If the Vaikom satyagraha in 1924 brought national attention to discriminative practices against Dalits and the bar they faced in entering temples, the Guruvayur satyagraha that began seven years later stirred the nation's conscience to act decisively against such practices.
It was a key struggle in the temple entry movement in Kerala. November 1, 2011, marks the 80th anniversary of this important struggle for the rights of the socially marginalised. Many temples in Kerala, as in other parts of India, were out-of-bounds for the lower castes. Even roads around the temple were not open to them. On November 1, 1931, a large number of Dalits and upper caste Hindus assembled in Guruvayur to demand that avarna (low caste) Hindus be allowed inside the temple.
The protest took the form of a peaceful satyagraha organised by the Kerala Congress Committee under the leadership of K. Kelappan, popularly known as ‘Kerala Gandhi.' A month before this satyagraha started, efforts to mobilise people and funds had begun. Propaganda processions from Thiruvananthapuram and centres in the Malabar region reached Guruvayur. Along the way, public meetings were held to explain the need to remove untouchability and the importance of temple entry.
The satyagraha continued for about 10 months, but without much visible impact. Neither the Zamorin of Calicut, who was one of the trustees of the temple, nor the savarnas or upper castes, changed their mind. The struggle attained momentum and entered a decisive phase towards the end of August 1932, when Kelappan decided to fast till the temple was opened to Dalits. However, Gandhiji, imprisoned at that time in Poona, was not happy with the idea of the fast and sent a telegram to Kelappan requesting him to give up the plan. Gandhiji citied two reasons: One, Kelappan had not got Gandhi's permission to go on fast. Two, Kelappan had not given “reasonable notice of the intentions of the fast.” Gandhiji also mentioned that the Zamorin had requested that the fast be postponed.
‘Onus on Gandhi'
Kelappan, in his reply, said that the 10-month protest itself was sufficient notice and that he took Gandhiji's own fast at the Yerwada prison at that time, for the cause of the underprivileged, as consent. However, he eventually accepted Gandhiji's advice and broke the fast at 8 a.m. on October 2, 1932 — after 13 days. Before that, in a telegraphic reply, Kelappan reminded Gandhiji that from then on the whole burden of getting Kerala's temples opened for all would be on Gandhiji. He, in turn, assured Kelappan: “God helping, I shall bear my share of the burden.”
For another four years, nothing much changed in Guruvayur or in the rest of the region that today constitutes the State of Kerala. It was only in 1936 that many temples in Kerala were opened for all to use.
November 1, 2011, marks the 80th anniversary of a major struggle for the rights of the marginalised.