The Vaikom Satyagraha was one of Kerala’s most important organised agitations for the eradication of untouchability and unapproachability. Its direct objective was to secure the basic civil rights of marginalised castes and to give them access to the public roads surrounding the Shiva temple at Vaikom. The satyagraha commenced on 30th March 1924. Three men from different castes—Kunjappi ( Pulaya), Bahulayan ( Ezhava), and Govinda Panicker (Nair) – walked hand in hand on the road leading to the Shiva temple. They ignored a board that denied entry to lower castes. They were stopped by patrolling policemen who only permitted Panicker to enter. The men remained firm in their resolve to enter the road together. They were arrested but promptly replaced by another three protesters. This marked the commencement of the Vaikom satyagraha which lasted 20 months.
The architect of the movement was T.K. Madhavan, a social reformer and journalist. He protested against the various forms of caste discrimination such as distance pollution, exclusion from places of worship and denial of civic rights. Lower castes could not walk on public roads near temples, could not hold Government jobs and their children could not study in Government schools. Though Madhavan moved a resolution in 1918 to gain access to public roads and temples, he was rejected on the grounds that it was a religious issue . He then approached Gandhi in 1923 for support to launch an agitation for temple entry. Gandhi approved and suggested methods of civil disobedience and non violent satyagraha. T.K. Madhavan also joined the Indian National Congress and drew attention to the Vaikom issue. As a result of his efforts, a anti- untouchability committee was formed by the KPCC. It was decided to inaugurate the program at Vaikom on 1st March 1924 by leading a procession through the forbidden roads around the temple. However, the risk of violence made the leaders change the date to 30th March.
The satyagraha found a powerful guide and source of inspiration in Sree Narayana Guru. He exhorted the satyagrahis to enter the banned roads and face the consequences. They should accept blows without returning them. He encouraged them to enter the temple and partake of the free meal sitting alongside the upper castes. The Government was to be informed of their intentions but there was to be no force or violence. The Guru’s exhortations were in unison with Gandhiji’s idealism and practical wisdom. The Guru visited the venue and even presided over a meeting. The Guru’s exhortations were in unison with Gandhiji’s idealism and practical wisdom. The Guru was visited by Gandhi at Shivagiri in March 1925. The two great leaders were united in their views regarding the use of non- violent satyagraha.
Gandhi’s support of the satyagraha influenced upper caste Hindus and Hindu Associations (Nair Service Society, Kshatriya Sabha, Kerala Hindu Sabha etc.) to endorse and campaign for the Vaikom cause. A ‘savarna jatha’ was organised from Vaikom to Trivandrum, headed by Mannath Padmanabhan, founder of the NSS. Another jatha came from Suchindram in Southern Travancore headed by Dr. M. Perumal Naidu. Both processions had the common purpose of presenting a memorial to the Maharani. They wanted to arouse public opinion against untouchability. The Jatha started on 1st November 1924 and stopped at 200 places to organise meetings to denounce untouchability.
The satyagraha broke all religious and regional boundaries. Christians, Muslims and Sikhs participated in a common cause. Leaders like Periyar Ramaswamy joined the satyagraha along with his wife Nagamma. He was arrested twice and got the title Vaikom Veerar. Women like Narayani Amma, Meenakshi Amma, Thirumalai Amma and Naagamai participated and for the first time in India women were involved in large scale agitation. The National Movement for Independence lent support and leadership to the Vaikim satyagraha. Both movements shared the same social and political perspectives and methods and principles of agitation. The satyagraha is a good example of the mutual relationship between local and national movements.
The problem of road access which was the objective of the satyagraha only symbolised a larger problem—the curse of untouchability. The Vaikom satyagraha brought into the open the problem of untouchability and garnered public support against it. As a result of the movement, the roads around Vaikom temple except for two lanes were open to all castes. The satyagraha was called off on 23rd November 1925. It was the first step in the struggle against religious obscurantism and paved the way for the later temple entry act (1936). The movement brought a historic change in the fate of Kerala. It shook the foundations of the regressive practice of untouchability and paved the way for a better, equitable future for the coming generations.