On April 4, 1924, freedom fighter Kurur Neelakandan Namboodiripad sent a telegram to E.V. Ramaswamy “Periyar”, asking him to come immediately to Vaikom, a serene temple town in south Kerala. Was this necessary? Periyar asked. Just two days later, another message with the same request reached Periyar. This time the letter was from George Joseph, one of the leaders of the Satyagraha movement. Soon, another message from Namboodiripad reached Periyar in which the social reformer explained “the worsening scenario in Vaikom” as George Joseph, among others, was arrested. Periyar reached Vaikom on April 13. The rest, as they say, is history.
The Vaikom Satyagraha (March 30, 1924-November 23, 1925) occupies a crucial position in the social history of Kerala in particular and south India in general, as one of the leading social reform movements that had questioned the authority of caste system in the region, setting out to seek equal rights for oppressed Hindus and becoming a testing ground for the Gandhian way of struggle.
ALSO READ: Self-respect and socialism
It propelled a movement that powered the Temple Entry Proclamation of November 1936, which allowed avarnas entry to Hindu temples in Travancore, and gave impetus to all temple entry movements in India that were to follow.
Key moment in history
Even though for Tamil Nadu comparable struggles predate Vaikom, the Satyagraha did become an important moment in its history. For one, it provided the first opportunity for a non-Brahmin leader of the Tamil Nadu Congress to strike out on his own, according to historian A.R. Venkatachalapathy. “Vaikom was an important test case,” he said.
According to Venkatachalapathy , the non-Brahmin movement, with the release of the Non-Brahmin Manifesto (1916) and the formation of the Justice Party the following year, was posing a big challenge to the Congress from the late 1910s. “And the Congress was trying to contain the challenge by accommodating non-Brahmin leaders,” he said. The party was also under pressure to respond to social questions rather than be concerned only with political issues. This was when Vaikom happened.
Periyar was the only person from the Vaikom Satyagraha movement to have been jailed twice. Despite the intervention of leaders like K.P. Kesava Menon and C. Rajagopalachari, he was not given the status of political prisoner and was subjected to harsh treatment in jail. He was also the only person to be awarded four months of rigorous imprisonment.
Researcher and author Pazha. Athiyaman, whose book Vaikom Satyagraha (2020), extensively documented the historic event, records that Periyar spent a total of 141 days in the Vaikom struggle, including the 74 days he spent in jail.
Rather than discussing how the movement “changed” after Periyar’s arrival, according to Athiyaman, it is important to acknowledge “how the Satyagraha was able to go on without a halt under Periyar’s leadership”.
Detailing out the daily works of Periyar in the struggle, he said: “From taking charge of the Satyagraha ashram to preparing three satyagrahis every day for the struggle, from handling the pressure mounted by the police to carrying out campaigns, he handled a lot of activities.” He also urged women volunteers to take part in the movement.
While some voices allege that Periyar’s role in the historic Satyagraha was sidelined in Kerala, Athiyaman dismisses such claims, referring to writer-journalist Suguna Diwakar’s book Periyar: Aram, Arasiyal, Avathoorugal, in which he provides proof of acknowledgement of Periyar’s works from the following records: Bandhanathil Ninnu (K.P. Kesava Menon), Kshetra Pravesanam (T.K. Madhavan), and Proceedings of Travancore Legislative Council 1924-25, Office Note Regarding the Vykom Satyagraha, 1924.
Ku. Ve. Ki. Asan, in his book Vaikom Porattam: Oru Vilakkam, noted: “Trade unionist and Tamil scholar Thiru. Vi. Kalyanasundaram gave the title ‘Vaikom Veerar’ [Vaikom Warrior] to Periyar E.V. Ramasamy.”
Evidently, Periyar was the only leader who was called from outside present-day Kerala to head the victory celebration of the Vaikom Satyagraha. Local leaders such as Kelappan, T.K. Madhavan, and Mannathu Padmanabhan were also part of the function.
Referring to history researcher Pu. Rasadurai’s work Periyar Aayiram, Asan writes that Padmanabhan addressed Nagammai, Periyar’s wife, as “mother” for all and acknowledged her work for sharing the burden of the people at the struggle. Kerala has honoured all the leaders, including Periyar, who stood till the end of the protest by erecting statues for them in Vaikom.
ALSO READ: Ambedkar and Periyar on the same page
While talking at the victory celebrations of the Vaikom Satyagraha on November 29, 1925, Periyar said: “The Satyagraha’s motive is not to gain access to the streets which are open for animals like dogs and pigs. But that there shouldn’t be any difference between fellow human beings in public life. It is our responsibility to ensure the same freedom inside the temple that we have now won for the street.”
Athiyaman said that Periyar saw it as a “human problem”, unlike Mahatma Gandhi who saw it mainly as a “Hindu problem”.
Venkatachalapathy said, “Vaikom was a cry for social justice and human dignity, and therefore in the current context where many local temples continue to be out of bounds for lower castes, Vaikom still has significance.”
Athiyaman told Frontline: “Vaikom Satyagraha was followed by a slew of similar temple movements in Suseendram (1926), Mayiladuthurai (formerly Mayavaram) (1927), Erode (1929), Guruvayur (1931-32), and the Madurai temple entry movement (1939). Most of them were led by Congress leaders.”