Ayyankali – totemic pillar of social justice
The democratic-minded doughty fighter Ayyankali was a master strategist, who was instrumental in the making of modern Kerala. Those who enjoy the benefit of human rights and access to progressive space cannot but gratefully recollect his historic interventions in the causes of the right of passage and right to education on behalf of those traditionally designated as ‘untouchables,’ thus earning them the status of human beings. He was an exemplar, whose intercessions addressed the entire tribe of Malayalees.
Ayyankali battled on till the oppressed class got their inalienable rights. Towards this end, he embraced various forms of struggle. The undaunted ride in a bullock cart on a public road and subsequent Chaliyar riots; challenging sartorial caste codes by clothing ‘lesser’ bodies; ushering a girl, Panchami, into the universe of letters; and the exhortation to shun stone necklaces were all modes of protest, novel for its time. It is worth remembering his criticism of Hindu religion enshrined in the caveat: “We need not pay obeisance to a god, who turns a blind eye when we suffer a beating.”
This did not mean that Ayyankali was prepared to devote an entire lifetime solely to protests. He seized every opportunity to align with power and represent his people. Relentless in his advocacy of the rights of the oppressed, he steadfastly championed their cause before the Travancore administration.
Ayyankali was at the forefront of the movement to uphold the dignity of women and secure them their lawful rights. In that sense, Perinad mutiny is a golden lesson in the history of Dalit women of Kerala. He considered the right to own land as of paramount importance, displaying the extraordinary skills of a diplomat to achieve that end. Through tactics as diverse as employing data and reminding the Travancore dispensation of proselytisation, he haggled with them to win his demands.
Envisioning education as a community right, Ayyankali argued for it. The first strike in Kerala was not over labour rights, instead over the right to education of the children of the traditionally downtrodden. He formulated a political project premised on the concept of depressed folk, breaking free off the shackles of sub-casteism and arrayed the body of people tarnished by the stigma of untouchability to achieve progress by confronting simultaneously the powers that be and other communities. His actions were rooted in rationality, even as he exploited the possibilities afforded by colonial modernity.
His community, which Ayyankali dreamed would produce ten graduates, has now birthed tens of thousands of researchers and thousands of academics. The fields of arts, letters, thought, business, modelling, and other vocations are all graced by his capable descendants. Even as the flame that he lit still burns right, let us not forget that casteism has not been eradicated. And Malayalees are not above practising it overtly and covertly, even today!
Even today Ayyakali towers as the paterfamilias who is an abiding inspiration in the ongoing struggle to overcome casteism and gender injustice and to uphold equal justice, egalitarianism, and democratic values.
The writer is an Asst. Professor in the School of Gandhian Thought and Development Studies, M G University, Kottayam, and a social activist