Life and legacy of great social reformer Ayyankali

Ayyankali was a remarkable social reformer, politician, and leader who fought for the rights and dignity of the oppressed in the princely state of Travancore. He challenged the caste system and its discriminatory practices, and advocated for education, land ownership, and labour rights for the Dalits. He also became the first Dalit member of the Sree Moolam Popular Assembly, the legislative council of Travancore.

Ayyankali, born on 28 August 1863, belonged to the Pulayar community, one of the lowest castes in the caste hierarchy, who faced severe discrimination and oppression from the upper castes. The Pulayars were treated as slaves, denied access to public roads, education, temples, and basic human rights. Ayyankali witnessed the atrocities committed against his people and decided to challenge the unjust social order.

Ayyankali’s struggle for equality

The Chaliyar riots were a series of violent clashes that erupted in the princely state of Travancore in 1893. The riots were triggered by the defiant act of Ayyankali who rode an ox-cart along a public road forbidden for the lower castes. The upper caste Nairs, who considered themselves the lords of the land, were outraged by Ayyankali’s challenge to their authority and privilege. They attacked him and his cart, but Ayyankali fought back and defended himself. This sparked a chain of events that led to widespread violence and bloodshed between the Nairs and the Dalits, especially the Pulayars.

The riots lasted for a year and resulted in the death of many Nairs and Pulayars. The Travancore government tried to suppress the riots by deploying police and military forces, but they were ineffective. The British government also intervened and mediated between the conflicting parties. The riots finally ended in 1894, after a compromise was reached between the Nairs and the Dalits.

The Chaliyar riots were a turning point in the history of Kerala, as they marked the beginning of the Dalit movement for social justice and equality. Ayyankali’s courage and resistance inspired many Dalits to join his cause and demand their rights. 

Women’s empowerment

Ayyankali was a champion of women’s rights and fought against the oppressive practices that discriminated against Dalit women. One of the most notable achievements of Ayyankali’s movement was the Dalit women’s right to cover their upper bodies. Until the early 20th century, Dalit women were forced to leave their breasts bare as a sign of low status and servility. They were also subjected to sexual harassment and violence by the upper caste men. Ayyankali challenged this inhuman custom and led a mass agitation similar to Maru Marakkal Samaram.

The revolt began in 1895 when Ayyankali’s wife Chellamma and his sister-in-law Kuttiyamma wore upper clothes and walked along a public road. They were attacked by a group of Nairs, who tore off their clothes and beat them up. Ayyankali rushed to their rescue and fought back the assailants. This incident sparked protests and clashes across Travancore, involving thousands of Dalit women who defied the ban on covering their breasts. The revolt lasted more than two decades, until the Maharaja of Travancore issued a proclamation in 1916 that allowed all women to wear upper clothes regardless of their caste.

Another essential aspect of Ayyankali’s movement was the right to education for Dalit women. Ayyankali realised that education was crucial for empowering and liberating Dalit women from ignorance and oppression. He established schools for Dalit girls and encouraged them to pursue learning. He also supported the education of his daughter Kalyani, who became one of the first Dalit women graduates in Kerala.

Ayyankali also organised mass meetings and cultural events for Dalit women, where they could express their grievances, aspirations, and talents. He encouraged them to participate in the political and social activities of his organisation, the Sadhu Jana Paripalana Sangham.

Political struggles

Ayyankali was not only a social activist but also a political leader. He founded the Sadhu Jana Paripalana Sangham (Association for the Protection of the Poor) in 1905, later renamed the Pulaya Mahasabha (Pulaya Federation). The Sangham aimed to uplift the socio-economic condition of the Dalits by providing them with education, employment, land, and legal aid. The Sangham also ran its schools and published its journal.

Ayyankali became the first Dalit member of the Sree Moolam Popular Assembly (SMPA), the legislative council of Travancore, in 1910. He represented his community’s interests and voiced their grievances in the council. He also advocated for universal suffrage and land reforms. He resigned from the SMPA in 1921, after being disillusioned by its ineffectiveness and corruption.

Education of Untouchables

Before Ayyankali’s movement, education in Kerala was highly unequal and discriminatory. The education system was dominated by the Brahmins and other upper castes, who had access to traditional schools of learning called kalaris and ezhuthu pallis. These schools taught subjects such as languages, literature, mathematics, astronomy, astrology, and Ayurveda. The lower castes, especially the Dalits, were denied the right to education and literacy. They were not allowed to use public roads, enter temples, or even cover their upper bodies.

The colonial missionaries and the British government introduced the modern school education system in Kerala in the 19th century. They established schools for the lower castes and the Christians, but they faced resistance and hostility from the upper castes and the Hindu orthodoxy.

The Travancore government tried to improve access to education for the lower castes by opening public schools and providing state funding. However, implementing these policies was slow and ineffective due to the opposition and corruption of the local officials and the upper castes.

Ayyankali established the first school for the Dalits in his village in 1904 despite facing opposition and violence from the upper castes. He also provided financial and moral support to other Dalit schools in the region. He organised a strike of agricultural labourers in 1907, demanding equal access to education. He also appealed to the Maharaja of Travancore, who issued a royal decree in 1907, allowing the Dalits to enrol in government schools. 

He advocated for universal suffrage and land reforms, which were essential for the social and economic upliftment of the Dalits. Sree Moolam Thirunal, the Maharaja of Travancore, helped him in his educational reforms. Kumaran Asan, a renowned poet and social reformer who belonged to the Ezhava caste, considered lower than the Nairs but higher than the Dalits, a disciple of Sree Narayana Guru, also helped him in his social and educational activism.

The temple entry proclamation

The Temple Entry Proclamation was a historic declaration issued by Maharaja Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma on November 12, 1936. The proclamation abolished the ban on the so-called ‘low caste people’ or avarnas from entering Hindu temples in the Princely State of Travancore, now part of Kerala.

Ayyankali had been campaigning for temple entry since 1895 when he led a group of Dalits to worship at the Balaramapuram temple. He faced stiff opposition from the orthodox purohits, who considered him a polluter of their sacred space. Ayyankali persisted in his efforts and gained support from other reformers like Sree Narayana Guru.

After four decades of agitation, Ayyankali witnessed the historic proclamation by Maharaja Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma that opened the doors of temples to all Hindus. The proclamation was a milestone in the history of Travancore and Kerala as it marked the end of centuries of caste-based discrimination and oppression. It also paved the way for a more inclusive and egalitarian society where all people could enjoy their religious freedom and dignity.

Ayyankali’s legacy

Ayyankali died on June 18, 1941 at the age of 77. He left behind a legacy of social justice and human dignity for millions of Dalits in Kerala and beyond. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest sons of India and a pioneer of Dalit emancipation. He has been honoured with various awards and recognitions by the government and civil society.

The Government of India issued a postage stamp featuring his portrait in 1980. The Kerala Government declared his birthday as a public holiday in 2002. The University Grants Commission (UGC) instituted a fellowship scheme named after him for marginalised students pursuing higher education in 2012. The Kerala Government erected a statue of him at Venganoor in 2014. Ayyankali’s life and message inspire and motivate the Dalit community and the oppressed sections of society to fight for their rights and dignity. He symbolises hope and resilience for all those who dream of a casteless and egalitarian society.

Sandeep Yadav is an associate professor at the University of Delhi.

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