DAKSHAYANI VELAYUDHAN: THE FORGOTTEN VISIONARY - SHARMISTHA CHOUDHURY

29 December 2019

How tragically often are women who shaped the destiny of our country and society relegated to forgotten chapters of the past, simply because they were women! The achievements of men with far less glorious roles, far less pioneering roles, are celebrated but women trailblazers, notwithstanding the tortuous roads they navigated, are consigned to ruthless oblivion. 

On November 26, Constitution Day, let us remember one such woman who created history in more ways than one but finds scant glory in our history books. Dakshayani Velayudhan, the only Dalit woman in the 299-member strong Constituent Assembly that was tasked with drafting the Constitution of India, was one of the 15 woman members of the Assembly. She was elected to the Constituent Assembly of India by the Cochin Legislative Council (to which she had earlier been nominated) in 1946. She was the only Scheduled Caste woman to be thus elected.

Interestingly, though an ardent admirer of both Gandhi and Ambedkar, she by no means worshipped them blindly and did not hesitate to spell out her differences with their politics and strategies. For instance, she famously said that as long as untouchability remained, the word ‘Harijan’ was meaningless and was akin to calling a dog ‘Napoleon’. Another striking example of her unique politics can be seen in the when on 8 November 1948, Dr BR Ambedkar introduced the draft Constitution for discussion, she expressed some appreciation for the draft but was also scathing in her criticism. She found the draft constitution “barren of ideas and principles”. The blame, she said, had to be shared by all the members of the constituent assembly who, in spite of lofty ideals, illustrious backgrounds and prodigious speeches, could not come up with an original constitution. She called for greater decentralisation. She, in fact, suggested that the final draft of the Constitution should be adopted following a ratification through a general election. This was a revolutionary suggestion reflected lofty democratic ideals.

Dakshayani’s first speech in the Constituent Assembly focused on slavery and, according to her daughter Meera, “was a clear articulation of what was to become Article 15 of the Constitution.” Her term in the Constituent Assembly was defined by two objectives, both inspired and moulded by Gandhi and Ambedkar. One was to make the assembly go beyond framing a constitution and offer people “a new framework of life”, and two, to use the opportunity to make untouchability illegal, unlawful, and ensure a “moral safeguard that gives real protection to the underdogs”. 

Born in a village in Ernakulam district in 1912 to a family which, at that time, was spearheading reform movements against widely prevalent caste evils like untouchability and segregation, she belonged to the ‘untouchable’ Pulaya caste and her name itself was a rebellion against casteism as being another name of  Goddess Parvati, the name Dakshayani was supposed to be reserved for the upper castes. 

A year after her birth, in 1913, her uncle, Kallachamuri Krishnaadi Asan, along with Pandit Karuppan and TK Krishna Menon led a civil disobedience movement against caste oppression. They founded the Pulaya Mahajana Sabha that defied restriction of movement for the oppressed classes. The organisation found an ingenious way to defy the king’s order that proclaimed that no Dalit group could have a meeting on his land — they held their meeting on a row of catamarans anchored to an iron pole in the middle of the Vembanad lake. By conducting the meeting on water, the group actually defied the king without literally disobeying the royal order It was this historic Kayal Sammelanam (Meeting on the Backwaters) that later formed the basis for the name of Dakshayani’s memoirs, “The Sea Has No Caste”.

Growing up amidst such radical opposition to social injustice and oppression, the young girl was a part of a series of firsts for her community. According to a 1934 report by KP Karuppan, who fought for their rights, men and women of the Pulaya community could not wear clothes to cover their upper torso or cut their hair. They were not allowed access to public roads, public wells, markets and government schools and hospitals. Further, a Pulaya had to keep 64 paces behind a so-called upper caste and make their presence felt by uttering a particular cry after every four or five paces. Such was the oppression suffered by the community Dakshayani was born into. 

Dakshayani was one of the first girls in her Pulaya community to wear a dress covering her torso (till then most women of her community were not allowed by the so-called higher castes to cover the upper part of their body) and receive education at a government institution. After finishing her schooling, Dakshayani went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Maharaja’s College in Ernakulam — the only girl in the class. In fact she was the first Dalit woman in the state to become a science graduate. Later she would recall how she would have watch lab experiments from afar as an upper caste professor refused to let her touch the equipment.

Graduating with good marks in 1935, she then went on to get a teacher’s training course from Madras University, following which she was posted in a government school in Thrissur. All this while, she continued to participate in movements that called for abolition of caste slavery, equality for all and the democratization of public spaces. This defiance, grit and steely strength would mark much of her life.

In 1940, Dakshayani married Dalit leader Raman Kelan Velayudhan at Gandhi’s Wardha ashram, Sevagram. The ceremony was officiated by a leper and attended by both Gandhi and his wife Kasturba. Two years later, she was nominated to Cochin Legislative Council seat and in 1945, she made her first speech in the Council, slamming untouchability as inhuman. In 1946, she became the first and the only Dalit woman in India’s Constituent Assembly. She was just 34. Dakshayani called for implementation of non-discrimination provisions through public education and pointed out that it would send a great public signal if the Constituent Assembly were to endorse a resolution condemning caste discrimination.

An outstandingly courageous woman who hit out unceasingly at caste barriers, Dakshayani Velayudhan played a pioneering role in charting the course of independent India. She died in July 1978. 

In very recent times, when the compulsion to appear pro-Dalit and pro-women had become quite overwhelming, the Kerala government constituted the ‘Dakshayani Velayudhan Award’ to be given to women who contributed in empowering other women in the state. The budget earmarked Rs 2 crore for the award. This was announced by the Kerala Finance Minister Dr. Thomas Isaac during the presentation of Kerala Budget 2019 in the Legislative Assembly on 31st January 2019. However, in the greatest possible mockery and disrespect to the memory of Dakshayani Velayudhan, it is this very Kerala govt that is siding with regressive Brahmanical forces in the Sabarimala issue and putting paid to the ideals Narayana Guru and Dakshayani Velayudhan fought for

The Communist movement in India has a history of almost a century after the salvos of October Revolution in Russia brought Marxism-Leninism to the people of India who were engaged in the national liberation struggle against the British colonialists. It is a complex and chequered history.