Mahatma Ayyankali: Trailblazer Of Dalit Emancipation


The caste system in India has long been considered as “the most resilient and adaptive system of inequality and oppression ever invented, the most inhuman too, even excluding sections of people from the very domain of the human, of the moral and the spiritual, of sociality, fraternity, etc.” Joseph Tharamangalam, Emeritus Professor of Sociology and Anthropology, Mount St. Vincent University Halifax, Canada quotes Columbia University scholar Akeel Bilgrami to argue that even “slave owners were at least willing to share their faith with their slaves offering hope for a better life in the next world.” But, Tharamangalam says, “this was not so with the caste system; rather the Dalits were deprived of access to all means of enlightenment and spiritual progress, and they were destined to be re-born as Dalits, if not even lower.” 

Joseph Tharamangalam was delivering the Second Renaissance Web-Lecture on the theme “Ayyankali: Innovative Analyst and Strategist” organised by Vakkom Moulavi Memorial and Research Centre (VMMRC) in Kerala. Tharamangalam said that “in spite of the legacy of a century-old struggles and social movements in Kerala, the caste system is so entrenched in the system that even the merit and abilities of the Dalits are less appreciated and acknowledged.”  

Prof Joseph Tharamangalam (Photo supplied)

Mahatma Ayyankali (1863-1941)

Ayyankali—a pioneer in the Dalit emancipation and struggles in Kerala—remained “a missing chapter in history” as some biographers had written, according to Tharamangalam. He was not adequately acknowledged by historians for quite a long time. However, “the most innovative and pioneering struggles launched and led by him, as well as his contributions, are well known and undisputed,” said Tharamangalam. 

He said that “Ayyankali’s brilliant understanding of the oppressive system under which the Dalits lived and the unique capabilities they possessed enabled and empowered him to design effective and innovative strategies to resist the oppression.” He said these “were innovative and unlike those of most social reformers, including Ambedkar and Sree Narayana Guru. Actually, he was far more than a social reformer, he was a true revolutionary,” Tharamangalam said. 

Tharamangalam pointed out that “Ayyankali was a unique, exceptional personality, proud and courageous with an unusually high degree of self-confidence and self-respect, a man who boldly and defiantly refused to accept his status as untouchable and boldly threw off the shackles of servitude and bondage.” 

Tharamangalam noted that Ayyankali was the first Dalit revolutionary organizer of the first successful agriculture labour strike in Kerala, the first leader to launch a successful strike to get admission for the Dalits in schools, and the first Dalit representative in the Sreemoolam legislative assembly demanding and obtaining for the downtrodden many concessions and social support measures from the government. 

Tharamangalam said that “the Dalits have unique capabilities not shared by the upper castes.” They possessed three significant assets—human capital, physical capital and the social capital. While human capital entails knowledge of agriculture and of the eco-system, besides skills, techniques and methods of production and the ability to covert the land into fertile fields, physical capital unfolded the strength to resist violence and the social capital ensured a sense of solidarity and community among themselves and a culture of mutual support, of caring and sharing, even with other lower castes.”

“Ayyankali had understood the basis of upper caste power and control of means of production as well as of violence. He had seen a window of opportunities here as the upper castes did not control the capabilities to utilize the land and that the Dalits could resist them by withdrawing their knowledge and skills.” Tharamangalam noted that “Ayyankali had seen freedom as not something to be gifted by someone, but something to be exercised and asserted in the act. He showed his freedom to use a public road by riding on the public road – and doing this in the most public and spectacular manner imaginable,” he said. Prof Tharamangalam also reminded that “Ayyankalidid not spend time raising consciousness in preparation for the struggles; consciousness was raised/developed in and through the act, in the struggle. He succeeded in mobilizing vigorous support from passionate and committed followers.” According to him, Ayyankali’s struggles “were unique in the long history of anti-caste movements—from Buddhist/Jain times, from the Bhakti movements to modern ones,” Tharamangalam added. 

He also argued that the struggles Ayyankali had launched were unique in different ways. The famous villuvandi yatra (bullock cart ride of 1893), for example, was known for “flaunting his strength, aristocratic dress and demeanour, also a knife when called for assertion of freedom to claim his right to public space.” Referring to the role of dress, Tharamangalam quotes scholar Sanal Mohan to say that “the mode of dressing is capable of emitting messages of dominance and subordination…” The Pedestrian march (1898) was an extension of the former, this time an organized yatra of multiple Dalits claiming rights of many public roads around, leading to the notorious Chaliyar riots, where several fighters even lost their lives. Similarly, the struggle for the Dalits’ school entry was notable as Ayyankali had taken young girl, Panchami, to a public school for admission; but this was opposed and rejected despite new government order allowing this. This had led to other riots lasting seven days. The agriculture labour strike was equally significant, the first ever in Kerala. “Each of these was won, teaching a new lesson to all, including the upper castes and the government,” said Tharamangalam. 

However, Ayyankali’s role in the Sreemoolam Assembly during 1911-1941 was not sufficiently researched. The period witnessed numerous petitions he submitted on behalf of Sadhujanam with many significant successes—schools and roads opened, some very limited distribution of fallow lands, etc. But Ayyankali did not organize or lead a struggle for “land to the tiller, the landless labourer,” which, according to Tharamangalam, amounted to losing “a golden opportunity for a sustainable agricultural system.” Tharamangalam said that “this is a very critical issue today in the context of the debate about sustainable agriculture and food production, and ‘food security’ and ‘food sovereignty’—when our food system is controlled by corporate agri-businesses such as Monsanto, and Cargill.” 

Tharamangalam recollected that on the occasion of the celebration of Ayyankali’s memory, EK Nayanar, former chief minister of the Left government of Kerala had pointed to something significant when he said: “If singing praises of Ayyankali and unveiling of his statue is to have any meaning, allotment of land for the tenants and pension for agricultural labour is a must.”  

Regrettably, Tharamangalam said, Sadhu Jana Paripalana Sangham (Association for the Protection of the Poor) which Ayyankali had launched fragmented over years, with different castes pleading for concessions for themselves. He also noted that even after a century of Ayyankali’s struggle to get schools opened to Dalits, the increasing gap in educational achievements between the Dalits and upper castes/classes continued with the latter moving to profit making private schools. There are also new forms of prejudices and discrimination in such institutions, and the upper castes are still unable to see merit in the achievements of Dalits, he added. 

Former Vice Chancellor and health activist Dr B. Ekbal chaired the session. Dr. S. Ayoob, Pro Vice Chancellor, APJ Abdul Kalam Technological University welcomed. Dr V. Mathew Kurian, Sameer Muneer, E. K. Dineshan, and others spoke. 

K.M. Seethi

K.M. Seethi, ICSSR Senior Fellow, is Academic Advisor to the International Centre for Polar Studies (ICPS) and Director, Inter University Centre for Social Science Research and Extension (IUCSSRE), Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala, India. He was earlier Professor of International Relations and Dean of Social Sciences, MGU.

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