On 8 September 2014, a historic moment was witnessed as for the first time, the celebrations of Dalit icon Mahatma Ayyankali’s birth anniversary was attended by the Prime Minister of India.Mahatma Ayyankali was one of those renowned social reformers who played a vital role in cleansing the Hindu society of social evils. This article will attempt to give a brief glimpse of his momentous life.
Ayyankali was born in 1863 in Venganoor under the rule the Travancore state. He was one of seven children belonging to the Pulaya family (Pulayas were considered untouchables/Dalits in those days). In those days, untouchables were not allowed to walk through public roads. Their women were not allowed to cover their breasts in public places. Their children were not allowed access to education. As mentioned in an earlier article on Sree Narayana Guru, this grim situation prompted Swami Vivekananda to call Kerala a ‘lunatic asylum.’ But the situation was going to change for the better due to the activities of savants like Ayyankali and Narayana Guru.
Although Ayyankali was uneducated, he was determined to rebel against the existing forms of discrimination in society. He started his rebellion by daring to ride his bullock cart into the market through the public roads of Venganoor. Enraged by his audacity, the upper-castes physically attacked him. But that did not dissuade Ayyankali from reaching his goal. His valor encouraged other Dalits to throw off the fetters of servility. Ayyankali went on to lead a group of pulaya youngsters to the village market. Inspired by him, other Dalits throughout southern Kerala launched a movement for civil rights. This movement tasted success in 1900 when the Dalits of Travancore won the right to walk along the public roads.
But that was just the beginning. Knowing how lack of education had kept them in darkness, Ayyankali opened a school to teach the children belonging to Dalit families at Venganoor. Unfortunately his school was set ablaze by a group of upper-caste people. Rather than losing hope, Ayyankali launched another mass movement to ensure the right to education for all Dalits. Like his previous movement, this one was also successful when in 1907 the Travancore government passed an order mandating that all Dalit children be admitted into public schools. But many government officials whose views were stained by caste bias tried their best to annul this order which led to a clash between them and Ayyankali. After a tussle of three years the order was released to the public in 1910.
Mahatma Ayyankali also pioneered a movement for democratizing public places and asserting the rights of workers even before the establishment of any workers (that is communist) organizations in Kerala. He soon became a voice for the untouchables in Kerala and associated himself with genuine social reformers who were aiming to restructure the decadent Hindu society. No wonder that Ayyankali was later nominated to the assembly of Travancore in 1910 by the then rulers as a mark of recognition of his leadership abilities. In the assembly, the members who scoffed at Ayyankali being an illiterate low-caste were shocked to find in him an eloquent speaker.
With the support he received from his well-wishers, Ayyankali established Sadhu Jana Paripalana Sangham to help the Dalits by providing them education, finance and legal support. During that period, after Sree Narayana Guru’s SNDP, the next most powerful welfare organization was Ayyankali’s SJPS with the slogan ‘Progress through education and organization.’ Within a short period it had close to a thousand branches in all parts of Kerala. Even the upper-castes now came forward to donate land for SJPS to setup offices.
While all these changes were taking place, several missionaries based in Kerala were asking the untouchables to accept Christianity in order to escape caste discrimination. When Ayyankali was informed of this issue, he asked the missionaries as to why the numerous Syrian Christians who were already residing in the state practiced caste-based prejudices, concluding correctly that conversion to Christianity will not do untouchables any good. He also rejected the missionary misinformation about the spurious Aryan-Dravidian racial constructs.
Along with Sree Narayana Guru, Ayyankali asked the Hindu society to reform itself in order to save it from dissolution. He gave his unflinching support to the efforts taken by the Arya Samaj and the Hindu Mahasabha to eradicate caste prejudices. Ayyankali’s mammoth efforts are best described by this statement of historian N K Venkateswaran who wrote in 1926:
“Pulayas are awakening at a rapid rate. They have a representative in the Praja Sabha. The angel of change has waved a torch over this land. The sparks from the torch will coalesce to become a fiery flood. The old moth eaten social mores would be cleansed by fire. They will sit alongside those who call themselves ‘high ones’. They have already taken the initiative in organizing meetings and putting forward their just demands. It is a pleasing sight to watch their future culture on the rise.”
Finally on June 18, 1941, this daring son of Kerala passed away leaving behind a legacy of social reform, progress and a lasting legacy. But as with the venerable Sree Narayana Guru, this savant is not known to the vast majority of Indians except his followers in Kerala. Now that the PM has made a historical gesture by honoring Mahatma Ayyankali, one can hope that the whole of India will get to know the life and teachings of this reformer and saint.