Translated by J Devika
[Accamma Cherian (1909-1982), one of the foremost nationalist leaders in South Kerala, is best known for her daring leadership of the march on the royal palace in Thiruvananthapuram on 23 October 1938, but the manner in which she, one of the tallest nationalist activists in Travancore, was forced out of the Indian National Congress and politics itself by self-seeking, narrow-minded men in the 1950s is rarely discussed in Kerala. Once referred to as the Jhansi Rani of Kerala, Accamma left active politics in the 1950s devoting herself to constructive work. In the Congress she was known for her active advocacy of women in politics, and indeed, to their share of power in politics — which finally seems to have provoked patriarchal forces. She was born in Kanjirappally and was educated by her father who actively encouraged her and her sister, the noted politician Rosamma Punnoose. In 1926 she entered the St Theresa’s College, Ernakulam, and earned her degree in 1931 and became a school teacher for some time. Later, she moved to Thiruvananthapuram to study at the Teacher Training College in 1934, and it was then her interest in politics turned serious. She led the nationalist struggle in Travancore as the twelfth Dictator of the Travancore State Congress, leading a massive jatha towards the royal palace.
However, her journey in politics culminated in separation from the Congress and an attempt to contest as an independent candidate with the support of the communists, which failed narrowly, but decisively.
The story of how she mingled in the exciting currents of her time may be read in her autobiographical writings compiled by R Parvathy Devi (Jeevitham Oru Samaram, Kottayam, SPSS, 2011). Below is an excerpts from it. It is revealing of how advocates of women’s rights who worked closely with the government appeared in the eyes of nationalist women who struggled against it. Both belong to Kerala’s first-generation feminists — frenemies, really. ]
A Time Without Soap
We used to be given coconut oil or sesame oil to take an oil-bath every Sunday. And shikakai powder instead of soap. We were expected to wash the oil off with this powder. We were forced to go without bathing and washing soap and found it hard to wash the oil off. It was by organizing some money through friends in Thiruvananthapuram that we managed to buy such necessities. The price of smuggled items was double the normal price. Besides, one had to pay whenever a demand was made citing some sundry expense, like thatching the roof of the house or some illness. Because we feared that women warders’ jobs would be in trouble if the authorities found out, we would buy only things that were absolutely necessary. And also, if the women who were criminal convicts came to know, they would surely blurt such matters out to authorities whenever they fell out with the women warders.
The government had arranged for female visitors to ensure the welfare of women living in the jail. Most of these visits were by a Tamil woman from Madras, Ranganayaki Ammal. She was known to be Sir C P’s [Sir C P Ramaswamy Iyer, the much-despised Diwan of Travancore] spy [CID]. She visited regularly most probably to find out about us. She used to run an organization called something like Vanchi Poor Home or Seethalakshmi Ammal Sadanam, Seethalakshmi Ammal Sadanam was instituted in the name of Sir CP’s mother. The inmates of this place were young women. There were rumours that the place was visited regularly by senior officials and that this Ranganayaki could influence even the senior-most officers. Whatever that might be, it was just that this institution and its manager did not enjoy a good name.
Another visitor was Dr Mary Punnen Lukose. In these nine years, she must have come only one or two times. Once during her visit, we complained about the lack of soap. That is how all women received a piece of washing soap. …