Sri Moolam Praja Sabha
Among the princely states of British India, it was in Mysore that the first regional representative body was formed. In Travancore, the legislative council came into existence on 15th August 1888, during the rule of Sri Moolam Thirunal Rama Varma (1885-1924). The council consisted of six official members and two unofficial members. The Diwan was the chairman. The council was formed with the objective of gaining public validation for governance hitherto vested with the king and enforced through the Diwan. Although the council had no public representation as seen in the modern periods, the membership count was later increased to eleven. Six of them were Brahmins. In 1898, the number of members was again raised with eight being the minimum number of members and fifteen being the maximum. In 1921, the membership was raised to fifty members. Twenty eight of them were to be elected members. The members had rights, although restricted, to vote in the financial discussions of the budget, to present proposals, to raise sub questions and to move adjournment motions. The right to vote was limited to those who paid land revenue of not less than five rupees, those who were university graduates and those who paid employment tax in the municipality.
The Sri Moolam Praja Sabha was formed in 1903 while retaining the legislative council. Those who were above eighteen and paid tax of hundred rupees or had an annual income of six thousand rupees were members. Plantation owners and merchants were also members of the Sabha. There were sixty five members representing thirty one taluks. The majority of them were land owning Nairs. There were also others – eight Syrian Christians, eight Brahmins, seven foreign Brahmins and six members each from Kshatriyas, Ezhavas, Channars and Protestant Christians. The Praja Sabha was hence constituted with representatives from upper castes and affluent communities.
The Sabha started functioning in 1904 with an objective of addressing the problems of the people and to build a Brahmin – Non-Brahmin alliance. Beyond this, the Sabha didn’t have any legislative powers. It used to meet once or twice a year without any complex procedures. Its proceedings started with the speech of the presiding Diwan who would describe the objective of the meeting and elaborate on the programs of the previous year. The speech ended on a note of praise to the king, following which each member would express his allegiance and gratitude to the king. After that, members representing their respective communities would come forward to raise their demands. Needless to say these demands pertained to specific communities of which the member was representative. The needs of other communities were not addressed. What gave the Sri Moolam Praja Sabha its nominal democratic spirit was the right it had to select a few members of the Legislative Council. Another notable thing was that women had the right to vote.
The undue prominence that the upper caste communities enjoyed in the Sri Moolam Praja Sabha made it impossible for the Dalits to present their problems in front of the Sabha. Hence the government decided to include their representative as well. As a result, P.K. Govindan Pillai, the editor of Subhashini, was nominated as the representative of Pulayas in 1911.
The Untouchables of Praja Sabha
Govindan Pillai, despite being a representative of the Pulaya community, couldn’t transcend the barriers of his own caste interests. Underlining this reality, he said in Praja Sabha on 13th February 1911, “The population of Pulayas in the state is more than five lakhs. One third of that is in North Travancore. One of the major problems they face is the scarcity of land. Land needs to be granted to them for cultivation and to build huts. Without the help of Pulayas the wealthy landowners won’t be able to farm.” He continued, “The waste land near the agricultural land where the Pulayas farm for their owners should be given to them.” This position makes it clear that Pillai didn’t want the Pulayas to be property owners like other communities but wanted to retain them as wage laborers dependent on caste Hindus.
Ayyankali at Praja Sabha – Sketch by EV Anil
Even in the issue of school admission, Govindan Pillai took a stand of distancing Pulayas from the public space. Thus, without arguing for admission in Government schools, he said, “Even on the behest of permission from the government, the Pulayas are not allowed admission in the schools. Hence special schools should be established for them”. This was the way in which he represented the Pulaya community. Pillai requested Divan P. Gopalachari to nominate one among the Pulayas to raise their issues. It was on this basis that Ayyankali was nominated to Sri Moolam Praja Sabha on 5th December 1911. From then to 1932, several from untouchable castes were nominated, both converted and non-converted, like G. Yesudasan, T. Chothi, Abraham Issac, Karumban Daivathan, N.J. Joseph, Poykayil Yohannan, Kandan Kumaran, Charathan Solomon etc. Even as these men represented different castes, the differences didn’t surface while they presented their demands, which manifested a single-minded unity. Based on this, the untouchable communities are addressed with a common name – Dalit, in following sections.
Karumban Daivathan, Poykayil Yohannan and Kandan Kumaran
The various non-Dalit communities had made use of the changes happening in the economic and social areas of Travancore to achieve better life and cultural conditions. Since these mobilizations didn’t pass into the other communities due to lack of unified movements each community was forced to organize and agitate on their own. This was applicable to the Dalits as well which led to the organized movement led by Ayyankali. The speeches of such leaders, who came up as part of the spiritual explorations of Dalits, in the Praja Sabha articulated the backwardness of the communities and how rights were denied to them. The demands raised to overcome these harrowing situations, projected as their objective not a community of workers and agricultural laborers, but a reformed community with property ownership. The common nature of demands raised in the Praja Sabha created a unified leadership.
The major demand of the Dalit members of Praja Sabha, which included Pulayas, Parayas, Kuravas and Ulladas, was to resolve the issue of landlessness. The land given for this purpose shouldn’t be for dwelling alone; it must be productive and appropriate for permanent residency. The floor price or the minimum price shouldn’t be extorted while distributing wasteland or acquired land. Members including Ayyankali brought their attention to the availability of such land that can be distributed in various parts of Travancore including Vilappilshala. The members protested against expulsion of Dalits from the land where they used to cultivate and their ghettoization through the construction of colonies. Necessary steps had to be taken to prevent them from losing the lands that they lived in. In short, the demand was to transform Dalits into a community with property ownership.
The members argued for education required for the building of a reformed community. With the intention to make Dalits part of common society in terms of education, it was suggested that starting separate schools across the country was unnecessary and inappropriate. Construction of separate schools for Dalits would deny their chances for entrance in public schools. Hence every school in the state should give admission to Dalit students. The argument that educating Dalits would seriously impact the availability of laborers in the agricultural realm was unfounded. The country had prospered agriculturally and industrially after the abolition of slavery, it was pointed out.
Students should be exempted from fee and given scholarships for the purpose of educational progress. Students who have passed fourth standard should be given financial assistance for buying books for further education and free food. The government should bear the expense of college education and the students should be able to study in colleges and technical schools without giving fees. Along with public education, training should be given in certain jobs and handcrafts. Students from Dalit communities should be sent abroad and taught. A certain amount should be earmarked in the budget for the education of Dalit students.
The Dalit members had given utmost importance to the education of girls. Along with establishing special schools for them, they should also be given admission in all schools. A hostel should be established in Thiruvananthapuram and food and stay should be provided free of cost. Domestic subjects should be taught to students staying there. It is notable that these members who stood for educational reforms didn’t argue for the teaching of Sanskrit and traditional medicine, which were demands raised by representatives of certain other communities including Ezhavas.
Employment, Citizen’s Rights
What Ayyankali stated clearly in his speech in Praja Sabha on 18th March 1932 was the absence of graduates in the Dalit community. Taking into consideration this backwardness in the field of education, the members demanded jobs in government departments based on their educational qualifications rather than wage labor in the agricultural-handcraft sector. On the basis of this, wage laborers working in the public works department should be appointed as artisans in piece works in government presses. They should be appointed as warders in hospitals with Pulaya wards and as watchers in the forest department. In departments which didn’t require technical knowledge, in Taluk Kacheris, in excise and police departments, the job of peons was demanded for the Dalits. In the departments of education, engineering, and medicine, they should be appointed as officers. There should be age relaxation for such appointments. In short, the demand was for jobs which would provide better living conditions and social respect to Dalits.
Ayyankali’s Speech at Praja Sabha – Sketch by EV Anil
The demand for a civil code that would legalize property rights, right to inheritance, marriage, etc., was a historical one as far as citizen’s rights were concerned. Worship centers should be constructed so as to prevent conversion to Christian and Islam religions. Such a demand was put forward because temple entry was denied. (The diwan said in reply- ‘Building a public worship center is not the responsibility of the government. It is upon the worshipper to do that as per their choice of worship’). Other demands were an eight cent land for constructing an inn in Thiruvananthapuram, an acre of land in Kollam and a one acre land for a cemetery.
The Demands of Ezhavas
By the early 20th century Ezhavas had reached a better position in the society through the interventions of Sri Narayanaguru and the activities of SNDP. Hence, unlike the Dalits, land was not part of their demands. The Ezhava representatives of the Prajasabha like Govindan Kesavan, P.K. Kochunni Vaidyan, N. Kumaranasan, K. Krishnan Panikkar, C. Krishnan, etc., raised regional problems and demands that would aid brahmanisation. Ezhava children should be given admission in every government school in Cherthala Taluk. The explanation that Christian schools gave for not giving admission to Ezhava girls like Christian girls was that the road approaching the school was not open to lower castes including Ezhavas. When the Diwan pointed out the issue of the proximity of the temple Ezhavas asked to be given admission in the schools of government and the Nair community.
Ezhavas should be given admission to schools that taught Sanskrit and traditional medicine. Moreover, such institutions should also be given government grants. Alongside starting mixed schools in various parts of Thodupuzha Taluk, Sanskrit schools ought to be opened in Thodupuzha or Muvattupuzha. Technical education should be encouraged throughout the state. There should be a college to encourage Sanskrit education. The members also voiced their protest to the government for considering Ezhavas as one among the lower castes.
Although the Nairs couldn’t retain their hegemony as before because of the emergence of various communities in the economic and social realms of Travancore, their predominant position in matters of governance transformed them into the ruling class. In such a context Nair community members like K Velayudhan Pillai, N. Padmanabhan Pillai, P.K. Govindan Pillai, P.K. Krishnan Pillai, and V.K. Krishnan Pillai argued for more representation in governance. The main demand of the members was that there should be changes in the constitution and functioning of Sri Moolam Praja Sabha. Moreover, taluks should be divided for the purpose of governance. The amount spent on education should be increased by one and a half percentage and assistance given to higher education and to study abroad. Medical Ayurveda colleges should be established in the state. Qualified women candidates should be appointed in girl schools. Schools with government aid should only appoint those with educational qualification. It was clear that the content of such suggestions was to expand the opportunities of Nairs who were landowners and had access to higher education.
Lakshminarayana Iyer, the representative of the Brahmin community, demanded a school in Thovala Taluk, and foolproof records of land and its boundaries. The representatives of Kaniyans like N. Padmanabhan Vaidyan, Neelakandan Asan, etc., requested for fee concession because the community members could not afford educational expense due to dire poverty. Those who had jobs had to be promoted, those who were jobless had to be given jobs. The Muslim representatives demanded universal education to be implemented in the community. The government should bear the expense of fees for higher education. Muslim students should be granted scholarships to study science subjects and go abroad. The munshis who teach Arabic should be given grants.
T.N Motha, P. John Mathew, Khadir Makkar, etc who were the representatives of merchants in the Praja Sabha put forward demands that were concerned with finance. The flourishing trade sector in Thiruvananthapuram called for the services of a bank. A branch of Madras bank with all facilities should be started if the government came to power. Since non-state money transactions would extort huge interests, a state-owned bank should be established. For the purpose, the huge deposits of money that are accumulated in temples and other such worship sites could be used.
This article was originally published in Onnippu Volume 4, Issue 9 (November 2018). Onnippu is an Ambedkarite print magazine published from Thrissur, Kerala(Editor – Anilkumar PK, Contact – firstname.lastname@example.org). Translation to English done by Shyma Pacha.
Images other than the sketches taken from the internet.
Part 1 of this series can be found here.
KK Kochu is a senior Ambedkarite thinker and author from Kerala.
EV Anil is an artist who is known for his illustrations of anti-caste pioneers from Kerala.
Shyma Pacha is a researcher and translator from Kerala. She did her PhD from the University of Hyderabad, and currently teaches at Payyanur college.