IT was July 8, 1939.
The Dalits and Nadars, the most suppressed communities in Madras Presidency of British India, successfully entered the famous Meenakshi Sundareshwarar Temple in Madurai and created a history in the struggle against untouchability in the country.
July 8, 2014, marked the 75th anniversary of this feat, often hailed as a revolutionary event in the annals of modern Hinduism and Indian politics.
Highlighting the significance of this event, Mahatma Gandhi, in the July 22, 1939 edition of Harijan, wrote that the entry of Dalits into the Madurai temple was a greater accomplishment than the opening of State temples in Travancore. “...the opening of the State temples of Travancore was no doubt a great step but it was the prerogative of the Maharaja. But the opening of the celebrated temple of Madurai is a greater event in that it is the popular will that has brought out this consummation,” Gandhiji explained.
In 1932, Gandhiji and Dr Ambedkar signed the Pune Pact. As per the pact, conferences and public meetings were conducted all over the country for the rights of Dalits. At the same time, the King of Travancore wanted to abolish untouchability and he announced that from November 12, 1935 onwards, every Dalit would be able to enter all Hindu temples within his kingdom. Following this, Dalits entered the temples without fear and worshipped God.
On hearing the news that untouchability had been abolished in Travancore, Vaidyanatha Iyer, a staunch Gandhian and Congress man of Madurai felt happy and motivated. He was president of the Harijan Sevak Sangh in Madurai. He started with the support of Congress socialists conducting many public meetings and conferences for temple entry all over Tamil Nadu. Along with Vaidyanatha Iyer, MNR Subburaman, Dr G Ramachandran, Somasundarabharathy, Manakkal Pattabiramaiyer, Cholavandan Chinnasamy Pillai and Mattaparai Venkatrama Iyer, among others, worked hard for the temple entry movement in Madurai.
At that period, Communist Party was banned. The Communists functioned as Congress Socialists. Many Congress Socialists including Pasumpon Muthuramalinga Thevar, I Mayandi Bharathi joined hands in the campaign against untouchability. I Mayandi Bharathi, is now 98. He is a staunch Communist and a freedom fighter. Now living at Madurai, he recollected the days of Meenakshi Temple entry struggle.
In June 1939, during the temple entry conference held in Madurai, Vaidyanatha Iyer announced that temple entry would definitely happen. After that, conferences were conducted for and against temple entry all over Madurai for a whole month. The members of the Meenakshi Amman Temple Trust and its chairman RS Naidu supported this reform. The caste Hindus opposed and dared to prevent the temple entry. At that time, Pasumpon Muthuramalinga Thevar issued a warning statement. He said, “I would be there at the entrance of the Meenakshi Temple. Those who dare to prevent the Dalits’ entry into the temple, could come there and meet me. I will answer them”. After this statement, the caste Hindus hesitated to prevent.
After this, on July 8, 1939 the historic event took place. On that day, Vaidyanatha Iyer went to Meenakshi Amman temple with a group of Dalits and members of other castes. At the entrance to the temple, they were honoured by R S Naidu, who had made proper arrangements for them to worship the main deity of the temple. After this, Iyer announced that temple entry for Dalits had happened successfully.
At that event, N Sankaraiah, the then student leader of Madurai American College with many students gathered in front of the entrance of the temple to greet the Dalits. They witnessed the social revolutionary action and were inspired. Later N Sankaraiah became a great leader of the Communist Party. He is a living legend of the CPI(M).
On hearing the news of the Harijan’s temple entry, the Brahmin community, under the leadership of Natesa Iyer, announced that Vaidyanatha Iyer and his family were no longer part of their community. Natesa Iyer also announced that Goddess Meenakshi was no longer in the temple. He placed an idol of Meenakshi Amman in front of his house for public worship.
Rajaji was then the chief minister of Tamil Nadu. He thought that the temple entry movement would create a revolution in society. In September 1939, he had the bill for temple entry passed in the legislative assembly and it became law.
Following the Meenakshi Amman temple, temple entry took place in the Azhagar temple and Thiruparankundram, Thiruvarangam, Pazhani and Srivilliputhur, all famous temples in Tamil Nadu before December 1939.
Madurai Meenakshi Temple entry movement was one of the great reform movements instrumental in abolishing untouchability in Tamil Nadu.
While 75 years have passed, the reality is that Dalits continue to be denied temple entry rights in many parts of the state, especially in villages, said CPI(M) state secretary, G Ramakrishnan.
He said the Dravidian parties have a huge part in the continuing denial of rights. “After Periyar EV Ramasamy’s death, the Dravidian parties that have continuously ruled the state have failed to take up the cause of Dalits, and their ranks have been dominated by those of the intermediate castes” he pointed out. He underlined that the Left parties, particularly the Communist Party of India (Marxist) are the only forces in the forefront of the long struggle against the untouchability.