The Activities of the Cheramar Sthree Samajam: Excerpt from Vinil Paul

[This is an excerpt translated from Vinil Paul’s recent essay (Madhyamam Weekly, 26 July 2021 pp. 36-7) rather on the women’s organization of the dalit community organization, the Cheramar Maha Jana Sangham, based on reports published in its organ, the Cheramar Doothan, from the late 1920s.]

Sthree Samajam: Other Activities

The Cheramar Doothan regularly published reports of the meetings of the women’s organisation. Each unit was referred to as the Sthree Samajam. The names of the women elected as office-bearers appeared in these reports. Also the women’s column, titled Cheramar Mahilamanikalodu [To Chermar Women] contained articles written by dalit women. They propagated ideas about how the community could be developed, and how women could contribute to that development. The writings of the dalit Christian woman P J Marthammal are especially noteworthy. She wrote thus in the Cheramar Doothan of 18 Meenam, 1928 (Mar-Apr) about the admission of women as members into the Sree Mulam Praja Sabha:

“Does not the news that a few women have been granted representation even in the Praja Sabha and that they were able to courageously express their thoughts make us also happy, in a way? Instead of remaining thus — feeling happiness at the advancement of others — should we not become aware at least now that the future welfare of the community rests in the community of women?”

In these lines, Marthammal offers an analysis that reveals a full understanding of the condition of being a woman and that of being a dalit woman. She also advances the argument that for the community to become a social force, dalit women must take up many more activities. In 1928, the Sthree Samajam entered another area. They decided to meet every Sunday and save at least two chuckrams as shares. The very first day, nearly 13 women placed two chuckrams as shares and a total of nearly 25 chuckrams were collected. The next Sunday, this amount rose to 29 chuckrams. This day, on the women’s own decision, they took loans from the total amounts collected. Also it was decided that when women cooked rice in their homes they must keep apart two pinches of grains which they must later donate. Very quickly, this dalit women’s saving collective raised a capital of 37 rupees, 27 chuckrams, and 4 kasu. However, all these efforts faced considerable challenges and obstructions from missionaries and the government and we see that they were not able to function effectively. Another obstacle is that we have little information about the inner workings of this movement and other crises it may have faced.

In Travancore, we see that this visibility gained by dalit women waned rapidly. Dalit women began to form such collectives under the realization that their advancement as a community was possible only through the retrieval of family, respectability, dignified wages, education, and so on. These dalit collectives were formed at a time when the Nairs, Ezhavas, and Syrian Christians were forming themselves into communities and dividing among themselves resources flowing from the government. The insight that if a people should be transformed into a community, then women should work for it, was key to the formation of such dalit collectives. It is these collectivities of dalit women that set apart dalits from other communities. The present streams of academic history in Kerala have not contributed much to the history of dalit women. Some colonial documentation, even when they face some criticism, contribute much to writing the history of dalit women. Even though fragmented, this archive that reveals the complexity of dalit women’s life-conditions, allow a multi-faceted history. For this reason, the retrieval of dalit women who are excluded by historical accounts and who lie hidden in the archives has become an important duty that the researcher must undertake.

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