Kerala is one of the most advanced states in the country in terms of human development indices such as health, education and social mobility. But, the achievements made by Kerala were a result of a series of struggles to shake off the vestiges of caste and feudal privileges in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The struggle for the right to cover their breasts by the women of lower castes, the struggle waged by Ayyankali for access to public roads, temple entry agitation, community eating by breaking caste barriers and reformist movement led by VT Bhattathiripad for the emancipation of women belonging to the Namboodiri community were some of the milestones in the march towards a democratic polity in Kerala.
The struggle for the right to cover breasts: The first decades of the nineteenth century was rocked by a series of uprisings by women belonging to lower castes in the erstwhile state of Travancore for the right to cover their breasts as well as for ending the obnoxious practice of breast tax. The upper caste members of the society reacted violently against the agitation leading to a series of clashes in many parts of Travancore. The struggles which erupted in many parts of Travancore ended in victory in July 1859 with the ruler finally issuing a proclamation granting the right to the women of lower castes to cover their breasts.
Ayyankali’s struggle for the right to use public roads: Ayyankali, one of the greatest radical leaders of the Dalit community in Kerala, pioneered the struggle for the rights of the dalit community for access to public roads. Ayyankali defied the caste restrictions and drove a bullock cart through the public roads in Vengannoor near Thiruvananthapuram in 1893 creating a new sense of public space in Kerala. Ayyankali gathered a group of youngsters from his Pulaya community before embarking on his historic mission. The actions of Ayyankali led to a series of clashes between dalits and member of the upper castes in many parts of Thurivananthapuram and Kollam regions before the rulers granted dalits the right to walk through public roads.
Panthibhojanam or Community feasting by Sahodran Ayyapan: Sahodaran Ayyappan, a great radical activist and thinker belonging to the Ezhava community, took the initiative to break the evil of caste barriers and for eating together by organising a panthibhojanam (community feast) in Cheari near Kochi in 1917. The feast, attended by over 200 persons including pulayas and members of the dalit community, enraged the conservatives of his own caste and they boycotted him. The support granted by Sree Narayana Guru helped Sahodran Ayyappan to overcome the objections raised by the conservative members of the Ezhava community.
Temple Entry agitation: The struggle for the right of lower caste people to walk through public roads in and around Hindu Temples and worship is another important milestone in the history of Kerala’s social reforms. The Vaikkom and Guruvayoor Temple entry satyagrahas paved the way for the historic temple entry proclamation on November 12, 1936 in the state of Travancore.
Emancipation of Namboodiri women: During a time, when women in the Namboothiri community were suffering inequities and oppression within their families, social reformer V.T. Bhattathiripad led movements that challenged the socio-economic status quo in the Namboodiri Community. The initiative launched by VT invited the wrath of the orthodox sections of his community which had socially ostracized him for many years. But, the project launched by VT led to the emancipation of Namboodiri women that in turn helped to end obnoxious practices like Child Marriage and other evils prevailing in the community and ushered in progressive ideas such as widow remarriage and education amongst members of the community.