This piece was first published on 6th April 2017 on DHM’s social media handles and is now being republished on Medium.com
Today in #DalitHistory we honour #Ayyankali, the Dalit firebrand in Kerala who fought caste apartheid. A contemporary of Ambedkar, he was born into the Pulaya community in Thiruvananthapuram.
Throughout his lifetime, He burned with the injustices his community faced. Dalits were landless and exploited, punished for crossing into caste Hindu areas, and both men and women were targets of violence that forced to into draconian states of undress.
In the face of this violence, Ayyankali decided that to fight was the only way. His first rebellion began with an ox-cart. Ayyankali dared to break the caste restrictions by riding on the public road, defiantly wearing caste Hindu clothes. Though attacked by the oppressor castes, his bold move launched the Southern Kerala movement for Dalit Rights that eventually won in 1900, the right for Dalits to walk along the public roads.
Ayyankali went further and launched the first school for Dalits learners taught only by Dalit teachers. Though the school was soon destroyed by upper caste thugs, this educational revolution could not be so easily crushed. In 1907, the Travancore government passed an order mandating that all Dalit children be admitted into all schools. Despite this law, oppressor castes blocked its implementation to which Ayyankali led a statewide Dalit strike.
Through many difficulties the strike held and the battle for education extended to Dalit rights. Exploitative landlords had been whipping workers who dared to wear clothing. Ayyankali protested this. Outraged landlords started setting the homes of workers on fire. Ayyankali bravely responded by setting the landlord houses on fire. Stricken with fear, never knowing when they might be attacked, the landlords finally settled for peace.
Through this and all his efforts, he always faced terrible violence. He often did not hesitate to retaliate with violence seeing it as a form of raw protest of the oppressed. He even banded together teams of brave Dalit men and women and organised martial arts training for them. This group became the “Ayyankali Pada” (Ayyankali’s Army). With the failure of the state implementing the rule of law for all, he then established his own people’s courts, including a Dalit supreme court!
Finally, he took on the caste apartheid dress code for Dalit women where caste Hindus insisted Dalit women could not cover their upper bodies. His challenge overturned this measure in 1916 and sent a message that the upper caste sexual exploitation of Dalit communities was unacceptable.
To his enduring spirit of rebellion, we salute #Ayyankali! #JaiBhim