Gandhi used a temple agitation in Kerala to make it a larger movement for independence. The shrine of Shiva, an architectural marvel, continues to attract believers and nature lovers
Vaikom is one of Kerala’s growing tourist towns on the eastern banks of the sprawling Vembanad backwaters. Pilgrims and tourists swarm into this tiny central Kerala town criss-crossed by coconut groves and lagoons. The biggest attractions are the historic Shiva temple and the Vembanad backwaters. The latter is India’s longest lake and listed as a wetland of international importance by the Ramsar Convention.
Nine decades ago when Vaikom sprang up to transform Kerala’s history and grab national attention, it was only a sleepy fishing village by the lake. The legendary Vaikom Satyagraha of 1924-25 gave a major thrust to the yearning for freedom across the country. In the process, it ensured the once- obscure Vaikom a significant place in the country’s history.
The Vaikom Satyagraha was Kerala’s first well-organised agitation against ‘upper caste’ orthodoxy demanding basic civil rights for ‘backward’ castes—primarily the right to walk on public roads. It was the first major movement led by the state’s Congress party against social inequality. The agitation had active participation from not just ‘backward’ castes but a large number of progressive members of ‘forward’ castes as well. The 20-month-long Satyagraha also marked the first time that the Congress—until then dominated by an ‘upper-caste’ elite— began attracting ‘backward’ castes to the national movement in large numbers.
No less than Mahatma Gandhi, the great sage and reformer Sree Narayana Guru and the Dravidian firebrand Periyar EV Ramasamy Naicker from Tamil Nadu arrived at Vaikom to inspire the agitators. Akalis trooped in from faraway Punjab to hold a langar of free food for the agitators who came from various parts of the country.
And what was this agitation aimed at? It couldn’t have been more modest even by the standards of the day. The goal was to secure everyone’s right to walk on public roads around the ancient temple. The fact that ‘backward’ castes were banned within the temple was taken almost for granted. Thanks to social reform movements led by legendary leaders like Narayana Guru and Ayyankali—who were of ‘backward’ castes themselves—the royal government had hesitantly revoked the traditional ban on the use of public roads by these castes by the late 19th century. Yet, in certain areas that had stayed under orthodox ‘upper-caste’ Hindu domination, this ban was in place four decades later. Vaikom was one such dark region.
The demand for the right to walk on roads around Vaikom temple was raised at the turn of the 20th century by the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam (SNDP), a social reform movement founded in 1903 by Narayana Guru, who was an Ezhava, a caste now classified as OBC. The royal government turned it down, calling the ban a religious custom not to be tampered with. Notice boards continued to dot the roads leading to the temple forbidding the entry of Avarnas, just as signs barred people of colour from the Whites-only enclaves of apartheid South Africa.
According to a legend, a bunch of ‘backward’ caste youngsters had attempted to defy the ban many years earlier but were killed and buried in a nearby pond on the orders of the Dalawa of Travancore’s royal government. After that, the pond came to be known as Dalawa Kulam. Though it was filled in due course, its location is still known by the same name. “We built a public bus stand on the place a decade ago and dedicated it to the memory of the buried martyrs,” says PK Hari Kumar, former chairman, Vaikom Municipality, and a CPM leader who authored a book on the Satyagraha. “But I think we have actually travelled much in reverse since the Satyagraha. I wish ‘forward’ and ‘backward’ castes could join hands today on a major issue, like in [the days of] the Satyagraha.”
It was Hari Kumar as Municipal Chairman who took the initiative to complete the construction of the town’s Satyagraha Memorial Complex, which has auditoriums and libraries, in 2003. “We are an ungrateful society,” he says, “It is a proof of our disregard for such great events and martyrs that the memorial’s construction [languished] for 25 years after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi laid the foundation stone in 1975.” He points out that the late Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MG Ramachandran was enthusiastic enough to have another Satyagraha Memorial built at Vaikom by the 1980s—in the name of Periyar.
Back in the 1920s, it was TK Madhavan, Narayana Guru’s disciple, journalist and SNDP’s secretary, who took the initiative against the ban on Vaikom roads and made it his life mission. He submitted repeated memorandums to the royal government and raised it in the state legislature. But all to no avail. Finally, he met Mahatma Gandhi at Tirunelveli on 23 September 1921 and briefed him of the injustice. This was around the time that Gandhi was planning to take up the fight against ‘untouchability’ as a major plank of the national movement.
On Gandhi’s directive, Madhavan attended the All India Congress Committee (AICC) meet at Kakinada, Andhra Pradesh, in 1923, where he circulated a note titled: ‘A Request to the Indian National Congress on behalf of the Untouchables of India.’ Madhavan’s campaign, backed by Gandhi, led the AICC to adopt the struggle against untouchability as part of its main programme. Following this, the Kerala Provincial Congress Committee took up the issue and launched the Satyagraha on 30 March 1924 with volunteers of three caste groups—Dalit, Ezhava (OBC) and Nair (a ‘forward’ caste). They donned Congress caps and khadi attire, and jointly walked on the roads in open defiance of the ban. The royal government’s police promptly arrested them. This was followed by three other volunteers of the same caste trio courting arrest the same way. And then another. This went on for many days until every volunteer had been detained by the police. The courts sentenced and imprisoned them all. The evenings saw daily protest meetings.
“This agitation was the first instance that the Congress party in Kerala succeeded in bringing ‘backward’ castes to the national movement. Until then, the party had only ‘upper’ caste Hindus and Christians in its fold. This marked its transformation from an elite party to a truly mass organisation,” says Mohan D Babu, a Congress leader of Vaikom. Gandhi’s strategy to unite progressive members of ‘upper’ as well as ‘lower’ caste groups proved to be a masterstroke; the former even held a ‘Suvarna rally’ to support the agitation.
Narayana Guru, who had never been involved in any political issue until then, also arrived at Vaikom in September 1924 and openly pledged the agitation his support. Unlike Gandhi, who was against the use of even minimal force by Satyagrahis, Guru exhorted the protestors to break police barricades and enter the temple itself. They suffered physical atrocities at the hands of the police and sundry hoodlums, but kept up the agitation undeterred.
The orthodox Suvarna Hindus who administered the temple, however, remained apathetic. The royal government also kept looking the other way. The agitation soon took a violent turn when hoodlums supported by the police began assaulting Satyagrahis. Gandhi arrived on 10 March 1925, accompanied by his secretary Mahadev Desai, his son Ramdas, Rajagopalachari and Alladi Krishnaswamy Iyer, and advised those on the receiving end not to indulge in any counter-violence. Gandhi made it a point to meet Indumthuruthil Devan Narayanan Nampoothiri, the Brahmin landlord who led the orthodox group opposing the agitation. Nampoothiri refused to come to the Satyagraha ashram to meet him, so Gandhi went to his house— only to find the landlord unwilling to take his suggestions. Not only that, Nampoothiri refused to sit near Gandhi, saying he would get ‘polluted’ by such proximity since the Mahatma did not practise untouchability; Gandhi and those accompanying him were made to sit in the verandah while Nampoothiri spoke from an inner room!
The death of Travancore’s Maharaja Sree Moolam Tirunal on 7 August 1924 proved to be a turning point. He and his diwan T Raghaviah had been the most hostile to the agitation. But after Tirunal’s death, his niece Maharani Sethulakshmi Bai took over as the regent Rani. This altered the equation. Gandhi wrote to the Rani requesting steps to end the Satyagraha. He also wrote to WH Pitt, the British Police commissioner of Travancore, to end the physical attacks on Satyagrahis. These efforts began to bear results, as the Rani and Pitt offered a settlement formula. The roads on three sides of the temple were thrown open to ‘backward’ castes. However, the street on the eastern side stayed reserved for the use of ‘upper’ castes.
Gandhi accepted this formula and called for ending the prolonged agitation, which was causing its participants much misery. There was criticism that it was a costly compromise, but Gandhi stood firm on it. The agitation was called off by November. However limited the success was, the Vaikom Satyagraha reshaped the history of Travancore and the Congress. The historic proclamation in 1936 by the royal government throwing open all temples to ‘backward’ castes for the first time, for example, was a direct fallout. The Satyagraha also helped the nationalist movement gain unprecedented strength in Kerala.
The Vaikom Satyagraha had many other interesting aspects as well. Most significant of these was the role of Gandhi as a master-strategist of mass action and his fierce commitment to ideals. Like in the case of other struggles he led elsewhere, Gandhi caused much heartburn to his followers on various occasions during the course of the agitation on account of his strange and stubborn ways. The first jolt was when Gandhi persuaded his associate George Joseph, who arrived at Vaikom enthusiastically to participate in the Satyagraha, to return immediately. Gandhi’s explanation was that the Satyagraha was an attempt within Hinduism to cleanse itself of sins like untouchability, and he feared that the participation of non- Hindus like Joseph, a Christian, would fan the suspicions of Hindus that it was a move against their religion. He wrote to Joseph: ‘I think you shall let the Hindus do the work. It is they who have to purify themselves.’ Gandhi also persuaded the Akalis to return to Punjab, closing their langar. His argument on this echoed his plea to Joseph.
Gandhi’s differences with Narayana Guru formed another noteworthy facet. Guru wanted the Satyagrahis to not just walk the roads but also enter the temple. He warned against any form of violence but offered passive resistance. In contrast, Gandhi felt that defying the prohibitory orders wasn’t wise. Gandhi wrote of his differences with Guru in Harijan: ‘His Holiness Sree Narayana Guru is reported to have disapproved of the present methods of agitation…He suggests that volunteers should advance along barricaded roads and scale them…They should enter the temples and sit with others to dine. Now the action proposed is not satyagraha. Scaling barricades is open violence. If you may scale barricades why not break open temple doors and pierce its walls?’ Gandhi also pointed out that his adherence to non-violence made strategic sense. ‘How are volunteers to pierce through a row of policemen except by using force? If they are strong and willing to die in sufficient numbers they can gain their point.’
Also of significance was Gandhi’s stiff opposition to the presence of Dravida movement leader Periyar and his wife Nagamma. The avowed atheist Periyar’s presence in Vaikom as a volunteer and the drama of his arrest, it was feared, would draw Muslim and Christian support and money for the movement. Gandhi wanted Periyar to return to Madras after his release from prison. Periyar refused and courted arrest again. This made Periyar’s wife Nagamma join hands with the wives of other arrested leaders and launch a women’s Satyagraha that turned out to be one of India’s earliest direct political agitations by women.
Though led by the Congress, it is the Communist movement that made the most of the Satyagraha by way of political gains. Most Congress leaders of the region joined the nascent Left movement, among them the legendary P Krishna Pillai, founder of the Communist Party in Kerala. Almost ninety years later, Vaikom remains a red bastion. “The Left is the rightful legatee of the Satyagraha. For more than just an agitation to enter the temple roads, it was a resistance movement against all forms of authority—social, economic, political,” says K Ajith, the current CPI legislator from Vaikom who happens to be a Dalit.
Though the Satyagraha’s legacy and its contribution are undisputed, many believe Vaikom has been left behind on economic development. “Vaikom is caught in a time warp,” says C Gouridasan Nair, a local journalist, “I am sad that a region which witnessed such a hugely progressive mass movement has not made progress economically.”
The story does not end without its share of irony. According to Ajith, Vaikom’s economic backwardness also had much to do with the Satyagraha. “Most of the ‘upper-caste’ landlords who had money and assets deserted Vaikom after the agitation. This left the region with poor agricultural labourers and fishermen, with no money to invest, for long. The landlords never returned except to attend the annual Ashtami festival at the temple!”.
(MG Radhakrishnan is a senior journalist based in Thiruvananthapuram)