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P.S. Krishnan: How I began to detest the caste system

‘It was from Dr Ambedkar that I learnt that a community in human society was considered untouchable. Narayanaguru and Ayyankali made me anti-caste. Vivekananda taught me to detest caste.’ P.S. Krishnan tells us all this and more in response to Vasanthi Devi’s question

P.S. Krishnan tells the post-Independence history of social justice: Part II   

(P.S. Krishnan is among a handful of bureaucrats in the Indian government who have committedly pursued the interests of the deprived sections of society. He is in a way a living document of social justice in post-Independence India. He retired a couple of decades ago but continued to be part of government committees and take up advisory roles. He also shared his experiences with Vasanthi Devi, a former vice-chancellor of Manonmaniam Sundaranar University, Tamil Nadu, and their conversation took the form of the book A Crusade for Social Justice: Conversations with P.S. Krishnan. Forward Press will be bringing out the Hindi edition of the book, which is essentially the history of social justice in post-Independence India. Before publishing the book, we will be serializing parts of the book on our website. – Editor)

You have been a tireless and peerless crusader in the cause of the most wretched, the most marginalised sections, those denied basic human dignity for centuries in caste society in India. You were born in a family belonging to a socially most advanced caste, but totally identified with those at the bottom of caste society. How did you develop such a passionate dedication? What were the early influences in your life that shaped your perspectives and the mission you set for yourself? You were born in Kerala and had your schooling there. Kerala has had a unique blend of social reform movements, left radicalism and a heritage of enlightened royalty. Did Kerala set you on the path?

Social Justice (SJ) centring around Dalits [Scheduled Castes (SCs)], Socially and Educationally Backward Classes (SEdBCs/BCs) and Adivasis/Scheduled Tribes (STs), leading to social equality, has been the golden thread that links my life from end to end, from my pre-teenage till now, including the period of my service in the IAS from early 1956 to 1990-end. Others have also asked me the question of how I came to the path of social justice and espoused it passionately. In fact, friends have been asking me to write my autobiography. Soon after my recovery from a serious illness that lasted from September 2015 to March 2016, Sri K. Madhava Rao (the third direct recruit Dalit officer of the Andhra Pradesh Cadre, who retired as Chief Secretary) frantically rang me up, reminded me of his long-standing plea to me to write my autobiography and urged me not to lose any more time in doing so, describing my life and work as “the rarest of the rare”. He and some other friends have been expressing the view that my early life, the ways in which, during the period of my service from 1956 to 1990 and after my retirement, I secured certain results important to Dalits and other deprived classes, issues in respect of which my efforts could not secure final results and which, therefore, remain to be pursued, the trials and tribulations and persecutions that I have encountered in this journey and how I faced them, will be of help and guidance to younger generations in government as well as in other professions, social work and other fields.

P.S. Krishnan

But I have been hesitant about an individual-based autobiography in the usual format. The questions you, with your experience as one of the seniormost educationists of the country, and with your insights into social justice, have framed now, structuring them around important and relevant issues and themes and events, have provided me a way out of my dilemma, to recount facts pertaining to the issues, events and themes and, in that context and in the right perspective, situate the individual, his work and life.

My birth did not bring me face to face with “Untouchability”. But the knowledge of the existence of “Untouchability” came to me like an electric shock from a statement of Dr Ambedkar in 1942 or 1943 (when I was 10 or 11 years old) in the Times of India. The statement said that one out of every seven Indians is an “Untouchable”. I could not quite understand the meaning of this statement.

A Crusade for Social Justice: Conversations with Vasanthi Devi

In those days, I used to visit the Shri Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram every morning along with my father. After the round of worship at the main temple and the subsidiary temples was over, there would be a long walk along the corridors within the temple premises. During such walks, I used to discuss various public issues with my father. Those were tumultuous times marked by the national independence movement, the social reform and social revolution movements, the socialist and communist movements and I was interested in issues connected with these movements. The morning after Dr Ambedkar’s statement appeared, I asked my father: “Who is Dr Ambedkar and why does he say that one out of every seven Indians is an ‘Untouchable’?, and How can anyone be an ‘Untouchable’?” My father explained to me the phenomenon of “Untouchability” in Indian society. I am grateful to him for giving me an undistorted picture. After hearing from him the inhuman indignities imposed on the castes treated as “Untouchables”, I asked him if it is not unjust. Without hesitation, he said it is unjust. This, and the atmosphere and environment in which this conversation took place, decided my position against “Untouchability”.

Dr Ambedkar’s statement and my father’s explanation were the first clear influences that set me on the path against “Untouchability”, and later against the caste system as a whole. I had the good fortune to have among my early playmates and friends, boys of different communities, including boys who belonged to castes treated as “Untouchable” or converts to Christianity from those castes, who continued to be treated in the same way. I remember the names Karunakaran and Fernandes, though I had no contact with them after 1941. When I heard my father’s explanation of Dr Ambedkar’s statement, my mind went back to those early friends and I could not see any logic by which they could be treated as “Untouchable” or as any different from the rest. I also remember a lady, whose legs were paralyzed, to whose hut near our home I would go on some evenings after my school and would recite Malayalam poems with her. I did not know her caste, but she must have been either a Dalit or of a non-Dalit “lower” caste. All these memories came to me and made it impossible for me to accept “Untouchability” or caste-based discriminations in society.

During that period, I was a regular reader of the Kerala Kaumudi, a Malayalam daily, which was the first newspaper in Travancore established by a person belonging to a community which was then just emerging from subjection to “Untouchability” by its own efforts. This person was K. Sukumaran, a distinguished intellectual leader of the Ezhava community. On the editorial page of Kerala Kaumudi every day, there would be a saying of Narayanaguru. Some of the sayings which I still remember are:

“Oru Jaati, Oru Matham, Oru Daivam Manushyanu”

[One Caste, One Religion, One God for Man]

“Matam Ethaayaalum Manushyan Nannaayaal Mathi”

[Whatever be the Religion, What is Needed is Man Should be Good]

Narayanaguru’s sayings and what I knew then of his life constituted another early influence in shaping my attitude to society and social issues.


Another early influence was Swami Vivekananda, whose writings and sayings I read in those days. He severely criticised “Untouchability”. With particular reference to Malabar, which was earlier part of the sprawling Madras Presidency and which, after the States Reorganization of 1956, is now the northern part of Kerala, he, in a lecture at Madras in 1897 [Swami Vivekananda, 1897, “The Future of India”, in Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Vol. 3: Lectures from Colombo to Almora ], said as follows:-

“The Mohammedan conquest of India came as a salvation to the down-trodden, to the poor.  That is why one-fifth of our people have become Mohammedans.  It was not the sword that did it all.  It would be the height of madness to think it was all the work of sword and fire.  And one fifth… one-half… of your Madras people will become Christians if you do not take care. Was there ever a sillier thing before in the world than what I saw in Malabar country? The poor Pariah is not allowed to pass through the same street as the high-caste man, but if he changes his name to a hodge-podge English name, it is all right; or to a Mohammedan name, it is all right. What inference would you draw except that these Malabaris are all lunatics, their homes so many lunatic asylums, and that they are to be treated with derision by every race in India until they mend their manners and know better. Shame upon them that such wicked and diabolical customs are allowed; their own children are allowed to die of starvation, but as soon as they take up some other religion they are well fed. There ought to be no more fight between the castes.”

That was also a period when boys and girls belonging to “Untouchable” and other “low” castes began to come to school. There was an interesting social background to this. The earliest strike of agricultural labourers in Thiruvanananthapuram area was in 1905-06, under the leadership of the first well-known leader of the Pulaya community, namely, Sri Ayyankali, who belonged to Vengannur, near Thiruvananthapuram. The Pulaya community is the largest Dalit (SC) community of Kerala. In Malabar, they are known as Cheruman or Cheramaan. They constitute a major component of converts to Islam and Christianity in Kerala. Sri Ayyankali was over 10 years younger than Sree Narayanaguru. There is an apocryphal story that when Ayyankali first met Narayanaguru, the latter asked him his name. He replied: “Ayyan, son of Kali”. Narayanaguru then said, “hereafter, your name shall be Ayyankali”, which was more impressive. Sree Narayanaguru had the practice of giving impressive names to newborn children of “low” castes. It was one of his simple methods to build up the morale and self-confidence of people of these communities who suffered from low esteem and low self-esteem. In those days, pedestrian names, announcing the lowliness of the caste were common among the men and women of “low” castes. Sree Narayanaguru changed this.

Narayanaguru, Ayyankali and Ambedkar

The Pulaya and other Dalit people were the victims of agrestic slavery and serfdom. Ownership of land by them was prohibited by formal law and the caste system. Though slavery has been abolished, their servitude continues in the form of agricultural wage-labourhood. The bulk of the Dalits continue to be agricultural labourers in Kerala as in the rest of the country. Yet, Ayyankali’s historical strike was not for higher wages for agricultural labourers. It was for the implementation of the royal orders passed earlier in Travancore by the Maharaja, permitting children of “Untouchable” communities to be admitted to Government schools. But this was not being properly implemented on account of upper-caste resistance. The Ayyankali-led agricultural labour strike was for securing actual admission of children of “Untouchable” communities in schools in compliance with the already existing royal orders. Royal orders have been replaced in democratic India by legislations. The hiatus, between royal orders and the actual implementation, continue to this day between legislations and policies and their actual implementation, especially when they relate to Dalits, Adivasis and other deprived classes. The result of this movement was experienced in my school days. I had a few classmates belonging to these communities at school and college. This was another point of contact with them which made it impossible for me to reconcile myself to the idea of “Untouchability” and caste-based discriminations.

Another event that influenced me was the Temple Entry Proclamation (Kshetra Pravesana Vilambaram) issued by the then Maharaja Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma in 1936, abolishing the ban on “low” caste people or avarnas from entering Hindu temples in the Princely State of Travancore. There is an interesting social background to this too. In 1933, there was a Conference of the Ezhava community under the leadership of Shri K. Sukumaran. The subject of the Conference was: “This religion is an insult to our self-respect; to which religion should we convert?”. This Conference and its subject sent shivers down the spines of the royalty and its advisors. The Temple Entry Proclamation was an enlightened response to the feelings expressed at the Conference. This proclamation removed the ban on people of Avarna communities or “low” castes entering public temples in the Princely State of Travancore. This proclamation was lauded by both Mahatma Gandhi and Dr Ambedkar. The substance of the proclamation was written on a wooden plank in a number of languages, placed prominently at the entrance of temples. The actual wording was: “Entry restricted to those who are Hindus by birth or profession”. Though it was negatively worded, its positive meaning was that any person who is Hindu by birth or by belief was free to enter the public temples.

These early experiences not only set me on the path against “Untouchability” and the caste system, but also made me read and study more about and observe more of social phenomena. I also started putting my beliefs into practice. One instance was to invite my friends of different communities, including the Dalit community, for meals in my house. My father had no difficulty with this. I am grateful to my mother for overcoming her traditional inhibitions, on account of her love and affection for me and, in response to my request and persuasion, serving food for these friends of mine along with me in the dining room attached to the kitchen.

The opposition to “Untouchability” soon became opposition to the caste system as a whole. One event that marked this progression was a visit to the Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram along with a friend who was a few years older than me. The priest did not put the prasadam of the temple into his hands, as he did with me and many others. Instead, he threw it on the ground for him to pick it up. This was because he was not wearing the qualifying sacred thread. When I noticed this discrimination, I stopped receiving the prasadam from the priest.

Soon I aligned myself with the exhortation of Sree Narayanaguru, “Don’t Mention Caste, Don’t Ask Caste, Don’t Think of Caste”. As a personal act of conviction and commitment, I seceded from the caste system. I take caste into account only in the social context for the purpose of social justice and ultimately elimination of caste by destroying its base as a structural iron-frame of exploitation and deprivation of the masses and of elite monopoly. I make it a point to take every opportunity to break every irrational rule and interdict of caste. To all queries and enquiries made by various persons on different occasions about my caste, my reply has consistently been “I have no caste, I have become caste-free”.

Excerpted from A Crusade for Social Justice, published by South Vision Books and available for purchase here

Forward Press also publishes books on Bahujan issues. Forward Press Books sheds light on the widespread problems as well as the finer aspects of Bahujan (Dalit, OBC, Adivasi, Nomadic, Pasmanda) society, culture, literature and politics. Contact us for a list of FP Books’ titles and to order. Mobile: +917827427311, Email: info@forwardmagazine.in)

The titles from Forward Press Books are also available on Kindle and these e-books cost less than their print versions. Browse and buy:

The Case for Bahujan Literature

Mahishasur: A people’s hero

Dalit Panthers: An Authoritative History

Mahishasur: Mithak wa Paramparayen

The Common Man Speaks Out

Jati ke Prashn Par Kabir

About The Author

Vasanthi Devi

V. Vasanthi Devi is former vice-chancellor, Manonmaniam Sundaranar University, Tamil Nadu. She interviewed P.S. Krishnan for the book on his life and works titled ‘A Crusade for Social Justice: Bending Governance Towards the Deprived’

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