Today, November 12, 2011, marks the 75th anniversary of the momentous Temple Entry Proclamation in Travancore that enabled Dalits to enter temples in the State.

On this day 75 years ago, on November 12, 1936, the Maharajah of Travancore signed the historic Temple Entry Proclamation, and “in one bold stroke, the age long injustice of barring lower castes from entering temple was removed.” And, a “tidal wave of joy and rejoicing passed through every nook and corner” of Travancore. The action attracted attention and admiration from the whole country.

Travancore may not have been the first State, nor its Maharaja the first person, to throw open temples for Dalits. The northern and western parts of India had made a small beginning earlier. But, as the Manchester Guardian observed then, such a concession had never been made on such a large scale before. Today marks the 75th anniversary of this key moment in the struggle for the rights of the socially marginalised.

The impact of the Temple Entry Proclamation was immediate and far-reaching. Not only were temples under the control of the Travancore Maharaja thrown open, but even private temples heeded the call for change. Outside of Travancore, temples in Malabar and the rest of the Madras Presidency felt the cascading effects.

Such an ‘epoch making' event was the culmination of two decades of struggle. In 1919, T.K. Madhavan, a prominent social reformer and the Editor of Deshabhimani, the Malayalam newspaper, took up the issue of temple entry with the Travancore government. So did Kunju Panicker in 1920, and again Madhavan in 1921. But none of this had any effect on the government.

Gandhiji, who was anguished by the ‘very feeble response' of south Indian temples to reform efforts, agreed with Madhavan, during a meeting in 1921, that Kerala was ripe for a temple entry agitation. He insisted on peaceful protest and found there is “no swifter remedy than a real satyagraha properly handled.”

Precursors

Before Trivandrum became the epicentre of the temple entry campaign, protests had begun in Vaikom, in the northern part of Travancore, in 1924. Though this struggle did not succeed in lifting the bar to avarnas, or lower castes, entering the Mahadeva Temple in the town, it managed to open the roads around the temple for their use. The temple entry movement gained momentum after this.

The action then shifted to Trivandrum. The temple entry agitation was formally launched in the city on April 3, 1926. However, before the campaign could move on to the next stage, the Guruvayur Satyagraha started.

On November 1, 1931, a large number of Dalits and upper caste Hindus assembled in Guruvayur to demand that the avarnas be allowed inside the temple. The 10-month-long protest, and fasting by K. Kelappan, popularly known as ‘Kerala Gandhi' (which he dropped on Gandhiji's advice on October 2, 1932), drew national attention to the temple entry movement. The call to open temples for Dalits grew louder.

Shortly afterwards, in November 1932, the Travancore Government appointed a Temple Entry Enquiry Committee. The committee, which submitted its report after a year, did not recommend the opening of temples, but suggested roads and tanks could be opened for all. The reformers rejected the report as it “did not meet the present need.” They insisted that appropriate action alone would meet ‘the test of the hour.'

On May 9, 1936, an All Kerala Temple Entry conference was held in New Theatre Hall near the Trivandrum Central Railway Station, and it resolved to step up the agitation. Speakers at the conference pointed out that of the nearly 30 lakh Hindus living in the State, as many as about 20 lakh were being prevented from entering temples. They decided to convert “all the passive good-will in the State” into an “irresistible demand,” and simultaneously appointed a committee to take up the issue with the Maharaja.

The people of Travancore did not have to wait much longer for the historic change. Five months after the conference was held, on November 12, 1936, a ‘Gazette Extraordinary' was published. In it, “profoundly convinced of the truth,” the Maharaja proclaimed that the temples under his administration would be opened to all Hindus and that no restrictions would be placed on those who wanted to worship at the temple.

In the words of M. Govindan of the All-Kerala Ezhawa Temple-Entry Celebration Committee, the proclamation was received with feelings of “inexpressible delight, unbounded joy and jubilation.” The roles of Sree Narayana Guru and K. Madhavan, the key people who had initiated the movement, were duly remembered on that momentous day.

Predictably, perhaps, there was some resistance. For instance, the trustees of the Koodalmanickam temple at Irinjalakuda were agitated at the prospect of the temple being used by everyone.

The Travancore Proclamation, as Dr. B.R. Ambedkar cautioned, was “not the be-all and end-all of social reforms.” Nor did things dramatically change for the better for Dalits immediately after 1936. But there is no doubt that the Proclamation indeed was a big step in establishing the rights of the lower castes in Kerala, and indeed the nation as a whole.

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