Parliamentarian who lived in a Dalit settlement

In 1952, Sivan Pillai ventured to do what was unthinkable for an upper-caste man, born into a traditionally rich family

Updated - March 24, 2022 09:17 pm IST

Published - March 24, 2022 05:30 pm IST

Sivan Pillai with Sheikh Abdullah.

Sivan Pillai with Sheikh Abdullah. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The house where Sivan Pillai lived.

The house where Sivan Pillai lived. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

In 1952, S. Sivan Pillai, a freedom fighter, Gandhian and nominated MP from Kanniyakumari district, ventured to do what was unthinkable for an upper-caste man, born into a traditionally rich family. He constructed a house amid a Dalit settlement on the banks of Theroor kulam, a waterbody, and lived there till his last days. Those were the times when only people who were on the margins of society lived on the banks of waterbodies as they had neither land nor wherewithal nor social status to live in villages.

“As a Gandhian, he was attracted by Nai Talim (New Education), an idea propagated by Mahatma Gandhi as an alternative to the Macaulay education system. He went to Wardha for training in basic education and, on his return, decided to live among the Dalits to educate them,” said Sai Subramanian, the eldest son of Sivan Pillai, who had visited Gandhi’s ashram in Wardha with his parents.

The community Sivan Pillai chose to live with was Kaatu Naickers, who are considered Maha Dalits.

He also created Kasturba Nagar, probably a precursor to the present-day Samathuvapuram (egalitarian habitats), in Theroor. “He achieved it through a co-operative society and the government’s support. There were 20 houses constructed with unbaked bricks and the occupants were from all communities,” said S. Vijayakumar, the youngest son of Sivan Pillai.

The house of Sivan Pillai, a descendent of a rich joint-family, which disintegrated because of the matriarchal system of inheritance, still stands on the banks of Theroor kulam, reminding people of the Gandhians of yesteryear who practised what they preached. His family has retained the original tile-roofed structure though they have expanded it with concrete constructions. His autobiography, Puyalin Naduve Oru Payanam (A journey in the midst of a cyclone), tells a modern reader of the evils of the matriarchal system that was in vogue among Vellalas, Nairs and Krisha Vagai community, in the erstwhile Travancore.

A lawyer by qualification, Sivan Pillai quit his practice after meeting Gandhi in Chennai. “He felt he could not utter lies in courtrooms,” said Dr. Sai Subramanian. He, however, had met Gandhi already when he visited Kanniyakumari to thank the king of Travancore for allowing people of all communities to enter temples.

“The king had shaken the root of the poisonous tree called untouchability. I did not visit temples because Harijans were not allowed in. Now my only job is visiting temples. The king’s proclamation is a movement to purify Hinduism,” Sivan Pillai had recalled Gandhi as saying at a meeting at the SLB Government Higher Secondary School in Nagercoil.

It was G. Ramachandran, founder of Gandhigram, who arranged a meeting for Sivan Pillan with the Mahatma during his visit to Chennai. “My mother and I were with my father when the meeting took place. Ramachandran told Gandhi that my father was interested in dedicating his life to social work after independence. Gandhi raised his head and asked, ‘Is it’,” recalled Dr. Sai Subramanian.

After the meeting, Sivan Pillai sent his wife Kamalakshi to Tiruchengode Ashramam for training in basic education. “The certificate she received after completing the course was signed by Gandhi himself,” said Mr. Vijayakumar, who still lives in the house of his father.

Sivan Pillai was nominated to Parliament in 1952 and he held the post for two years. “Though a Congressman, he was disenchanted with the Nehru model of development as it laid stress on heavy industries. My father felt Nehru was deviating from the Gandhian principles. So, he chose to quit politics and dedicated himself to the task of spreading Gandhian ideas of rural development and joined the basic training programme in Wardha,” Dr. Sai Subramanian explained.

He started the Kasturba School with his wife, where manual labour was mandatory for the students. “Students, irrespective of their social status, had to work in the garden. He had saved ₹3,000 during his days as MP and used the amount for the teacher’s training school at Kulasekaranputhur,” recalled Dr. Sai Subramanian.

While the house constructed and the Kasturba Nagar he created have become an integral part of the mainstream society, shifting sands of local politics elbowed out Sivan Pillai from public life. He turned against Congress after Indira Gandhi imposed the Emergency.

“These leaders genuinely wanted a social change and it was Gandhi who inspired them to take a plunge into politics to serve the man on the margins of society. They belonged to a period when politics was driven by idealism and service. Otherwise, they would not have come forward to live among Dalits and clean toilets. They never expected anything in return or longed for a place in history,” pointed out Kadarkarai, a writer and Gandhi scholar.

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