On 30th March 1924, Satyagrahis by the name of Kunjappy, Bahuleyan and Venniyll Govinda Panicker walked hand in hand towards a notice board that read, “Ezhavas and other low castes are prohibited through this road.” The policemen patrolling the road would stop the three men and ask them their caste. Kunjappy would declare his Pulayan caste, Bahuleyan would assert his Ezhava caste and Venniyll Govinda Panicker would proclaim he was a Nair. Kunjappy and Bahuleyan would be denied entry on the premise that they belonged to a ‘lower caste’.
The three men would, nevertheless, stand their ground, and they would be arrested. As each man got arrested, more Satyagrahis would take their place, marking the commencement of the Vaikom Satyagraha: one of Kerala’s foremost organised agitations against Hindu ‘upper caste’ orthodoxy for securing the basic civil right of marginalised castes to access all public roads surrounding the Shiva temple in Vaikom, Travancore.
The Anti-Untouchability Committee
While most historical accounts credit the roots of the Vaikom Satyagraha to M.K Gandhi, its seeds were laid by Dalit revolutionary, T.K. Madhavan, who believed that marginalised castes must not only assert their basic civil right of accessing public spaces but they also demand equality in the eyes of God. He submitted a resolution to the Travancore legislative council demanding a right to temple entry and worship for all people irrespective of caste and
the Satyagraha marked the beginning of what would go on to become a nationwide temple entry movement that continues till date.
While his efforts were to no avail, it spurred the formation of the Anti-Untouchability Committee (AUC) in January of 1924, under the leadership of T.K Madhavan and other anti-caste radicals such as KP Kesava Menon and K Kelappan; a committee that would go on to play an unrivalled role as the primary architects of the Satyagraha.
The first target of the committee were the four public roads leading to the Shiva Shrine in Vaikom, with ‘marginalised castes’ being denied access to them. It was decided that this climate of casteism would be defied by a group of satyagrahis, who would move to enter the temple roads in batches of three. A week later even TK Madhavan and KP Kesava Menon courted arrest, with their arrest spurring volunteers to come in from the Tamil country. Among them was Periyar E.V. Ramaswamy, a man who would come to be known as the ‘Father of Modern Tamil Nadu’ for igniting the ‘Self-Respect Movement’ against Brahmanical orthodoxy and the structural exploitation of marginalised castes. Throwing himself into the struggle, he was the only Satyagrahi to be arrested twice, his tenacity earning him the appellation of the Vaikom Virar (the fearless hero of Vaikom).
While most historical accounts credit the roots of the Vaikom Satyagraha to M.K Gandhi, its seeds were laid by Dalit revolutionary, T.K Madhavan.
As Travancore’s jails began brimming with a deluge of protestors, the temple authorities changed tactics, by barricading the roads and arming them with police guards. In the spirit of passive resistance, the satyagrahis changed tactics as well, by stationing themselves outside the barricade and embarking on a hunger strike that would last days. Many accounts recall the satyagrahis standing in waist deep water to continue their protest in the face of heavy rains inundating the temple roads.
But what most accounts conveniently seem to overlook in their efforts to romanticise the lives and sacrifices of people we shall never even begin to fathom, are the repeated atrocities committed on the Satyagrahis by the ‘upper caste’ orthodoxy. The orthodoxy arranged for the Satyagrahis to be beaten up, thrown into neck-deep waters and have irritants poured into their eyes, an unprecedented barbarity in the face of a peaceful protest. The justification of this barbarity lay in the belief the Brahmanical orthodoxy held, that marginalised castes were reaping the benefits of the ‘bad karma’ they had accumulated in their previous life.
The atrocities committed against the Satyagrahis by the Hindu orthodoxy and the bigoted resolve of the temple authorities, called for the need to escalate the Satyagraha’s demands to the royal government. On Gandhi’s advice, a March comprising of ‘upper caste’ Hindus who supported the reform commenced in Vaikom and ended at the capital of Trivandrum. The marchers armed with 25,000 signatures of ‘forward caste’ Hindus, submitted a memorandum to the Maharani Sethulakshmi Bai of Travancore for opening the Vaikom’s temple roads to all castes. The Maharani passed over the resolution to the legislature, where it was met with the narrowest margin of defeat, namely 22 to 21 votes. This defeat deeply affected the morale of the satyagrahis, magnified in the face of the escalating atrocities committed against them by the Brahmin orthodoxy.
This incited a statewide agitation, with the boycott of ‘upper caste’ temples and tensions began mounting in the Travancore. It became glaringly obvious that a settlement had to be reached, and in 1925 the princely authorities withdrew the prohibitory order on three of the four temple roads. However, the fourth road remained a ‘Brahmin only’ path from which Muslims and Christians were excluded, continuing to perpetuate not only Brahmanical but Hindu ascendency.
Women played an unprecedented role in the Vaikom Satyagraha, with the large-scale participation of women being witnessed for the first time during the Satyagraha, marking the passage of women into the socio-political consciousness of the country. It also bought a number of prominent women activists to the forefront; most of the women who were formerly known as the wives of the Satyagrahi leaders, emerged as leaders in their own right, going on to drive the women’s movement in India for the coming decades.
Women such as Narayani Amma, Meenakshi Amma, Thirumalai Amma and Nagammai Amma, were at the forefront of the Satyagraha, empowering women from across the country to join the fight, however most historical accounts have done them a disservice, by either omitting them or presenting them as the wives of prominent leaders, rather than the forces they were in themselves.
To many, the Vaikom Satyagraha did not yield the desired outcome, some believing the settlement was humiliating in face of the revolutionary cause. However, the precedent it set for Hindu orthodox and colonial nation could not have been prophesised. Almost a decade later, in November 1936, the historic Temple Entry Proclamation was signed, which removed the age-old ban on the entry of marginalised castes into the temples of Travancore. In many ways, the Satyagraha marked the beginning of what would go on to become a nationwide temple entry movement that continues
It also bought a number of prominent women activists to the forefront; most of the women who were formerly known as the wives of the Satyagrahi activists, emerged as leaders in their own right, going on to drive the women’s movement in India for the coming decades.
The Satyagraha also built a bridge between the social justice and independence movements in India, by bearing testament to the efficacy of non-cooperation as a mode of protest, while also rallying princely states like Travancore into the burgeoning freedom struggle. But most notably, it opened an insulated and unquestioning country’s eyes to the realities of caste at a time when national harmony in the name of the freedom struggle had assumed precedence over daily human right violations taking place in its name.
But the Vaikom Satyagraha was above and all a revolt against sacerdotal discrimination: the denying of morality, equality and justice in the name of custom and tradition. It was a fight against discrimination that was deeply structural; a way of perpetuating the caste status quo by ensuring that marginalised castes were denied basic opportunity to live lives of freedom and dignity. But what made this discrimination even more insidious was its invisibility, as it was not viewed as arising from human choice and intention but rather the will of whatever religion, custom or tradition it was hiding behind.
To the Hindu orthodoxy opposing the caste reform, their violence was justified. They were, after all, doing ‘God’s work’ by ensuring that marginalised castes lived the ‘bad karma’ they had accumulated from their previous sinful life. Across history, such convenient and skewed logic has been regurgitated by those in power, to maintain the status quo, and this has not changed even today as evidenced by the Sabarimala struggle. So, whether it is discrimination hiding behind ‘bad karma’ or a ‘celibate god’, let us call it what it really is: discrimination.
Also read in Hindi: वैकोम सत्याग्रह : छुआछूत के ख़िलाफ़ एक ऐतिहासिक जंग
Featured Image: Ritika Banerjee for Feminism in India