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The Lifelong Fight of Ayyankali for Dalit Rights

Ayyankali was a social reformer and a leader of the untouchables, known as Dalits in India. He initiated many breakthrough reforms in society and the life of poor Dalits. Due to these social improvements, children of the Dalit family could attend school, members of the poor family were allowed to use the common places for transport, they started earning money through decent jobs, and they got permission to worship God. Mahatma Gandhi acclaimed him for his enhancements in society rules in 1937 when Gandhi came to Venganoor, the hometown of Ayyankali.

Ayyankali was a member of the Pulayar community of the Dalit in Travancore, Kerala. At that time, rural slavery was the only earning source for the Pulayar communities. However, his family was rich compared to the other families of the Pulayar community. His family members were attached to agriculture. In those days, that area was severely affected by social discrimination.

The Pulayars were observed as the lowest caste in society at that time. The upper caste of Nair poorly dominated them. Swami Vivekananda once mentioned that place as a madhouse of castes. Ayyankali and his companions first started their protest locally. They gathered at the end of their work and sang folk songs to show their objection to the situation. Few joined him in forming a protesting group. But upper-class members often threatened and physically attacked them. Though he was uneducated, he was resolute to change the existing situation. He got popularity through this local movement and named Urpittai and Moothapullai.

Ayyankali started his protest in his way. He started his protest and challenged society by dressing like the Nairs and riding a bullock cart on the road. These acts were like challenges to the upper castes. He also went to the market of Nedumangad to continue his disobedience. He also formed a group of young rebels with Pulayar youngsters. The upper-class members often threatened him for his acts. These acts inspired other members of the dominant castes to strengthen their protest, leading to continuing the protest acts elsewhere. Soon after a few days, the protest became a movement for civil rights and reachedinKazhakkoottam and entire southern Kerala. The protest marches sometimes curved violent and became popular as the Chaliyar riots. Finally, in 1900, the untouchables won the right to use most roads apart from those with Hindu temples.

That was the beginning. Soon after, Ayyankali realized that lack of education was one of the key reasons they were in the dark. Ayyankali opened a school in Venganoor for Dalit children. The upper castes were against that school, so they destroyed it in the fire. He wanted to send every child to the school. He strongly believed that every child has the right to get educated. Thus, he wanted to open the gates of the public schools for the Dalit children. Then Ayyankali started another movement for the right to education of Dalit children. Travancore Government issued an order to mandating the admission of Dalit children in the public schools in 1907. A few officials of the government also tried hard to stop that order. Ayyankali also fought hard to pass that order. That struggle ended after three years when that order was finally released for general people in 1910. Ayyankali’s movement became successful.

After school, Ayyankali established a movement to ensure the right of the poor worker. At that time, there were no workers’ organizations in Kerala. Thus he became the leader of the untouchables of Kerala. He wanted to have few resting time for these poor, unhealthy people. He also wanted the wages of the laborers should be in cash. He also allied with the other social reformers to change the existing discrimination and restructure the Hindu upper-class dominated society. In 1910, Ayyankali was nominated for the Travancore state assembly for his leadership qualities. Every member was surprised to hear his fluent and to-the-point speech at the assembly. He was not educated, but he was knowledgeable enough.

After gaining immense support, he formed a group named Sadhu Jana Paripalana Sangham. The objective of that group was to help the members of the Dalit in education, finance and legal. This group became popular in Kerala and the second strongest after Sree Narayan Gurus. Ayyankali set a slogan like, ‘Progress through education and organization’. After a short while, they started to establish many branches in Kerala. In that movement, a few upper-class members came forward to donate their land for the branch offices.

When these changes happened, several missionaries in Kerala were trying to take the chance to convert Dalits to Christianity to change their lives and end the darkness of discrimination. Ayyankali strongly opposed this act and felt that conversion of the religion couldn’t help his people. He and Sree Narayana Guru jointly asked the Hindu society to change their views. He supported the Arya Samaj and the Hindu Mahasabha to eliminate caste discrimination.

Ayyankali passed away on 18 June 1941. Ayyankali was the first person in the country who started the movement for the human rights of the Dalit people. He not only tried to reform the society of Kerala, but he tried to take important measures for the advancement of these people. Many of his suggestions took place in the international human rights documents before their adaptation. The historian P Sanal Mohan called Ayyankali “the most important Dalit leader of modern Kerala”. KK Balakrishnan, PK Chathan Master, and KP Madhavaan established Ayyankali Trust. Indira Gandhi, the former Prime Minister of India, inaugurated the bronze statue of Ayyankali at Kowdiar Square in Thiruvananthapuram in 1980, which Ezra David created.

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