Caste Politics

K A Shaji /Thiruvananthapuram

A century has gone since the social reformer Sree Narayana Guru unleashed a mass movement in Kerala against communal and casteist discriminations. “Ask not, say not, think not caste” was the Guru’s ultimate advice to his followers. But Vellapally Natesan, a liquor baron who is the general secretary of the Narayan Guru-established Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam (SNDP), says it would be difficult not to think of caste or religion in today’s Kerala. “Minorities are swallowing the majority here. We have only two options: either succumb to conversion or commit suicide.” As the SNDP’s general secretary, Natesan is also the de-facto successor of the Guru.

Though born in the lower caste Ezhava community, the Guru never visualised the SNDP as a forum meant exclusively for the community. As a constant fighter against Brahmin orthodoxy, he built temples that were open to all, irrespective of caste or community. However, Natesan’s SNDP is a far way from the Guru’s path. At one level, it is attempting to make the Ezhava community a junior partner in the Hindutva brigade by reviving age-old customs and rituals similar to those of Brahmins. At another level, it has grown intolerant of other social reform organisations and is spreading hate against not only Christians and Muslims but also the atheist Leftists.

“The Christians with their political clout and foreign money power are trying to destroy the Hindu communities of Kerala. When I speak out against this bias I am branded a Hindu communalist, but I don’t care,” said Natesan. “The Muslims, who constitute 17 percent of Kerala’s population, own almost all the schools and colleges in the six districts of north Kerala. Arabic is taught in schools at government expense,” he said.

“Since 1940s, the Ezhava community has been the backbone of the Communists. Ninety-nine percent of the martyrs of Communist agitations are from our community. But we have been trampled upon and not given our share of political and social power,” he said.

Writer Sukumar Azhikode finds a liquor manufacturer leading the Guru’s movement paradoxical. “The Guru was totally against the production, consumption and selling of liquor. He had advised Ezhavas not to engage in brewing or selling toddy. Vellapally has not only shown disregard to the Guru, he has turned the SNDP into an outfit of liquor barons,’’ Azhikode said.

Azhikode’s stand against the SNDP has irked Natesan in the past. “Greatness cannot be achieved by merely writing books,” he reminded Azhikode once. When Azhikode supported expelled SNDP leaders S. Rahulan and CK Vidyasagar and denounced MB Sreekumar, Natesan’s right hand man and the SNDP’s president, for his alleged involvement in corruption as a member of the Travancore Devaswom Board, Natesan termed the Gandhian Azhikode a drunkard and a “leper”. Azhikode responded to the charge by saying, “I don’t drink and if drinking is such a vice, why is Vellapally running bars and liquor shops?”

According to Kerala’s Cooperation Minister G. Sudhakaran, Natesan and his counterpart in the Nair community, PK Narayana Panikkar, general secretary of the Nair Service Society (NSS), are preventing the state government from opening all the temples to everyone. Vellapally, he pointed out, was also opposed to allowing playback singer KJ Yesudas entry into the Guruvayur temple.

Former SNDP president Vidyasagar agreed. “In open platforms, he supports the opening of Guruvayur temple even to non-Hindu believers. But it is just a ploy. He is threatening the government with a communal backlash if that is done,” he said.

According to former SNDP leader S. Rahulan, the organisation has turned its educational institutions into operations for making money. He also accused Natesan of blatant nepotism. Natesan’s wife Preethi heads the organisation’s women’s wing, and their son heads the youth wing.

Natesan’s attempts at bringing the Ezhavas closer to the Hindutva fold are seen by historians as undermining the community’s struggle against caste hierarchies. “Ezhavas were always followers of Buddhism,” says Dr Kusuman, head of the department of History at Kerala University. “Sree Narayana’s campaign against caste adopted simple, commonsense means. As Ezhavas were denied the right of worship in temples, he consecrated a Shiva Linga at Aruvippuram near Trivandrum in 1888. In two temples, he put up mirrors where the deity is usually placed, making his message clear to all. He strongly advocated internal reform among Ezhavas,” Kusuman said.

Vellapally’s hope of a broad Hindu alliance with Narayana Panikkar’s NSS failed to materialise when Panikkar backtracked. An irate Natesan showered abuses on Panikkar, who countered with his own set of charges. “Panikkar is against entry of non-Hindus in Guruvayur and of women in Sabarimala. But Vellpally is not ready to come out in the open on these delicate issues,” said social commentator TK Ramachandran.

The SNDP has arguably been the biggest social reform movement in Kerala. The entire nation had taken note of the Guru’s revolutionary call. Mahatma Gandhi travelled to Varkala near Thiruvananthapuram to meet him and express solidarity. Rabindranath Tagore and Periyar Ramaswami Naicker found his war against caste brave and exceptional. French writer Romain Rolland wanted the entire world to listen to this man of “beneficent spiritual activity”. The Communist Party, elected to power in Kerala in 1957, acknowledged the fact that it could strike roots in the state so easily because the Sree Narayana movement had prepared the ground. While assuming power in Uttar Pradesh last month, Chief Minister Mayawati recalled with pride the struggle the Guru had waged against casteism. But now in Kerala, it seems all that is a thing of the past.

The Ezhavas and Narayana Guru

By the 19th century, temples in Kerala had become inaccessible to the Ezhavas, an obc community traditionally engaged in farming and tapping toddy. They had to pay head tax, thalakkaram, while Ezhava women were forced to pay bread tax, mulakkaram. There were prescribed distances to be kept by Ezhavas when they came across savarna castes. After the British assumed control of Malabar in 1792, a number of Ezhavas, or Tiyas as they are also called, rose to important positions in the administration.

Inspired by Sree Narayana Guru, Dr Palpu and others established the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam in 1903 to fight caste discrimination.

Famous Malayalam poet Kumaran Ashan was the Yogam’s first general secretary and remained so for several years. As a member of Travancore’s legislative assembly, Ashan helped improve the position of Ezhavas. Through active participation in the agitations of the Civil Rights League in the 1920s and the Abstention Movement of the 1930s, the Ezhava community secured substantial political and economic gains.

In the evening of his life, Narayana Guru grew disillusioned with the Yogam and dissociated himself from it. He founded his own Sree Narayana Dharma Sangham as a religious order.

KA Shaji


Muraleedharan said...

Kudos to Shaji for exposing the lobby, which operates under the banner of caste. It is not too late for the people of kerala/india to fight against these black moles in the society.
Keep it up.

sayin said...

Shri Shaji has done a wonderful job by his right thinking and apt analysis of Kerala's present state. Where we are treading to? Who are these peoples? How do they amass such clout among the common people.How could they by pass the progressive elements of Kerala community?Who are really behind them. It is high time to think about more such things.Really one should fight against these degeneration.

raman said...


casteism is what is driving politicians today so the relaevance of sri natesan is not

Unni said...

“Ezhavas were always followers of Buddhism,” says Dr Kusuman,

True. But what is "were always" ? Budhism declined over a time and Ezhavas got a lower position in Hinduism in the past. But today there is no Budhism, what is the point of that argument? Today Ezhavas decide what they want in Hinduism? Who is there to ordain anything?

OK, Vellappali has a Hotel that has a bar. In a state where liquor trade is government activity, in stead of sweating small stuff, why not ask the government to stop trading and engaging in alcohol business?

Vellappalli did not take a stand on a non-issue like allowing Christians in Guruvayoor temple! Is it his job? I say it is a non-issue because a Christian or Muslim can go to Arya samajam and do his conversion and go to any temple that he pleases. Why would he? The minorities are superbly organized in Kerala. Let their leaders ask for this and explain why they think their people should go to temples.

Why these are major issues? After all, there are enough issues in Kerala to worry about in stead of such minor imperfections that remain as a result of practical realities of the society.