Remembering Vaikom satyagraha, a 100 years later

News Excerpt:

The Vaikom satyagraha was a remarkable movement, which sustained itself for over 600 days, amidst hostile social forces, police crackdowns, and one of the worst floods in the town's history in 1924.

The social context of Travancore at the dawn of the 20th century:

  • The princely state of Travancore had a feudal, militaristic, and ruthless system of custom-ridden government. While the caste system was not unique to Travancore, some of the most rigid, refined and ruthless social norms and customs were seen in Travancore.
  • The idea of caste pollution worked not only on the basis of touch but also sight
    • Lower castes were forbidden entry to any “pure” place, such as temples and the roads surrounding them.
  • In the second half of the 19th century, a number of social and political developments would usher in social change much faster than ever before.
    • First, Christian missionaries, supported by the East India Company, had expanded their reach and many lower castes converted to Christianity to escape the clutches of an oppressive system that continued to bind them.
    • Second, with pressure from the British Resident as well as the accession to the throne of well-educated and somewhat westernized Maharaja Ayilyam Thirunal, many progressive reforms took place.
    • Lastly, forces of capitalism and these reforms created new social hierarchies – which were not always congruent with traditional ones.

The rise of the Ezhavas community:

  • Political historian Mary Elizabeth King writes in Gandhian Nonviolent Struggle and Untouchability in South India: 
    • In the 1924-25 Vaikom Satyagraha and Mechanisms of Change (2015), 
    • During this time, the Ezhavas emerged as “the most educated and organized untouchable community in Travancore.
  • While a small Ezhavas elite had begun to emerge, ritual discrimination was still rife and in many circumstances, this overrode the material and educational progress made.
  • The continued pervasiveness of caste caused significant consternation among the Ezhavas community and other such backward communities, sowing the seeds for 

Agitations to come:

  • The issue of temple entry was first raised by Ezhava leader T K Madhavan in a 1917 editorial in his paper Deshabhimani. 
  • He was inspired by the success of Gandhi’s Non-Cooperation Movement, by 1920, he began to advocate for more direct methods. 
    • That year, he himself went beyond the restrictive notice boards on a road near the Vaikom temple.
  • Efforts to make progress faced challenges due to protests from higher-caste groups throughout Travancore. 
    • The Maharaja, afraid of upsetting the higher-caste community, avoided making changes.
  • It was the entry of the Indian National Congress into the picture that changed the dynamics. 
    • Madhavan met Gandhi in 1921, and secured the Mahatma’s support for a mass agitation to enter temples. 
  • In the 1923 session of the INC in Kakinada, a resolution was passed by the Kerala Provincial Congress Committee to take up anti-untouchability as a key issue
  • This was followed by a massive public messaging campaign and a movement to open Hindu temples and all public roads to avarnas
    • Vaikom, with its revered Shiva temple, was chosen as the location for the very first satyagraha.

The Satyagraha:

  • Early morning on March 30, 1924, “a Nair, an Ezhava and a Pulaya, dressed in Khaddar uniforms and garlanded, and followed by a crowd of thousands, attempted to use the roads”, Between April and September, protests reached their peak. 
    • Protestors sat in front of the barricades, undertaking rigorous fasts and singing patriotic songs.
  • The focus of the national media was on Vaikom at this time. Leaders such as 
    • Periyar, who was arrested multiple times,
    • C Rajagopalachari came to Vaikom to offer support and lead the protesters.
  •  In March 1925, Gandhi began his tour of Travancore and was able to iron out a compromise: 
    • Three out of the four roads surrounding the temples were opened up for everyone 
    • But  the fourth, eastern road was kept reserved for Brahmins.

Legacy and aftermath:

  • The Vaikom satyagraha endured for over 600 days despite facing challenges such as hostile social forces, police crackdowns, and a devastating flood in 1924.
  • Remarkably, the movement witnessed unprecedented unity across caste lines, which was crucial for its sustained mobilization.
  • However, the final compromise left many dissatisfied, including Periyar, who had envisioned a more significant outcome and subsequently parted ways with Gandhi over the issue.
  • In November 1936, the Maharaja of Travancore signed the historic Temple Entry Proclamation, ending the age-old ban on marginalized castes' entry into state temples.
  • The Vaikom satyagraha demonstrated the effectiveness of Gandhian methods of civil disobedience as powerful tools of protest.
  • As King wrote: “Despite its shortcomings … The Vykom satyagraha brought untouchability, unapproachability, and unseeability to the forefront of political issues in India.”