Bhagavathi Kinattinkara, Elsa, and Educated Kulasthreekal : From the Memoirs of ‘Jooba’ Ramakrishna Pillai

[Perhaps the only source readily available about working class and dalit struggles in Thiruvananthapuram of the 20th century is the memoir of the freedom fighter, fashion-maker, and avid trade union organizer, ‘Jooba’ Ramakrishna Pillai (1910- 2005), titled Ente Ormakkurippukal (Mitraniketan Press, 1989). Always a narration from the ground, his memoirs are those of street-struggles. ‘Jooba’ was the suffix he earned in the 1930s for having popularised the north Indian long shirt, the jubba — in Thiruvananthapuram. It was initially identified as the mark of the subversive and the nationalist but soon became popular with government officials and soo even the Maharajah of Travancore embraced the ‘jubba’ (but with a touch of the sherwani, notes Pillai).

Ramakrishna Pillai, however , is most remembered for his organizational efforts among the lower-caste scavenger communities in Travancore. The scavengers in Travancore were mostly of Tamil origin, migrating in search of municipal sanitation work. They were among the worst treated working class people — denied even healthy spots in town to live, they set up shacks in unhealthy, swampy areas surrounding water bodies. Today many of these areas are the main city slums of Thiruvananthapuram ( a similar pattern could be seen in other towns of Travancore and Kochi too).

This memoir also has fascinating information of some prominent first-generation upper-caste women from Travancore – the beneficiaries of modern education. This reveals the enormous gap that separated these women from the lower caste poor. It reminds us that the first generation of feminists also included women were re-formed in and through the renewal of the Brahmin-Sudra social contract. These were the savarna women – the ‘well-born’ Kulasthrees who were also armed with education and empowerment. The first generation of Malayali feminists were no doubt divided — on the one side, there were the new savarna women, on the other, women of the avarna communities who had also gained modern education and a public voice. In this account, Mrs Ponnamma Thanu Pillai represents the former, and K R Gauri Amma, the latter. However, neither made it possible for us to hear the voice of, say, Bhagavathy Kinattinkara. While the former makes monsters of lower-class men, the latter, sadly enough, does not do enough to counter it.

Nevertheless, there are names like Saraswathi Ammal, who was Ramakrishna Pillai’s comrade in Harijan Sewa and in the militant sanitation workers’ strikes of the 1950s, arrested and jailed in 1948, who later became a Minister for Labour, Harijan and Social Welfare in the Congress government of Uttar Pradesh in the late 1980s. My comments are in italics.]

“My first strike began with Sir C P’s [Sir C P Ramaswami Aiyer] Punnapra-Vayalar struggle. I was locked up in jail. I have already mentioned how the Scavengers’ Union registration 1/1121 was cancelled. The second registration was 2/1123. The strike was to get the municipal workers recognition as citizens, for ration cards based on that recognition, and to raise their wages. When we struck work for three days the supreme authority began to quaver. The workers and their leaders were beaten and locked up. Ration cards were distributed through the tehsildar. The salaries went up from 10, 11, 12 sarkar rupees to 11, 12, 13 sarkar rupees respectively. .. the workers and leaders were set free. We began to prepare for the next strike, to raise the wages by one rupee. It was an impossible thing those days. Only that we won it. After that it was after so many decades, only in 1972, that they got a pension.

People who used to hurry away covering their eyes and noses at the sight of these scavengers began to now look straight at them and chat. Some people began to say that when they carry away the fecal matter that we discharge, it isn’t really good to cover our noses.

In 1124 ME Kanni 24 [1948 Oct-Nov.] we gave the Travancore government and the Corporation a memorandum. We sent the copy of the memorandum to Mahatmaji and JP. The demands in the memorandum were job security, pension, and leave for municipal workers just like other government employees and wage increase. .. (p. 127)

… I have already mentioned that the original name of the Thiruvananthapuram City Corporation Workers’ Union was City Scavengers’ Union. It was registered under the Dewan’s rule. Register no. 1/1121 was cancelled along with all other trade unions in wake of the historic Punnapra-Vayalar struggle. .. All the important trade union leaders went into hiding. I was just a workers’ rights activist, I was shut up in the Puthenchanda lock-up. After some days they released me and some others. In 1123 ME, the union was registered again with the number 1123/2 under the name Corporation Workers’ Union, which was active again.

The creatures who were called ‘Scavengers’ were not accepted as human beings by other human beings. Even the lower caste people hated them. Because I was a Harijan activist and because Mahatma Gandhi visited my Harijan School, people called me ‘Scavenger Ramakrishna Pillai’ on the sly. The scavengers know no one, nobody need know them — that was their stand. They were not allowed to entre teashops. They would be poured tea from afar — into the coconut shells they would carry. Though India was free, the human in the scavenger was unacknowledged. Even the government treated him only like an animal. His ration card was not extended to his family. The Corporation authorities would keep it with them. It was a pathetic and sorry life and difficult social relations and the everyday violence inflicted on them by government officials and certain types of rowdies, and the terrible exploitation made their lives very suffocating…

The government of those days and the City Corporation took a strange pleasure in oppressing them. Those days corporation workers had just hovels made of coconut and screw-pine fronts, covered or open, to live in. No matter how many members each hovel had, only 25 units of rice for a man and 20 units for a women would be given by the Corporation. That too was unconsumable. Sugar, clothes to cover nakedness, kerosene for some light, special rations – none of these were given to them. Once the union was formed, the corporation officials began to tremble with fear. The sweeper called Bhagawathy Kinattinkara slapped the Health Officer Dr M K Pillai at the Corporation’s cooperative store at Chengalchoola because the ration rice was too little, and he fell on the ground. This young woman, who was very healthy person, was also drunk. There were no workers those days who did not drink [scavengers tend to consume alcohol to deaden their senses while doing this work]. Those were the times in which if they had a score to settle with any official, they would come in drunk and smear shit with their hands on their opponents. … (pp.134-350)

[about the Attingal Municipal Workers’ Union strike]

Attingal Municipal Workers’ Union was registered and we began our work. Janardanan Achary was the general secretary, and I, the president. The Commissioner Walsalam Rose began to oppose us. The Attingal Municipality those days had just 26 workers.

We submitted a memorandum of demands. N Kunhiraman was the Minister of the Municipal Department. The Minister instructed the Commissioner not to yield to our demands. We organized campaign meetings…. all twenty-six workers stood united. The Labour Commissioner Sri P N Krishna Pillai called two conciliation meetings at the Attingal TB. Both times, the Municipal Commissioner did not take part. We struck work, organized a protest demonstration and set off for Thiruvananthapuram. Achary was there and Nanthancode Bhaskar too came to lead the demonstration.

We camped in Thiruvananthapuram and began to picket the Minister’s official residence. When we set off from the camp in the West Fort as batches for the picketing, the police would drag us to the Cantonment Police Station and beat us to a pulp; then push us out by the neck in the evening not allowing us even a sip of water. One day, Commissioner Walsalam Rose came to the Cantonment Station. The picketing that day was by women. Elsy led the demonstration. She was a beautiful, healthy, middle-aged woman. The Commissioner’s overtures were ignored by her. It was to take revenge on her that he came to the Cantonment Station. The group that went to picket the Minister’s residence was arrested. Inspector Latheef was made to cane Elsy brutally in front of Walsalam Rose. We shouted slogans and made a huge fuss. The caning stoped. But she had to stand in the veranda till evening. Not just her, all the five members of the picketing batch had to stand there. The workers of Thiruvananthapuram went on strike for a day in protest against this incident. The department minister and the chief minister both had a hand in this… (pp. 148-9)

[The wife of this Walsalam Rose, Mrs Walsalam Rose, was a member of the Travancore Legislative Assembly representing women and an ardent advocate of women’s rights! ]

When Sri T V Thomas was the Minister of the Municipal Department, Smt Gouri Amma was the Minister of Revenue. They stayed in Park View. We knew each other from the days of the State Congress agitations. Besides, when TV was the Chairman of the Alappuzha Municipality, on 18 Feb. 1951, I was invited to speak at the annual meeting of the Alappuzha Municipal Workers’ Union… T V inaugurated that meeting. From then we grew close. Later we chose him as the President of the Transport Employees Union…

One day TV called me to Park View. He told me to put in an application for land to build the office of the Corporation Workers’ Union. He also chose a site. In the Thekke teruvu [a brahmin area] where the Priyadarsini Hall now stands. The area in front of the Maharaja Statue, where now transport buses are parked in an east-west direction — he directed me to get Sri K V Surendranath, the transport employees union secretary, to put in an application to allow that land for workers’ recreation in their free time, to play football. The Village Officer of the Vanchiyoor village, Sri Madhavan Pillai, was summoned. The tehsildar Gangadharan was also told to set apart ten cents for me. When I submitted the application, Com. TV and Com. Gouriamma were together in Park View. When I handed the application to the Minister of the Department (Gouriamma), she said ‘Angu koduthondaatte’ [a very respectful way of saying, ‘Please give it there‘] and so I entrusted it to Sri TV. After a week, the order I needed was set through the Vanchiyoor village officer. The site was also to be marked out at once.

The Vanchiyoor Village Officer’s sister was at that time the Secretary of the Sreevaraham Women’s Committee. The President was Mrs Pattom Thanu Pillai [she appears a few times in Anna Chandy’s memoir — she was Anna Chandy’s classmate, lifelong friend, and actually her crush from teenage onwards, or so it appears from her memoir]. Village Officer Madhavan Pillai told his sister of this matter, and before the order was sent to me, Madhavan Pillai and his sister took a taxi to Pattom and met the Women’s Committee presidents, Mrs Thanu Pillai. They told her, “it is going to destroy everything. Now our women will not be able to walk on the road safely.” “What happened?” asked Thanu Pillai saar, coming out of the side-room on the veranda. Mrs began to fuss. “The land next to the women’s committee building has been given to the thottikal, the scavengers! For their office!” “Who gave it?” asked Pattom. “Revenue Minister K R Gouri.” Ha! This is what happens when Chathan and Chadayan start ruling and it’s going to be worse. [probably a reference to the Minister for Harijan Affairs at that time, Chathan Master.] Mrs said, “Let’s go to Park View and tell them the matter and get it changed!”. “Who, me?” Pattom snorted and went inside and lay down. In the same car, Madhavan Pillai and his sister went to Park View and got the order changed. Later, the tehsildar came to my office and told me that TV had said, the park in Pazhavangadi is with the PWD, and if an application can be put in, it will be assigned in a week. I replied that I am not asking for land now. Later that land was used for the Corporation Social Service Society.” (pp. 150-52)

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