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close this bookKerala: Radical Reform as Development in an Indian State (FF, 1994, 140 p.)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentAcknowledgments
View the document1. Introduction to the 1994 printing
View the document2. The land of coconuts
View the document3. Kerala's achievements
View the document4. Behind Kerala's success
View the document5. Food for all
View the document6. Health
View the document7. Education
View the document8. Land reform
View the document9. Helping workers
View the document10. Overcoming caste
View the document11. Women and the Kerala reforms
View the document12. Lessons from Kerala
View the documentNotes
View the documentNotes to the introduction
View the documentBibliography
View the documentInstitute publications
View the documentAbout the institute

10. Overcoming caste

In 1893 a Kerala man named Ayyankali traveled in a bullock cart along a public road. His simple act constituted a major public protest against a centuries-old system of indignity that required "untouchables" like him to observe numerous restrictions on their movements. He should have walked. He should have called out his presence to any higher caste persons so they could avoid coming into contact with him or even close to him. He should have been prepared to get off the road altogether in the presence of men of certain higher castes, who might otherwise have killed him on the spot.

Awankali's lone protest was but one incident in Kerala's long history of caste oppression and the struggle against it. To understand the changes in Kerala, we shall first give a brief description of India's caste system and Kerala's local version of it. Then we shall examine the history of anticaste struggles in Kerala.

India's Caste System

The castes of India constitute a giant classification system in which all people were traditionally placed. Each person is born into the caste of his or her parents. In the past and still to a certain extent, your caste determines whom you can marry, what kind of work you do, which religious rituals you perform, which gods you worship, to which people you owe special duties, how others treat you and think of you, even how your body will be dealt with after death. The caste system permeates all aspects of Indian life.

A major function of the caste system was to sort people into categories of wealth and status in a highly unequal way and then to provide social and religious justification for that inequality. One way of doing this was through the concepts of purity and pollution. The higher castes were richer, more powerful, and pure. The lowest castes were impoverished, powerless, and so polluted that the higher castes considered them literally untouchable.

TABLE 13: A Brief Guide to Caste

Caste Categories


Kerala Namesa

% of Karala Populationb

Savarna Castes


Priests Landlords

Nambudiris, Tamil Brahmins



Soldiers Administrators

Upper Nairsc









and Muslims


Avarna Castes


Cultivators Servants

Lowers Nairs


Coconu tree climbers

Ezhavas (Iravas Tiyyas)



Farm and menial workers

Pulayas Cherumas


Tribal peoples

Farmers workers


(a) The Kerala name refers here only to Isrge and generally representafive groups offen mentioned in the literature. Many smaller castes can also be identified.

(b) The percent of population data are for 1968 as estiimated in the Kerala government-sponsored Nettoor Commission (Nair 1976:3). The 4 percent not accounted for above are various other castes.

(c) India specialists will note that Nairs are formally thought of as Sudras. The social and economic roles of some Nair subcastes such as the Kiriyatil, however, include those of Kshatriyas in other parts of India. The Upper and Lower Nair percentages are adapted from data in Fuller 1976:37.

TABLE 14: A Guide to Some Indian Caste Terminology

Caste Concept

Approximate Eniglish Meaning


Literally,”color" referringtothefourcaste categories: Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaisyas, and Sudras as listed in table 13.


A member of any one of the four varnas. It is some times also translated as “Caste Hindu.”


Belowthe Savarnas, the lowest members of the caste hierarchy. It refers to Untouchables and closely reated groups such as the Ezhavas and Pulayas shown in table 13.


Literally “birth” referring to the local caste or subcaste group, the term of most direct meaning to people. Each Varna has thousands of Jatis within it. Those below the four varnas are also members of local jatis.


Literaly "children of God" the name given by Gandhi to former Untouchables such as the Pulayas in table 13.

Scheduled Castes

Used for lowest castes including Untouchables to

Scheduled Tribes

designate their access to special employment and other programs by the Indian government.


Literally "oppressed," a term preferred by militant former Untouchables in many parts of India to designate the political and economic nature of their struggle for better living conditions and dignity.

(a) According to the 1981 census, as many as 105 million Indians belong to formerly untouchable or related groups (Joshi 1986:3).

A simplified picture of India's caste system is given in table 13. Several major concepts are defined in table 14. The highest caste is that of the Brahmins. They hold the most sacred place in Hindu rituals. In many rural areas the Brahmins also were, and continue to be, the main landowners. They were thus generally the wealthiest and most powerful group, though only a tiny portion of the population.

Below the Brahmins, people were grouped in descending order of Hindu purity-and wealth and status approximately-until the bottom group was reached. These were the untouchables. In addition to the ritual and religious connotations, untouchables were also so named from the dirty and demeaning work they did. This included labor in the muddy fields, handling corpses of animals or humans, washing menstrual garments of highcaste women, and cleaning feces from the latrines of higher-caste households.

Untouchables lived in extreme poverty in outlying colonies. They had no political rights and were considered disgusting and immoral in their behavior by the higher castes. The untouchables, however, did much of traditional India's basic labor and thus produced much of the wealth that others enjoyed. From the privileged Brahmins at the top to the underfed untouchables at the bottom, the caste system enforced and perpetuated rigid control and "stability."

Because the caste system determines a person's worth according to the group into which he or she is born, it bears strong resemblances to racism in the United States. Indeed, numerous Indian writers have made this direct comparison. The structure of caste and the struggle against it thus have many striking parallels to movements for racial equality in the United States.

Caste in Kerala

Of all the regions of India, Kerala had the most rigid and elaborate caste structure. The nineteenth-century Indian reformer Swami Vivokananda called Kerala "a madhouse of caste." In table 13, we can see the approximate Kerala equivalents for India's general caste groups. But in Kerala, enforcement of caste privileges went further than anywhere else. The requirements of the system to demean and degrade those below you can be seen in the following examples of constraints on the lowest castes:

- They were tied or bonded to particular high-caste households for whom they were always on call as laborers or servants.

- They lived on land owned by the master households and could be evicted at will if they displeased them.

- They were forbidden entry into the main Hindu temples.

- They were not allowed to bathe in the temple-ponds.

- They were not allowed in the public markets.

- They were not allowed to put gate houses at the entrance to their garden plots.

- They were not allowed to have the roofs on their houses.

- Neither men nor women were allowed to wear shirts, blouses, or a covering cloth above the waist.

- They were forbidden to come physically within prescribed distances of higher-caste members and could be punished by death for violating this taboo.

- They had to use extremely self-debasing forms of speech when talking to members of castes above them.

- They could not take water from wells belonging to other castles116

These restrictions constitute severe discrimination against the lowest castes. But, as with racism in the United States, underlying the many forms of personal humiliation is grinding poverty and economic exploitation. A grim account of daily life for Kerala's untouchable farm laborers was recorded by Krishna lyer in 1909:

In rural parts, very early in the morning, they may be seen going with a pot or leafbasket to their masters' houses for the remains offood end instructions for the day's work. They are kept toiling all day manuring, planting, weeding, and transplanting with the sun or rain beating upon their naked heads and often with their feet in the mire or water several feet deep. In the evening after their hard work, when they return to their huts hungry or fatigued, they have to prepare their food which consists of rice with some pepper and salt or perhaps some curry, and before their meal is prepared, it is about ten o'clock or sometimes even later.117

It was against conditions such as these that Ayyankali rode his bullock cart in struggle.

Popular Movements against Caste Discrimination

Awankali's ride was neither the beginning nor the end of protest against caste discrimination. As early as the 1820s, untouchable women had agitated for the right to cover their bodies fully. Other sporadic caste protests occurred throughout the nineteenth century. By 1898 Ayyankali was leading a group of untouchables along a public road and into a public market. This act stirred the passions of high-caste Hindus, some of whom attacked the group.

A few years later, Ayyankali helped organize a strike by field laborers and led struggles for untouchable children to be admitted to government schools. The farm workers lost their first strike, and many of the schools were burned down by upper-caste opponents.118

By the first two decades of the twentieth century, however, caste traditions were beginning to weaken and the entire structure of indignities and exploitation began to crack. In chapter 7, we described how the caste improvement associations helped forge popular support for expanded education in Kerala. These educational achievements aided Kerala's lowest castes in gaining access to social mobility and a better life.

Stages in the Caste Struggle

We can identify four major stages in the struggle of Kerala's lowest caste people against bias and indignities and for social and economic rights: spontaneous protests, caste improvement associations, the Temple Entry Movement, and alliance with the radical left and the workers' movement.

Spontaneous Protest. These were the main forms of protest in the nineteenth century. They include the clothing agitations and Awankali's early struggle for use of the public roads, as already mentioned above.

Caste Improvement Associations. These, too, have been described somewhat in earlier sections of this report. The caste improvement associations were instrumental in opening some roads and other public places to low-caste people. In particular, the lowestcaste untouchable Pulayas often united with the far more numerous Ezhavas, who were a notch above them on the inequality ladder. The combined strength of the two groups forced the higher castes to grant them a few government jobs and opened access to education in the early years of the twentieth century. But the caste associations by themselves would not have been able to go much further had it not been for two additional developments: the Temple Entry Movement and the alliance with the radical left.

The Temple Entry Movement. Just as the civil rights movement in the United States came to focus on certain of the most visible aspects of segregation, such as public transportation and lunch counters, the movement for caste justice in Kerala focused on a special target: entry into Hindu temples. Perhaps because this very Hinduism denied them their dignity as human beings and because keeping them out of the sacred places of the religion so dramatically symbolized the concept of pollution, forcing entry into the temples became the major cause of the caste movements of the 1920s and 1930s. Among the many temple satyagrahas, or truth struggles, as Gandhi had named them, were the Chengannoor struggle of 1917, the Vaikom Temple Entry Satyagraha of 1924, the struggle et Kerala's mostfamous temple at Guruvayoor in 1932 and the fight for the eventual Travancore Temple Entry Act of 1936.119

The most dramatic was the campaign to open the great Siva Temple at Vaikom in north Travancore, launched in 1924. As with other temples, Vaikom's approach roads were closed to low-caste people. It was near the subdistrict of Shertallai, where an incipient leftist movement had begun among coconut fiber workers of the Ezhava caste. Leaders of the movement announced that they would attempt to use the roads approaching the temple. The first act was an attempt to use one of the roads by three leaders, each representing a particular caste. One was a Nair, a member of one of the highest castes in Kerala. The three nonviolent disobeyers of the law were arrested before thousands of assembled onlookers. Similar arrests occurred again and again for eleven days. Then the government set up barricades before which thousands of people sat, fasted, and sang patriotic songs. Eleven months later the regional legislature failed by a single vote to pass a law opening the roads.

The following year the Indian nationalist leader Gandhi visited the protest, but was able only to negotiate a temporary standoff agreement that left the demonstrators unsatisfied. Finally in November 1925, twenty months after it began, the great Vaikom Temple Entry Satyagraha ended when the government completed a series of alternative roads so that low-caste people could approach the temple, while high-caste people still had a vestige of their old privileges. In 1936 the temple was finally and fully opened to all castes.120

Although the Vaikom struggle ended in somewhat of a mixed outcome, it stimulated great excitement and political ferment throughout Kerala. The spectacle of the police barricading the roads to the temple and facing off against crowds in the thousands fostered greater passions and more radical ideas among the lowestcaste people, along with some of their middle' and uppercaste supporters. In particular, the vacillating role of Gandhi himself seems to have aided in the growth of more left-wing, antireligious sentiment among many of the nationalist organizers, who saw the temple movement as a way to unite all the nonBrahmin castes in Kerala against British rule and for a just and egalitarian independent India. The present-day weakness of the C Congress party throughout south India may derive from Gandhi's wavering in the political struggles of low caste people.

Alliance with the Radical Left and the Workers' Movement. In the aftermath of the temple entry struggles, untouchables and their other low-caste allies became more and more united with Kerala's growing trade union and Communist movement. It was then that some of the caste system's ugliest features were frontally attacked.

One feature of this process was the role of high-caste radicals in helping to organize unions among the poorest and lowest caste people. This meant going to their houses, sitting next to them at meetings, and-when police repression struck, as it often did- hiding with them, working at close quarters with them, and breaking the dining segregation that was a major symbol holding the concept of pollution in place.

Anthropologist Kathleen Cough has followed Kerala politics for many years. She notes that although all the major political groups in Kerala officially preach an end to untouchability, "it is the Communists who eat in the homes and tea shops of Harijans [former untouchables], organize drama clubs among them, file suits on their behalf, and agitate for fixed tenures, higher wages, and a share in the land."121

Anthropologist Joan Mencher, who has also studied Kerala society for many years, quotes a Harijan villager in 1971 who remembers:

Twenty years ago, the influence of Communism brought a new shape to the life of my village. Some of the high-caste Nairs became the spokesmen of this new ideology. My father and uncles also joined them. They, the leaders of all castes, conducted meetings in Pulaya houses, slept in Paraya houses, etc. This phenomenon actually swept away the caste feeling in my village, especially untouchability. I have gone to the homes of many high-caste friends, and they come to my house also and acceptfood. We have many Nair friends who come to my family house, take food and sleep overnight.122

Along with the real and important role of union and Communist organizers in helping to win economic benefits such as land reform and higher wages, great importance was attached to simpler acts such as breaking the eating taboos and crossing the thresholds of each others' houses. These acts cemented the anti-discrimination struggle by making its principles real in people's immediate lives.

Jobs and Dignity: The Continuing Struggle

What has the caste reform movement achieved? Besides having high-caste friends and comrades, what have the lower castes gained? Part of the answer has already been given in earlier sections where we saw the achievements of the land reform, higher wages, and welfare programs. But have the lowest castes really gained mobility from all this organizing and struggle?

One area of clear but limited gain has been in education. As discussed earlier, lowcaste people in Kerala have much greater literacy than in the rest of India (see table 2). They are also nearer to the higher castes in educational levels than lowcaste people in any other state.

The continuing poverty of the former untouchables, however, severely limits their ability to make use of even the vastly expanded educational services in Kerala. Because they are so poor and because most have not been able to break out of jobs as agricultural laborers, low-caste parents must often put their children to work in the fields to earn additional household income. This makes them unable to compete with children of the other castes at exam time. One solution to this problem is the school lunch program, which helps keep low-caste children in attendance. Equally important is the fairly large system of scholarships. By 1988 over 587,000 Scheduled Caste (SC) and Scheduled Tribe (ST) students received some form of scholarship aid. This affected 79 percent of all students in that category. Another 65,000 got higher-level scholarships, while over 3,400 received dormitory accommodations and clothing allowances to help them stay in school.123

Expanding education creates the potential to improve the job mobility of the lower castes. After gaining literacy, many low' caste people have become officers in the farm workers' and other unions, especially in Alleppey and other areas where the union movement has been active for the longest time. In addition, former untouchables have risen in the political parties to positions of power and influence. The elected Communist government of 1957 included four Pulaya cabinet members, as did the elected United Left Front government a decade later.124 In 1971 for the first time a former untouchable became a district collector in Kerala, one of the highest appointed administrative offices.125

At a more general level SC and ST representation in higher (gazetted) government jobs-the sector most easily influenced directly by government affirmative action, or reservation, policies-rose from 8.6 percent in 1987 to 10.4 percent in 1988- well below the rates for lower government jobs but almost at parity with their 11 percent proportion of the population.126 This was largely the result of dramatic increases in the reservations held for SC and ST applicants after the first Communist government in 1957 and under the recently elected Left Democratic Front. In lower level jobs, 11.2 percent were from these disadvantaged groups in 1988.127

Despite these impressive gains, SC and ST positions in universities, medical institutions, and scientific centers are said informal' ly to lag far behind. Only a few statistics are available. At the University of Kerala, for example, only 1 percent of the staff are from the lower castes or tribes.128 Statistics on private sector employment are also not known to us. There are many recent examples of left and other groups organizing satyagrahas outside the offices of large employers to demand increases in job openings for former untouchables.

With all these accomplishments and with a political atmosphere in which their rights are officially recognized and their influence is fairly large, members of the former untouchable groups are still found mostly in the lowest-paid traditional occupations such as farm labor. Their struggle for basic dignity and recognition may be largely won, but the economic system continues to deprive them in many ways of the mobility and income increases for which they have now been fighting for nearly a century.129

Even temple entry battles may not be entirely over. Kathleen Gough witnessed as late as 1964 an unsuccessful attempt by lowcaste Pulayas to carry out a ritual in a high-caste Nair temple in central Kerala.130 There may well be temples even today that maintain effective caste exclusion.

Caste Violence: Kerala's Unique Profile

One of the most important aspects of caste in India today is the widespread violence against former untouchables. Across the country, right-wing terrorist groups and landlord hirelings burn the homes of lowcaste people and attack and kill them with alarming frequency. These attacks often follow peaceful attempts by low-caste people to improve their lives. In recent years, official accounts record more than 10,000 such cases annually. Human rights workers in India estimate the number to be far greater. Police and courts all too often find insufficient evidence to convict the assailants. An example will illustrate: "In one grimly typical case, a state high court recently acquitted all those accused of the mass murder in daylight of fourteen Untouchables in the central Indian village of Kestara in 1982."131

A government study in 1979 called the Report of the Commissioner for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes found that 53 percent of villages in an all-India sample still bar Harijans from using common village wells, and 71 percent still bar them from the local village Hindu temple.132Hundreds of reports in recent years tell of beatings and gang rapes of untouchables who attempt to change their conditions.133

Amidst this violence and brutality against low-caste people, Kerala today stands as an island of peace and tranquility. Caste bigotry has certainly not been removed from Kerala's social life, and high-caste groups do organize and agitate against the reservations policy. Informally, high-caste people often complain about the "unfair" advantages of the former untouchables. And even violence is not totally absent. Women's organizations in Kerala assert that it is still possible for high-caste men to rape lowcaste women and not be punished. But compared to the rest of India, Kerala seems years ahead in its climate of relatively peaceful change for people at the bottom of the caste system. Organized gang attacks by landlords have been largely made irrelevant by the land reform. The strength of the unions and the militant egalitarian ideology of the leftist parties make it far more difficult socially and physically, for goon squads to attack lowcaste communities. The fairly well established position of former untouchables in government ministries and the local bureaucracies means that such attacks receive greater government response; these ministers and bureaucrats must respond to their constituents, who include many low-caste voters who turn out in elections and for demonstrations.

One example illustrates the general political climate in Kerala regarding this issue. In 1986 it was reported that members of the police gang raped several tribal women in a highland village. The conservative Congress party chief minister-equivalent to a governor in the United States-made demeaning and derogatory remarks about the women, demanding in effect that they come and prove to him that they had been raped. The controversy surrounding this issue was not completely resolved, but the incident became a major part of the 1987 election campaign in which the Left Democratic Front defeated the chief minister's party. Observers agree that the minister's handling of the event contributed to his party's loss, although he himself retained his seat in the Legislative Assembly.

Kerala in recent years has seen some increase in caste violence of this kind. The emergence of a radical right-wing Hindu religious party in particular threatens some of the gains of the recent past. Its 7 percent of the vote in 1987 is a clear danger sign for the future, as this party is widely believed to represent the basic ideas of the right-wing gangs that have attempted to operate against unions and the Communists.134 It is nonetheless significant that the Left Democratic Front ran its 1987 election campaign largely on a principled stand against communalism, the Indian code word for religious and caste separatism and violence, and attracted in the process an increase in middle-class urban support while more or less maintaining its hold on the poor. Kerala's record is thus endangered, but in contrast to most other parts of India, the most powerful forces in the state at present are aligned against caste violence.