In the early 1920s, in the small, sleepy temple town of Vaikom in Travancore state — now in present-day Kottayam district in Kerala — seeds of a fierce anti-caste movement were sown.
At that time, across Travancore, people of lower castes, particularly the Dalits, were barred from entering and offering prayers at temples. In many places, they were even barred access to certain roads around the temples.
To fight and reverse this discrimination, ‘an anti-untouchability committee’ was formed by TK Madhavan, a journalist and editor of Deshabhimani, K Kelappan, a founding member of the Nair Service Society, and KP Keshava Menon, a staunch Congressman. The idea was to unite caste Hindus as well as those of the lower castes in a pitched protest against the Brahminical system and shore up political support too. The committee identified the centuries-old Shiva temple in Vaikom where the authority’s rule could be tested.
Mahatma Gandhi, who had energised the nation through the non-cooperation movement, had been informed of the plan in Vaikom. In an article in Young India, he wrote, “…in Travancore, the satyagrahis are not attacking a whole system. … They are fighting sacerdotal prejudice…Satyagrahis would, therefore, be deviating from their path if they did not try to court junction with the authorities and cultivate public support by means of deputations, meetings, etc. Direct action does not always preclude other consistent methods. Nor is petitioning, etc., in every case a sign of weakness on the part of a satyagrahi. Indeed, he is no satyagrahi who is not humble.”
On March 30, 1924, the Vaikom Satyagraha, as it came to be called, took off with volunteers travelling thousands of miles from Travancore and outside to the temple town to display their solidarity with the agitation. According to a historian, the environment in the town was ‘charged with the austere serenity of Gandhian idealism and the burning odour of nationalist sentiment.’ The Akali Dal, a political party in Punjab, is said to have sent a delegation to hold a ‘langar’ for the satyagrahis.
On the first day, volunteers belonging to different castes walked hand-in-hand in the direction of the restricted roads. But they were detained by the state police on the orders of the temple’s Brahmin priests and sentenced to prison. Many of them also registered a peaceful, non-violent agitation in front of the police barriers. Among the famed satyagrahis was EV Ramasamy, who was arrested twice in the movement.
In November that year, thousands of people with representatives marched to the state capital of Thiruvananthapuram to beseech the Regent Queen, Sathu Lakshmi Bayi, to withdraw the caste restrictions at Vaikom. Though the satyagraha took many shapes and forms, the end-result remained unachievable.
It was in March 1925 that Gandhi, requested by members of the movement to visit the state and energise the volunteers, made his trip to Kerala to take part in the satyagraha. By then, the Indian National Congress had publicly stated its position in favour of the temple and the roads being opened to the Dalits.
On March 11, 1925, he reached Vaikom after addressing several public meetings on the way. He addressed the satyagrahis, persuading them to continue their agitation and bolstering their confidence. As part of persuading other stakeholders in the issue, Gandhi also met the Regent Queen and the Namboodiri priests of the Vaikom temple. So sharp were the caste divisions in Travancore then that the priests kept a safe distance from Gandhi, as the latter may have ‘polluted’ himself by touching ‘untouchable’ satyagrahis.
At the Varkala ashram, Gandhi struck a historic conversation with Sree Narayana Guru, the Ezhava-born social reformer who grew to become one of Kerala’s most influential intellectual minds. Historian Ramachandra Guha writes in his book ‘Gandhi: The Years that Changed the World’ that Gandhi had come away greatly impressed with Guru’s ideas, even though they had different theological positions.
The efforts of Gandhi, Periyar and thousands of others resulted in the Travancore administration climbing down from their earlier rigid positions and opening three of the four temple roads to people of the lower castes in 1925. But it was not until the Temple Entry Act in November, 1936, over a decade after the Vaikom agitation, that the doors of the temple and all the others in Travancore were thrown open to people of all castes by the state’s ruling family.
“In the Malayalam country, Vaikom helped the freedom and social justice movements to join hands. Elsewhere in India, the news from Vaikom confronted insulated caste Hindus with the ugly realities of untouchability and unapproachability,” wrote Rajmohan Gandhi, biographer and grandson of Gandhi.
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