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Vaikom Satyagraha (1924–25) was a satyagraha (social protest) in erstwhile Travancore (now part of Kerala, India) against untouchability and caste discrimination in Hindu society of Kerala. Kingdom of Travancore was known for its rigid and oppressive caste system and hence Swami Vivekananda called Travancore a "lunatic asylum" The movement was centered around the Sri Mahadeva Temple temple at Vaikom, in the present day Kottayam district. The Satyagraha was aimed at securing freedom to all sections of society to pass along the public roads leading to the Sri Mahadeva Temple. After the intervention of Mahatma Gandhi, the agitation was given up and a compromise reached. Regent Sethu Lakshmi Bayi released all those arrested and opened the north, south and west public roads leading to Vaikom Mahadeva Temple to all castes. She refused to open the eastern road. Only in 1936, after the Temple Entry Proclamation, was access to the eastern road and entry into the temple allowed to the lower castes.
Why Vaikom was selected for the agitation
In 1865, the Government of Travancore had published a notification that all public roads in the state were open to all castes of people alike. In July 1884, the Government by a fresh notification reaffirmed the policy laid down in the previous order and enjoined that any violation of these orders would be visited with the severest displeasure of the Government. This notification came up for a judicial review before the High Court. The High Court then considered it expedient to draw a distinction between Raja Veedhis (King's Highways) and grama veedhis (village roads). The court decided that the public roads mentioned in the notification of the Government were intended to mean only the Raja veedhis and not grama veedhis. The roads around Vaikom Temple were considered ‘ grama veedhis and consequently even after 65 years of Government proclamation, they were barred to the Avarnas and a unit of police (consisting of Savarnas) was stationed in the vicinity to enforce the custom.
Other probable reasons
There was another crucial incident, which triggered the action. Sree Narayana Guru himself was prohibited from passing through the roads around the temple. Sri Bhargavan Vaidyar mentions this in the golden Jubilee Souvenir of Neyyattinkara S N D P Union. The editorial of the Malayala Manorama on 29 March 1924 (the day before the starting of the Satyagraha) mentions, If a venerable sage like Sree Narayana Guru and his disciple Mahakavi Kumaran Asan were driven away from the road around the temple by a drunken upper-caste buffoon in the name of caste, can their people take it lying down? If they rise up in revolt can any authority stop them by force?
The famous Malayalam poet Muloor S.Padmanabha Panicker wrote
Long ago on the streets of Vaikom in a rickshaw,
The great sage Sree Narayana was going,
An idiot born as god on earth,
Came up and ordered the rickshaw to withdraw.
If this is the truth, T. K. Madhavan, the favorite disciple of Sree Narayana Guru, must have taken an inner pledge to annihilate the tradition, which insulted his Guru, and the result was the Satyagraha at Vaikom .
Protests by Ezhavas
The Ezhavas first took up the issue in 1905. The Ezhava representatives in the Travancore Legislature (Kochu Kunjan Channar, Kunju Panicker and Kumaran Asan) raised the question of use of the public roads around the temples by avarnas. The authorities remained adamant and refused to take up the matter even for discussion because it was considered a religious question. In 1920–21, representative Asan also raised the question and it was decided to shift the notice boards a little so that some parts of the roads would be accessible to the avarnas.
T. K. Madhavan, the organizing secretary of the SNDP, became a member of the Travancore Legislature, and felt that Asan and the others has accepted a humiliating compromise. Madhavan wanted to demand outright temple entry, but he was denied permission to even introduce the resolution in the Legislature. Madhavan met the then Divan Raghaviah at his residence and requested him to reconsider his decision. The Divan refused; Madhavan then requested permission to make a representation to the Maharaja himself which was denied. Frustrated and enraged, Madhavan raised his voice of protest before the Divan, proclaiming We are denied the right to present our problems to the legislatures, and we are denied permission to represent to the Maharaja. How are we to resolve our problems? Are we to leave Travancore? The Divan retorted, You may leave Travancore to solve your problems.
While Madhavan's main objective was to achieve unconditional temple entry, he understood that the right to use the public roads around the temples was the first step. He already had the idea of launching an agitation at Vaikom against the forbidding of roads around the temple, as an activity of the SNDP Yogam. He discussed the matter in detail with Sardar K.M. Panikkar. Panikkar told that the Ezhavas, under the leadership of Sree Narayana Guru, "had united and uplifted themselves, and have become a formidable force in the socio-economic-political atmosphere of Kerala." Although the SNDP has become a mouthpiece for all downtrodden people and the standard bearer of social revolution, the issue at Vaikom needs handling at a higher and wider level. Instead of being just a fight for gaining access to road, Panikkar suggested making it a symbolic battle against atrocities in the name of caste, giving it a national and cosmopolitan look to gain the attention of the entire world. To do that, it was necessary to include it as an activity of the Indian National Congress, to approve it.
Involvement of the Indian National Congress
T. K. Madhavan met Mahatma Gandhi at Tirunelveli on 23 September 1921 and apprised him of the conditions of the Ezhavas and their achievements through the SNDP. Because they had already achieved admission to school, Mahatmaji agreed that the time was ripe for temple entry. Mahatmaji promised to write to the State Congress Committee to take up the issue.
Madhavan attended the Kakinada AICC meet (1923) in the company of Sardar Panikkar and K. P. Kesava Menon. Madhavan got a pamphlet printed: A request to the Indian National Congress on behalf of the untouchables of India. Madhavan tried with all his might to convince the members of the need to eradicate untouchability. The Congress agreed to include the eradication of untouchability in their constructive programs and resolved to lend full support to the Vaikom Movement, and authorized the Kerala Provincial Congress Committee (KPCC) to undertake the task.
In accordance with the Kakinada Congress resolution, the KPCC met at Ernakulam on 24 January 1924 and formed an Untouchability Abolition Committee (UAC) consisting of K. Kelappan (convener), T. K. Madhavan, Kurur Nilakantan Namboothiri, T.R. Krishna Swami Iyer, and K. Velayudha Menon. A Publicity Committee of five members including T. K. Madhavan was also formed.
The KPCC, the UAC and the Publicity Committee reached Vaikom on 28 February 1924. There was a huge public meeting. Madhavan made a public request to the UAC to get the prohibitory notice boards removed from the roads around the temple. The Committee resolved to take procession of Avarnas through the roads on the very next day of the Pulaya Mahasabha meeting.
The news of the decision reached far and wide. It evoked mixed reactions. The caste Hindus who tolerated the speeches at the meeting could not digest the idea of a procession as proposed by the KPCC and the UAC. They along with the local Magistrate, the Police Inspector, and the Tahsildar, met the congress leaders at their camp, and suggested a postponement. They promised that they would try to prevent communal tensions, and make the procession a success, if they were given time. The congress also realized the situation. They could also make use of the time to plan and prepare properly for launching the agitation. The date was fixed as 30 March 1924, and the idea was to take out a procession. Meanwhile, the local Magistrate fearing communal tensions issued prohibitory orders against the procession. Hence the UAC changed its tactics. It was decided to send only three volunteers every day instead of a procession. Volunteers were selected from all castes.
A Satyagraha Ashram was set up about one furlong south of the temple. The Ashram was packed with volunteers who came from different parts of the country. The venue of Satyagraha was decided to be on the western road where a prohibitory board announced:
"Ezhavas and other low castes are prohibited through this road"
Hundred of policemen armed with lethal weapons, ready to meet any eventuality, were on the vigil round the clock at the spot where the Satyagraha was to begin.
On the morning of 30 March, a bugle call for action was sounded. The first batch of volunteers selected to offer Satyagraha were Kunjappy (Pulayan), Bahuleyan (Ezhava) and Venniyil Govinda Panicker(Nair). Before leaving the ashram, they were strictly instructed not to offer any resistance and remain calm against all provocations. The Satyagrahis, wearing khadi and Gandhi caps and garlands, marched forward with the Congress flag fluttering before them. All the volunteers followed them shouting "Satyagraha ki jai, Mahatma Gandhi ki jai." All of them stopped at a distance of fifty feet from the notice board, and only the selected three walked to the point where the prohibition board hung. The police stopped them and asked their caste. The police pronounced that the low-caste men would not be allowed to pass; only the Savarnas could. The upper-caste men insisted that their companions should go with them. The police prevented them. The Satyagrahis waited there patiently until they were arrested just before noon. When they were produced before the court, invariably they were convicted and sentenced to jail and fined. They refused to pay the fine and courted extra imprisonment. In the evening there was a procession and public meeting, protesting against the arrest. The meetings were given wide publicity and people thronged in from all directions. They returned, rejuvenated by the inspiring speeches of the leaders to come back again next morning to start the routine.
The Satyagraha was temporarily stopped for two days on 5 and 6 April to try for a compromise between caste Hindu leaders and the Congress. All talks failed and Satyagraha was resumed. T. K. Madhavan and K. P. Kesava Menon (KPCC president) volunteered on 7 April and courted arrest. Soon after this, the Maharajah of Travancore, Moolam Thirunal died on 7 August 1924 and his niece Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi came to power. As part of her installation durbar, she released all the prisoners. The Maharani played an important role towards the end of the Vaikom Satyagraha after meeting Mahatma Gandhi.
The struggle continued like this up to 10 April, when the police adopted the new tactics of barricading the roads and thus tried to prevent the Satyagrahis from reaching the disputed roads. The police also decided not to arrest the Satyagrahis, and they responded with fasting. But Gandhiji disapproved of fasting as it went against his theory of Satyagraha. The police who were watching the progress of the agitation were convinced that their policy of not arresting the Satyagrahis was not very effective. So they wanted to use strong-arm tactics to crush the agitation. The conservatives joined the police, and in due course, the conservatives took over and the police became silent witnesses to the atrocities committed on the volunteers by the conservatives. When the Satyagraha started the ruling Maharaja of Travancore was Sree Moolam Thirunal. He and his minister Divan Bahadur T. Raghavaiah were golden props of extreme orthodoxy. They wanted to keep old customs in-toto. Divan Raghvaiah made a speech in the Travancore legislature strongly defending the Savarnas and denouncing the Satyagraha.
Meanwhile, hundreds of letters were sent to Gandhiji to suspend the agitation. Two advocate brothers from Kerala, Sivarama Iyer and Vancheeswara Iyer met Mahatmaji and argued that the roads around Vaikom temple are private property and hence the Satyagraha was irrelevant.
All newspapers in India flashed headlines about the Satyagraha. Money flowed from different states to Vaikom. The Akalis of Punjab came to Vaikom to open a free kitchen for the Satyagrahis. Non-Hindus like barrister George Joseph (Kerala), Bhajematharam Mathunni and Abdul Rahman (the Editor-in-Chief of The Young India) came forward to offer Satyagraha. But Gandhiji did not accept any of these. Gandhiji wrote in Young India on 24 April 1924, and 1 May 1924 against accepting outside aid.
"As for accepting assistance from Hindus from outside, such acceptance would betray unreadiness on the part of the local Hindus for the reform. If the Satyagrahis have the sympathy of the local Hindus, they must get locally all the money they need."
Gandhiji wrote to George Joseph on 6 April 1924:
"As to Vaikom, I think you shall let the Hindus do the work. It is they who have to purify themselves. You can help by your sympathy and your pen, but not by organizing the Movement and certainly not by offering Satyagraha. If you refer to the Congress resolution of Nagpur, it calls upon the Hindu Members to remove the curse of untouchability. I was surprised to learn from Mr Andrews that the disease had infected even the Syrian christians"
Before George Joseph received this letter, he offered Satyagraha and was arrested. The Akalis also withdrew on Gandhiji's word. In his book, Gandhiji talked about untouchability, "Untouchability is the sin of the Hindus. They must suffer for it; they must pay the debt they owe to their suppressed brothers and sisters. Theirs is the shame and theirs must be the glory when they have purged themselves of the black sin. The silent loving suffering of one pure Hindu as such will be enough to melt the hearts of millions of Hindus, but the sufferings of thousands of non-Hindus on behalf of the untouchables will leave the Hindus unmoved. Their blind eyes will not be opened by outside interference, however well intentioned and generous it may be, for it will not bring home to them their sense of guilt. On the contrary, they would probably hug the sin, all the more, for such interference. All reforms to be sincere and lasting must come from within."
There were more than 200 volunteers in the camp. After some time, it became difficult to maintain the camp. It was brought to the notice of Gandhiji at the Belgaum Congress and the Congress records show that an amount of Rs, 1000 per month was sanctioned from the Congress funds for the Vaikom Movement. Important people like Vinoba Bhave and Swami Shraddhananda visited the spot and gave mental support for the Movement.
The role of Sree Narayana Guru in Vaikom Satyagraha
Sree Narayana Guru, who had never shown any interest in the activities of the Indian National Congress, involved himself with the Vaikom Satyagraha and extended much co-operation. The reason is quite evident. The Vaikom Satyagraha was not an agitation for political freedom, it was a movement to purify the Hindu society of its blemishes, and this was what Guru also attempted through his actions and messages.
But somehow, a small misunderstanding arose between Mahatma Gandhi and Sree Narayana Guru, regarding the modus operandi of the Satyagraha. One of Guru's dialogues with the General Secretary of the SNDP was misinterpreted in such a way that it led to believe that the ideals of Gandhiji and Guru clashed. There was a stage when someone suggested to Gandhiji to withdraw the support for the Satyagraha because the spiritual leader of the Thiyyas was urging his followers to use violence, which is against the principles of Satyagraha.
The Guru had thorough discussions with his favorite disciple T. K. Madhavan, about the Vaikom Movement, even before T. K. Madhavan met Gandhiji about the issue. The Guru had another discussion with K. M. Kesavan, the then General Secretary of the SNDP when the Satyagraha was launched.
Kesavan: Gandhiji wants to win over the other side and the Government by sympathy, by self-inflicted suffering. That is how they gain their end.
Guru: The will to suffer and sacrifice should be there. But there is no need to get drenched or starved. Enter where entry is banned and face the consequences, Take blows without giving them. If a fence is raised in your path, don't turn back, jump over it. Don't stop with walking through the road, enter the temple, every temple, every day, everybody. If the offering of pudding is ready, take it. Go to the place where free food is served in the temple; and sit along with others. Let the Government be informed of what you intend to do. One should not fight shy of laying down one's life. Those who think another's touch pollutes him should not be left unmolested in their so called cleanliness. That is my view…. Give publicity to all these in the papers. Let people know that I subscribe to their views. But let there be no violence or show of force. Don't be perturbed by coercion.
Kesavan: Temple entry is the ultimate goal of Satyagraha. That is postponed to the next year.
Guru: Why? Isn't it too late even now?
This view was given wide publicity and the newspaper cutting containing it reached Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhiji wrote in the Young India on 19 June 1924.
His Holiness Sree Narayana Guru, the spiritual leader of the Thiyyas is reported to have disapproved of the present methods of Satyagraha at Vaikom. He suggests that volunteers should advance along barricaded roads and scale the barricades. They should enter temples and sit with others to dine. Now the action proposed is not Satyagraha. For scaling barricades is open violence. If you may scale barricades, why not break open temple doors and even pierce temple walls? How are the volunteers pierce through a row of policemen except by using force?. If the Thiyyas are strong and willing to die in sufficient numbers, they can gain their point. All I submit is that they will have gained it by some thing the reverse of Satyagraha. And then too, they would not have converted the orthodox to their views, but would have imposed it on them by force.
A friend who has sent me the press cutting suggests that by reason of the violent advice of the guru, I should ask the local Congress Committee to call off the Satyagraha. I feel that would mean want of faith in one's means and surrender to violence. If Congressmen connected with the Vaikom movement entertain the suggestions said to be favored by the Thiyyas' spiritual leader, there would be case for penance, and therefore suspension, but not otherwise. I would therefore urge the organizers at Vaikom to make redoubled effort and at the same time, keep stricter watch on the conduct of those who take part in the movement. Whether it takes a long or short time to reach the goal, the way is the way of peaceful conversion of the orthodox, by self-suffering and self purification and none other
Careful analyses of both the statements reveal that there was no essential difference. The major objectives of both Gandhi and Sree Narayana Guru were the same, the eradication of untouchability, and the acceptance of human equality. And the immediate objective of the Vaikom Satyagraha was the establishment of a simple primary human right to make use of the public road around the temple. Both Gandhiji and the Guru agreed in this matter. What Gandhiji suggested is gain access to the road, and then try for temple entry. What Guru proposed is to go ahead without stopping until temple entry was achieved. Don't stop with walking through the roads, but enter the temple
At one point Gandhiji thought that Sree Narayana Guru had suggested to the volunteers to adopt open violence. He suggested that the volunteers should advance along barricaded roads and scale the barricades…For scaling barricades is open violence. Let a humble question be raised. What happened at Vaikom? The volunteers were made to stand in the hot sun, drenched in the rain till mid-day, and then arrested. If they had followed what the Guru has suggested, tried to cross the fence, probably they would have received more blows, but would have arrested early, for defying orders. What Narayana Guru suggested was only to intensify the struggle or speed up the process in the Gandhian way. If the Guru's suggestion to the volunteers to scale the barricades was open violence, then Gandhiji's exhortation to the people to prepare salt at Dandi defying government orders is also equivalent to open violence. Attempt to scale the barricades is only open defiance, not open violence.
Sree Narayana Guru's exhortations were in unison with Gandhiji's idealism and practical wisdom. The Guru's words are clear indicators –
The will to suffer and sacrifice should be there.
Take blows without giving them
Let the government be informed of what you intend to do
Let there be no violence or show of force
Why did Gandhiji miss or ignore these words and interpret the guru's suggestion as an exhortation to violence and made blatant statements that the spiritual leader of the Thiyyas is reported to have disapproved of the present methods of Satyagraha at Vaikom? It is for posterity to decide.
Any way, the Guru did not issue any statement to counter Gandhiji's writings in Young India. It was never the Guru's technique to argue and win. He expressed through actions what he had to say.
He offered his Vellore Mutt near Vaikom for the use of the Satyagrahis and Head Office was set up there. He made a personal contribution of Rs. 1000.00 to the struggle fund, and set up a special collection box at Sivagiri. Two of his favorite disciples, Swami Sathyavrathan and Kottukoikal Velayudhan were deputed to work for the Satyagraha.
When the Satyagraha was at its peak, on 27 September 1924, the Guru visited the venue. He reached Vaikom by boat. Thousands were waiting at the jetty to receive him. He was welcomed with a multicolored garland of khadi yarn. He was also presented with the second khadi towel woven at the Satyagraha Ashram, the first one was sent to Mahatma Gandhi. The Guru jokingly offered to wear khadi garland and volunteer Satyagraha.
On the next day, he presided over a public meeting convened to pray for the good health and wellbeing of Mahatma Gandhi. Swami Satyavrathan remarked that it was a good fortune to have the Guru along with them. Suddenly, the Guru got up and said, I am here not just to participate, I am here to pray. He stood in meditation for a few minutes while the whole crowd waited. This was the single occasion when Guru had ever prayed in public.
The Guru stayed in the Ashram for two days, went around and saw all arrangements and joined the community meal. The volunteers felt, not the presence of a formal visitor, but the presence of an intimate advisor and an elderly leader. His presence and appreciation gave them renewed spirit and sense of commitment. The Guru was extremely happy to see a Pulaya boy in the kitchen to help the cooks. He was glad the seeds sown by him were proliferating and bearing fruit. The SNDP had most willingly taken over the task of supplying manpower for the endeavor, and continued to support until the Satyagraha was withdrawn. Later after getting the freedom a school was built in the place of that ashram as the memory of this great fight. The school is named as Sathyagraha Memorial Sree Narayana Higher Secondary School (SMSNHSS). The school is managed by SNDP.
During March 1925, when Gandhiji came to the Satyagraha site, he visited the Guru at Sivagiri. A part of their conversation is relevant here.
Gandhiji: Is there any difference of opinion for Swamiji about the Satyagraha started at Vaikom? Does Swamiji think of adding or altering anything to the Movement?
Guru: My knowledge is that it is going smoothly and I am not of any opinion of making any alterations.
Gandhiji: Some are of the opinion that nonviolent Satyagraha is of no use, and to establish right, violence is necessary. What is Swamiji's opinion?
Guru: I do not think that violence is good.
Involvement of E.V.Ramasamy
E. V. Ramasamy came with his wife Nagammai and a group of followers and offered Satyagraha on 14 April. E.V.Ramasamy was imprisoned twice. Gandhi, who was also present on the Vaikom scene, was disturbed about the whole affair but seemingly unable to stop it. His concern grew when other religious groups became involved. Thus the Sikh community offered to meet expenses. Money was also said to have come in from Burma, Singapore, and Malaysia, from non-Brahmin immigrants. Gandhi tried under the circumstances to keep the whole thing an intra-Hindu affair. However, in the end a compromise was reached. The streets in the temple area were opened to Harijans or Untouchables. In 1936, they were allowed to enter the temple. The Satyagraha paved the way for subsequent Temple Entry Act.
Vaikom had been chosen as a place for Satyagraha organized by the heads of the Congress Party. E. V. Ramasami, who was touring Madurai district, received "a private letter" asking him to join in the Satyagraha. He immediately proceeded to Vaikom where he violated the order not to address public meetings and was imprisoned for one month, a light punishment on order of the Raja. Gandhi became more and more troubled as the Satyagraha took a turn of communal riot because of conversions to Islam taking place. Vain efforts were made to return E. V. Ramasami to Madras state. After his first release from prison E. V. Ramasami was advised to stay away from Vaikom which he did not do. His second imprisonment was more severe, six months in the Central Jail Trivandrum. Meanwhile, Nagamma, E. V. Ramasami's first wife, organized women's campaigning.
Nagamma with Mrs. Joseph, Mrs. T. K. Madhavan and Mrs. Govindan Channar, among others formed a Women's committee to persuade the women of the villages and get them ready to participate in the Satyagraha. They went around villages explaining to the women, the meaning and purpose of this Satyagraha and collecting from them, handfuls of rice and small changes to maintain the volunteers' needs. The women started to offer Satyagraha on 20 May 1924. Nagamma was arrested along with Mrs. T.K. Madhavan and later released. Nagamma's leadership induced courage and solidarity in the women.
When the Raja unexpectedly died E. V. Ramasami was released from the Trivandrum prison because additional trouble was feared, since the death of the Raja somehow connected with E. V. Ramasami's imprisonment as a bad omen. Later, on the order of the Government, E. V. Ramasami was, for breaking public laws sent to prison again in Madras to be kept out of the way. The compromise to open the streets in the temple areas was the outcome of the negotiations between Gandhi and the two Ranis. Gandhi had unsuccessfully done everything to keep E. V. Ramasami out of Vaikom. E. V. Ramasami on his side had to accept that the Vaikom Satyagraha ended in a compromise.
The Savarna Procession
In the meanwhile, M K Gandhi felt that the support of the Savarnas was essential for the success of the Vaikom Movement. So he suggested to the leaders at Vaikom, that a procession consisting of only Savarnas should march to Trivandrum, the capital, to register their solidarity with the Avarnas and lend their full support to the cause. The Savarna procession of about 500 men set out from Vaikom on 1 November 1924 under the leadership of Mannathu Padmanabhan, the unquestioned leader of the Nair Service Society. There was spontaneous welcome to the procession at every place they passed. On their way, the procession swelled as people joined. They halted at Sivagiri, paid homage to Sree Narayana Guru, and received his blessings. When the procession reached Trivandrum on 12 November 1924, with the jubilation of a conquering army, it had gathered nearly 5000 men. A similar procession of about a thousand men from Suchindram under the leadership of Perumal Varadarajulu Naidu also reached Trivandrum on the same day. A mammoth public meeting was held.
On 13 November 1924, a delegation headed by Changanasseri Parameswaran Pillai waited on the Regent Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi and submitted a memorandum signed by more than 25,000 Savarnas, We the undersigned members of the deputation, loyally and respectfully beg leave to approach your Gracious Highness with the humble prayer that the roads around the Vaikom temple walls, and all other roads similarly situated in other parts of the State may be thrown open to all classes of Your Gracious Highness' subjects, without distinction of caste or creed
Though the memorandum was submitted with much optimism, reaction was not that favorable. The Maharani expressed that the issue had to be decided in the legislature. The resolution was moved in the legislature on 7 February 1925, by the then SNDP Secretary N. Kumaran (Later he became High Court Judge). The text of the resolution was "All roads around the temple at Vaikom, and similar roads all over the state of Travancore must be open for traveling for people of all castes and creeds." The resolution was defeated by 22 votes against 21. (It is understood that Dr. Palpu's brother who was expecting favors from the Government voted against the resolution. He was a close associate of the Narayana Guru at Aruvippuram, but he turned Judas. He was haunted by the community and he fled from places to place to save his life. He became a social outcast and met with an ignoble death.)
The defeat of the resolution severely affected the morale of the Satyagrahis and boosted the high-handedness of the Orthodox Hindus. While Gandhiji tried to lift the sinking morale through exhortations to remain patient and peaceful, Indanthuruthil Namboothiri, the leader of orthodoxy, arranged for hirelings to beat up the Satyagrahis. They were thrown into neck-deep waters. Lime mixed with other strong irritants was poured into their eyes. The police stood silently watching as they were secretly instructed not to interfere. Gandhiji wrote in Young India, The Travancore authorities may, however, be respectfully told that the Congress cannot watch barbarity with indifference. The letting loose of the goondas on the devoted heads of the Satyagrahis, is bound to gather the Satyagrahis, the full weight of all-India public opinion.
As a protest against atrocities, statewide agitation began. Big Savarna temples were boycotted, bringing down their revenue. The Savarna Mahajana Sabha organized meetings at their strongholds, against the Satyagraha. Tension was mounting, and it was time that something was to be done. There were even reactions among the volunteers that the slow passive method of Satyagraha was ineffective in the face of violence and goondaism.
It became imminent for Gandhiji to visit the place where his principle of Satyagraha was being tested. So he came down to Vaikom on 10 March 1925. His secretary Mahadev Desai, his son Ramdas Gandhi, Alladi Krishnaswamy Iyer, and C. Rajagopalachari came with him.
Gandhiji stayed in the Ashram and spoke to the volunteers. He tried to boost up their morale, by explaining to them the principle of Satyagraha and the role of sacrifies and suffering in it, and the need for extreme patience. He tried to reach a compromise with the orthodoxy and for this; he had to meet the Savarna leaders. His secretary sent a note of invitation to the Savarna leader Idanthuruthil Devan Neelakandan Namboothiri to come over to the camp. The haughty Namboothiri not only refused to accept the invitation, but also said that those who wanted to see him must go over to his house. So it was that Gandhiji and his party reached the Indanthuruthil Mana (a Namboothiri household) on the next day noon. They were made to sit in the portico of the house, while the Namboothiri and his Savarna comrades occupied the inner room. The Namboothiri believed that Gandhiji was a Vysya by caste and could not be admitted into the pure interior of an orthodox Mana.
Their dialogue continued for nearly three hours. Gandhiji made three practical proposals:
- The unapproachability that is practiced at Vaikom is not found in any Hindu scriptures. The orthodoxy contended that Adi Sankaracharya laid down the custom. In that case, Gandhiji proposed that an impartial Hindu Pundit must scrutinize Adi Shankara's Smrithis, and if this custom is not mentioned then it has to be withdrawn.
- The second proposal was that a referendum was to be taken from Savarnas. If the majority of Savarnas were willing to allow the roads to be opened to the Avarnas, it should be accepted.
Third proposal was that of arbitration. The orthodoxy appoints a Pandit, Gandhiji would appoint a Pandit on behalf of the Satyagrahis. The Divan of Travancore would act as an umpire. All must accept the winner's decision.
None of these was acceptable to the orthodoxy, who believed that the Avarnas are suffering because of their Karma (result of actions in their previous births). So Gandhiji left without a compromise and the Satyagraha continued, and the atrocities on them multiplied beyond words.
Gandhiji had to do something about it. He wrote to W. H. Pitt, then Police Commissioner of Travancore to put an end to goondaism. Pitt being a European, was in a better position to intervene and bring an honorable settlement between Government and Gandhiji. Pitt agreed to influence the Government to remove all barricades and withdraw the prohibitory orders, on condition that Gandhiji instructed the Satyagrahis not to cross the point where the prohibitory board was. However, the police would remain at the spot until all the terms of the agreement were implemented. An agreement was reached through correspondence.
Government agreed to withdraw the prohibitory orders passed in February 1924, and Gandhiji agreed to withdraw the Satyagraha. Government let the roads on three sides of the temple (north, south and west) open for public but the eastern approach road, and the two roads leading to it from the north and south, remained reserved to the Savarnas only.
Gates were to be put up at three places:
- At a short distance from the eastern gopuram on the eastern approach road.
- At the north and south ends of the eastern road.
These three gates were to be open only at the time of worship to admit those who had the right to enter the temple. It was also declared the portion of the road enclosed by the three gates would remain closed to Christians and Muslims as well as Avarna Hindus who have no right to enter the temple. A new road was to be constructed joining the eastern approach road to the northern road, for the convenience of the public. C. Rajagopalachari conveyed the details to Gandhiji through a letter and Gandhiji issued orders on 8 October 1925 to the Secretary of the Satyagraha Ashram to withdraw the Satyagraha. But action continued till November 1925 until all the conditions were implemented in Toto.
One view is that it was only a partial success for non-caste Hindus (Avarnas) as they gained access only to the roads on three sides of the temple. The fourth and most important eastern road remained inaccessible to them. It was really a blow to the Christians and Muslims as they lost their previously enjoyed freedom to have complete access on all the roads around the temple. Now the eastern road was blocked to them. Because of the gates, which remained closed the members of the Devaswam Board and the inmates of the temple who used the eastern road as thoroughfare were denied the opportunity. Anyway, it was a great opportunity for the Indian National Congress party to grow in Kerala. Before this agitation, the Congress in Kerala was only a limited number of Upper Caste and Upper class people of Malabar (which was under British Rule). The Avarnas did not bother about the Congress, as the Congress leaders did not show any enthusiasm for the eradication of social inequalities. But when the party undertook to lead the agitation at Vaikom, the Avarnas underwent a sea of changes. At the exhortation of T. K. Madhavan, they joined the Congress en masse, resulting in the swelling of congress ranks
Another achievement of Vaikom agitation is certainly communal harmony. Progressive minded Savarnas and Avarnas came together with Christians, Muslims and even Sikhs. It is to be remembered that many Savarnas played the role of active leaders, till the withdrawal of the Satyagraha, and this has demonstrated the basic unity of the people.
Above all, the Vaikom Satyagraha was a testing ground for the Gandhian principles of Satyagraha. It was tested and proved as the most effective means for the first time.
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