A night school established by Gandhi’s disciple

Updated - March 10, 2022 06:12 pm IST

Published - March 10, 2022 06:00 pm IST - Chennai

There stands an old building housing a temple at Vazhavilai near the Padmanabhapuram palace in Kanniyakumari district. It stands testimony to Mahatma Gandhi’s call to caste-Hindus to work among Dalits in every village after the Poona Pact in 1932. The building once housed a night school started by Babu Ramanuja Das, one of the followers of Gandhi, who came to Kanniyakumari and lived in Vazhavilai.

“He lived in the house of my paternal grandfather Pichandi for six years. Local people knew him as ‘Konti swami’ because he wore a vaishnavite mark on his forehead. He was among the 100 Brahmins, who heeded Gandhi’s call and lived in Dalit villages. He started a night school for Dalits and inculcated nationalistic fervour in people through education,” said Kodikkal Sheik Abdulla, an 88-year-old social worker and a prominent personality of the district.

Born Chellappa, Kodikkal, as he is popularly known by the name of his village where betel leaves are cultivated, converted to Islam “to get liberated from the vicious caste system”.

Mr. Kodikkal said he was in the middle school when he came into contact with Ramanuja Das in the beginning of 1940s. “It was an outrageous act for a Brahmin to stay in the house of a Scheduled Caste (SC) family. After the Poona Pact, signed between Gandhi and Ambedkar, Gandhi took a political decision to convince the Dalits that he was against untouchability. Hence, he made a clarion call to youth and students to go to the villages of Dalits, live with them and educate them on social political and health issues,” said Mr. Kodikkal, who has also recorded his association with Ramanuja Das in his book, Kodikkal: The Living Witness of Social Justice.

When asked about the 100 Brahmin youths who lived in Dalit villages, Gopalkrishna Gandhi, grandson of Gandhi and former Governor of West Bengal, shared details collected from Gandhi scholar and eminent lawyer Anil Nauriya, who felt that “it seems this was certainly an idea in MKG’s mind.”

“But I have not yet come across the figure 100 [Brahmins sent to Dalit villages]. MKG wanted a sanitation volunteer to live in every village,” said Anil Nauriya and quoted Gandhi’s letter to Kirchand Kothari on December 17, 1932: “...go on with the work for the welfare of the Harijans. For that purpose, some persons may even have to go and live among them”.

During his visit to Chennai, Gandhi had advised students to work among the Dalits, pointing out how the students of Delhi were serving Harijans in Delhi and elsewhere. “I hope you will follow their example,” he had said.

Mr. Kodikkal said Ramanuja Das came from Kasi and first went to Thiruvananthapuram where he was advised to serve among the Dalits in Kanniyakumari. He was a polyglot, well-versed in Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam, Hindi and English. He would consume kanji (gruel) and kizhangu (boiled cassava root) at his grandfather’s house in the morning and go to the house of Padmanabhan Thampi, the chairman of Thuckalai Municipality, for lunch. He would use the pathayam (huge box for storing grain) as his table and sleep on it at night.

“Once I asked him why he was not eating fish cooked in my grandfather’s house. He politely told me that he was not against eating fish, but not used to eating it,” recalled Mr. Kodikkal.

Ramanuja Das practised yoga and would float in the temple tank at Kalkulam. “People first thought a dead body was floating and made a hue and cry. They realised that he was able to float because of his yoga skills,” explained Mr. Kodikkal.

The evenings of Ramanuja Das were spent in propagating the ideas of Gandhi.

“He would visit the nearby villages such as Mettukadai, Thuckalai and Puliyoorkurichi to propagate the ideas of Gandhi. He would blow a conch and beat a sigandi bell. When people gathered, he would address them. He would advise them to participate in the freedom movement and eradicate untouchability,” Mr Kodikkal recalled.

Writer Jayamohan regretted there was no record about Konti Swami (Das). “Thousands of such great workers have disappeared from our memory. Gandhi is branded as an anti-Dalit. Konti Swami lives in the words of Mr. Kodikkal,” Jayamohan has written in his website.

Mr. Kodikkal said he failed to establish contact with Ramanuja Das after he had left Valavilai. “It was unfortunate. But I have named my son as Babu in his memory,” he said.

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