The Avarnas and Making of Civil Society in Kerala: Engagements of Sahodaran Movement

Dr. M.P. Mujeebu Rehiman

The foundational thoughts and debates regarding the formation of the civil society in Kerala were initiated by none other than the leaders of the avarna movement. Though the upper castes also had engaged with modernity, the question of a public sphere and a civil society was not at all a concern for them, as their very caste identity did not demand that. However, the lower caste people who attained modern education had started to assert their will to the existence of a public sphere and the struggles finally heralded the new age with a civil society. The strongest voices in this regard were that of Ayyankali, Vaikunda Swamikal, Thaikkav Ayya swamikal, Sahodaran Ayyappan, C. Kesavan and several other leaders. Sahodaran Ayyappan became the champion of the avarnas of Kerala not by accident. The present paper actually attempts to explore the avarna roots of the Kerala civil society with special reference to Sahodaran Ayyappan’s interventions. He could challenge the elitist pre-modern values which were exclusive and always tended to exclude the others especially the marginalized sections in the name of caste.

Sahodaran was born into an Ezhava Vaidya family of Cherayi at a time when the caste obligations ruled the roost, the feudal oppression was at its zenith, and colonial powers played as the ultimate source of power and authority, whose support base was always those elite/upper castes. Admittedly, the avenues that opened up as a result of colonial reforms were highly beneficial for avarnas and prompted them to believe as Sri Narayana Guru declared, ‘the British did give us Sanyasa’. Indeed, the colonial novelties such as schools, colleges, transport and communication system especially railways, press, factories etc. along with the social and religious reform movement facilitated the untouchables and other lower castes entry into the world of modern ideas. Sahodaran Ayyappan was one of the products of this environment and could strikingly enter into the domain of social action with an explosive called inter-dining1.  

Hundred years back, the idea of inter-dining was unthinkable and having an impact of an atom bomb in Kerala society. In such a situation was a meeting was held at Vadakkakom near Cherayi on 5th Edavom of Malayalam Era (M.E) 1092 (C.E. 1917) with an objective of “explosion of caste” under the leadership of the young Ayyappan and his friends. (Though Thaikkad Ayya was the first discontentent of the orthodox caste ridden society by hosting an inter-dining as early as 1875, it was Ayyappan who actually made it a popular form of protest). According to the deliberations of the meeting was the scheme of inter-dining (16th Edavom, 1092, ie. 29th May 19170) was prepared. The meeting was followed by Ayyappan’s speech on the “Necessity of Annihilation Caste” and a pledge declaring “since the caste difference is against science, it is disastrous and unnecessary, and I do here by pledge that I will do my best to eradicate it”. At the end of the meeting, Ayyappan informed those who assembled that some of them are ready to have inter-dining with a Pulaya, and anyone who wished to join may inform the same. Some joined while others left the place quickly.  It was one Pulaya named Ayyaru, along with his son came to take part the inter-dining and when the food was served to him (rice and thoran - side dish of jack fruit nuts and chana) the organizers standing around him took a handful of rice and tasted, and this was the historic event of inter-dining. The organizers of the event came to be known as ‘Sahodara Samghom’ (brotherhood Society) and then after Ayyappan became ‘Sahodaran’, literally the brother of destitute, and marginalized, whose newspaper later was published bearing the same name.   

We can’t imagine the repercussions that followed by inter-dining where Ayyappan stood steadfast on such occasions. For instance, Kumaran Asan, famous poet and SNDP Yogam general secretary, came forward by criticizing the act of inter-dining and advised the youth under Ayyappan not to be suicidal by repeating such acts any more2. The Ezhava youths who were polluted by the Pulyas by inter-dining were labeled as ‘Pulaya Chovvans’ and the leader of the group according to Ezhava leaders was ridiculed as ‘Pulayan Ayyappan’. However, Ayyappan considered it as an honour rather than insult. The Cherayi inter-dining was a source of inspiration for reformist youth and several wedding parties of Ezhavas were held with deliberate act of inter-dining with the Pulayas. In that a period, such acts were unimaginable, as the caste rules were so rigid. The new trend set by Ayyappan was practical manifestation of the idea of Sree Narayana Guru’s declaration that ‘We have no Caste’, and if there is a caste, that is mankind only. It may be the initial stage of discarding caste differences in public and making the soil of Kerala fertile for the emergence of a public sphere as well as a civil society.

According to Ayyappan, it was a proclamation of humanity and brotherhood, a great defiant act against the evils and untouchability.  According to Ayyappan, “inter-dining was a panacea for easily melting down the hardened mentalities of the general public. So, it will cause to uplift the lower orders and eliminate the superstitions of the upper castes”3. As Ajay Shekhar rightly observes, it was a scathing attack on cultural elitism and purity-pollution claims. It was an iconic and symbolic act of cultural defiance and semiological resistance4. According to Ajay Shekhar, the title ‘Pulayan Ayyappan’ was deemed to be an entry towards subaltern hermeneutics. He firmly believed that the Ezhavas must first become Pulayas and then they are eligible to claim equality with savarnas5. It was actually part of a larger project of ‘de-castification’ in Kerala’s sociological setting. Of course, he inaugurated the new democratic cultural politics and subaltern discourse in Kerala. 

When the orthodox sections of Ezhavas started to propagate that Narayana Guru was against the inter-dining of Ayyappan and his associates, Ayyappan personally met Guru and requested to offer a message endorsing the inter-dining movement. Accordingly, Guru wrote, “Whatever be the religion, dress, language etc. of human beings, and since their caste is one and the same, it is not objectionable to do inter-marriage or inter-dining”. Though the orthodoxy could be silenced by this message, the social ostracism they imposed upon the 22 families for ten years, was a horrible experience.

Ayyappan had very much experienced the rigidity of caste and he came to the conclusion that, until and unless the caste is eliminated, the society can never achieve the objective of democratization of the society. The programme he envisaged was intended to directly confront with the caste under the name of Jati Raakshasa Dahanam or funeral of the Jati Rakshasa. The common pattern of the programme was like this: In a convention there were speeches of the leaders of anti-caste movement such as Mitavadi C. Krishnan, Manjeri Ramayyar, T.K. Madhavan, Swami Satyavratan, K. Ayyappan and others. The meeting was followed by a procession carrying the effigy of the Jati Rakshasa with an exotic dress and sacred thread with the typical caste vessel. Afterwards, it was put into fire and the rakshasa was blown in to pieces, crackers filled in were exploded with light and sound. Those who gathered around raised the slogan, ‘Let the caste be destroyed’. This was actually a symbolic act declaring that caste is to be thrown in to pieces. This novel programme had an impact upon the caste society.

Other modes of action towards to strengthening the public sphere and civil society were included public speeches, distribution of pamphlets and notices, which are very common to the present society. A born orator, Ayyappan according to M.K. Sanu, was the real originator of modern public speaking style of Kerala. His speeches could directly reach the listeners, leading to the formulation of public opinion against caste system and Brahminical Hindu values. Though he was manhandled several times, he could remain patient like Christ, as Sree Narayana Guru advised him. Similarly, it was Ayyappan who introduced the culture of pamphleteering in Kerala. The famous pamphlets include, Samudaya Sushroosha, Ayithochaatanam etc6. His pamphlets in the initial years were essentially handwritten as those of inter-dining and later on which were printed and circulated far and wide. This practice was a novel one as far as Malayalis were concerned. Thus he was instrumental in creating a space in the public domain, where the voices of the marginalized also got a place.

It was in a similar vein that he started to enter into the public roads, which weretill then restricted to the down-trodden castes. Ayyappan took part in a meeting in Vadayar, a place near Vaikkom, which was presided over by the great poet Kumaran Asan. The speakers included Swami Satyavratan, T.K. Madhavan, apart from Sahodaran Ayyappan. The meeting passed resolutions against the existing boards banning entry of avarnas to the public roads to Vaikom temple as it was against law and common reason. Soon after the meeting, Sahodaran, along with T.K. Madhavan and Swami Satyavratan entered the prohibited road to walk on it. Surprisingly, no savarna came to obstruct their movement. This incident was actually the fore-runner of Vaikom Satyagraha, though the mainstream history conveniently forgets this historic episode.  

The [human] Rights Declaration held in 1945 at the Maharaja’s college ground at Eranakulam under the aegis of SNDP yogam, according to the resolution of the meeting of 1944, actually was the brain child of Sahodaran. As observed by J. Reghu, it was occurred before the United Nation’s declaration of human rights. The declaration was prepared and presented by Ayyappan and the people gathered on the ground declared that ’we are human beings and the denial of rights may not be entertained in the future’.  The declaration actually was the manifesto of those who had been denied of the rights so far. The preface of the declaration reads, “Every man by birth is equal. All communities do have rights to seek welfare and prosperity. This is truth. This is dharma. This is justice. Everything against this is false, unethical and injustice. There are five types of rights according to the declaration. Those included political rights, communitarian rights, educational rights, human rights including freedom of press, freedom of speech, freedom of religion and worship. The economic rights basically stressed on first, eradication of janmi (feudal) system availing the tenants their rights and reduction of rates of rent and taxes. Secondly, it declared workers’ demands such as minimum wages, regulation of working time etc. This declaration is historic indeed, that even in the history of India such a move was not at all made by any other social reformer7. Besides, Ayyappan conducted padayatras to the remote villages in order to reach the spirit of declaration to the grassroots.

It is no doubt that the press acted as the back bone of the public sphere in the modern society and was instrumental in the formation of the civil society in Kerala. Ayyappan had realized the significance of the press in the process of social transformation as well as a medium of formulation of public opinion. Soon after the inter dining at Cherayi, he started a newspaper, Sahodaran, meaning brother, in the same year (1917) with a statement celebrating the brotherhood of mankind. It reads, “all human beings are brothers. Even religion endorses this principle. The ultimate ideal of the theists is nothing but this. The atheists do not challenge this. Krishna, Buddha, Christ, Muhammed etc. lead this world to this great principle. They preach that all human beings should live by upholding the ideal of brotherhood and exemplify with their own life.” It was out of his conviction that brother hood was the pre-requisite of establishing a just and democratic society. Interestingly, the similar apprehension was shared by Ambedkar with regard to the Hindu social structure. Ayyappan used to quote in his paper from all religious principles and also declared that ‘No Caste, No religion and No God’8, by which he thought that those social institutions of caste and religion were actually the hindrances to the birth of a secular society, public sphere and a rational civil society. 

The immediate provocation for the thoughts on beginning of a newspaper actually was the return of one of Ayyappan’s articles sent to Mitavadi, the newspapers run by Mitavadi C Krishnan, an anti-caste leader in Calicut. Though Ayyappan’s newspaper was firstly established from Paravur, later on was shifted to Trivandrum, Ernakulam, Thrissur and Mattancheri. The newspaper gradually became the serious medium of public political education and spreading of anti- caste ideas. It stood as the sword against corruption and autocratic rule. Ayyappan’s words were sharp and he acted as the crusader against all injustices. Even the royal palaces were scared at the criticisms leveled against them by Sahodaran.  On one occasion, Dr. Palpu revealed his impression on the experience of reading Sahdaran to his friends like this: “See how this boy writes”9.  Though the newspaper had been passing through ups and downs, Ayyappan could manage it up until 1956 (for four decades), when he got bed-ridden. The editorial of the last issue published on 28th July 1956 was entitled, ‘Annihilation of Caste, Personalise Religion’, which once more underscored his commitment to a casteless and secular society.

Ayyappan’s initiative in establishing the rationalist movement of Kerala is a little known area. As an ardent lover of science and reason, Ayyappan challenged anything and everything which was against reason. Apart from this, he believed that science can only claim the emancipatory kind of existence. Science and reason for him were closely intertwined and he had written many works eulogizing science. Yukthi Kaalam Onappattu, Purohitajaalam, Sience Dasakam, Velipaatukal, Samabhaavana, Ujjeevanam etc. were greatly upholding the values of science, reason and socialism10. When the Kerala Yukthivadi Samghom decided to publish an organ, it was planned to be printed from the Mitavadi Press at Calicut. However, it was later published from Sahodaran Press, due to the financial crisis of C. Krishnan. Yukthivaadi declared in its advertisement that, ‘this magazine will not be slavish to any religion or caste and stands to encourage independent thinking and novel ideas’. Indeed, the very first issue itself had provoked the believers. Ayyappan was critical of the superstitions and age-old customs and started a war on Kotungallur Bharani festival and pilgrimage to Palani, a place in Tamilnadu11. As he quick started a movement and campaign, the orthodoxy unleashed strong resistance and Ayyappan was brutally attacked. Due to his criticism, one of his disciples complained Narayana Guru that Ayyappan had stated that, temples were not at all necessary for human beings. The infuriated Ezhava followers of Sree Narayana Guru sought his clarification on Ayyappan’s stance on temples. In reply to which the Guru remarked amazingly that, “what Ayyappan said is absolutely true!”12. By all means Ayyappan declared his commitment to humanism and a liberal secular society.

Long before the Kerala society got familiarized with the ideas of socialism and communism, Ayyappan’s role was instrumental in spreading those emancipatory ideas and nurturing class consciousness among the working class. Influenced by the Russian Revolution, Ayyappan wrote many articles on the theory of Marxism and socialism in the mother tongue. He was very much concerned about the rights and problems of labourers and launched the labour unions, such as Aadi Vaippin Thozhilaali Samghom, with an organ titled, Velakkaaran. It is argued that, Ochanthuruth Thozhilaali Union, Tiruvitamkur Labour Association, Cochin Labour Union etc. organized by Ayyappan were not trade unions in strict sense, since the Trade Union Act was not passed then. Undoubtedly, his was a foundational work in the growth of trade union movement in Kerala. 

As a legislator, Sahodaran made imprint on the democratic process and civil society. In 1928, when he won the election, Sahodaran demanded universal adult franchise. Interestingly, the nationalists were endorsing the British idea of voting on the basis of wealth. He strongly raised voice against the hostile attitude of the state towards the depressed classes. He requested the Maharaja to issue a declaration stating that avarna jatis also were the citizens of his country and they are also having equal rights in par with the upper castes. By this, the society witnessed a phase of transformation of the identity of depressed castes the modern citizen having all rights and privileges of modern state. Surprisingly, Ayyappan was the first elected legislator of Praja Sabha to speak in Malayalam. He firmly believed that the language of administration, legislation and judiciary should be of peoples’ mother tongue only. He had realized that mother tongue could only emulate creative thinking and critical understanding. He always stood against exclusivism and formulated inclusive public policies. Ayyappan presented at least three important bills during his tenure as a legislator, such as the Matriliny Thiyya Bill, the Patriliny Thiyya Bill and the Civil Marriage Bill, which ensured gender justice and equal civil rights over parental property by male and female children, as against the very structure of matriliny. 

Throughout his life, Ayyappan fought against caste and feudal elements in Kerala Society. He stood against majoritarianism, fascism and cultural nationalism. Ayyappan had strongly criticized the attempts of R. Sankar and Mannatth Padmanabhan to integrate Hinduism and to the formation of a Hindu sphere in Kerala. Such a new formation will be of a short life, declared Ayyappan. In 1950, he wrote in Sahodaran that, “S. N. D. P Yogam general secretary R. Sankar has reportedly declared that, S. N. D. P Yogam is trying to sustain the caste in Kerala. But actually the Yogam is the largest powerful movement, which has been trying to eliminate caste from Kerala. It is an organization of those who were greatly in demand of elimination of caste, and an organization of a people who were uplifted by the teachings of a great man who categorically stated his wish to eliminate caste. Here, the caste rigidities were got relaxed not only among the Ezhavas but among the Nairs, due to the committed activities of the Yogam only. It is sensible to say that the existence of Yogam is not needed, once the caste is disappeared. The caste has not been eliminated; and not going to be eliminated in the near future. It is unfortunate to see the Yogam general secretary R. Sankar repeating the unscientific and false notions of dominant communities that, the Yogam is cementing the caste. Nobody has to destroy S. N. D. P. Yogam; it will inevitably be destroyed once the caste is eliminated.  It will be meaningless to use SNDP for political gains. Socially, it can do a lot more things.”13  In a similar vein, Ayyappan was also having apprehensions on the Congress’s leaning towards the Hindu fold and cautioned the depressed castes’ alliance with the Congress in connection with the notorious Vimochana Samaram.14 Unfortunately, the succeeding history proves that his words and deeds were unheeded by the political society in Kerala.

To conclude, this paper was simply a survey of the role of Sahodaran Ayyappan towards the formation of civil society in Kerala. Indeed, the civil rights movement under the leadership of avarna leaders was instrumental in the formation of a society in Kerala. That was started in the very beginning of the twentieth century or by the end of the nineteenth century itself. The impact of colonial modernity was enormous as far as the feudal as well as the caste oriented society was concerned. Spread of modern scientific education and the social reform movement had played a great role in the emancipation process of the avarna community. Taking this opportunity, Sahodaran Ayyappan challenged the age-old caste rules by various programmes and struggles. The programmes such as Jati Rakshasa Dahanam, inter-dining, protest against the animal sacrifice and entry into public roads were born out of Ayyappan’s mind and were really radical. Most of the leaders and his colleagues were against his way of action and even criticized him. Still, his multifaceted personality could redefine the modus operandi of the avarna reform projects in Kerala. Apart from his active engagement with social reform, he introduced journalism with a subaltern perspective, familiarised the ideas of socialism and Marxism, constituted labour organizations, and prepared the draft for declaration of human rights. He strived hard for making Kerala a rational society, based upon science and scientific temper. This aspect makes Kerala unique, because it always resisted the resurgence of a pan-Indian communal politics based on superstitions and unscientific and mythical representations as seen in other part of the country. Thus, the contributions of Sahaodaran movement made the Kerala civil society more inclusive, rationalistic, democratic and humanistic.

Notes and References

1 Prof. M.K. Sanu calls the inter-dining as an explosion. See, M.K. Sanu, Sahodaran Ayyappan, Kottayam, 1989(1980), p.63
2 C.K. Gangadharan, Sahodaran Ayyappan, Cochin, 1984, p.29
3 Ayyappan, “Misrabhojanam”, (1917), in M. P. Sheeja ed., Sahodaran Ayyappan Jeevithavum Krthikalum, Thiruvananthapuram, 2010, p.413.
4 Ajay Shekhar, Sahodaran Ayyappan: Towards a democratic Future and Life and Selected Works, Calicut, 2012, pp.70-71
5 Ibid., p.74
6 M.K. Sanu, op. cit., pp.121-125
7 For further details regarding the Declaration, see, C. K. Gangadharan, op. cit., pp. 84-90. 
8 See Ayyappan’s poem titled “Dharmmam” in which he declares “No caste, No religion/ No God for man; Dharmma needed Dharmma needed/ Dharmma needed appropriately”, in M P Sheeja, op. cit., p.278. It invokes Sree Narayana Guru’s dictum, “One Caste, One religion and one God for mankind”.
9 Ibid., p.267
10 Yukthikaalam Onappaattu declares the need for attainment of knowledge and application of human intelligence; see M. P. Sheeja, op.cit., pp. 256-59.  Purohithajaalam identifies fear of the mankind as the reason of religious belief. Religion is presented by the author as a magic by the priestly class; see, M. P. Sheeja, op. cit., pp.270-71. Science Dasakam actually is written in the form of an offering to the science. The author’s belief in science, the only means to demonstrate truth is underscored in each stanza of the poem; see, M.P. Sheeja, op. cit.., pp. 270-71. Velipaatukal speaks about the superstitions of mankind due to lack of proper understanding of science; see, M. P. Sheeja, op. cit., p.269. Samabhaavana highlights the significance of an egalitarian society and strongly attacks the denial of equal opportunities of the marginalized; see M P Sheeja, op.cit., p.277. Ujjeevanam is actually composed in the form of an exhortation to the people to take part in the struggle for freedom by idealizing the love for others; see, M. P. Sheeja, op.cit., pp.325-26.
11 Ayyappan had composed two poems titled, Palanikku Pokalle (Do not go to Palani) and Bharanikku Pokalle (Do not go to Kodungallur Bharani) both aimed at discouraging the believers visiting temples and attending rituals. In the former poem, Ayyappan argues that nothing is special in Palani, where we donate money, though we are in astute poverty. The actual way to attain God’s grace is serving the mankind towards betterment of life. In the latter work, he makes the people aware of the evil acts such as animal sacrifice and drinking, both were performed in the course of Kodungallur Bharani. See, M. P. Sheeja, op. cit., pp. 346-50.  
12 C. K. Gangadharan, op.cit., p.72.
13 M. P. Sheeja, op. cit.,  pp.84-85.
14 C. K. Gangadharan, op.cit., p.163.
Dr. M. P. Mujeebu Rehiman
Associate Professor
Department of History
University of Calicut.
Pin: 673635
Ph: +91 9947494515.