When the Vaikom Satyagraha movement was slowly making its presence felt among the masses in 1924, another movement was being engineered to sabotage it.
This was the anti-Satyagraha movement, organised by “a few Brahmins and other caste Hindus”, according to a state legislator.
Its promoters deployed thugs from the Hindu upper castes to harass Vaikom Satyagraha volunteers both physically and mentally.
They had the tacit support of the erstwhile Travancore government.
Today, it is often said such incidents of harassment were of a stray nature, as there is no conclusive proof of a sustained and organised effort to derail the satyagrahis by intimidation.
However, scattered shreds of evidence in the records of the Travancore Legislative Council (TLC) point towards just such an organised bid to derail the Satyagraha.
Mahatma Gandhi’s interaction with satyagrahis at Vaikom in March 1925, and Mahadev Desai’s work, The Epic of Travancore, published in 1937, also hint at this.
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That there was an anti-Satyagraha movement at Vaikom is evident from a discussion on the issue at the TLC on 22 September, 1924.
The topic came up when K Paramesvaran Pillai, representing Tiruvalla, asked the government if it was aware of “an anti-Satyagraha movement” that was started at Vaikom “by a few Brahmins and other caste-Hindus”.
Pillai also said these groups were “harassing and preventing the satyagrahis from proceeding” to the barricade where they used to stand earlier.
In reply, V Subba Aiyar, a law officer of the government, admitted receiving reports of an anti-Satyagraha movement was at Vaikom, though denying Satyagrahis were harassed.
“There was no report of harassing Satyagrahis,” he said. “But they were reported to have obstructed the passage of Satyagrahis along the road to the west of the barricades.”
Aiyar, however, sought to downplay the development, saying, “On the impropriety of their action being pointed out to them, the obstruction is reported to have since ceased.”
And when asked if the government had taken any action to protect the Satyagrahis from “attacks of the anti-Satyagrahis”, Aiyar replied the government has no information of protection being refused to anyone who wanted it.
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TLC member from Chengannur and Pathanamthitta, MR Madhava Variar, asked whether caste Hindus at Vaikom had organised themselves to harass Satyagraha volunteers.
To this, Subba Aiyar avoided a direct answer. Instead, he cited a press communique dated 10 July, 1924, and quoted an excerpt from it.
“My (District Magistrate’s) inquiries go to show that they had no hand in the matter at all and that the assailants on Congress volunteers were other than their men. The leaders say that they are even ready to send their men with the Congress volunteers to see that they are not harassed.”
When Madhava Variar insisted on an answer, the law officer said there was no organised harassment of Satyagraha volunteers.
However, answering another question on the attack by caste-Hindus, Aiyar admitted receiving reports of some Congress volunteers being assaulted when they had taken out a procession, and that the police were investigating two such reported cases.
N Ramakrishna Pillai, member from Vaikom and Ettumanur, asked whether it was at the request of the police that the anti-Satyagrahis stopped their campaign against the Satyagrahis.
In reply, Subba Aiyar said, “I suppose that the district magistrate and the police would have acted together.”
Related: The crucial role Periyar played in the Vaikom Satyagraha
Mahatma Gandhi’s call
According to Mahatma Gandhi, the aim should be to achieve their goal without resorting to violence.
“We should carry on this struggle along the lines of strict non-violence, that is, suffering in our persons. That is the meaning of Satyagraha,” he said while addressing Satyagrahis in March 1925.
Gandhi went on to remind the Satyagrahis that, “even whilst you are suffering, you may have no bitterness — no trace of it — against your opponents”.
He also tried to encourage them, saying that their actions would not be “a mechanical act” at all.
“On the contrary, I want you to feel like loving your opponents, and the way to do it is to give them the same credit for honesty of purpose which you would claim for yourself,” he said.
“If you (Satyagrahis) believe in the efficacy of Satyagraha, you will rejoice in this slow torture and suffering.”
Mahadev Desai’s account
Mahatma Gandhi’s personal secretary Mahadev Desai documented the struggle for the abolition of untouchability in the erstwhile princely state in his book The Epic of Travancore.
Titled by Sarojini Naidu, the book is divided into two parts — the first part comprising seven chapters dedicated to summarising the struggle, and the second part containing the 27 speeches Gandhi delivered at Travancore.
Recollecting that the Satyagraha at Vaikom was a fierce struggle, Desai, who had accompanied Gandhi to Vaikom, said the fierceness was all on the side of the orthodox forces.
“They tried to resist the attempt to break the wall of prejudice and to open the road to reform,” he observed.
“It is impossible to describe here the various stages in the Vaikom Satyagraha or the sufferings and sacrifice undergone by the brave men who fought that lonely battle,” he wrote.
Desai then gave a glimpse into the sufferings of the Satyagrahis and the sacrifice they had to make.
“The Satyagrahis not only went through much silent suffering, but also social boycott at the hands of the orthodox and considerable unkindness on the part of their family members, and some of them were even threatened with the deprivation of their share in the family property,” he wrote.
“Undismayed, they carried on, whilst discouraging things continued to happen at every moment, and the struggle seemed to be unending.”
Physical and mental torture
Torture, legal cases, and punishment were common experiences for those involved in the Satyagraha, says academician V Karthikeyan Nair.
According to him, there were incidents of physical violence as hired hoodlums — the “Savarna goondas” — resorted to throwing lime into the eyes of volunteers.
They were also mentally tortured through social ostracism.
“I am unaware of an organised movement to sabotage the Vaikom Satyagraha,” Nair told South First.
“But it could be doubted that the thugs committed violence with the silent support of the men who were against this movement. These men belonging to the upper caste were prominent and influential.”
The section that resisted the demands of the Satyagraha volunteers included upper caste leaders like Indam Thurutthi Devan Nilakanthan Nampyathiri, Thekumkur Raja, Vadakumkur Raja, Vazhuthanakattu Raja, MK Ramanpillai, PC Krishnapillai, Venkatarama Iyer, Ganapathy Iyer, Kochumadam Govindapillai, and others.
“The government as well as the upper caste leaders who wanted to sabotage the movement tried all tricks to provoke the Satyagrahis, says Nair, who provided the content for Vaikom Satyagraha: Dawn of a New Era, a booklet released by the Kerala Government to commemorate the start of the centenary year of the Vaikom Satyagraha.
Nair says though the movement had martyrs like Chittedath Shanku Pillai, who lost his life, and Narayanan Ilayathu, who lost his eyesight, the volunteers at no point turned violent.
“The reason for it was the movement was carefully watched and nursed by Gandhi at every stage.”