“We are endeavouring to rid Hinduism of its greatest blot,” said Mahatma Gandhi in 1925, addressing a large gathering of people from marginalised castes just outside the famous Siva temple in Vaikom in central Kerala (then Travancore).
Gandhi was participating in the Vaikom Satyagraha, organised by major social reformers such as KP Kesava Menon and TK Madhavan, which aimed to open up the roads leading to the temple for people from all castes. The social protest is celebrated as a milestone in the history of Kerala’s renaissance movement.
“The prejudice we have to fight against is an age-old prejudice. The end is to get all such roads throughout Travancore to be opened up (to marginalised castes),” said Gandhi.
The Vaikom Satyagraha and subsequent agitations were successful in securing the basic right of walking on a public road for people from all castes.
The values upheld by the protest and its role in Kerala’s larger history of reformation were frequently alluded to by the Kerala government and activists during the controversy over women of menstrual age entering the Sabarimala temple.
In the upcoming Republic Day parade—the theme is Gandhi, whose 150th birth year is being celebrated—Kerala had planned to display a tableau centred on the protest, highlighting Gandhi’s participation in it. However, last month, the state learnt that its tableau had been excluded from the parade.
The state government has alleged that the Union government, led by the BJP—which has been at loggerheads with Kerala’s ruling CPM on the Sabarimala issue—has deliberately excluded the state’s float.
“The Union Government is implementing the BJP agenda by denying permission to the tableau. Whether it is Vaikom Satyagraha or Sabarimala women entry, the governments have to forget the political aspect. While in Vaikom, Gandhiji was categorical about it. The agents of hate along with obscurantist forces are now attempting to cast aspersions even on major milestones of the history,” alleged AK Balan, Kerala’s Minister for Culture.
HuffPost India has sent an email to the joint secretary, establishment, Union ministry of defence, asking why Kerala’s tableau was rejected, and will update this story once we receive a reply.
It is not unusual for a state’s float design to be rejected by the centre, nor is it unheard of for a state to allege that politics is behind the decision.
But the move to exclude Kerala hit headlines, coming so soon after the face-off between the state and central governments on Sabarimala—last week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi told a gathering of party workers in Kerala that the state government’s conduct was “shameful”.
Bappa Chakraborty, a Kolkata-based artiste and tableau designer, had been tasked with designing the float for Kerala this year. Chakraborty is not a regular visitor to the state but has brought it the gold medal for the best tableau four times over the past 15 years.
“Extensive research in the last few months, especially on the meeting between Gandhiji and Kerala’s iconic reformist Sree Narayana Guru in the backdrop of the temple entry satyagraha, had influenced me a lot. It was indeed one of the most inspiring chapters of the country’s social reformation movement. So it became easy for me to conceptualise the Vaikom Satyagraha as a tableau for the 70th Republic Day Parade,’’ Chakraborty told HuffPost India.
“Gandhiji had five visits to Kerala on different occasions since 1920, when he arrived in Kozhikode to meet leaders of Khilafat movement. I had to go into the details of all the five journeys before focusing on the Vaikom satyagraha. The Vaikom chapter was the most glorious and illuminating among his journey to Kerala,’’ said Chakraborty, who runs an advertising agency in Kolkata.
PS Rajasekharan, additional director of the Department of Information and Public Relations of Government of Kerala, said the state government had followed the Union government’s instructions to a T.
On 3 May 2018, he said, the Kerala chief secretary received a letter from the joint secretary of the defence ministry on the theme. The state then submitted three proposals—Temple Entry Proclamation, Non-Cooperation Movement and Vaikom Satyagraha—for approval.
“As the Vaikom Satyagraha got the nod from the expert committee set up by the ministry, three variants of the theme were prepared by Bappa Chakraborty on our request and that too after intense groundwork and research. The Father of the Nation in conversation with social reformer Sree Narayana Guru got the final nod,’’ said Rajasekharan.
Chakraborty said all the changes suggested by the committee were incorporated.
“The committee wanted Kerala ambience, Sopanam music, 3D figure in the models of the tableau and to reduce time of the music. But it finally lost the race,’’ said Chakraborty.
Rajasekharan told HuffPost India that Puneet Kumar, Kerala’s Resident Commissioner in New Delhi, wrote to the Union defence secretary on 22 December after finding out that Kerala was not on the final list of 14 states. He didn’t receive a reply.
The tableau had also envisaged paying tribute to the roles played by Dravidian rationalist social reformer Periyar EV Ramasamy and reformist leaders such as Chattampi Swamikal and Menon.
“We wanted to highlight the anti-untouchability movement that shaped the progressive Kerala by fighting orthodoxy. There will be no looking back from the reformist path. We will use this occasion to teach the younger generation the significance of the Vaikom satyagraha,’’ said minister Balan.