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 forbade them from using the roads around it. The largely non-violent agitation marked the beginning of temple entry movements across India.
The social reform movement Vaikom Satyagraha that lasted 603 days witnessed several notable happenings.
One was a resolution that failed in the Travancore Legislative Council (TLC) by the barest of margins; it had questioned the caste system and demanded equal rights for oppressed Hindus.
Had it been passed, the Vaikom Satyagraha, which started on 30 March, 1924, would have ended much earlier than on 23 November, 1925.
The resolution wanted that “all roads round the Vaikom temple and all other roads similarly situated in Travancore be thrown open to all without distinction of caste or creed”.
N Kumaran, a member belonging to the Ezhava community who moved the resolution on 2 October, 1924, hoped that “if [the resolution was] passed and given effect to, there may probably have no road in Travancore from which any class of people can be excluded on the ground of caste and religion”.
But when the resolution was put to vote on 7 February, 1925, it was defeated by just one vote.
Of the 43 voters, 22 members voted against, while 21 backed it.
‘Cast vote on the side of justice and humanity’
Moving the resolution, Kumaran said he expected “considerations higher than parties and sects and religions and castes” to guide the Council’s deliberations and ultimately “cast its vote on the side of justice and humanity”.
However, he also underscored that he had “absolutely nothing to do with the Satyagrahis” in bringing forward this resolution.
“It is not right to say that the satyagraha at Vaikom influenced me to table this resolution except to this extent that the evil of untouchability has created a stalemate which has to be removed by some means or other,” he observed.
At the same time, Kumaran credited the satyagrahis for “exposing the evils of untouchability and other social inequalities to public view in all their nakedness and crudity”.
Highlighting the importance of the resolution, Kumaran said, the population of 40 lakh of Travancore included about 26 lakh Hindus, of whom 17 lakh were from the untouchable classes.
“But these loyal, hardworking, peace-loving subjects — who form the backbone of the country — are prevented from enjoying some of the elementary rights of citizenship to satisfy the super-sensitiveness of a small portion of caste Hindu population,” he said.
‘Ezhavas in the vanguard’
He also noted that one could not claim these communities had not fought for change, and identified the Ezhavas as one community that was “in the vanguard” of these struggles.
However, Kumaran argued, the government “did not deem it necessary to give even a satisfactory reply”.
To him, the “most distressing and intolerable” of the many inequities was the prohibition of these classes from using roads near the temples and palaces.
He then summed up, saying: “I am placing the resolution not on a caste or sectarian basis, not even as a civic right, but on a far higher and nobler basis — on a basis of truth and humanity.”
Ironically, among its opponents was another Ezhava member, P Paramesvaran, who was hostile because the resolution, “if passed, might put the Royal House of Travancore in deep dejection”.
‘Resolution cannot be divorced from satyagraha’
The government was of the stance that the resolution and the satyagraha at Vaikom were interconnected.
In the words of V Subba Aiyar, a law officer, “The two are inextricably connected… cannot be divorced from the other.”
In his view, the satyagraha was aimed at discrediting Travancore and its administration though it was “far more advanced” than other states in the treatment of the untouchables.
The government also held the view that the real object of satyagraha was to enforce temple entry, and noted “it cannot ignore” the existing customs.
Why satyagrahis did not approach the court
During the discussion, the government asked why the satyagrahis did not approach the court.
KA Krishna Aiyangar, a senior government official, said there could be two reasons for this: Financial difficulty and awareness that “they cannot win their case in a court of law”.
His theory: “Both these contingencies are perfectly possible.”
But in his concluding remarks, Kumaran reiterated that he had not brought the resolution for the benefit of satyagrahis.
“It was in the interests of the 17 lakh people” and in the hope that the government might “probably remove the stain” if the resolution is carried by the House, he explained.
The evil of social disability of the Ezhavas and other backward communities was first raised before the government in 1916 — in the 12th session of the Sree Moolam Popular Assembly (SMPA).
Alongside, Malayalam poet Kumaran Asan and other Ezhava members also drew the attention of the government to the presence of prohibition boards denying entry to some sections of people near temples in Vaikom and Thirunakkara in Kottayam, and Suchindram in Tamil Nadu.
Thereafter in each session, several Ezhava members brought representations before the government about unapproachability in general and these roads in particular.
The demand for the right of entry and worship in all government temples was first moved by TK Madhavan, one of the spearheads of the Vaikom Satyagraha movement, in the 15th session of the SMPA in 1921.
The resolution was taken up for discussion only on 5 February, 1925, though it was introduced on 2 October, 1924.
It was defeated after three days of intense debate, on 7 February1925, thus missing the opportunity of enforcing a socio-religious reform by a whisker.