An exercise in futility?
Tuesday, November 4, 2008
Ayyankali: Legacy Of Organic Protest
By Muhammed Nafih
03 November, 2008
The history of religious reform movements that claimed to have played a defining role in revolutionising the socio- religious fabric of pre-independence Indian society is replete with descriptions of mainstream movements led by upper caste reformers. Those reformers sought to modify Brahminic Hinduism making it competent enough to co-exist with the changed social milieu installed by the colonial apparatus. These movements, besides enabling the upper caste segments to utilise better prospects of colonial modernity, did virtually nothing for the emancipation of the lower caste people who were victims of both an oppressive caste system from within and an exploitative administration from without. Till Mahatma Jotirao Phule took up some bold initiatives in Pune in later decades of the 19th century for empowering Shudra and Ati-shudra communities, Indian Dalits were unable to claim their share of the pie in the much-vaunted reform movements.
In Kerala too, the mainstream reformist movements of the earlier 19th and later 20th century were cast in this patterned mould. Being led by the middle class caste groups who occupied the ‘public sphere’ and driven by exclusivist interests, those movements did never seek to address the acutest social malaises such as poverty and inequality and problems of women and Dalits. Western education and colonial modernity have so profoundly influenced those movements and manipulated their goals that they ended up as mechanisms for caste consolidation. The book under review critically examines how those movements got narrowed down to caste groups and how this plight fuelled the emergence of Dalit agitations under the charismatic leadership of Ayyankali.
Emerging as the Dalit voice of rebellion in the later decades of the 19th century when Kerala was agog with dissenting voices against caste and social inequalities by the upwardly mobile middle class of the Ezhavas, Syrian Christains and Nairs, Ayyankali waged a spirited battle for bringing the Dalits, especially the pulayars, on a par with the status of the domineering middle class. The Dalits were never considered as part of the public and were least represented in the public opinion to the extent that they, despite bearing the brunt of a lumpen exploitative system, were never in the picture in the discourses of reformation and social integration.
The spirit of Ayyankali’s spontaneous revolt was his bold attempt to lay claim for, or to make a forceful entry into, the public space which he believed will enable the oppressed people to brave all forms of oppressions and brutalities. Ayyankalippada, the small band of revolutionary youths organised by him, spearheaded an all out war against all forms of exploitations. By bravely violating the caste diktats which brazenly denied Dalits entry into public roads and marketplaces, this movement sought to subvert the symbolic world of Jati maryada.
In a symbolic gesture, in 1898, Ayyankali led a historic pedestrian march through all forbidden roads to a market place. Though the march erupted into gory violence when the outraged upper caste Hindus tried to block its way, it helped bring about an enhanced consciousness of Dalit’s status and mobilize the various Dalit groups in Travancore.
Though influenced by an array of his contemporary reformists, including Sree Narayana Guru, Ayyankali displayed exemplary practical wisdom and employed genuine revolutionary methods. His Sadhu Jana Paripalana Sangham(SJPS) was a bold initiative to create a unique platform for the oppressed. Within a shorter span of its formation, the SJPS emerged as a bulwark in the struggle against all forms of exploitation meted out to the Dalit community. Apart from strongly advocating the cause of egalitarianism, the SJPS helped Dalits improve their socioeconomic conditions and instil self-confidence in them through a wide range of programmes.
Its representation in Srimoolam Praja Sabha, especially Ayyankali’s own nomination to it, was a landmark event in the history of Dalit empowerment in Kerala. This paved the way for a wide range of Dalit issues including housing, distribution of the agricultural land, educational facilities and the right to use public roads being debated in the Sabha. The criticism that Ayynkali’s induction to the higher echelons of power weakened his revolutionary fervour letting the state to patronise much of his agendas does not hold water, because mass mobilisation programmes to get admission for Dalit students in schools and to prevent Pulayar women from wearing the mandatory stone beads were held after he assumed the office.
By closely examining the social dynamics that fuelled the emergence of Dalit leaders of Ayyankali’s stature, the book also sheds light on the inherent fallacies of an exploitative system that always sought to rein in attempts for Dalit revival by hook or by crook.
Name of the book: Ayyankali:A Dalit Leader of Organic Protest
Author: Nisar.M.& Meena Kandasamy
Published By:Other Books,New Way Buiding,Railway Link Road,
Kozhikode, Kerala-673002, India.
Price: INR 150, € 16