Community Struggles Towards Democracy - Part 1

KK Kochu

kk kochu profile1Democracy, according to Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, is not just an order of governance, but it is a way of living. Unsegregated living with sense of unity and sharing of acquired experiences is necessary in order to achieve such a state. He has said that it is impossible to achieve such a state in a society socially divided by caste system. So, the entire population, irrespective of the savarna-avarna divide, has to be mobilized in our social and political struggle for democracy.

Indian Imagination

Dr. Ambedkar’s concept of democracy was not modelled from western political experiences of the same. He speaks of this in a speech he gave for All India Radio (AIR) in 1956. It is rooted in the historical experiences of India starting from the time of Buddhism. In ascending path, caste gives you nobility, and in descending path, it imposes contempt. Fraternity is inevitable to break this Chinese wall found nowhere else in the world. Sree Narayana Guru also supported this thought when he said ‘all are brothers’. That is why it is criminal to negate the inherent equality of different social groups.

ambedkar drawingAccording to Dr. Ambedkar, freedom is the right to use one’s faculty in a productive and efficient manner. That is, it is the freedom to choose a profession irrespective of the profession traditionally followed by one’s caste. The lack of such freedom is slavery. Such a slavery institutionalized through casteism persists by inflicting the interests of certain individuals and social groups on others. Thus, freedom is the right to lead a civilized life for individuals and social groups. Equality does not mean that all humans become one, but the humane and just distribution of opportunities.

Social Democracy

Democracy becomes acceptable for different individuals in different social tiers through theirintervention in the political sphere. The duty of the state is to help realize the designs shaped from such interventions through law making. It is in such a context in India, where caste stood against co-existence itself, thatarguments for representation of different communities and classes in the governing bodies were raised. Ambedkar understands this conversion of existing form of democracy to social democracy in the following way, ‘What is the importance of communal award which gives political power to communities and classes in a certain proportion? It implies that a political constitution should take into consideration social organizations. It means that those politicians who insisted that social issues in India have  no relation to political issues whatsoever, were forced to consider social issues while shaping the constitution. It is a just return for avoiding social reforms.’ This concept formed during the independence struggle is relevant to this day.

Even though the social democracy envisioned through communal award is far away, Dalits, Adivasis, backward castes, religious minorities, women, farmers, workers, the landless, sexual minorities, environmental activists, middle class etc. have arisen against economic and caste hierarchy. The present demands a political mission which brings together these groups which possess diverse economic, social and communal interests. In this context, the attempt here is to historically analyze the community based political organizations that were formed in Travancore.

Travancore in history

An orthodox Hindu rule based on Manusmriti and Brahmin priesthood prevailed in Travancore unlike many other princely states of British India. The ultimate aim of the King’s rule was to protect the Brahmins and to maintain caste and related rituals. As a result, brutal and inhuman violence prevailed for centuries.

travancore tippuIn the absence of land tax, hundreds of other taxes such as breast tax, moustache tax, and ladder tax were imposed on common people. Travancore stood apart from other princely states with the existence of untouchability, death penalty with torture (Chithravadham), oppression of women and slavery. Since January 20, 1750, when Marthanda Varma, who became the king of Venad in 1929, submitted the state to Sree Padmanabhan (A Deity), all the looted wealth from the people were collected in temples. Moreover, the main governance was to conduct rituals and to manage eating-houses (oottupura) of Brahmins which cost lakhs of rupees. A change in this condition happened when, as part of resisting Tipu Sultan’s attack, the British authority was accepted in 1795 following which the Resident appointed by the colonial state got control over the royal authority from 1800. This led to changes in the socioeconomic sphere, the main beneficiaries of this transformation being the different communities.


The construction of roads had a main role in modernizing Travancore. By the middle of the 19th century, road construction had started. In 1866, the public works department had constructed 193 miles of roads. In 1872, Kollam-Chenkotta road was completed. Later, thousands of miles of roads were built. But, instead of these roads becoming useful to all, they were mainly used to transport pepper, coffee, areca nuts etc. from the eastern hillsides to the port cities such as Allappuzha. Thus, its main beneficiaries were British estate owners and Syrian Christians who were engaged in business with them. Later, when coir production and export developed, roads became useful to Ezhavas also. Even though these roads were declared as public roads in 1870, until Ayyankali’s Villuvandi Yatra in 1898, these roads remained closed to untouchable castes.

Although pressure from British led to changes in extreme modes of punishment such as torturing to death, proving truth by dipping hand in boiling oil and ripping apart using elephants, Dalits were not allowed access to the new courts. Savarna judges received proof or witness statements from Dalits by keeping them at a prescribed distance and through peons. Apart from such denials of civil rights, Dalits were also denied right to property. This denial of right to own land was most crippling part of the oppression. The main objective of land reforms enforced throughout the nineteenth century was to stop the lease system of government land and to start the system of giving tenure. As a result, ownership of almost 2 lakh acres of government land went to the lease holders. In hillsides, these lands were given for cash crop cultivation. All the benefits of these reforms thus went to the ruling family members, Europeans, and Syrian Christians. When the better jobs at the estates went to Syrian Christians, the Dalits and migrants from Tamil Nadu were forced into doing more hard labor.

When fallow lands, backwater banks, and low lands were being given, it also went to Syrian Christians and Nairs. Along with Dalits, backward castes also were excluded from this land distribution.


Now, let’s take the case of governance. Even though political power rested with the king and the resident, the governance was controlled by migrant Brahmins. It was missionaries who started colonial education system, after English education gained importance by the middle of nineteenth century. Most of the students at missionary schools were Syrian Christians. Such an education helped Syrian Christians to have this alliance with British rule, and later when educational qualification was made a criteria for government jobs, Nairs also entered into the realm of modern education. If the literacy of Nairs in 1875 was 21%, it rose rapidly to 37% in 1891. In the same period, literacy of Ezhavas increased from 3.5% to 12%. Still, 45% of the government jobs were with migrant Brahmins at that time. This led to the Malayali Memorial of Nairs in 1891 and Ezhava memorial in 1896.

Nairs argued in Malayali memorial about how they were not backward to any other groups, how they were rulers until recent times, and also how they were the ones who pay the highest tax amount as land owners. They demanded representation in government service on the basis of these arguments. Even though there were some Ezhava signatories in that, it only talked about the issues of Nairs. The style of Ezhava memorial was not any different. However Ezhavas got the representation only after protests and organizational work.

travancore ayyankali panchami

Ayyankali and Panchami - Sketch by EV Anil

In the above mentioned period, the representation of Dalits in government service was very poor. In 1907, after protests under Ayyankali’s leadership, a government order was issued to allow entry of Dalits in schools. When that order was not implemented, Ayyankali forcefully took admission for Panchami, a Pulaya girl, in Ooruttambalam school in 1910. Following that, caste Hindus burned down the school. In the face of such bitter repercussions, Sadhu Jana Paripalana Sangham declined to do any agricultural labor for a year in 1913.

Positive Changes

During the reign of the Travancore King, some transformations were brought about, that affected society in general and the downtrodden in particular. One such change was the shift of the economy to a cash based system. This led to increased exportation and taxes for government which led to increase in the value of land and development of business. For workers, wages started to be paid in the form of money. Another change was the starting of the public works department. This change helped Ezhavas and Dalits to move away from traditional caste occupations to new occupations. Oozhiyam vela, which forced Ezhavas to do wageless labour for government and temples was stopped. It also served as motivation for Ezhavas to migrate to Ceylon and such countries.

But what affected Dalits was the abolition of slavery. In 1847, there were 16,500 slaves in Travancore. One group was under the control of government and the remaining were under control of private parties. They were forced to do hard labor in the fields without ample food or rest. As a result of pressure from missionaries the slaves under government control were freed in 1853 and those under private groups were freed in 1855. Even though slavery was abolished, the second act of slavery abolition declaration proclaimed that ‘the freed slaves would be under the caste system.’ Thus, the freed slaves still had to face caste violence and discrimination. It is this group who became the workforce in the newly started estates. In short, it is the socio-economic transformation in different communities from middle 19th century to the beginning of 20th century which ensured communal representation in the first Representative Council.


This article was originally published in Onnippu Volume 4, Issue 8 (October 2018). Onnippu is an Ambedkarite print magazine published from Thrissur, Kerala(Editor - Anilkumar PK, Contact - This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. ). Translation to English done by Shahal B.

Images other than the sketch taken from internet.



KK Kochu is a senior Ambedkarite thinker and author from Kerala.

EV Anil is an artist who is known for his illustrations of anti-caste pioneers from Kerala.

Shahal B is a PhD student at University of Hyderabad.