Dakshayani Velayudhan rose from the island of Bolgatty in Kochi to become arguably the first Dalit woman graduate of the country and the only Dalit woman in the Constituent Assembly

Dakshayani Velayudhan 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 Pu layas, 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 gov ernment 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 untoucha ble and unapproachable. In the violent, vicious codes of discrimination that dic tated the movements of Malayalis just 100 years ago, a Pulaya had to keep 64 paces from a Namboodiri.

The Sea Has No Caste

Dakshayani was the child of change. She was growing up in a land getting convulsed by radical social movements. The Dalits of Cochin did not even have a patch of land to assemble, organise and demand for their rights. Since they were not allowed on king’s land, they reportedly met ingeniously, defiantly, on the backwaters of Kochi, possibly on rows of boats and catamarans strung together on the waters and anchored to an iron pole. The historic Kayal Sammelanam (Meeting on the Backwaters) sent out a message of solidarity and protest. While Karuppan said that over a thousand people congregated on the grounds of St Albert School, run by a Spanish missionary, to form the Cochin Pulaya Mahajana Sabha in April 1909, Dakshayani gave a different version: that it was announced in 1913 at the Kayal Sammelanam attended by Karuppan, her father Kunjan, uncle Krishnethi, elder brothers and cousin KP Vallon. She realised “the sea has no caste“, which is what she wanted her autobiography to be titled.

The little-known story of the extraordinary Dakshayani Velayudhan is pieced together from portions of her soon-to-bepublished posthumous -she passed away in 1978 -autobiography, phone conversations with her daughter Meera Velayudhan of the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram, and Cherayi Ramadas’ book Ayyankalikku Aadarathode (In Homage to Ayyankali).

The signs of change were there even in her n a m e . D a k sh ay a n i wrote that such a name was “never used by the depressed classes. Pulaya women said that I am given the name of an Ezhava (backward caste) girl. Pulayas had peculiar names like Azhaki, Poomala, Chakki, Kali, Kurumba, Thara, Kilipakka etc“. Incidentally, a generation before her, Ezhava girls had names like that. Then Kunju Chaali and Chakki gave way to Madhavi, Radha and Sathi in what can be called the Sanskritisation of names.

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 Mad havan. “There was agency in that conversion. It is not that they were manipulat ed or influenced. My un cles, who were petty con tractors, 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 Col lege in Ernakulam -the only girl in the class.

By then, the roads had opened for Dalits, but the prejudice never went away.Dakshayani recalls in her manuscript one particular professor who refused to let her touch the lab equipment. She had to watch the experiments from afar. 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.

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.

Dakshayani wrote: “One day when I was going to the school which was a two-threeminute walk from the house, a Nair woman met me on the way. On either side of the road were paddy fields. The Nair woman asked me to step down on to the fields to make way for her (as she considered a Pulaya unapproachable). I told her, if you want to go, you may get down onto the field and go. As I did not concede to her demand she had to do as I said. She remarked that the time had come when she had to walk over night soil.“

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. 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.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 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.She spoke against the centralisation of power as envisaged in the Constitution and said there should be decentralisation. She went on to say: “We hear daily speeches made by our great leaders and their ideals and principles but in the Constitution we find that it is barren of their ideas and principles.“ She also argued against gubernatorial posts as she presciently saw “friction“ emerging between a state government and a governor appointed by another party at the Centre.

Most importantly, she argued in favour of Article 11 of the Draft Constitution (Article 17 of the Constitution) that abolishes Untouchability and makes it punishable by law: “We cannot expect a Constitution without a clause relating to untouchability.“ But she believed that a new dawn would rise: “The working of the Constitution will depend upon how the people will conduct themselves in the future, not on the actual execution of the law (punishment). So I hope that in course of time there will not be such a community known as Untouchables.“

When her daughter Meera would slouch, Dakshayani would ask her to sit erect. 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.