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Saint Ayyankali: The harbinger of a social revolution

Om Prakash Kashyap writes how Saint Ayyankali forged the unity of Dalit castes of Kerala against all odds and helped them grow politically, educationally and socially

Ayyankali (28 August 1863 – 18 June 1941)

I have read the history of many a civilization,

I have rummaged through the history of the country and the state,

But nowhere could I find anything about my caste,

There is no wielder of pen on this earth,

Who would write the history of my caste,

My caste – which has been consigned to the netherworld,

My caste – which has been lost in the uncharted depths of history

-Poykayil Yohannan, Malayalam poet

History may hold a mirror up to a civilization but it only captures the surface at best. That is why history encapsulates only the stories of the opulence of the kings and queens, the battles between the rulers, and the tales of loyalty and cowardice, strategies and statecraft and conspiracies and back-stabbings. History is unconcerned with the beads of sweat on the forehead of the farmers and the labourers, whose toil not only filled the coffers of the kings and the emperors but also ensured that the faces of their ministers and lieutenants were always beaming with joy. Tales of the gods and his prophets also creep into it and are preserved. But oppression in the name of caste and religion somehow escapes its notice. Invariably, it is the people at the very bottom of the social pyramid who are the victims of this oppression. No wonder, historian Eric Hobsbawm suggests that we should remember history only through the questions we can raise about it. “In a form which we historians believe in – as an objective truth, which can be tested through questions – just the way we want to test it.”      

Indian history sees things from the top. And it is the people at the top who seem to matter to it. What does the man on the street think? How does he view his present and the past? Can the truth of the common man be different from the truth of the kings, emperors, landlords and feudal lords, or is it? The Indian historiographers, unlike their Western counterparts, never tried to grapple with these questions. For them, mythology was history. The Puranas were described as self-evident. The doubters and the dissenters were branded as anti-culture. The latest practice is to denounce them as traitors. If history is about people, then why should it not reflect the lives of all the people? Limiting it to the antics of the kings and the emperors, their depredations and dalliances and palace intrigues is playing a court poet.   

Things changed a trifle with Independence. Some historians, with their ears close to the ground, joined the ranks of the chroniclers of the past. Damodar Dharmanand Kausambi and Deviprasad Chattopadhyaya were among them. Phule, Ambedkar and Periyar were not historians in the strict sense of the word but they had a distinct historical vision. They questioned Indian history and historiography. They hinted at the inherent cultural contradictions and tried to view history through the lens of modern values. This was not acceptable to the historians of the traditional schools, including the Marxist historians, who conveniently closed their eyes to the dialectics of caste in Indian society. That is the reason Dalit and Bahujan writers, who look at Indian history and culture from the perspective of the prevalent casteism and the practice of untouchability, and who lay greater emphasis on socio-cultural freedom than on political freedom, are held in disdain and ignored – and even labelled anti-national.

The so-called scholars, who talk of equality and freedom day in, day out, ignore the major contributors in the making of the modern Indian nation state. That is only because the latter did not belong to their caste or community. They play down the role of Phule and Ambedkar and frown at the mention of Periyar. And they have almost forgotten Ayyankali, the harbinger of renaissance in Kerala. Owing to his casteist chauvinism, communist leader E.M.S. Namboodripad’s book Keralam Malayalikalude Mathrubhum (Kerala: The motherland of Malayalam-speakers) has no reference either to “Mulakkaram” (Breast Tax) or to the slavery system in the state. He doesn’t appear to think Ayyankali contributed to the reform of Kerala’s society either.

Three kingdoms were merged to form Kerala: Travancore, Kochi and Malabar. In the Travancore kingdom, Dalit women would be barred from covering their breasts. Dalits were treated almost like serfs and they were often worse off than the Dalits under the rule of the Peshwas. Dalit women were required to wear necklaces of granite stones. The necklaces, made up of beads of glass and back granite, looked like snakes dangling from their necks. They symbolized their status as slaves. The women resented this system. When the officials of the Maharaja of Travancore reached a village to collect the Breast Tax, a woman called Nangeli refused to pay. Then, when the officials mounted pressure, she chopped off both her breasts and presented them to the officials on a plantain leaf. Nangeli died the same day due to excessive bleeding. Her sacrifice sent a wave of resentment across Kerala and from it was born a movement called “Channar Lahala” (revolt for the right to wear upper-body garment). Her village was named “Mulachiparambu”(land of the breasted woman) in her honour. Ayyankali also waged a successful battle for securing the right of the Dalit women to cover their breasts. It was one of the several battles he undertook to build a modern Kerala and for the rights of the women and the Dalits. Ayyankali’s role in the making of the modern Indian nation state and in awakening a consciousness of self-respect among the Dalits and the Backwards was no less important than that of Phule, Ambedkar, Narayana Guru and Periyar.

A statue of Nangeli, who is said to have chopped off her breasts to protest the Breast Tax imposed by the Maharaja of Travancore

Ayyankali was born on 28 August 1863 in Venganoor, a small village about 13 km to the south of Thiruvananthapuram. He was the eldest of the eight children born to Ayyan and Mala. His parents named him “Kali” which became Ayyankali after prefixing his father’s name. They were members of the Pulayar (Pulaya) community. Before moving to Venganoor, their family lived in Palawar Tharawad. In Kerala, Pulayars were at the lowest rung among the untouchable castes. They were rural slaves. The landlords, mostly Nairs, could force any Pulayar to do their work. Even after toiling from morning to night, they did not get anything more than 600 grams of rice, and that too of poor quality.

Ayyankali married Chellama when he was 25. The couple was to have seven children. He used to work hard. Once, a landlord asked him to clear a piece of forestland to make it fit for farming. The landlord happened to be large-hearted and let him have a five-acre plot of land. This was a big achievement for a Pulayar. Ayyankali and his family started tilling the land and soon were better off than other members of their community. At the time, the Pulayars had to work without wages in the fields of others. This system was known as “Ujhiyam Vaala”. Among the untouchable castes in Travancore, Pulayars were numerically the smallest and thus too weak to organize themselves. That was one of the reasons for their vulnerability and exploitation.

Historian Charles Allen quotes from the letter of the wife of a Christian missionary in 1860 to describe how deep-rooted untouchability and casteism were in the region and how a complex code governed inter-community relations.

“A Nair can approach, but not touch, a Namboodiri Brahmin[1] a Chovan (Ezhava) must remain thirty-six paces off, and a Pulayan slave ninety-six steps distant. A Chovan must remain twelve steps away from a Nair, and a Pulayan sixty-six steps off. A Syrian Christian may touch a Nair, but … may not eat …”[2]

Katherine Mayo’s Mother India also describes the inhuman behaviour the Untouchables were subjected to on the pretext of pollution by touch in Travancore. The situation was abominable.

Pulayar children were not supposed to study. They had to labour, too. When he was a child, Ayyankali was permitted to play with the children of only his caste. But still, Ayyankali’s childhood was somewhat better than that of the other children of his caste. His family was relatively free from oppression and his father did not have to do forced labour. Hence, he had friends were from the so-called upper castes, too. However, one day, he saw the brutal face of the caste system. He was playing football with his friends. He kicked the ball and it landed in the courtyard of a Nair house. The house owner lost his temper and sternly warned Ayyankali against playing with the upper-caste children. Hurt and humiliated, Ayyankali vowed never to be friends with a savarna. The vow proved a boon for him and his community both. He began mobilizing the boys of his community and formed a team. From his childhood itself, he thus developed leadership qualities.

Postal stamp issued by the Government of India in 2002 to commemorate Ayyankali

Another incident from his childhood deserves recounting. During a quarrel, he thrashed a boy from an upper-caste. A Pulayar – whose social status was no higher than that of a slave – beating up an upper-caste boy was unheard of. His parents panicked, expecting retribution from the upper castes. And, it would have come, but for mediation by some persons. But Ayyankali did get a sound scolding and thrashing from his parents. The diku[3], who had brokered peace, advised Ayyankali never to get involved in brawls. But neither the advice nor his parent’s anger could subdue Ayyankali’s rebellious spirit. He started questioning the misery and the pain the members of his community were subjected to. That ultimately led him to the idea of their emancipation.

When Ayyankali was in his teens, he developed interest in music and songs, particularly folk songs. He discovered that he had a creative bent of mind. During his youth, his strong, athletic body also started drawing praise. Ayyankali had a healthy body and a healthy mind. That boosted his self-confidence. But both these were disqualifications for a person of his caste. There was a code for the Untouchables. They were not supposed to wear clean clothes and move about on public streets. Speaking in a loud voice was considered impertinent. But Ayyankali would have none of it. He wore clean clothes and roamed about aimlessly with his friends. All this was a clear violation of the Manusmriti, which had laid down the code of conduct for the Shudras and was the basis of their centuries-old servitude.

As he grew up, his creativity also blossomed. He not only sang folk songs but also started penning songs. With his younger brothers Gopalan and Chetan and other teenagers of his caste, he sang songs that he wrote and staged plays that had a message he wanted to convey. His friends started addressing him as “Urpillai” (the loved one) and “Moothapullai” (the elder one). Ayyankali’s songs and plays assailed the prevailing social order and called for freedom. His language was Malayalam, mixed with Tamil. His songs and plays thus earned him audience not from Travancore but also from Kochi and Malabar. He spread his message of emancipation through his songs and plays and made people aware of how they were being exploited. Ayyankali’s parents were concerned about him but he was a born rebel. An organization needs discipline and should know how to put its strength to proper use. So, Ayyankali hired a person to train the members of his organization in martial arts. His activities were not to the liking of members of other communities but he didn’t care.

Ayyankali did not believe in treading the beaten track. By the time he turned 25, he had forged a strong organization of youth, whose members were ready to do anything at his command. The first challenge before Ayyankali was to secure the right of using public roads to the Pulayars. In 1889, Dalit youths agitating for their right to walk on public roads were assaulted by some savarnas in Manakadavu, Kazhakkoottam, Kaniyapuram and many other areas. The savarnas were out to terrorize the Dalits.

Bullock cart as a symbol of rebellion

Ayyankali decided to take the savarnas head on. In 1893, he bought two bullocks, a cart and two huge brass bells. He dressed up in his traditional attire, tied the bells to the necks of the bullocks and rode the cart on the streets of his village. It was as if a warrior was on his victory march. Pulayars were forbidden from not only riding a bullock cart but also from owning one. By riding the bullock cart through the streets of the village, Ayyankali posed a symbolic challenge to the centuries-old rotten system. It was a declaration of war. The tolling of the bells hanging from the neck of the bullocks made sure that everyone knew someone was riding by on a bullock cart. His move created a stir in the village and the fear of a severe retribution started lurking in the hearts of the Dalits. Some savarnas confronted Ayyankali. They stopped his bullock cart to teach him a lesson.

Hitting back

Ayyankali was prepared for this. As soon as they started closing in on him, he bent down a little and whipped out a sickle. His face was red with anger. Brandishing the sickle, he threatened the savarnas that if anyone tried to block his way, the sickle would deal with him.

Ayyankali and a statue showing him riding a bullock cart

No one had imagined such an aggressive behaviour from a Pulayar, who was a slave and was expected to meekly carry out the orders of the upper castes. The savarnas were too shocked to react. They retreated and allowed Ayyankali’s bullock cart to pass. From that day onwards, his bullock cart became a regular sight on the village streets.

The incident created a sensation, not only among the savarnas but also among the Dalits. It became the talk of the town. Gradually, Ayyankali’s fame spread to the neighbouring areas. This incident took place when Dr Ambedkar’s entry into public life was still 25 years away. Ayyankali soon emerged as the leader of the oppressed classes.

But this was only the beginning. Ayyankali could muster the courage to ride a bullock cart because his family was relatively well to do. Other members of his community could not dare even walk on public roads and the savarnas were not ready to let them. Ayyankali felt that he should try to restore the self-confidence of the Dalits, which they had lost due to their oppression for generations. He geared up his organization for this task. He decided to take out a “freedom procession” in Thiruvananthapuram from the Dalit settlement to Puttan Bazar. But it was easier said than done. His opponents were waiting for an opportunity to get back at him. As soon as the procession reached the main road, it was attacked. Under the leadership of Ayyankali, hundreds of Dalit youths grappled with the assailants. Many were injured. This incident inspired Dalit youths of other areas to stand up and demand the right to walk the streets. Processions were taken out in Manakadavu, Kazhakkoottam and Kaniyapuram. A lot of blood was spilt as the savarnas clashed with the Dalits. But their opposition only served to make the resolve of the Dalits stronger. Ayyankali’s influence was growing and the Dalit revolt was gaining ground. Other Dalit castes also joined hands with the Pulayars to demand their rights. It appeared that a civil war was in the offing.

Educational revolution

The movement soon went beyond merely demanding the right to use public roads. Ayyankali was illiterate but he did not want his coming generations to be deprived of education. The government had already opened the doors of the schools to all. But the savarnas controlled management of schools and did not admit children of Pulayar and other Dalit communities. In 1904, Ayyankali launched a movement for Dalit education. He opened a school for Pulayar and other Dalit children at Venganoor the same year. It was the first school in Kerala meant exclusively for Dalits. It was a symbol of hope for the downtrodden. But the savarnas were incensed. They attacked the school and razed it to the ground. This was a major setback for Ayyankali but consistent struggle had made him strong enough to take such setbacks in his stride.

To provide an institutional framework to his movement, Ayyankali founded Sadhujana Paripalana Sangham. The organization’s aim was to motivate Pulayars and other Dalits to acquire an education. The colonial government was also trying to promote education among the Dalits. Representing his organization, Ayyankali wrote many letters to the Diwan of Travancore and director of the education department, an Scotsman named Arthur Crichton Mitchell, regarding education of Dalits. In keeping with the policy of the colonial government, the Diwan had cleared a proposal allowing Dalits admission to schools. But due to internal opposition, formal orders were not issued. Ayyankali informed Mitchell and asked him to ensure that the orders were implemented immediately. In 1910, the order was issued but the management of schools, which included landlords, refused to act on it.

On 1 March 1910, Ayyankali went to the Uruttambalam school in Balaramapuram, seeking admission for Panchami, a Pulayar girl. A clash between Ayyankali’s supporters and the savarnas – mainly Nairs – followed. Angry Nairs attacked the Pulayar settlement, destroying houses and looting goats and cattle. Men and women were mercilessly thrashed. For seven days, the Pulayar settlement witnessed arson and violence. The air was filled with the shrieks and the moans of the victims. The Uruttambalam incident sparked widespread protests in nearby areas like Marayamuttom, Venganoor, Perumpazhuthoor and Kunnathukal. This led to what is described by the mainstream historians of Kerala as the Pulayar revolt. The Dalits suffered massive loss of life and property, besides losing their source of livelihood. But despite all sorts of pressure and opposition, the movement did not stop.

The Pulayar revolt was against casteist oppression but the communist scholars attribute it to class struggle. What K. Ramkrishna Pillai wrote about the movement, mirrors the opinion of the so-called nationalist writers and journalists. Pillai was the editor of Swadeshabhimani and is also credited with translating a biography of Marx into Malayalam, which is said to be the first book on Marx in that language. What Pillai wrote about the demand of Ayyankali and his supporters for admission of Dalit children to schools and the government’s support to them, reminds one of what happened when leaders of Triveni Sangh[4] sought tickets for their members from the Congress. Their request was not only refused but they were mocked to no end. The ticket-seekers were reminded that Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabhas were not places where one has to sow vegetables, milk buffaloes or graze sheep. “Will you sell salt and oil there?”, others were asked. Though Pillai was not as harsh, he made it clear that he was against Dalit children being admitted to government schools. He wrote in his newspaper: “… to put together those who have been cultivating their brains for generations with those who have been cultivating their fields is like putting a horse and buffalo in the same yoke.”[5]

Ayyankali managed to open a school but he couldn’t arrange for a teacher. He himself was unlettered and no Dalit in the area was educated either. The non-Dalits were not ready to take up the assignment. The government paid a monthly salary of Rs 6 to schoolteachers. Ayyankali offered Rs 9 but no one was forthcoming. Ultimately, after much persuasion, a person called Parmeshwaran Pillai agreed to teach in the school. He was a resident of Kaithamukku village near Thiruvananthapuram. The values that had been inculcated into him from his childhood did not allow him to come in contact with the Untouchables. When he reached the school on the first day, he was in a deep dilemma. Progressive ideals and socio-cultural taboos were pulling him in different directions. The scene that unfolded next has been described this by Greeshma Greeshmam in his research paper titled Destiny changes:

“The new teacher entered the school reluctantly, as though he was entering a garbage dump. His socio-cultural reflexes took over when his progressive intellectualism came face to face with societal reality. He was afraid. He showed it. The situation was quite tense. In no time, hooting started from all around the school. The opponents were in no mood to relent. Some came forward to assault the ‘master’. The ‘master’ was shivering like a leaf. Still, the classes continued in spite of the fear-stained atmosphere. That night the school was destroyed.”[6]

The school was rebuilt without any delay and bodyguards started escorting the teacher to and from the school. Despite the tension and apprehensions, the place was up and running again.

As Ayyankali’s movement gained momentum, the number of his opponents also grew. And that, in turn, led to Dalits becoming conscious of their rights and of the values of liberty and equality. They began dreaming. Ayyankali’s social standing rose and it became increasingly impossible to ignore him or his mission. In 1888, Sri Mulam Thirunal Ramavarma, the Maharaja of Travancore, established Sri Mulam Popular Assembly with the idea of involving people’s representatives in governance. The Assembly had eight members. Till 1904, only landlords and traders could become members of the Assembly. Two members were chosen from each district. Any landlord who paid at least Rs 100 per year as land revenue or a trader with an annual turnover of Rs 6,000 or above could become a member.

In 1912, Ayyankali was nominated as a member of the Sri Mulam Popular Assembly – a position he held till his death. Ayyankali was the first Dalit to be nominated to a legislature in colonial India. In his speech in the Assembly, given in the presence of the Maharaja and Diwan, Ayyankali talked about the rights of Dalits, especially with regard to property, education, reservation in services under the State and freedom from unpaid labour. The speech, delivered on 4 March 1912, holds historical significance. It was probably for the first time that a Dalit raised the demands of his community in public, before the government.

The proceedings of the Assembly went like this.

Ayyankali: “As a representative of the Pulayars I convey to the government our gratitude for the help regarding admission of our children in Venganoor Elementary School. In Southern Travancore, only seven schools have allowed admission to Pulayar children. I submit that all schools in the state should admit our children.”

Dewan: “The Pulayars can get admission in all school where the Ezhava students are allowed.”

Ayyankali: “New students may be given fee concessions. Fee concessions given to Mohammedans, who are comparatively ahead of us, may be also be given to Pulayar children.”

Dewan: “Are not Pulayar children getting the concessions available to Mohammedans? I think it can be done.”

Ayyankali: “Pulayars could be appointed in engineering, health and medical departments. There are capable people who could be employed in the education department, too. Though the royal decree has been issued giving Pulayars the right to walk on streets and to use public courts, they are harassed and obstructed. Steps must be taken to give us relief.”

In the Assembly, Ayyankali consistently raised the problems being encountered by Pulayar children in acquiring education. That forced the government to sit up and take notice and in 1914, an order was issued, stipulating strict adherence to the educational policy. Mitchell, the director of education, decided to check the situation first-hand. The news of his visit was enough for the local officials to realize that they couldn’t put off admitting Dalit children any longer. But the savarnas kicked up a big row when Dalit children started being admitted to schools. A mob set Mitchell’s jeep afire when he came to visit the schools. But the officer insisted that the government’s orders be followed. He ensured that on that very day, eight Pulayar students were admitted to schools. Among them was a 16-year-old, who was admitted to First Standard.

This was indeed a victory for Ayyankali but his mission was far from complete. The savarna children were filled with hatred against the Dalits. The moment the Dalit students walked into the classrooms, the savarna students walked out. This gave the teachers an excuse to deny admissions to Dalit students. The angry Dalits again took to the streets under the leadership of Ayyankali. Skirmishes followed. A riot-like situation developed in many towns of Travancore. Ayyankali raised the issue before the government. As a result, despite the opposition, the number of Dalit students began increasing. Between 1913 and 1916, the number of Nair students enrolled in schools grew by 45 per cent, Christian students by 50 per cent and Muslims, by 100 per cent. But the number of Paraya students grew by 400 per cent and that of Pulayar students by 600 per cent. This shows how effective Ayyankali’s movement was.

Sadhujana Paripalana Sangham

Ayyankali has risked a direct confrontation with the savarnas. He did not believe in circumspection. He was straightforward and brutally frank. That was especially problematic as Pulayars were numerically insignificant. But if, despite that, Ayyankali could achieve remarkable successes, it was due to his foresight, courage and leadership qualities. At the time, the savarnas dominated every walk of life. Among them, the Brahmins were in a majority. They had total control over sources of knowledge. The savarnas feared that if the Dalits would win the right to get educated, they would no longer be able to force them to work without wages. That was the reason they were against educating Dalits. The government had passed a law, allowing all sections of the populace access to education. But the officials mandated with implementing the law were predominantly savarnas, so the welfare of the Dalits remained only on paper. Ayyankali knew that seeking favours would be of no use. If the Pulayars wanted to educate their children, they themselves would have to deal with their opponents. He had therefore forged a band of loyal followers, who were ready to do anything for him. But an organization was needed to guide these youth.

Sadhujana Paripalana Sangham was founded in 1907. People from all castes that had been victims of oppression and exploitation for centuries were welcome to the organization. After the formation of the Sangham, Ayyankali started getting feelers from Christian, Arya Samaj and Hindu reformist organizations. They all wanted to get a foothold among the Pulayars and other Dalit castes, riding piggyback on him. Ayyankali was an admirer of India’s saint tradition and was deeply influenced by religious reformers like Narayana Guru and Swami Sadanand. But he was unwilling to give his organization a religious hue. His key objective was socio-religious advancement of the Dalits and for that, education was the key instrument. He chose to maintain a safe distance from religious organizations. He wanted his organization to be independent, which would not have been possible had he accepted the tutelage of religious organizations and leaders. Sadhujana Paripalana Sangham was influenced by the Srinarayana Dharmaparipalan Sangham of Narayana Guru. Ayyankali entrusted the responsibility of running the organization to Thomas Wadiyar, a teacher by profession, who was a close relative and confidant of his. The decisions taken at the early meetings of the Sangham were a testimony to the modern outlook of Ayyankali. The main resolutions of the Sangham were:

  • Reducing the number of working days from seven to six a week.
  • Giving labourers a weekly off
  • Protecting labourers from mistreatment while on work.

The Sadhujana Paripalana Sangham was headquartered at Venganoor. Its office had a conference hall and a library. All the members were required to assemble at the office once every week to discuss their problems. A monthly fee was also collected from the members. As soon as the organization was formed, a large number of men and women became associated with it. Its branches were established in the urban and rural areas of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Its meetings and other events were well attended. Women enthusiastically participated in the activities of the organization. Dalit women contributed a “pidiyari” (handful of rice) each and then sold the stocks to sustain the Sangham. Soon, the influence of the Sangham grew far and wide.

The Sangham played a role in all fields of life. Courts of law had come into existence by then but it was next to impossible for the Dalits to get justice from the courts as they were dominated by the savarnas. Even if a Dalit approached the courts, court officials would fleece him. Due to readymade biases against the Dalits, they were discriminated against and were punished and penalized more often than the others. They needed an alternative forum for securing justice. Ayyankali established community courts called Samudaya Kodathi for resolving disputes among the Dalits – something which could hardly have been expected from an unlettered person. The court operated from Venganoor but had branches in all offices of the Sangham. These community courts functioned just like formal courts. There were lawyers, judges, police, bailiffs and court clerks. The litigants were even allowed to appeal against the decision of the branch courts. Anyone could appeal against the decision of a branch court by visiting the head office of the community court. Ayyankali presided over the main court as its chief justice.

“Samajam” was established for promoting cultural unity and to provide entertainment. Folk song and dance recitals were held at Samajam. Plays were also enacted. Ayyankali used these plays to make people aware of social evils. Samajam also constructed a hostel for the needy Pulayar students. The Sangham thus spread consciousness among the Dalits of Kerala. Under its influence, the people started observing Sunday as a holiday. On Sundays, they interacted with each other, took part in social activities and planned for their future.

Farm labour strike

Ayyankali wanted Dalits to be educated. The law was in place and the government was with the Dalits but the diku savarnas were dead set against the idea. The confrontation between the Dalits and the dikus was now in the open. Feeling under constant pressure, savarnas relented and Pulayar and other Dalit children starting getting admission in schools. But the savarnas were not ready to give up so easily. They started harassing the Pulayars working in their fields. Ayyankali did not want the movement to stray from its course. For him, the key issues were education, employment and land for Dalits. As a member of the Assembly, he raised these issues before the government. He was hopeful that with time, the attitude of the savarnas would change. But that did not happen, forcing Ayyankali to resort to pressure tactics.

The year was 1907. The Bolshevik revolution of Russia was still a decade away. Nairs were the main landowners in Travancore and Pulayars used to work their land. It was almost unpaid labour, for they were paid a measly 600 grams of rice as wages for a day’s hard work. Ayyankali announced that the Pulayars wouldn’t work in the fields till their children got admission in schools. The landowners laughed away the threat. They were confident that the Pulayars could not even think of holding a strike. The Pulayars knew, the landowners thought, they would starve if they refused to work. Some even started calculating how many days the Pulayars would be able to survive without wages – one day, two days, two and half days before eventually returning to work with bowed heads.

At the time, there were no telephones, radio or TV. Travelling to a place 50-60 km away meant spending two days on the journey. Travancore was spread over hundreds of kilometres. But the message reached the Pulayars all over. They were determined to sacrifice all they had for their future – for their dream of better days. The strike did not fizzle out. It continued and the list of the demands of the strikers grew longer. Besides the right to get their children admitted to schools, they also demanded that:

  • Their jobs should be made permanent.
  • Before penalizing the workers, a proper enquiry should be conducted. Mere guesswork or complaint should not be the basis of imposing a penalty.
  • Workers should not be framed in legal cases
  • They should not be beaten up
  • They should get the right to walk on public streets.
  • Fallow and unused land should be allotted to Dalits for farming

The landowners did not take kindly to the strike. They formed groups to intimidate the Pulayars. Strikers were thrashed in places. Ayyankali had anticipated that this would happen and his band of supporters were ready to deal with it. His supporters resisted attempts at intimidating the strikers, leading to violence. Of course, the Dalits suffered more but the strike went on.

It was that time of the year when paddy is sown. Delay in sowing operations would have affected production. Some farmers tried to do the work themselves. But they were not used to it and many of them fell ill. Six Nairs could not do what one Pulayar could do in a day. The labourers who were not on strike were demanding absurdly high wages. The fields were turning back into jungles. A long-drawn strike was not good for the Pulayars either. Labour gave them sustenance. The Nairs were convinced that strike would not last long. But Ayyankali had an ace up his sleeve. He approached the fisherman who caught fish from the sea near Vizhinjam and requested them to hire Pulayars as their assistants. One Pulayar would travel on each boat and help in the fishing operations. In return, the fisherman would pay a part of his earnings to him.

The fishermen, who were themselves victims of caste discrimination and exploitation, readily accepted Ayyankali’s offer. Enraged, the landowners set a Pulayar settlement on fire. Ayyankali paid them back in their own coin. His band of supporters started setting the homes of landowners on fire. The landowners were few and vastly outnumbered by the Dalits. Though the Dalits also suffered when their homes were set afire, their loss was nothing compared to that of the landlords. They had few earthly possessions. Moreover, the fear that the rebels may strike anytime meant that they had to constantly be on their guard. Ayyankali wanted that the landlords to approach the strikers with an offer of compromise. And that happened. The landlords agreed to the demands. On 1 March 1910, the government promulgated a law, paving the way for admission of the children of Pulayars and other Dalit communities to schools. The wages of farm labour were raised and they were allowed to use public roads. This was the first labour strike in Indian history. It preceded the Bolshevik revolution and the results it achieved would have gladdened Marx. E.M.S. Namboodripad does not talk about Ayyankali’s movement but he has referred to the labour strike called by him:

“Ayyankali was not a leader of the Dalits alone. He was also a leader of agricultural labourers. Besides Dalits and religious minorities, upper castes also participated in his movement. His contribution to the building of a modern Kerala is on a par with that of Narayana Guru. By uniting the Dalits and fighting for their rights, he took forward the tradition of Narayana Guru, who had organized the backward Ezhavas and had struggled for their rights …”

As Kerala’s chief minister, recalling Ayyankali and the 1907 labour strike, he said, “In 1907, Ayyankali had led the strike by the agricultural labourers. He had united the disorganized and scattered labourers and successfully forged them into an organized force.”

Right of women to wear upper-body clothes

As has been mentioned above, a woman called Nangeli had chopped off her breasts and presented them to the Travancore government officials. In Travancore, Dalit women were not allowed to cover their breasts. They could only cover their body from the waist to the knee. They were supposed to wear necklaces of carved granite – not of silver or gold. The stone necklaces were a sign of slavery. Necklaces of glass beads and marbles strung together hung from their necks. Similar things were wound around the wrists, and from their ears hung a piece of iron – “kunukku”. Any digression from this code led to the transgressor been tied to a tree and lashed.

Ayyankali organized an agitation in Neyyattinkara against Dalit women being made to wear these “ornaments” and asked them to stop wearing necklaces of carved granite. He told them to wear proper blouses instead. This incensed the dikus very much and riots broke out at various places in Kerala. The situation turned worse when Gopaldas, a Pulayar leader of central Travancore, convened a conference of women and urged them to throw away their stone ornaments and wear blouses instead. The riots took a severe turn but the Dalits – not even their women – were ready to give up or give in. Both the parties suffered heavy losses. Ultimately, they reached a compromise. Ayyankali emerged the winner and a pact was worked out between the government, Nair leaders and Ayyankali. A huge meeting of Dalit women was convened at a town called Quilon in which, on the call of reformist leaders, Ayyankali and Changanassery Parameswaran Pillai, hundreds of Dalit women threw away their granite necklaces, symbolizing their liberation from slavery.

People’s ideal representative

As a people’s representative, Ayyankali fought for the rights of the Pulayars and the Dalits. Pulayars neither had roof over their heads over their heads nor farmland. They were forced to work for free as agricultural labourers. The landowner could turn them out at will. As a member of Shri Mulam Popular Assembly he raised the issues of their poverty, their low social status and what that had led to. He demanded that Pulayars be provided houses and unused land be allotted to them for farming. The government officials had already allotted to the Pulayars the land they rendered cultivable but the landlords were not allowing the decision to be fully implemented. Ayyankali’s persistence led to the allotment of 300 acres of farmland at Vilappinsala, about 6 km away from Venganoor, to the Pulayars. In addition, 500 acres of land in Voozhamalukkal in Nedumangaad taluk were allotted to Pulayars – one acre to each family. This was a big victory for Ayyankali. The Pulayars, who were slaves, could now till their own land and lead an independent life.

As a member of the Assembly, Ayyankali also raised the issue of the poor representation of the Pulayars in government jobs and the widespread unemployment among them. He said that till the Pulayars were able to attain the requisite qualifications, they should be employed in low-level jobs. As a result, many Pulayars got employment in the government. Ayyankali never attacked religion directly but he called upon the Pulayars to break free from the shackles of the priests and religious rituals. He laid emphasis on piety of conduct and on unity. Due to his efforts, Pulayars and other Dalits were nominated to the Praja Sabha in 1912, thus paving the way for the participation of the Dalits in the political process.

Starting in 1904, Ayyankali had suffered from asthma. Ignoring his ailment, he continued to struggle for the wellbeing of his community and for securing justice to it. He extensively toured Travancore. On 24 May 1941, he fell seriously ill and this tireless warrior for justice passed away on 18 June 1941. Ayyankali was 45 years younger to Jotirao Phule and 16 years elder to Periyar. What he did in Kerala can be compared with what Phule did in Maharashtra and Periyar, in Tamil Nadu. However, his contribution never got due recognition. If today, the women of Kerala are more educated and aware than the women in other parts of country, at least a part of the credit must go to Ayyankali.

(Translation: Amrish Herdenia; copy-editing: Anil)


[1] V. Nagam Aiya writes in Travancore State Manual, Volume 1 about a rather strange custom among the Nambudiri Brahmins. He says that the Nambudiris are generally well off and live in comfortable houses. To protect their women from amorous eyes, they ensure that women cover themselves and carry an umbrella when they venture out. Women wear gold bracelets and the respect they get depends on their looks. Only the eldest son of the family is allowed to marry and that too, only a Nambudiri woman. The younger brothers can have only temporary conjugal relations with Nair women or women of other lower castes. Sometimes, “Sambandhams” were made to extend extra respect to the Nambudiri Brahmins. The children born of such unions could neither claim the gotra nor the name of their father and nor his property. Thus custom was abolished following a long protest by the Nairs.

[2] Charles Allen, Coromandel: A Personal History of South India

[3] Pulayar and other untouchable and backward castes and tribes considered themselves the original inhabitants of India. They believed that the Brahmins, Nairs and other upper castes were outsiders. This belief substantiates the theory that Aryans were alien invaders.

[4] Triveni Sangh’s Bigul

[5] Swadeshabhimani, 2 March 1910, quoted by Greeshma Greeshmam in Mahatma Ayyankali: The Revolutionary, The Legend   

[6]Greeshma Greeshmam, “Destiny Changes”, International Journal of Multidisciplinary and Current Research

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The Case for Bahujan Literature

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Mahishasur: Mithak wa Paramparayen

The Common Man Speaks Out

Jati ke Prashn Par Kabir

About The Author

Omprakash Kashyap

Omprakash Kashyap has published as many as 33 books in different genres. The litterateur and thinker is well known in the field of children's literature. He has been honoured by the Hindi Academy, Delhi in 2002 and Uttar Pradesh Hindi Sansthan in 2015. Kashyap is a regular contributor to newspapers and magazines

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