KOTTAYAM: On March 30, 1924, three men, Kunjappy, Bahuleyan and Venniyil Govinda Panicker, in the presence of hundreds of people walked hand-in-hand towards a board where it was written ‘Theendal jaathikkarkk praveshanam nirodhichirikkunnu’ (Entry banned for untouchable caste members).
Though they were prevented and arrested by the police before reaching the destination, these three men had taken the first step towards the nation’s historic walk to a great objective - equality for all. And this was the official start of an epic people’s struggle - the Vaikom Satyagraha- to end caste discrimination that prevailed in the erstwhile princely state of Travancore.
The Vaikom Satyagraha was launched on March 30, 1924, against the ban imposed on members of marginalised communities on the four streets surrounding the Vaikom Mahadevar Temple. However, the satyagraha is considered as the first-ever organised struggle in Kerala demanding the right to use public roads for people of all castes and communities.
“The Vaikom Satyagraha drew inspiration from several public protests that had commenced in southern Travancore demanding the right to use public roads for lower caste people under the aegis of Ayyankali. A meeting of the Pulaya community members held in Vaikom first triggered the idea of a struggle demanding the right to use public roads surrounding the Vaikom temple,” said Sunny M Kapicadu, writer and Dalit activist.
The protest was started under the leadership of T K Madhavan, K P Kesava Menon and George Joseph with the blessings of the All India Congress Committee (AICC) and Mahatma Gandhi after T K Madhavan raised the injustice being faced by the lower caste people, in the Kakinada meet of the Congress party in 1923.
The 603-day-long struggle witnessed several ups and downs. While frontline leaders were arrested within two weeks of the strike, Periyar E V Ramasamy was brought in from Tamil Nadu, who gave a fresh lease of life to the agitation. When Mahatma Gandhi himself arrived in Vaikom, leaders like Chattampi Swamikal, Sree Narayana Guru and Mannath Padmanabhan extended unfaltering support to the movement, which boosted the persistence and resolve of the satyagrahis. Support flowed in from people across the country with even Akalis of Punjab setting up a camp at Vaikom for preparing food for the satyagrahis.
The strike was withdrawn officially on November 30, 1925, following active consultations between Gandhiji and W H Pitt, the then police commissioner of the Travancore State. The compromise formula stipulated the release of all prisoners and the opening of the roads on the northern, southern, and western sides of the temple. The eastern entry of the road, however, continued to be reserved for the upper castes.
Meanwhile, historians are concerned about the attempts of various organisations to hijack the Vaikom Satyagraha by terming it a religious reformation movement instead of a social reformation movement. “In the prevailing situation, communal organisations can easily hijack Vaikom Satyagraha to fulfil their objective. Unless we place it as a human rights movement in the renaissance history of Kerala, a fresh narrative will be placed by communal organisations to make gain out of it,” said Satheese Chandra Bose, a political scientist, who conducted studies on Vaikom Satyagraha.
“Interestingly, there was a purported attempt to erase the original history of Vaikom Satyagraha from public memory. You can’t get a clear picture of Vaikom Satyagraha, where it happened, and what its objective was, from people living in Vaikom. The objective behind the attempt is to distort it for communal purposes,” he said.
It is considered as the first-ever organised struggle in Kerala demanding the right to use public roads for people of all castes and communities. It was launched against the ban imposed on members of marginalised communities on the four streets surrounding the Vaikom Mahadevar Temple