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Updated: February 26, 2011 17:22 IST

Deeds of a great social reformer remembered

Staff Reporter
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Autorickshaw drivers garlanding the statue of A.Vaidyanatha Iyer in East Chitrai Street in Madurai. Photo: S. James
The Hindu Autorickshaw drivers garlanding the statue of A.Vaidyanatha Iyer in East Chitrai Street in Madurai. Photo: S. James

The 56th death anniversary of freedom fighter and social reformer A.Vaidyanatha Iyer was observed at N.M.R. Subburaman Memorial Residential School here on Wednesday.

Speakers recalled that Vaidyanatha Iyer, a lawyer, pioneered the cause of Harijan (Dalit) welfare. Along with his wife, he worked towards uplifting the living conditions of poor Dalits and downtrodden people. During those days of acute orthodoxy and conventional practices, Iyer invited Dalit children into his house and dined with them. In a highly stratified society, access for Dalits to the dining space of an upper caste house was almost unthinkable. But people who worked with him recalled that Dalits always had access to Iyer's kitchen and dining space.

The efforts of Iyer to mainstream Dalits transcended the question of patronising as his efforts were genuinely empowering. He not only worked among Dalits but also persuaded upper caste people in Madurai to change the customs and treat Dalits as equals. The late freedom fighter, unmindful of serious threats to his personal life, undertook the daunting task of taking Dalits into Meenakshi Sundareswarar Temple against stiff opposition by the conservatives and upper caste people who said it would pollute the temple precincts.

Watershed moments

However, on July 8, 1939 Iyer took four Dalits (including Kakkan, who later became Home Minister in Kamaraj ministry) and one Nadar (then a mildly untouchable caste) person to the temple. There was a lot of opposition from many circles but C. Rajagopalachari who was the Prime Minister of Madras Province then, issued an ordinance permitting Harijans into all temples retrospectively and it was made as a law subsequently.

Mahatma Gandhi was running a magazine, ‘Harijan.' In the issue dated July 22, 1939 Mahatma Gandhi praised Iyer and his team for the temple entry. The Periyar-led Temple entry struggle at Vaikom and B.R.Ambedkar-led struggle by depressed Classes to draw water from Chowdar tank in Mahad and the Meenakshi temple entry were seen as watershed moments in the annals of history of social justice.

Nandanar Hostel and Sevalayam in Madurai were part of Harijan Seva Sangh, an institution founded by Gandhi with an aim to mainstream the Dalits by providing education, rightful access to common spaces, to have a larger vision and to create a society without borders. Iyer along with another congress stalwart N.M.R. Subburaman was instrumental in the creation of Gandhian institutions in Madurai that serve Dalits.

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