TR Krishnaswamy Iyer, the ‘untouchable Brahmin’ and forgotten Vaikom Satyagraha hero

Born in a conservative Tamil Brahmin family in Palakkad, Swamy and his wife Eswari fought for the Dalit cause and were excommunicated by the community.

ByK A Shaji

Published Mar 28, 2023 | 8:00 AMUpdatedApr 03, 2023 | 8:38 AM

TR Krishnaswamy Iyer, leader of Vaikom Satyagraha in the year 1924

Part of a special series on the Vaikom Satyagraha. It was on 30 March, 1924, that an agitation began centered around the Shiva temple in the central Kerala town of Vaikom in the then princely state of Travancore. The temple not only did not allow the lower castes in, it also forbid them from using the roads around it. The largely non-violent agitation marked the beginning of temple entry movements across India.

The beginning of the centenary year of the nonviolent Vaikom Satyagraha is less than a week away. The struggle ensured access to the lower caste people of the erstwhile princely state of Travancore to the prohibited public environs of the famous Mahadeva Temple in Vaikom town in present-day central Kerala.

Different castes and community groups have now started recalling the contributions of their respective leaders who took part in the 603-day-long Vaikom Satyagraha that began in the year 1924 on 30 March.

Vaikom Satyagraha leaders

The powerful Nair Service Society (NSS) has used the occasion to highlight the role of its founder Mannathu Padmanabhan, a Nair and a rallying point for upper caste consolidation in Kerala, who ironically led a march from Vaikom to Thiruvananthapuram demanding temple entry for the lower caste untouchables.

The equally powerful Ezhava organisation, Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam (SNDP) comprising OBC Ezhavas, has countered the move by focusing on the yeoman contributions of lower caste leaders such as Sree Narayana Guru, Kumaran Asan, and TK Madhavan.

For the Congress, which ensured Mahatma Gandhi’s presence in the Vaikom Satyagraha, it is an occasion to remember leaders of yore such as KP Kesava Menon and K Kelappan.

Vaikom Mahadeva Temple, site of Vaikom Satyagraha in the year 1924

Vaikom Mahadeva Temple (KA Shaji)

In neighbouring Tamil Nadu, Dravidian outfits are eloquent about the role played by Periyar EV Ramasamy in the satyagraha.

Amidst all these attempts, one person who remains neglected is TR Krishnaswamy Iyer, one of the chief architects of the historic agitation that ensured the satyagraha was a powerful means of resistance and social change in the Indian national scene.

TR Krishnaswamy Iyer, ignored by his community & others

Unlike other Kerala leaders who led the Vaikom Satyagraha from the front, TR Krishnaswamy Iyer was a staunch Gandhi loyalist who dared to discard all his caste and community affiliations.

His anti-caste activities had earned him the dubious title of an ‘untouchable Brahmin’.

TR Krishnaswamy Iyer in the list of Vaikom Satyagraha leaders

List of Vaikom Satyagraha leaders at the memorial (KA Shaji)

Excommunicated by the powerful Tamil Brahmin community of Kalpathy in Palakkad, Krishnaswamy died at a young age, leaving little for society to recall.

Even now, Brahmin caste groups view his contributions with extreme disregard.

In contrast, Dalit groups seldom give importance to the memories of a Brahmin who incidentally espoused their cause significantly.

At the Vaikom Satyagraha Museum of Kerala Government, TR Krishnaswamy Iyer is listed as 13th among leaders of the Satyagraha.

The first few names on the list are Gandhiji, Sree Narayana Guru, C Rajagopalachari, Vinobha Bhave, and Kumaran Asan.

Inside the building, a portrait of Krishnaswamy occupies the walls along with other stalwarts.

Besides these, there is hardly anything in Vaikom or its surroundings to evoke memories of Krishnaswamy, a close confidant of Mahatma and a strong idealist.

Founder of Kerala’s Sabarmati, the Sabari Ashram in Palakkad

Though TR Krishnaswamy Iyer was active in the Vaikom Satyagraha, his activities were largely confined to Palakkad and its Brahmin stronghold Kalpathy, where community members infuriated by his pro-Dalit activities excommunicated him.

People of Palakkad fondly remember Krishnaswamy as the founder of the Sabari Ashram at Akathethara, which was once widely known as Kerala’s Sabarmati.

Presently a humble orphanage, this institution was visited thrice by Mahatma Gandhi during his journeys to South India.

In Palakkad, Krishnaswamy is a forgotten Gandhian with an ignored statue in a small park inside the town.

But the humble Sabari Ashram he built 94 years ago with the active support of his wife Eswari at Akathethara, located a little away from Kalpathy, stands testimony to the untouchability and discrimination practised by the Brahmins of Palakkad.

Mahatma Gandhi and Kasturba Gandhi with TR Krishnaswamy Iyer in Sabari ashram in Palakkad (Supplied)

Mahatma Gandhi and Kasturba Gandhi with TR Krishnaswamy Iyer in Palakkad (Supplied)

The couple established the institution soon after they were excommunicated and rendered outcasts by the Kalpathy Brahmins because of their amity and fellowship with the Dalits of the region.

In a way, the Brahmins who rioted against the law graduate-turned-Gandhian social reformer decades ago from within the community are a contrast to the new image of the Tamil Brahmins portrayed by its moderate leaders later.

TR Krishnaswamy Iyer went to Kalpathy to learn the Vedas

Born in 1891 in Manjapra village in Pazhayannur in Thrissur, TR Krishnaswamy Iyer reached Kalpathy at a young age to learn the Vedas and to study at the nearby Government Victoria College.

Later, while studying for law in Madras (now Chennai), Krishnaswamy was inspired by the patriotic fervour unleashed by the Tamil poet Subramania Bharathi.

Though he worked in Coimbatore as a college lecturer and practised law in Chavakkad, Krishnaswamy shifted his base to Palakkad in 1920 as a full-time political activist.

Misrabhojanam feasts

TR Krishnaswamy Iyer focused on fighting untouchability by conducting misrabhojanam feasts in which people from different castes sat together for their meals.

Ignoring threats from his community, he worked among the Dalits and encouraged them to fight upper-caste orthodoxy.

Krishnaswamy was one of the main organisers of the second state-level conference of the Congress party held in Palakkad on 6 and 7 May, 1923.

Sarojini Naidu presided over the meeting, and those who addressed the session included C Rajagopalachari, Devdas Gandhi, and Syed Moorthasa Sahib.

The event’s star attraction was Abadi Bano Begum, mother of the Ali Brothers, who made a beautiful speech in Urdu.

As usual, misrabhojanam was a key component of the conference.

Excommunicated by the Brahmins of Kalpathy, Palakkad

The conservative Brahmins of Kalpathy excommunicated TR Krishnaswamy Iyer and Eswari immediately in its aftermath.

Undeterred by the threats from the community, the couple established the ashram using bamboo poles and thatched coconut leaves utilised in the conference venue.

Since then, the ashram has accommodated orphans irrespective of caste and community considerations.

Gandhi visited Palakkad Sabari Ashram thrice

The ashram was declared open on Gandhi Jayanti day in 1923, with the education of Dalits as the motto.

Impressed by the model set by his ardent followers, Mahatma Gandhi visited the ashram in 1924, 1927, and 1934.
The Mahatma was accompanied by his wife, Kasturba, during his last visit to the ashram, and they also visited a temple in the locality.

A coconut tree planted by the Mahatma during the visit is still there in the compound of the ashram.

In addition to the Vaikom Satyagraha, Krishnaswamy Iyer was active in the Salt Satyagraha too.

Krishnaswamy died at 44 on 29 April 1935. He never subscribed to the Brahmanical notions that members of the community are “twice-born” or the “epitome of all good qualities”.

He had also openly disowned the community’s claim of each Brahmin taking birth due to poorva janma sukrutham (good deeds of past life).

The injustice suffered by TR Krishnaswamy Iyer shows the rigid orthodoxy prevalent among the Brahmins of Kalpathy in that era and exposes the claim that they were considerate.