Member.
In the Maharaja’s Praja Sabha there were representatives from every section of society to bring to the notice of the authorities their grievances. But Pulayas numbering 500,000 were represented by savarna Karamana PK Govindappillai.
At the Sreemoolam Praja Sabha (the Maharaja is known by the star he was born in. Moolam is the first major star in Saggitarius.) held on Monday the 13/2/1911 at Victoria Jubilee Town Hall (VJT Hall) PK Govindappillai spoke thus:
“…the 500,000 Pulayas of the state need a small plot of land for agriculture and residence close to where they work. Some public land may earmarked for allotment for this purpose. Each time the Pulayas have applied for particular piece of public land, the upper castes appropriated it. So special consideration must be given to the Pulayas. They must be allotted land close to the fields where they work for the landlords. The landlords have no objection in this regard from inquiries made.”
Dewan suggested that the honourable member may compile the list of land available.
On 18/2/1911 ‘Maharajas representative for Pulayas’ PK Govindappillai continued his argument in the Sabha:
“Not even a small part of the liberties and human rights have been given to them. They would be thankful if the right to education is fulfilled as part of the state’s general welfare programs. If the government carries out the implementation of what is on paper, in the distant future these depressed people will not need any help.
“Educationally the Pulayas are very backward. Inspite of orders to admit them, they are not even allowed to peep into classrooms. Poverty makes them incapable of exercising their rights. Where it is not possible for the govt to implement these orders, special schools and night schools may be the only answer. The salaries of teachers in schools for Pulayas should be increased.
“Schools for Pulayas established by Sarvashri A Govinda Pillai, Marthandan Thambi and their ilk may be given grants. More encouragement must be given to Pulaya students in the form of scholarships and concessions. Some Pulayas have passed middle school level; they may be appointed in night schools and other departments. There are many departments like excise where the Pulayas will fit in. More Pulayas could be employed in this dept. In the medical department Pulayas may be employed as ward attendants. They will be able to look after Pulaya patients better.
“There is no possibility of Pulayas growing in conscious ness as citizens and in intellectual calibre without the govt giving special opportunities and making efforts make it succeed. In places like Mavelikkara and Karthikappalli Pulayas are not allowed in the streets or markets. The problem is not from Brahman-Sudra castes, but from the ‘twenty feet’ category (those who insist on Pulayas keeping twenty feet away from savarnas). The lower level employees of excise dept also harass the Pulayas. Their huts in jungles are set on fire. They are too weak to protest. I hope appropriate orders given by the Superintendent of Police would improve the situation.
“In medical aid also they face problems. Only some hospitals have separate rooms for Pulayas. All important hospitals must have these wards. Medical Officers donot behave properly with them. They are made to wait for medicines till other castes have been issued. Then the compounder throws some medicines at them. This is the situation in general hospital. They have not allowed Pulaya lunatics into the assylum.
“They donot get justice from the courts. In some courts they are not allowed entry. They stand far away and pass their answers through third party and their petitions thrown out. Changanassery Magistrate court is run this way. If the lower level employees show atleast half the interest in the welfare of their subordinates, Pulaya employees would have never complained.”
Govindappillai concluded his speech with an appeal.
“I appeal to the government to make all the necessary arrangements to give the help needed to this community.”
This speech was the most unusual one in the six-year history of Praja Sabha. It was heard in pin drop silence. Govindappillai did the job he was entrusted to represent Dalits with honesty & integrity. This itself was a victory for the oppressed communities.
Dewan Rajagopalachari was listening intently to the speech of the ‘Pulaya Prathinidhi’.
The Dewan gave an immediate reply.
“The complaints of the member have been well taken. We will consider increasing the beds of Pulaya wards in the govt hospitals. The member may pleas submit the list of those Pulaya students who have passed the examinations to the Chief Secretary. We will decide how their talents can be put to use.”
Govindappillai was not satisfied with the answer of the Dewan. He continued…
“I am grateful for allowing me to speak on the subject of Pulaya emancipation for the first time in the Sabha. I request for permission for one of their own people to submit their problems before the Sabha.”
The thought of an untouchable making the Sabha unclean by his presence made many members stunned. The speaker probed the opinion of the Sabha members. No member opposed the idea. Suddenly a member got up and said,
“the Sabha supports the proposal of Govindappillai with one voice.”
This stilled all potential opposition to the move.
Praja Sabha Member-2.
Ayyankali strongly believed that salvation for the depressed was dependent on education. But admission in schools was a rare occurance. He searched for a way out of the impasse. Conversion was no permanent solution.
For sending children out of the state to study was not feasible financially.(A few studied surreptitiously with the padre or astrologer who was from the carpenter community (the carpenter made the birth chart with the help of his knowledge of circle, angles and ability to tell the exact time of birth by observing the celestial bodies.)
He remembered the editor of Swadeshabhimani Ramakrishna Pillai who was exiled by the govt and lived in Madras. In 1911 the venerable editor published the letter in Swadeshabhimani.
He went Dewan’s office in his capacity as a member of the Praja Sabha. The sentries didnot let him in and called him ‘names’. He went outside and sent a telegram to the Dewan. Within minutes, Dewan ordered that Ayyan Kali be brought before him.
When Ayyankali entered the office, the Dewan called for the sentries who had misbehaved with him.
“Mr. Ayyankali,” the Dewan addressed him.
“What punishment do you suggest for these policemen who misbehaved with you?”
Ayyankali was stunned. He thought…’except getting punishment from the savarna I haven’t punished them’.
“..may it please you to forgive these men who did what they did out of sheer ignorance.” Ayyankali prayed to the Dewan in all humility. On hearing the answer, Dewan was pacified.
The Dewan was surprised at the perfect Malayalam that he spoke. Dewan was told that Ayyankali was an illiterate low caste. But Dewan found himself face to face with a mature, big hearted and capable man.
The Dewan said, “I accept Mr Ayyankali’s opinion. But I am not going to let the guilty go scot free. Let the two sentries touch the feet of Ayyankali and ask for pardon.
“pardon us.” the two policemen said.
“I had forgiven you then itself.” Ayyankali said.
The Dewan read through the representation Ayyankali had brought.
“Mr Ayyankali! I am ready to do my best for your people.” The Dewan said.
Happy at the statement of Dewan, Ayyankali took leave.
On an auspicious day in 1911, Tahesildar Padmanabha Pilla, a friend of Ayyankali, came in a bullock cart. Ayyankali wore a long black coat and set out to see the Dewan. The Dewan inspected the dress worn by his guest. He nodded his head in appreciation. Then he said in grave tones:
“Mr Ayyankali, you have been nominated as a member of Sreemoolam Praja Sabha. What are the immediate needs of your people?” the Dewan asked.
“Sir. we are 500,000 people. If it pleases you, let me request for one representative per 100,000 of Pulaya population”. That was the first demand of the first Pulaya member of Maharaja’s Praja Sabha.
“Your demand is just. But where are the capable people?
So one more representative is granted. When the Sabha meets next year, please find a suitable person.”
A 1912 gazette notification said, ‘Sadhu Jana Paripalana sangham General Secretary Manya Rajya Rajasree Esquire Ayyankali has been nominated as a Member of Travancode Sreemoolam Praja Sabha.’ (Travancode=Travancore)
Historian KP Padmanabha menon criticised the move in the following words. <Sreemoolam Representative Sabha having a Pulaya sit alongside a Namboodiri reveals the extent of changes that time is capable of bringing about.>
Ayyankali made his maiden speech in the Praja Sabha held in 1912 at VJT Hall…
“Let me express my thanks to the honourable members of the previous meeting of Praja Sabha and the government for accepting unanimously our request to appoint a Pulaya representative in the present session of the Sabha.
“To fulfil the promise made to us about granting patta of plots from public land, we had applied to Neyyattinkara, Vilavamkode, Thiruvananthapuram, Nedumangadu taluk authorities. But nothing happened. The people of these taluks obstructed the process with the active connivance of some lower level workers of the revenue department. And whatever land the Pulayas found out to be public land was allotted to wealthy upper caste families. Not only that, the Pulayas were chased out of their humble homes and ended up without even what they possessed earlier. Except for asking the father like figure of govt for sympathy, we have no other way. Therefore, I pray for allotment of public land, and, as a test case some of the fallow land lying useless for our convenience and welfare.
“Many of our families have been evicted by rich land owners from our homes set up with oral assurance on their land. The forest officials are forcing my people to vacate their homes in the forests in collusion with landlords of the area. At the same time these very officials are helping the landlords to occupy these lands. Such illegalities have been done mainly in Valiyakavu in Chengannoor, Alapramuri in Changanassery taluk and Perumbaathumuri in Thiruvalla taluk. I pray for amelioration of such problems.”
Such an oration from an illiterate Pulaya leader impressed the Dewan.
The Dewan’s reply was:
“The government is doing whatever is possible to help the Pulayas. Of the 779 representation to allot public land identified, 769 are land which cannot be allotted.
In Vilappil Paguthi 500 acres of fallow land available to those who like to go there.
On 12the March 1912 Ayyankali made a speech couched in a language of humility.
“As a representative of the Pulayas I convey to the govt our gratitude for the help regarding admission of our children in Venganur Elementary School. In Southern Travancode, only seven schools have allowed Pulaya children admission. I submit that all schools in the state admit our children.”
“The Pulayas can get admission in all school where the Ezhava (BC) students are allowed,” the Dewan clarified. “New students may be given fee concessions.”
“Fee concessions given to Mohammedans, who are comparatively ahead of us, may be given also to Pulaya children.”
Dewan: “Are not Pulaya children getting the Concessions available to Mohammedans? I think it can be done.” This revealed the Dewan’s ignorance about the depressed classes.
Ayyankali: “Pulayas could be appointed in Engineering, Health, Medical departments. There are capable people who could be employed in Education department too. Though the Royal Decree has been announced to public giving Pulayas the right to walk on streets and to use public courts, they are harassed and obstructed. Steps be taken to give us relief.”
Meeting with Narayana Guru.
When Narayana Guru was doing ‘prathistha’ in Aruvipuram, Ayyankali was already a well known name. Many prominent persons took par in the ‘prathishta’. Ayyankali had met him very briefly once, and had promised to pay a visit to the Guru at his residence.
On a visit to Balaramapuram, the Guru went to the house of a prominent Theeya family in an ox cart. On the way he saw a tall imposing man in a long coat and bodyguards.
“You must be Ayyankali? I had decided to visit you. Good I met you now. How are things?” asked the apostle of peaceful transition to an advocate of militant change.
“I was desirous of meeting you, Swamy. I wanted to discuss some things with you. I was on my way to meet you.” Ayyankali told with great humility.
“Just tell me when. Thats all.”
“We will come to you soon, Swamy.” Ayyankali said.
The Guru went on his way, Ayyankali following him on foot.
When Ayyankali reached the house where Guru was staying, his followers, mostly Dalit Theeya (Ezhava in South Kerala) were aghast at letting a Dalit Pulaya into the house.
“Ayyankali has come.” a disciple told the Swamy.
“Where?” the Swamy queried.
“At the gate.”
“Is that so? We have no objection to Ayyankali coming into the house…?” the Guru left the sentence incomplete and looked at the expression on the faces of his disciples. He knew that some of his Theeya disciples had joined hands with the upper castes to trouble Pulayas in some areas. Guru was making a statement by inviting Ayyankali into the house.
“Ayyankali, you may come into the house.” The guru said.
Since the Guru himself had invited Ayyankali, they could only smoulder inside while the guest sat on a stool opposite their Guru.
In 1912 Ayyankali went to discuss some problems with CV Kunjuraman of Mayyanadu. CV was the Ezhava leader and a rationalist. Ayyankali had had friendly relationship with the Ezhava leader. Since the father of CV didnot want a Pulaya in his house, he brought a bench out in the courtyard for their meeting.
Praja Sabha member (contd…)
The 9th meeting of the Sabha took place in February 1913 had special significance. As assured by Ayyankali he had brought a second member to the Sabha from among the Pulayas. Charatan Solomon was the assistant secretary of SJPS and represented Kollam district. Mission worker Missouri Luther from Nagarkoil was also inducted into the Sabha. Maha Kavi Kumaran Asaan also spoke on behalf of his Theeya community.
Ayyankali gave another long speech reiterating the demands that had already been put forward in his earlier speeches. In addition he gave a list of departments where the Pulayas could be given employment.
“1. In the govt press where the Pulayas are already doing piece work. They may be made permanent.
“2. In Public Works Dept many Pulayas are working as daily wage labourers. The better educated ones among them may be given the higher paying jobs of mistry etc.
“3. Pulayas may be made into wardens in Pulaya wards of general hospitals as per earlier government order.
“4. Pulayas may be appointed as guards in the forest dept for the benefit of all.
“5. There are many profitable openings available for Pulayas in handicrafts schools.
“I appeal for the appointment of Pulayas those posts for which no special scientific knowledge is needed (as indicated in government notification).”
Ayyankali was able to mould men into sincere leaders to lead the struggles being carried on since 1910.
In 1914 February meeting of the Praja Sabha, one more Pulaya member was inducted into the Sabha – Vellikkara Chodi. In this session there was a tidal wave of demands for rights and civil liberties.
Ayyankali showed his displeasure about the maiden speech of Solomon which he made as representative of converted Pulayas. He had left the church and joined SJPS due to which he was able to get nominated to the Sabha. Ayyankali stated that Solomon’s speech doesnot represent the opinion of an SJPS member.
On February 14th meeting, Ayyankali argued fiercely about educational rights.
“I salute the earlier order of the government to allow Pulaya children to government schools. But officials in the schools find some or other excuse to prevent their admission. There is no problem where admission has been given already. The situation in Neyyattinkara, Pulladu and Venganur will justify my words. The main perpetrators are assistant teachers in the school, not the public. So I appeal to the government to give strict orders to the Directors of education to oversee implementation of the orders of the government.”
In the next session of Sreemoolam Praja Sabha held on February 1915, only Ayyankali & Kaavaarikkulam Kandan Kumaran were present. In addition, the earlier Pulaya representative PK Govindappillai was nominated once again.
At the 22nd February 1915 session Ayyankali repeated his complaints about teachers not implementing order and appealed for an inquiry headed by a responsible officer of education department.
He continued to present his long list of demands of the Pulayas and fought it out continuously and selflessly.
Some Freedom Struggles.
Indians got into a life of death struggle against the British. At the same time the Dalits had the misfortune of being involved in a struggle with the upper castes for their civil liberties. In these struggles, the earliest leaders was Ayyankali. After him, at all India level Bhim Rao Ambedkar entered the Karma-bhoomi.
Parallel to the independence struggle ran the struggle against upper castes.
In 1912 untouchables were still not allowed in markets of Nedumangadu. Upper caste men’s took an uncompromising stand in this regard. To question them Ayyankali and group entered the market. The outraged local crowd surrounded Ayyankali and a brutal fight ensued. Ayyankali’s men fell. They surrounded Ayyankali thinking that he would be an easy target. But he warded off the onslaught of the Muslim goondas. The opponents couldnot overcome the martial art expertise of Ayyankali and withdrew.
Another battle took place some miles further North (near the sea) in Kazhakkoottam. Ayyankali, accompanied by his bodyguards, was proceeding to the place where a meeting of avarna people were to take place. The local Muslims launched an organised attack on his party. It got out of hand and reached riot proportions. The local police inspector Mr Daniel (the brother in law of CV Kunjuraman the Ezhava leader) averted the spread of violence by his intervention.
The following years were a period of riots. Though the order to admit Dalit/Pulaya students was passed in 1910, from their experience it became clear that nothing can be got without a fight. These un-rests gave rise to social and economic tensions which extended the struggles further.
Ayyankali didnot wait for words of sympathy. He decided that Pulayas ‘must’ get admission in the school on the basis of renewed orders of the government. Accordingly he reached Venganoor Chavadi Govt High School with some children, accompanied by his followers Kochappi, Ayyan, Velayudhan, Pappu Manager, Vishakhan, Thevan etc. At the school verandah itself the school officials tried to scare them away and failed. First they tried to scare the students . Then many local leaders surrounded them and tried to assault them. Then the situation turned explosive. Ayyankali and his group fought back.
Ayyankali wrote to the government:
“The conditions in the schools are deteriorating. The govt may please intervene to enforce its orders about admission of Dalit children”.
By the end of 1914 orders were received ordering strict compliance with the govt’s admission policy regarding Dalit children. Knowing that the Savarna are sabotaging govt orders, the director of education Mr Mitchell himself visited schools to get first hand information.
When the education officials were admitting the Avarna students, the situation turned grave. The Savarna men set fire to Mr Mitchell’s jeep. Still, the officials did their best to to make the govt. policy a success. The students also came forward with determination. Even 16 year olds* came for admission to class I. Eight Pulaya children were admitted that day.
The children who were admitted also suffered mental torture. When they entered the class, the Savarna kids walked out the other door (from the autobiography of Mooloor S Paadmanabha Panikkar). The non-cooperation of the savarna children to sit with “smelly black children” became a headache for the government.
Later the classes were filled to capacity with Savarna students, in the beginning of the academic year itself, to rubbish the govt’s admission policy. When admission was refused to Dalit students at this time, communal riots erupted all over the state, worst affected being Balaramapuram, Chenganoor, Kaniyapuram, Kazhakkoottam, Kavaalam, Pulladu, Perinadu, Chennithala etc.
To prevent untouchables from entering school, the upper caste men made every effort. But it ended in a bloody revolution.
(*) Some students continued in class one for many years as some or the other obstruction was placed from completeing. A large number joined to establish their right to education. Similarly, after Temple entry most Dalits lost their interest in going to temple.
Inspite of the best efforts of the govt., Dalits were not given admission to the extend desired. Ayyankali found a way out-build our own schools. He hoped that one could study without dependance on the Savarnas. The permission to start such a school was received from the Dept. of Education. Thus the first school of Dalits was established in Venganoor. No one who loved his life came forward to become a teacher in this school. Among Dalits there was none educated enough to be one.
The govt paid Rs six per month. To encourage teachers to teach Dalits, the govt offered Rs nine per month. After intense search one Parameshwaran Pillai of Kaithamukku in Thiruvanathapuram decided to join the school. With his long hair tied into a lock over one ear, sandal paste on the forehead, ear-rings studded with white stone, mundu tied on the chest over the nipples and spitting long with his betel reddened mouth. His walk down the street in old fashioned splendour was quite a sight.
He was a kind, liberal and progressive minded gentleman. People gathered to have a look at the new teacher who pushed aside opposition from all quarters. In addition many savarnas also came to have a look at the avarna school. Students were collected with great difficulty.
The new teacher entered the school reluctantly, as though he was entering a garbage dump. His socio- cultural pavlovian reflexes took over when his progressive intellectualism came face to face with societal reality.
He was afraid.
He show it.
The situation was also quite tense.
Cleanliness minded, he developed a reluctance to interact with black skinned ‘smelly’ students. The children also felt a reluctance to talk with the ‘master mahashay’.
“Ha-ri-sree… ,” the master spoke the tri-syllable mantra for his pupils to reapeat.
In no time hooting started from all around the school. The opponents were in no mood to stop the cacophony. There followed pushing and jostling between the opponents and supporters of the school that turned to a riot. Some came to assault the ‘master’. The ‘master’ was shivering like a leaf. Still the classes continued in spite of the fear stained atmosphere.
That night the school was destroyed.
In no time a new school structure came up.
The opposition to the school increased, but the efforts to continue the school was not sacrificed. The master came to school and went to his home in Kaitha-mukku escorted by bodyguards. This went of for some time though the school was destroyed at least five times.
Each time the school was destroyed, riots ensued. When the master perceived danger to his life, he wanted to give his resignation. But Ayyankali pacified him.
There were small time fights and riots all over the state.
The long war that took place at the end of the Second Chera Empire is named ’100 years war’ by the historians. Since it began in the year 1090 of Malayalam Era (1914-15 AD), it is known as ’90th Year Riot’. Historian TK Veluppilla gave it an alias – ‘Pulaya Riot’. The riot started in Kundala of Balaramapuram and spread all over the state like fire. In Kerala’s history, 1914-15 turned out to be full of eventful struggles for freedom.
After the passing the renewed order for Dalit students’ entry into schools, some savarna persons of Pullattu in Tiruvalla district opposed it strongly.
“The order is a deliberate ploy to destroy the caste system,” a native Nair ‘Madambi’thought and entered the scene with a rusty sword to sacrifice his life.*
Even by 1913 it Dalits were not allowed o the Tiruvalla – Kozhencherry road. They had to take detour via foot paths through Polippara, Thottapuzha, Nannoor etc to reach Puthen Parambil on the banks of Manimala River and swim across to Iruvallipra to reach Tiruvalla. To achieve their freedom of movement, Vellikkara Mathai Asaan, Thalakkeril Kandan Kali, Kombaadi Aninjan etc. fought disregarding all danger to their lives. When their efforts didnot get the requisite success, they sent a message to Ayyankali. They went in a delegation to the Dewan to submit the details about their sad plight. Their appeal worked. The Dewan assured them that he would take appropriate action, and, he promised to make Mathai a Praja Sabha member. Dewan’s secretariat raised certain objections about his nomination. The objections were withdrawn when Vellikkara Mathai became Vellikkara Chodi. Vellikkara Chodi became a Praja Sabha member in 1913.
Even after the renewed order, schools, including some Christian management run schools of Pullattu were not helpful.
In Thiruvalla Only govt schools had classes beyond Fifth. Private schools had classes only upto Fifth.
(*)Travancore Legislative Assembly Records-1915.
Three Dalits were admitted to Pullattu school in 1914. They were TT Thevan (who later became Assembly speaker), TT Keshavan Sastri Pyngan and MT Thevan.
As soon as the Dalit students sat in the class, the savarna students walked out. The school was on the verge of being closed down. Led by Oonnuppanikkar ‘Madambi’, the savarna started an agitation. Blind with anger, they set fire to the school. The school had an alias now, ‘burnt down school’. But there was no let up in the efforts for admission. Endless fights between the contenting groups ensued. The efforts of the strong to subdue the weak reached a peak.
Seeing the gravity of the situation went to Ayyankali and discussed the matter. They went to the palace physician Varikkannaamala Narayana Panikkar. They reached Pullattu and led the Dalit struggle. Oonnu Panikkar, uncle of Narayana Panikkar watched the activities of his nephew with trepidation. Oonnu was reluctant to oppose the man with a ‘foot hold’ in the palace. And on hearing the news of untouchable students’ entry into the school, he collapsed. He was struck dumb for life.
The struggle for freedom continued. The demands moved to wage revision and working hours. The landed dealt very cruelly with the workers. The black people had reached the end of the tether, and, some of their youth got ready to resist the upper caste inquisition.
Now, Ayyankali ordered the untouchable women to give up the habit of wearing necklaces of carved granite. The stone necklaces were a sign of slavery and lay on the naked breasts of women like a serpent since the order of the day for women was ‘not to cover the upper body’. Necklaces of glass beads and marbles strung together filled their necks in large numbers. Similar stuff was wound around the writs. From the ears hung a piece of iron – ‘kunukku’. Ayyankali organised an agitation in Neyyattinkara aginst these ‘ornaments’ and came out victorious.
But his call to Dalits to forsake old fashioned dress codes shook savarna of Kollam.*
The economic situation also had deteriorated due to World War I. The landlord was dissatisfied even if workers put in 11 to 12 hours a day. There was no relationship between the hours worked and the wages, which was about 1.5 Kg of rice out of which 0.5 Kg was chaff. The landlords didnot get rid of the chaff. It was added to rice when given away as rice.
Slightest delay in coming for work meant beating. Severe punishment for mildest misdemeanor became the norm. Wearing bleached cloth became punishable with beatings. Since the rule for ‘all’ Dalits was to cover only those parts of the body between the waist and knee, the slightest liberties taken brought brutal retribution of being tied to a tree and given lashes.
The Dalit worker was to have no family bonds. Therefore the a special bed was kept in the hut of the worker for the pleasure of landlord in Thodu-puzha, Moovattu-puzha etc, for, the women membets of workers family were the property of the landlord.
Due to pityless behaviour of the landlords, a few of the affected worker youth formed a group. There were widespread arguments and quarrels over wages and working hours. When wokers refused to till the land, some land owners tried to leave the fields fallow.
The situation from Mavelikkara to Kollam became chaotic. Some wokers took in advance as much ‘money and grain’** as possible and sat at home. Thus the workers were able to corner a large quantity of grain. When the landlords left the fields fallow, they survived on the ‘money and grain’.
The agitation continued for long. The struggle was intense in most parts of Kollam zilla (Tiruvalla and Chengannoor were in Kollam at that time). They laid the corner stone of struggle for a final deliverance from land owners.
Kollam area struggle was led by Gopaldasan, a totally committed to the cause of his community. Under his aegis many a meeting, small and big, were held. He organised meetings in Prakkulam, Thazhavaa, Anchalum- Moodu which were attended by thousands. The meetings began at 10 in the morning. After many a meeting, it was decided to have a massive meeting at Cherumoodu in Perinadu. Due to elaborate campaigns, people from all over Kollam headed towards Perinadu. The very thought of untouchables, normally not allowed on public paths, coming to perinadu to attend a meeting in thousands did fill the savarna with anxiety. Those who came in their thousands were armed with sticks and knives for their self defence.
In Kochi, the untouchables were not allowed to hold a meeting “in my land” by the Maharaja. But Kallachamuri Krishnaadi Asan of Mulavukadu Island (Bolghatty) held the meeting on a huge raft in the middle of Vembanaattu Kayal (backwaters off Kochi Port). The raft was made by joining together a large number of catamarans with the help and support of the fisherfolk. Later Krishnaadi told the Maharaja that ‘he didnot disobey the order of His Highness’ to hold a meeting in his ‘land’. The grand niece Dakshayani became the country’s first graduate of Pulaya community and her younger brother KK Madhavan became advocate who defended communists jailed in the days of undivided CPI gratis. Later he became a Rajya Sabha MP and editor of ‘Veekshanam’ daily of Congress Party.
The savarna had made ample preparations to muddy the meeting. Their one aim was to murder Gopaladasan, for, it would be difficult to pinpoint the murder accused in a riot. Who would do the killing became a problem. Finally, Nalleri Koori Nair, a bad character of the area, came forward. After the deed, if he is convicted and hanged, ‘some one should take the responsibility for looking after his family,’ he demanded. That demand of his could not be fulfilled. Alternatively he demanded five acre fields, two acre for house and some money from the savarna leaders. The leaders put their heads together and accepted the demand of Koori Nair. As soon as Koori received the assurance from the savarna leaders, Koori went on attacking every untouchable he came across and molested their women. There was utter confusion. The youngsters made an effort to manacle the bad character who went around in a violent rampage.
On 24th October 1915 the meeting started with a prayer song (almost an anthem of SJPS) by T Vishakhan Thevan. Thousands of emotionally charged black people maintained pin-drop silence. Meanwhile the white skinned stationed themselves in the vicinity of the meeting with their collection of weapons. Around the stage the blacks also had their protection party on the ready.
Suddenly a man ran towards a singing Thevan and gave a blow with an iron rod and felled him. The blacks surrounded the man and beat him to pulp. The black women took their ‘Rudra’ form and were seen puncturing him with their sickles.
Chaos prevailed as many were felled and the battle field was full of bloody patches. Some were running for their life while others stood and fought it out to their bitter end. The ground was filled with loud wails, cries, shouts, screams and whimpers of the dying, injured and the frightened.
Singer Thevan somehow managed to limp across with his injured thigh and climbed a tree and hid on a branch covered with foliage. He described the scene :
” Nair women and children of the neighbourhood abandoned their homes and fled. The house of Koori Nair who came to disrupt the meeting was in flames. The air was full of smoke. A leading landlord Kakkolil Unnithan also escaped to safety. His house was tiled. The rioters took 16 tins of kerosene from the neighbouring shop and poured it in the house and set it on fire.
“No one noticed that there was a woman with her newly delivered baby in the house they just on fire. Unnithan had left her behind in a bid to save himself. But the mood was such that no pity was aroused towards the new born and mother. When the flames rose higher and higher a young man got into the house stealthily and brought the woman and infant out even as the fiery roof was caving in on them. (This youngster’s name was removed from the list of accused in the arson case when the lady requested that her ‘protector’ be spared.)
“As the riot spread, many savarna houses were looted, set on fire or pillaged. 600 of untouchables’ huts were also reduced to ashes.
“When the law keepers arrived, the untouchables were hunted down. The helpless went into exile to nearby taluks. Others without any protection were accommodated in the mission school by the European missionary Edmund. There they were clothed, fed and treated.”
If it was not for Thevan’s eye witness account, the truth would not have been known. The media kept mum on the events. Due to paucity of transport and telecom facilities, the reporters depended on hearsay in times of trouble. The papers being run by savarna did not help matters.
‘Malayali’ was a paper published from Thangassery, an Anglo-Indian settlement of Kollam. The changes taking place at social level was apparent from the articles in this paper with quite a large circulation.
‘Mitha-Vartha’, a tabloid published from Kozhikode ( Calicut ) by Chengaram Kumarathu Krishnan Vakil added news from Travancore. Its edited version of the report from ‘Malayali’ on Perinadu Riots was as follows:
“Last Sunday, a large number of Pulayas gathered at the meeting held under the auspices of Sadhu Jana Paripalana Sangham, chaired by the Sangham secretary Gopaladasan, in Perinadu of Travancore. About Two thousand Pulayas had come from nearby towns and villages for the meeting. Many Nairs attended the meeting. To Nair youth came forward and asked something of the Pulayas which sparked the riot in which Pulayas received cut injuries. Later Pulayas organised themselves and set fire to a Nair home and beat those who stopped them on the road and resorted to stone throwing. Perinaadu, Mangaadu, Kilikolloor saw some Pulaya huts destroyed. All the Pulayas of these areas have left the place. The District Magistrate had visited the place today.”
‘Nasrani Deepika’ headline was, ‘A big riot’.
“On sunday morning at 10 oclock a large meeting of Pulayas took place. There were about 2000 people including women and children. As soon as the meeting started, two anti social elements approached Gopaladasan, the chairman of the meeting, with some sharp weapons. Being forewarned, the Pulayas gave the two a sound thrashing. Subsequently, Gopaladasan was excorted by about a hundred armed Pulayas to the safety of Kollam Town.
Later the Pulayas entered the house of one of the two Nairs and looted it before setting it on fire. From there they proceeded to the house of the second anti- social element and began to destroy it. But it had tiled roof and couldnot be set on fire. On their way to the west, a prominent Nair opposed them with his armed mob. A heavy exchange of stones took place. Many were injured on both sides. The Pulayas ran helter skelter. Then the Nair mob set fire to many Pulaya huts. About 300 huts were either burnt of destroyed till date. The Pulayas have taken refuge in other zillas. Brisk Police investigations are on.(‘Mitha-Vadi’, Oct 1915.)
These differing versions of the same event show the limitations of news gathering and its subsequent interpretation. These reports are only on the first day of the riots.
Perinadu Riot continued for many more days. In magnitude the subsequent Malabar Riots were more severe. It lasted for nearly a week. There was severe loss of life, limbs and property. After that, deathly silence. But, doubts, anxiety and fears had subdued everyone. The atmosphere was tense and anything could happen.
When the insecurity became unbearable, a delegation of 21 SGPS Kollam Unit members came to ‘master’ Ayyankali to get advice and help. It was a situation when riots had already taken place in Vengnoor, Ooroottaambalmetc. The details of Kollam riots had not reached Venganur. But the smoke and dust of Ooroottambalam riots had by now settled.
The continuous violent struggle between the Pulayas and Nairs destroyed the peaceful life and caused economic ruin for the weaker sections. Ayyankali was of the opinion that such social tensions between different sections of society must be avoided. ‘No Compromise’ was the opinion of the Pulaya youth. Opposition to all social prejudices and injustice was growing among the Dalit youth. Ayyankali’s compromising tone in his speeches was not acceptable to the young hot bloods. ‘Fight-sans-truce’ was their dictum. So, riots broke out in this climate of abhorance for the use of phrases indicating slave mentality and bowing down before injustice.
Amidst riots, Ayyankali stood fearless and held his head high. He didnot leave his wards and escape to safety in times of adversity. He faced opposition head on. Six foot tall, dark, well build, muscular and ‘kappadaa’ moustache made an impressive sight. One look at him made his opponents weak in the legs.
In 1915 on the birthday of Maharaja, Ayyankali spoke at a meeting attended by a thousand men and women of many Dality communities and their leaders. He criticised the brutal riots of Ooroottambalam in the meeting organised by SJPS. (‘Mitha-Vadi’, Oct 1915.)
The day after the meeting, the delegation from Perinadu reached Venganoor. On hearing about Perinadu Riot, he was moved to anger.
“Even if you are helpless, hit below the knee!” he said with emotion. “But remember, donot kill. We have neither God nor the law enforcers on our side. Did you hear? You have only yourself, like the house has only its pillar for support.”
Later he assured them that he would reach Perinadu the next day. He didnot tell them that he was short of money that day to travel back with them. (It may be told now that Ayyankali’s family lived in poverty. Fed up with not being able to study, his younger brother Velukkutty set fire to their ancestral house. The fire was put out before much damage was done.
After mortgaging his little house he collected Rupees 500 and went to Perinadu. When he reached Kollam, he had difficulty in finding a place to stay. The houses of his followers and acquaintances were empty. In place of some huts he found only charcoal and ash. Finally, he found smoke rising from the hut of a follower. He spent the night there.
The very next day Ayyankali set out to find out matters related to the riot. Dewan Krishnan Nair was camping in Kollam that day to keep an eye on progress of violence. He went to the Dewan to find out the details. He also assured the Dewan that he was willing to take the first step to put an end to the endless violence. (Obviously the movement had gone out of Ayyankali’s hands. The younger generation seem to have taken all the initiative to keep the riot going.) He also put forward certain suggestions to help end the violence.
1. Pull out the police.
2. Give a list of accused persons.
3. Without hunting them down, the accused would be brough to the court.
Taking cognisance of Ayyankali’s suggestions, the Dewan withdrew the police and gave him a copy of the list of accused persons. Thus Ayyankali took a personal bond for making sure that hundreds of accused persons presented themselves in court. He also felt that there was a need for an ‘All Community Amity Meeting’ to help bring back those who ran away into hiding, make it safe for the returnees and to create an atmosphere of peace.
But the permission to hold a meeting was denied by Dewan fearing further violence. But as luck would have it, the locla circle inspector was Gopalasamy Pillai of an untouchable caste from Tamilnadu. He was a fan of Ayyankali and assured that he will make the requisite arrangements to keep the meeting peaceful. Dewan wanted a written assurance from the circle inspector, which he was given.
But there was no place to hold a meeting. The only open ground was occupied by a circus troupe. The circus was owned by Tarabai, a lady of Cherumar community. Being of the same community as Ayyankali, she was also his fan. After discussing with her, she offered the tent for his meeting not for one day, but all days upto 5 in the evening.
The next problem was to decide who will chair the meeting. None came forward. Changanassery Parameswaran Pilla accepted the responsibility.
A large number of people sufferin social ostracism took part in that meeting. Everyone came without any fear. They found solace in the shadow of Ayyankali. According to reports in a Malayalam daily, 4000 persons of various communities and faiths came from all parts of the state, having heard of the meeting by word of mouth. The blacks came filled with martial spirit. Vellikkara Chodi, TV Thevan and Gopaladasan etc controlled the crowd.
The men and women came dressed in their traditional attire which was discarded sometime back. It was a rare tailor who stiched a blouse of a shirt for avarna.
The proceedings started with prayer song. The first speaker was Mr Raman Thambi. His speech laid stress on communal harmony.
Ayyankali spoke next about the achievement of progress through faith in God, modern dress code, discipline, orderliness etc.
“When the untouchables modernise their dressing pattern, the upper castes (savarna) should not obstruct but encourage.” Ayyankali appealed to the savarna. If it is opposed, he appealed to his brothers and sisters, “..to keep calm and be patient.”
“In Southern part of our state our women have given up the custom of wearing stone ornaments to and have taken to ‘rowka’ (blouse) and other attractive clothes. It is against this change that the riots were engineered by the upper castes. I fervently hope that the savarna will cooperate in our programme to cut the stone jewellery in the presense of all community members gathered here for this MahaSabha.” he appealed again.
“As desired by Mr Ayyankali, members of all communities represented here are more than willing to let our sisters cut the strings holding together their stone jewellery.” the chairman said. When the festival of handclapping lasting a couple of minutes ended,Ayyankali called two young girls to the stage. The black and beautiful duo stood still.
“All gathered at this Sabha have agreed to let you to cut the stone jewellery adorning your neck. Cut them yourself and throw it away.”
No sooner had he exhorted them thus, the duo pulled out sickles stuck into their waist bands at the back and cut the ornaments and threw them on the stage. Thousands of others who had gathered cut the symbols of slavery and made a five foot high pile of stone necklaces.
The news reported in ‘Malayali’ and reproduced in the North by ‘Mitawadi’. After giving the background of the meeting they wrote:
“…present at the meeting held in Kollam on Sunday the 19 of December 1915 were Peshkar Rajarama Rao Esq, 1st Class Magistrate Govindappilla, Two circle inspectors and a large number of constables. Prominent persons from various faiths, local leaders, advocates, traders, officials etc came punctually and took their places.
The leaders Ayyankali, Chodi etc. sat in front of the Sabha. Pulaya women and children had come dressed neatly
for the occasion. They listened to the proceedings in rapt attention.
Mr Raman Thambi said, “There is neither enemity nor competition between the Nairs and Pulayas at social level,and that they have mutual affection and respect for one another in the opinion of this Sabha”.
Mr Ayyankali’s speech was rather long. He supported the stance of Mr Thambi whole heartedly. He adviced his people to have faith in God, wear clean and modern attire. When changes take place in our habits, Nairs may laugh at us. But be patient with them.
“Our women have already stopped wearing stone ornaments in Southern part of the state due to our efforts. They donot go about semi naked but wear ‘rouwka’(blouse). It was on the question Pulayas wearing dresses that some Nairs started the riots. Now I am asking the permission of the Nair Leaders present in the Sabha to allow the change of dress codes here itself.
“Later Mr Chodi spoke with great clarity, in a language devoid of defective pronounciation, grammatic errors and intonation like a seasoned speaker.
“After two girls cut their stone necklace on the stage at the behest of Ayyankali, Chairman Mr Parameswaran Pilla and Chief Secretary Mr. Vierra took the necklaces dropped on the stage as souveniers.”
Though the meeting for amity was a success, some court cases pertaining to the riots remained. Most accused were short of money to fight court battles. Without money one couldnot hire a lawyer. These circumstances threw up Ilanjikkal John Vakeel. His fee was some kind of a barter – physical labour paying for mental labour.
In return for his services John Vakeel demanded that his clients dig a large pond. John Vakeel got his pond and his clients a favourable judgement. But, 12 Nairs were punished with imprisonment.
Perinadu Riots-The Aftermath.
The smoke and fire of riots got extinguished, but new fuel was being added in the form of social and economic problems. Those who could not withstand the pressures took refuge in other religions.
The following report in ‘Mitawadi’ (Jan 1916) throws light on conversions.
“Last week 102 Pulayas were converted by London Mission Church in Perinadu and Ashramam. If one considers the problems being faced by the low castes, one would not be surprised. When they were Hindus the Pulayas faced many discriminations at the hands of the upper castes. When the freedom with which the converts move with other members of Christian congregation, immediately after conversion, embracing of another faith is like ‘moksha’.
Why? Even we are of the opinion that if one is to get the freedom as a human being, one must get oneself babtised or wear a ‘thoppi’ (Muslim cap). When we or those lower in the caste hierarchy shout ‘Ho’ now and then to warn the untouchables on our path, we may not be able to take for granted the patience of untouchables who move away from our path. But one can’t disagree with the fact of their lacking in aggression. Why do we laugh at Pulayas who convert to Christianity? Do we want them to always remain a Pulaya? We are ourselves undergoing progressive changes. Some are asking if we want the Pulayas to remain Pulaya always? Why should they suffer as slaves?
It has become doubtful if water touched by Nair is clean enough for higher castes to drink. Doubts about the propriety of Theeya students eating in Shudra hostel has not been cleared. After deciding these cases only the decision about the Pulaya case will come. When that will be is anybody’s guess. Instead of waiting forever, it is better for Pulayas to take a short cut. If we donot want to let Pulaya leave the Hindu fold, it is due to our selfish motives.”
For giving up their old fashioned stone necklaces led to many atrocities on women. Some news report on it is as follows:
“…A man asked a Pulaya woman as to where her stone necklaces were. ‘I cut them off at the Sabha’, she answered. He took out a knife and said, ‘Right. Then I am cutting off your ear too’. We are saddened by this news. Though this happened in a state ruled by the local Raja; it is surprising that it happened when we were part of the British Empire.(‘Mitavadi’ Feb 1916)
“We had reported earlier about a Pulaya woman’s ear being cut off near Kollam for not wearing stone ornaments. This has been repeated from other places also.” (‘Mitavadi’ April 1916)
Unceasing agitations were organised and petitions submitted by the Dalit leaders asking that these atrocities be put down to no effect.
“When Dewan Bahadur Mr Rajagopalachari passed orders to appoint Pulayas to Sreemoolam Praja Sabha, there was trouble. There was severe unrest when he declared freedom of travel for Pulayas on the roads where they had never walked before. And, when he odered the entry of Pulaya children to schools, troubles seemed endless.”
Sreemoolam Praja Sabha(..contd)
After The Riot (Perinadu Riot of 1915), the Praja Sabha met in February 1916. From the untouchables only Ayyan Kali and Kandan Kumaran were nominated. Pulayas had three members in 1914, in 1915 & 1916 only Ayyankali was nominated. He criticised this in the Sabha.
“…this year only one person has been nominated from my community in place of three in the previous years. Last years’ progress in the Pulaya community is a proof of Pulayas being capable of making improvement in their literacy with the help and permission of the government. In all public places, most departments, schools allow us entry. Still, in truth only not more than 25 schools only admit my people in the state.
“Among the Ezhava community one section joined in the attacks on Pulayas. This has pained Sree Narayana Guru very much. This was the reason why the Swami suggested that SNDP should work for the uplift of all oppressed and depressed people.” (Mayyanattu K Damodaran states thus in the biography of the Swamy.) The incidence in question took place in Ooroottambalam in 1914. This incidence was also mentioned by PK Govindappilla in Praja Sabha.
“Obstructions to progress of Pulayas are placed mainly by uneducated upper caste persons. No Pulaya child lacks cleanliness. Their dress may not be upto date but neat. So lack of cleanliness, the most common excuse for not admitting a Pulaya child will only chase them into the lap of some other faith. Conversion will make Pulayas ineligible for admission and concessions, and, and, the fear of shortage of labour in the fields due to higher literacy among Pulayas and subsequent higher wages were some of the baseless fears because with the end to slavery, trade and agriculture made progress. To make separate schools for Pulayas is not appropriate. That would deny admission to Pulaya children in other schools. Half fee concession is also not beneficial since only 30 boys and one girl have joined school. Scholarships for higher education would help Pulaya children. To ask for full fee concession for children of my community when the well of Mohammedan community gets half fee concession is not asking for too much.
“Admission for my community in girls’ schools is more difficult. I appeal for Pulaya children to be given vocational training along with education.”
This was the best speech made by Ayyankali in the Sabha. He aimed to get his community’s rights step by step. He approached the problems of social progress from the psychological angle. He was also aware of the desire of Pulayas to have their own schools while recognising the disadvantages. His practical expertise in economics was another facet of his intellect that was revealed that day.
‘Mitavadi’ wrote about the gains of Pulaya community in the field of education thus:
“The number of Pulaya students going to school have increased many fold as shown in Table-I.”
“There is no doubt that this community has had an awakening. If they proceed at this pace, they would reach great heights. In spite of burning their schools, destroying their huts, cutting off their women’s ears, they could not be stopped. The more they are harassed, the more they get helped by God…”
Interestingly, there was an overall rise in the number of students of all communities in the period 1913-1916. Nairs by 45 per cent, Christian students by 50 percent, Muslims by nearly a 100 percent, Parayas more than 400 per cent and Pulayas by almost 600 per cent!
One of the aims of Ayyankali was to get land for agriculture and habitation. In his speech to the Praja Sabha on 29th February 1916 he indicated this.
“After the government nominated one person to the Praja Sabha, it has been the burden of nominee that Pulayas do not have sufficient houses. This appeal had been presented at every session of the Sabha. The kind order of govt to distribute 500 acres of land to Pulayas in Vilippil sub-area has not been fruitful. Some parts of this area has been utilised by some persons with authority. Pulayas are incapable of competing with them. Since the govt is under the impression that paying timber price is beyond the Pulayas, the forest dept has ordered the trees to be felled and sold before distributing the land. It is sad that this work is done very slowly. It is so slow that many years will pass before the felling is done. I appeal for a serious look into this matter.”
During this period he also pushed a demand for allotment of 8 cents of land for each Pulaya household. So, 500 acres of land were ear marked for distribution without taking into account land price and timber price of trees growing there. But due to some procedural wrangles that area could not be distributed. Instead, land was earmarked for distribution in the sub-area of Uzhamalaikkal in Nedumangaadu. This land was just outside the outer wall of the fort of Queen Koda of Cheruma royal family who fought like Rani of Jhansi in battle with the king of Attingal.
While struggles pertaining to education and workers’ wages were going on, a totally different problem arose.
In Muhamma, Chertala etc brisk programs of conversion to Christianity was going on. The program of ‘gathering people’ by inducements of money and clothes under the leadership of Paaraayi Tharakan was strongly opposed by Pulaya leaders. To be rid of the scourge of untouchability and to get educational facilities conversions continued.
It was decided by the Hindu leaders that a call be sent to Ayyankali. They were sure that his word would be obeyed. They arranged for real royal reception for Ayyankali in Chertala. Thousands of untouchables arrived in decorated boats to attend the meeting to be held at Poochaakkel. The backwaters were filled with kayaks, canoes and boats. The neighbourhood was decorated. There were caprisoned elephants, drummers, young women holding lamps, fire works and all other trimmings of a festival. When Ayyankali got down from the boat, the people collected on the bank shouted,
“Master Ayyankali. Jai.”
A Namboodiri of the area was so overwhelmed by the showing that he called Ayyankali for lunch.
“My salutations for your invitation. But I have two more people of my caste with me. If it is acceptable to you, I will accept your invitation.” Namboodiri was stunned into silence. Nambudiri’s liberalism disappeared in no time.
Ayyankali took part in a few meetings held to argue out the pros and cons of conversion. In the last meeting, VT Thevan came armed with a bible and quoted freely in his counter arguments with the proponents of conversion. With the final decision not in sight. Mysteriously, the fourth meeting did not take place. Then on, Pulayas and other followers of Ayyankali, and did not make any effort to get converted.
The upper caste Hindus were jubilant. Subsequently the Arya Samaj ‘converted’ VT Thevan to Thevan Swami.
SJPS under Ayyankali had become a strong organisation and operated all over the state.. To achieve progress through education was well taken by his people. Children and the aged were keen to study. The savarna did not take well to the programs of govt that helped the avarna to rise in status. ‘Mitawadi’ in its August 1918 issue gave the following report:
“There was an order by the school inspector that 40 Pulaya students should be admitted to HGV School Thodupuzha by January 1918. Accordingly many children were admitted to the school. When these students were returning home some persons attacked and caused them injuries. How long can people tolerate all this? When Ezhavas ask for freedom they point to Pulayas and when the latter ask they get beaten.”
Ayyankali had no time to listen to who said what. He brought acted what was required of him to reach his aims with respect to advancement of his community. He believed less in making speeches and more in concerted action to achieve his aims. He was giving shape to various organisations of his community.
‘Brahmanishta Mathom’ was formed by Sadananda Swamy with Pulayas in 1904 to take up the issues relating to untouchable castes; but it failed to deliver the goods. So, Sadhu Jana Paripalana Sangham was established by Ayyankali in 1907 bringing together all untouchable castes under a common organisation. This was a historical event, for, after the establishment of Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Sangham, Ayyankali’s SJPS was the one that created a social upheaval.
The awakening of untouchables brought violent retribution from the upper castes. The vested interests who had cornered all the good things of life found the new claimants for an equitable share of the resource cake intolerable. The militancy of their struggle made sure that the authorities intervened to give as just a solution as possible for the untouchables to reduce the social tensions. Outsiders occupying Dewan’s position also helped.
When Ayyankali’s movement spread to the North, dormant love of freedom was woken up. Groups like ‘chela-kkomban’ that prepared itself in martial arts for self protection and existence.
Gopaladasan in Kollam, Chakola Kurumban in Aranmula, Vellikkara Chodi in Tiruvalla, Vishakhan Thevan in Mavelikkara, Charatan Solomon in Kavaalam and Seethangan, Paambadi John Joseph and Thiruvarppu Kuttan in Kottayam et al took the lead for untouchables.
In Kochi the call for independence sounded by KP Karuppan aroused the untouchables. He was able to mould some outstanding leaders to carry on the struggle. One of them was the brave Krishnadi Asan. Under the guidance of TK Krishna Menon the Pulaya MahaSabha in Kochi took shape. Krishnadi Asan became the President and PC Chanjachan the secretary. Literary works like ‘Jaatikkummi’, a drama authored by KP Karuppan spread general knowledge and enthusiasm among the untouchables. Their organisation endeavoured to remove prejudices and malpractices which were integral to their oppressed and suppressed existence.
With the formation of SJPS different untouchable segments considered it a united body and began to cooperate with it. Being non-communal in nature Christians and Hindus welcomed the organisation. But in 1914 LMS, Salvation Army and other such religious bodies tried their level best to divide the untouchables through inducements. Their ‘people catching’ became intense. They also tried to divide the untouchables into Northerners and Southerners. Among the Pulayas the concept of Easterners and Westerners being higher/lower persisted.
Period of Riots.
The year 1090 of Malayalam Era (1914) was a very important period in the history of Kerala. It was a history of battles written in blood. In every place the untouchables’ society threw up energetic leaders. Their stormy freedom fights affected spread to all parts of the state. Attacks and counter attacks became order of the day. The people who lived in conditions more abominable than animals stood up and opposed the atrocities committed. When the attacks by the landlords became intense, the untouchables returned them in kind. To end brutal physical punishments, get reasonable wages and for permanence of jobs, they resorted to all tricks of the trade, including strikes, in 1907.
They turned their ire against the courts when denial of justice became unbearable. Normally the upper caste accused influenced the court in his favour. Untouchability was carried to the courts too. So, the hearings, or whatever was there to it, was done under a jack fruit tree outside the court in Neyyattinkara. ‘Plaamootu Kacheri’ (court under a Jack fruit tree) was the popular name for the kind of court untouchables had to face. The onlookers gave the appellation of ‘Pulaya Riot’ to these struggles for justice and human rights.
Thatta-theruvu(theruvu=steet) Riot of Venganoor, Nedumangadu Riot, Chettippilla-theruvu Riot in Pallichal Village, Ammankovil Riot in Balaramapuram, 21st Company Riot of Neyyattinkara, manakkattu Riot, and Kazhakkoottam Riot are some of the important struggles that turned into riots.
These freedom struggles that culminated in riots at the end of 1914 reached its zenith with Perinadu Riot in Kollam followed by Police intervention has been already told. Leaders’ exhortion to the untouchables for giving up old customs, faith and dress code created consternation among the savarna. It is interesting to note that even as late as 1979 the crude stone and glass jewellery were worn in North Malabar by untouchables.
Pulaya Temple Entry Movement.
In 1917 Chakola Kurumbaan Deivathaan became a member of the Sreemoolam Praja Sabha. He led a historic procession of more than 2000 Pulaya and forcibly entered the Chengannoor Temple. This was ten years before the famous Temple Entry Ordnance and could be considered the first Temple Entry Movement in the country.
A section of Pulayas converts into Christianity started a new movement under the leadership of Pambaadi John Joseph. They felt that the caste name Pulaya was undignified. ‘Those who were the original populace of the ancient Chera Kingdom should be called Cheramer’ was the stand taken by Joseph. He placede findings of Mr Logan, editor of ‘The Malabar Manual’ and quotations from the writings of Tamil Sangam Period to bolster his arguments and formed Cheramer Sangham. A chronicle named ‘Cheramer Dootan’ ( Cheramer Messenger) was also started.
The Cheramers broke up into Hindu Cheramers and Christian Cheramers following large scale conversions. When the number of Chermer Christians increased many fold, the savarna Christians began to consider them as untouchables. They were thrown out of the churches, so, they build their own churches and chose their own padres. The unsavoury experience from the Syrian Christians created sufficient mental agony in PJ Joseph to submit a memorandum listing the misdoings of Syrian Christian church to the British Parliament. Ultimately Mr Joseph began struggles against Hindu-Christian upper caste domination within the church.
Ayyankali was tolerant towards all religions, he gave support to the struggle begun by PJ Joseph. He not only collaborated with him on many fronts, he also recommended his name to the government for being made a member of the legislative assembly at the cost of Mr TT Keshavan Shastri. Thus PJ Joseph was nominated in 1921 to the Legislative Council.
Parallel to the Travancore State struggles, Kochi State also saw untouchables on the war path. After the formation of Pulaya Maha Sabha in 1913, they struggled and got social and economic benefits. Still certain obstructions and civil liberties were yet to come by. The appointment of KP Karuppan as Assistant Protector of Depressed Classes was considered a significant gain. When the expectations of social progress were belied, Krishnadi Asaan fell prey to avarice and got converted. He received the name John. He and his followers searched for the path to salvation. Krishnadi’s action was a setback to the Pulaya freedom movement in Kochi State. With the leader removed, the movement came to a halt.
Meanwhile Ayyankali gave more importance to creative activities. In 1916 he established Theeyankara Pulaya School, in 1919 Shankhumukham School for Christian converts, Night school at Manarkadu, Primary School at Venganoor, Weaving centre and many other such establishments. Hundreds of offices of Sadhu Jana Paripaalana Sangham were turned into schools.
Amidst his drive on the educational front, he also had to mediate and settle communal riots. In 1921 a property dispute between the Syrian Christians and untouchables in North Erumeli flared up into a riot. It came to be known as ’800 landholdings riot’. A savarna convert’s efforts to forcibly occupy plots of forest land allotted to untouchables, using administration’s support through money power, ignited this riot.
Ayyankali ordered to oppose them with all their might. The struggle led by Vellikkara Chodi and P Yohannaan. The local circle inspector of police Mr. Gopalasamy Pillai could not be won over by the Syrian Christians. So, before the riot took the turn for worse, he brought it under control.
After energetic efforts to rejuvenate the Pulaya MahaSabha, PC Chaanjan was elected the secretary in a meeting chaired by Dewan Narayana Iyer in 1924. KP Vallon made his entry when he was elected joint secretary. KP Vallon started a weekly “Adhakrithan” (Low People) to carry on the fight against injustice. The workers also got back some of the elan of earlier days.
Both Vallon and Chaanjan were nominated to the Kochi Legislative Assembly in 1931 & 1926 respectively.
One prominent group among the depressed classes was ‘Kuravan’. They were also
moving into the path already trodden by Ayyankali. To put an end to the static situation in the community, Varkala SK Raghavan entered the scene. After resigning from the department of health he became a social activist. In 1928 he started ‘Satya-vilasini Sangham’ to channelise the engross of his community. Though Ayyankali, Kandan Kumaran and PJ Joseph were members of the legislative council, there was no Kuravan representative. It was in 1929 that Kallada Raman Narayanan got nominated to the legislative council.
Kallada Narayanan started an organisation named ‘Arumugha-Valli Vilasom’ (named after son and daughter in law of Lord Shiva). Both organisations of Kuravans worked in tandem and set up many branches. When these organisations became weak and lifeless, a new organisation ‘Kuravan Maha Sangham’ was formed in 1936. PC Aadichan was nominated from the sangham into the legislative council. In 1937 SK Raghavan was made President and Kaattoor Ayyappan the Secretary. After sometime the working of the Sabha became weakened due to internal dissentions. Their activities picked up only in 1945. But, then, the activities led only to break up of the Sabha into Kuravan Mahasabha and Sidhaner Service Society. But the general direction of all organisations coalesced and progressed.
One of the important events of the new awakening era was the Vaikom Satyagraham of 1924 and Guruvayoor Satyagraham of 1931. These two movements, in which all castes rubbed shoulders for a common goal, broke through the chink in the wall between savarna and avarna is a historic fact. The role of the depressed peoples’ role in those two struggles for independence would be entered in golden letters in the history of Kerala.
Peoples’ Community Courts.
With the schools set up by SJPS being destroyed regularly, classes were started in the branch offices of SJPS. With this established they turned to the courts.
Courts sentenced the untouchables to brutal punishments due to their ignorance of law. So Ayyankali started parallel courts to settle matters between the members of his community instead of going to the court. He wanted to make his people conversant with matters pertaining to law. The community court had branches in each SJPS office and a ‘Supreme Court’ of which Ayyankali himself was the judge. Hearings were heard every Saturday.
The community court followed verbatim all the practises of the courts and regular lawers came to argue cases. Judgements, directives, and orders were sent to the branches of SJPS through Sepoys employed by the community courts. To arrest those breaking rules and to produce them before the courts, Warrant Sepoys were appointed along with Bench Clerks.
The court did not break any law. It was impartial and passed sentences on those proved guilty. The branch courts sent the appeal on the sentences to the community supreme court headed by Ayyankali himself. Thus a parallel law and order machinery worked under the direction of Ayyankali.
Though Ayyankali could neither read nor write, Keshavan Writer, whom he helped educate, was employed as his private secretary to read out written matter and take dictation.
VJ Thomas Master had been a constant companion of Ayyankali since the inception of SJPS. He was a mission school teacher who left his job to take up social service in the company of Ayyankali. He had command of Malayalam language. He taught himself the ins and outs of rules, regulations and law. He incessantly walked the corridors of power and had the uncanny ability to get hold of government announcements pertaining to their community.
The head office of SJPS was a court. The biggest punishment was social ostracisation. The aim of this court was to mould the members of the community into orderly, law abiding and well behaved people; the qualities which were considered part of education.
There were other aspects of education like concerts, drama, martial arts, dandia and kakkarishi -natakam. Valli-natakam, Harishchandra-natakam based on Hindu religious texts were aimed at creating a sense of justice among the community members.
Jubilee Hall Session.
The annual meeting of SJPS was held with all the pomp and show. The meeting was held every year in the same Victoria Jubilee Town Hall (VJT Hall) a day after Sreemoolam Praja Sabha was held there. Ayyankali had gained the permanent right to hold the annual meeting there. This meeting was called ‘Jubilee-koottam’ (jubilee Get together). Representatives of SJPS arrived from all its branches and converged towards the meeting site in processions. The branches from afar sent only their representatives. Those from nearby came through foot paths since they were still not allowed to travel on main roads. The procession was accompanied by drummers, cymbals, ornamental umbrellas, flags and other decorations. The procession winded its way through the town in a massive demonstration and reached VJT Hall. The Black skinned people were everywhere. They thronged the main roads and side lanes and alleys.
It was the Dewan-ji who chaired the meeting representing Sreemulam Thirunal Maharaja. Dewan-ji insisted on the presence of Chief Secretary, Departmental heads and all the important officials at the meeting. The officials sat on the stage along with Ayyankali, the general secretary of SJPS
The Meeting commenced with a prayer song written by Mooloor Padmanabha Panikkar and sung by Chakkola Kurumban Deivathan.
Hear ye, hear ye the song
Of trials of poor and weary;
‘where do we go from here?’
They cry and cry and cry…
Have no home no country,
Forests are our refuge.
Clear the forest at daytime,
Sleep in the clearing at night.
After the seeds are sown,
And fruits ripen on the trees,
Master will take them away,
Lord! Lird! We can only weep.
We cannot walk the streets,
We cannot enter the shops,
We who do all the labour
Will go on, go on, go on…
The song brought tears to the eyes of people in the audience.
The General Secretary Ayyankali always presented a charter of problems and needs of the community along with his welcome speech. Every word he spoke was listened to attentively by the Chairman and officials. For each issue raised, the respective department heads gave the answers within the time frame fixed for dealing with each issue.
The atrocities committed on the untouchables were enumerated and officials had to give replies for the same. To wind up, it was the responsibility of the Chairman to make a shortlist of things that could be done immediately to be submitted to the Maharaja.
The 1930 annual meeting of SJPS was held under the chairmanship of Dewan-ji VS Subrahmania Iyer. Ayyankali began his welcome address thus:
“I donot know how to read or write. I donot even know the meaning of the word ‘swagatam’. I have been given the responsibility to say welcome only to embarass me. But this duty is not more difficult than what I suffered for my people. Before I bid you all welcome, let me inform one thing to Dewan-ji and senior officers present here. All the men and women thronging this building have come to see Dewan-ji. My people have great affection for the good people who take part in our meetings. My people are aiming at fulfilling two desires at the cost of one. That is, to see Dewan-ji and take part in the meeting. Since Dewan-ji and speakers are sitting together on the dais, my people have difficulty in recognising the Dewan-ji. So allow me to point out to my people that the man seated in the middle is the Dewan-ji.
“Let me welcome you once again, Dewan-ji.
“Long ago, ignoring all consideration of caste, Lord Subrahmanian (Kartikeya the son on Siva) married a low caste Kurava girl. Likewise, we are able to go to schools and other public places like markets without fear. We have reached a stage where we can speak our mind to the government about our needs. This honourable gentleman from the upper caste helped us put an end to untouchability to a very great extent. That is why I consider today’s Dewan-ji not as Subrahmanya Iyer but as Lord Subrahmanyam himself. I am sure my people also think likewise.
“I want to welcome all the officials next. To avoid taking more time, I just say ‘welcome’.”
Ayyankali’s deep, sonorous and powerful voice echoed within the walls of VJT hall like it had been doing in all parts of Kerala for quarter of a century.
Functioning of SJPS.
The SJPS branches mushroomed in all the villages and hamlets of Travancore. There was some orderliness about the functioning of the organisation. Due to some internal dissentions caused by secret instigation by the enemies of the organisation, all other communities withdrew. Only Pulayas remained.. Some weaknesses and mistakes committed just after the birth of the SJPS was used by the detractors to produce the aforesaid division within.
Ayyankali administered the matters of the Sangham with great managerial acumen. The office bearers of the organisation were given elaborate powers by the community.
On Sundays the branches held meetings and bhajans. Being a holiday, women and children also took part.
The brave leaders of SJPS were the ‘branch managers’. There was no place for cowards in this post. They worked closely with Ayyankali in all the day to day activities and freedom struggles. They were the real captains of his ‘army’. Those who had no guts to be members of his ‘army’ were asked to do other work. Of the managers, prominent were Mathu Manager, Narayanan Manager, Pachan Manager, Pappu Manager, Kurunjeri Manager, Vellomkolli Manager, Kunjan Manager, Chinnnan Manager, Ponnu Manager, Paramu Manager, Chellappan Manager, Puthenkaanam Raman Manager etc.
Though Ayyankali regularly went on tour of Northern Travancore, towards later stages he concentrated mostly on central Travancore where he had total support. He became one with them.
It was during the period of 1913 to 1930 that he carried out intense campaigns and work in all parts of Tiruvalla, Changanassery and Kottayam. Here he had very faithful followers like Chembundala Kali, Chocikkuruppan, K Paappen, M Pappen, P Pappen, Mailen, Manthana Kutty, P Vasudevan, VM Parameshwaran, Palapparambil Pappen, Valyathara Pappen; and in Kottayam; TC Kuttan, V Chodi, K Aninjjan, T Kandankali etc. in Tiruvella; Deivathan in Aranmula and Gopaladasan in Kollam.
In that period, After Sree Narayana Guru’s SNDP the next most powerful and numerous was Ayyankali’s SJPS. Strength and unity were the hallmark of the organisation. Within a short period it had close to a thousand branches in all parts of the state. In many places the Sangham was able to accumulate considerable amount of movable property. Prominent persons donated land to build branch offices in their area. Some persons from the Nair community also came forward to donate land. Thus SJPS was able to have its own office buildings in a large number of places. There is an unusual story behind the way money was collected to build these office buildings. The money was got by women who sold ‘a fistful of rice’ each. Thus the foundation of their community was laid with wealth that trickled from harvesting sickles of untouchable women. Further, in 1922 two acres of land, next to MC Road in Changanassery on the west part of Vazhappalli village were got allotted to SJPS as result of efforts by Ayyankali and his colleagues.
To make the working of SJPS Ayyankali formulated a new way. He decided that SJPS should have its own magazine. The communities’ whole hearted support to the endeavour gave the organisation strength to set out. The monthly ‘Sadhu Jana Paripalini’ began publication with Kali Chodikkuruppan as the editor. It was printed at Sudarshan Press in Changanassery. The regular contributors of articles to the monthly were CC Pappen, M Gopalan Nair, MA.,LT., et al. ‘Sadhu Jana Paripalini’ was perhaps the first magazine to be brought out by untouchables.
The aim behind all his efforts was education of his community. ‘Progress through education and organisation’ was the slogan of Ayyankali. He fully believed that the communities’ salvation lay in education. He surged forward after kicking aside every impediment that came in the way of his efforts towards this end. He opened schools to open the eyes of his communities’ darling progeny where the doors of public and private schools refused them entry.
Inspite of all this, Ayyankali was not for establishment of caste based educational institutions. He considered schools as a place where the whole humanity sat and feted on the riches of human endeavour; then only could fruits of knowledge become meaningful. Yet, he had to go against the grain of his beliefs and establish separate schools for his people, when he was at the end of his tether, due to obstructionist attitude of savarnas. Thus he established ‘The Venganoor Puduval School’ in 1936. The school had a weaving centre, library and other vocational units attached to it.
It would not be out of place to say a few words about the appearance of the man called Ayyankali, the uncrowned king of untouchables. Wherever he went, he was given a royal treatment. Mannathu Padmaanabhan, a revered leader of Nairs of Kerala said:
“When Ayyankali entered the Praja Sabha wearing a turban, crimson tilak on forhead and angavastram wrapped around his torso, many a visitor wondered if this was the Dewan…”
“…in 1924 December, a man entered the office of the paper ‘Kerala Daasan’. He had a very impressive appearance. About 6 to 6 and a half feet in height and appropriate girth. He was of pale brown complexion. he had a turban with golden bands on it. He wore a whit dhoti with a border. He wore a black long coat that reached his knees. He had an aura around him that made everyone feel that they were in the presence of a great man. I couldnot help but come out of my room to the verandah to receive him. The visitor took out a visiting card and gave it to me and said, ‘Ayyankali’.” This is how Mr. MM Varky has written in his diary. That was Ayyankali, who attracted the attention of anyone who set eyes on him.
NK Venkateswaran the historian wrote thus in 1926:
“Pulayas are awakening at a rapid rate. They have a representative in the Praja Sabha. The angel of change has waved a torch over this land. The sparks from the torch will coalesce to become a fiery flood. The old moth eaten social mores would be cleansed by fire. They will sit alongside those who call themselves ‘high ones’. They have already taken the initiative in organising meetings and putting forward their just demands. It is a pleasing sight to watch their future culture on the rise.
The New Era.
The struggle of Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar’s against upper caste domination and his ng of ‘Poona Pact’ in 1932 to save the life of Gandhi, who was fasting in Yervada Jail, are unforgettable events in the history of India’s freedom struggle.
Many of the programs initiated by Sree Narayana Guru for the uplift of ‘low ones’ put the ‘high ones’ in an ideological quandary. When it became impossible to keep the ‘low ones’ suppressed, the rulers took the easy way out.
As far as the depressed classes are concerned, the period from 1936 onwards was one of progress and growth. On the educational front there were visible changes. With the establishment of ‘Harijan Hostels’ the number of school going students increased in number. College Degree holders shot up among the depressed classes. They were absorbed gradually into government service and private employment market.
Yet, temple entry was banned for the depressed classes in Kochi State. They got the privilege only after independence from Britain. In 1947, the United Pulaya Maha Sabha ‘Jihwayee’, Mr KK Madhavan, edited and published a weekly named ‘Kahalom’.
Only after establishment of the depressed classes’ organisation in South and Central Kerala was the movement started in Malabar.
The messages of Vaikom Satyagraha of 1924 and Depressed Classes’ Freedom struggles helped wake up the dormant spirits of the depressed classes of Malabar.
It was for freedom of movement that they raised their voices first. When none of their moves met with success, they held a meeting of depressed classes in the year 1927. At the meeting chaired by Mahatma Gandhi held in Powren’s Square an orgnisation by the name of ‘Kerala Anthyaja-udharana Sangham’. ‘Mithavaadi’ editor C Krishnan Vakil and K Kelappan were elected president and secretary respectively. This organisation carried forward its work very sincerely. It also got full hearted support from some savarna leaders and activists. Subsequently the body changed its name to ‘Adi – Keraleeya-udharana Sangham’.
When untouchables appeared on the scene with their demands for rights in Chirakkal Taluk, they received brutal beatings at the hands of police. At a protest meeting held in Pazhavangadi with K Madhavan Nair as chairman. At the meeting it was decided the depressed people could be generally called ‘Adi Keraleeyar’ and to work for their welfare a body named ‘Adi Keraleeya Sangham’ be formed. It was during the existence of these bodies that Guruvayoor Satyagraha took place.
By 1933 the savarna stood helpless in preventing the entry of untouchables into a number of temples. This was as a result of pressures exerted by Dr Ambedkar. As a result of the events that took place following Poona Pact, signed by Ambedkar on 25 September 1932, the savarnas undertook the responsibility of removing untouchability and finding solutions to the difficulties faced by the depressed people of the country. With that in the background, a body against untouchability, which later becam ‘Harijan Sevak Sangh’ in 1932.
The branches of Harijan Sevak Sangh functioned in Kerala under the presidentship of Changanasseri Parameswara Pilla. Yet the leader known as the close friend of depressed people of Malabar was none other than Shree Ananda Teerthan from the brahmin community.
One of the precedence setting program carried out by the depressed people of Malabar was to establish their right to walk on the roads by announcing their a ‘freedom Walk’ on Thalipparambu Road. They were tired of going through bushes and forests to reach their destinations. They got on to the road with the thought of ‘come what may’. The Cherumars did not delude themselves into thinking that the savarna class will sit and watch their arrogance.
The savarna anger rose. Their self respect lifted its head. They could not tolerate the ‘rights’ they had enjoyed over generations being snatched away by those who lay and work mostly in the muck of the fields. These ‘usurpers’ are the very people whose sweat helped fill the savarna granaries was forgotten. Most of their fields were once forests which were cleared by Cherumers for their own use, but savarnas snatched it from them. The Cherumers kept silent and did not ask for their share.
Initially the cherumers merely asked for the right to walk on the public road traversed even by stray dogs and cats.
Some savarnas sounded the battle cry.
For starters the savarnas refused to recognise their own workers on the street. The Nairs who lived by the road did not permit the avarnas to move even one step. They even threatened to take revenge, which they did on children and infants.
In Kalliyaassery District Board School some Cherumer children were studying. Names of all students except one were struck off from the rolls. This was another riposte to Cherumers’ demand for freedom of movement. The one who did remain on the rolls was waylaid and beaten mercilessly. He too refrained from going to school. These were a repeat of what happened in Moovaattupuzha, Pulladu, Venganoor etc.
In protest against the atrocities some social workers prepared for satyagraha. That itself produced some tension in the area. With the intercession of CF Andrews, the children removed from rolls were reinstated. It was after this incidence that the government entered the scene to give more protection to Cherumer students.
Freedom of roads in Malabar was not allowed even after Cochin and Travancore allowed it due to the struggles of SJPS under Ayyankali. So it became impossible for those in Malabar to sit and just watch while all the people of neighbouring states walked on public roads freely. They improvised some tactics to solve the problem. After the public meeting, with Chirakkal Taluk Board President Kerala Varma Raja in the chair, it became feasible for untouchables to walk the streets of Kalliyaassery.
The Harijan Sevak Sangh began several novel schemes. With the initiative of KP Vallon established a Harijan Hostel in Ernakulam in Cochin State. Some schools, night schools and crafts training centres were also set up. Giving books and clothes for students, making hostel facilities, conducting home cleanliness training classes etc. were some of the programs the Sangh organised.
The first president of the Malabar branch of the Sangh was Kongaattil Raman Menon. Sree Narayana School at Payyannoor run by Ananda Theerthan, Shradhananda School in Vadakara, Shabari Ashram in Olavakkodu were all started with the untouchables in view. Gradually these were taken under the wings of Harijan Sevak Sangh. Further, Kasturba Balika Sadanam of Puthiyara, Kelappa Mandiram Hostel of Gurvayoor have given donations. During that period many organisations led by untouchables were born. Memorable are the activities of PM Unnikrishnan, O Koran on behalf of the Harijan society.
CHAPTER – 23.
Denouement of SJPS
SJPS had become a gigantic organisation as a result of thirty years of service and growth. The unity it created among the depressed people and strength created a lot of heartburn among its detractors. Many tricks were tried to destroy SJPS. Their first efforts at breaking up SJPS seemed to be succeeding. Those who fell into the trap of opponents went on to form separate caste wise oranisations instead of a united body like SJPS. Cherumer Maha Sabha, Paraya Maha Sabha, Kurava Maha Sabha, Ayyanava Maha Sabha are some of the splinter groups that were formed.
In 1929 a young man named TT Keshavan passed ‘sastri’ examination. He became well known as a speaker of rare talent. He became a strong rival to Ayyankali among the depressed people. The question of membership in the Praja Sabha also became a bone of contention between the two. Their rivalry grew and spread into organisational field. This gave chance to the enemies of SJPS to sow the seeds of division into Northerners and Southerners.
Sastri made efforts of organise Pulayas as a separate body. He got many supporters for his plans. The government made efforts to see that no split took place in the Sangham. Thus Dewan Sir CP Ramaswamy Iyer (Sir CP) brought together the rivals through the marriage of Ayyankali’s daughter Thangamma with Sastri. This pacification program of Sir CP struck at the root of SJPS.
Ayyankali retracted from any efforts to compete in organisational matters with his son in-law in public; and a clear divide had formed in the body of the Sangham. Their personal struggle for supremacy ended with only Pulaya members remaining in the SJPS.
While Sastri’s organisation grew in strength, SJPS became progressively inactive. Finally Ayyankali withdrew from the active front.
With the efforts of Sastri, different Pulaya organisations coalesced to form ‘Samastha Kerala Pulaya MahaSabha’. With Sastri as president, Idyaranmula PK Das as general secretary, and, kesavan Writer, PK Velukkutty, TV Thevan and Kunjukrishnan Manager were committee members. The Sabha held its first meeting in the first week of July 1937 with Sir CP in the chair. In 1938 the Sabha was registered under the Companies Act.
Ayyankali, in his mid 60s already, expressed a desire to withdraw completely from the activities of the Sangham. Still he couldnot distance himself from his people; he was seen in the forefront whenever his people needed him.
Normally one wouldnot venture to give up the privileges and and rights that has been one’s for generations. If the very same people, who prevented the depressed classes from even entering in ‘the presence of God’, suddenly swung open the doors of temples for all communities to enter, historians may record it as the work of ‘some great personae’. But the historical truth behind the opening of temple gates is a story of incessant struggles, bloody sacrifices and unbelievable bravery of untouchables.
“May the truth and reality of our Faith be known in all its profundity.
“Believing it to be founded on divine directions and an all pervading spirit of tolerance,
“understanding that it has for centuries been keeping in harmony with changes in the tides of times,
“Concerned that none of our Hindu subjects should be denied the peace and happiness on the basis of birth, caste or community,
” We made a decision and thus proclaim to command carrying out of activities and customs in relevant situations.
” Under the rules and regulations that apply none who is born or by faith a Hindu shall be prevented from entering any temple under the jurisdiction of our government.”
“On this Thursday the 12th day of November 1936″
Under the seal of…
“Sree-Padmanabha Vanchi-Palaka Sir Balarama Varma Kulashekhara Kireeta-pati Sree-Chitra Thirunaal Maharaja in his wisdom..”
This proclamation is of historical import. Yet one thing shouldnot be forgotten that 82 years prior to this proclamation, i.e., in 1854, Uttram Tirunaal Marthanda Varma Maharaja of Travancore made another equally historical proclamation banning slave trade.
Ayyankali & Mahatma Gandhi.
Gandhi, who was fighting against the foreigners who were milking the country of its resources and struggling to liberate India from the shackles of British overlordship. He had traveled all around the country praising the Temple Entry Proclamation of Sree Chitra Thirunaal Maharaja of Kerala. The unobtrusive way in which the Maharaja’s proclamation was made was a bolt from the blue for Gandhi. Gandhi had a competitor in the ‘Ruler-Reformer’ Maharaja.
Gandhi had heard of the illiterate and untouchable genius Ayyankali. He was well informed of all that Ayyankali had done not only for untouchables but also for the people of Kerala. Gandhi came to Venganoor located in a corner of tiny Kerala in 1937 to meet Ayyankali.
Gandhi embraced Ayyankali the moment they met.* He made Ayyankali to sit close to him. An ‘avatara-purushan’ of Bharat embracing and being made to sit next to him stunned the savarnas gathered there.
“I know about all the work you have been doing. Good. I am also of your age. We both are fighting for freedom. Continue your work.” Gandhi told him.
Ayyankali was thrilled to hear Gandhi’s compliment.
“How are things here?” he asked further.
“Mahatmaji. I will not forget your kindness. We have won the freedom to study in schools. Now we have gained the right to enter temples for puja and prayers…”
Gandhi was impressed by the precision with which Ayyankali put forward his points.
“What else does your people want?” Gandhi asked.
“I want to see atleast ten B.A. graduates before I die.” Ayyankali pleaded.
“Your desire will be fulfilled very soon. Continue with your work fearlessly.” Gandhi exhorted.
Soon, harijan hostels were established at centres of education in Travancore. The warden of the hostel in Thiru-vanantha-puram was one MN Govindan Nair who was to become the Chief Minister of Kerala.
[At that moment Gandhi's thoughts may have gone back to the days he spent in Yerwada Jail, specially the events under the mango tree in the courtyard. There, the uncrowned king of India's depressed classes, one who endlessly led the struggle for their betterment, Dr. Ambedkar, had saved the life of Gandhi by signing the historic Poona Pact in 1932. The communal award given by the British had the potential to make untouchables a separate community outside Hinduism. So Gandhiji had had gone on a 'fast unto death' against the Award in Aga Khan Palace- against Dr. Ambedkar.
"It was only after this clash with Ambedkar that Gandhiji took to activities concerned with the uplift of untouchables," said Gandhi disciple and ex-congress MP C Narayana Pillai about Gandhi's sudden interest in untouchables. How far his stays with the untouchables in 'harijan basti' helped persuade the upper castes to soften their prejudices? Very little.]
Ayyankali And The National Movement.
When the depressed classes of Kerala began to get the fruits of their hard labour, after decades of struggles led by leaders from Kochi, Malabar and Travancore inspired by Ayyankali, they could rest on their oars for a short while to catch their breath. It was at this interrugnum that the new message of national liberation energised the spirit of the depressed people once more.
Confidence borne out of the influence of English education showed the way to solve many a problem. When slave mentality and diffidence disappeard in the literate, they got the inspiration to oppose tooth and nail everything that stood in their way of advancement. Economic issues distressed them. Workers’ question was born thus. Seeds of revolution sown by ‘Swadeshabhimani’ Ramakrishna Pilla took root in their hearts. Thus the number of the ‘negationists’ increased many fold. As a result of newly acquired education and freedom ideological struggles took place all over the state. A beginning in that direction was made with the formation of workers’ unions.
Attractive slogans thrilled the poor sections. They took to the new way as though they had received some new light. Progressive organisations gave their ideas a new form, character and life. Sree Narayana Guru dictum of ‘one religion, one caste, one God’, enthused the people still further. In that surging forward many social problems were solved, yet there was no respite from beatings and misery. They had jumped from the frying pan into the fire. Narayana Guru’s precepts remained a pie in the sky. It was not a Philosophical problem. In 1887 Mr Logan had summed up the problem thus: “Till the slave class donot have the ownership of their own house, they will not exprerience real freedom.” Only Ayyankali understood the gravity of the problem. His efforts to get surplus land allotted to his people were in this direction.
Amidst his social work, Ayyankali did not show any inclination for political work. At the time of Temple Entry Proclamation, national independence movement had gathered strength. Many asked him the reason for his disinterest in politics. He had his answer ready:
“Whom to fight against and whose side to join? Should he join hands with those who were oppressors of his people who form a third of the population? He was unwilling to rub shoulders with those who considered the very sight of his people polluting?”
When his peoples’ primary responsibility was to fight against upper caste overlordship, third degree treatment and exploitation; the situation for changing that aim and oppose another enemy did not exist as far as the untouchables were concerned. The class enemy was upper castes. After getting freedom from regional caste overlordship can one go for national libration, he surmised. With feet in two boats one could not reach either shore, he believed. He was not aware of the Mao Zedong tactic of joining hands with the lesser enemy (Koumintang) to fight the greater national enemy (Japanese), before dispatching the former.
Untouchables did not have freedom to worship in temples before 1947. It was not foreign domination that prevented them temple entry. So how could one blame either Dr. Ambedkar of Ayyankali for putting the local enemy, i.e., upper caste domination, above the foreign oppressor?
There is another facet too. Ayyankali was not blind to the youth bubbling with revolutionary spirit getting attracted to national liberation movements. He did not stop them, for, he knew that they would not be stopped. He let them play their roles sincerely in the struggle for national independence, lest they be left out of the stream of patriots in the long run. Thus the next generation of depressed classes produced political leaders like Vishakhan Thevan, TT Keshavan Sastri et al.
Though the savarnas of Travancore held strongly to the customs and prejudices, they were sufficiently good-hearted to give up their prejudices. When they were conviced that untouchability was based on erroneous premise, they did not oppose temple entry proclamation.
Temple entry proclamation was a result of revolutionary mentality of Indians. Though they were not happy about it, they welcomed it. In short, they did not oppose.They established, Arya Smaj, Hindu Mission, Hindu MahaSabha etc. and and gave aid and support to improve the lot of the depressed people. Not that self interest had no role to play; these were a sop to the depressed classes to prevent them from getting converted to Islam or Christianity. It helped the poor class to bring about changes in their habits, beliefs, attire, food habits, cleanliness etc. A new awakening was visible in the Hindus. Their women also underwent a change in their attitudes. They were ready to undergo ‘prayashchit’ for their past misdeeds.
“In the past the avarna were considered scheduled castes by the savarna and made to undergo considerable amount of difficulties. I ask apology as a savarna for the troubles caused to them. Sufficient steps have been taken to correct the old mistakes.” Thus spoke the Nair leader Mannathu Padmanabhan unveiling a photo of Ayyankali in Venganoor on his ‘sata varshikom’ (centenary) on 2nd September 1963. (Kerala Kaumudi of 5th Sept 63.)
The savarnas showed no reluctance in leting neat and clean Dalits to enter teir homes. Not only that, the savarna women even formed groups to do social service. It was around this time that Ayyankali was invited to the home of Mannathu Padmanabhan for a meal. The venerable mother of Mannathu served food for both the men. When the maid refused to take away the plate in which Ayyankali had eaten, the mother cleared the plates and washed them herself. This was a remarkable event considering the social environs of those days.
In Niranom Ayyankali was received with a fabulous welcome. Thousands of people gathered at the meeting where he raised certain economic issues.
“…my brothers are those who do physical labour. They reach their homes in the evening after a strenuous day’s labour. They may get into a toddy shop on the way back from work to lighten their fatigue. But, most are those who have made this a daily habit. Their women also keep them company. This increases poverty in the family. There is loss of domestic peace. Marriage bonds break. Many such unfortunate things happen. So I am asking you all to destist from drinking. Let those who take an oath to day to never drink again may please indicate it with a show of hands…” Ayyankali fell silent and stood watching.
“There hides a naughty one without lifting his hand.” Ayyankali said and the youngster put up both his hands a little too quickly. The crowd got a chance to burst into laughter.
“From today onwards,”Ayyankali continued, “None who comes home drunk and senseless would be served food. Let me see the hands of those sisters who swear by this.”
None lifted their hands All women bent down and were smiling.
“Oh. These naughty ones are all bending their head down.” Ayyankali quipped and another round of laughter followed.
His health started deteriorating. Asthma started troubling him. That did not prevent him from trying to get jobs for his people most of whom had an education now. He started sending application after application and submitting petitions in Praja Sabha for jobs. He pleaded for all communities. But the rule was for a member to speak on behalf of his own caste alone.
By 1941 he was a very sick man. He died of Asthma on June 18, 1941.
Thus the brave son of Kerala died peacefully in the knowledge that his life ambitions for his people are not very far.
“Kerala has seen many revolutionaries. They have brought considerable political and social changes. One cannot use today’s yardstick to assess their worth. When one understands the socio-politico-economic environment of the era in which these people struggled can their worth be truly evaluvated. Looked at from that angle, one can say without any doubt one can say that Ayyankali was the greatest revolutionaly Kerala has given birth to. He lived in an age when he experienced un-freedom every step of the way. It is not easy for a man with no backing of either education, influence or wealth to rise from the lowest strata of society to become a nightmare for upper caste domination and feudalism,” in the words of historical researcher Ilangulam Kunjanpilla.
When Kunjupilla was in the process of preparing an article evaluvating the role of Ayyankali in the history of Kerala, Ayyankali passed on to the beyond.
Congress leader and member of Public Service Commission Mr AP Udayabhanu spoke of him thus:
“I am against all kinds of memorials. But if there is going to be any memorial build, it must be for Ayyankali…I see the figure of a great man today. The streets from one end of the state to another, blocked for the depressed, was opened forcibly by untouchables under the leadership of Ayyankali. An organiser of the oppressed who gave them self confidence and pride…a ‘Yugapurush’.
“I worship him as the greatest social reformer. I put him in the forefront of all social reformers because he came from the most backward segment. He needed and did have more courage and steadiness than others…
“When the entry of backward Ezhava (Theeya) into schools ended in Nair-Ezhava riots, the only way out was to have Pulaya Schools. Before this Ezhavas joined the other savarna in beating up Pulayas and other untouchables.
“One can save another only is the other is willing to be rescued. If one does have intense desire to be saved, people will come forward to save. Only those awakened by self respect and desire for freedom could be saved by socieity’s protectors.
“Ayyankali who awakened a spirit of freedom and self respect in the Harijans is the first one eligible for the title of Kerala’s Reformer.”
(Manorajyam Weekly, 14 Feb 1979.)
The present generation of Dalits take for granted a number of rights and freedom. It would be interesting and instructive for them to be told the experience of ‘small people’ went through in the days of their grand parents and parents.
Long long ago, the ‘small people’ were considered sub-human. They shared pulling of plough with bullocks. They were thought of as two legged draught animals. They were not allowed any kind of freedom. All the human rights were denied them. The ‘high’ people used the ‘low’ people as slave labour. Yet they considered the very sight of a ‘low’ as evil or bad omen.
There was a fixed distance, ‘theenda-ppadu’, to be kept between the ‘low’ and ‘high’. Theeya/Ezhava and Pulaya kept 16 feet and 64 feet respectively from a Nair. Any ‘low’ who went “…closer than the prescribed one ‘theenda-ppadu’ towards a Nair will be chopped down” was the old Caturvarnya rule. The King ‘finished’ a Nair who disregarded this rule.
The ‘low’ were recognised by the black colour of their skin; light complexioned among them being identified by their uncovered upper body. Now cloth was permitted to be used after being blackened with coal dust or ash. Slippers (wooden), umbrella (of palm leaf), clean cloth, expensive jewellery was not permitted for the ‘low’s. Only a Namboodiri(Kerala Brahmin) used umbrella in rain- definitely unusual for a place where it rains six months in a year.
The ‘upper’ said ‘hoy’ as he walked along paths and lanes. The oncoming ‘low’ replied ‘njaavo’ to give the former warning and for the latter time to hide behind bushes or thickets.
It was the women who suffered most. They were not allowed to cover their breasts. One of the stories popular in Kerala at that time was about a poor woman who covered her breasts and appeared before the queen only to have them cut off. Even the castes who were eligible for the upper cloth removed it on meeting a person of higher caste.
Taxation had reached such ridiculous ‘sophistication’ that a breast tax was charged from women, exposing the limitations of South Kerala’s economic development; This inspite of brilliant economists of Kerala like John Mathai et al having contributed to laying of India’s economic foundation in the First Five Year Plan.
Due to the uncleanliness of the ‘low’ peoples’ attire, their women’s virginity was a plaything in the hands of the upper castes. Not that the upper castes were way far ahead in cleanliness.
Even language spoken by the ‘low’ was perverted to meet the needs of oppression. The use of the word ‘Me’ or ‘I’ was never allowed to be used. They spoke to the ‘upper’ with palms covering the mouth. Denigration reached a particular high by refering to child birth in the family as ‘dropping of a monkey’
The ‘low’ were not allowed anywhere near the temples. Similarly, Post office, court, hospital, public well and other public establishments banned their entry. Even markets were out of bounds for them.
On the judicial front, the ‘low’ people were given cruel punishments even for petty crimes.
As to feeding of the workers in the aftrnoon, they were fed in banan leaf spread near a garbage pile when the pet dog was fed in a plate in the courtyard.
‘Pulaya Scare’ And After…
‘Pulaya Scare’, ‘Paraya Scare’, ‘Mannan Scare’, etc. were some of the customs/superstitions prevalent in Travancore. The first two were prevalent in Southern part of the state.
Pulaya scare was a 500 year old superstition. January 14 – February 14 were the Pulaya Scare time. i.e., 28 days from the day moon enters Capricorn ( 1st to 28th of Lunar month of Makar). The first three days of the month ‘Uchharan Utsavam’ was celebrated. The Utsav was to celebrate the Menstrual Period of Godess Earth.
Barbosa, a traveller from Portugal has recorded about Pulaya Scare in 1517 AD. In some months each year, Pulayas try to touch as many Nair women as possible. Nairs made efforts to prevent trouble for their women. Still the Pulayas would hide outside Nair houses at sundown. Once they touch a woman, she would shout out the news and go away with the Pulaya who touched her. If she comes back, she would bring ‘bhrasht’ to rest of the family, it was believed. Even if a Pulaya touched the woman with a stick or threw a stone on her, she went with that Pulaya. The Nair women who were afraid of their life or feared being sold also succumbed voluntarily to Pulaya men.
Dr Chelanattu Achutha Menon records thus:
“Once a year the ‘low’ are given permission of the paths and a kind of freedom in small temples during Pooram festival and ‘Velakali’ season. They can bathe in the upper caste ponds, enter the temples and offer ‘archana’. They can touch any woman they see. The women had to go with the ‘low’ man who touched her. She was not to return back. The rules applied only for those outside their homes. Those in the homes were not bothered. These days of freedom for the low were announced by drummers in advance to the populace. “Those who donot want to face the consequenses of this display of freedom may stay home,” was also announced in advance.
Depending on the majority ‘low’ community of the area, the appellation ‘Pulaya Scare’ and ‘Paraya Scare’ were applied.(*)
“An upper caste woman who wanted to avoid being victimised could safely go any where and any time of the day or night with a male child of more than 3 years; or she could touch a male Palm tree when in temple. Only those who wanted to be touched that went out on their own on ‘scare’ days. If the touched woman is pregnant, she will stay away from her kin. If the child born is a boy, she will be taken back. If it is a girl, the woman goes with the Pulaya.”
“Initially the Pulayas may have been encouraged to take women who had no males to support them.
“Between February 15th to April 15th the ‘low’ had the right to abduct, if possible, Nair women who came to see the army parade. This may have been an arrangement to maintain the number of slave labour. ‘Pulaya Scare’ started the inter-mixing of Nairs and Pulayas.
“This must have been many generations before (the arrival of the Portuguese),” opines historian Ilamgulam Kunjanpilla.
The ‘scares’ were ended in Malabar during british rule. But it was banned in Travancore in 1695 AD by Unny Kerala Varma. The proclamation was carved on a rock on the roadside of Thiruvithamkode of Padmanabhapuram taluk. Padmanabhapuram was the second capital of the state.
The record of the order is kept in the archeological museum of Padmanabhapuram. The gist of that order written in Tamil and mix of Tamil and Malayalam comprising of 106 lines is as follows:
“…If ‘Pulaya Scare’ is practised in my kingdom, the Pulayas, their women and children, including pregnant women will be destroyed. Those women who have been affected may be relieved of their blemish if they have a ritual cleansing bath. And, any one who defaces the rock edict will get the same punishment as the one who kills a black cow on the shores of River Ganga.”
Hamurabi couldn’t have done better!
((*)Kali worship in Kerala)
The Cherumer people of North Kerala are a significantly large section of North Kerala with branches and sub branches. They were known as ‘cherumakkal’ (cheru=small, makkal=children). They made their homes next to fields and nearby to be close to their places of work. (..It is possible that ‘cheru’ is actually came from ‘chay-roo’ meaning clay… of the waterlogged fields <paani kheti> they work in.)
They lived in mushroom(umbrella) shaped huts. The structure was of tree branches or bamboo. The protective covering from the elements was of woven coconut fronds, grass or hay. Their settlement resembled large umbrella shaped mushrooms lined up at the edge of fields. Some of them were in the middle of the field too.
The ‘huts’ had one room that doubled as kitchen and sitting room. At night the room became a sleeping room. The utensils were earthen. Baskets woven from dried ananas leaves were used for storage of food grains.
Their heads were a bit longish and covered with curly hair. They resembled the african blacks with their negroid features. But they are not completely negroid in features like the Paniyar of Vayanad, Kadar of Parambikkulam etc. Big eyes were a speciality of these Cherumers. Both men and women were bare bodied and wore a loin cloth that reached just upto their shin.
These low caste people were considered one of the many agro implements like the bull, plough, sickle etc. The major domo of the land lord sends for the Cherumers at dawn. They proceed to the fields to work there till dusk. At the end of the day they were given a small measure of unhusked rice as wages. That was to be their dinner.
The rice is put in a large mud pot and parboiled. The water is poured out and the grains are roasted. The stem of coconut frond cut into the shape of a long spoon (thuduppoo)is used to stir the grains lest they get burnt. The grains, already grown in size due to parboiling, split the dried outer husk and peep out. The grains are husked and winnowed. The rice is boiled and taken with some vegetables and chillies from plants grown on the sides of fields. When they lay down their heads to sleep, it is past midnight.
Next morning they set out at dawn mostly on empty stomach. If something from the night is left over, that portion becomes breakfast.
Whatever their state, hungry, sick or miserable, they worked for their master without break. They had no weekly holidays nor any other break in routine to recouperate.
They did not have any particular leaders. But they had groups resembling panchayat, a ‘samiti’, consisting of elders. The head elder was called ‘karuppan’. The ‘samiti’ had quasi judicial powers to intercede in quarrels, fights, riots between groups. The ‘samiti’ had the powers from demanding apologies demitted with the submission of betel leaves to deposition of fines of the guilty.
The daily wage of about 700 grams of paddy may not suffice for the whole family. To make up the shortcoming, roots, fish, bananas and trapped birds and animals were consumed. Toddy was a favourite of the Cherumers. They used fish, though they never consumed dead animals. Their fish preparations were rather rudimentary.
They did not have any particular customs except to be involved in agriculture. They were an obedient and faithful class of people. Cheating or deception was not in their vocabulary. They had also the capability to love with an open heart.
They gathered at the gates of their employer on special days, especially on ‘Onam’ festival day. They placed at the feet of their ‘lord’ of the land Banana Bunch, Elephant Yam, Yam and other products of the land. The ‘lord’ in return presented rice or unhusked rice along with gray cloth. This thick rough cloth was used for the whole year till the next ‘Onam’.
The Cherumers’ attire was unattractive. With reddish brown complexion, short stature, matted hair and fairly emaciated physique was their trade mark. They covered their nakedness somehow with a soiled piece of cloth. It was only occasionally that they washed this small piece of cloth. During monsoon they sat around a bonfire to escape the cold.
The Cherumers had special type of ornaments. The men wore iron rings in their ears and some wore brass rings in their fingers. Women wore nose studs. Their breasts were covered with stone, beads and shell necklaces, and, their fingers and toes had rings. Large heavy ear rings* stretched the ears upto their shoulders. Most of the ornaments were either of brass or iron.
Men shaved with sharpened piece of iron or broken piece of a sickle. Some kept long hair tied at the back in a ‘kudummi’.
Women did all the domestic chores. When free, they help their men folk in the fields.
The Cherumers followed the matrilineal system whereby the daughters inherited the ancestral property. There was neither polygamy nor polyandry, and, divorces were unknown.
They worshipped a special God. It was either a ghost or a Yakshi. The idols they prayed to were jet black. The priests were chosen from among them and were well respected. The priests sacrificed a rooster to appease the God. It is believed that pouring of rooster blood on the stone in front of the idol also makes the Gods satisfied.
They worship their dead forefathers, for, they believe that their displeasure would bring evil to the living kin. So to appease the dead, they do black magic with beaten rice, rice flour, coconut water, toddy, rooster etc. The eldest in the family gives lead to the rites.
(*Today, these are made of gold and worn by elderly Christian women in their late 50s and 60s.)
Pulayas are a section of Cherumers. Likewise are the Kanakkans. But the latter have a little more freedeom compared to Pulayas. Kanakkans were not in the Major league of untouchables. They could go closer than 16 feet towards a Nair. Otherwise they were in the same condition as the rest. Like Nazranees and Mohammedans they shaved the head. But Cherumers and Pulayas kept sidelocks or forelocks of hair.
All the three afore-mentioned people were trustworthy and faithful to their masters. At the demise of a member of the master’s family, they gather together to beat their breasts, wail and weep loudly in expression of their condolence. This demonstration continues on till their sorrow is alleviated. Over the years, the wailing and weeping became an unavoidable ritual. Since the land lord showed his displeasure towards those cherumers who did not join the demonstration of condolence, they competed with one another to show who was more heartbroken. When the deceased was a cruel and sadistic brute, they had to use the very pungent small red onions to bring out tears. Professional condolence weepers and wailers are still available in Pondicherry and other parts of central Tamil Nadu. [Malabar and its Folks-1900.]
“Cherumers are of two types. ‘Iraya Cherumer’ and Pulayas. Iraya Cherumer was allowed to go upto the Irayam or verandah of the Theeya home. Pulayas stayed far away. They did not wrap a cloth around their waist. Sometimes they strung together green leaves and wrapped it around. The women also dressed likewise. In 1887 this custom has changed, atleast in Malabar. But in small principalities the old custom held. In the interior villages the rights of Cherumers and Pulayas were denied as before.” wrote Logan.
The condition of the cherumers in Travancore was slightly better than slaves’. A Cherumer was considered one of the immovable property of land lord. He could, sell, buy, rent and give a Cherumer as gift to friends. A Cherumer could be pawned too. In 1871 the price of a Cherumer was between Six to Nine Rupees. Cheruman could be part of the dowry. Of course, they gifted them as offerings to places of worship. Of course there was a ‘simple’ condition as annexure to the agreements of transfer…”You can sell or kill him/her.” In 1871 the latter part (…kill him/her) was deleted.
The eldest son of a Cherumer was part of the wealth of the landlord. He could be bought back by the mother for Rupees 4.5. The going rate for agro labour was Rupees 3 for males, Rupees 2 for females, for a juvenile 250 grams of paddy grain.(Travancore Tribes and Castes, Vol II.)
Cherumers had many sub groups like Pulaya, Cheru Makkal, Cherumer, Valluvar etc. Among Pulayas there were Eastern and Western Pulayas. The Western Pulayas did not eat meat, so they considered themselves higher than the Eastern group. No marriages took place between them nor ate together. A 64 feet ‘theenda-ppadu’ between the Easterners and Westerners was in force. The Easterner could come only 40 feet short of the sea shore. This divide ended with the Temple Entry Proclamation of 12 November 1936. (Travancore Tribes and Castes, Vol III.)
One cannot hide the role of Ambedkar, Ayyankali and Abraham Lincoln. Ayyankali disappeared from public memory for quite some time. It took about 40 years to evaluate his service to the society. Speaking on March 1980 at the Kumaran Asan Memorial Lecture, Comrade EMS Namboodirippadu spoke about the historical agricultural labour strike of 1907 led by Ayyankali thus:
“…in 1907-8 Ayyankali organised the agricultural workers’ strike. He brought together the unorganised and splintered people and made them conscious of organisational power.” (Asan & Malayala Literature, pp 54.)
Ayyankali was the first labour leader of Kerala, nay India. Those who ignored even Ambedkar’s role in India’s history, waking up after decades to include him among the yugapurush of the century, are willing to rewrite history now!
With the efforts of KK Balakrishnan, PK Chathan Master, KP Madhavan etc., a trust named ‘Sri Ayyankali Trust’ was born. A life size bronze statue of Ayyankali, sculpted with love and affection by Ezra David (who also made Krishna Menon Statue in Delhi),travelled all the way from Madras through the length of Kerala in a victory procession. Newspapers vied with one another to highlight the event. The open hearted Keralites lined the road sides and paid homage to the ‘victor over fate’
“…where the chariot of history etched indelible marks of monarchy and upper caste oppression..” and was unveiled in the traffic island at Vellayambalam junction by the Prime Minister of India on 10th November 1980. (Kerala Kaumudi, 11 Nov ’80)
Vellayambalam Junction is in an elite Nair upper middle class area. It is at the meeting point of roads from the Kaudiyar Palace and Padmanabha Swamy Temple. The Maharaja has to pass Ayyankali Statue on the way to and back from the temple for his regular prayers.
Kerala Kaumudi Paper, run by Sree Narayanaguru devotee K Kartikeyan wrote about the unveiling “a statue of the unforgettable revolutionary of Kerala.”
When the prime minister Mrs Indira Gandhi spoke that…
” He is the outcome of his people’s enthusiasm for equality. This great son of India was the one who sacrificed his life for the well being of his society. His qualities were to too great to be contained in Kerala only. His ideas and ideals are still valid. That is the reason why I offered to unveil this statue. I am against setting up of statues in principle. So I have declined invitations to unveil statues.
“Untouchability is a deep blemish in the sould of India. It is only untouchability that has kept India backward so far. And it was in Kerala that untouchability was most acute. At the same time it was Kerala that gained fame by its Temple entry proclamation. Equality and Freedom are indivisible. Without equality there can not be genuine freedom. Our leaders fought against the evil of untouchability. It was through leaders like Mahatma Gandhi that the toughest battle against untouchability were fought. The struggle for freedom must start from within the society. That was what Ayyankali did. It was due to incessant struggles of Gandhi, Ambedkar and Ayyankali that the landless poor (harijans) were liberated.” (Kerala Kaumudi, 11 Nov ’80)
EK Nayanar, the chief minister of Kerala spoke thus on the occasion called Ayyankali, “The first leader of people led liberation and revolution.
“If singing praises of Ayyankali and unveiling of his statue is to have any meaning, allotment of land for the tenants and pension for agricultural labour is a must. Ayyankali was not only a leader of his own community but also an unshakeable guide and commander of the working classes. Ayyankali and Sree Narayan Guru, by their anti caste domination struggles were important factors that led Kerala people to their progressive outlook today.
“Only Kerala has been delivered of mass murder of the poor and burning of their villages in the country. That is because of the social reconstruction through revolutionary changes. Rajaram Mohan Roy, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, Dayananda Saraswati, Vivekanand etc were Ayyankali’s contemporaries. Unlettered Ayyankali was a totally different kind of player in the same league. Perhaps he was the greatest leader of that particular period.
“This ‘mahapurush’ organised his people for gaining social justice and human rights into a body named ‘Sadhu Jana Paripalana Sangham’ in 1907. Sensibly led by Ayyankali, the organisation gained whatever social changes it could for all to see.
“It was his organisational genius that left its indelible stamp on the agrarian movements of Kerala which subsequently fell into the hands of Communist Parties.” (Kerala Kaumudi, 11 Nov ’80)
Kallada Sasi, a poet who fluttered out of the water logged rice fields of Kerala, wrote in golden letters…
“From this Kurukshetra of multicoloured rose Ayyankali the Heralding Conch.”