Vaikom Satyagraha: The Historical Struggle Against Untouchability

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Vaikom Satyagraha memorial constructed by Kerala Lalithakala Akademy on the bank of Vaikom lake | Photo: Mathrubhumi

Kerala is gearing up for the centenary celebrations of historical Vaikom Satyagraha. It was a historic movement against untouchability that took place in Vaikom, a small town in Kerala, during the 1920s. Mahatma Gandhi took part in the movement that was led by prominent Congress leaders like TK Madhavan, K Kelappan and KP Kesava Menon.

Untouchability was a social evil that was deeply ingrained in the caste system, which had been in place for centuries. People who belonged to the 'lower castes' were considered 'untouchables' and were subjected to various forms of discrimination and oppression. They were not allowed to enter temples, schools, and public places, and were denied basic human rights like the right to education, healthcare, and social dignity.

The movement, launched and taken forward with the agitations led by Mahatma Ayyankali and others, brought together people from different walks of life against the practice of untouchability. Along with Gandhiji, leaders like Maulana Muhammad Ali, Thanthai Periyar, Sree Narayana Guru, George Joseph, Hasan Koya, Mannath Padmanabhan, and Sankupillai also joined the movement.

The protest started on March 30, 1924 and ended on November 23, 1925.

Vaikom Satyagraha was a movement that aimed to challenge these discriminatory practices and create awareness about the rights of the oppressed sections of society. The movement was launched in 1924, when a group of people from the 'lower castes' petitioned the authorities for the right to walk on the roads surrounding the Sri Mahadeva Temple, which was restricted to the 'upper castes'. The authorities denied their request, stating that it would lead to social unrest and disturbance.

This denial was met with widespread protests and demonstrations, which eventually led to the involvement of Mahatma Gandhi, who arrived in Vaikom in 1925. Gandhi, who had been working towards the eradication of untouchability and caste-based discrimination, saw the Vaikom Satyagraha as an opportunity to spread his message of social equality and justice.

Under Gandhi's leadership, the movement attracted widespread support from people across the country. Thousands of people, both from the 'lower and upper castes', participated in the movement, and many were arrested and jailed for their participation.

The movement also attracted the attention of the international community, with several foreign journalists and activists visiting Vaikom to report on the movement and express their solidarity with the protesters.

In November 1925, the Vaikom Satyagraha was resolved through a compromise that permitted 'lower caste' Hindus to access the newly constructed roads on three sides of the Vaikom Temple. However, the other side of the temple and the temple itself continued to remain inaccessible to them. Additionally, the new roads were designed in a way that kept the lower castes at a 'safe distance' from the temple premises.

The protests eventually led to the historic Temple Entry Proclamation issued by the then king Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma on November 12, 1936. It abolished the ban on 'lower castes' from entering Hindu temples in the Princely State of Travancore.

The one-year-long centenary celebrations of the Vaikom Satyagraha will be jointly inaugurated by the Chief Minister of Kerala, Pinarayi Vijayan, and his Tamil Nadu counterpart, M.K. Stalin, during the State-level launch on April 1st in Vaikom.

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