SLAVERY, to the lay Indian reader, is an alien, loathsome concept associated with horrors and atrocities in distant lands —a vile, despicable practice that characterised imperial rule in the previous century.
It usually conjures up images of Africans in chains in the Americas and brings to memory their struggles and the abolition of slavery by Abraham Lincoln. P. Sanal Mohan challenges such notions in his remarkable work on the “slave castes” of Kerala and their rebellion against the caste system that legitimised and institutionalised slavery. Without mincing words, he employs a language that is shocking in its candour yet essential to understanding the opprobrium of the system that existed and the revolts against it. By eschewing established usages such as “oppressed people” and “marginalised sections”, he distresses our comfortable views by plainly stating that what was in existence for a very long time in the region that constitutes present-day Kerala was nothing but slavery, and that its victims were “slave castes”.
But Sanal Mohan has not just written a history of Dalit suffering and their continuous battle to free themselves of the shackles of the status quo; it is also a history of the histories of his own people written by missionaries and upper-caste elite and the failings therein, because the outsider is never able to fully articulate the lived and shared experiences of the oppressed.
Black struggle for equality has a long and chequered history in the United States, right from the time slavery was abolished in the mid-19th century after protracted opposition, followed by a civil war and segregation and then the civil rights movement of the 1960s, to the most recent Black Lives Matter movement in response to police brutality that has victimised hundreds of black people.
The Dalit crusade for equality in India has a similar history, but unlike the anti-racism movement in the U.S., it has always been relegated to the sidelines, swept aside by the overarching themes of nation-building and progress.
And in the case of Kerala, where the modern movement had its origins, it has been subsumed by a pan-Kerala paradigm that consistently ignores the elephant in the room. So, the Dalit cause is not only one seeking a rightful place in society but also an effort to prevent authentic Dalit voices from being drowned out by the noise of the mainstream.
In the chapter titled “Memory and Experience: Discourses of Slavery”, the last footnote reads: “The PRDS [Prathyaksha Raksha Deiva Sabha] officially celebrates the anniversary of the [British queen’s] proclamation [that abolished slavery in 1855] every year on October 16 with public rallies. No other organisation, government, or community even refers to it.”
Perhaps unwittingly, the author has described, in one fell swoop, the negligible importance accorded to the history of Dalit struggles in Kerala and the extent to which social and organisational boycott has airbrushed from public imagination the stories of the “slave castes” and how they have been waging a battle to reclaim their dignity. It is telling that Kerala, acclaimed as “god’s own country” in a million advertisements, unites to celebrate festivals rooted in mythology and customs and traditions that valorise its past, conveniently brushing under the rug the iniquities against Dalits and indigenous people.
This book is an important addition to the canon of modern Dalit literature as it sheds light on a largely unknown chapter in the story of subaltern resistance to the hegemonic structure of the caste system, and on southern Dalit icons like Poyikayil Yohannan and Pampady John Joseph, whose triumphs have not received their fair share of recognition. It is time they were honoured and their names remembered along with other southern luminaries such as Ayyankali, Iyothee Dass, Rettaimalai Srinivasan and M.C. Raja.
Its significance also stems from its examination and expose of caste slavery as an instrument of oppression, forcing readers and scholars, and hopefully society at large, to rethink their notions of the caste system for what it was and, in many ways, continues to be.
The arrival of missionaries
The crux of the book lies in its exposition of the effect that the arrival of Protestant missionaries had on the lives of the Dalits in Kerala, the mirage of equality that the Church provided, Dalit revolt against the Church’s refusal to question inequality and enslavement, the unequal distribution of land and the birth of new movements within the denomination which saw many Dalits, now doubly wronged, walk away from the Church but not the faith.
Missionaries belonging to the London Missionary Society and the Church Missionary Society (CMS) engaged closely with “slave castes” of the 19th century in Kerala such as the Cherumas, Pulayas, Kuravas, Parayas and Thanda Pulayas and left behind a wealth of material which the author has thoroughly explored to reconstruct a montage of forgotten faces, voices and stories.
Dalit liberation theology
Divided into six chapters, the book analyses the lives of the “agrestic slaves” and the social and political changes brought about by the missionaries’ arrival in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
One chapter talks in a most fascinating way about the rise of the messianic movement of the PRDS, founded by Poyikayil Yohannan, an intriguing figure who declared himself divine and whose socio-religious movement grew immensely popular, aided by song and oration. The author offers tremendous insight into how Dalit movements handled the issues of spiritual and material fulfilment.
Yohannan, a pioneer of Dalit liberation theology, was an ardent follower of the Mar Thoma Church but also a fierce critic of the Church’s discrimination against Dalits, which culminated in his exit from the church.
He joined the CMS, only to leave it and join the Brethren Mission, but the situation was no different, with the albatross of caste following him wherever he went and weighing him down.
Yohannan decided it was time to break free of the formal church structure, even though he did not renounce the Christian faith.
As an independent preacher, he quickly gained several followers and the PRDS was born. Yohannan was also politically and socially active, championing the cause of Dalit education, political representation and land reforms.
Although the author remains focussed on the travails of the “slave castes” and devotes a lot of space to issues such as the conflict between them and the Syrian Christians (a majority of whom were the land-owning elite), the breaking up of Dalit families, the role of the governments of the day, and the overall transformation of Dalits, he also points to two glaring omissions in historical discourse in Kerala.
He joins issue with Marxist historians for their not factoring in the presence of the Dalits in farm labour or accounting for their appalling social status in their analysis of the agrarian class structure.
Secondly, he decries the traditional focus on backward castes and their agitations against social abominations, as manifested in the breast cloth agitations by Nadar women and temple entry movements by Ezhavas.
Sanal Mohan’s criticism is rooted in the actuality of these “social revolutions” sidestepping the issue of slavery. The need of the hour is more scholarship and studies on how Dalits engaged with modernity and this book is a worthy effort in that direction.
In his dedication, the author acknowledges his parents, who “would have been happy to see this work had they been alive as they would have recognised in it a bit of their own history”.
In a way, that statement rings true for the entire Dalit fraternity, across generations, for theirs is a universal story of oppression and their struggle against it, a story largely untold.