Today in Dalit History we honor Ayyankali, the Dalit firebrand in Kerala who fought Caste apartheid through innovation and resistance that inspires even till today. A contemporary of Ambedkar he was born into the Pulaya community in Thiruvananthapuram. 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 forced to into draconian states of undress.
In the face of this violence Ayyankali took it as his life mission to challenge every form of Caste discrimination. His rebellion began with an ox-cart. Ayyankali dared to break the Caste restrictions by riding on the public road while also wearing caste hindu clothes. Though attacked by the Upper 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 schools for Dalits with Dalit teachers. Though the school was destroyed by upper caste thugs, this educational revolution could not be stopped. In 1907 the Travancore government passed an order mandating that all Dalit children be admitted into the schools. Despite this law, Upper Castes blocked its implementation to which Ayyankali led a statewide Dalit strike.
Through much difficulty the strike held and the battle for education extended to Dalit rights as exploitative landlords started whipping workers who dared to wear clothing and who also protested the landlords’ sexual exploitation of Dalit women. The outraged landlords started setting the homes of workers on fire. Ayyankali responded by setting the landlord houses on fire. Stricken with fear, never knowing when they might be attacked, the landlords sued for peace.
Through this and all his efforts he constantly faced terrible violence and a state that abetted caste perpetrators. 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 organized 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 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!
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