It’s always the same. Either a communal issue is politicised or a political issue is communalised. The latest controversy in Kerala concerns the Platinum Jubilee celebrations of the ‘Vaikom satyagraha’, a historic, though in itself minor event, that was essentially one of civil rights and not of religious freedom. The satyagraha began when the priests of a famous and most holy temple in Vaikom, a town just south of Cochin, as a matter of policy decided to prohibit the use of a road adjacent to the temple by members of the lower castes. Christians and Muslims could use it but not the Hindu lower castes.

The civil disobedience movement that ensued began in 1924 and caste Hindus as well as outcastes participated. Nairs and the followers of Sri Narayana Guru, spiritual leader of the Ezhavas (or Thiyas,), all joined in the agitation to recover the public road for all citizens. The government forbade the demonstrations and deployed police detachments to guard the road. Vaikom is a very low-lying area and during the monsoons the road became flooded, but the demonstrators kept up their picketing even in the worst weather, often standing in water neck-deep, while the police carried on their vigil in boats. This satyagraha received nation-wide attention. In1925, at the height of the campaign, Gandhiji visited Vaikom and worked out a typical Gandhian compromise by which all the roads in the area were thrown open to all except for a small stretch outside the temple itself. It was four more years before the satyagrahis finally won their battle against the priests.

The current silly and nonsensical controversy has been stirred up by (who else?) Sangh Parivar spokesman who have questioned the appropriateness of the Congress party inviting Sonia Gandhi to inaugurate the jubilee celebrations. Isn’t Sonia a Christian? Some say she is, others say she is Hindu by marriage (though Rajiv’s father was a Parsi, but never mind that). The Vaikom satyagraha, in fact, was supported by Hindus and non-Hindus in large numbers and at least one famous atheist, E.V. Ramaswami Naicker.

The main thrust of the agitation was provided by Harijans, led by Gandhi and Sree Narayana Guru. The Guru’s slogan, 'One caste, one religion and one god for men’ became the motto of a progressive movement that brought about the historic Temple Entre Proclamation (1936) by the Maharaja of Travancore, the first of its kind in India, which opened the holy places of the State to all Hindus irrespective of caste. A similar campaign in Guruvayoor in Malabar in 1931 also helped the cause of radical reforms throughout Kerala. Here, demonstrators tore down the iron fence around the temple, which the British government then closed completely. The campaign was eventually called off.

The Vaikom satyagraha threw up two important leaders; Mannath Padmanabha Pillai, a caste Hindu (Nair) who led the Nair Service Society (NSS), and T.K. Madhavan, and Ezhava who was a staunch Gandhian and a leader of the Sri Narayana Guru Dharma Paripalana (SNDP) Yogam. Of these, historically, Madhavan was the more important, but there is at present an attempt by Sangh Parivar intellectuals to promote Padmanabha Pillai.

Sri Narayana Guru’s efforts to reform Hindu worship and his philosophy of ‘one God, one Religion’ had certain important repercussions. The idea of united Kerala came out of his efforts to build temples for the powerful Thiya community of Malabar. The political fragmentation of the land of the Malayalee into Travancore, Cochin and Malabar had been hampering their cultural progress. The dream of Aikya Kerala was fulfilled in 1957 twenty-nine years after Sree Narayana’s death.

Gandhi’s visit to Vaikom and his involvement with the satyagraha, and later his meeting with Narayana Guru in Sivagiri (Varkala) had an important influence on the freedom struggle and on the Indian National Congress. The fight against casteism and communalism became an important part of the Congress party’s national programme.

At Sivagiri, Gandhi learned that the Guru trained untouchable boys for priesthood along with other Hindu children. The Sivagiri Ashram was also engaged in reviving handicrafts and cottage industries.

Gandhiji always had an ambivalent attitude to caste. He was thoroughly against untouchability, but he believed that varnashrama was a divinely ordained concept. (This was the bone of contention between Gandhi and Ambedkar, who maintained that so long as there was caste, there would be outcastes). At the Sivagiri Ashram, Gandhiji, trying to convert the Guru to his orthodox view, cited the examples of the leaves of the mango tree in the Ashram; they differed in size. The Guru countered by saying, ‘But does not their juice taste the same, having one and the same quality?’

‘So are all men in essence. Man everywhere belongs to one caste, one species.’