Ayyankali was born on August 28, 1863, to Maala and Ayyan at Venganoor, which is now in Thiruvananthapuram district. The caste discrimination he faced as a child turned him into a leader of an anti-caste movement and who later fought for basic rights including access to public spaces and entry to schools.
Ayyankali in 1893 rode an ox-cart challenging the ‘ban’ on untouchables from accessing public roads by caste-Hindus. This is celebrated as one of the major achievements in the history of Dalit movements in Kerala. He, later, also led a rally to assert the rights of ‘untouchables’ at Balaramapuram. An ‘upper caste’ mob attacked them and a fight broke out. “The walk Ayyankali took came to be known as ‘walk for freedom’ and the consequent riots as ‘Chaliyar riots’,” wrote scholar and activist Anand Teltumbde in his book ‘Dalits: Past, present and future’.
Though Pulayars gained the right to access roads, temples and schools were still inaccessible. Ayyankali had a three-level solution for this. First, to ask the government for help, second to fight with upper caste landlords and third — to start own schools. All three were enabled which partially helped them to realise their dream.
Pulaya farmers, under the leadership of Ayyankali, declared “If our kids are not allowed to enter your schools, your paddies will grow mere weeds.” It is also considered as the first strike of the working class in Kerala, the state which gave birth to the first elected Communist government in the world.
On March 1, 1910, just 44 years before Kerala state was born, the Travancore government ordered that Pulaya children be admitted to ‘all schools which Ezhava (a numerically dominant caste in Kerala which currently comes in the OBC list) children have access’. Inspired by Sree Narayana Guru, a social reformer from Ezhava caste, Ayyankali started Sadhu Jana Paripalana Sangham (association for the protection of the poor) which later raised funds to start their own schools.
Despite the government ruling, the managements were not ready to admit Pulaya kids in schools. At Pullad in the current Pathanamthitta district, Ayyankali led another strike to enable the ruling. It is referred to as the Pullad riots.
The historical worker’s strike, which Ayyankali organised, saw success after an year. Though landlords tried to break the unity, nothing helped them in achieving that. ‘Ayyankali Sena’, the team of Ayyankali, ensured physical support to the protestors. Ayyankali himself organised ways for the Pulayars to sustain themselves during the strike through a deal with the fishermen community at Vizhinjam to get a share of their fish collection. Landlords had to accept demands for wage revision and access to roads and schools.
Pandita Ramabai was born in Mangalore District in 1858. Her father was a Chitpavan Brahman scholar, who taught her Sanskrit and refused to arrange her marriage. The family traveled from one pilgrimage site to another; her father supporting them by giving recitations of the Purāṇas. The famine of 1874 reduced the family to starvation. In the forest near Tirupathi, her father, mother, and elder sister died. She and her brother wandered all over India, mostly on foot, for the next six years, in an effort to attain to the forgiveness of sins. What they found was “insincerity and fraud”. But Ramabai and her brother were not deceived. “We knew we were sinners,” she confessed, “though we did not acknowledge it.” Still it was in those years that Ramabai became profoundly aware of the sufferings of women. In Calcutta, her intellect and charisma while expounding the scriptures captivated the Sanskrit scholars of Bengal, who bestowed on her the title Pandita. However, Ramabai eventually became disillusioned with Hinduism.
In 1882, Ramabai moved to Pune where she founded Arya Mahila Samaj (Arya Women’s Society). The purpose of the society was to promote the cause of women’s education and deliverance from the oppression of child marriage. When in 1882 a commission was appointed by Government of India to look into education, Ramabai gave evidence before it. In an address to Lord Ripon’s Education Commission, she declared with fervor, “In ninety-nine cases out of a hundred the educated men of this country are opposed to female education and the proper position of women. If they observe the slightest fault, they magnify the grain of mustard-seed into a mountain, and try to ruin the character of a woman.” She suggested that teachers be trained and women school inspectors be appointed. Further, she said that as the situation in India was that women’s conditions were such that women could only medically treat them, Indian women should be admitted to medical colleges. Ramabai’s evidence created a great sensation and reached Queen Victoria. It bore fruit later in starting of the Women’s Medical Movement by Lord Dufferin.
Ramabai went to Britain in 1883 to start medical training. During her stay she converted to Christianity. From Britain she traveled to the United States in 1886 to attend the graduation of the first female Indian doctor, Anandibai Joshi, staying for two years. During this time she also translated textbooks and gave lectures throughout the United States and Canada. She had also published one of her most important book, The High-Caste Hindu Woman. This was also the first book that she wrote in English. Ramabai dedicated this book to Dr. Joshi, The High-Caste Hindu Woman-to be specific a Brahmin woman which showed the darkest aspects of the life of Hindu women, including child brides and child widows, sought to expose the oppression of women in Hindu-dominated British India. In 1896, during a severe famine Ramabai toured the villages of Maharashtra with a caravan of bullock carts and rescued thousands of outcast children, child widows, orphans, and other destitute women and brought them to the shelter of Mukti and Sharada Sadan. A learned woman knowing seven languages, she also translated the Bible into her mother tongue—Marathi—from the original Hebrew and Greek.
She was given a scholarship to study medicine in England; when she arrived there, she found that her hearing was defective and so she could not participate in lectures. While in England, she wrote the feminist classic “The High Caste Hindu Woman”, a scathing attack on traditional practices including widowhood, polygamy and child marriage. She established the Mukti Mission in 1889 as a refuge for young widows who were abused by their families.
In Marathi, her native tongue, the word mukti means liberation. The Pandita Ramabai Mukti Mission is still active today, providing housing, education, vocational training, and medical services, for many needy groups including widows, orphans, and the blind. Mukti Mission is located near the city of Pune (Poona) and enjoys support from several foreign countries including the United States and Australia. In 1919, the king of England conferred on her the Kaiser-i-Hind award, one of the highest awards an Indian could receive during the period of the British Raj. Her contributions as a builder of modern India were recognized by the Government of India by issuing a commemorative postal stamp on 26th October 1989 in honour of her.
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