This year marks the 157th birth anniversary of Mahatma Ayyankali (1863-1941), a major icon from the Pulaya community. A large number of civil society collectives, political parties and government agencies are celebrating the event, clearly reflecting a rejuvenated interest in Ayyankali’s thoughts and actions among subaltern communities in Kerala.

He has been remembered as one of the most influential anti-caste Dalit activists in colonial Kerala who effectively challenged caste-based restrictions in education, public space and social interactions in the late 19th century.

During last year’s Jayanti celebrations, the government of Kerala renamed the Victoria Jubilee Hall, an iconic colonial monument at Trivandrum, as “Mahatma Ayyankali Hall”, recognising his contributions to bettering the lives of Dalits in the state. This has been considered the biggest official recognition that Mahatma Ayyankali received in the state so far.

Assertion of Dalit power

Born in the untouchable Pulaya community, Ayyankali started his emancipatory mission by questioning a range of purity-birth based atrocities through a multi-layered resistance model in Travancore, a princely state that remained highly conservative in the hands of caste oligarchy.

In 1893, he rode a bullock cart (villuvandi) with brass bells, draping a white lungi, white vest, a matching shawl, a white turban, along with a thick moustache. As riding animal carts was considered as an upper-caste prerogative in Kerala, Ayyankali’s “Pulaya cart” attracted the wrath of caste oligarchs who tried to stop him at many places, leading to violent clashes.

His direct action against caste atrocities also shook the docility of Dalit communities that heavily depended on upper castes for jobs and food.

With the bullock cart, Ayyankali appears to have designed a revolutionary act, challenging a set of caste codes concerning dress, ownership, mobility and visibility in the late 19th century.

His choice of dress challenged the sartorial exclusivity of caste Hindus who did not allow the Dalits to wear anything except knee-length loincloths. Similarly, the loud sound from the silver bells defied the acoustic regulations that were forced upon the Dalits who were not permitted to speak before their caste masters.

His thick and trimmed moustache was a forceful assertion of masculine Dalit body. And, riding the cart all alone showed the power the Dalits for ownership and their right to possess wealth.

he statue of Ayyankali in Kollam, Kerala. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Ayyankali’s multiple defiances was reenacted throughout Travancore by other Dalit activists, consistently attracting the anger of caste-oligarchs. This act of riding to freedom was a prelude to a series of “walking to freedom” events that he inaugurated through Travancore from 1898.

These acts were designed to force the entry of Dalits into public space, irrespective of the fact they would attract conflict with the members of the upper castes in Travancore.

As distance-based pollution norms continued to determine social relations and corporal interactions in the region, upper-caste oligarchs tried to stop these acts of valour.

Ayyankali emphasised physical culture and martial training to prepare Dalits for this physically demanding campaign. This focus seemed to have emerged from the fact that most of their confrontations were with the Nairs, the traditional martial caste that largely protected the religious and social order of this princely state.

In Ayyankali’s imagination, martial arts and physical exercise were an inseparable act of being an aspirational Dalit in Kerala in the late 19th century. Ayyankali emerged as the first Dalit reformist-activist who identified the value of counter-physicality as a deterrent against caste atrocities and humiliation.

Subsequently, like his contemporary, Tamil Dalit intellectual Iyothee Thass (1845-1914), Ayyankali delineated the politics of “body” in the caste discourses in colonial Kerala.

He re-imagined the body of slave castes like the Pulaya in the region by encouraging them to dress differently and remove body markers that signified their slavery-past.

However, unlike Iyothee Thass who brought the idea of religious conversion to the centre of caste discourse, Ayyankali did not recognise conversion as the primary instrument of social emancipation in the conservative princely state.

For him, any form of conversion had the potential of being divisive and to weaken the kinship feelings among the Dalits. His removal of religion as the centre of emancipatory discourses was also influenced by the condition of post-conversion Dalit Christians in colonial Kerala who remained tied up with the land and social systems around caste oligarchy.

When other Dalit reformers like Poykayil Yohannan identified the emancipatory role of Christianity in colonial Kerala, Ayyankali decided to challenge the absolutism of caste by remaining within the larger Hindu fold, while consistently challenging the Brahmanical elements within it.

Education and employment

Following the “walk to freedom”, Ayyankali proposed revolutionary ideas about Dalit education and employment. As a life mission, he set up a plan to produce ten Bachelor of Arts holders from the Pulayas and established a special school for that proposes. However, his persistent efforts to enrol Dalit boys and girls into schools resulted in several brutal riots in the region and many schools were burned down by the caste elites.

Even though the British government had passed a couple of bills since 1907 and asked the princely state to facilitate the entry of Dalits into public schools, upper-caste suppression continued to grow in the region. This led Ayyankali to make a historical declaration: “no classroom, no tilling”, he said.

He declared that if Dalits were not allowed in public schools, they would be forced to halt tilling jobs. The strikes that followed had a significant impact. Sseveral schools opened their gates to Dalit students in the first quarter of the 20th century.

In Ayyankali’s imagination, modern education and familiarity with a rational world would create non-agricultural Dalits who would be instrumental in dismantling the land-based exploitations and “jatimaryada” (caste codes) in Travancore and beyond. Scholars like J Devika identified the fears this created among the upper caste population in the region, where most of the non-Dalit communities lacked necessary professional skills for agricultural activities. They retorted to burning schools and attacking Dalit students and teachers.Mahatma Ayyankali can be given the credit of bringing Dalits into the emergent public sphere in the late 19th century. He forcefully reiterated that the recognition of Dalit life and their everydayness was important to create a sense of inclusion in the region.

Inclusive modernity in Kerala

Ayyankali’s conception of an inclusive modernity included the creation of a Dalit argumentative sphere, visibility, modern education and martial deliberations. However, for a long time, historians in Kerala positioned him not as a Dalit leader but as a belligerent peasant leader in a micro-region with a limited vision.

His engagement with subjugation was neglected, his conception of Dalit-reengineering was overlooked, his struggle for education was sidelined and his attempt to create a new public space was never recognised. Now, many things appear to be changing, albeit, slowly.

PK Yasser Arafath is an Assistant Professor at the Department of History at the University of Delhi.