Meera Velayudhan -an Interview

Keywords: dalit women, cochin legislative council, indian national congress, mandal agitation, form of engagement, form of exclusion

Dr Meera Velayudhan, Fellow Council For Social Development (CSD), Hyderabad is one among the prominent Dalit activists in India. She was gracious enough to share her thoughts on her parents, education, activism, contemporary state of affairs etc. to Chandramohan, a dalit activist and emerging poet. Here are the excerpts from an exclusive interview:

Dear madam, you are the beacon of light for an educated, assertive dalit bahujan middle class. How do you reflect on your journey in life so far?

First of all, please do not call me madam!

Secondly, I didn’t know that I am being given the identity of new educated assertive dalit bahujan middle class.’ I think it will be more of a case of multiple identities. Although I was born in Delhi, studied there and in Nainital, U. P., my identity is deeply linked with Mulavukad and Uzhavoor. Different points of history, of locations and identities define the lives of my mother, Dakshayani, who belonged to the Pulaya caste, from Mulavukad, a small island of the coast of Kochi. My father Raman Velayudhan was born as a Parayan in Kocheril House, Ozhavoor in Travancore. Being the generation educated Dalits, their lives were also part of the history of their communities in the region and they were also the changing faces of the community. There were many firsts in my mother’s life – the first dalit girl to wear an upper cloth, the first dalit woman graduate in India (a science graduate), a member of the Cochin Legislative Council and the Constituent Assembly of India (one of its 11 women members). There were also many assertions, of not walking with shoulders bent or not making way for upper castes when walking on the road.

My mother, Dakshayani was born on 4th July 1912 at Mulavukad. She writes in her forthcoming autobiography:

I can’t say that I was born in a poor Pulaya family as the family was not poor at the time of my birth. Unlike other Pulaya families in Cochin state we had a house of our own and the compound of more than one acre with coconut and other fruit trees. The family could live with the income from the coconuts. My father was a village school teacher, i.e. he used to teach some children, the school being the house itself. He used to go for contract work of bunds, with the other male members of the family. My two elder brothers were the first in the community in the state to crop their long knotted hair and wear shirts. When they walked through the road, other community people used to hoot at them and when going by country boat, the people threw stones at them because they were wearing clothes like upper castes who were mostly Latin Christians and Ezhavas in my island native place.

I had a very brilliant educational career.

The education was free and from beginning to end we enjoyed the educational concessions given by the Cochin State government introduced by the then Dewan of the state, the late Shri Vijayraghava. It was in the year 1935 that I graduated with II Class. After two weeks I applied for a teachers post and in July 1935, I was posted as an L2 teacher in the High School Peringothikara in the Trichur District…

On political life which began as member of the Cochin Legislative Council?

The Cochin government used to nominate on scheduled caste as a member of the Cochin Legislative Council. I was wondering why I should not seek a nomination. I was a High School teacher at that time. One day, I went and saw the Minister for Rural Development, Dr. A. R. Menon. at Ernakulam. Cochin state at that time was having partly responsible government. Even without asking me to take a seat, he was also standing near his room, he told me that nominating me to the Legislative Council was not possible as I was a government servant and he did not like the idea of a government servant being nominated and that by a responsible government. I had to resign my post which I was not prepared to do as there was no salary for MLCs in those days. Later on when I was nominated to the Cochin Legislative Council . . . by that time, I was married and my husband was employed as Information Officer in Madras and I could afford to resign my job.

On parentage?

My parents were from different dalit subcastes, met during a public event held to celebrate her graduation, were married at the Gandhi ashram in Wardha, with Gandhiji and Kasturba as witnesses, and a leper standing in as a priest. Kasturba Gandhi also wove a white sari with a red border for my mother for the marriage ceremony.

My father, Velayudhan, born in 1911, 24 March (date not certain) was from the first batch of Masters Students at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS, Bombay) with labour welfare as his specialisation. His political life, like my mother’s arose from the Indian National Congress and the state people’s movement in Travancore, but soon after his election to the first parliament from the Indian National Congress, he moved over to the opposition and joined hands with his friend, the socialist leader, Rammanohar Lohia, on various issues. My father won two parliamentary elections from the then non-reserved constituency of Quilon in Kerala, the latter with the support of the Left.

My mother, a Gandhian, met Babsaheb Ambedkar in the Constituent Assembly and also edited a publication, Jai Bhim, from Madras in 1940s. She was earlier editor to Gandhi Era Publications, also in Madras in early 1940s. She was very active in the Constituent Assembly but to me her speech which struck me most was this:

“I submit that a Constituent Assembly not only frames a Constitution but also gives the people a new framework for life. To frame such a Constitution is an easy task because there are many models for us to imitate…but to renew a people on a new foundation requires the synthetic vision of a planner…what we want is not all kinds of safeguards. It is the moral safeguards that give us real protection…what we want is the immediate removal of our social disabilities. Our Freedom Can be Obtained Only From Indians and not From the British Government. . .” (Dakshayani Velayudhan, 19 Dec, 1946, CA debates).

As pointed out by a law student, Parmeshwar, of my friend Prof. Kalpana Kannabiran, the last part of the speech really summarizes Article 15 of the Constitution.

My parents’ experience of working with the people never left them even as both my parents became deeply involved in the refugee rehabilitation committee of Parliament in Delhi. The stories of the Partition are many, and sometimes, families were put up for a short time in the outhouse of our bungalow, too. One of them was an army officer and his wife, waiting for a pension; there was the ruler of Nabha who sought my father’s help for his privy purse; and there was a large Muslim household which lived in our home for a long period. Several cousins, both maternal and paternal, from varied religions, also stayed in our home, studying or working. It was my mother (as member of Constituent Assembly and then provisional parliament) who introduced my paternal first cousin K. R. Narayanan (later, President of India, my father and his father were brothers) to Jawaharlal Nehru after he returned from the London School Of Economics, which led to his joining the Indian Foreign Service.’ Owing to my father’s role with Ram Manohar Lohia, in the opposition, our families did not interact futher although K. R. Narayanan’s wedding took place in our house in Delhi.

I was inspired by many of my parents’ “side activities” —taking a delegation of shoe-shine boys to a bank for a loan or pressing for insurance for circus artistes. Both my parents travelled abroad in parliamentary delegations, giving us, their children, a sense of the histories of the different countries, in particular of China and Vietnam, and of non-aligned leaders like President Tito, Nasser, Chou en Lai, Ho Chi Minh, Sukarno and Nehru, all in our family’s photo albums. It did not seem strange to me and my four brothers that my parents belonged to different, if not opposing, political parties, yet they worked together.

On childhood days and education?

After my birth, I was left with my maternal grandmother in Mulavukad as my parents were busy with their social activities. However, after I was one and a year half old. I was brought back to Delhi as I fell ill and according to my elder brother, Raghu, I used to be crying all the time. No doubt I was special for my parents who sent me away to a boarding school in Naini Tal (UP) to ensure that their social activities did not interrupt my schooling. My four brothers were not so privileged, they had to change schools many times. A brother changed school 12 times. It was evident to me from childhood that I, each one of us children, would have to make our own lives. They gave us education, the rest was left to us. I think it must have been my parents influence because I always, in school too, considered myself a “political person.” Both my parents encouraged me and my brothers to keep our eyes open to whatever was happening around us, to read, respond and express our opinions. However, my father passed away too early, in the 1974. He was disappointed with the Left in Kerala, did not feel comfortable with any political formation and was increasingly moving towards Buddhism, personally and intellectually. Was he also disappointed with the Nehruvian ethos? Perhaps. As always, he was ahead of his times.

My schooling in a protestant boarding school in U. P. from age five was unforgettable. Early on, I became very independent and could take care of my own things. I heard and learnt Paul Robeson’s songs and read about slavery. My Hindi teacher introduced me to Premchand. We had a subject on comparative religion taught by the local church priest. We had no examinations, the only examination I sat for was my ISC. I always did very well in my studies but I was more interested and involved in sports like gymnasium, Indian classical (Kathak) and ‘folk’ dances. I hoped to become a sportsperson who also wrote a bit. My fees were often not paid (the school never made me conscious about this, I never got to know about it till I left for college!) and I remember appearing in a UP state exam. In Sanskrit or so, I got hundred percent marks and received a scholarship during my schooling which came to about half of my school fees. My mother would write to me each week without fail and my father made a surprise visit or two. I was away in school for nine months and it was my mother who followed the progress of my education, and who waited for me in the railway station when I returned home for 3 month vacations in Kerala as my mother was posted in Trivandrum as Publicity Officer in LIC before got transfer to Delhi.

I recall a visit to Mulavukad with my mother and visiting relatives. My mother had lost her mother and we visited her graveyard. She cried at every house we visited. She missed Kerala and felt cut off from her roots deeply. I can never forget this experience. Perhaps, choosing to come to Kerala for my years of research, from mid 1980s had something to do with this. A sense of belonging can be drawn from varied sources, from something that moves you so deeply that it can shape one’s identity and outlook.

On Dakshayani Velayudhan?

Cut off from her roots in Kerala and even as she worked as an officer in the Life Insurance Corporation (LIC) in Delhi to support the family, my mother along with a few Ambedkarite middle class Dalit women, initiated a national Dalit women’s forum the Mahila Jagriti Parishad by holding a conference in Delhi towards the end of the 1970s. I recall accompanying her and Kaushalya Baisantry (a participant in Babasaeb Ambedkar’s women’s meet in the 1940s in Maharashtra) visiting the houses of middle class Dalits, mainly civil servants and professionals, to collect donations for the event. Although very young, I was disturbed to see that the younger generation, the second generation of educated dalits were either uninterested or embarrassed by this. However, the lively conference, with over 200 Dalit women participating from different states, with their own stories, poems, speeches and songs, reflected a budding dalit women’s movement and the attempt to create a space of their own. My mother was elected as its President and Kaushalya Baisantry, its general secretary. Members of the organization met each month but there was no decision taken on future plan of action or levels of work among poor dalit women in Delhi. Frustrated at nothing working out concretely, my mother Dakshayani and Kaushalya Baisantry began work among women sweepers in Munirka, South Delhi to provide them basic literacy and looking for alternate employment skills training. There was no question of looking for funds, my mother believed in the Gandhian principle of voluntarism and building resources from within. After my mother passed away, the MJP petered out, but 1 remember that there were more and more such efforts at organising Dalit women’s platforms in different states, in the early 1980s. My mother passed away suddenly in 1978. Her life extended several modernities; anti- caste, social reform, freedom movement- state peoples movements- Gandhian, nation state (constituent assembly and first parliament of India).

On writing an Autobiography and ‘anecdotes on constantly contested history on the dalit bahujan horizon’?

I find it odd to be talking about myself or to think about my autobiography but since you are such a sincere and enthusiastic dalit activist and an emerging poet too, I will share a few of the experiences in my life related to what you call ‘anecdotes on constantly contested history on the dalit bahujan horizon.’

The 1980s to 1990s period was about redefinition of self and cultural identities for example by Dalit Panthers in Maharashtra which focused on both historical exclusions as well prevailing forms of subordination through art, and literature, in particular. Dalit movement, in fact challenged received scholarship. The anti-Mandal agitations (I was in Delhi during that time) projected caste identity as an issue. It brought into sharp focus the diversity in the student population, about academic knowledge vs the social practice of caste. The placards by upper caste girl students “we will no longer get IAS husbands” pointed to the prevalence of caste endogamy, particularly in urban India, that caste identities were not a private or personal issue. It also posed the citizenship vs merit issue.

Delhi was tense and the environment violent. Forcible fund collections by anti Mandal students in traffic crossings and residential areas, its denial led to the stoning of the autorikshaw I was travelling in and the hurling of abuses. The anti-Mandal agitation was also paved the ground for the Hindutva agenda to be framed by the RSS/ IV as these organizations and the parivaar (family) were very much in the forefront of the anti-Mandal agitation although today Narendra Modi may project himself as a votary of ‘backward castes.’ Conflicts are always points of entry for right wing groups/ideologies and the potential for dalit/backward caste conflict was precisely the .entry point for Hindutva agenda. That the demolition of the Babri Masjid followed, was not an accident. The 1990s also saw the growth of dalit women’s groups, writers and literary forums. The national federation of Dalit Women (NFDW) of which. I was part, was formed in 1995. The dalit women’s forums emerged in the background of the following understanding:

• Critique of Indian feminism, upper-caste dominated feminist movement and its practices

• Dalit patriarchies, patriarchal bias of dalit movement

• Dalit women not as a homogenous category

As the poet Jyoti Lanjewar put it in her poem titled “Caves” at the NFDW meet. Their inhuman atrocities have carved caves in the rock of my heart. I have been silent in these years listening to the voice of right and wrong but now I will fan the flames of human rights. New generation of dalit women who write poems, stories etc. emerged in public space through this platform. Feminist internationalism and global civil society emerged through common actions and other forms of engagements following the identification of specific forms of exclusions on the basis of race, caste, ethnicity etc. This in turn led to linkages with varied movements both national and international, a new form of historical consciousness, the Inclusion of caste in varied UN and international conventions including CEDAW, European Parliament, Committee on elimination of Racial discrimination etc. Parallel reports to government reports to the UN and varied international bodies also led to a process of redefinition and categorization. Common actions and other forms of engagements following the identification of specific forms of exclusions (eg. race ,caste, ethnicity) were held. Within the feminist discourse itself, the concept of violence, poverty, measuring poverty, work or even the very concept of rights, dalit women’s movement stressed on the new realities needed to be considered and hence redefining prevailing concepts of violence, women’s work, poverty, sex work, or even the rights concept itself. However, the advocacy role, no doubt path-breaking, dominated over all other forms of engagements till 1990s.’ However, the past ten years have witnessed a shift, the emergence and growth of local and regional groups and networks linked with varied local transformational agenda and discourses while attempting to find a distinct voice. A point of debate is the tension between the need for assertions of multiple identities and necessity of group politics.

And finally, on communalism?

A severe earthquake in Kutch in 2001. forced me and my farniiy to relocate to Vadodara for a year. While packing to return to Klatch the following year, the Gujarat violence of 2002 broke out. l was invited to be a part of the nine-member (Sri Lanka, Algeria, France, India, Israel, UK, Germany, USA) International Initiative for Justice in Gujarat – a response from national and international women’s gmlips to the murder, arson, rape and looting of February- March 2002 the state. The other panel members included Nira Yuval Davis, Rhonda Copelon, Sunila Abeyseykara, Anisa Helie, Gabriela Mischkowski, Vahida Nainar, Uma Chakrabarty and Farida Naqvi. We visited areas in and around Ahmedabad, Vadodara, Panchmahals during December 14-17, 2002 meeting the survivors of violence and members of women’s, human rights and citizens’ groups, in Gujarat. Of the three Indian members, I was the only one located in Gujarat. Despite the displacement (shifting to Vadodara) owing to earthquake and, the communal violence occurring in the midst of shifting back to Kutch, I was able to play a role, through this panel, although it took place ill the midst of a few years of isolation for me. The visits with a group fronl the panel, which included Nira Yuval Davis, to the violence affected areas around Vadodara and Anand areas shook me and all of us, to the core. As stated in the Report, each panelist felt that the 2002 violence marked a definitive moment in our own relationship with our past and present. These included memories of Nazi terror, to conflict ridden Israel and Palestine, civil society facing Muslim fundamentalism in Algeria, hatred crimes in Bosnia, ethnic chauvinism and protracted civil strife Sri Lanka, the trauma of partition and the anti – Sikh violence in 1984 in India, growth of right wing parties and their coming to power in the states in 1990s appealing to a homogenized Hindu identity. According to Rhonda, sexual violence was an engine of the mobilization of re and destruction in Gujarat. Nira Yuval Davis saw in the testimonies of the gendered and sexual dimensions of nationalism and racism that

she had been studying and writing about for years. My own response was: many doubts arise in my mind (about the erosion of citizenship particularly when one comes face to face with women who have faced mass rape and brutalities For the first time, married women broke their silence on the sexual attacks they suffered. A mother spoke about her two daughters but did not say that she herself was a victim. Testimonies were given, sometimes with young babies looking on and punctuated with long silences. None of us could sleep that night. A community was being held to ransom – accept your secondary citizenship or… we exchanged experiences of Palestine, Bosnia, Israel but the extent, and varied forms of brutalities in Gujarat- many were unheard of. According to Gabriella, the cruelty one hears always surpasses the listener’s comprehension. It brings out the difficulties in bridging the gap between political analysis and the general engagement with gender justice and the overwhelming plight of individual suvivors of mass violence, in particular sexual violence. There was a lack of “safe place” for such women and girls to “come to terms” with what they had experienced. As a dalit, I felt, how could members of one marginalized community attack another? What was the context that made an oppressed caste find strength and identity with their own oppressors to attack another marginalized community? That the ground had been prepared surely and steadily was known. However much one may intellectualize, nothing can prepare us for what we saw and heard. As I was the only panel member who lived in Gujarat, I needed to think about my future role once the panel had prepared its report. Struggle and varied levels of engagements was the only way forward. Gujarat was (and remains) a real challenge. Everyone was new to me in 2002 – civil society organizations, mainly, NGOs, issue based platforms, but not for very long . . .

Contributor:

CHANDRAMOHAN. Is a poet and activist settled in Kochi.

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CHANDRAMOHAN
Is a poet and activist settled in Kochi.

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