The meaning of Vaikom Satyagraha

Vaikom Satyagraha

If, as Will Durant wrote “[s] society is a growth in time, not a syllogism in logic, and when the past is put out through the door it comes in at the window,” the “Kerala phenomenon” of putting the past, or at least a major part of its malignant growth, out through the door, and ensuring that what came in at the window was only its moribund form, should remain a conundrum to the critiques of change.

In this sense, the Vaikom Satyagraha continues to be an important national event of historical and contemporary significance, though, reflecting the putrid political climate of the country, parties and organisations have used the occasion more to gain political mileage than to spread the meaning, message and significance of the Satyagraha.

How politicians could appropriate an event, which Mahatma Gandhi repeatedly claimed was a socio-religious movement, and refused to consider political, passes comprehension. How his pioneering role in the Satyagraha went unnoticed in the celebrations also passes comprehension.

When Swami Vivekananda visited Kerala in 1892, he was believed to have compared it to a “lunatic asylum” because of its caste system, which was the most rigid, oppressive and obscurantist. It was an intricate and elaborate enmeshing of status summations of entrenched privileges versus disabilities, involving religious, social, and economic and every other conceivable attribute of caste ranking.

As the minuscule Nambuthiri Brahmins, ensconced at the summit of the caste hierarchy, were the reference group for the caste summations below them, the nature and extent of the “lunacy” of this “asylum,” and the struggles of its victims to come out of it, of which the Vaikom Satyagraha was an important attempt, cannot be understood without a brief reference to the caste system,

Nagam Aiya’s description of a Nambuthiri in the 1875 Travancore Census Report sums up his “god-on-earth” status. To paraphrase it: His tenants bow down before him not simply as a landlord but as their royal liege and benefactor, suzerain master, household deity and very god on earth. His person is holy; his directions are commands; his movements are processions; his meal is nectar. He is the holiest of human beings. He is the representative of god on earth.

The worst form of social evil perpetrated to heighten and sustain this status was “distance pollution,” which the savarnas (the four varnas of Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaisya and Sudra) inflicted on the avarnas (those below the savarnas) as untouchables, unapproachables and unseeables. A Nayar may approach but not touch a Nambuthiri; an Izhava should stand 38 feet away from a Nambuthiri and 18 feet away from a Nayar; a Pulaya should never go before a Nambuthiri, and should stand 24 feet away from a Nayar and 12 feet away from an Izhava; and a Nayadi should remain “invisible.”

Important among the debilitating effects of this injunction on its victims was the prohibition on their use of public space used by the savarnas, especially temples and the roads around them.

The “Kerala phenomenon” refers to the drastic changes in these and other traditional disabilities, transforming the State from a “monstrous” into “model” society in modern India and making it the “first” in many respects: It is the first State where caste has lost much of its virulence as a social evil, and those (with the exception of tribals and fisher folk) traditionally living at the margins of society have moved to its centre with new-found dignity and self-confidence. It is the first to assiduously build up, under the leadership of class-based and Left-oriented political formations, State-wide grass roots movements of peasants, workers and other oppressed and exploited sections and to convert the enormous mass-base for gifting the nation with the first democratically-elected communist Government.

It is the first to experiment with coalition politics and stabilise it through coalition governance. It is the first to break the traditional caste-based land system – the monopoly over ownership and control of land by the entrenched castes, especially the Brahmins – by abolishing landlordism and tenancy, and conferring ownership rights on the cultivating tenants. It is the first to achieve “universal literacy”, high life expectancy, low birth rate, and better healthcare and public distribution system. Most important, Kerala is the first and probably only State where civil society – the most important arena in any democratic polity – has succeeded in wresting for itself from an otherwise obtrusive state the largest space as an autonomous sphere for social mobilisation and political articulation of democratic rights, aspirations and expectations.

These changes would not have come about but for the series of well-organised progressive movements challenging Kerala’s archaic, unjust and highly discriminatory and exclusionary social order, movements with an egalitarian thrust, which began to emerge in the late 19th century and continued in one form or another well into the recent past, Of these, the Vaikom Satyagraha was an important one.

The Satyagraha, though now part of India’s socio-religious history of early 20th century, itself had a brief history. This was its prelude: the rising aspirations and assertiveness of the Izhavas from the late 19th century; the conviction by the Travancore High Court of some of the Izhavas for entering and offering worship in a temple on the ground that their presence was “defiling”; the protest against this by the Izhavas in the Srimulam Popular Assembly and their request to the Government to publish a proclamation abolishing untouchability; the resolutions passed by the Nayar Samajams against untouchability; the attempts by the Izhavas in Travancore to remove the stigma by getting all public temples thrown open to all classes of Hindus; the interview by T. K. Madhavan, an Izhava leader and editor of Deshabhimani, with Gandhi at Tirunelveli in 1921, when he informed Gandhi of the disabilities of the community, and sought his advice on the proposed temple entry movement and the support of the Congress Party; Gandhi’s response that the Provincial Congress Committee should take up temple entry as an item of its practical programme; the resolution passed at the Kakinada Congress session in 1923, with Madhavan, then president of the SNDP Yogam, as one of its instigators, which committed the Congress to working for the eradication of untouchability; the letter to Gandhi from K. P. Kesava Menon, secretary, Travancore Congress Committee, informing him that it was taking steps to see that public roads used by the savarnas were open to the avarnas; of his appeal to the savarnas in Vaikom in early 1924 to allow the avarnas to use the Temple Road; of a procession arranged by the Congress consisting of Pulayas to pass through this road on the morning of March 1, 1924 but postponed at the request of several local friends who wanted some time more to educate public opinion, of fixing March 30 for the procession; of simultaneous attempts through lectures, leaflets and personal interviews to bring the orthodox people to the side of the Congress; of the brisk arrangements at Vaikom to start the Satyagraha if the authorities prohibited the avarnas from passing along the Temple Road; the prohibition by the authorities and the conduct of the Satyagraha from March 30.


THE Vaikom Satyagraha was to establish the right of the avarnas to walk along the temple road. An avarna took with him another Hindu and entered the road. Three avarnas offered this kind of Satyagraha every day and courted arrest. The Satyagraha, which continued for 20 months, was unique in at least five respects.

One, it was the first pitched battle in the war against untouchability and unapproachability. Gandhi wrote: “The Vaikom Satyagrahis are fighting a battle of no less consequence than that of swaraj; they are fighting against an age-long wrong and prejudice; it is supported by orthodoxy, superstition, custom and authority; one among the many battles that must be fought in the holy war against irreligion masquerading as religion, ignorance appearing in the guise of learning… Victory in Vaikom, if non-violent, will no doubt shake the citadel of sacerdotal superstition in general.” Because of this Satyagraha, Vaikom, though of some importance in north Travancore (in the present Kottayam district), but of which no one outside Travancore, at the most the Madras Presidency, knew anything, suddenly leapt to all-India fame.

Two, the Satyagraha was orderly and non-violent, from start to finish; and the steadiness with which the organisers conducted it drew the attention of the whole of the Indian public.

Three, it had overwhelming public support and numerous volunteers, and was the combined effort of all Hindu communities. The savarnas, especially Nayars, apparently on Gandhi’s advice, led a procession from Vaikom to Trivandrum to muster popular support for the agitation and place the demand before the Maharani.

Four, as Gandhi believed, the Satyagraha had a meaning perhaps deeper than was generally realised. He wrote:

The young men who have organised it are stern in discipline and gentle in their dealings with the orthodox section. Some of them are suffering too the persecution of social boycott. They are not only being denied social amenities but are threatened even with the deprivation of their share in the family property: the public know much of what they are doing in the shape of picketing but they know nothing of the silent suffering some of them are undergoing at the hands of their families and caste men. It is that silent and loving suffering which will finally break the wall of prejudice. By their suffering they have attracted the attention of the world. Whoever knew Vaikom before the struggle commenced.

Five, Gandhi’ s great, and highly edifying role in the Satyagraha. He was at his Messianic best. Through the Navjivan, Harijan, and the Young India, which he edited, interviews to the national and international press, public statements through the press, and regular correspondence with the Congress leaders and the organisers of the Satyagraha, Gandhi not only ensured wide publicity to the evil that was being fought and exposed and the means used for doing so, but also kept up the tempo of the Satyagraha and the high morale of the satyagrahis.

In June 1924, when there were attempts to disrupt the Satyagraha, Gandhi sounded an emphatic alert:

If the reports are to be relied upon, the Travancore State authorities have abandoned the innocent Satyagrahis to the goondas, said to have been employed by the orthodox opponents of the reform for which the Satyagrahis have been fighting… It is a serious thing if Satyagrahis are cruelly beaten by the goondas. Lime is thrown into their eyes and their khaddar shirts are torn from them and burnt… I hope the Travancore Durbar will immediately set the matter right.

At the same time, he issued a message to the Satyagrahis to remain calm, unperturbed and non-violent.

When, in a bid to break the deadlock, Gandhi visited Vaikom and other parts of Kerala in March 1925, he enthused the people as never before, and lent a feeling of euphoria to them by his presence, prayers, speeches, and meetings.

Accompanied by C. Rajagopalachari, Mahadev Desai, Ramdas Gandhi, and T. R. Krishnaswami Iyer, Gandhi met by invitation the local orthodox caste Hindu leaders, and discussed with them for over three hours his mission. He asked whether it was fair on their part to exclude a whole section of Hindus because of their supposed lower birth, from public roads which can be used by non-Hindus, criminals and bad characters, and even by dogs and cattle; asserted that the avarnas (suppressed classes as he preferred to call them) had as much right to use the roads as the caste-Hindus; and countered their position that the law of karma was responsible for untouchability, with his argument that man was the maker of his own destiny; if the Brahmins thought they were instruments in the hands of god to punish the untouchables who were violating their dharma, the untouchables would think they were instruments in the hands of god to impose injunctions on the Brahmins.

Gandhi made certain practical proposals for bringing the struggle to a speedy termination: arbitration, referendum or examination by select pundits of the Sankara smiritis – source of the injunctions on “distance pollution”. While asserting that reason is out of place in matters religious, the oppositionists beseeched Gandhi to prevent the avarnas from depriving them of their age-old privileges. They, however, refused to accept any of the proposals offered by Gandhi. Gandhi asserted that the position taken up by orthodoxy was wrong, unsound, immoral and sinful.

After his meeting with the Maharani in the Travancore palace, Gandhi announced that she thought that the roads at Vaikom and similar roads elsewhere should be open to all classes but, as the head of State, felt that she would be powerless, unless public opinion was behind her; and exhorted the masses to organise public opinion in a perfectly legitimate, peaceful and non-violent manner.

When the Maharani eventually announced in November 1925 that any road used by Christians and Muslims could be used by all Hindus irrespective of caste but that the temple precincts were to be used only by the savarnas; and when the prohibited roads on three sides of the Vaikom temple were thrown open, the one on the eastern side having been kept closed to avarnas and non-Hindus, the whole episode was seen as a major victory by all but the Hindu orthodoxy. Probably Gandhi, the Congress, the organisers of the Satyagraha and the Satyagrahis had not then realised that the Satyagraha was only the first step in the emancipation of the avarnas and prelude to a larger and long-drawn-out struggle for temple-entry. Many enlightened savarnas opened their private temples to the avarnas in the years that followed 1925.

Though the more conservative princely state of Cochin took a lot more time, in fact, more than a decade for issuing a similar proclamation, that is well beyond the peasant movements led by the Communist Party with revolutionary songs and reverberating slogans from Malabar, then under British rule as part of the Madras Presidency, engulfed it, Travancore had already set the example not only for Cochin but also for the rest of India.

No doubt, the Vaikom Satyagraha, the subsequent temple entry agitations, the Temple Entry Proclamations and the “Kerala phenomenon” in general have not made the State a land of milk and honey. While its democratic polity is characterised by corruption and related afflictions of the larger Indian polity, the unwelcome side-effects of the “Kerala phenomenon” include: (a) the highest unemployment rate in the country, especially among the educated, who probably are more wayward, with many frittering away their life without its benefits, presumably because of unemployment; (b) the highest suicide rate; and (c) the increasing neglect and helplessness of the aged, presumably because of large-scale migration by the youth.

Thus, Kerala still has a long way to go to be really a “model State”. However, as a response to the rapidly unfolding regional aspirations and their assertion, it may as well become a real model even in the absence of “state power” till now monopolised by the Centre.

The larger question is whether the rest of India has followed the Kerala example and learned anything from the travails of the avarnas and those championing their cause. The answer is an emphatic, NO, and going by Gandhi’s conviction that so long as there is untouchability India cannot be a complete swaraj, many parts, especially Tamil Nadu and Bihar, have a long way to go for swaraj.

[The author was Professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies.]

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