Ayyankali : the first revolutionary voice against the upper castes in Kerala

Ayyankali passed away on 18 June 1941, leaving behind a better and more inclusive world for lower caste communities in Kerala. He led the life of a revolutionary until his death.

Ayyankali

Ayyankali, a forgotten hero, was a social reformer in the state of Kerala. He worked for the upliftment of the backward castes. 

Ayyankali started his carrier as a social worker when he was 30 years old. Ayyankali was born on 28 August 1863 at Vengannore, at that time in princely states of Travancore, Kerala. His parents Ayyan and Mala belonged to the Pulayar family. Pulayar community was considered to be untouchables by the upper castes Hindus. 

Ayyankali often fell victim to the boys of high castes, as he belonged to the Pulayar community. He bet a boy of the superior caste for beating him first, when he was seven years old. Ayyankali faced them with unusual courage not fearing any consequence, though everyone else were afraid. He boldly told his rivals that they could not do anything to him. It was the first sound of the Pulayars against the upper castes. Though his parents punished him severely, his courage did not perish and grew everyday.

Ayyankali
Ayyankali’s statue in Thiruvananthapuram

He organised the men of his community. These men under his leadership began questioning the old customs. Ayyankali also mastered in wrestling to face possible dangers. He along with his group rebelled through the means of folk dance and music laced with dissent at the end of his workday. These acts were to voice out sentiments of the downtrodden.

Ayyankali worked for a landlord, who took pity of him for his hard work and gave him five acres of land. Thus, Ayyankali became the owner of five acres of land when it was not customary from the depressed classes to own land.

The lower castes had no right to wear what they preferred. Women were not even allowed to cover their bosom. He advocated the inclusion of women and motivated them to be on par with their male counterparts. Ayyankali believed that all human beings had equal rights and people should not be discriminated against on the grounds of caste or gender.

‘Walk for Freedom’

The first target of his group was to gain the right to walk along the highway and roads, which was denied to the Pulayars. Ayyankali rode a bullock cart on the roads that they were not allowed to travel. This act of rebellion spread as movement across Travancore as it was not allowed for the Pulayars to travel in a bullock cart back then. Collecting more supporters, he began to walk along highways by groups.

Earlier not just to walk, but they were also forced to maintain a distance of at least 64 steps from the Nair community and 128 steps from Namboodiris. With this act of defiance, Ayyankali succeeded in destabilising the traditional order.

Anand Teltumbde in his book ‘Dalits: Past, present, and future’ has termed this incident as ‘walk for freedom’ and the consequent riots as ‘Chaliyar riots’,”

Post this incident in 1889, Ayyankali and his group faced an attack at Balaramapuram in Thiruvananthapuram District. The upper-caste Hindu men attacked them with arms. The blood flowed as these revolutionaries claimed their right to walk along highways.

Access to Education for the untouchable community

Ayyankali could not acquire formal education, as the untouchables were not allowed to enter into schools. However, he believed that the best way to eradicate the oppression of the lower communities was by getting them education. Hence, he built a private primary school at Vengannore for the untouchables. The school did not last long, due to the opposition from the upper castes.

“If you don’t allow our children to study, weeds will grow in your fields”: Ayyankali

He organised the first strike by agricultural workers in the region, demanding education for the children of the Pulayar community. As a form of protest, many farm labourers withdrew their labour from the fields of the upper castes. Staging marches they demanded the government to remove all restrictions on education.

He also pushed the Travancore government to issue an order mandating the admission of Dalit children in public schools in 1907.  The order was finally passed in favor of the lower castes in 1910, though it was opposed by the upper castes.

Philosophically Annaykali drew inspiration from the social reformer, Sri Narayana Guru. However, they differed in terms of practice. He founded Sadhu Jana Paripalana Sangham (Association for the Protection of the Poor), to unite members from oppressed communities and campaigned for access to schools. they also raised funds to set up Pulayar-operated schools.

Ayyankali was later appointed as a member of the Assembly of Travancore, known as the Sree Moolam Popular Assembly (SMPA) or Praja Sabha. He played an important role in establishing community courts.

Ayyankali passed away on 18 June 1941, leaving behind a better and more inclusive world for lower caste communities in Kerala. He led the life of a revolutionary until his death. Chentharassey, released the first biography on Ayyankali, after 38 years of his death.

August 28 is celebrated as Ayyankli Jayanti, to commemorate his birthday. Mahatma Gandhi called Ayyankali as ‘Pulaya Raja’. Indira Gandhi described him as ‘India’s greatest son’. Historian P. Sanal Mohan has described Ayyankali as “the most important Dalit leader of modern Kerala”.

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