Mahatma Gandhi 150th birth anniversary: A struggle against social orthodoxy

How Gandhi’s visit to Vaikom paved the way for the triumph of the Satyagraha

Updated - October 02, 2019 12:38 pm IST

Published - October 02, 2019 06:30 am IST

Roof of Vaikom Temple, Vaikom, Kerala, India. (Photo by: Shalini Saran/IndiaPictures/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Roof of Vaikom Temple, Vaikom, Kerala, India. (Photo by: Shalini Saran/IndiaPictures/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

In the popular mind, the Vaikom Satyagraha, the struggle for the right of lower castes to walk on the streets surrounding the Mahadeva temple at Vaikom in the princely state of Travancore, is associated with Gandhi. While he was consulted at every stage of the Satyagraha, Gandhi neither led it nor participated in it. He visited Vaikom only once during the 20-month-long struggle from 1924 to 1925. Gandhi’s 10-day visit was, however, a turning point, and led it to its ultimate triumph.

Visit to Vaikom

Gandhi arrived at Vaikom on March 9, 1925 at 6 p.m. rather than at 4 p.m. as planned. The delay was caused by the boats that had gone to welcome him at Ernakulam jetty. Gandhi refused this ostentation, and would not start until it was withdrawn. In fact, throughout the struggle, Gandhi did everything to dampen the spirit of his supporters.

Within an hour of Gandhi stepping on Vaikom’s soil events gathered pace. Even as a welcome address was being presented, Gandhi had received a registered mail, on the dais, from the orthodox Brahmins taking exception to his views on untouchability. It was a Monday, Gandhi’s day of silence, and therefore he proceeded quietly to the Satyagraha Ashram in Dr. M. Emperumal Naidu’s car.

Also read: Recovering Gandhi’s religious vision

Over the next 10 days Gandhi consulted all parties. There were hectic parleys as he met Sri Narayana Guru, the Maharani Regent, the Diwan, the police commissioner, the satyagrahis, representatives of Ezhavas and Pulayas, and the recalcitrant orthodox Brahmins. His secretary, a much younger Mahadev Desai, could barely keep pace with his master. Rajaji came down with a fever.

Preceding Gandhi’s visit, the Vaikom Satyagraha had seen many ups and downs. An initially aggressive Travancore state administration later mellowed down. After being quiet in the beginning, the orthodox Brahmins had launched a counter agitation. The satyagrahis had had to face physical attacks, armed processions, smearing of lime on their eyes, refusal of temple worship to upper caste supporters of the Satyagraha, and excommunication. While they were disheartened, popular support was at an all-time high. But when Gandhi arrived there was a political stalemate. A motion proposed in the Sree Moolam Popular Assembly in favour of unrestricted use of public roads around the Vaikom temple had just been defeated — by a single vote.

Also read: What would Gandhi say about the Indian media?

The day after his arrival Gandhi met the orthodox Brahmins. The marathon meeting was held at Idanthuruthil Devan Neelakandan Namboothiri’s home. To this day, oral stories circulate about the meeting. According to one apocryphal version, considering that Gandhi had crossed the seas and mingled with Ezhavas, he had to stand at the threshold of the Namboodiri home. While the orthodox were represented by about a dozen Brahmins, Gandhi’s son Ramdas, Rajaji and others were present along with some government officials as observers. That temple streets were out of bounds for lower castes was divine punishment for sins committed in past lives, the Brahmins contended. Who are you to inflict such punishment, asked Gandhi. He asserted that untouchability and unapproachability were alien to the Hindu religion.

Three proposals

In the end Gandhi made three proposals. The first was to hold a referendum among all adults in either Vaikom or in Travancore. The second was mediation: one scholar from each side would put forth arguments and the Diwan would pronounce the verdict. If this proposal was accepted, Gandhi would nominate Madan Mohan Malaviya to represent the satyagrahis. The third was that the orthodox should produce a scriptural text that authorised the practice. Gandhi left it to the orthodox to choose. But somewhat shockingly, he further committed that the satyagrahis would be bound by any decision made, irrespective of its implications, while the orthodox were free to not accept the final decision. This seemingly defied logic. But convinced of the truth and justice of the Satyagraha, Gandhi was evidently exposing the unethical stance of the orthodox. The orthodox accepted the third proposal and produced a text called Sankara Smriti in their defence. Gandhi doubted the authenticity of the text but promised to get back after consulting experts in the matter. Vallathol Narayana Menon confirmed that it was not reliable.

Also read: Gandhi has not spoken his last word

Gandhi next met the Maharani Regent at her Varkala camp on March 12. Even as she expressed her position in favour of opening all public roads, as head of state, the Maharani Regent said she had to heed public opinion. Gandhi was impressed by this stance.

That same evening Gandhi met Sri Narayana Guru, the unrivalled leader of the Ezhavas, at Sivagiri. Gandhi won the guru’s endorsement for the Satyagraha, for the guru had just a little earlier refuted an interview given to K.M. Kesavan wherein he had stated his disagreement over abjuring violence. Evidently, Gandhi acquired clarity on the use of violence and non-violence from his discussion with the guru. Apart from a few such as Periyar, Rajaji and V.V.S. Aiyar, no outsiders or journalists were present at this meeting.

From Sivagiri, Gandhi went to Thiruvananthapuram where he met the minor Maharaja Chithira Thirunal, the Queen Mother, and the Diwan. In between meetings Gandhi consulted Periyar, the leader of the Satyagraha then, who had joined him at Varkala. Gandhi also met the commissioner of police, the Devaswom commissioner, the district magistrate and peshkar, apart from journalists and religious leaders. He also visited Trissur, Palghat, Kollam, Alwaye, Nagercoil, and Kanniyakumari where he addressed many meetings.

Also read: Gandhi and the Gita

Gandhi’s visit led the Vaikom Satyagraha to its inevitable conclusion. Within the framework of Hinduism, he explained to the orthodox Brahmins the fairness of the Satyagraha. Even if he did not succeed in changing their hearts it became clear to them that they were on the wrong side of history. Gandhi brought to their attention that public opinion was not with them. Sri Narayana Guru’s endorsement of the Satyagraha following his meeting with Gandhi gave a fillip to Ezhava morale. The meeting with the Maharani Regent made clear her sympathies with the movement. The interaction with officials blunted the state suppression of the Satyagraha. As an outcome of Gandhi’s visit, the Satyagraha, rather than being directed against the state, sharpened into a struggle against social orthodoxy. Though it was formally withdrawn only eight months later, Gandhi’s visit had achieved a resolution that was long lasting without exacerbating social tensions.

Pazha. Athiyaman is a Tamil writer and biographer. This essay draws from a forthcoming Tamil book. Translated from the Tamil by A.R. Venkatachalapathy

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