Ayyankali, who campaigned against the caste system and customs, celebrates his 159th birthday today. Ayyankali represented the oppressed and those who were denied justice.
Ayyankali established the Sadhujana Paripalana Sangam in 1907 and was born in Venganur in the Thiruvananthapuram district. The organization’s mission was to alleviate inequalities for individuals of all classes and religions. Farm labourers banded together to demand their rights to fair salaries, freedom of movement, and access to education. Ayyankali served as the leader of the workers’ strike. He defied the caste supremacy by traveling through the public roads of Thiruvananthapuram in a bullock-cart used only by the upper echelons of society.
At that time, Dalits were prohibited from entering a village’s main street and were not permitted to dress appropriately. Ayyankali made the courageous decision to oppose these cruel treatment of Dalits. He made the decision to engage in “direct action” by himself in order to inspire Dalits to fight. He pushed the cart up and down the narrow market while donning a dhoti, an angavasthram wrapped around his shoulders, and a turban. This caused a huge commotion among Dalits and Dikus alike. No Dalit has ever, even in their wildest fantasies, considered performing such a thing. The audacity of Ayyankali surprised the Dikus as well.
When Ayyankali was younger, Dalits were prohibited from attending schools. He desired that at the very least the Dalit youth would have an education. He led the Pulayas in 1904 as they attempted to build their own schools after being turned away from government institutions. These institutions lacked blackboards. The book and pencil were on the floor in the sand. Dalits so contested the law that says they can’t even learn covertly. In Venganoor, the first Dalit school in history was founded. However, it was destroyed.
Ddikus had imposed a dress code on Dalit men and women for hundreds of years. They were not allowed to dress normally. The only areas of the body that Dalits were allowed to expose were those between the waist and the knee; any deviation from this regulation resulted in cruel punishment, including being tied to a tree and administered lashing. Dalit women were not permitted to cover their upper bodies. The wearing of granite-carved necklaces was the other requirement. The stone necklaces, which hung like a serpent from the bare breasts of women, were a symbol of enslavement. Women were expected to “not cover the upper body” as of late.
Their necks were adorned with a profusion of glass beads and marble necklaces. The wrists had similar material wrapped around them. “Kunukku,” a chunk of iron, suspended from the ears.
Ayyankali coordinated a protest against these “ornaments” in Neyyattinkara and urged the dalit women to stop wearing their custom of wearing necklaces made of carved granite. Instead, he advised them to don suitable blouses. This greatly infuriated the dikus, and riots broke out in several locations around Kerala. However, Dalits, including their women, were unwilling to compromise, and the inhumane dress rule quickly vanished.
He was a very ill guy by 1941. Asthma claimed his life on June 18, 1941. He gave the Dalits of Kerala, notably the Pulayas, civic liberties and freed them from slavery, and they would be forever thankful to him for that.