Written by Meera Velayudhan
Dakshayani was born in 1912 on a small island off the coast of Cochin in an agrestic slave caste, Pulayas. She was a child of social change. The early 1900s saw the early struggles for equality and recognition across Kerala. Ayyankali (1863-1941) led the anti-caste struggles for democratising public spaces and for the rights of workers, a precursor to the formation of rural labour and working-class organisations in Kerala.
Dakshayani’s narration of the formation of the Pulaya Mahana Sabha conveys the private experiences and public practices of anti-caste assertions:
“My elder two brothers and my father Kunjan’s younger brother, Krishnethi (Krishnadiyasan, 1877-1937), Pundit Karruppan (professor Maharajas College), T K Krishna Menon (from the Thottekal family which produced several Dewans) formed the Pulaya Mahajana 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 ‘on 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….”
There were many firsts in Dakshayani’s life. As the first Dalit woman graduate in India, Dakshayani wrote about her higher education at Maharajas College in Ernakulam, Kochi: “I was the only girl student for B.Sc Chemistry or for any science subjects in the college. It was ‘sheer luck’ to get higher education… (In the laboratory) an upper caste teacher did not show me experiments — I learnt things by looking from a distance and graduated with high second class in 1935… In July 1935, I was posted as an L2 teacher in the High School Peringothikara in the Trichur District….”
Titling her political journey as ‘Down memory lane of politics’, she called her Cochin Legislative Council nomination (1945) and Constituent Assembly election (1946) as “interesting and historical”.
The wedding of Dakshayani to Shri R Velayudhan was held in Gandhiji’s ashram, with the Mahatma along with Kasturba present, and with a leprosy-afflicted person officiating as priest.
On Gandhiji, Dakshayani wrote: “One day, Gandhiji, seeing that I was not comfortable with the food in the ashram — chapatti and jaggery, said jokingly, did you expect fish here? He added that we could cook non-vegetarian in our own hut… I felt that cooking with firewood in an ‘angithi’ made of mud was a hassle so better to bear with the food in the common kitchen.”
On August 2, 1945, Dakshayani spoke for the first time in the Cochin Legislative Council, in English. Pointing out that funds for the depressed classes were dwindling, she called for proportional reservation in panchayats and municipalities. Dakshayani also said that as long as untouchability remained, the word Harijan was meaningless, it was like calling dogs Napoleon.
There were just 15 women in the 389-member Constituent Assembly. She was the lone Dalit woman and at 34 years old, perhaps among the youngest. On her first speech in the Constituent Assembly (December 19, 1946) she wrote: “I spoke against separate electorates, against slave labour and (said) untouchability should be banned by an ordinance. I was asked by the party — Indian National Congress — to withdraw it as it was going to be one of the articles of the Constitution soon.”
Although a Gandhian, she agreed with Babasaheb Ambedkar on many issues. She also argued against appointment of governors anticipating friction between a state government and a governor appointed by another party at the Centre. She also suggested that the final draft of the Constitution be adopted following a ratification through a general election. She again intervened during a discussion on draft Article 11 (Art 17 of the Constitution) which aimed at abolishing discrimination based on caste and making it punishable by law. She said, “We cannot expect a Constitution without a clause relating to untouchability.”
In her speech she held that the Constituent Assembly should go beyond framing a Constitution and “give people a new framework for life”, use the opportunity to make untouchability illegal, and ensure “moral safeguard that gives real protection to the underdogs of India” (CA Debates, 151-152). Her idea of moral safeguards rested on the idea that only an independent socialist republic could uplift, remove social disabilities.
Dakshayani’s interventions in the Constituent Assembly were moulded by time she spent with both Gandhiji and Ambedkar. She became editor of Jai Bheem, an Ambedkarite publication also based in Madras. Along with her husband, R Velayudhan, she was a member of the Provisional Parliament, perhaps the first Dalit couple also belonging to two opposition political parties, Velayudhan having joined the Socialists while Dakshayani remained with the Congress.
Along with a few Ambedkarite middle class women, she organised a national conference of Dalit women in 1977 and formed the Mahila Jagriti Parishad (MPJ). The conference was attended by over 200 Dalit women, with their own stories. The MPJ began work among women sweepers in South Delhi — literacy and alternative employment training. There was no question of looking for funds, but working on the Gandhian ethics of voluntarism.
Dr Meera Velayudhan, Policy Analyst & President, Indian Association For Women’s Studies, is the daughter of Dakshayani and Velayudhan