Dr. Palpu who activised a momentous agitation during a period when great changes were taking place in the history of Kerala, was a man of strange ways. Born in 1863 in the Ezhava family of Nedungode in Trivandrum he started his traditional education at the age of five. He wanted to learn English like his brother (in later life Rao Bahadur P. Velayudham) but financial difficulties threatened to stand in the way. Palpu’s Character and keenness impressed S.J.Fernandez, a European, who was running , an English School in Trivandrum. With the encouragement and financial support of this gentleman he studied in his school for three years and then matriculated from the Government School at Trivandrum. He had to interrupt his college education in the first year itself for want of money. He managed to earn some money by giving tution and rejoined the college. In the meantime he passed the entrance examination for the medical course, but could not secure admission in the college due to opposition from the caste Hindus. He was bent upon studying medicine. Raising some money partly by selling his mother’s jewels, he joined the Madras Medical College and took his medical degree after four years.
Dr. Palpu entered service under the Madras Government. He worked under Col. King , a European, in a special depot manufacturing “lymph” for vaccination against smallpox. The King was pleased with his work and sense of responsibility. He got a promotion as the Senior Superintendent. The Depot was shifted to Bangalore and Dr. Palpu had to go there. The Government of Mysore started a lymph-manufacturing unit and Dr. Palpu joined this institution and earned another promotion. The Government decided to send him to Europe. But plague broke out in Mysore and Dr. Palpu was deputed for the anti-plague operations. The other doctors in the team left the scene on leave or otherwise, but Dr. Palpu stood his ground and plunged into the work as the Superintendent in charge of the operations. The death toll in the camp ranged between fifty and a hundred and fifty in the midst of the dance of death Palpu stood firm like a rock with service as his sole motto.
In 1899 he left for Europe and spent a year and a half in England and other places including Paris, Rome and Germany. On his return to Bangalore he served the Government in various capacities. Throughout his service he never acted against his conscience and this led to many clashes with his superiors. He retired from Government service in 1920. This much for his official life.
Dr. Palpu used to engage himself in many other activities. One such was purely personal. He secretly helped poor but deserving students with money for their studies.
Kumaran Asan himself was staying with him at Bangalore for higher studies. During winter nights Dr. Palpu would go out with blankets bought with his own money and secrety cover the shivering poor asleep on shop platforms. He himself had a family and his own share of commitments. Probably the memory of his former benefactor was inspiring him. He used to advice everyone to try to be fools. A clever man was one who, like a bandicoot, thrived on the fruits of another’s labour. As against this , a fool was one who gave the fruits of his own labour to others. Dr. Palpu used to say that our endeavour should always be to become such fools. In his private life he was one such.
Dr. Palpu always exhibited an untiring readiness to work for the uplift of his own community and other depressed classes. Their main handicap was lack of educational facilities. Even the Government of the enlightened State of Travancore denied them admission in Government Schools and barred their entry into service in some of the departments. A movement had started under the leadership of men like Barrister G.P.Pillai and K.P. Sankara Menon, demanding recognition of the rights of the natives to enter Government Service. Dr. Palpu joined this movement. In a memorial they submitted to the Government it was mentioned that in Travancore Service there was not even a single Ezhava drawing more than five rupees as salary though there were talented and educated candidates in the community. In their reply Government stated that considering the social condition in the state Ezhavas were generally illiterate and that as a rule they preferred to continue in their traditional occupations like tapping and making coir yarn rather than go for higher education which would make them fit for Government service.
t has to be admitted that the Government’s reply truly reflected the prevailing state of affairs. The Ezhavas were perfectly satisfied with their lot. Only a few among them like Dr. Palpu and M.Govindan had modern ideas and there was none other than Dr. Palpu to work tirelessly with a determination never to rest till the goal was achieved. He carried on his fight for social justice through all available means –the press, meetings, letters, interviews with authorities. Social justice meant recognition of fundamental human rights. His was a lone and hazardous journey through thorny thickets of superstitions and in his efforts to transform a primitive community he accepted help from all quarters.
In 1896 Dr.Palpu came on leave to Travancore and traveled in almost all taluks not minding the hardship involved, to collect signatures from Ezhavas for a memorandum to be submitted to the Maharaja. But most of the Ezhavas refused to sign the petition out of fear and also of blind faith in tradition. Dr. Palpu clearly saw that unless this fear and conservatism were removed no effort to improve the lot of the community could be effective, and that organized work on an emergency footing was required. But he first wanted to complete the work he had begun. With much effort he collected signatures from thirteen thousand Ezhavas and presented a mammoth petition to Shri. Moolam Tirunal Maharaja.
The petition couched in the traditional and humble style recalled the services the forefathers of the present generation Ezhavas had rendered to the Crown, pledged their undivided loyalty and put forward the grievance that the benefits of many of the welfare measures the benign Government had introduced were being denied to them. Many schools were being opened throughout the state to promote education but their children were being kept away on the basis of caste, thus condemning them to unredeemed backwardness. Very few among them had English education. The reason was not the lack of facilities but of incentives as they had been barred entry into Government service. According to the census figures of 1891 there were at least twenty-five thousand educated men among them, but not one was in Government service. On a salary of at least five rupees a month. Their compatriots in Malabar were eligible to be appointed to any post a native could aspire to. Some of their own men were in good positions in the service of other Governments. Some who belonged to castes of a lower order and were converts to other religions were free to avail themselves of the educational facilities and service opportunities.
The very tone of the petition, leave alone the contents, reflected the utter helplessness of the petitioners This feeble voice came from the bravest among the community. The rest of them were quite satisfied with their traditional occupations.
The reply the Government gave to the petitioners was equally revealing. It noted that the questions raised, viz. educational facilities and employment under the Government, concerned not the Ezhavas alone and hence Government has to be extra cautious in tackling the questions so as not to impair the structural compactness of an ancient society governed by age-old customs and traditions. As regards educational facilities Government could not go against the wishes of different sections of the people and insist on giving admissions to all children in all schools, especially in remote villages. Besides admitting all children in certain institutions Government had opened separate schools for different castes in certain places including schools for Ezhava girls. Therefore the petitioners could not have any real grievance.
Government had made a departure favourable to the petitioners in regard to service rules also, throwing certain departments open to qualified Ezhavas. It was the firm opinion that these measures which guaranteed improvement were sufficient to satisfy the aspirations of the community.
Dr. Palpu was not discouraged even with this reply. This only strengthened his opinion that the rights of the community could be realized only through agitations and propaganda. He wrote a small book in English –“Treatment of Tiyas in Travancore” – laying bare the unjust policy of the Government. The help and co-operation of progressive-minded people like G.P.Pillai enabled him to make the entire country aware of the injustice to which the community was being subjected.
Palpu had met Swami Vivekananda and had talked to him about the plight of Ezhavas. Swami had suggested that the struggle be carried on with a spiritual leader as the guiding force. This suggestion at once raised the image of a radiant face in Palpu’s mind- the face of Narayana Guru. He smiled with a secret satisfaction.
Dr. Palpu was among those who worked for sending Swami Vivekananda to America. Through Vivekananda’s disciple Sister Nivedita and her friends in British Parliament, Dr. Palpu arranged to have questions asked in Parliament regarding the treatment of the Ezhavas in Travancore and this resulted in an enquiry into their problems. Dr. Palpu’s work on these lines contributed in a large measure to bringing about a favourable change in the Government’s policies towards Ezhavas and other communities.
One thousand five hundred rupees had to be spent for sending an emissary to London to meet Sister Nivedita and all the money except contributions amounting to three hundred rupees came from Dr. Palpu’s own pockets.
We do not know when Dr. Palpu got acquainted with Narayana guru. Swami came to have great respect and regard for him. He quickly saw that the doctor who had a straight-forward way of speaking was a men of rare purity of mind that brooked no crookedness. Occasions were there when Dr. Palpu openly, though humorously , criticized Swami, but Swami would just smile as he had no difficulty in seeing the pure mind behind the harsh words. During their many discussions about social reforms, in which poet Kumaran Asan and others also participated, emerged the idea of forming an organization to fight for reforms and social justice. Swami had his headquarters at Aruvippuram where a registered association had already started functioning. At a special meeting of the association it was decided to expand it by opening it for all members of the community and registering it as a Joint Stock Company. The Aruvippuram Temple Association was converted into the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam in Edavam 2, 1078 M.E (1903 AD).In difference to the wishes of Swami and Dr. Palpu, Kumaran Asan agreed to be the General Secretary. It was decided that a monthly, Vivekodayam, was to be brought out as the organ of the Yogam.