OPINION

Payyanur’s Gandhi connection

During a visit to the Kerala town in 1934, the Mahatma planted a mango tree that still survives

Payyanur taluk, situated on the banks of the Perumba river in Kerala’s Kannur district, played a significant role in India’s struggle for independence and also has a historical engagement with Gandhian thought and action.

In the early days, the Simon Commission protest in 1928 was the first major movement that ushered Payyanur to the forefront of the freedom struggle. Moyarath Sankaran, A. Lakshmana Shenoy and Subrahmanyam Thirumunpu were the leaders of ‘Simon Go Back’. The same year witnessed the All Kerala Political Conference at Payyanur, which was presided over by Jawaharlal Nehru. During that conference, resolutions were passed demanding poorna swaraj (complete independence) for India and permanent tenancy for land tillers.

The Salt Satyagraha in 1930 was another landmark in Payyanur’s history. ‘Kerala Gandhi’ K. Kelappan led a procession of 33 satyagrahis from Kozhikode to Payyannur, the southern tip of the North Malabar. Poochal Beach of Ramanthali village, on the outskirts of Payyanur, was the arena for the ritual of disobeying the notorious salt law of the British Raj. S.A. Barelvi, in his newspaper the Bombay Chronicle , described Payyanur as the “Second Bardoli,” honouring its valour and sacrifice during the Salt Satyagraha.

Anti-untouchability movement

Payyanur was also an epicentre of the anti-untouchability movement. Great leaders of the movement at Payyanur — A.K. Gopalan, K.A. Keraliyan and Vishnu Bharatiyan — ushered boys from the oppressed Pulaya community into the southern corridor of the Kandoth Sree Kurumba Bhagavathi Temple.

Feudal elements tried to evoke communal friction between the Ezhavas, who ran the temple, and the Dalits. The leaders were brutally tortured by the caste supremacists, but this did not dent the enthusiasm of the movement.

One of the first crusaders against casteism in Payyanur was Swami Anandatheertha. A second-rank holder in Physics from the Madras University, Ananda Shenoy, a Konkani Brahmin by birth, should have otherwise got a respectable job under the British. But choosing a different and more adventurous path, he jumped into the freedom struggle and joined Sabari Ashram in 1926. Following Gandhiji’s advice to take up the task of uplifting the oppressed classes, he went to Sivagiri in 1928; he was consecrated as ‘Swami Anandatheertha’ by Narayana Guru in the same year and raised the banner of revolt against casteism.

Rights of Dalits

Payyanur, which was at that time a morass of rampant casteism, and a town with which the Swami had close contact since 1920, eventually became his karmabhoomi . At the time, lower-caste people were being systematically de-humanised there. The Swami understood that the rights of the oppressed cannot be gained without imparting a proper education to them; so in 1931 he started a school for the oppressed. He later staged numerous dharnas before barber shops where Dalits were not admitted. He also led a march to Guruvayur, where free meals were being given to Brahmins only, although many of those who were excluded from this handout were starving.

Gandhiji visited Kerala several times, but his visit to Payyanur in January 1934 was special — it was a private visit to call on Swami Anandatheertha. Gandhiji spent a whole day at the ashram and planted a mango tree there, which still thrives at that site. An urn containing ashes from the funeral pyre of Gandhiji is still preserved in the ashram.

The government of Kerala plans to set up a Mahatma Gandhi Smriti Museum. This be fitting tribute both to Gandhiji’s legacy and to Payyanur.

Rajmohan Unnithan is an MP

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