On November 26, Constitution Day, Kerala is commemorating Dakshayani Velayudhan, the Dalit woman who forged her own path and stood up for the rights of women and people from oppressed castes. At a time when the state is grappling with the Sabarimala row, and women in the menstruating age bracket have been prevented from entering the temple despite the Supreme Court's order allowing them to do so, Dakshayani's fight takes on new significance.
The socila reform movements in Kerala, which were led by great visionaries, have been cited often by the Kerala CM to explain to the public why some traditions deserve to be broken. Among these leaders is Dakshayani Velayudhan who was a member of BR Ambedkar's Constituent Assembly, the body that formulated the Constitution of India. Of the 299 members in this Assembly, only 15 were women. And of the 15, she was the only Dalit woman.
On November 29, 1948, Dakshayani delivered a speech in the Assembly about untouchability. But before she could finish, she was interrupted by the Chair, Vice President of the Constituent Assembly HC Mookherjee. The Vice President said she had exceeded her time limit, and that he was letting her continue “only because you are a lady.”
However, her first speech in the Constituent Assembly focused on slavery.
Speaking to TNM, Dakshayani's daughter Meera said, "This speech was a clear articulation of what was to become Article 15 of the Constitution. Meeting Ambedkar was momentous in her life. From being Editor of Gandhi Era publication in early 1940s in Madras, she became editor of Jai Bheem publication, also from Madras."
Meera Velayudhan is a Policy Analyst. Meera is actively involved in the debates supporting women's entry into Sabarimala, highlighting the constitutional value of the SC verdict. She is also part of 'Samam' Progressive Forum for women.
"Some of her own awareness was drawn from her household and family which played a role in founding the Pulaya Mahajana Sabha (1913), which was formed to offer resistance to the day to day life of a Dalit, and which later became a platform of bringing Dalit life to the public. My mother wrote: "My two elder brothers and my father Kunjan’s younger brother, Krishnethi (Krishnadiyasan- 1877-1937) , Pt. Karruppan( Prof. Mahrajas College), TK Krishna Menon (from the Thottekal family which produced several Dewans) formed the Pulaya Mahajana Sabha, with Krishnethi as President," Meera adds.
"There were many firsts in Dakshayani's life - the first Dalit girl to attend school wearing an upper cloth, the first Dalit woman graduate in India, a science graduate, member of the Cochin Legislative Council and the Constituent Assembly of India. There were many assertions too - of not walking with shoulders bent or not making way for upper castes while walking on the road," Meera recalls.
In one of her debates, Dakshayani memorably said, “I submit that a Constituent Assembly not only frames a Constitution but also gives the people a new framework for life. To frame such a Constitution is an easy task because there are many models for us to imitate...but to renew a people on a new foundation requires the synthetic vision of a planner...what we want is not all kinds of safeguards. It is the moral safeguards that give us real protection..what we want is the immediate removal of our social disabilities. Our freedom can be obtained only from Indians and not only from the British Government." ( Dakshayani Velayudhan,19 Dec,1946, CA debates)
Born in 1912, the time that she lived in itself is testimony to her struggle as a woman and as a Dalit, since the oppression of both was considered 'natural' at that time. She created history by covering the upper part of her body at a time when women from oppressed castes were not allowed to cover their breasts. Later (from 1813 to 1859) the state witnessed the Maru Marakkal Samaram or Channar revolt for women's right to wear clothes to cover their upper body.
Dakshayani had other unique achievements to her credit, too. She was the first woman to pass ESLC (Education equivalent to that of present time’s tenth standard) and the first Indian Dalit woman to become a graduate.
She was born in Mulavuukad, an isolated Island in Ernakulam. Her school education was at St Mary's school Mulavukad and MLC School, Chathyathu. She graduated from Maharaja's College, Ernakulam. When Dakshayani joined Maharaja's for a Chemistry course, she was the lone woman student to have enrolled. She trained in teaching from Madras to become a teacher. She became member of the Legislative Assembly, Kochi in 1945 and a member of the Constituent Assembly in 1946.
Even the very name Dakshayani challenged the existing caste hegemony as it was a name believed to be reserved for the upper castes (Dakshayani is another name for goddess Parvathy).
Dakshayani's marriage was also nothing short of a revolution. She married Raman Velayudhan in 1940 at Gandhi's Wardha Ashram. Velayudhan was a member of the first Parliament. He was also the uncle of former President KR Narayanan. The wedding was in the presence of Gandhi, his wife Kasturba, and a leprosy patient.