KOZHIKODE: The statue of a bearded man with a composed look stands tall on a patch of greenery, next to the roundabout at Valiyakavala Junction in Kottayam’s Vaikom. An unsung hero, he has been a forgotten face in Kerala’s Renaissance history.
He’s known for reinvigorating a historic people’s movement from a sinking space — the Vaikom Satyagraha, one of the first-ever organised and successful non-violent movements in the country that put an end to untouchability. It’s none other than Erode Venkatappa Ramasamy, fondly called Periyar or Thanthai Periyar in Tamil Nadu.
Even as Kerala gears up to celebrate the centenary of the Vaikom Satyagraha, the memory of Ramasamy glows in the minds of Keralites as a shining sun. Father of Dravidian Movement in Tamil Nadu, EVR had come to Vaikom from his hometown Erode and fired up the sagging movement.
The Vaikom Satyagraha was launched on March 30, 1924 against the ban on people belonging to Ezhava and lower caste communities from using the four streets surrounding the Vaikom Mahadevar Temple. Led by T K Madhavan, K P Kesava Menon and George Joseph, the protest began with the blessings of the All India Congress Committee (AICC) and Mahatma Gandhi. The Congress extended its support to the movement after Madhavan portrayed the injustice being meted out to the lower caste communities, in the Kakinada Congress meet in 1923.
As part of the movement, three members of the satyagraha broke the ban and entered the streets. Two weeks after, the movement apparently lost steam after the arrest of all senior leaders. After contacting Mahatma Gandhi and C Rajagopalachari, George Joseph wrote a letter from jail to EVR seeking his support to continue the movement. As president of Tamil Pradesh Congress Committee, EVR was busy with organisational work. He was spearheading different agitations such as boycotting foreign-made clothes and promoting khadi in Erode. However, when the letter reached him, EVR handed over the charge of TPCC president to Rajagopalachari and moved to Vaikom.
Periyar reached Vaikom on April 13 and took the mantle of the struggle. He was at the forefront of struggle in each and every aspect till its successful conclusion on November 25, 1925. As per records, Sree Moolam Thirunal Rama Varma, then king of the erstwhile princely state of Travancore, had offered to hold a grand reception for EVR when he reached Vaikom. EVR, however, turned down the offer and proceeded to join the satyagraha. Periyar, who always relentlessly fought against untouchability and Brahmin hegemony, reached out to villagers in Vaikom and gave a lease of life to the satyagraha.
EVR travelled across the princely state to mobilise people. As his words fired up crowds, the authorities banned him from entering Kottayam. EVR refused and was arrested on May 21. After a month of simple imprisonment, he returned to Vaikom and continued to mobilise people. He was arrested again and sentenced to rigorous imprisonment for four months. As he was the only satyagraha prisoner sentenced to rigorous imprisonment, protests widened across south India. He was released during the change of guard in Travancore.
EVR, who went to Erode on September 10, was arrested on sedition charges and could not rejoin Vaikom Satyagraha. Later, he came to Varkala on March 12, 1925 and held meetings with Mahatma Gandhi and Sree Narayana Guru. He was also part of an eight-member delegation constituted to meet the Diwan of Travancore and participated in several consultations. EVR’s wife Nagammal and sister Kannammal also took part in the satyagraha.
Taking into account his contributions, EVR was also called ‘Vaikom Veerar’ (the hero of Vaikom). “The importance of EVR in Vaikom Satyagraha is that he reshaped it into a protest of citizens’ rights when Gandhi viewed the struggle as an internal issue of Hindu religion,” said Sunny M Kapicadu, writer and Dalit activist.
“He said he doesn’t want to see Vaikkathappan (the deity in the temple), but wants to use the streets where pigs and dogs walk freely. These words apparently changed the course of the struggle and people came in large numbers to join it,” Sunny said. “It is sad we have not made any memorial for EVR in Vaikom. The present statue and a museum of EVR are maintained by the Tamil Nadu government. Kerala should pay respect to EVR at least during the time of the centenary celebrations,” he said.It is learnt that Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M K Stalin plans to visit Vaikom during the culmination of year-long centenary celebrations.