Vaikom Satyagraham: Lessons from a struggle for an egalitarian society  (Fr. Dr. Prasant Palakkappilli)

Published on 18 May, 2023
Vaikom Satyagraham: Lessons from a struggle for an egalitarian society  (Fr. Dr. Prasant Palakkappilli)

I have read or learnt about Vaikom Satyagraham as an event in the history of Keralam, and it is there in the background of our thinking as a great step of the region in the direction of egalitarian society.  However, the lessons of those days have hardly transferred any bit of the spirit that was in the revolutionaries.  We read that almost 50 years after the event, and now we are 'celebrating' its centenary.

Being away from Keralam, and not really feeling enthusiastic about following the happenings of what has now become 'dogs' own country', where dogs, elephants, hogs and leopards have people and the state to fight for and assure their right to live, whereas, the forest, the coastline or the high-range dweller is under the constant threats from this very state and these fellow beings of the animal kingdom;  I don't follow Kerala news.  So, it was by chance, that this centenary celebration with Tamil and Malayali makkal joining hands together, caught my attention.  That Malayalees and Tamils are joining hands for one cause, is one salutary outcome of this event, though it has taken 100 years for the same to happen.  

However, bravo! From 30th March 1924 to 24 November 1925! 1 year, 7 months and 25 days - a really persevering venture. A group of people with courage of conviction, fought for and suffered for a cause - for an ideal that is named 'equality'.  The sheer element of perseverance of the 'truth seekers' or 'truth clingers' (satyagrahis) is what fascinates me. And I salute the government of those times of Travancore, for their being human when compared to several modern democratic states which easily wipes out any such protests, and decimates any such protestors - even as I read with shock the passing away of a passive Palestine resister Khader Adnan after 86 days of fast (12th in his life of revolt totalling just 45 years) in Israeli prison.  The treatment meted out to the protestors against Silver Line railway, in this 21st century, by a democratically elected people's government, also appears cruder than the treatment received by the satyagrahis of those days from an autocratic government led by someone based on inherited might, and hardly anything to do with the people's will.

The lessons for me from this outing are basically about individuals - participants, supporters, influencers.

The first is a set of individuals - basically belonging to the Indian National Congress of those times - K. Kelappan (Kerala Gandhi), K.P. Kesava Menon and T.K. Madhavan. While, perhaps none of them was a direct victim of casteist injustice, the latter definitely bore the brunt of being born into Ezhava caste, on which was enjoined a degree of untouchability. While he was the real spirit behind the movement, the active frontline involvement of those who happened to be (on the side of) perpetrators gave strength to the movement. T.K. Madhavan's perseverance in the cause is to be appreciated.  Failure of his effort in the Sree Moolam assembly five years back (1917-20), gave him time to think over and strategize, and get nationwide endorsement in the Kakkinada congress of 1923, and the support of the state congress leaders.

But my salutation also goes to the very many nameless volunteers who joined the sit-in day after day, facing the threat of arrest, and yet continued the struggle for over a year.

I notice the presence of Amchadi Thevan, the one figure conspicuous in a picture of satyagrahis, by the absence of a shirt on him. He is from Poothotta, now part of Ernakulam district, just across the river dividing the two regions. Glad to see this representation from the dalit groups of those times, and the belated efforts to honour and perpetuate his memory.

The beleaguered congress party of today should take a cue from the lofty ideals that inspired the party of those times, and reinvent itself from the kind deplorable mood of dissipation, despair and disunity that prevails in the party.  If it were to exist, survive and win, it needs to be of and for the people, and identify the issues that affect people, and identify with them. Ultimately can it reinvent itself as party that stands for justice?

Four stalwarts noted by their involvement/non-involvement in the stayagraham were:

  1. Mahatma Gandhi -  whose intervention is said to have generated the compromise formula - I cannot make a judgement on that.  However, Gandhi was with the satyagrahis, and his instructions had lent it the non-violent strength it possessed appears evident. All the same it was a compromise, about which Gandhiji was frustrated. Compromise involved opening 3 sides of the access roads to all communities, but restricting one side which was said to have exclusive privileges for the Brahmins, and the release of the satyagrahis imprisoned in this struggle.  But it heartens me to note that his challenge to the crown prince to do full justice to the discriminated communities was responded to in earnest, and his voluntary yes, was translated into the Temple Entry Proclamation Act of 1936, 12 years after the struggle, but without much delay after his ascending the throne.  I have only sympathy for Rani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, who seemed to have been unable to get out the prison of her hierarchical faith (read caste) perception, but still was willing to give in, unlike some of the present-day popular governments.

Though Gandhiji's advice to the Christians and the Sikhs involved in the agitation to step out of what was a Hindu affair appears alienating, I feel that it was the safest position in this regard, especially, this having more to do with a practice within a religious community.  While caste hierarchy segregation could have been seen as an internal matter of a particular community, when it comes to violating rights of the citizens, it could be a cause for anyone to intervene. The case in point had also issues of civil rights of mobility and use of public space.  From this angle, the instruction to step out was perhaps not the best counsel. Perhaps, his 'ever growing truth' had not grown enough by then, to give priority to the civil rights aspects over the internal matter of caste issue within the Hindu fold.

2. Sree Narayana Guru -  who kept aloof from the struggle, as to him the demand should have been for the entry into the temple itself, where all should have entered by any means and make it impossible for anyone to observe untouchability. Guru as ever, was radical, but I feel the radicality should have been in the pattern of his ingenious installation of an 'Ezhava Sivan' rather than of seeking entry into a Brahmin dominated place of worship. I wonder whether he ever had the desire to be part of the larger fold, or would have rather preferred to uphold and reinforce the dignity of the unique Ezhava identity. The restrictions should have been challenged by such assertion of such identity I feel. It doesn't mean that I am not for the unity of the so-called larger hindu fold.  Unity is welcome, but should definitely be in terms of equality among all who adhere to the fold.  However, the struggle has led to the various divided castes of Keralam to be united as an organised religion, which was hardly ever status before.

(I am not claiming in this matter, Christianity, at least its Indian version, has escaped the crude reality of caste discrimination.  Though, theoretically and theologically, Christianity would not accept caste, and would treat the same as un-christian, in practice, caste has been there, and still persists within it.  Nor can Christianity claim true Christian practice of egalitarianism, in several other parts of the world as well. Even today, any educated Malayalee is willing to complete any government related proforma, where an unwarranted caste slot is filled without any hesitation, making entries like Roman Catholic Syrian Christian or any other such community, in the slot for caste!)

3. E.V. Ramasamy ‘Periyar' - (then with the congress party) who joined the agitation with his wife Nagamma. Both were arrested. He earned the title of the 'hero of Vaikom' (Vaikom Veeran).  He too was not in favour of any compromise in this regard, and was not happy with the outcome.

4. I feel good finding the Nair community leader Mannathu Padmanabha Pilla who is seen leading people in protest march against the discriminatory practice. He is bold and free enough to criticise the stance taken by the Queen by pointing out that she had given into the Brahmins. His involvement as the community leader of a caste group that didn't have the sufferings related to untouchability, is an indicator of enlightened minds in the community, even in those darker days.

5. Would add a fifth, Barrister George - I am happy to see one Christian name among the leaders, at one point of time, even leading the struggle, when all the rest were arrested - not necessarily for his involvement in a matter of another religion, but for the matter that his presence indicated a public spirit among Christians as a community in those days, about which even as a Christian, I had the impression of its being a very inward looking, almost a caste-like community.

I marvel at the spirit of justice in the people from Punjab, Tamilnadu and Keralam, cutting across the boundaries of communities, inspiring them to take the trouble to travel to this Southern tip of India and participate in what they had perceived as a just cause. Though this spirit is prevailing even today, when we compare the mobility and communication facilities of both times, I feel the spirit in the present generation leaves much to be desired.

All said and done, in my analysis, this was a healthy move from within to purify and refine one's religion and this is expected of every true religion (Gandhi's stance) - a Church axiom attributed to St. Augustine (4th century) in this connection would read: Ecclesia semper reformanda est - the Church must always be reformed.

My readings reveal not just the inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi, but also the intelligence of the maverick bureaucrat of those times, Sir C.P Ramaswamy Iyer, in working out this step, really radical for those times,  by Sri Balarama Varma.  CP's studied assessment of the situation made him realise this was in the best interests of the state of Thiruvathankoor (southern part of the present Keralam) and the king, and also for the larger fold of hindu community, which might otherwise face a threat of erosion by way of conversion to Islam or Christianity. His legal and intellectual acumen made the act possible, ironing out all objections likely to rise from all possible angles, and highlighting the voluntary aspect of the decision as the greatness of the ruler. In spite of the iron-handed rule of terror for which CP is more known in Keralam, I respect his concern for the  hindu community, his knack in foreseeing the trouble, and his loyalty to his employer (the king) – perhaps, in his hierarchy of values he saw this above the welfare of the masses, and whom he, perhaps equated with the state itself.

I also notice Vaikom the stage of this revolution - a town familiar to me from my childhood. In 2018, together with a bunch of our students we went riding bicycle up to the place where Mahatma Gandhi visited, paid our tribute on Gandhi Jayanti day.   It is still a sleepy town - it has not really had any drastic difference from the time I had been seeing it - now for almost 50 years, except that there has been a memorial to MGR who is said to have been from there. It does not show any spirit of vibrance of progress - not necessarily economic.  Nothing phenomenal in the town or nearby villages as far as participatory governance is concerned, there had been tremendous exploitation of sand - deposits of river-sand found in various parts of the region leading to exploitative sand mining about a decade ago; the rich paddy fields around are generally left fallow and uncultivated, the picturesque water bodies are not intelligently utilised or maintained for overall benefit of the region. Though I have nothing against huge infrastructure development not happening there, optimal utilisation of the existing resources appears lacking - for a place that has witnessed such historic revolution, a spiritless existence!

My last reflection is about the long-lasting effect it has had on Kerala community, which, all my reservations about it having gone to dogs notwithstanding, from my experience of having travelled and lived in different parts of this country, would still be rated as numero uno as far as freedom of speech, freedom of mobility, freedom of expression are concerned. This is now being increasingly threatened with fundamentalism gaining grounds within religions, neo-revivalist movements within them tending to find matters that divide than unite among religions. Perhaps, the dominant manipulative politics of pure convenience, with the sole agenda of grabbing power for pleasure is spreading its roots  within the religions too, bringing them down to earth, instead of the transcendental plains they should take their adherents to.

I feel grateful to be living here, at this moment, enjoying the great blessings of freedom, mobility, and equality – at least in principle! I don’t know to whom all exactly – to God, to those valiant revolutionaries, or to the Britishers, the struggle against whom led to this thinking, this revolt and the reforms?  I wonder if the latter were not to have suppressed us thus, whether there would have been a nation of this sort, or the very notion of equality of all humans, irrespective of their caste and creed.

But I do have greater hope in religions, being formally in the garb of a career religious person, and convinced that with all the genuine as well as unfounded allegations of irreligiosity, there is much greater goodness in those circles than what we can find today in the divisive and exploitative political circles.  As this episode was specifically about access around a place of worship, and leading access to places of worship within the hindu fold to all those claim to be Hindus, I would like to extend the aspect of access.  I am reminded of the biblical assertion: I will ... make them joyful in my house of prayer ...for My house will be called a house of prayer for all the nations (Is 56:7).  I feel like underscoring the section 'for all the nations'.  Can religions grow to be more inclusive at least to the extent that anyone is welcome to the places of worship, in so far as s/he is not doing anything that is against the decorum of the place?  If the places of worship are thought to be the dwelling place of the divine, then let anyone who seeks be welcome there to experience that! 

Fr. Dr. Prasant Palakkappilli, Former Principal, SH College, Thevara 

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