Illustration of Mannathu Padmanabhan – Vaikom Satyagraha
Like individuals, a society also needs to mature and attain a level of self-confidence to look at the mirror and initiate a thorough re-examination of its own past and its icons. This could be merciless and painful. It may demolish many long-nourished myths and demystify much-adored heroes. Yet, the effort would help us learn from mistakes so that we don't repeat it. Of course, the exercise should be honest and comprehensive and not slip into mud-slinging and gossip-mongering.
Eastern societies are known to admire and glorify their pasts (often imaginary) and hate to see the skeletons in their cupboards. The West has a better record here. Since the 1950s, an array of revisionists have been reopening and reexamining the conduct and impact of the French Revolution, starting with Albert Cobban’s “The Myth of French Revolution.” (1954). Consequently, we have a more rounded and nuanced take on the cataclysmic event that rewrote the history of humanity.
We may not relish the view that the great Vaikom Satyagraha, which enters its centenary on March 30, achieved only partial success and the person primarily responsible was its supreme leader, Gandhiji. Instead, we gloat over the setbacks, push complexities and differences under the carpet and revel reverentially in hagiographies. The Bhakts scream "Gandhi Ninda" at every dissent. Isn’t suppressing truth the real ninda towards Mahatma, who placed truth above everything? In our competitive glorification of the Satyagraha, why do we ignore the array of Dalit readings that raise very pertinent questions on the struggle?
Our collective silence on Vaikom's underbelly and fault lines of Renaissance could also be why casteism, communal hatred, relative backwardness of the lower castes, and patriarchy etc continue to haunt Kerala notwithstanding high human development. While we celebrate the great Satyagraha that led to the backward castes’ access to roads around temples a century ago, Kerala’s most famous shrine remains shut to menstrual women in the name of tradition. Interestingly, even political parties and organisations which vehemently agitated against women’s entry to Sabarimala for the sake of tradition today compete to celebrate the Satyagraha that ended a tradition! Is hypocrisy our hallmark?
A mature society should be self-confident to learn from criticism to know what went wrong and why we should not repeat mistakes. This was the raison d'etre for the American political scientist Mary Elizabeth King's path-breaking work on Vaikom Satyagraha. King has been a leading member of the American Civil Rights movement, which owes its inspiration to Gandhi. She has no doubt that Gandhian non-violence is the only weapon for the ordinary masses to fight against the injustices and atrocities from the high and mighty. Yet, according to King, one should understand the limitations of the methods used during the struggle to prevent its failure. She believes Gandhi's almost superstitious faith in the capacity of the victims' silent suffering to convert the minds of the perpetrators led to Vaikom's less-than-complete success. Gandhi's insistence on addressing the untouchability issue strictly as an internal Hindu problem and keeping out non-Hindus prevented the 20-month-long movement from growing into a mass mobilization of oppressed castes for political and social liberation. Mahatma's haste to come to a settlement and not wanting to upset the royalty or the orthodoxy led to one of the four roads remaining barred to the backwards. Gandhi's conviction that upper castes should be at the forefront of the struggle to convert the hearts and minds of the orthodox among them also marginalized the backward caste members who were the victims and the progenitors (TK Madhavan) of the Satyagraha. Gandhi’s intention was to prevent the conservatives branding agitation anti-Hindu. But according to King, Gandhi wanted to “reclaim the untouchables not solely for Hinduism but for the larger project of rejuvenating Hindu cultural nationalism”. Gandhi encountered caste discrimination himself when he visited the local Brahmin chief, Indamthuthil Nambuthiri, at his house. Their talks failed due to the Brahmin’s intransigence. According to King, Gandhi’s offer to the Brahmin to examine the authenticity and authority of a scriptural mandate for unapproachability inadvertently legitimized the supremacy of Brahmins’ own ideological interpretation of their pre-eminence. “The presence of reform movements posited on streams of unwritten religious precepts other than Brahminical, led by Narayana Guru, distinct from upper caste reform efforts, warranted almost no attention from Gandhi.”
Sri Narayana Guru differed from Gandhi on the latter's insistence on unmitigated suffering by volunteers or even his non-violent ways. He famously remarked when volunteers stood neck-deep in the flood waters without even umbrellas in the name of endurance, “Why not use an umbrella under downpours? Demand that injustice be addressed! Break the barricades! Go ahead and pollute the upper castes, and if the police beat you, that’s a test of endurance, not standing in the rain”. Guru became increasingly less visible at Vaikom after his initial involvement. Differences between Guru and Gandhiji when they met at Varkala on issues related to caste are well known.
Ayyankali, the most important Dalit leader of the period who had led many powerful struggles even before Vaikom Satyagraha, did not participate in Vaikom. According to noted Dalit studies researcher Vinil Paul, Vaikom Satyagraha was launched by the nascent Ezhava elite who were also joined by the Nairs. Why were Dalits, the worst sufferers of untouchability, not interested? Why did various active Dalit groups of the time led by Ayyankali, Pampady John or Poykayil Appachan remain aloof? Paul wonders why Ayyankali's secular struggle for access on public roads or the 1855's abolition of slavery in Thiruvithamkoor are ignored while Vaikom's religious movement is glorified.
Tamil Nadu's legendary rationalist and anti-caste leader, EV Ramaswamy Naicker, the "Vaikom Veeran" who came with his wife Nagammal and invigorated the movement, dubbed the settlement as the "Vaikom betrayal" and resigned from Congress next day. Historian T.K. Ravindran wrote, “After twenty months of the relentless fight, Congress withdrew from the scene with its finery torn, and the prestige tarnished, leaving the cause of the depressed classes at the same spot whence they picked it up in March 1924”.
So, does it mean that the struggle’s centenary shouldn't be celebrated? Not at all. Even the revisionist narratives do not diminish the importance of the struggle or Gandhi. King points out that it was Vaikom satyagraha that placed the issue of untouchability for the first time at the centre of the national movement and grabbed wide attention. But for Gandhi's leadership, it would have been an obscure event. It led to the end of untouchability “as a source of acute misery” in Kerala more than a decade before free India constitutionally ended it.” It also brought to light that Tiruvithamkoor, despite being a model state with India's highest indices in literacy and health even at the beginning of the 20th century, was also home to the country's worst forms of untouchability enforced by its Savarna royal government.
All temple roads and temples were opened to all with the 1936 Temple Entry Proclamation. Indeed, the Vaikom satyagraha gave a major thrust to these events. But, it was also because of the phenomenal impact of the backward caste agitations led by Guru and Ayyankali that were sweeping across. The fear about the lower castes' possible conversion to other faiths also made the new Maharajah Chithira Tirunal and his Dewan, CP Ramaswami Iyer, proclaim temple entry.
Vaikom Satyagraha must be celebrated and remembered for things Kerala has long forgotten. It was the first major agitation not just in the country but Kerala also, in which upper castes joined hands with the lower castes for the human rights of the latter. This also provided the ballast for the national movement followed by the Left advances.
But what do we see in Kerala a century after? Worst forms of caste differences and mutual hatred thrive unabashedly. Most organisations that rose at Vaikom for the rights of others today remain obsessed only with their self-interest and even openly condemn any concession to others.
Even while celebrating the Satyagraha, present leaders of every participant organisation hail only their predecessors’ roles and ignore others. Its most abominable manifestation was the reported denial of permission to the Sivagiri sages to garland the statue of Mannath Padmanabhan at Vaikom on the centenary!
Certainly, time appears to have raced backward in a century’s time.