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Invitation to Modi for 100 years of Kerala Pulaya Mahajana Sabha would erode great legacy: Senior scholar

Modi in Kerala in Sept 2013
By Our Representative
A senior Kerala researcher, Meera Velayudhan, currently working as fellow, Council for Social Development (CSD), Hyderabad, has argued that the recent invitation forwarded to Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi to address a mass rally in Alwaye in February 2014 to commemorate 100 years of the founding of the Pulaya Mahjana Sabha, Kochi, is “shocking” and “a travesty of history”, because in 1993, the Kerala Pulayar Mahajana Sabha, which was founded in the early part of the 20th century in its fight against casteism, had protested the demotion of the Babri Masjid as “an attack on India’s secular fabric” and called for “protection of religious rights and harmony”.
Terming the invite extended to Modi by the Kerala Pulayar Mahajana Sabha as pointing to the “challenges of the times and the dangers ahead”, the top scholar says, “Modi “turned Gujarat into the laboratory in 2002 to test BJP’s Hindutva agenda”, underlining, “This invite to Modi is a sure way to erode the 'little histories' that underlay the roots of equality, both as a concept and as engagement by oppressed castes, in particular, former agrestic slaves and in what may be considered as the beginnings of radicalization in modern Kerala. It is also part of an ongoing attempt to bring all subaltern castes into the fold of Hindutva.”
Going into the history of Pulaya Mahajana Sabha, Velayudhan in her latest article (click HERE) recalls how in the early part of the 20th century, the Pulaya Mahajana Sabha took up social issues, with its founders – elder brothers of Dakshayani Velayudhan (1912-1978), the only woman Dalit member of the Constituent Assembly and a well-known parliamentarian – becoming the “first to crop their long hair and wear shirts”, a taboo for the lower castes. “Abuses were showered on them and also stones thrown by dominant communities”, she points out, quoting Velayudhan’s autobiography.
Other “little histories” which Valayudhan recalls include Pulaya Mahajana Sabha’s reform activities, which can be considered “as an early form of resistance, moving from resistance in day-to-day life to bringing details of daily life into the public debates”. The scholar says, “The sabha focused on social aspects – public space and mobility, restrictions on clothes, jewellery, hair cut, etc. They composed anti-caste songs which they sang when they passed by upper castes. Stones were thrown at them by the dominant castes.”
In fact, those days, the scholar points out, “saw the growth of many such organizations in different regions of Kerala.” Thus, “Ayyankali (1863-1941) led the anti-caste struggles for democratizing public spaces and for the rights of workers, a precursor to the formation of rural labour and working class organization in Kerala. Using a public road on a bullock cart in 1893 in Venganoor, overcoming stiff opposition from upper castes, Ayyankali next started the ‘walk for freedom’ (right to walk on public roads) to Puthen Market and at Chaliyar street facing resistance from an upper caste mob.”
Pointing out that “this event inspired mass mobilization and actions in other regions such as Mannakadu, Kazhakkottam, Kaniyapuram, Parassala, Neyyantinkara, etc.”, the scholar says, “Ayyankali demanded the right of Pulaya children to study in schools – a move towards universalization of education. Ayyankali, who formed Sadhu Jana Paripalana Sangam (SJPS), started a school in 1904 to teach Pulaya children but this too was destroyed by upper castes. Despite the Travancore state passing an order opening up schools in 1907, violent opposition from upper castes, prevented the same. This led Ayyankali to give call for strike by agricultural workers to ensure education for Pulaya children-unique event in history of agrarian struggles as it was a rural protest for right to education.”
The scholar says, “Ayyankali’s slogan – Educate, Organize – was also the slogan of Babsaheb Ambedkar – Educate, Organize, Struggle – later. Ayyankali warned the upper caste landlords, ‘If you do not allow our children to study, weeds will grow in your fields.' Other demands were added, work security (wages during off season), end to false police cases and victimization, end whipping of workers, stop practice of denial of serving tea at tea shops, rest time for workers during work hours, wages in cash, freedom of movement”.
All this led to a situation where work stopped at Kaniyapuram, Pallichal, Mudavooppara, Vizinjom and Kandala. “Landlords attacked and set on fire the homes of workers, workers responded by setting on fire landlord houses. A prolonged strike had its impact. Ayyankali sought the help of the fishing community which allowed Pulaya men to accompany them on fishing boats and sharing the catch so that workers on strike and their households did not starve. The historical one year old strike forced the upper caste landlords to call for a negotiated settlement which included Pulaya children’s right to study in schools as well as agricultural workers demands such as wage hike”, the scholar recalls.
“The raising of other social rights followed, with Ayyankali called on women in south Travancore to throw away the stone bead necklaces – kallumala, a symbol of caste slavery – and to wear clothing including upper cloth. This led to the most violent opposition from upper caste landlords who also started whipping workers – men and women who wore clothes and women threw away their bead necklaces and also resisted sexual exploitation by upper caste men/landlords. These assertions by women led to many attacks on them”, the scholar says.
During those times, two other radical reformers Poikayil Yohana, who formed the Prathyaksha Raksha Daiva Sabha (PRDS) in 1909, and Pambadi John, who found the Cheramar Mahajana Sabha (TCMS) in 1921, made a great impact. “Both engaged with religion to attack caste and caste slavery. For Poikayil Yohana, slave narratives and link with history of slavery informed the constitution of new selfhood and identity of all oppressed castes”, the scholar points out.
However, the scholar regrets, “That the ‘commemoration’ of the early forms of radicalization – as exemplified by organizations such as Pulaya Mahjana Sabha and Ayyankali’s Sadhu Jana Paripalana Sangam – have been turned into ‘events’, with diverse political claimants to its legacy, from the extreme left, Ayyankali Pada to Congress-I, and now Hindutva forces and its leader Modi. It suggests a serious challenge – the need to look into contemporary Dalit political socialites and their diverse trajectories. These seemingly smaller and complex trajectories need to be recognized as they are bound to intersect in varied ways with the larger and more visible political trends.”

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