Subhashini Ali

At the invitation of the Indian Social Club (Kerala wing), Subhashini Ali, CPI(M) Polit Bureau member delivered the Sree Narayan Guru Memorial lecture in Muscat on October 27. Below we reproduce excerpts from the lecture.

WITHOUT understanding the social conditions that prevailed in different parts of Kerala at the time of the birth of Sree Narayan Guru, it is difficult to appreciate the radical changes that he and other social reformers like himself – Kumaran Asan, Ayyankali to mention only two – were able to initiate.  In fact to call them radical changes does not do justice to what they achieved.  They initiated an earthquake that shook the earth and the roots of all that grew on it.  It created cracks in the grand edifices of inequality and oppression that stood on it.  This earthquake ensured that nothing would ever go back to being what it was.

Kerala society at the time of Guruji’s birth in 1856 in Travancore suffered from the worst afflictions of the caste system and Brahmanism. The distinctions between castes were maintained by methods both cruel and sophisticated. Punishments for transgressing caste-boundaries were harsh and humiliating but the sense of superiority that permeated each caste grouping in its attitude towards those just below them in the social hierarchy meant that those who experienced humiliation, violence and unbelievable exploitation at the hands of those above them in the hierarchy were more than eager to treat those below them in much the same way.  Caste-oppression dehumanised both the oppressors and the oppressed because every group within its fold had the opportunity to be both oppressor and oppressed.

While the caste system – varnashram dharma – shared many features in common across India, in Kerala it had been refined to a degree unknown elsewhere.  Caste differences were not expressed only in terms of the employment available to members of different castes and in rules that governed dining and marriage.  Various lower castes had to maintain a particular, defined distance from members of the upper castes. The sounds made by members of lower castes were not allowed to pollute the ears of the upper castes.  There were specific terms that denoted the distance that a member of a polluting caste had to keep between himself and a member of an upper caste. 

The extension of British influence and the activities of Missionaries who established many schools gave some opportunities for progress to those who had been denied this right for centuries.  In North Malabar, some access to education in English and lower-level government jobs was made available to many people belonging to the lower-castes. This naturally created an urge for equal rights of citizenship among them.

Sree Narayan Guru grew up in Travancore where discrimination was practiced in the worst fashion. Another fierce opponent of the caste system born some decades after Sree Narayan Guru, Sree Dharma Teertha, described the situation in Travancore in these words: “In the time of Travancore State as matters stand at present, the Thiyya Hindu of Hindu Travancore has not as much right of free citizenship as the lowest Hindu in the Muhammadan state of Hyderabad or the lowest Hindu of Christian British India.  To be a Hindu in the Hindu State of Travancore is not a mere handicap, it is a curse, it is an insult.”

It was in such a situation that the Guru began his struggle against caste oppression.  In l888 he did what no one had dared to do before.  He took a stone from the river and consecrated it as a Shiva idol in Aruvippuram in South Kerala.  This was an act of great daring and courage.  When he was taken to task by a Namboodri for having transgressed caste-boundaries in the most outrageous fashion, two responses are attributed to him.  The first is “This is an Ezhava Shiva” and the second is “I have not installed a Namboodri Shiva”.  Both these responses indicate Guru’s determination not only to challenge the Brahmanical order but to replace it with another in which the lower castes would enjoy the same status as the highest.  Shiva himself would become an Ezhava.  The Brahmin monopoly over the deities would be broken.  This first temple had the inscription: ‘This is the model abode, where all men live in brotherhood, without any caste distinctions or religious animosities’.

It was after this that the Guru began his movement to combat caste with the building and strengthening of ‘community’ or samudayanam.  This was the first effort to bring all the Ezhava castes and sub-castes into one fold.  Previously, as is the practice under Varnashram dharma, the Ezhavas (and all castes) were divided into many sub-castes and a hierarchy was imposed on them.  As a result, there was no sense of solidarity.  Instead effort was concentrated on proving the superiority of one’s own sub-caste by practicing the worst forms of discrimination and exclusion against others.  The new awakening created by the Guru gradually brought all the sub-castes together and inter-dining and inter-marriages between them soon became the norm.  This was achieved not only through the temples that were established but by the promotion of alternative cultural practices, rituals, emphasis on education, pilgrimages.  These not only created a sense of pride in belonging to a community but also challenged the supremacy of the upper castes in every sphere.

This sense of samudayanam was greatly strengthened by the formation of the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam or the SNDP Yogam in 1903.  Guru was the first president and the great poet, Kumaran Asan, the general secretary.  Here one more name that of Dr Palpu must be added to the founder of the Yogam.  He had experienced great humiliation at the hands of the upper-castes who created hurdles for him at every step of his attempts to become a doctor.  Finally, he had to migrate to Madras presidency and complete his degree there.  He was a dedicated campaigner for the Yogam and the Guru’s cause.

The attacks faced by this movement need to be remembered otherwise the determination and grit of those taking it forward cannot be appreciated.  The second annual conference of the Yogam was held in Kollam in 1905.  For the first time, members of the Ezhava caste who attended as delegates were seen wearing coats and suits.  This was not liked by some.  In fact, violent clashes with the upper- castes took place in the area.  What was remarkable was not that the upper-castes attacked the Ezhavas with physical violence but that the Ezhavas did not take this lying down.  Two interesting comments on this are available.  The ‘Vivekodayam’ publication of the Yogam wrote “Riots make people who could not even approach each other on a public road come to blows and touch one another and that is a great advance.”  The second comment was that of C Kesavan, a prominent follower of the Guru, who said ‘Ezhavas who happened to enter caste-hindu dominated areas were made to fold their umbrellas and made to supplicate and were beaten.  In the Ezhava-dominated areas, the caste hindus were treated in the same way.”

As the Yogam and the community he had established gained strength rapidly, this was accompanied by certain developments that were of concern to the Guru.  As has happened with all caste-based social reform movements, while upper-caste domination was combated bravely, feelings of caste superiority within the community also got strengthened.  A debate about allowing Pulayas to enter and worship in ‘their’ temples started among the Ezhava community throughout Kerala.  Despite the Guru’s teachings, many in his community did not want Pulayas to be allowed entry. 

The Guru’s concern regarding the future of the movement for social equality that he had started was now expressed in many ways.  The nature of the temples he established changed.  Earlier, he had been concerned with appropriating deities and rituals that had been denied to his community.  The temples he built later in his life had no deity at all.  One temple had only a mirror, another had a plaque inscribed with ‘Satyam, Daya, Dharmam, Sneham’, a third had only a burning lamp. The monastery he established in Alwaye had prayer hall for people of all faiths, a library with all scriptures, a high school and hostel for all.

In 1916, he resigned as president of the SNDP and, in the following year, he is said to have argued that temple building should not be encouraged and only small temples should be built.  He laid greater stress on reform, on the establishment of schools and the spread of education.  He also encouraged his followers to take a vow that they would not visit temples which were not open to all castes.

The relationship between the Guru and the movement that he founded with the Hindu religion is one that is the subject of endless debate.  Many of his staunchest supporters maintain that the Guru, in his own unique way, tried to replace Brahmanical, casteist practices or Brahmanical Hinduism with a universal creed of brotherhood.  Others claim that he was a Hindu religious leader first and foremost.

The Guru himself said on several occasions that he did not consider Hinduism to be a religion.  During his meeting with Gandhiji in Varkala in 1925 when he was asked whether he considered the Hindu religion as being sufficient for spiritual salvation he replied ‘There are means of salvation in other religions also.’  When Gandhiji asked him what he thought about religious conversion he replied saying that ‘If we see people who converted to other religions enjoying new freedoms, who can blame them for converting?’

In this context, it is important also to remember that his upper-caste opponents accused him and his followers of wanting to destroy the Hindu religion. To recall one incident – A Sahodara Sangama of the community was held in Alwaye in 1921. The Superintendent of Police (a caste Hindu) sent letter to the Commissioner Police, Travancore  saying ‘this new doctrine (of Sree Narayan Guru)  is opposed to all fundamental principles of the Hindu social system and the social significance of the pronouncement (of the Guru) lies in the fact that Ezhavas are going to have a big organised fight for the destruction of the Hindu social system.’

This issue is one of vital importance to the future of the movement initiated by the Guru.  This is because the history of social movements in India has shown again and again the appropriation or attempt at appropriation of these movements and their leaders by Brahmanical Hinduism.  This attempt is being made in Kerala by many including the leaders of the Sangh Parivar which makes no secret of its own commitment to Manusmriti. Their leaders like Golwalkar are on record as saying that the Constitution of India cannot be accepted by them since their Nyayashastra is the Manusmriti.  This in fact means that it is committed to destroying the legacy of Sree Narayan Guru and re-establishing caste-hierarchy.  It must be re-iterated that there can be no meeting ground between the Manusmriti and Varnashram dharma and the philosophy and teachings of Sri Narayan Guru.  It is important to recall that as recently as August 2017, when an Ezhava priest was appointed to a temple in Chettikorangadara whose committee was controlled by the RSS, he was not allowed to perform pooja there and was driven away.

The fact that the Sangh Parivar is extremely serious about trying to appropriate Sree Narayana Guru and the Yogam into its own fold of militant and casteist Hindutva can be seen from the fact that it approached the Kerala High Court in 2001 insisting that the Yogam and its founder are part and parcel of Hindu society.  However, the Kerala High Court in August 2001 gave a judgment that Sree Narayan Guru and the Ezhava movement ‘cannot be classified under the overarching denomination of Hinduism’.  To bolster their arguments, the judges quoted the Guru’s slogan of “One Caste, One religion and One God for man” and also the fact that he promoted inter-dining and inter-marriage between communities as proof of his movement being antithetical to Brahmanic Hinduism.

What is of the greatest importance is to ensure that the Guru’s movement and samudayanam are kept secure against all attempts at communalisation so that they continue to stand as a bulwark of secularism, protecting the unity of Kerala society.

The nefarious attempt at communalising the samudayanam and thus shattering the dream and vision of the Guru has not succeeded so far not only because of the strength of his legacy but also because of the radical politics that dominate the state.

The working class and peasant movements in Kerala, inspired and led largely by the Communists, derive much of their strength and numbers from the samudayanam and other oppressed castes.  It is the toddy-tappers, the agricultural workers, the small peasants, the coir workers, the daily labourers, the petty businessmen and the educated professionals who form the bulk and the backbone of these and of the Communist parties. It seems that the courage and spirit of defiance that the Guru instilled in these oppressed communities in the battle against caste oppression also propelled them towards participation in the class struggle for economic equality and social and political change.

The relationship between the social reform movement led by Sree Narayan Guru and his associates and later by Ayyankali and others like him and the Communist-led working class and peasant movements is an organic one. Its strength is the strength of Kerala society.  It is the cement that binds all communities in the state with one another.

All attempts to weaken or break this unity must be opposed effectively.  This is the only way in which the Guru’s movement can be taken forward and his legacy protected.

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