Advances in Historical Studies
2013. Vol.2, No.2, 57-69
Published Online June 2013 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 57
Temple as the Site of Struggle: Social Reform, Religious
Symbols and the Politics of Nationalism in Kerala
M. R. Manmathan
Department of History, Farook College, Calicut University, Kerala, India
Received December 31st, 2012; revised February 20th, 2013; accepted February 28th, 2013
Copyright © 2013 M. R. Manmathan. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons
Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the
original work is properly cited.
The temple entry movement of the 1920s and ’30s in Kerala, South India, has become a landmark in the
history of social reform and nationalist movements for its uniqueness and sweeping success. Popular his-
tory has presented the episode as an integral part of the Nationalist Movement and the Gandhian Con-
structive Programme mainly because the temple-entry issue was endorsed by the Kerala State Congress
Committee and the agitation was concluded under its auspices. But this popular and idealist impression of
the movement has been challenged from various quarters. It is pointed out that there have been very little
attempts at linking the event with the advancing civic rights movement led by the lower caste people for
freedom of worship and social equality which was gaining a radical turn by the 20s and 30s; the pressure
exerted by the untouchables to achieve civic freedom even at the cost of re nouncing Hinduism had creat ed
an alarming situation which no caste-Hindu could ignore. Even more surprising is the absence of aca-
demic attempts to link the agitation with the Malabar Rebellion of 1921; in fact the Rebellion had chal-
lenged the very survival of the Congress organization in Kerala; this factor forced them to retreat from the
earlier secular plane to a religious idiom of politics for which the question of temple-entry served their
purpose. The Temple entry movement, therefore, has to be studied in the light of the antipathy shown by
the Congress towards popular and radical agitations and in the context of its growing tendency to incline
towards Hindu symbols in politics as a means to escape addressing vital and burning social issues.
Keywords: Temple-Entry; Constructive Program; Vaikam Satyagraha; 1921 Rebellion; Religious
Conversion; Indian National Congress
Social reform movements of early twentieth century Kerala
differed from their north Indian counterparts in certain basic
features. Firstly, they overlooked individualistic and usually
female-oriented reform programs and confronted inequalities
among Hindu castes, which were more glaring in Kerala than
anywhere else in India. At the early stages of the all-India re-
form movements the “evils” of society, mostly inflicted upon
women-sati, the prohibition on remarriage of young widows,
purdah, the custom of early marriage, and lack of educational
opportunities for them-engaged the reformers’ attention, and
crusades for laws to protect (mostly high-caste) women and the
founding of institutions to support and educate them defined the
practical reform programs (Heimsath, 1978: pp. 24-26). In Ker-
ala, women’s causes never caught on1; Kerala’s social evil was
caste. Secondly, they were all caste/community movements;
preoccupation with community-subjects marked their social
presence. The process of the “construction of Hinduism” (Mu-
raleedharan, 1996; Viswanathan, 2003), which was one of the
focal points of the early social reform movements of North
India, both as a desperate resistance against colonialism (“Re-
sistant Hinduism” against “Renascent Hinduism”, Young, 1981)
and as a prospective nationalist program, was only a succeeding
agenda for the reformers of Kerala2. In other words, what was
at stake was primarily the status relationship between commu-
nities; the formation of a unified Hindu religious community,
by forging a symbolic unity of castes through the portal of the
temple3, was not taken up seriously till the early 1920s. Thirdly,
2The Renaissance intellectuals focused mainly on relieving Indian religion
of the features most attacked by Christian missionaries and to remodel
Hindu religion in accordance with the Judeo-Christian conceptions o
monotheism and anti-idolatry. This process of shaping Hindu religion ac-
cording to a totally alien concept is termed as “Construction of Hinduism”.
3“Hinduism… does not meet the fundamental requirements of a historical
religion of being a coherent system; but its distinct religious entities do.
They are indeed religions; while Hinduism is not” (Stietencron, 1989: p. 20)
The lower caste Hindus had their own shrines (kavu), the belief system and
ritual practices of which were basically different from that of the Brahma-
nical temples. The Izhava social reform movement was a campaign to “san-
skritize”their s ocial cu sto ms, rit uals and cere monies : Arya n god s to replace
primitive deities (“to obtain high gods for lower castes”, Lemercinier, 1984:
p. 248), learning of Sanskrit and founding of school for Vedanta and the
congregati on of m onks.
1Mainly for the reason that society had been impregnated with mother-right
cultural norms and thus women—except in Nambutiri Brahmin and some
Muslim households—were already liberated. Customs like Sati, female in-
fanticide, and the disfigurement of widows which so enraged Indian social
reformers, failed to emerge from the mother-right culture of Kerala. Widow
remarriage, a highly charged issue throughout India, caused no ripples ei-
ther, because most low caste and Nair widows freely remarried. Among the
ambutiris mature marriage was the norm, not child marriage, and so wid-
owhood could not claim major attention among their reformers. Infant mar-
riages among all commun it ies were ra re.
these movements played a very insignificant part in the anti-
British nationalist opposition (Houtart & Lemercinier, 1978: p.
5). The outstanding enemies here were internal, and the British
colonist appeared to the depressed communities as an element
favorable to their emancipation, since it was he who had been
responsible for the abolition of slavery and for so many liberal
reforms. For the upper castes too the British offered opportuni-
ties for emancipation, since educational progress and changes
in marriage rules were largely dependent on their consent. In
general, thus, the attitude of the caste associations towards the
emerging nationalist movement was one of distrust and caution.
Against this background, my attempt here is to discuss how
the temple-entry movement of the 1920s and ’30s signified the
above mentioned features and determined the nature and gen-
eral course of nationalist politics in Kerala. It rejects the na-
tionalist proposition of the temple-entry movement as a great
humanitarian and philanthropic endeavor mediated by the Gan-
dhian programme of social upliftment (Pilla, 1986: pp. 357-368;
409-415; Chandra, 1989: pp. 224-234; Menon, 2001: pp. 141-
163; 316-331; Menon, 1997: pp. 74, 82) towards creating a
“community of equals” and places it against deep social pres-
sures from below. In fact the episode of temple entry agitation
represented a conclusive act of the movement for civil rights
led by the untouchable castes from the early nineteenth century
(Jeffrey, 1978a: pp. 136-169). But the Congress involvement in
the struggle in the 1920s, and even later, should be examined
from two political standpoints—a shrewd drive to pacify lower
caste radicalism (Aloysius, 2010: p. 181) (which was aggra-
vated by religious conversions) and to find a quick deliverance
from the moral setback inflicted by the Rebellion of 1921
(which in fact threatened to destroy the very foundations of the
Congress in Kerala). The highly complicated socio-political en-
vironment brought about by the rebellion problematized both
the future course of nationalist political action and the status
quo of existing community and class relationships upon which
nationalist politics had laid its roots.
This paper, apart from examining the role of lower caste ra-
dicalism in engendering the temple-entry movement, examines
the hitherto unexplored story of the impact of the 1921 Rebel-
lion in putting pressure on the Congress to deviate from its
earlier secular stance to an apparent Hindu idiom of politics.
Historians have noted this point earlier (Jeffrey, 1978a; Menon,
1994) but a serious effort to develop it into a polemic has not
been undertaken. My attempt here is to create a counter-narra-
tive, not by depending on any new sets of empirical data, but
through a re-reading of the existing texts, which are, however,
mostly of elite origin. Sources having subaltern inclination are
rare, but those that are available from the part of both the Izha-
vas and the Mappilas are certainly made use of; the missionary
and colonial records are treated with care as they represent an-
other set of elite sources. The paper would first trace out the so-
cial situation of nineteenth century Kerala, the long history of
the movement for civil liberties and the politics of rising na-
tionalism, and then proceed on to discuss how the temple entry
agitation reflected the concerns of the caste Hindus about the
growing lower caste radicalism and attempted at addressing it
through social reform measures.
Though there are plenty of literature on the civil liberties
movement, the nationalist struggle and the 1921 Rebellion, and
a few attempts at connecting the temple entry movement with
the conversion issue, there are practically no attempts at linking
it with the 1921 rebellion. The Census Reports of Travancore
and Cochin from 1871 to 1941 as well as the manuals of Tra-
vancore (Aiya, 1906; Pilla, 1940) and Cochin (Menon, 1911)
contain rich data on the condition of the untouchable castes.
The two manuals of Malabar (Logan, 1887; Innes, 1908) dis-
cussed the role of the colonial state as instrumental in emanci-
pating the downtrodden. Some of the anthropological studies
taken up during this period (Thurston, 1909; Iyer, 1909, 1939)
discussed the social condition and inter-caste relationships to
analyze how customs and traditions stood to counter the en-
gagement with modernity. We have three important pieces of
missionary literature (Day, 1863; Mateer, 1871, 1883) which
looked down at the “primitive” and “superstitious” customs and
systems of the people of the land and placed Christianity as a
great redeeming force. Two recent studies also have tried to
locate missionary intervention and the presence of a powerful
Christian community as decisive factors in the modernization of
Kerala society (Kawashima, 1988; Onwerkerk, 1994).
Academic studies on the social and religious reform move-
ments of Kerala in general and the Izhava reform movement in
particular placed them against the existing “context” (of caste,
social evils, deprivation) and the impending forces of moder-
nity (new education, missionary activity, colonial agency and
the rising middle class consciousness) and analyzed the varied
factors which helped or obstructed the potential of different
social groups to appropriate reformism as a means to overcome
their state of deprivation. (Rao, 1979; Isaac & Tharakan, 1988;
Jeffrey, 1994). There were also attempts at examining the fac-
tors for the radicalization of the Izhava caste movement and its
later inclination towards left-wing ideology (Jeffrey, 1978b).
Some scholars considered missionary presence as instrumental
in the gradual radicalization of the Izhava movement and the
slow expansion of its emancipation agenda (Pulapilly, 1976).
There were also attempts at analyzing the ideological founda-
tions of the reform movements and to identify the unique fea-
tures of the “Kerala Renaissance” (Houtart & Lemercinier, 1978;
Heimsath, 1978, 1982).
On the Malabar Rebellion we have an unending series of lit-
erature belonging to diverse ideological streams ranging from
colonial to nationalist and Marxist to subaltern. Discussion on
the Rebellion has generally been focused on whether they were
communal or agrarian uprisings, or whether they were moti-
vated by economic or religious imperatives. Despite “fanatical
outbreak” being the predominantly shared official version of
the uprisings, agrarian grievances as a possible factor did not
remain totally unnoticed. Two early exponents of the religious
interpretation (Conolly, Strange), while recognizing the poverty
and destitution of the Mappila “fanatics”, rejected them as a
reason for the “outbreaks”. In contrast, Logan identified agrar-
ian discontent as the main causative factor, but underlined the
tur bul ence and fan atical c har acter of th e Ma ppi las (Logan, 1887).
The government held that Mappila religiosity exacerbated by
nationalist politics was the prime moving force behind the re-
bellion of 1921 (Tottenham, 192 2; Nair, 1923; Hitchcock, 192 5).
More recent studies have attempted to interpret the militancy of
the Mappilas as a means of defending the frontier of Mappila
society-internal frontier was with the Hindu society dominated
by landholding Brahmins and the external frontier with the Eu-
ropeans, from Portuguese to the British. The nineteenth century
uprisings were jihads to defend the internal Islamic frontier.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
The rebellion of 1921 was different in that it was directed to-
wards an identifiable political goal, i.e., establishment of an Is-
lamic kingdom (Dale, 1980). The nationalist version is repre-
sented mainly by the autobiographical sketches of the Congress
leaders which, while justifying the decision of the Congress to
uphold the Khilafat issue, found fault with the government po-
licy of repression and the irrationality and intense religiosity of
the Mappilas (Nambutiripad, 1965; Nair, 1971; Menon, 1986).
A dominant section of left wing historians followed an essen-
tially economic interpretation, treating agrarian discontent as
the prime factor with religion as a means of mobilization (Nam-
butiripad, 1952; Hardgrave, 19 77; Dhana gare, 197 7; Wood, 198 7;
Gangadharan, 1989; Panikkar, 1989). Among them Panikkar’s
study stood different in that it treated the context (anti-British
feeling and the urge to free from the exploitation of the proper-
tied classes) and ideology (religion translated discontent into
action and provided the vision of an alternate society) equally
decisive. A recent study examined the uprisings from a subal-
tern perspective and placed the Mappila insurgency along sub-
alternity and religiosity, which are specific to premodern con-
sciousness, in order to exonerate it from the alleged blemish of
“communalism” and “jihadism” (Ansari, 2005).
For a survey of the nationalist movement in Kerala we have
several studies, both panegyric and critical. Studies which fol-
lowed the official Congress view (Pilla, 1986; Menon, 1997;
Menon, 2001) perceived the shifting strands of nationalist posi-
tion with reference to its primary (anti-colonial) preferences
and its (umbrella-type) all-class and secular character. The dis-
position of the Congress in taking up the internal issues affect-
ing class/caste relations on a secondary footing has been justi-
fied on this premise but it is further argued that the constructive
program was actually devised to serve this purpose—to sup-
plement political action through social and humanitarian work
(including efforts to eradicate untouchability)—which aimed at
cleansing the nation of blots which stood against true and ideal
nationhood. The nationalist reading of the temple-entry move-
ment followed such a glossy picture: uplift of the depressed
sections of Hindu community through constructive program
was an integral part of the work of the Indian National Con-
gress in Kerala (Menon, 2001: pp. 141-163; 316-331). That the
dual task taken up by the Congress, to build the nation and to
construct a solid Hindu community, was not a mistaken strat-
egy; in the context of the predominantly Hindu majority na-
tion-state, the appropriation of Hindu religious symbolism was
not incongruous (Chandra, 1989: pp. 230-234). A critical str ea m
against the nationalist position came from various quarters,
especially the left and the subaltern-dalit groups. The left per-
ceived the nationalist movement as having had an implicit class
agenda which got reflected in its ideology and method of po-
litical action and argued that the constructive programme was
devised to establish Congress hegemony over low castes and
untouchables and to pacify the mounting “pressures from be-
low” which threatened to offset the interests of the dominant
social groups who were steering the movement (Nambutiripad,
1952: pp. 131-132; Sarkar, 1990: p. 230). An article on Guru-
vayur satyagraha, while treating it as a part of the nationalist
movement, analyzed the role of factionalism within the Con-
gress as a possible reason for diverting the Civil Disobedience
Movement (CDM) into a social struggle and attributed the fail-
ure of the struggle to the basic limitations of the Congress atti-
tude towards untouchability (Gopalankutty, 1981). The Dalit
perspective blamed Gandhi for perceiving untouchability sim-
ply as a religious issue, not as a question of civil right, and
hence in practice, it appeared to counter their own idea and
struggles for emancipation (Aloysius, 2010: p. 181; Ravindran,
Two studies have tried to link the temple-entry agitation with
the struggle for civil rights and the inner politics of the nation-
alist movement (Jeffrey, 1978a; Menon, 1994). While the for-
mer identified the “modernizing” impact of colonialism and the
“civilizing” impact of missionary work as decisive in the crea-
tion of a powerful middle class and a congenial ideological
environment leading to radicalizat ion of the reform proc ess, the
latter discussed the difference in the degree of power and dep-
rivation among hierarchically arranged social groups in the
traditional social order and presented the nature of their re-
sponse to colonialism/nationalism on the basis of the degree to
which the changes which took place under the colonial system
favored their emancipation/retention of privileged position.
The Social Spectrum of Kerala
The caste structure of colonial Kerala stood different from
the pan-Indian scenario. The existing varna and jati system
varied from the ideal four-fold model with the total absence of
the Vaishyas and a very marginal Kshatriya presence; the tradi-
tional trading and commercial functions were by and large the
preserve of the non-Hindu communities like the Jews, Muslims
and Syrian Christians and the ruling lineages of medieval Ker-
ala were substantially drawn from Sudra-Nair caste who how-
ever were gradually elevated to Kshatriya-Samanta status.
Brahmins (including the Kerala Brahmins called Nambutiris
and the immigrant Tamil and Kannada groups) constituted a
mere 1% of the population of the land but they occupied the
upper echelons of ritual hierarchy and owned substantial landed
properties. The populous, martial and matrilineal caste of the
Nairs, who were the ruling class and constituted a substantial
portion of the military force in the pre-British era, were ac-
corded higher status for being “clean sudras” which led the
Brahmins to enter into alliance with them by arranging liaisons
with their women4 and by entrusting them with the manage-
ment of their landed estates and temples. All of the above
groups along with the several tiny castes of temple-servants
called Ambalavasis constituted the elite Hindus (savarna). All
the castes below the Nairs were avarnas (untouchables) and in-
cluded, in terms of hierarchy, the Izhavas, Pulayas, Cherumas,
Parayas and Nayadis. In addition there were the fishing and
tribal communities. Pulayas, Parayas and Cherumas served as
agrestic laborers and occupied very low social position and eco-
nomic power tantamount to serfs. Defilement practices consist-
ing of untouchability, unapproachability and even un-seeability
determined inter-caste relations and was apparently influenced
by the notion of hierarchy. The savarna-avarna divide medi-
ated by socioeconomic and political inequalities hardened and
dehumanized relationships between social groups.
An examination of the position of the Izhavas in the tradi-
tional social structure reveals the range and magnitude of di-
verse kinds of relative deprivation. They are an ethnic cate gory,
found all over South India (Izhavas and Shannars in South Tra-
4Such conjugal alliances were called sambandham in which the male part-
ners were just “visiting husbands”and the wives along with their children
lived in matrilineal extended households maintained by impartible joint
property. This practice was popular among matrilineal castes like the Nairs,
Kshatriyas and Amba lavasis who had liaisons with the Brahmins.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 59
vancore, Chovans in North and Central Travancore and Cochin,
Tiya in Malabar, Billava in Tulunad, Nadar in Tamil Nadu and
Idiga in Mysore) and the various cognate castes in Kerala con-
stitute a large ethnic bloc. The most popular theory is that the
Izhavas were migrants from Ceylon (Aiya, 1906: pp. 398-402;
Thurston, 1909: pp. 292-418; Innes, 1908: pp. 124-125; Logan,
1887: p. 80) and were Buddhists by faith (Kunhuraman, 1925;
Aiyappan, 1965: p. 119). The occupation of the Izhavas in the
traditional caste order was coconut plucking and toddy-tapping,
though they were engaged as tenant cultivators, agricultural la-
borers, weavers and coir workers. They also practiced ayurveda
and astrology and had a tradition of military service (Iyer, 1909:
p. 298). The Izhavas ranked lower than the Nairs and above the
Cherumas/Pulayas in the caste hierarchy. Though the Izhavas
were at the top of the category of castes who caused distance
pollution, they had to keep a distance of 36 feet from the Nam-
butiri Brahmins and were not allowed to enter temple s managed
by the upper castes. They also did not have the right to use
public roads and wells of the upper castes (Aiyappan, 1944: p.
39) and were denied admission in caste Hindu schools and gov-
ernment jobs. Their women were not allowed to wear upper
garments or any ornaments. The Nairs often demanded unpaid
labour (uzhiyam) from them (Mateer, 1871: p. 43; Day, 1863: p.
322). Under the existing three-tier agrarian social structure,
most Izhavas occupied the position of sub-tenants or agricul-
tural laborers. Most of the janmis were Nambutiris, Kshatriyas
or aristocratic Nairs. Kanam tenants who held the lease for a
period of twelve years (but sub-leased them) were mainly Nairs.
Verumpattam was the lease for a three year tenure and Izhavas
and Mappilas were the prominent sub-tenants. Agricultural la-
borers formed an important category, and this consisted of the
Izhavas, Pulayas and Cherumas.
The political attitude of the Mappila community of Malabar
represented a more complex pattern. Mappilas (or Moplahs),
the Muslims of Malabar, traditionally trace their origins to the
ninth century, when Arab traders brought Islam to the west
coast of India (Miller, 1992: pp. 40-45). By 1921, they consti-
tuted the largest—and the fastest growing—community of Ma-
labar. With a population of one million, 32 percent of that of
Malabar as a whole, the Mappilas were concentrated in south
Malabar, i.e., in the Ernad, Valluvanad and Ponnani taluks of
the erstwhile British Malabar described in colonial records as
“fanatical zone” (Innes, 1908: p. 89). In Ernad taluk, the center
of the rebellion, they formed nearly 60 percent of the popula-
tion and in Walluvanad, 35 percent. The community has been
characterized as consisting of pure Arab settlers, of the descen-
dants of the Arab traders and women of the country, and of
converts to Islam from the lower Hindu castes (Innes, 1908: p.
26). The Mappilas were a mercantile community concentrated
along the coast in urban centers. Segregated from the Hindu
population in separate settlements, they had considerable auto-
nomy, and under the Zamorin of Calicut, they enjoyed prestige
as well as economic power (Zaynu’d-Din, 1942). From the six-
teenth century, with the rise of Portuguese power in challenge
to Mappila commercial interests, the greater portion of the
community moved into the interior of Malabar and increasingly
came to be agricultural tenants, low in status and desperately
poor (Dale, 1980: pp. 54-82). In sharp contrast to the general
prosperity enjoyed by the Mappilas of the North (where early
converts included propertied classes of the high castes), the
Mappilas of South Malabar were principally converted from the
lower Tiyya, Cheruman and Mukkuva castes, for whom “the
honor of Islam” brought freedom from the disabilities of ritual
pollution. It was in these inland areas of the south and among
the poorest sections of the population that the Mappila commu-
nity expanded most rapidly (Hitchcock, 1925: p. 9).
During the successive invasion of Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan,
in the late eighteenth century, Malabar was thrown into social
turmoil. The Mappilas tried to reap political and economic
gains from it by declaring their proprietorship rights over their
tenurial lands and by remitting land tax directly to the govern-
ment defying caste-Hindu landowners (Dale, 1976; Miller,
1992: p. 81; Menon, 1999). The caste Hindus responded to this
hopeless situation by fleeing from Malabar and seeking refuge
in the self-proclaimed Hindu state of Travancore after either
disposing of their property or deserting them to the Mappilas
(Narayanan & Kesavan, 1983: p. 275). The situation was also
significant in that large number of lower caste Hindus utilized
the opportunity to enhance their social prestige by embracing
the religion of the new rulers (Kunju, 1989: p. 79). The defeat
of Tipu and the subsequent British land settlement policies in
Malabar, leading to the restoration of the social and economic
position of the dominant castes, severely affected the position
of the Mappilas in South Malabar—by imposing enormous
amount of rent and by fixing heavy renewal fees on tenurial
contracts (melcha rth) (Panikkar, 1989: pp. 1-48), they were op-
pressed in particular. Reduced to insecure tenancy, vulnerable
to rack renting and eviction at the hands of Hindu janmis sus-
tained by British courts, the Mappilas responded in a series of
outbreaks5. During the course of these nineteenth century out-
breaks, the number of conversions to Islam heightened dra-
matically. In converting to Islam, those of lower castes were not
only freed from the traditional social disabilities of the outcaste,
but they joined a community of resistance wherein their protest
against janmi tyranny was supported by their fellow Muslims
(Hardgrave, 1977: p. 62)6. The recurrent Mappila riots of the
19th century were, to a large extent, in spite of their predomi-
nant religious character (Dale, 1975), defensive responses to, or
retaliatory acts against, such tyrannical acts and in that sense
were essentially economic phenomena (Gough, 1968-1969). The
sweeping militancy of the Mappilas and the exceptional enthu-
siasm they expressed in violating traditional caste dharma com-
bined with the rise in their demographic strength intensified the
5The term “outrage”was used by the British to refer to those outbreaks o
Mappilla violence in which the attack usually against a nambutiri or Nair
landlord; sometimes against a European official or a convert who had
slipped back into the Hindu fold and thus threatened community solidarity
was followed climactically by the religious suicide of all involved, in the
secure knowledge that by their martyrdom they would attain the houri bliss
of Paradise. The incidents in which the mappillas “sought actively their own
death”, 29 in number between 1836 and 1919, were normally suppressed in
a few days and involved in each case a relatively small number of people.
Only in eight of the outbreaks did more than ten Mappillas become martyrs
(or shahids) (Hardgrave, 1977: p. 62).
6The Census of India, Madras (1871: p. 7) noted that the Cherumas “have to
a large extent embraced Mohammedanism, and in so doing have raised
themselves and their su ccessors in t he social scale. The tyranny o f caste no
longer affects the Mussalman converts and under these circumstances it is
no cause for surprise that the Mussalman population on the Western Coast
should be fast increasing”. Subsequent Census Reports recorded the contin-
ued Mappila increases and actual declines in the number of Cherumas re-
ported. Between 1871 and 1881, the Mappila population of Malabar in-
creased by 12.3 per cent, compared to only 3.4 per cent of non-Mappilas
(Census of India, Madras, 1881: pp. 39-40). Between 1881 and 1891, Map-
pilas increased by 18 per cent, in comparison to a 10 per cent increase for
Hindus (Ce nsus of India, Madras, 1891: p. 67).
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
social distance between the Mappilas and the high caste Hindus
(Miller, 1992: p. 98). The setback inflicted on the material in-
terests of the dominant groups had started to articulate slowly in
the form of religious polarization and in widening the commu-
nal divide.
In 1852, a special commission, headed by T. L. Strange, was
appointed to investigate the causes of the outbreaks. Strange
rejected the view that the disturbances had their origin in agrar-
ian discontent or poverty and attributed it to religious fanati-
cism stirred by the teachings of ambitious priests. He recom-
mended a repressive policy, enacted into law in the Moplah
outrages Act, XXIII and XXIV of 1854. A special force of
police was raised in Ernad to enforce these measures (Logan,
1887: pp. 570-571). The failure to quell the outbreaks despite
strong police measures persuaded the government to appoint
William Logan, the District Collector, as Special Commission-
aire, in 1881, to enquire into land tenures and tenant rights in
Malabar. Logan believed the problem to be rooted fundamen-
tally in the early British misunderstanding of the traditional re-
lationship of the janmi to the land. Rather than seeing the janmi
as one of several agricultural classes with rights to the land and
its produce, British officials viewed him as rather like an Eng-
lish landlord to be protected with the force of Law (Logan,
1887: p. 584). However, the government refused to implement
his recommendations which is evident from the statement of
District Collector Innes who writing at the turn of the century
attributed the outbreaks to “three main causes, poverty, agrarian
discontent and fanaticism, of which the last is probably the
chief” (Innes, 1908: p. 89).
The establishment of British rule marked the beginning of a
social transformation. A notable feature was the consolidation
of diverse political units into larger administrative ones. By
1793 the whole of Malabar came into the hands of the British
and became a district of the Madras presidency. Travancore and
Cochin continued under princely rule but as subordinate allies
of the British and guided by a British officer called Resident in
administration. The consolidation of power in the British hands
led to the introduction of a uniformity in basic legislation.
Slavery was abolished in Malabar in 1843 by the British and
through Royal Proclamations in Travancore and Cochin in
1853 and 1854 respectively (Basu, 2008: pp. 57, 62-63). But in
the realm of land tenure and educational progress law and cus-
tom stood opposite to each other. In 1793 the British recog-
nized the janmi as the owner of the land and kanakkar as the
lease, holding a mortgage. Thus the verumpattakar tenants were
dependent on their lords and if they revolted against the land-
lord, they were evicted. From the beginning of the nineteenth
century, large number of schools was started by the Christian
missionaries to impart education to the converted people. Tak-
ing queue from them, the governments of Travancore, Cochin
and Malabar opened schools, but it benefitted the Nairs and the
Syrian Christians. As untouchables, the Izhavas could not profit
from them but the mission schools provided them openings for
education. The strong anti-British attitude of the Mappilas kept
them away from English education for a long time. The Tiyyas
of Malabar and the Muslims of Travancore fared well and did
not face much deprivation; under direct British rule, the Tiyyas
could prosper educationally and socially and as traders and
landowners, the Muslims of the princely states could make use
of the possibilities opened up by modernity (Logan, 1887: p.
144; Iyer, 1909: p. 283).
The Civil Rights Movement
Kerala began to experience the impact of colonial modernity
from the early decades of the nineteenth century, the ramifica-
tions of which were felt in the public sphere in different times
and in different degrees. One of the most important impact was
felt in the social realm, in the form of efforts at reforming cus-
toms and democratizing social relationships. It was the (Protes-
tant) Christian missionaries (such as the London Mission Soci-
ety (L.M.S) in Southern Kerala, Church Mission Society
(C.M.S) in Central Kerala and Basel Evangelical Mission Soci-
ety (B.E.M.S) in Northern Kerala) who took the pioneering
steps in promoting social reforms; they actively engaged in
spreading the message of reform by imparting modern educa-
tion to the untouchables and encouraging the new converts to
openly question symbols of caste oppression and rules of ritual
pollution (Aiya, 1906, I: p. 525; Manavalan, 1990: p. 120). The
revolt of the Christian converted Shanna r/ Na da r women of Sou-
thern Travancore to get their right to wear upper garments
really shook southern Travancore in the first half of the nine-
teenth century (Hardgrave, 1968)7. Similarly, the activities of
the missionaries and the pressure exerted by them played a
decisive role in coercing the governments to abolish slavery in
both Travancore and Malabar in the middle of the nineteenth
century (Basu, 2008: p. 74). The missionaries were also the first
to introduce print-culture in Kerala. They utilized the print me-
dia to oppose customs and practices which had contradicted
with modern outlook and human reason (Anderson, 1983: pp.
41-49)8. The efforts of the missionaries had had its desired ef-
fect, especially among the lower castes, and large mass of such
people became converts to Christianity. But missionary appeal
failed to much impress the upper or middle level caste groups;
even the untouchable caste of the Izhavas took advantage of the
new opportunity and the newly acquired knowledge to attain
upward social mobility within the existing Hindu social order
through radical social reform (Sahodaran, 1920: pp. 290-294;
Jeffrey, 1974: p. 48)9.
Early attempts at social reform were followed by organized
struggle for social change which also had its genesis in the
princely state of Travancore. Though being conservative and
very vigilant in protecting the old social order, the government
had started “modernizing” the state by founding schools, roads,
law courts, and efficient bureaucracy. Meanwhile, a powerful
middle class, which had been developing among the untouch-
able caste of the Izhavas, grew more and more frustrated over
the state policy of keeping them away from government schools
and service. In 1896 the Izhavas of Travancore submitted a
huge memorandum (signed by 13176 men known as Izhava
Memorial) calling upon the government to open public schools
and services to them (Rao, 1979: p. 34). The failure of such
7The struggle is examined from various viewpoints. While some people
from within the caste see it as part of an epic struggle to free the lower
classes from feudal domination (Yesudas, 1975), the missionary perception
take it as the triumph of decency and Christian values (Mateer, 1883:
Ch.XXXIV). Hardgrave regards it as part of a wider movement within the
caste order of south India for the Nadars to raise their status in the social
hierarchy (Hardgrave, 1969).
8Anderson attributes the success of European Reformation to print-capital-
ism and stresses the coalition between Prote st antism a nd pr int-capitalism.
9Sahodaran, the magazine published by the radical Tiyya lawyer C. Krish-
nan from Calicut, urged the Izhavas to concentrate on reforming Hinduism
from within as no other religion was so liberal and tolerant. Jeffrey added
that as large number of Izhavas prospered, they were able cautiously to
imitate the manners of Nairs.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 61
early steps persuaded them to turn towards more radical meas-
ures under a strong organization, that is, the S.N.D.P. Yogam
under the powerful leadership of Sri Narayana Guru. The Yo-
gam took up a two-pronged struggle—the fight for social equa-
lity and freedom of worship and the internal reform of the Iz-
hava caste to make it a model community (Pulappilly, 1976: pp.
35-39). The radical demands raised by the S.N.D.P. in Travan-
core, such as the freedom to use public roads and temple-entry
and representation in government jobs and legislatures, and the
strategy of mass struggle they adopted to achieve their demands,
clearly reflected their resolve to transform—not merely to re-
form—the existing social structure (Heimsath, 1982: p. 33). In
British Malabar, the state did not adhere to caste rules and h enc e
the lower castes could get recruited into even higher govern-
ment posts (Menon, 1901: p. 182; Kesavan, 1968: pp. 263-270).
Thus the Tiyyas in Malabar were not as deprived as their Izha va
counterparts in Cochin or Travancore and hence militant lower
caste social reform movements failed to take roots in Malabar.
By the 1920s the movement for civil liberties was taking new
proportions. As already noted, the lower caste untouchables had
expressed their resolve to better their social position through
mass conversion (to Christianity in southern and central Kerala
and to Islam in northern Kerala) and to distance themselves
with the politics of nationalism since the Indian National Con-
gress was identified to represent upper caste interests and to
perceive the colonial master as a potential ally in the path to
social emancipation. But the middle level caste of the Izhavas
who till then refused to experiment the possibilities of the poli-
tics of religious conversion and worked to occupy a “respected
place in Hindu society” than to satisfy with a “doubtful Chris-
tian role between contemptuous Syrians and polluting Pulaya
converts” (Jeffrey, 1974: p. 48), now began to seriously think
of renouncing Hinduism for getting a more honorable status in
the civil society. The Congress decision to uphold the cause of
temple-entry stemmed from this predicament, because religious
conversion was slowly growing into a vital social issue capable
of subverting the existing social equilibrium solidly rooted in
birth rights and hereditary social privileges.
The Nationalist Politics
The nature of political awakening in Kerala differed in the
three political regions in accordance with the prevailing politi-
cal climate—while in Malabar where direct colonial rule ex-
isted, nationalist movement had made deep inroads by the be-
ginning of the Gandhian era but in the princely states of Tra-
vancore and Cochin they were at low ebb. In Travancore and
Cochin, political condition of the princely state weakened the
possibilities of the spread of a strong nationalist movement and
hence the rising middle class of both the upper and lower castes
concentrated on pr o moting commun ity inter ests (Kesav an, 1968:
pp. 356-357). This was the background of the Izhava memorial,
and the Abstention Movement of the 1930s, in which various
deprived groups formed a coalition forum called Joint Political
Congress to press forward their middle class demands for re-
served representation in government jobs and legislatures in
accordance with population strength against the huge monopoly
of the Nairs and Brahmins. The non-cooperation or civil dis-
obedience movements of the 1920s and 30s did not make any
political effects here; politics of the princely states evolved
around social issues, skillfully masterminded by caste/commu-
nity organizations.
The nationalist movement came relatively late to “sleeping
Malabar”. While a District Congress Committee had been
formed in 1908, it was not until 1916, with the beginning of the
Home Rule Movement that Malabar began to awaken politi-
cally. The fifth Malabar District Conference was held at Man-
jeri in 1920 with Annie Basent in chair in which the extremist
group could pass a resolution in favour of tenancy reforms
against the moderate stand who under Basent boycotted the
proceedings. The demands for tenancy reform came principally
from the class of kanakkar, substantial tenants who were large-
ly intermediaries between janmis and the vulnerable verumpat-
takkar, tenants-at-will. The janmis were mostly Nambutiri
Brahmins, the kanakkar were disproportionately Nairs and the
verumpattakkar were overwhelmingly drawn from the Mappila
community and from Tiyyas, Cheruman and other depressed
Hindu castes. The Nair Kanakkar, prosperous and articulate in
defense of their interests, had long been active before govern-
ment commissions and in the Madras legislative assembly in
efforts to secure more favorable tenancy rights for themselves.
But it was not until 1920, in linking the tenancy issue with the
Congress-Khilafat struggle for Swaraj, that the tenancy move-
ment gained momentum. The Congress was still a predomi-
nantly Hindu organization, dominated largely by Nair lawyers
from the kanakkar class. The rise of the Khilafat issue10 and
Gandhi’s decision to link it with the noncooperation movement
fundamentally transformed the character of the Congress (Nam-
butiripad, 2005: p. 42)11.
Non-cooperation was formally launched on August 1, 1920,
and on the 18th of that month Gandhi and Shaukath Ali visited
Calicut to bring its message. Khilafat committees began to
sprout in Malabar and official reports revealed that Mappilas of
Ernad were more interested in the tenant cause and only on up-
holding that issue the agitators could make any advance (Tot-
tenham, 1922: p. 4). Agrarian tension increased in the light of
the rumor of an impending tenancy reforms in Malabar and
while landlords increasingly evicted tenants, Nair leaders of the
Congress sought to mobilize the active support of the Mappila
cultivators—both for tenancy reforms and in the name of
Khilafat. Intense campaigning for Khilafat scared the official
circles, in the light of “fanatic outbreaks” of the past, and igno-
rance and backwardness of the Mappilas, which led them to ban
public meetings (Madras Mail, 1921, Feb. 8: 9; Ap. 27: 8); ex-
pansion of the tenancy movement under Congress auspices
spread alarm among landlords and officials alike. In the context
of all these the All Kerala Provincial Congress was held at Ot-
tappalam on 26 April 1921, in which large number of Khilafat
volunteers in uniform attended (Panikkar, 1989: p. 132) and an
ulema conference exhorted all Muslims to support the Khilafat
as a religious duty and to join the Congress to fight for the
Khilaft through the struggle for swaraj. A tenants’ conference
convened at Ottappalam strongly supported resistance to land-
10The Khilafat movement sought to preserve the integrity of the Ottoman
Empire and the Turkish Sultan as the Caliph. The movement beginning in
1919, protested against British support for the dismemberment of the Otto-
man Empire and the abolition of the Caliphate. The Indian movement was
led by the Ali Brothers (Shoukath and Muhammad) but Congress soon
supported the issue as Gandhi saw in it a golden opportunity to weld Hindu-
Muslim unity and combine anti-British issue of Khilafat with the movement
for Swaraj through non-violent noncoope r ation.
11E.M.S. wrote that a striking solidarity had developed between the Mappi-
las and the class of lawyers, journalists and politicians (i.e., Congressmen)
who brought them into nationalist politics; both were lured by tenant inter-
ests, and looked forward to get a tenancy legislation passed.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
lords and Government in the form of noncooperation (Hard-
grave, 1977: p. 70). Congress leaders like K. P. Kesava Menon
and K. Kelappan addressed several Khiafat conferences (Me-
non, 1986: pp. 82-83). The “wonderful” organization of the Khi-
lafat movement (Madras Mail, Aug. 8, 1921: p. 6) and the tra-
ditional system of communication among the Mappilas (Hitch-
cock, 1925: p. 3), along with the official anxiety over the Map-
pilas utilizing the newly forged solidarity to redress their im-
mediate grievances (Tottenham, 1922: p. 26) forced the gov-
ernment to take strong punitive measures against them which,
within a few days, led to the eruption of a violent uprising.
The rebellion actually started with th e Tirurangadi i nc ident in
which nine Mappilas were killed in police firing while a group
of 2000 people marched to the police station demanding the
release of their fellowmen taken into custody during a police
action at the Mambram mosque in search of some Khilafat vo-
lunteers (Hitchcock, 1925: pp. 31-34). Thereafter violence
erupted which was marked by widespread attack on symbols of
government authority, such as police stations, courts and record
offices and cutting of railway and telegraph lines. Landlords-
Nambutiris and Nairs—were the principal victims of the attacks,
several of whom fled from the area to the nearby towns of
Calicut or Trichur. At the earliest stages, Hindus were clearly
involved, but with time and growing violence (and with the
proclamation of the Khilafat kingdom in south Malabar), their
numbers rapidly diminished (Hardgrave, 1977: p. 83), which
imparted a communal color to the rebellion. For almost six
months the “Mappila zone” was under the control of the rebel
leaders. The government soon resorted to reinforcements which
led the rebels to retire into safe areas and to fight a guerilla war.
There were frequent reports of rebel atrocities, sporadic inci-
dence of violence against Hindus and cases of forced conver-
sions to Islam (Nair, 1923: pp. 76-79)12. This has been attrib-
uted primarily to two factors: the impression among many re-
bels of the movement leading to the establishment of an Islamic
state and to the widespread suspicion of Hindus acting as in-
formants for the government (Panikkar, 1989: pp. 179, 198). By
the beginning of 1922 the rebellion was crushed causing heavy
casualties on the rebel side and all the leaders were soon ar-
rested or shot dead13. Panikkar identified at least three patterns
of rebel activity in the whole course of the rebellion. The initial
political mobilization was effected by the Khilafat and Con-
gress activists who were soon rendered ineffective and the ac-
tual course of the revolt thereafter developed outside the politi-
cal movement in which it had initially developed. In this second,
but short-lived, stage the locally influential leaders took over
the direction of the rebel proceedings but ceased to be effective
when the army operations began. In the third and crucial stage,
the insurrection was now conducted by the rural poor them-
selves, either under grass-root level leadership or without any
recognizable leadership at all. The pattern of rebel proceedings
underlined a consciousness primarily rooted in an opposition to
the landlord and the colonial state. Against the selective and
limited nature of rebel violence (against the janmis and their
servants) of the nineteenth century, in 1921 a distinction was
made between the lenient and exacting landlords (although atti-
tude towards Europeans was uniformly hostile); several of the
latter category were executed and murders and physical assaults
on others were largely punitive actions against collaborators
and informers of the British army (Panikkar, 1989: pp. 198-
In the context of the eruption of violence and the evolution of
the revolt into a communal outbreak the Congress withdraw its
support to their earlier ally, the Mappilas. The Congress leaders
were in fact taken by surprise at the unexpected developments.
But their activity was confined to the two trips they made to the
rebel area in the early stage of the rebellion; afterwards they
remained passive spectators-partly because they could not ap-
prove of the rebel action and partly because of their lack of
confidence in being able to influence the rebels (Panikkar, 1989:
pp. 149-151). The attitude of the Congressmen drove the Map-
pilas to identify the Congress with the Hindus (Panikkar, 1989:
p. 189). The relief and reconstruction measures undertaken after
the rebellion also underlined the communal divide—the Con-
gress was active only among the Hindu refugees. The years that
followed the suppression of the Rebellion and the withdrawal
of the non-cooperation movement made it extremely difficult
for the Congress organization to function in Malabar. K. P. Ke-
sava Menon, the Congress leader, described the situation thus:
“For a long time after the rebellion no public activity was possi-
ble in Malabar. Enmity towards the Congress was evident eve-
rywhere. The authorities stated that the Congress had brought
down calamity on the country through participation in the Khi-
lafat agitation. They even wanted all the Congressmen in Mala-
bar to be imprisoned. The Muslims complained that those who
had induced them to join abandoned them when police oppres-
sion and firing by the troops started” (Menon, 1986: p. 128).
The caste-Hindus who were opposed to the Congress, on the
other hand, denounced them for supporting the “foolish” and
“fanatic” Mappilas and for inciting them to plunge into a vio-
lent action (Yogakshemam, 1921, 11: 47, 2). The Congress
leadership sadly realized that the first political struggle it un-
dertook in Kerala ended in tragedy and the alliance with the
Mappilas proved self-annihilating as they not only not refused
to adhere to Gandhian ahimsa but advanced it into a class and
community struggle. More disturbing was the sense of unity
evinced by the Mappilas and their resolve to sacrifice for a
cause which was alien to the Hindu tradition and hence incom-
patible to “national” interests.
The Congress could not recover from the fatal blow inflicted
on its morale by the rebellion for long; it could not think of
political campaigning—even to summon a Congress meeting. It
tried to overcome this political lethargy by focusing on the
social front and by drifting towards political journalism. This
was the background of the birth of the nationalist newspaper
Mathrubhumi and the launching of the Vaikam satyagraha (Me-
non, 1986: pp. 139-149; Gangadharan, 2008: p. 248; Nambu-
tiripad, 2005: pp. 65-68)14. The temple entry movement in fact
12The pro-British Madras Mail was in the forefront in this venture. The anti-
Mappila reaction was presented by the Mail in its daily reporting and in a
(later) series on “The Moplah Rebellion”. It referred to the “innate charac-
teristics” of the Mappila as “his mad fanatical fury, his murderous spirit and
his reckless disregard for life” (Madras Mail, 1921, Nov. 14: 5; Nov. 15: 7).
Gopalan Nair’s Malabar Rebellion devotes 21 pages to atrocities allegedly
committed by the Mappilas against the H i ndus (Nair, 1923: pp. 52-72).
13Official figures recorded 2339 rebels killed, 1652 wounded and 5955
captured. K.P. Kesava Menon estimated that as many as 10,000 may have
lost their life in the rebellion (Menon, 1986: p. 116).
14Mathrubhumi Daily was started in 1923 from Calicut with K. P.Kesava
Menon as its founder editor. Congress leaders and people sympathetic to the
nationalist movement helped to raise the necessary funds. It consciously
tried to propagate nationalist and patriotic sentiments as well as a spirit o
Hindu unity.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 63
provided the Malabar Congressmen with a programme, and a
lease of life, as it opened before them a safe field of activism; it
shifted the centre of activity to further south where Mappilas
were absent and furnished with a fine opportunity to compen-
sate for the earlier “disastrous” alliance with the Mappilas by
fighting for a Hindu cause (Jeffrey, 1978a: pp. 153-154)15. The
Congress was turning more Hindu and more rightist; communi-
ties of foreign religious affiliation were increasingly identified
as external to the national self and as threatening “national” in-
The Temple-Entry Movement
The political and social atmosphere of Kerala in the 1920s
and 30s grew tense with the Indian National Congress uphold-
ing the cause of temple entry. In 1924 the Congress organized
the vigorous 20 month long satyagraha at the Vaikam temple
with the simple aim of securing the right to use the approach
roads of the temple for the untouchables. While the upper
castes and non-Hindus including Christians and Muslims freely
used the temple roads, the untouchables like the Izhavas and
Pulayas were forbidden to pass through them. The Izhavas were
on the verge of a revolt over the question of caste pollution and
viewed it as an obvious act of social injustice and open viola-
tion of human rights. The S.N.D.P. Yogam was seriously dis-
cussing the means to overcome this social stigma. Since the
Izhavas had their own temples in which they themselves acted
as officiating priests, their eagerness to get access to savarna
temples was more a matter of civil rights than a question of
freedom of worship. T. K. Madhavan, the prominent leader of
the S.N.D.P. Yogam and the true spirit behind the satyagraha,
managed to get a resolution passed at the Congress session in
1923 at Kakinada on the question of the removal of untouch-
ability. The Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) de-
cided to launch a satyagraha at Vaikam on this basis (Menon,
1986: pp. 160-164). Gandhi blessed the satyagraha but cau-
tioned against non-Hindu participation and non-savarna leader-
ship in it as it was strictly a Hindu cause and a golden opportu-
nity for caste-Hindus to atone for a heinous sin (Young India,
1925: p. 135; Proceedings, 1925). The satyagraha attracted
countrywide attention and people from all over India reached
Vaikam to support the struggle. The savarna-jatha (upper caste
march) organized under the leadership of Mannath Padmanab-
han to the capital Trivandrum, to impress upon the king of the
urgency of the demand, truly reflected this spirit. The pro-
longed campaign and the direct involvement of Gandhi forced
the authorities to come to a settlement according to which all
the approach roads, except the eastern one, of the temple were
thrown open to all people irrespective of caste and community.
The modalities of the agreement was a subject of intense debate
and the Congress was blamed for deserting the struggle halfway
and for effecting the agreement only to the Vaikam temple (Ra-
vindran, 1988: pp. 144-149). Due to this reason, several similar
struggles had to be waged for the same purpose subsequently.
As a result, in 1928, approach roads to all temples in Travan-
core were thrown open to all people (Menon, 1984: p. 327).
The second satyagraha struggle under the K.P.C.C. against
caste based pollution, but now to get the temple open to all
Hindus, was organized in 1931-32, in the course of the C.D.M,
at the Guruvayur temple in Malabar. While the struggle at Vai-
kam was a social reform measure divorced from any political
movements, at Guruvayur it was integral to a political program
(Gopalankutty, 1981). Nevertheless, in Kerala, the zeal for so-
cial reform overshadowed the rising countrywide political en-
thusiasm; for the K.P.C.C. the temple-entry issue was more
important than the C.D.M. and leaders like Kelappan concen-
trated heavily on the question of untouchability (Mathrubhumi,
1931, Ap. 6, June. 21, July. 29, July. 31 & Sep. 10; 1932, Marc h .
5, March. 27 & Aug. 4). Gandhi also asked the satyagrahis to
detach the struggle from all its political affiliations and from the
organizational links of the Congress in order to rescue it from
government repression and to ensure its success. Though the
temple-entry agitation was perceived as tantamount to the
“struggle against imperialism” by some of its leaders (Gopalan,
1973: p. 28) as it kept vigil against disunity and factionalism,
what really prompted the Congress to confine the struggle to
temple-entry was the bitter experiences of 192116. The Zamorin,
who was the trustee of the temple, however, refused to step
down to negotiate a settlement which led Kelappan to start a
fast unto death which, however, was withdrawn under the ad-
vice of Gandhiji (Mathrubhumi, 22 Sep. & 4 Oct. 1932). The
satyagraha as a whole was finally terminated before achieving
any of its declared objectives. A period of three months was
given to the Zamorin to effect temple-entry, failing which
Gandhi would himself offer satyagraha; but it was postponed
and did not take place at all. A referendum was held among the
caste Hindus of Ponnani taluk, where the temple was situated,
which revealed that 70% of them supported the cause of temple
entry (Mathrubhumi Weekly Temple Entry Special Issue, 16
Nov. 1937). N.P. Damodaran, one of the leaders of the satya-
graha, later recollected that though the agitation failed to meet
its immediate objective, it created a climate in favour of temple
entry (Damodaran, 1981). The movement for temple entry reg-
istered its crowning victory when the Travancore government
made the temple entry proclamation in 1936 by which all tem-
ples in Travancore were thrown open to all Hindus (Menon,
1984: pp. 327-328). Nevertheless, the temples of Cochin and
Malabar remained closed before the avarnas till 1947.
Politics of the Temple-Entry
The temple-entry movement was important for several rea-
sons. Firstly, it was a conscious effort on the part of the Con-
gress to integrate the various castes and communities under the
Hindu fold through social and religious reform, which repre-
sented a powerful domain of the nationalist movement. Temple
could rally diverse sections together without dislodging the
existing power relations and a symbolic unity could pacify
lower caste radicalism. The Congress decision to take up the
issue in Kerala was certainly in the context of the inclusion of
the removal of untouchability as part of the Gandhian construc-
tive program and its decision to fight out social evils in accor-
dance with the nation-building project, but the constructive
16The fear of the Map pil as loo med larg e even i n th e 30’s and du ring the salt
march it is reported that salt law had been broken all over Malabar except in
the erstwh ile “rebel” areas . Moreover, th e procession on foot from Payyan-
nur, heading for the Guruvayur satyagraha stopped short of the “rebel” area.
The marchers took a train from Feroke to Tirur “because of a rumor that the
Mappilas would prevent them from moving into Ernad” (Menon, 1994:pp.
15In an interview K. P. Kesava Menon revealed that for the Congressmen from
Malabar district, the temple-entry campaign gave an opportunity to revive
interest—at a safe distance—in a Congress that had suffered a severe setback
with the Mappila rebellion of 1921 (cited in Jeffrey, 1978a: pp. 153-154).
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
programme itself betrayed its elitist character (Kooiman, 1995:
p. 45; Onwerkerk, 1994: p. 56). Writings of Gandhi in the early
twenties, and even later, revealed how the Congress leadership
was getting seriously troubled by lower caste radicalism and the
increasing volume of religious conversions (Young India, 27.10.
1920: 135; 04.06.1925: 135; 19.01.1921: 6; 04.05.1921: 3; 27.
04.1921: 5; 22.09.1921: 11; 29.09.1921: 12; 13.10.1921: 13;
Harijan, 11.02.1933; 31.10.1936)17. Of equal importance was
the basic limitation of the anti-untouchability program: it
searched for a moral solution to repair inequalities to recast the
nation but without dislodging the basic social structure18. The
Congress leadership in Kerala also refused to address the eco-
nomic content or power relationships rooted in it but rather took
it as a question of equality within religion and an unfortunate
aberration from scriptural injunctions.
Secondly, the heated debates unleashed by the Izhava middle
class on religious conversion was acquiring political and eco-
nomic dimensions. C.V. Kunhuraman, the firebrand leader of
the S.N.D.P. and the editor of Kerala Kaumudi had made the
alarm signal by urging the Izhavas to renounce Hinduism if the
upper castes did not support their cause of temple entry (Kun-
huraman, 1936). A section of the Izhavas enthusiastically wel-
comed the suggestion. Though there were differences of opin-
ion as to which religion they should opt—whether Christianity,
Islam or Buddhism—the challenge fell like a bombshell on the
savarna groups. Although conversions had been taking place
among the untouchables from very early times and its pace had
considerably increased by the nineteenth and early twentieth
centuries, the ‘20s and ‘30s were special because now the chal-
lenge came from the Izhavas who though “are avarnas are rich
and educated” (Kelappan, 1925). The loss of the middle class
was exceptionally harmful as they could threaten—as in the
case of the Christian mi ddle class of ce ntra l Trav ancore (Je ffrey ,
1978a: pp. 153-154)—the material pursuits of the upper caste
Hindus. A powerful section within the S.N.D.P—including Ku-
maran Asan, T. K. Madhavan and A. Ayyappan, and of course
Sri Narayana Guru too—stood for a reformed Hinduism (Ke-
savan, 1968: pp. 274-276). But radicals held fast to the idea of
conversion; preferably to Buddhism against the Sri Lankan
background of the Izhavas (Kunhuraman, 1925); this had lent
space to speculations, that the conversion issue was a pressure
tactic to enforce a reform of customs. However, it had its de-
sired effect: caste Hindus increasingly began to realize the need
of ritual reform which is evident in the rhetoric against conver-
sions with a stress on the innate quality of Hinduism (Thampan,
1932; Nambutiripad, 1932). The Nair aristocracy fanned Nair
communal passions against the Christian capitalists who were
buying up their land and prestige (Isaac & Tharakan, 1988: p.
166). Leaders like “Mannam, who was not a Gandhian and was
in general opposed to the Congress”, participated in the Vaikam
Satyagraha for his concern over the loss to Hinduism of con-
verts to Christianity (Onwerkerk, 1994: p. 59). The temple en-
try movement under the leadership of the Congress thus repre-
sented an attempt at forging a consolidated Hindu identity and
to discourage conversions which was engendered by disabilities
enforced by the caste system. Religious conversion could cause
trouble to the caste Hindus because “it reduced their rhetorical
constituency” (Jeffrey, 1978a: p. 143). The writings of Kelap-
pan clearly demonstrated how the temple-entry movement was
directly linked to the threat posed by religious conversions (Ke-
lappan, 1925; 1932a; 1932b)19.
Thirdly, the Congress interest in the temple-entry struggle
was an attempt to offset the damage caused to its prestige and
honor by the incidents of 1921. Congress leadership tried to
escape from the initial shock by expressing its “firm convic-
tion” that the non-cooperation and Khilafat movements were in
no way responsible for the outbreak. The Congress view was
recorded in the resolution of the Working Committee in Sep-
tember 1921, expressing a “sense of deep regret over the deeds
of violence done by the Mappilas in certain areas of Malabar”
and resolved that the rebellion was not caused by the Khilafat
or Non-cooperation movements, and that the causes of the re-
bellion had nothing to do with these movements (Sitaramayya,
1946: p. 216). Prominent Congress leaders in Kerala shared this
view as is understood from Kesava Menon’s comment that “it
was wrong to have connected the Khilafat problem with the
Nationalist Movement” (Menon, 1977: p. 48). Congressmen in
Kerala were under siege for upholding the Khilafat issue and
forging an alliance with the “fanatic” Mappilas which brought
about “great hardships to the Hindus and dishonor to the land”.
The committees appointed by the Congress failed to make a
comprehensive and objective enquiry into the cause of the re-
bellion, which led to develop controversies with strong political
and communal overtones. K. Moidu Maulavi, Khilafat leader
and staunch nationalist, reiterated his firm conviction that the
rebellion was a struggle for freedom, it started as an anti-impe-
rialist rising, although “in the end the British authorities had
succeeded to an extent in degrading it into a communal con-
flict” (Maulavi, 1981: pp. 136-141; 152-154). But Kesava Me-
non stated (later) that it would not be correct to consider the
“Mappila Rebellion” as part of the Nationalist movement be-
cause the rebels “were motivated more by religious zeal and
17In a series of articles entitled “The Removal of Untouchability” wrote in
Young India and Harijan, Gandhi viewed conversion rather more inspired
y the desire for material benefits than for spiritual needs. The lower caste
eople were getting converted because of untouchability which has to be
eliminated not only to cleanse Hinduism of its evils but to attain swaraj also.
Foreign rule in India is a divine punishment for following this curse which
“is a crime against god and humanity”. In fact untouchability was not a part
of original Hinduism and hence those who threaten to abandon Hinduism
are deceiving their religion. He consoled the untouchables that their low
social stature is not due to their fault and urged the savarna people to take
up the removal of untouchability as an act of atonement before they were
too late to do so.
18“Untouchability was both a moral and political problem: the former be-
cause its eradication involved undermining its moral legitimacy and chang-
ing, or at least softening, Hindu attitudes; the latter because it was deeply
rooted in the highly unequal structure of power relationship between the
upper castes and the harijans and could not be removed without restructur-
ing it. It had therefore to be fought at both levels. Gandhi’s campaign was
conducted only at the moral and religious level. Hence he concentrated on
caste Hindus…, appealed to their sense of duty and honor, mobilized their
feelings of shame and guilt, and succeeded in achieving his initial objective
of discrediting untouchability and raising the level of the Hindu… con-
sciousness. Since he did not organize and politicize the harijans, stress their
rights and fight for a radical reconstruction of the established social and
economic order, Gandhi’s campaign was unable to go further” (Parekh,
1989: pp. 245-24 6).
19K. Kelappan, the great Gandhian Congressman and the foremost cham-
pion of the temple-entry movement in Kerala, in his article on the Vaikam
Satyagraha (1925: pp. 42-45), justified the struggle in the context of the
increasing tendency of the lower castes, especially Izhavas, to renounce
Hinduism. In another article written around the time of the Guruvayur Sat-
yagraha, he expressed great concern over the harms caused by conversions.
This article is s p ecially no t ed for his attit ude of the Musli m “other”; th ey are
erceived as a threat to the nation and national unity; mainly because o
their so lidarity and str ess on intern ational brotherho od (1932a: pp. 7- 8). He
also suggested a “secular” programme the government should follow to
curb the grow th of (Muslim) comm u nalism (1932b: pp. 4-5, 10).
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 65
interest in the Khilafat than by true national consciousness”
(Menon, 1977: p. 48). In their highly illuminating accounts of
the event, two other prominent Congress leaders—K. Madha-
van Nair and Mozhikunnath Brahmadathan Nambutiripad—
traced the origin of the rebellion back to the high-handed Brit-
ish policy of repression (Nair, 2002; Nambutiripad, 1965). By
attributing the violence of 1921 to the official atrocities, they
justified the decision of the Congress to ally with the Mappilas
but regretted for associating with a group still unfit for a mod-
ern and secular political struggle—and thus justified the official
Congress position rejecting the struggle as a part of the national
movement. They also shared the colonial perception of the up-
rising as nothing but a “riot” and treated the Mappilas as “wild”
and “fanatic” people who could not be trusted or easily tamed.
Neither did the rebellion confine its impact to Malabar poli-
tics alone. The widespread propaganda recounting awesome
details of the “Hindu suffering” at the hands of the Mappila
rebels gave birth to an aggressive Hindu campaign, at first
against the “cruel Mappilas” and later against Muslims in gen-
eral. On the other hand, the sufferings of the Mappilas deeply
moved Muslims all over India. Frantic appeals for helping them
received generous response from the North. All these affected
the relationship between the Hindus and Muslims all over India.
“The exaggerated tales (about the rebellion)… inflamed feel-
ings. The cry of Hinduism in danger was raised and movements
of Shuddhi (reconversion) and Sanghathan (organization) plan-
ned. A vicious cycle of accusation and counter-accusation was
set up which created the heat in which the tender plant of
Hindu-Muslim unity began to wither” (Chand, 1972: p. 497).
The “communal antagonisms generated by the Malabar Rebel-
lion” (Brown, 1972: p. 329) and the steadily advancing nation-
alist discourse centered on religious and cultural nationalism
greatly strengthened the concept of the Muslim “other” to the
extent that even the great Izhava reformer and poet Kumaran
Asan wrote a tale of the Rebellion villainizing the Mappilas in
which he told the tale of a Nambutiri girl thrown desolate by
the “cruel Muhammedans” during the revolt of 1921 (Asan,
1969). Similarly, in his “statement” attached to the 1970 edition
of K. Madhavan Nair’s Malabar Rebellion, K. Kelappan shared
the concern of the Congress leadership towards the “minority
Hindus of Ernad” against the “illiterate”, “ignorant” and hence
“rude” Mappilas (Nair, 2002: ix-xii)20.
The fear of the Mappilas for their “lack of civility”, the wide-
spread concern over the hardships of the (upper caste) Hindus
who had escaped from the affected areas to take shelter in the
nearby town of Calicut or in the princely states of Travancore
and Cochin, the cooperation extended by Congress to the relief
measures undertaken by the Arya Samaj, which was also very
active in reconverting the Hindus who were converted to Islam,
(Ansari, 2005: p. 64) the total breakdown of the organizational
structure of the Congress and its inability to carry on even nor-
mal political activity in the face of official retribution and
popular distrust in its programs, all forced the Congress to re-
treat to a Hindu idiom of politics (Menon, 1994: p. 78). Gan-
dhi’s statement—“The Moplahs are Muslims”—reveals the
stereotypical character-construct of the Muslim (Ansari, 2005:
p. 73). The leadership of the Congress in Kerala could not get
out of the shock inflicted by the events of the rebellion, espe-
cially the attack of the Mappila rebels on caste Hindus. This
was not surprising because in Malabar caste system conformed
to a kind of class order: the caste Hindus were the landlords or
the prominent leaseholders of the area while the Mappilas were
the sub-tenants under them (Panikkar, 1984). Among the higher
castes in particular, it is observed, the attitude towards Islam
was coloured by the way in which Islam impinged upon their
interests (Misra, 2004: p. 20). That the lower caste tenants re-
fused to rebel against their upper caste lords in Malabar clearly
revealed the manner by which caste hierarchy and the mode of
class response got enmeshed. The higher castes could realize
that the threat posed by conversion to their interests could only
be countered by bringing various caste groups together on some
common issue and by reforming social practices which seg-
mented them; efforts to forge a symbolic unity among Hindu
communities around the question of temple-entry appeared a
useful weapon to discourage the untouchable castes to get at-
tracted to religions which promised to emancipate them. For the
dominant groups, religion offers the necessary ideological justi-
fication for existing social divisions, makes these divisions
appear non-antagonistic and holds together a potentially di-
vided society into a single whole (Chatterjee, 1989: p. 172).
Thus, the championing of the temple-entry cause (mainly at
Vaikam) provided the Congress with a big lease of life: it gave
a platform for action with a strictly non-political program; it
saved them from official surveillance as the centre of activity
was shifted to the safe environs of the princely state of Travan-
core; it eschewed the fear of communal tension because the
Mappila factor was absent in Travancore (Menon, 1994: pp.
103-104) and above all, it provided the Congress with an op-
portunity to expiate for the “sin” of allying with the “danger-
ous” Mappilas by upholding a “Hindu” cause. Congressmen
played the role of an arbiter between various Hindu castes,
which in fact signaled a retreat from secular political activity,
but it opened before them a program of action after the “Map-
pila” rebellion (Menon, 1994: p. 80).
The temple-entry movement decided the future course of
politics in Kerala at least in three respects. Firstly, it provided a
conclusive end to the civil rights movement undertaken by the
untouchable castes leading to the attainment of the right of
universal temple-entry. The questions of religious disability and
freedom of worship slowly subsided to become less and less
powerful to command the discourse of civic life and political
culture. The debates centered on religious conversion as a
means of social emancipation also faded out altogether (Isaac &
Tharakan, 1988: p. 168; Narayanan, 2011). The (upper caste)
leadership of the Congress was able to coerce the caste-Hindus
to compromise on the question of temple-entry as the only vi-
able means to ward off religious conversion which challenged
the very survival of the Hindu community. Secondly, with the
success of the temple-entry agitation the conversion movement
certainly began to wane in Kerala, but it greatly undermined the
secular image of the Congress for its propagandist role in dis-
20Chatterjee (1995: p. 126) writes that the fact that Indian nationalism is
synonymous with “Hindu nationalism” is an entirely modern, rationalist and
historicist idea. The notion of “Hinduness” is not defined by any religious
criteria at all. There are no specific beliefs or practices which characterize
this “Hindu” and the many doctrinal or sectarian differences among Hindus
are indifferent to this concept. Even anti-Vedic and anti-brahmanical relig-
ions as Buddhism and Jainism count here as “Hindu”. Clearly excluded
from this jati are religions like Christianity and Islam. The criterion fo
inclusion and exclusion is determined by their historical origin. Buddhism
and Jainism are ‘Hindu’ because they originated in India while Islam and
Christianity originated outside and are, therefore, foreign.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
seminating the so-called “Essentials of Hinduism” and in seek-
ing to forge a (Hindu) “community of equals” (Menon, 1994: p.
80) through a common bond of religiosity and uniformity of
religious worship around temples. In that sense the temple-
entry movement marked a definite stage in the process of the
disjunction of folk religion and other currents of religion. Re-
ligion is no longer divided into lower religion and higher relig-
ion, but into religion and superstition (Sontheimer, 1995: p.
396). Hence it was a shuddhi movement—to cleanse religion of
blots identified incompatible with modernity and the essentials
of nationhood. The temple-entry satyagraha attains significance
against the dual task taken up by the Indian National Congress
—to construct a modern nation-state and to mould a national
(Hindu) religion. But it had its disastrous consequences—in
driving religious minorities away from the organizational fold
and ideological appeal of the Congress. The bitter experiences
of 1921 followed by the conscious involvement of the Congress
in the affairs of religious nationalism forced the Mappilas to
keep away from nationalist politics and slowly drift towards a
marked sectarian identity. The slow but steady drift of the Map-
pilas into communal politics became inevitable (Panikkar, 1989:
p. 190). Thirdly, the struggle for temple-entry helped in deliv-
ering the Congress from the moral setback it faced after the
Malabar rebellion, but in the unique social context of Kerala
where reform movements had succeeded in shaping an ideo-
logical environment in favor of social equality, its withdrawal
from direct politics to engage with socio-religious issues, dis-
regarding more important questions of material deprivation and
class disparities, transcending caste/religious affiliations, re-
duced its political constituency and created a fertile ground for
the proliferation of left political ideology in subsequent times.
Moreover, in the 1930s, the strong communal and caste con-
sciousness let loose by the agitation against caste disabilities
could lead the poor towards class consciousness (as caste
roughly coincided with class in Kerala). With the Temple entry
Proclamation in Travancore in 1936—“the final act in the em-
bourgeoisment of society” as Nambutiripad saw it (Jeffrey,
1978: p. 82)—the middle class members were accorded the
right to use temples and abruptly lost interest in the poor of
their own caste. But the political excitement awakened among
the poor and low caste could not be made to go away; it lay
ready to be developed into class consciou sn ess .
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