One Hundred Years of Vaikom Struggle


They argue that roads will become impure if the untouchables pass through the roads leading to the temple. I want to ask him whether Vaikom’s deity or Brahmins are defiled by the mere presence of untouchables. If they believe that the god of Vaikom will become impure, then he cannot be a god. It is just a stone, which can only be used to wash dirty clothes.’ – Periyar

It happened one hundred year ago, on 30th March 1924. Three volunteers, each belonging to three different castes, a Nair, an Ezhava and a Pulayu, wearing Khadi dresses and garlanded, attempted to enter the road leading to the temple in Vaikom, in the then Kingdom of Travancore. They were followed by thousands of people. The police promptly arrested the volunteers from proceeding further. Similar attempts were made each following day till 10th of April 1924. This struggle continued in different forms. This was a historic struggle in the national movement that continued for over 600 days till 23rd November 1925. It is now time to commemorate the struggle.

During the 1920s, some thought that ‘untouchability’ was as a ‘blot on Hinduism’ and that they could purify it with the eradication of untouchability, paving way everyone joining it as equals. A community meeting of five thousand Ezhavas in Kerala demanded the right to enter the Hindu temples. TK Madhavan, a Congress leader and a close associate of Sri Narayana Guru, took the issue of temple entry to the national stage. He introduced a resolution in the 1923 Kakinada session of the Indian National Congress. The resolution declared that ‘the temple entry was the birthright of all Hindus’ and it exhorted to work for the ‘eradication of untouchability’. The resolution was adopted by the Congress. Another Congress leader from Kerala, K. Kelappan, convened an ‘Anti-untouchabilty Committee’ within the then Kerala Committee in January 1924. They decided to fight for the right of Ezhavas and other lower castes to use the roads around the Vaikom temple.

EV Ramasamy Naicker, AKA ‘Periyar’ who was the then president of Madras Presidency Congress Committee, was immediately invited to join the Vaikom struggle as it unfolded. All the local leaders were arrested and Periyar received another invitation to lead the Vaikom struggle. He received a letter from George Joseph, a close associate of Gandhi and the editor of Young India. Periyar’s entry into the struggle gave a fillip to the Vaikom movement. He played a crucial role in the movement. He participated in the movement for 141 days. He was arrested and confined for 74 days and he toured Kerala for 67 days to mobilise the people’s support. In his speeches he stated that he didn’t want to see the deity in the temple, but he wanted to use the streets where pigs and dogs walked freely. These words stirred the people into action and they came in large numbers to support the struggle.

The struggle lasted for more than 600 days and ended with a compromise. The lower castes were allowed entry into the three newly constructed roads around the temple. These roads were constructed in such a way to keep them away from the environs of the temple. The fourth side and the temple were still kept out of bounds for the lower castes.

The Vaikom movement paved the way for many other struggles in Kerala. Gandhi’s attitude and role led to disenchantment. To start with, Gandhi viewed this as an issue pertaining to Hindus alone. Goerge Joseph, his close associate, was involved in the Vaikom movement in the beginning. Gandhi asked him to stay away as he happened to be a Syrian Christian. Similarly, Gandhi decided to send back a set of Akalis from Punjab who had arrived in Vaikom to set up a langar and ensure free food to the agitators. Periyar differed with Gandhi’s decisions and later dissociated himself from the Congress. BR Ambedkar cited the inspiration of Vaikom struggle when he launched the Mahad Satyagraha in 1927 asserting the right of ‘untouchables’ to use the water from a public tank in Maharashtra. Subsequently, Periyar and Ambedkar considered this as an issue beyond seeking a right to enter the Hindu temples. On the other hand, Gandhi considered the question of temple entry as a means to eradicate untouchability. BR Ambedkar argued succinctly that, ‘If the Hindu Religion is to be a religion of social equality then an amendment of its code to provide temple entry is not enough. What is required is to purge it of the doctrine of chaturvarna. That is the root cause of all inequality and also the parent of the Caste system and Untouchability, which are merely forms of inequality. Unless it is done not only will the Depressed Classes reject the temple entry, they will also reject the Hindu faith.’

There were different trends and divergences during the course of national movement in India. The differences pertained to the approach towards colonialism, forms of struggles to be adopted. People like Ambedkar raised question of social equality and the rights of the Dalits.

The Vaikom struggle reflected the various trends and attitudes that were prevalent in the national movement. The leadership of the national movement attempted to sidestep the question of social equality and social justice.It clearly revealed the nature and limitations of the class that led the national movement. This has led to the rupture within the national movement where by the aspirations of social justice and articulation of their demands often had to clash with the leadership of the Congress and they took a different trajectory.

One hundred years have now passed. There are changes and yet there are things that haven’t changed much. We still read the news about struggles of lower castes questioning the discrimination in the temple processions and their right to enter the temples in various parts of the country. We had parliamentarians like M K Acharya in 1928 who were very vocal in their support to child marriages. They openly stated that, ‘scrapping child marriage would toss chastity out of the window’, ‘women would be doomed if they are not married as a children’. We now hear similar arguments shamelessly peddling obscurantism. Mahadev Desai, an associate of Gandhi, recorded the interaction between the orthodox Devan Neelakandan Namboodiri, the then chief trustee of the Vaikom temple who stubbornly opposed the access to the lower castes. He in fact refused to meet Gandhi inside his home and slighted him. When asked about the harsh treatment meted out to lower castes, Namboodiri, responded that the Ezhavas and Pulayas were merely ‘reaping the reward of their karma and that ‘it was for their (bad) behaviour in their past life that they had been relegated to the bottom of the pile in this one’. He plainly asserted that the practice he and his caste men followed had been started by Adi Sankara, and that ‘surely untouchability is there in every part of India. We carry untouchability a little further. That’s all’. These days we hear similar voices, arguments and chauvinist assertions in a more forceful manner further bolstered by the Hindutva forces in power. We can debate the (partial) success or the failures of the Vaikom struggle. We can further debate on the issues that it didn’t raise or articulate at that time and its limitations in the historic context. Yet, the Vaikom struggle assumes significance as it brought up the question of social equality in to the realm of political struggle. And it is that significance which cannot be brushed aside.