THIRUVANANTHAPURAM:Mary Elizabeth King first encountered racism on the sidewalks of North Carolina. As a sevenyear- old, she noted black men stepping down to let her pass and was stricken by the injustice involved. “It was my grandfather who awakened my sensitivity to racial exclusions. Discrimination was a norm and atrocities against blacks hardly made any news. When I was 22, I went to work with the Civil Rights Movement, where I was one of the few whites involved. We believed we were improving things for everyone, not just for blacks,” says the renowned peace activist and political scientist who was in the city for the release of her latest book ‘Gandhian Nonviolent Struggle and Untouchability in South India: The 1924-25 Vykom Satyagraha and the Mechanisms of Change’.
She says discrimination has a perceptible pattern and what she found in Kerala was just another form of it. “I have been involved in social justice concerns all my life and during the early years, a lot of Americans travelled to India to find out what was happening in the subcontinent. They visited sites of the various satyagrahas and interacted with volunteers. We heard all the time about India and Gandhi,” she says.
It was Dr Gene Sharp, a leading campaigner of nonviolent resistance, who approached Mary to investigate what exactly happened in Kerala. “He felt that we had been fed with incorrect information on Vaikom Satyagraha. It was then that I started my research scouring through archives and newspaper morgues. I found Dr Sharp was right. Exaggerated, glorified accounts about the struggle had travelled to the West. Reputed Gandhi scholars were publishing reports about an extraordinary struggle in Vaikom, where Brahmins had embraced the untouchables. There is no substantiation for this, and in fact Dalits were back to where they started at the end of the 604-day-long struggle. A kind of contrived solution was worked out between Gandhi and the police commissioner. If we want to be charitable, we can call it conflict management. But we could also say it was a gimmick,” says Mary, who later travelled to Kerala to dig deeper. “The more I read the more perplexed I got about these grandiose reports,” she says.
During her research, Mary came across startling accounts of discrimination as there were strict rules that segregated lower castes from mainstream. “During Vaikom Satyagraha, the whole subcontinent became aware of extreme practices of untouchability in Travancore that didn’t exist anywhere else in India. It was not just untouchability, but unapprochability and unsayability as well. There were meticulously prescribed distances depending upon the caste. If it was 60 metres for Ezhavas, it was 90 for Pulayas, and it was followed with extreme precision,” she adds. Mary considers patriarchy the largest form of oppression known to human race in terms of the number of the people affected. “In many parts of the world, there are severe systems where women are kept under tremendous pressure.”
A professor of Peace and Conflict Studies, she believes the concept of non-violence is still relevant. “We have millions of people living under various forms of oppression. But the use of violence will create a deep-seated urge for vengeance, generation after generation trying to get back at those responsible for the affliction. In a non-violent resistance, you have a better chance of bringing about reconciliation and negotiation.” She adds that political scientists have strong data showing that non-violent movements are twice effective compared to guerrilla warfare or armed rebellions. “In the past we suspected that this was the case, but now we have the data to substantiate it,” she says.