Hindutva challenge to radical traditions and “little histories” that underlay anti-caste movement in Kerala

meeraMeera Velayudhan*, a senior researcher, writes that the recent invite to Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi is a sure way to erode the ‘little histories’ that underlay the roots of equality, both as a concept and as engagement by oppressed castes, in particular, former agrestic slaves and in what may be considered as the beginnings of radicalization in modern Kerala. It is also part of an ongoing attempt to bring all subaltern castes into the fold of Hindutva   

According to Brahmanical myths, Kerala, the land, was reclaimed from the sea, after Parashurama, an avatar of Maha Vishnu, threw its battle axe into the sea. Unlike the Ayodhya myth (built on the edifice of a demolished Babri masjid and the spate of communal violence that followed the Rath Yatra), the saffron brigade – the Hindu aikya vedi – had been unable to create a similar context in Kerala. However, political equations are changing. The SNDP-NSS Alliance (known as Hindu Grand Alliance of the once warring Nair Service Society (NSS) of the upper caste Nairs and Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalanayogam (SNDP) of the OBC Ezhavas) marked a step forward for the saffron agenda.  A new entrant in the scene, Namo, or Narendra Modi, be it through his visit to Santhigiri, the invite extended to Modi by Kerala Pulayar Mahajana Sabha, point to the challenges of the times and the dangers ahead.

This article is written in the context of the invite sent by the Kerala Pulayar Mahajana Sabha to Narendra Modi, who turned Gujarat into the laboratory in 2002 to test BJP’s Hindutva agenda through unprecedented communal violence witnessed in south asia post independence. That the invite is for addressing a mass rally in Alwaye in February 2014 to commemorate 100 years of the founding of the Pulaya Mahajana Sabha (Cochin) is all the more shocking and a travesty of history – earlier in 1993, the Kerala Pulayar Mahajana Sabha had protested the demotion of the Babri Masjid as an attack on India’s secular fabric and called for protection of religious rights and harmony.

This invite to Narendra Modi is a sure way to erode the ‘little histories’ that underlay the roots of equality, both as a concept and as engagement by oppressed castes, in particular, former agrestic slaves and in what may be considered as the beginnings of radicalization in modern Kerala. It is also part of an ongoing attempt to bring all subaltern castes into the fold of Hindutva.

Drawing from parts of the forthcoming autobiographical writings of the author’s mother, Dakshayani Velayudhan, this article seeks to highlight the background of the formation of the Pulaya Mahajana Sabha by members of her family in 1913 in Bolghatty, Cochin. Also cited are efforts in the early 1900 at building similar organizations in the face of strong, often violent, opposition from dominant castes and communities.

The Pulaya Mahajana Sabha – Cochin (1913)

In her autobiography, Dakshayani Velayudhan (1912-1978) (a parliamentarian belonging to the depressed classes, she belonged to Pulaya community and was the only Dalit woman member of the Constituent Assembly of India) writes:

“My elder two brothers and my father Kunjan’s younger brother, Krishnethi (Krishnadiyasan 1877-1937), Pt Karruppan (Prof Mahrajas College), TK Krishna Menon (from the Thottekal family which produced several Dewans) formed the Pulaya Mahajan Sabha, with Krishnethi as President. The meeting was held with country boats tied together in the sea in Bolghatty – the sea did not have a caste In Kochi, the untouchables were not allowed to hold a meeting “in my land” by the Maharaja. 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 did not disobey the order of His Highness’ to hold a meeting in his ‘land’. The Pulaya Mahajana Sabha took up social issues. My elder brothers were the first to crop their long hair and wear shirts. Abuses were showered on them and also stones thrown by dominant community Latin Christians and well off Ezhavas. My brothers and Krishnethi, who worked in building the port and harbour and as petty contractors, also composed songs and poems and one song read: ‘If we go by the road, the other community roll their eyes or try to scare us, if we go by boat, they threw stones at us…” Krishnethi and others also held dialogues with various followers of Sree Narayana Guru. Earlier, an agricultural exhibition was held in Ernakulam and variety of grains displayed yet the Pulayas who were the ones who were the producers of grain were not allowed to enter Ernakulam. My brothers and Krishnethi wrote an appeal to the Cochin Maharaja in poetry form and then they were allowed entry. My mother said that she entered Ernakulam for the first time then.”

The history of the Pulaya Mahjana (Cochin) really goes back to Dakshayani’s family, Kallachammuri House also known as Nallachanmuri by branches of the family which from her father’s side had a great uncle who held the titular head ‘Ayekara Ejaman’ (given by family of Cochin Maharaja), of four ‘desams’ of the community and held seven tracts of land and households stretching from Mulavukad to Alwaye and north Parur. They followed matrilineal social customs but the menfolk were construction labour and petty contractors ( building of Wellingdon island), well versed in martial arts ( they conducted kalari schools, performed plays, composed songs, etc.), and there are many instances cited where displays of kalari are shown to be used against caste insults by either the dominant Latin Christians or landed Ezhavas in Mulavukad by Dakshayani’s father, Velutha Kunjan, a name alluding to his well built, assertive and striking personality and as an asan-teacher (had studied upto Class V), he taught Pulaya children at his house. It was indeed a unique Pulaya family history as household members were known to be well versed in Sanskrit.

In fact, Dakshayani’s father Kunjan’s younger brother, Krishnethi (Krishnadiyasan-1877-1937), was the last of the “aikara yejuman’, and with loss of joint family lands and houses through internecine family feud, worked as small contractor and worker (building of Willingdon Island, Cochin port). Krishnethi was not only a vocal critic of Hinduism but also learnt Sanskrit and music (forbidden trends) on his own.

The Pulaya Mahajana Sabha and its activities can be considered as an early form of resistance, moving from resistance in day-to-day life to bringing details of daily life into the public debates. Initially, the sabha focused on social aspects – public space and mobility, restrictions on clothes, jewellery, hair cut, etc. They composed anti-caste songs which they sang when they passed by upper castes. Stones were thrown at them by the dominant castes. Sabha lost some of its significance – both in terms of historical memory of its role, its acceptance by the community – owing to the conversion of Dakshayani’s family to Christianity – her paternal uncle Krishnethi (CK John), one of its key founders/leader, her elder brothers, KK Joseph, KK Francis, her elder sister,KK Mary and later, her mother, Maani, who became Anna. Krishnedi’s (John’s) role as a social reformer was as significant as Ayyankali’s, but lost to history owing to conversion, some historians hold. Only a study or two have been conducted on the trajectories that the Pulaya Mahjana Sabha later on. The Church in Mulavukad, now St John’s Church, was built on land donated by Krisnethi (John), land acquired following the availability of work opportunities with infrastructure development of Cochin. Although the church is now under Church of South India (CSI), it still remains a Pulaya church; the record of the history of ownership too has been changed, according to Krishnethi’s son, late Samuel and other family members, despite their protests. CSI claimed that it was mortgaged land and paid for its recovery when it was under litigation.

Ayyankali

The formation of the Pulaya Mahjana Sabha was not an isolated event. The early 1900 period saw the growth of many such organizations in different regions of Kerala. These are among the early struggles for equality and recognition. Ayyankali (1863-1941) led the anti-caste struggles for democratizing public spaces and for the rights of workers, a precursor to the formation of rural labour and working class organization in Kerala. Using a public road on a bullock cart in 1893 in Venganoor, overcoming stiff opposition from upper castes, Ayyankali next started the ‘walk for freedom’ (right to walk on public roads) to Puthen Market and at Chaliyar street facing resistance from an upper caste mob. This event inspired mass mobilization and actions in other regions such as Mannakadu, Kazhakkottam, Kaniyapuram, Parassala, Neyyantinkara, etc. These assertions led to the raising of other rights.

First and unique agrarian strike

Ayyankali next demanded the right of Pulaya children to study in schools – a move towards universalization of education. Ayyankali then started a school in 1904 to teach Pulaya children but this too was destroyed by upper castes. Despite the Travancore state passing an order opening up schools in 1907,violent opposition from upper castes, prevented the same. This led Ayyankali to give call for strike by agricultural workers to ensure education for Pulaya children-unique event in history of agrarian struggles as it was a rural protest for right to education. Ayyankali’s slogan – Educate, Organize – was also the slogan of Babsaheb Ambedkar – Educate, Organize, Struggle – later. Ayyankali warned the upper caste landlords, “If you do not allow our children to study, weeds will grow in your fields.” Other demands were added, work security (wages during off season), end to false police cases and victimization, end whipping of workers, stop practice of denial of serving tea at tea shops, rest time for workers during work hours, wages in cash, freedom of movement”.

From Kaniyapuram, Pallichal, Mudavooppara, Vizinjom, Kandala – all work stopped. Landlords attacked and set on fire the homes of workers, workers responded by setting on fire landlord houses. A prolonged strike had its impact. Ayyankali sought the help of the fishing community which allowed Pulaya men to accompany them on fishing boats and sharing the catch so that workers on strike and their households did not starve. The historical one year old strike forced the upper caste landlords to call for a negotiated settlement which included Pulaya children’s right to study in schools as well as agricultural workers demands such as wage hike.

Sadhu Jana Paripalana Sangham(SJPS) – uniting all sections

It was in this context that Ayyankali set up in 1907 the Sadhu Jana Paripalana Sangham (SJPS) with his co-workers Thomas and Harris Vadhyar, an organization for all sections of Dalits. Among its key resolutions were: six day working day (Sunday rest as demanded by workers), weekly meetings to discuss common problems every Sunday, membership fees of half Chakram (one of the denominations of the old currency of Travancore state) for men and one-fourth Chakram for women, thereby facilitating women’s entry into public, political space. He also started a magazine – “Sadhujana Paripalani” – for educating adults. The struggle for schooling persisted as in the case of Pulaya children admitted (1914) to Pullatu school in Thiruvalla, with upper caste boycotting the school and setting it on fire. However, Ayyankali intervened and forced them to accept the students.

Against symbols of caste slavery of women 

The raising of other social rights followed, with Ayyankali called on women in south Travancore to throw away the stone bead necklaces – Kallumala, a symbol of caste slavery – and to wear clothing including upper cloth. This led to the most violent opposition from upper caste landlords who also started whipping workers – men and women who wore clothes and women threw away their bead necklaces and also resisted sexual exploitation by upper caste men/landlords. These assertions by women led to many attacks on them. The newspaper “Mitavadi”, Feb/April,1916, reported:

“…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…”

Also:

“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.”

This movement also spread, and in Central Travancore Pulaya youth organized and also took up weapons to defend themselves. The movement spread to many areas, including Cochin. A leader, Gopaldasan, was killed by the upper castes, leading to an explosive situation where, after a memorial meeting on October 24, 1915, men and women, some carrying sickles, attacked the upper castes and set their homes on fire. Ayyankali intervened. He prepared a report on the causes and progress of the struggle and submitted the same to the government.

All Community Meeting For Peace and Justice

A woman circus owner allowed her tent to be used for a meeting (Decmber 19, 1915) addressed by Ayyankali and chaired by Changanassery Parameshwaran Pillai. It was attended by over 4,000 persons of 11 castes and religions, according newspaper reports and Vellikkara Chodi, TV Thevan, Gopaldasan, etc. According to a newspaper report, among those present at the meeting held in Kollam on Sunday the 19 of December 19, 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 dressed for the occasion. They listened to the proceedings in rapt attention.”

Ayyankali addressed the meeting saying:

“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 presence of all community members gathered here for this Maha Sabha.”

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.”

When the festival of handclapping lasting a couple of minutes ended, Ayyankali called two young girls to the stage. He said, “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 called them, the two girls 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, according to a report by Mitawadi.

Land Rights

In his first speech as member of the Praja Sabha held in 1912 at VJT Hall, Ayyankali, said:

“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.”

Issues of educational concessions and employment in government departments were also taken up.

Identity and History

The two other radical reformers which formed organizations included Poikayil Yohana, who formed the Prathyaksha Raksha Daiva Sabha (PRDS) in 1909, and Pambadi John, who found the Cheramar Mahajana Sabha (TCMS) in 1921. Both engaged with religion to attack caste and caste slavery. For Poikayil Yohana, slave narratives and link with history of slavery informed the constitution of new selfhood and identity of all oppressed castes.

The Challenge

That the ‘commemoration’ of the early forms of radicalization – as exemplified by organizations such as Pulaya Mahjana Sabha and Ayyankali’s Sadhu Jana Paripalana Sangam (SJPS) – have been turned into ‘events’, with diverse political claimants to its legacy, from the extreme left, Ayyankali Pada to Congress-I, and now Hindutva forces and its leader such as Narendra Modi. It suggests a serious challenge – the need to look into contemporary Dalit political socialites and their diverse trajectories. These seemingly smaller and complex trajectories need to be recognized as they are bound to intersect in varied ways with the larger and more visible political trends and scenario.

Fellow, Council for Social Development (CSD), Hyderabad

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3 thoughts on “Hindutva challenge to radical traditions and “little histories” that underlay anti-caste movement in Kerala

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