Vaikom Satyagraha: A landmark movement in India's fight against untouchability

Vaikom Satyagraha
Vaikom Satyagraha, like Salt Satyagraha, gained national momentum and opened a new chapter in the fight against untouchability. Photo: Manorama

The epic Vaikom Satyagraha, which witnessed the complete involvement of the social reformer Sree Narayana Guru, was a major contribution of Kerala to the freedom movement led by Mahatma Gandhi. Till then, the social reformation activities and agitations held to achieve basic civic rights for the oppressed were confined to the regional level itself. However, the Vaikom Satyagraha, like Salt Satyagraha, gained national momentum and opened a new chapter in the fight against untouchability and the caste system in India.

It was T K Madhavan, who was a member of the legislative council of Travancore and later became the General Secretary of SNDP (Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana) Yogam, who drew the attention of Gandhiji and the Congress towards the plight of the lower caste people in the form of untouchability and slavery. In 1921, he learned that Gandhiji was visiting Tirunelveli, and he rushed there to meet the great freedom fighter. T K Madhavan has written a heart-touching note on that meeting: “When I sat beside Mahatmaji, I experienced a sudden change in my mentality till then. I sat down and gazed into the face of the Mahatma. His eyes spoke to me fluently ‘I love you; believe me’.”

Madhavan borrowed a few words from the great work of legendary poet Kumaran Asan to describe the picture of Gandhiji that came up in his mind then:
“Itra dhanyata telinju kanmathilatra noonamoru sarvabhaumanil”
(literally translates to ‘so much grace visible in a universal man’).

T K Madhavan, who thus reposed complete faith in Gandhiji, engaged in a long conversation with him. Madhavan was able to convince Gandhiji of the inhuman caste equations in Kerala completely. Finally, Gandhiji said: “I advise you to proceed with civil disobedience of the law. If you have the courage to proceed with full control over your mind, you should enter the temple. If the courts are against you, you should be prepared to go to jail. If you say that the Hindu religion prevents you from entering the temple, it’s nonsense. You should totally conform to the non-violence method. You should not crowd and enter the temple. You should enter one by one. This is my advice for you.”

The Vaikom Satyagraha, which started on the morning of March 30, 1924, was the realization of the advice of Gandhiji. Sree Narayana Guru participated in this Gandhian struggle conducted by various communities by wearing Khadi clothes.

Gandhiji, who believed that by discarding untouchability alone, India would become fully free, learned a lot of valuable lessons from the Kerala struggle. Gandhiji could personally experience the intensity of Kerala’s untouchability as never before. Kerala Brahminism, chained in rituals and customs, and its true representative in Indamthurtuthi Mana gave a torrid experience to Gandhiji. The apostle of non-violence was forced to speak to the chieftain of the Mana sitting outside the Mana and from a measured distance. Gandhiji must have thus realized how difficult it would be to realize complete freedom (poorna swaraj) by discarding untouchability.

In his dialogue with Sree Narayana Guru, Gandhiji asks whether the attempts to liberate the downtrodden from the clutches of untouchability will turn futile. The answer of the Guru to the same was this: “It won’t be futile. But to fully realize it, Mahatmaji may have to take a rebirth since it’s so deep-rooted.”

A century has passed since Vaikom Satyagraha which was organized to establish the right for the untouchables to walk freely through the streets. Still, as Sree Narayana Guru said, the dream of Gandhiji remains.

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