(First published in INSIGHT blog)
He was born on 28 August 1863 in Travancore, Kerala. He was one of the seven children of Ayyan of Pulaya caste (agricultural labour). Ayyankali grew up to be a tall, well built and handsome young man. He was known for his physical prowess and proficiency in the martial arts.
One particular child hood incident made Ayyankali aware of the caste prejudices prevalent in Travancore society. While playing football with children of his age the ball kicked by Ayyankali fell on the roof of a Nair house. The Nair warned him not to play with diku young men. Deeply hurt, he took oath never to play with them.
Then he went into a period of deep thought. He came out of a month of contemplation, a la Buddha, with a secret agenda – civil liberties for the untouchables.
During that time Dalits were not allowed to wear proper cloths and were banned to enter into the main street of a village or ride a cart in front of dikus. Fearless Ayyankali decided to resist these inhuman conditions of Dalits. To raise the confidence and will to fight among Dalits he decided to take ‘direct action’ alone. He bought two white bullocks and a cart and tied big brass bells around the animals’ neck. The dikus were horrified at the arrogance of this Pulaya. He wore a dhoti, wrapped angavasthram around his shoulders and tied a turban and drove the cart up and down the small market. This created a great sensation both among dikus and Dalits. No Dalits ever thought of doing such thing in their wildest dreams. Dikus were also very shocked at the daring of Ayyankali. Soon diku lumpens gathered to teach Ayyankali a lesson. On his way back home, he was stopped by them.
“What? Wearing a mulmul dhoti?”
Ayyankali pulled out a long dagger and told them in his booming commanding voice that any one that stops him will get the taste of the sharp weapon in his hands.
That day he exercised his civil liberty, banned so far for untouchables, and got away with it. The harness bells of his bullock cart rang loud each day in the street and market.
His success gave birth to pride and conscientised other Dalits and rankled the dikus.
Walk for Freedom & Chaliyar Riot
Though Kali could ride in a cart through the streets, other lesser beings were not allowed to walk there. So he mobilized his people and took a ‘walk for freedom’ to Puthen Market. When they reached the chaliyar street of Balaramapuram, the diku mob was waiting to prevent them from moving further. There was a riot in which both the parties drew blood in the first armed rebellion of Dalits. Hundreds of Dalits got injured but under Ayyankali they fought very bravely and for the first time they were able to terrorize the dikus through their resistance.
Inspired by the Chaliyar Riot, youngsters got out on the streets to win their basic rights in Manakkadu, Kazhakkoottam, Kaniyapuram etc in the vicinity of the capital. In the process of dikus trying to put down the freedom movement, the unrest spread and reached civil war proportions. This new situation emboldened the Dalits to ask for other freedoms and rights denied to them. Physical attacks by the dikus tried to prevent further erosion of their feudal monopolies. To this provocation Dalits organized small fighting units to counter them.
School Entry Struggle
During Ayyankali’s younger days, the Dalits were not allowed entry into schools. He wanted at least the next generation of Dalits to have education. In 1904 the Pulayas under his leadership made efforts to start their own schools since they were denied entry into government schools. These schools had no black boards. Sand on the floor was the book and fingers the pencil. Thus Dalits challenged the rule that they can not even study in secret. The first school in the history of Dalits was established in Venganoor. But it was destroyed.
Great Ayyankali formed an organization Sadhu Jana Paripalana Sangham (SJPS) that submitted many petitions to the government to allow Dalit children to study in schools. In 1907 the government passed an order to admit Dalit children to schools. But the officials at the periphery sabotaged the order. The school management consisting of landlords also refused to implement the order.
Still Ayyankali knocked at the doors of schools and tried to force the management to honour the government order and admit dalit children. But they were adamant in not letting Dalits in the schools. Then to pressurize them Ayyankali thundered, “If you don’t allow our children to study, weeds will grow in your fields”. He cut asunder the last strand of kinship between the landlords and labours and paved the path for a historic first ever agricultural labour strike.
Kerala’s First Workers’ Strike
Ayyankali gave a call to Pulayas and other agricultural worker for strike in 1907. His was a historic call, for he had heralded the first agrarian strike in the history of the world. He added one more demand: ‘make the employees permanent’ by giving pay during off season when there is no work. The other demands were:
1. Stop Victimization on whims 2. Stop Involving workers in false cases 3. End whipping of workers 4. Freedom of movement, and 5. Admission for children in schools.
The landlords didn’t agree. The polarization had gone too far to be reversed.
No processions. No jeeps. No microphones. No pamphlets or banners.
Yet, in the fields of Kandala, Kaniyapuram, Pallichal and Mudavooppara to Vizinjom, no worker was seen. Initially the landlords laughed at the workers. They calculated that when the food grains run out, the workers will be back.
Landlords formed groups and did try to intimidate the workers by beating them up at random. They failed. They tried to use some backsliders among workers in the fields but met with resistance from Ayyankali Sena. This led to violent encounters between the workers and landlords’ men. But Dalits remained steadfast in their actions. The fields turned into jungles. Starvation stared workers in the face.
The landlords planted rice seedlings. Since it was already out of season, plants didn’t sprout grains. Landlords unused to working in the hot sun suffered health problems. When some landlords tried to adjust, the workers demanded high wages.
With food grains running short, both landlords and workers suffered. Destruction faced both exploiter and exploited. The kitchen fires had stopped burning. Prolonged hunger made many a workers to waver.
Now Ayyankali played his trump card. He approached the fishermen community of Vizhinjom and came to an agreement with them. One person from each family was to be put in each fishing boat and given a share of the days catch till the strike was over.
Landlords saw impending defeat at the hands of their dependants. This sent them into helpless rage. They committed atrocities on many Dalits and set fire to their huts. The commandos of Ayyankali set fire to many houses of landlords in the interior and sent shivers down their spines, not knowing when and where the attack will come from.
Soon, the mood of landlords changed to one of compromise. Ayyankali wanted the landlords to come to him, which they did with peace proposals.
The Landlords agreed to a rise in wages. School entry and travel rights were accepted in principle. There followed a lot of bloodletting on both sides. But Ayyankali walked tall at the head of his group.
The landlords were humbled but bureaucracy was still not relenting. Three years after the order to allow Dalits entry into schools was signed, it was released to public in 1910. The waves of joys erupted from the dalit masses. But the path to school for Dalits was still not free from thorns. The prejudice against Dalits entry into schools can be gauged from following statement of ‘progressive’ person like Pillai. Ramakrishna Pillai, editor of Swadeshabhimani, came out against the order with, ‘…to put together those who have been cultivating their brain for generations with those who have been cultivating their fields is like putting a horse and buffalo in the same yoke.” This coming from one who first published the biography of Marx in Malayalam!
When Ayyankali reached the Ooroot Ambalam School in Balaramapuram with Panchami, the 5 year old daughter of Poojari Ayyan, for admission, accompanied by his supporters, diku thugs were waiting there. An intense fight followed with both parties getting injuries. Around the same time, there was a riot going on in the road junction between Pulayas and Nairs. Nairs attacked Pulaya huts, destroyed many and took away fowls, goats and bullocks. They molested women and belaboured the men folk. Many ran and hid in the fields to escape the wrath. Those who fought back were destroyed. After seven days of rioting, the smoke and dust settled down. Though riots ended, temporarily albeit, in Ooroot Ambalam created grave repercussions in Marayamuttam, Venganoor, Perumbazhuthoor, Kunathukaal etc. After this riot, known as Pulaya Mutiny the struggle of Dalits for a free society became acute.
‘Adha-sthitha’ Dalits’ Own School
In spite of the best efforts of the government, Dalits were not given admission to the extent desired. Ayyankali found a way out–to build our own schools. He hoped that one could study without dependence on the dikus. The permission to start such a school was received from the Dept. of Education. Thus the first school of Dalits was established in Venganoor. No one who loved his life came forward to become a teacher in this school. Among Dalits there was none educated enough to be one. The government paid Rs six per month. To encourage teachers to teach Dalits, the government offered Rs nine per month. After intense search one Parameshwaran Pillai of Kaithamukku in Thiruvanathapuram decided to join the school.
The new teacher entered the school reluctantly, as though he was entering a garbage dump. His socio-cultural reflexes took over when his progressive intellectualism came face to face with societal reality. He was afraid. He showed it. The situation was also quite tense. In no time hooting started from all around the school. The opponents were in no mood to stop the cacophony. There followed pushing and jostling between the opponents and supporters of the school that turned to a riot. Some came to assault the ‘master’. The ‘master’ was shivering like a leaf. Still the classes continued in spite of the fear stained atmosphere. That night the school was destroyed. In no time a new school structure came up. The opposition to the school increased, but the efforts to continue the school was not sacrificed. The master came to school and went to his home in Kaithamukku escorted by bodyguards. This went on for some time though the school was destroyed at least five times. Each time the school was destroyed, riots ensued. When the master perceived danger to his life, he wanted to submit his resignation. But Ayyankali pacified him and assured him security by giving body guards to him.
Covering the bodies of Dalit women
For hundreds of years dikus had enforced a dress code for Dalit males as well as females. They were banned from wearing normal clothes. The rule for all Dalits was to cover only those parts of the body between the waist and knee, the slightest liberties taken brought brutal retribution of being tied to a tree and given lashes. Dalit women were not allowed to cover the upper portion of their body. The other rule was to wear necklaces of carved granite. The stone necklaces were a sign of slavery and lay on the naked breasts of women like a serpent. The order of the day for women was ‘not to cover the upper body’. Necklaces of glass beads and marbles strung together filled their necks in large numbers. Similar stuff was wound around the wrists. From the ears hung a piece of iron – ‘kunukku’.
Ayyankali organized an agitation in Neyyattinkara against these ‘ornaments’ and asked the dalit women to give up the habit of wearing necklaces of carved granite. He told them to wear proper blouse instead. This incensed dikus very much and riots broke out at various places in Kerala. But Dalits including their women were in no mood of compromise and soon the inhuman dress code became a thing of past.
Pulaya Temple Entry Movement
In 1917 Chakola Kurumbaan Deivathaan became a member of the Sreemoolam Praja Sabha. He led a historic procession of more than 2000 Pulaya and forcibly entered the Chengannoor Temple. This was ten years before the famous Temple Entry Ordinance and could be considered the first Temple Entry Movement in the country.
A section of Pulaya converts into Christianity started a new movement under the leadership of Pambaadi John Joseph. When the number of dalit christians increased many fold, the diku Christians began to consider them as untouchables. They were thrown out of the churches, so, they built their own churches and chose their own padres. The unsavory experience from the Syrian Christians created sufficient mental agony in PJ Joseph to submit a memorandum listing the misdoings of Syrian Christian church to the British Parliament. Ultimately Mr. Joseph began struggles against Hindu-Christian upper caste domination within the church. Ayyankali gave full support to the struggle begun by PJ Joseph. He not only collaborated with him on many fronts, he also recommended his name to the government for being made a member of the legislative assembly.
Parallel to the Travancore State struggles, Kochi State also saw untouchables on the war path. After the formation of Pulaya Mahan Saba in 1913, they struggled and got social and economic benefits.
Meanwhile Ayyankali gave more importance to creative activities. In 1916 he established Theeyankara Pulaya School, in 1919 Shankhumukham School for Christian converts, Night school at Manarkadu, Primary School at Venganoor, Weaving centre and many other such establishments. Hundreds of offices of Sadhu Jana Paripaalana Sangham (SJPS) were turned into schools.
Functioning of SJPS
The SJPS branches mushroomed in all the villages and hamlets of Travancore. Ayyankali administered the matters of the Sangham with great managerial acumen. The office bearers of the organisation were given elaborate powers by the community. The brave leaders of SJPS were the ‘branch managers’. There was no place for cowards in this post. They worked closely with Ayyankali in all the day to day activities and freedom struggles. They were the real captains of his ‘army’. It was during the period of 1913 to 1930 that he carried out intense campaigns and work in all parts of Tiruvalla, Changanassery and Kottayam. In that period, after Sree Narayana Guru’s SNDP the next most powerful and numerous was Ayyankali’s SJPS. Strength and unity were the hallmark of the organisation. Within a short period it had close to a thousand branches in all parts of the state.
After laying solid foundations of his organization Ayyankali decided that SJPS should have its own magazine. The communities’ whole hearted support to the endeavour gave the organization strength to set out. The monthly ‘Sadhu Jana Paripalini’ began publication with Kali Chodikkuruppan as the editor. ‘Sadhu Jana Paripalini’ was perhaps the first magazine to be brought out by untouchables.
The aim behind all his efforts was education of his community. ‘Progress through education and organisation’ was the slogan of Ayyankali. He fully believed that the communities’ salvation lay in education. He surged forward after kicking aside every impediment that came in the way of his efforts towards this end. He opened schools to open the eyes of his communities’ darling progeny where the doors of public and private schools refused them entry.
Inspite of all this, Ayyankali was not for establishment of caste based educational institutions. He considered schools as a place where the whole humanity sat and feasted on the riches of human endeavour; then only could fruits of knowledge become meaningful. Yet, he had to go against the grain of his beliefs and establish separate schools for his people, when he was at the end of his tether, due to obstructionist attitude of dikus. Thus he established ‘The Venganoor Puduval School’ in 1936. The school had a weaving centre, library and other vocational units attached to it.
By 1941 he was a very sick man. He died of Asthma on June 18, 1941. Dalits in Kerala especially Pulayas will remain grateful to him for giving them civil liberties and breaking the chains of slavery for ever.
It is a great shame that nobody is aware of his great deeds outside Kerala. The state which sells itself as hundred percent literate and empowerment of women has nothing to say about its greatest son Ayyankali. The caste- prejudice against which Ayyankali fought through out his life made sure that his life and message does not reach to masses outside or even in Kerala. All of us, at INSIGHT, bow our heads before the great Ayyankali.