Venganoor, Trivandrum, Travancore, British India
Madras Presidency, British India
Ayyankali (Malayalam: അയ്യങ്കാളി; 1863–1941) was a leader of the native Indian people treated as basic caste Dalits known as the Untouchables. He pioneered many reforms to improve the lives of the Dalits. In 1937 he was praised by Mahatma Gandhi when he visited Venganoor, Ayyankali's home town. In November 1980, Indira Gandhi unveiled sculptor Ezra David's commorative statue of Ayyankali at Kowdiar square, in Trivandrum.
Ayyankali was born in 1863 in Venganoor, Trivandrum, Travancore. He was one of seven children born to a Pulaya (Cheramar) family. He was illiterate like other Dalits at that time. Dalits were not allowed to walk along public roads. The Dalit women were not allowed to cover their breasts in public places. Ayyankali organized Dalits and fought against these discriminations. Ayyavu Swami a saint and scholar who was teaching the meaninglessness of caste whom Ayyankali loved and respected as his teacher was a major inspiration for him to fight against all social discriminations.
He was in the forefront of movements against "Manusmrithi" colour system and casteism. He passed through the public roads of Venganoor on a bullock cart banned for the Dalits. Ayyankali led the movement and defeated them. Ayyankali demanded right for Dalit children to study in school. He started a school to teach Dalit children at Venganoor. He called for boycotting agricultural work raising certain demands. His demands included (a) stoppage of the practice of not giving tea in tea shops to Dalits who were given tea till then in coconut shells; (b) right to education for Dalit children; (c) resting time for workers during work hours; and (d) replacement of the system of wages in-kind by payment of cash.He was the first labor leader from India.
The significance of Ayyankali lies in the fact that he could spearhead a struggle for human rights of the untouchables raising demands which find expressions in international human rights documents well before their adoption. He pioneered a movement for democratizing public places and asserting the rights of workers even before the formation of any workers organisation in Kerala. The most amazing part of it is that he did all this in spite of his illiteracy. No wonder that Ayyankali was later nominated to the assembly of Travancore, namely, Sri Moolam Legislative Assembly in 1910 by the then rulers in recognition of his leadership ability. In his efforts Ayyankali also received the support of his great contemporary Sree Narayana Guru and other social reformers. By 1900, Dalits were given the freedom to walk on public roads, and, by 1914, Dalit children were allowed to join schools. Dalit women were allowed to cover their nakedness in public through his efforts.
He was such a dynamic person that he could gather support for his cause even from the members of the upper caste community as well as some prominent landlords who were members of Praja Sabha.
Elders of the Pulaya community in Kuttanadu still cherish the memory of ”the Panthi Bhojanam” organized by a prominent landlord and the then-member of Praja Sabha from Kuttanad, Pallithanam Luca Matthai (Pallithanathu Matthaichen). During those times, Lukka Mathai was fondly referred to by the local flock as the Kayal Raja of Kuttanadu. Though he belonged to an aristocratic and orthodox Syrian Christian family, Luka Mathai actively supported Ayyankali in his efforts in eradicating the social inequalities that were prevalent in Kerala society.
He received Ayyankali and his followers with a grant procession of snake boats and hundreds of other boats to his Nalukettu Tharavad and had lunch with them. Many other prominent people from the upper castes also participated in that function proclaiming their protest against casteism.
Ayyankali founded the Sadhujana Paripalana Sangham (Association for the Welfare of the Poor) in 1907, which succeeded in obtaining a six-day week for agricultural laborers. Ayyankali died on June 18, 1941.
Contribution and influence in society
The thoughts of Ayyankali has influenced different sects of society. The Chief Minister of Kerala had remarked his contribution and has compared with Narayana Guru. He is specially remembered on his birth anniversary by different sections of the society.
Ayyankali disappeared from public memory for quite some time. It took about 40 years to evaluate his service to society. Speaking on March 1980 at the Kumaran Asan Memorial Lecture, E. M. S. Namboodiripad spoke about the historical agricultural labour strike of 1907 led by Ayyankali thus:
"...in 1907-8 Ayyankali organised the agricultural workers' strike. He brought together the unorganised and splintered people and made them conscious of organisational power." (Asan & Malayala Literature, pp 54.)
With the efforts of KK Balakrishnan, P.K. Chathan Master, KP Madhavan etc., a trust named 'Sri Ayyankali Trust' was born. A lifesize bronze statue of Ayyankali, sculpted with love and affection by Ezra David (who also made Krishna Menon Statue in Delhi), travelled all the way from Madras through the length of Kerala in a victory procession. Newspapers vied with one another to highlight the event. The open hearted Keralites lined the road sides and paid homage to the 'victor over fate':
"...where the chariot of history etched indelible marks of monarchy and upper caste oppression.." and was unveiled in the traffic island at Vellayambalam junction by the Prime Minister of India on 10 November 1980. (Kerala Kaumudi, 11 Nov '80)
Vellayambalam Junction is in an elite Nair upper middle class area. It is at the meeting point of roads from the Kowdiar Palace and Padmanabha Swamy Temple. The Maharaja has to pass Ayyankali Statue on the way to and back from the temple for his regular prayers.
Kerala Kaumudi Paper, run by Sree Narayanaguru devotee K Kartikeyan wrote about the unveiling "a statue of the unforgettable revolutionary of Kerala."
When the prime minister Mrs Indira Gandhi spoke that...
"He is the outcome of his people's enthusiasm for equality. This great son of India was the one who sacrificed his life for the well being of his society. His qualities were to too great to be contained in Kerala only. His ideas and ideals are still valid. That is the reason why I offered to unveil this statue. I am against setting up of statues in principle. So I have declined invitations to unveil statues."
"Untouchability is a deep blemish in the soul of India. It is only untouchability that has kept India backward so far. And it was in Kerala that untouchability was most acute. At the same time it was Kerala that gained fame by its Temple entry proclamation. Equality and Freedom are indivisible. Without equality there can not be genuine freedom. Our leaders fought against the evil of untouchability. It was through leaders like Mahatma Gandhi that the toughest battle against untouchability were fought. The struggle for freedom must start from within the society. That was what Ayyankali did. It was due to incessant struggles of Gandhi, Ambedkar and Ayyankali that the landless poor (harijans) were liberated." (Kerala Kaumudi, 11 Nov '80)
EK Nayanar, the chief minister of Kerala spoke thus on the occasion called Ayyankali, "the first leader of people-led liberation and revolution."
"If singing praises of Ayyankali and unveiling of his statue is to have any meaning, allotment of land for the tenants and pension for agricultural labour is a must. Ayyankali was not only a leader of his own community but also an unshakeable guide and commander of the working classes. Ayyankali and Sree Narayan Guru, by their anti caste domination struggles were important factors that led Kerala people to their progressive outlook today.
"Only Kerala has been delivered of mass murder of the poor and burning of their villages in the country. That is because of the social reconstruction through revolutionary changes. Rajaram Mohan Roy, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, Dayananda Saraswati, Vivekanand etc were Ayyankali's contemporaries. Unlettered Ayyankali was a totally different kind of player in the same league. Perhaps he was the greatest leader of that particular period.
"This 'mahapurush' organised his people for gaining social justice and human rights into a body named 'Sadhu Jana Paripalana Sangham' in 1907. Sensibly led by Ayyankali, the organisation gained whatever social changes it could for all to see.
"It was his organisational genius that left its indelible stamp on the agrarian movements of Kerala which subsequently fell into the hands of Communist Parties." (Kerala Kaumudi, 11 Nov '80)
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