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.]

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Petition from the Cheramar Sthree Samajam to Elizabeth Kuruvila, Member, Travancore Sree Mulam Praja Sabha

[The following is the translation of a petition submitted by the dalit women’s collective, the Cheramar Sthree Samajam advancing the needs and rights of dalit women in Travancore, to Elizabeth Kuruvila, member representing Women, newly-appointed to the Praja Sabha. It appeared in the dalit publication, the Cheramar Doothan (1103 ME, Karkatakam 30, 1928, p.4). This petition was recently discussed by the young scholar of dalit modernity, Vinil Paul. For a discussion of the historical context and significance of this petition, see, Vinil Paul, ‘Chermar Sthree Samajam’: Tiruvitamkoorile Dalit Sthree Pravarthanangal’, Madhyamam Weekly 26 July, 2021. The Chermar refers to a dalit Christian community (of the Pulaya people) formed by Pambady John Joseph in 1921. In preference to the already-prevalent caste-name Pulaya, he proposed the new name ‘Cheramar’. Both Dalits who chose the Christian faith and those who did not could be part of this new community. The Cheramar Maha Jana Sangham was formed under his leadership; the above-mentioned publication was also assumed this name the same year. Vinil Paul notes that the Cheramar Sthree Samajam was the women’s wing of this organisation and run entirely by women.

This petition was signed by C Mariamma Cherammal. Her biographical details are yet to be traced. ]

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Divine Mother: Janamma

[Accounts of the Great Opening of Malayali society of the 20th century acknowledge the rising of empowering spirituality, but it is almost always the male spiritual seers and practitioners who are celebrated – Sreenarayana Guru, Poikayil Appachan, and others. There is a gap to be filled here for sure: there were many women who sought a spiritual life, both among the first generation of educated women, as well as outside. Of them, not many sought an active public life, but Janamma, who rose to the leadership of the Pratyaksha Raksha Daiva Sabha initiated by Poikayil Appachan which advanced a powerful emancipatory project among the caste-oppressed dalit people of Travancore in the early half of the 20th century, was a striking exception. After Appachan’s passing, she led the movement (from 1941 to her passing till 1985) with considerable force and exceptional diligence, preventing it from fragmenting and protecting its core of faith. Known widely as ‘Ammachi’ – mother – when she rose to leadership, Janamma married Appachan at the age of fifteen in 1925. She was born and raised in Neyyatinkara, Thiruvananthapuram and her parents were early adherents of the Pratyaksha Raksha faith. She studied in a Christian school till Class Four but was unable to continue her education. Initially reluctant to marry him, she apparently changed her mind totally on seeing him. Before their wedding, he made her promise that she could care for the Sabha and also give him two sacred offspring. He is said to have addressed her as ‘akkachi’, which is, in Malayalam, a respectful way of referring to an older woman, an elder sister.

After his passing there was much trouble and dissension, includes disputes over the Pratyaksha Raksha Daiva Sabha’s assets. A decision was taken to send Janamma and her two young children back to her natal home, but a chief disciple of Appachan, Nhaaliyakkuzhi Asan, resisted this. It took time for his disciples to accept a young woman, considered inexperienced, as their leader, but in 1941, she was officially accepted as president of the Sabha – she was just 31 at that time. Janamma faced many hurdles, including the hostility of the very disciples who first supported her, but ably overcame all of those, taking over the leadership and even fighting court cases.

This is an excerpt from a memory of her shared by K C Vijayan who joined the PRDS through her. This describes his first meeting with her and reveals her style of spiritual teaching. From the volume Divyamathavu:Orma Anubhavam, Thiruvalla: PRDS Yuvajana Sangham, 2010, pp. 53-71]

From https://dalithistorymonth.medium.com/an-anti-slavery-spiritual-revolution-in-kerala-prathyaksha-raksha-daiva-sabha-c795e46343e5 , accessed 19 June 2021.

… There were some rattan chairs on the veranda. Come, [I said], let us sit down. All three of us sat down. A little later, a girl came running, saw us, and quickly went off. A mother – Amma – came in suddenly. She looked fit and healthy. She looked at us closely. ‘Vandanam’, she said, greeting us. We were not familiar with the practice of greeting others saying ‘vandanam’. We too responded with ‘vandanam’. Who are you, Amma asked. We are pastors, we told her. We did not get up when she came up to greet us. The little girl who we had seen before came and stood beside her. Amma told her, koche, bring another chair here, let me too sit down with the sahibs. The chair was brought and Amma sat down in it … She asked us — what is the meaning of ‘vandanam’? We admitted that we did not know. She replied – [it is] the right which is the place of the masculine and the left, which is of feminine, join together and are pressed on the breast. The soul which resides in the heart bows to the supreme soul that resides in God. The soul resides in human, the supreme soul, in the Divine. Vandanam refers to this relation. Amma sang for us this song (song no 11, ‘I journey to reclaim the progeny of the Oppressed…). Who is God’s true heir? The relation between the soul and the supreme soul is eternal. Even when we die, we are dissolved in this relation. We understood the vandanam only when Amma told us all this. This is an important gesture that children of God must adopt when they meet and part. When we enter a shrine of the Divine, we must offer vandanam there and then also to the faithful assembled there. Amma taught us these things.

Then Amma asked us a question. When will Yesu (Jesus) come? Who told you of it? From where will he arrive? How? Tell me, tell me. But there is not a word in the Book that tells us when he will come. He was seen ascending to Heaven. And he will return in the same way. But nothing is said about the time of his return. The three of us broke into cold sweat unable to answer her. This Amma is no ordinary mother. She is endowed with divine grace…

After that, Amma asked, the Hindus have many sacred places and spiritual refuges like Kashi, Rameswaram, Varkala, Sivagiri, Palani, Sabarimala, and so on. Islam has Mecca and Medina and pilgrimage centres and sacred spots. The Temple of Jerusalem has become the spiritual refuge and heaven of the people of Israel. If so, do the indigenous Adidravida people who suffer in India have a refuge or a heaven of their own? Tell me, tell me quickly. I told you so many things. Tell me if you have a single word to put forward with courage. We were struck dumb, without a single word to speak or reply. We began to feel awkward. Because there was no sacred shrine, no refuge, to be seen for the indigenous oppressed people. The Divine Mother asked us again,

‘Tell me, how many doors does the Temple of Jerusalem have?’

Twelve, I said.

‘Why are there twelve doors?’

Don’t know, I replied.

Her Divinity was revealed then. She said,

The Twelve Doors of the Temple of Jerusalem

are meant for Heads of the Tribes.

Ruben, Simeon, Levi, Yahuda, Issakhar, Sebbalune, Naphthali, Gad, Asser, Yoseph, Benyamin.

The Divine Mother said, they are twelve gems… If the Temple of Jerusalem is for the generations descended from the twelve Tribal Elders, if only there was a thirteenth door, the oppressed people of Bharatham could have also entered. We said: there is no thirteenth door. Then the Divine Mother asked us. If so, why walk in those bylanes. Why not come here? Here the oppressed have a refuge, a shrine… (pp. 56-8)

For Dalit Women’s Representation: Women of Pratyaksha Raksha Daiva Sabha

[Below is the retrieved part of a petition that was submitted to the Protector of Depressed Classes in Travancore by the women of the Pratyaksha Raksha Daiva Sabha, which represented not just the spiritual but also (indivisibly from it) the material rebirth of the dalit people in parts of Travancore]

[From V V Swami, E V Anil, Pratyaksha Raksha Daiva Sabha: Orma, Paattu, Charithrarekhakal, Adiyardeepam Publications,p. 259] Continue reading “For Dalit Women’s Representation: Women of Pratyaksha Raksha Daiva Sabha”

Remembering Mother’s Path: Komarakam Chinnamma in her Daughter’s Memories

The most important dalit spiritual movement of the early 20th century was initiated by Poykayil Yohannan (widely called Poykayil Appachan by his followers), one of the most remarkable minds in the great social churning in Kerala of the early 20th century.  Born in the Pathanamthitta district and converting to Christianity, Appachan rose to great heights as a masterful speaker and preacher, but he soon was disillusioned by the persistence of caste discrimination in the Church. He left to form his own faith, the Pratyaksha Raksh Daiva Sabha which attracted very many dalit followers as an empowering community. Appachan was a brilliant poet, thinker, legislator, and speaker but he was constantly threatened by the casteist elites everywhere he went. It was the women followers of Appachan who protected him in such moments of danger. Komarakam Chinnamma was one such hero, a fearless, strong, spiritually elevated dalit woman of those time. Her daughter, from these words, is a masterly story-teller. Continue reading “Remembering Mother’s Path: Komarakam Chinnamma in her Daughter’s Memories”

Freedom from Forced Labour: Dakshayani Velayudhan

Dakshayani Velayudhan (1912-1978), the only dalit woman member of the Constituent Assembly of India, was born in Kochi. She distinguished herself early in life as the first dalit woman in Kerala to obtain a college degree, which she remembers, was won in the face of continuing caste discrimination in college and outside. She worked as a teacher after her education and also served in the Cochin Legislative Council during 1945-48, actively participating in the debates. At the age of 34, she became a member of the Indian Constituent Assembly. Some of her legislative assembly debates have been included here,for example,this one. Continue reading “Freedom from Forced Labour: Dakshayani Velayudhan”

Resolution Banning Untouchability in Kochi: Dakshayani Velayudhan

[Speaking in the discussion on a resolution demanding a ban on untouchability through a Royal Proclamation. Proceedings of the Cochin Legislative Assembly 11 August 1945, 635-36 . This is originally in Malayalam; I have translated it below.] Continue reading “Resolution Banning Untouchability in Kochi: Dakshayani Velayudhan”