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100 years of Vaikom Satyagraha

  • Published
    1st Apr, 2023

Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin will inaugurate the centenary celebrations of the Vaikom Satyagraha, started from 30 March 1924.

  • It was a mass Temple entry movement for lower caste people.

The social context of Travancore at the dawn of the 20th century:

  • The princely state of Travancore had a “feudal, militaristic, and ruthless system of custom-ridden government”.
  • In Travancore, the idea of caste pollution worked not only on the basis of touch but also sight.
    • This was documented by travellers such as Portuguese Duarte Barbosa who wrote in his memoirs, “When (upper caste Nairs) walk along a street, they shout to the low caste folk to get out of their way, this they do and if one will not, the Nairs may kill him.”
  • However, in the second half of the 19th century, a number of social and political developments would usher in social change much faster than ever before.
    • First, Christian missionaries, supported by the East India Company, had expanded their reach and many lower castes converted to Christianity to escape the clutches of an oppressive system that continued to bind them.
    • Second, westernised Maharaja Ayilyam Thirunal undertook many progressive reforms took place because of pressure from the British Resident.
      • Most important of these was the introduction of a modern education system with frees primary education for all – even lower castes.
    • Third, forces of capitalism and these reforms created new social hierarchies – which were not always congruent with traditional ones.
  • The rise of the Ezhava community:
  • The Ezhavas emerged as “the most educated and organised untouchable community in Travancore”

However, although some Ezhavas successfully pursued education as a portal to advancement, overall it offered little help in obtaining jobs in the government service because such posts were reserved for members of the upper castes.

The lead up to the Vaikom Satyagraha:

  • The issue of temple entry was first raised by Ezhava leader TK Madhavan in a 1917 editorial in his paper
  • When Gandhi came to south India in 1921, Madhavan managed to arrange a meeting with him and secured his support for a mass agitation to enter temples.
  • Due to various reasons, it would take two more years before any concrete progress was made in the matter.
  • In the 1923 Kakinada session of the INC, a resolution was passed by the Kerala Provincial Congress Committee to take up anti-untouchability as a key issue.
  • This was followed by a massive public messaging campaign and a movement to open Hindu temples and all public roads to avarnas.

Vaikom, a small town with a revered Shiva temple, was chosen as the location for the first Satyagraha.

  • Notably, to widen the appeal of the movement leaders chose not to emphasise on the issue of temple re-entry to begin with. Rather, the movement focussed on opening up the four roads around the temple to avarnas.

The Satyagraha:

  • Satyagrahis made efforts to use the 4 roads around the temple. However, they were stopped by the police and arrested, with the crowd dispersed. But this whole drama repeated itself again and again –
  • Between April and September, protests reached their peak.
  • Leaders such as Periyar and C Rajagopalachari came to Vaikom to offer support and lead the protesters.
  • On the other hand, counter-agitations raged on and protesters were often met with violence and intimidation from conservative caste Hindus.
  • In March 1925, Gandhi began his tour of Travancore and was able to iron out a compromise: three out of the four roads surrounding the temples were opened up for everyone but the fourth, eastern road was kept reserved for Brahmins.
  • This was finally implemented in November 1925, when the government completed diversionary roads that could be used by the low castes without polluting the temple. On November 23, 1925, the last satyagrahi was recalled from Vaikom.
  • Vaikom Satyagraha saw previously unseen unity across caste lines, which was crucial for this continued mobilisation.
  • The (upper caste) leadership of the Congress was able to coerce the caste-Hindus to compromise on the question of temple-entry as the only viable means to ward off religious conversion which challenged the very survival of the Hindu community.
  • It would lead to a rift within the Congress with Periyar famously falling out with Gandhi over the issue.
  • While Gandhi, as always, was keen on a good compromise, for Periyar, the struggle had to be much more radical.
  • In November 1936, the historic Temple Entry Proclamation was signed by the Maharaja of Travancore which removed the age-old ban on the entry of marginalised castes into the temples of Travancore.
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