ASIA: A social revolution that is underway in Kerala, India

On 8 October 2017, the Kerala State Public Service Commission (PSC) announced the list of candidates who have been recommended by the PSC to be appointed as priests in Hindu temples in the state. Out of the 62 persons named in the list 36 are non-Brahmins. Out of this, 6 persons are from the Dalit community. Unlike in the rest of India, most temples in Kerala are under state administration, managed by four Devaswoms – Guruvayur, Travancore, Malabar and Cochin. Together, these government bodies manage nearly 3000 temples in Kerala.

This historical achievement by the state government in Kerala, accepted as norm by the people of this small Indian state, must be a model for the rest of India and the entire South Asian region, where caste-based discrimination is the norm in daily life. The people in Kerala did not protest against the appointments but welcomed it. Such an act is unthinkable in rest of India, where deaths of Dalit students like Rohith Vemula and Muthukrishnan Jeevanantham is the norm.

The revolutionary Temple Entry Proclamation in Kerala was made on 12 November, 1936. Through this royal proclamation, the ruler of the erstwhile princely state of Travancore, Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma, abolished the prohibition of the co-called “untouchables” or “avarnas” from entering the temples in Travancore state.

One of the important movements that led to the Temple Entry Proclamation was the Vaikom Satyagraha (1924-25). This protest was to allow the “avarnas” to use the roads near temples. Their right to enter the temple roads and to use other spaces which were exclusively meant for the so-called “upper-caste” was the initial demand of the agitators, who later on demanded the right to enter temples.

The Vaikom Satyagraha was energised primarily by the efforts for social reformation in Kerala by leaders like Sri Narayana Guru, Kochu Kunjan Channar, Kunju Panicker, Kumaran Asan and E. V. Ramasami (Periyar). As the head of the Satyagraha, Periyar was imprisoned twice.

The then Cochin and Malabar princely rulers did not follow suit and in fact objected to the proclamation. The ruler of Cochin went to the extent of declaring the entire citizens of Travancore as “untouchables”. He forbade citizens of Travancore from entering temples under the control of Cochin government due to the “fear of pollution.” The ruler in Malabar, also referred to as the Zamorin of Calicut, tried to avoid the issue by claiming that ‘he cannot make such a proclamation like his counterpart in Travancore, since the Zamorin is only a trustee of Hindu temples.’

However, Cochin and Malabar states allowed temple entry to the so-called lower caste in 1947. Despite the proclamations of 1936 and 1947, Kerala had to undergo several struggles to experience the complete realisation of “temple entry” by the “untouchables.”

The Temple Entry Proclamation is a milestone in the history of Travancore and later for the rest of Kerala. Today, the Temple Entry Proclamation Day is considered as Social Reformation Day by the Government of Kerala.

The first three persons who were arrested for participating in the Vaikom Satyagraha are Kunjappy, Bahuleyan and Venniyil Govindan. Of this, Kunjappy is from the Pulaya community. Within the draconian caste hierarchy, Pulayas were viewed to be one among the lowest of the lowest. 93 years since Kunjappy’s arrest, by appointing Yadu Krishnan, from the Pulaya community as a priest in one of the temples in the state, the people of this small state is celebrating true “temple entry”, a model for the rest of South Asia.

None of the 6 Dalits appointed as temple priests are from economically well-placed families. Yadu Krishnan, who is the 4th rank holder in the examination and interview conducted by the PSC is from a poor family. His parents are unskilled labourers, who invested in their child’s education. Yadu Krishnan is reading for his second year MA in Sanskrit literature. Several years ago, a Dalit learning Sanskrit was considered to be an “unpardonable sin” by caste Hindus.

Of the other 5 Dalits appointed as temple priests, Mr. P. S. Sumesh, Mr. M. K. Padeepkumar, and Mr. G. Jeevan are all from the Pulaya community. Mr. P. C. Manoj is from the Vetuva community.

Other than for Sumesh, all of these young men are children of unskilled labourers. Sumesh’s parents works for the state government service. All 6 of them have excelled in their studies. For instance, Jeevan holds a BA degree in history, Manoj learned vedic studies, Padeep has a degree in computer science, and Sumesh has a BA degree in English literature. Unlike what would have happened in the rest of South Asia, even the representative body of Kerala Namboodiries (Brahmins) have welcomed the appointments of the 36 non-Brahmins as priests in Hindu temples across the state and termed the appointment as the “true social transformation” in the state.

What Kerala has witnessed this past week, of appointments of non-Brahmins as temple priests, does not imply that caste-based discrimination does not exist in the state. The evil of caste-based discrimination that is at least 3000 years old will take much more than the appointment of 36 non-Brahmins as priests in temples across Kerala.

Yet, this positive and revolutionary progress could not have been achieved in Kerala, without the preparation that the community in Kerala has undergone over the past few decades, of which education and the absolute end of feudalism has played a vital role. By comparison with the rest of India, Kerala has progressed far ahead on such matters.

This transformation of Kerala is perhaps what the Dalit movements of South Asia should study and emulate. Unfortunately, some actors within the Dalit movement is still on a denial mode – that a change and transformation is impossible. For instance, many in the Dalit movement in India did not bother to celebrate what a small state like Kerala has achieved. Some did not even bother to care or pretended ignorance. None of the 36 non-Brahmins, now appointed as temple priests in Kerala, received a congratulatory message from the Dalit movements in South Asia.

Caste-based discrimination is a social evil, that requires on one hand, endless protest against the evil, and at the same time the celebration of successes, however small it might be. The appointment of 36 non-Brahmins as temple priests is not a small deed. What therefore is required for caste-based discrimination in South Asia to end is the belief that this evil could be ended. Without this minimum trust, in change, and therefore a work towards achieving it, rest of South Asia will continue to remain a hunting ground of caste Hindus where predatory norms of suppression and mass violence are the models.