Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Dakshayani Velayudhan

#65/100 in #100extraordinarywomen

Popular narratives of history have led us to believe that it was men alone who were the architects of the Indian Constitution. However, among the 299 members of the Constituent Assembly, 15 were women. Unfortunately, very little is known about them. They came from different walks of life — lawyers, freedom fighters, politicians, and suffragettes. Led by Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar they discussed, debated and put forth their opinions while defining the principles that would guide the then recently Independent India. One of those women behind the Constitution was Dakshayani Velayudhan, one of the youngest and the only Dalit woman who helped shape the Constitution of India.

Dakshayani Velayudhan was the first and only Dalit woman to be elected to the constituent assembly in 1946. She served as a member of the assembly, and as a part of the provisional parliament of India from 1946-1952. At 34, she was also one of the youngest members of the assembly. 

Dakshayani was born on July 4, 1912, on the island of Bolgatty in Cochin. The water that lapped on its shores had no caste, but the land certainly did. The Pulayas, men and women, could not wear clothes to cover their torso. KP Karuppan, who fought for their rights, wrote a report in 1934 about the conditions of Pulayas in the beginning of the 20th century: “I saw them only in a dirty mundu. The women were all half-naked. Some of them covered themselves with grass.” They could not cut their hair. They were not allowed into government schools. They had no access to the public roads and markets of mainland Ernakulam. They had to slink away and make way for an upper caste. They could not enter hospitals. They were untouchable and unapproachable. In the violent, vicious codes of discrimination that dictated the movements of Malayalis just 100 years ago, a Pulaya had to keep 64 paces from a Namboodiri. 

Dakshayani was the child of change. She was growing up in a land getting convulsed by radical social movements. Her life was defined and shaped by the upheavals in Kerala society in the early 20th century. Even before her birth, two of Kerala’s biggest reformers, Sree Narayana Guru and Ayyankali had begun movements that would push Kerala’s virulently casteist society to the brink. They organized civil disobedience movements that defied the restrictions on movement and school entry for the depressed classes. They organized satyagraha marches and encouraged women and men to discard practices imposed on them as a sign of their lower class. Restrictions included walking on streets marked for upper class, walking with head bowed before the upper class, wearing necklaces to indicate caste and more.

One of the more novel forms of protests came from an organization called the Pulaya Mahajan Sabha in 1913. Founded by Kallachamuri Krishnaadi Asan, Pt. Karuppan and T.K Krishna Menon, along with K.P Vallon, the Sabha, named after the Pulaya caste, organized a Kayal Sammelan or lake meeting in Vembanadu lake. The meeting that took place on a catamaran was in defiance of the king who had proclaimed that no Dalit group could have a meeting in his land. By holding the meeting on water, the group claimed that “they did not disobey the order” of the king.

Dakshayani Velayudhan was the niece of Krishnaadi asan, and the sister of K.K Madhavan lawyer, MP and editor of Veekshanam (Congress Daily). She was one of the first girls in her Pulaya community to wear an upper cloth. She was also a part of the group of people who saw the death of discriminatory practices in the then Travancore district that sought to clearly demarcate the upper and lower castes. Dakshayani has written about her early childhood in the forthcoming autobiography — “not born in a poor Pulaya family” and was loved and favoured by her father in a family of five children. The change she would later come to be known for — being the first Dalit girl to wear an upper cloth and the first Dalit woman graduate in India — had already started with her birth. At a time when Dalit girls were given “peculiar names like Azhaki, Poomala, Chakki, Kali, Kurumba, Thara, Kilipakka,” her parents named her Dakshayani, meaning Durga or daughter of Daksha. “Pulaya and other Dalit castes could only use certain kind of names,” Meera, her daughter, says, adding how her mother mentions this facet in the book. “She wrote about about how Pulaya women used to tell her that she had been given an Ezhava girl’s name.” Ezhava, though a backward class, was considered above the Pulayas.

Dakshayani wrote that her brothers were among the first in the community to cut their long-knotted hair and wear shirts. They were taunted and abused for it by Ezhavas and Latin Christians on the island. She said: When they took the road, others hooted at them; when they took the boat, others threw stones at them. Little Dakshayani too wore a dress when she went to school. At that time Cochin had begun to give free education to children of depressed classes. So while her mother Maani, her elder siblings — a sister and two brothers — and Krishnethi converted to Christianity, her mother did not convert her and her younger brother KK Madhavan. “There was agency in that conversion. It is not that they were manipulated or influenced. My uncles, who were petty contractors, got more work after conversion,” says Dakshayani’s daughter Meera. The bright Dakshayani took a ferry and walked a couple of hours to the school — and back. She went on to do her bachelor’s in chemistry from Maharaja’s College in Ernakulam — the only girl in the class. By then, the roads had opened for Dalits, but the prejudice never went away. Growing up at a time of tremendous social changes, and into a family that spearheaded many of these changes, the right to wear an upper cloth was just the first in a series of firsts in her life. Movements that called for democratization of public spaces, education, work security, equality and abolition of caste slavery saw her generation become the first group of educated Dalits in India.

She was the first Dalit woman to earn a degree. Armed with a scholarship from the Cochin State government, she went on to get a B.Sc Chemistry from Maharaja’s College, Ernakulam and a teachers training certificate from Madras University. In her project, “Woman Architects of the Indian Republic”, Priya Ravichandran writes about the discrimination and ill-treatment Velayudhan faced while completing her Bachelor’s degree from the Madras University. She was the only girl student in the entire science department and an upper caste teacher refused to show her the experiments. Dakshayani, who graduated in 1935, learnt it by observing from a distance. That didn’t stop her. Nothing quite did. She graduated with a high second class in 1935 and went for a teacher’s training course in Madras. This defiance and grit marked much of her life.

When she returned, she was posted in a government school in Peringottukara in Thrissur. The reason: the backward caste Ezhavas dominated the place, which meant there weren’t many upper castes who would be offended by a Dalit teacher in the classroom. The sea may not have caste, but a well does. Dakshayani, who was given accommodation in the house of a rich Ezhava, was not allowed to draw water from the well. But her mother, who had converted to Christianity, was allowed. So she stayed back with her daughter. 

In 1940, Dakshayani married Dalit leader Velayudhan — who was the uncle of KR Narayanan who would go on to become the first Dalit president of India — at Gandhi’s ashram in Wardha, in a ceremony officiated by a leper and attended by the Mahatma and Kasturba. Meera recalls an anecdote that when Dakshayani grew tired of the jaggery and chappati in the ashram, Gandhi asked her to cook fish in her hut and have it. But she found cooking too much of a hassle. Dakshayani later became a member of the Provisional Parliament and Velayudhan an MP in 1952, which makes them possibly the first Dalit parliamentarian couple of India. 

In 1942, Dakshayani was transferred to a high school in Thripunithura, an upper caste-dominated area. In her book, Dakshayani writes about an incident when as a teacher at a government high school in Trichur district she met a Nair woman on the road who demanded that Dakshayani make way. Owing to the way people from the Pulaya community were treated this was still prevalent. There were paddy fields on both sides along the road. Dakshayani refused and remained defiantly steadfast. “I told her directly on her face, if you want to go past me, you may get down into the field and go,” she writes. The field was four to five feet below the road level.” The woman was ultimately compelled to get down on the field and walk,” she writes. The stigma and the institutional discrimination she faced as an educator in a government school pushed her to reconsider her career and see politics as a valid means of getting justice for her community and as a chance to serve the country. Disillusioned by the prejudice and determined to contribute to her community, she decided to seek a nomination — reserved for Scheduled Castes — to the Cochin Legislative Council. Thus, she followed in the footsteps of her brother, K.P Vallon, and was nominated to the Cochin legislative council in 1945. in 1946, she was nominated to the constituent assembly from Madras Presidency. She was the first and only Dalit woman to be elected to the constituent assembly.

On August 2, 1945, Dakshayani spoke for the first time in the council — in English. Pointing out that the funds allocated for the uplift of depressed classes were dwindling, she called for proportionate reservation in panchayat and municipality and lashed out at untouchability as inhuman. Dakshayani said as long as untouchability remained, the word “Harijan” was meaningless, it was like calling dogs “Napoleon”. On July 22, 1946, the firebrand speaker became a member of the Constituent Assembly. 

In that August congregation of 389 people, there were just just 15 women. And there was only one Dalit woman — Dakshayani Velayudhan. She was just 34. She was both a Gandhian and an Ambedkarite but she also challenged them both and argued on the strength of her own convictions. Her belief was that “a Constituent Assembly not only frames a constitution, but also gives the people a new framework of life.” A staunch follower of Gandhi, she strongly opposed untouchability but believed that as long as it was practised, the word Harijan (popularised by Gandhi ) would remain irrelevant. She refused to view Dalits as minorities and believed that “[t]he Harijans are Indians and they have to live in India as Indians and they will live in India as Indians.” Dakshayani placed the struggles of her community ahead of her gender, unmistakably evident in her impassioned speech at the Constituent Assembly where she didn’t speak as a Pulaya woman but hoped to see “no barriers based on caste or community” in the Indian Republic. She was vociferous in her support for Article 17 of the Constitution of India that abolishes untouchability and forbids its practice in any form. Often told by other members that she asked too many questions, Dakshayani’s presence among other female members in the Constituent Assembly, like Vijaylakshmi Pandit, Sarojini Naidu, many of whom came from privilege, was a telling sight in itself.

Dakshayani’s term in the constituent assembly was defined by two objectives, both inspired and molded by her time with Gandhi and Ambedkar. One was to make the assembly go beyond framing a constitution and to give “people a new framework of life” and two, to use the opportunity to make untouchability illegal, unlawful and ensure a “moral safeguard that gives real protection to the underdogs” in India. Her idea of moral safeguards rested on the idea that an Independent India as a “socialist republic” would give equality of status and guarantee an immediate removal of social disabilities that would enable the Harijans to enjoy the same freedom that the rest of the country enjoyed. Interesting in her arguments, on the 19th of December 1946 soon after Nehru had tabled his aims and objectives resolution was the invocation of the Licchavi Kingdom of ancient India as an example a republic. Licchavi kingdom which originated in Benaras, was infact a tribal confederation as described by Kautilya. It had a council of ‘rajas’ who elected a leader to rule over them. The other notable part of the discussion is her take down of Churchill’s promise to safegaurd the scheduled castes in an independant India and her remark that the communist party was only exploiting the harijans. She held strong to the conviction that only an Independent socialist republic can help uplift the dalits and give them the liberties exercised by every other citizen.

Dakshayani’s admiration for Gandhi and his vision for India was only matched by her respect for Ambedkar and his mission to raise the status of untouchables in India. Their antithetical positions regarding the status of minorities, and her own views on how the minorities should be represented was one of her most defining speeches during the assembly. Delivered on the 28th of August 1947, after Sardar Patel submitted his Minority report, her arguments against separate electorates in any form and her censure of the reservation system was in support of a nationalist narrative that sought economic and social upliftment rather than looking to politics as a means to eradicate the system of untouchability. She noted in her speech on 28th August 1947 “As long as the Scheduled Castes, or the Harijans or by whatever name they may be called, are economic slaves of other people, there is no meaning demanding either separate electorates or joint electorates or any other kind of electorates with this kind of percentage. Personally speaking, I am not in favour of any kind of reservation in any place whatsoever.” Her dismissal of the separate electorates and reservations was in keeping with the notion that an Independent India should work towards creating a stronger, common national identity rather than maintain practices that would further the social fissures that the British left behind. Her concern as evidenced through her speeches was not the political safeguarding of minority rights, but the breakdown of integrity and stability of a nation that would push back the advancement of Harijans, economically and socially. She saw an independent, united India as being more beneficial to the abolishment of castes, rather than a measured divvying up of electoral politics.

Her speech in support of a system that would use economic and social means to create an equal and just society coincidentally came 15 years after the Poona pact of 1932 was signed. The fruit of Gandhi’s fast against the suggested separate electorate of the Communal Award and the Poona deal that Ambedkar would pillory time and again, went on to set the tone for the Government of India Act of 1935 that would become the basis for Independent India’s constitution.

Dakshayani’s political, social and personal realm was dotted by independent thought and opinion. Her biggest criticism was reserved for the draft constitution presented by Ambedkar. She stood up on 8th November 1948 to declare that she found the draft constitution “barren of ideas and principles”. The blame she pointed out had to be shared by all members of the constituent assembly who in spite of their lofty ideals, illustrious backgrounds and prodigious speeches could not come up with an original constitution. Her criticism like many others centered around the idea of maintaining a strong center without much decentralization and the idea of a slightly reworked adaptation of the British India government act of 1935. She expressed dismay about carrying over the idea of governorship and centrally administered areas from British system and in the lack of originality in the framing. One fascinating idea that she suggested was to have the draft constitution put to vote during the first general elections and to test its mettle with the people who would ultimately use it. A democratic test of the document that would make India a republic, she felt would ensure the process of constitution making was fair.

Dakshayani was deeply involved in her home and family. She wrote long letters to her daughter, that were a guiding force. “I was always proud of my background, confident of my abilities and never felt downtrodden, ” Meera says while recollecting the impact her mother’s fearless thinking had on her. “When I started my menstruation, I was nine, during holidays, she sketched and explained what was happening to the body and asked my father to get some sanitary pads to take to school,” Meera says. Velayudhan did not actively pursue electoral politics. “She was more comfortable working in the slums of Munirka (Delhi) among sweeper women. After holding one of the early national conference of Dalit women in Delhi, mainly Ambedkarites, she formed a women’s organisation, Mahila Jagriti Parishad (1977),” the daughter adds.

Unlike many of her peers and fellow women members, she moved away from direct electoral politics into creating groups that worked towards the upliftment of Harijans. She saw untouchability being abolished by a constitutional article and lived to see reservations last longer than the 10 years the members agreed upon. Her final foray into electoral politics was an unsuccessful contest for a Lok Sabha seat in 1971. Her husband’s cousin K.R Narayanan went on to serve as India’s first Dalit President. Dakshayani passed away in July 1978. She was 66.

At five feet, Dakshayani was “unassuming and serious” and walked with a slight slouch, Meera says. It came during the early years in Mulavukad, when she and others from her community walked with their head down and backs hunched. But the value of standing tall, head held high and striving in the face of great adversity was never lost on her. Meera remembers an innocuous incident, while studying at night, “I was preparing for an exam, possibly all slouched, with a flask of coffee to keep awake. When she saw me sitting like that, she patted me on the back and said sit straight.” She would remind her of how the early years of stooping before the upper castes had given her a slight hunch. What she didn’t let on was that when she straightened her shoulders and looked at the world, Dakshayani Velayudhan shattered to smithereens the cast-iron ceiling of caste. And perhaps, therein lies Dakshayini Velayudhan’s greatest contribution, not just for the Dalit community, but for a nation, standing one’s ground and holding our head high. 

Source: Google search.


  1. This is such a well researched and written article, the in-depth understanding of her ideas and how they were influenced by her life built a coherent understanding of her personality.
    Thank you so much for writing this and helping us remember the women who structurally changed the society for us. This was a great read!
    - Somya