Gandhi spoke no Sanskrit & Narayana Guru spoke no English when they met during Vaikom
There was a bomb-drop silence in the Praja Sabha. All Trivandrum was gripped with tension as the demand for temple entry reached a fever pitch. When T.K. Madhavan got up to speak, the hearts of the more nervous members beat in their chests. The Ezhava poet, Mooloor S. Padmanabha Panicker, tactically found himself a seat at the very back of the chamber. As it turned out, Madhavan didn’t throw a bomb, but spoke forcefully for an hour and a quarter, recalls his colleague N. Kumaran, who was there. But the fear of violence would hang over the movement before, during, and after the Vaikom Satyagraha, although the volunteers never deviated from their Gandhian approach. On one occasion, it triggered a misunderstanding between Mahatma Gandhi and Narayana Guru. In March 1924, satyagrahis began to flock to Vaikom in the princely state of Travancore, to agitate for the public roads near the town’s Mahadeva Temple to be thrown open to avarnas, or ‘untouchables’. They came from across Kerala and far beyond; famously, a group of Sikhs arrived from Amritsar and set up a kitchen to feed the satyagrahis. To call the movement secular, though, would be misleading: Gandhi insisted that it be a Hindu affair, and alienated the Christians. A theocratic state — its 18th-century founder, Marthanda Varma, had gifted the kingdom to the god Padmanabha, and his successors ruled as the deity’s pious servants, Padmanabha Dasa — too, made its preparations. The contested roads were put under heavy guard — the district magistrate said he wanted to prevent clashes between the satyagrahis and angry orthodox Hindus — while cases and arrest warrants appeared out of the blue against the satyagraha’s leaders, wrote K.G. Narayanan in his book Ezhava-Thiyya Charithrapathanam. The establishment had no lack of cheerleaders: “Ezhavas should be given, not temple entry, but adi (blows),” brayed one newspaper. In any case, temple entry was still a ways off, and the movement’s immediate results were limited. The aftermath, and the tortuous path to the eventual Temple Entry Proclamation of 1936, are subject to debate. The second in a two-part series, this article looks at what happened over the course of the Vaikom Satyagraha from March 1924 to November 1925, and what its fallout was. On 30 March 1924, three men — an ‘upper-caste’ Nair, an Ezhava and a Dalit Pulaya — “dressed in khaddar uniforms and garlanded”, and followed by a crowd of “thousands” tried to use the roads. The three were arrested and sentenced to six months in prison when they refused to furnish bonds for good behaviour. In a 1976 paper (Temple-Entry Movement in Travancore, 1860-1940), scholar Robin Jeffrey identifies five stages in the long campaign that followed. The initial phase saw a daily “ritual of satyagraha and arrest” that continued until 10 April, when the government decided to cease making arrests. The next few months saw the police barricade the roads against the satyagrahis, who sat in front of the barricades, fasted and sang patriotic songs — and suffered attacks from “thugs” dispatched by caste Hindus. This was also the period when national leaders such as C. Rajagopalachari and E.V. Ramasamy (Periyar) visited and offered advice to the volunteers. But this wasn’t the first time Periyar, who would be arrested twice during the campaign, was associated with the anti-caste movement in Kerala. Just the previous year, he’d been involved in an incident that exposed some of the ideological cleavages among the Ezhavas. At a meeting in Kottayam, Madan Mohan Malaviya — visiting Travancore on Madhavan’s invitation — had exhorted his audience to chant ‘Ramaya namah’. Led by Periyar and the atheist leader Sahodaran Ayyappan, many responded with precisely the opposite: ‘Ravanaya namah’. Nevertheless, Periyar came together with Madhavan and other ideological rivals to play a noted role in the Vaikom Satyagraha, which entered its third stage after the death of one of its most intractable foes, Maharaja Moolam Thirunal Rama Varma, in August. His successor, Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma, was a boy, and power passed into the hands of a regent: Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi. The regent immediately released the 19 satyagrahis who had been jailed in April, while the campaign continued much as before. But now, the attention was on two jathas (marches) of caste Hindus that traversed the state in support of the movement — a triumph for Madhavan’s policy of allying with the dominant castes. A resolution calling for the opening of roads around temples was also introduced in Travancore’s legislature on 25 October 1924, and was defeated by a single vote. The fourth phase began with Gandhi’s visit to the state in March 1925. He spoke to all parties but was only able to get the police to withdraw their barricades — in exchange for the satyagrahis promising not to enter the forbidden zones. The final stage was a period of “waning interest” that lasted until November 1925, writes Jeffrey. By this point, the government had completed alternative roads near the temple that were open to the avarnas, while a few lanes remained closed to them. The last satyagrahi was withdrawn on 23 November.

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