More on Elite Women’s ‘Social Work’ and the History of Caste in Kerala

[This is a continuation from the post on the autobiography of Jooba Ramakrishna Pillai which gives us a glimpse into how educated neo-savarna women usurped all the opportunities for social intervention by or for women in the state. It gives us food for critical thought on why social conservatism came to be so deep-rooted in Kerala despite high levels of women’s education won through struggle. Interestingly, many leading first-generation feminists enjoyed the most amicable relations with educated neo-savarna women even when their own visions of empowerment were different — for example, the friendship between Anna Chandy and Mrs Ponnamma Thanu Pillai.

Below is an excerpt from a discussion on the Social Welfare Advisory Board constituted in Tiru-Kochi, during an assembly session of the Tiru-Kochi State Assembly, from the Proceedings of the Travancore-Cochin Legislative Assembly (vol.XIII, no. 2 ), 15 March 1955, Starred Question No. 30, pp. 93-6.

I am struck by how the discussion completely bypasses the question of dalit representation that Mr K Kunjan tried to raise in it. Indeed, he initiates this discussion but is completely ignored in the actual exchange that follows. Most of the women in the Board are neo-savarna; they have been chosen for ‘reasons that are not clear’. Yet no one really questions this appalling exclusion of avarna women! Smt K R Gouri intervenes not for Mr Kunjan or for dalit women, but for Mahila Sangham, the communist movement’s women’s wing, which she seems to think, can balance the neosavarna women’s overwhelming presence. Then the discussion deteriorates into frivolous questions. Also striking is the carelessness with which the Chief Minister answers questions in the debate, mixing up positions, even.

Once again, the absence of avarna women is ignored in so casual a way, it takes your breath away!

I do believe that this incident, and many like it, must be retrieved to build a history of casteist women’s empowerment in twentieth century Kerala.]

Social Welfare Advisory Board

Starred question 30 [15] Shri P Kunjan: Will be Chief Minister be pleased to state

(a) How many members are there in the State Social Welfare Advisory Board?

(b) who constituted this Board, this Government or the Central Government, and,

(c) is there any representation for scheduled castes?

Chief Minister (Shri Panampalli Govinda Menon): There are nine members in the State Social Welfare Advisory Board in Travancore-Cochin;

(b) the Board was constituted by the State Government with the concurrence of the Central Social Welfare Board.

(c) the representatives do not appear to have been selected on consideration of their caste.

Shri P Kunjan: May I know the names of the Members of the Board?

Shri Panamballi Govinda Menon: The names of the Members are these —

  1. Sry. P Thankamma, Secretary, Mahilamandiram, Trivandrum (Chairman)
  2. Miss Sosa Mathew, Secretary, Y. W. C. A, Kerala Branch, Thiruvalla.
  3. Mrs Leela Damodara Menon, Ottappalam.
  4. Mrs. Pattom Thanu Pillai.
  5. Shri Cherian Thomas, District Organiser, Bhoodan Committee, Kottayam
  6. Mrs. Pavizham Madhavan Nair, Ernakulam.
  7. Sry P Janaki Amma, Chairman, Municipal Council, Ernakulam.
  8. Mrs K A Mathew, Thiruvalla
  9. Secretary to the Government, Education Department.

Smt K R Gouri [in Malayalam]: On what basis were these persons made representatives?

Shri Panamballi Govinda Menon :[answers in Malayalam] The basis is not clear from the file. Four of them have been nominated at the recommendation of the Central Board. These are Miss Sosamma Mathew, Leela Damodara Menon, Mrs Pattom Thanu Pillai and Shri Cherian Thomas. It appears that the others have been appointed on the recommendation of this government.

Smt K R Gouri: Is Leela Damodara Menon a native of Tiru-Kochi?

Shri Panamballi Govinda Menon : Shri Damodara Menon is of this State.

Smt K R Gouri: Will it be believed if I said that he is an elected MP from Malabar?

Shri Panamballi Govinda Menon : The address given is of Ottappalam.

Smt K R Gouri: Was someone from Malabar selected because there are no women in Tiru-Kochi?

Shri Panamballi Govinda Menon : I too have no idea about that.

Smt K R Gouri: Has any attention been paid to granting representation to a Mahila Sangham that is now active in Tiru-Kochi now?

Shri Panamballi Govinda Menon : The Chairman of that organisation is the Secretary of this committee. [PGM has inverted the positions here]

Smt K R Gouri: That is the Mahilamandiram. It is a mere institution.

Shri Panamballi Govinda Menon : That must be an institution. Whether it is a mere institution, I do not know.

Smt K R Gouri: Do you know that it is run in Poojappura?

Shri Panamballi Govinda Menon : Yes, I do.

Smt K R Gouri: Since the women’s organisation has not been given representation, will you make an effort to secure it representation at least now?

Shri Panamballi Govinda Menon : I do not know if it is possible to add new members. This is run according to the Central Government’s plan. I cannot say now if new members may be added.

Smt. K R Gouri: Should not a member of an organisation that does social work among women be coopted?

Shri Panamballi Govinda Menon : The numbers of positions fixed for the Board have been filled. But that does not mean that no other deserving people exist.

Smt K R Gouri: In that case, can speedy measures be undertaken to coopt such people?

Shri Panamballi Govinda Menon : A reply is possible only after finding out if it is possible to add more members.

Smt K R Gouri: If it is possible to do so after due inquiry, will it be done?

Shri Panamballi Govinda Menon : If so, will see.

Sri N G Chacko: Can the sole woman Member of this Assembly be coopted too?

Mr Speaker [in English]: That is a very pertinent question.

Shri Panamballi Govinda Menon [in English]: And it is a good suggestion too.

(Laughter)

Shri T K Divakaran: Is there anything that says that only women should do social work?

Shri Panamballi Govinda Menon : There is a male Member on the Board. Shri Cherian Thomas is a man. He does welfare work too.

Shri T K Divakaran: Is social work to be done only among women?

Shri Panamballi Govinda Menon : It is mainly to be done among women and children.

Shri T K Divakaran: What social work does Mr Cherian Thomas do?

Shri Panamballi Govinda Menon : He is a Bhoodan organiser.

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).

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