Meet Kerala historian Dalit Bandhu who earned his moniker for his work on Dalit history

Reading Ambedkar led historian NK Jose, known as Dalit Bandhu, to focus more on Dalit history and change his views about Gandhi after having been his follower for decades.
Dalit Bandhu
Dalit Bandhu
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Men standing by the shop nearest to Dalit Bandhu's house are not surprised to see noon-time visitors asking for directions to the house on a late October afternoon. The address is often sought-after, especially when the history related to the place - Vechur in Vaikom of Kerala - is a topic of interest. Only recently, there have been journalists coming to ask questions about the Vaikom Satyagraha for its hundredth anniversary.Dalit Bandhu, 94 years old and short of breath, would still encourage the questions. He does not mind retelling history however many times over. This is a man who has written more than 145 books on historical events of Kerala, quite a lot of them about Dalit history, earning his moniker. He is also the long-lasting president of the Kerala History Congress.

The door to the ancient house is open and Dalit Bandhu's long, white beard and khadi clothes shine in the darkness of his front room where he sits, waving us in. The yard is long, scattered with green, and home to a white stray dog the family has adopted. An outer room in the corner is decked up with the many recognitions and awards Dalit Bandhu had won in his lifetime, sandwiched with photos of his younger self and his beloved wife Thankamma, who passed away last year. “It is after her passing that he got worse health-wise," says his adopted son Saji, who had at first been reluctant to allow an interview. "He would get excited and talk a lot about history, and that would tire him," Saji mentioned.

It is true. Dalit Bandhu, originally NK Jose, cuts short no details of his long life and the histories he has written. That is what brought him the title of Dalit Bandhu on September 24, 1990, Jose says, among the many details he clearly remembers, complete with dates. When his breath gets short, he asks his son to get a copy of his autobiography written in 2018 -  Ivide Oru Manushyan Jeevichu, Aa Manushyante Katha (Here lived a man, this is his story). 

Dalit Bandhu in front of his book shelf with his many books
Dalit Bandhu in front of his book shelf with his many books

Writing had begun early in his school days but one short story about a cat called ‘Thankamma’ brought him beatings, and an infection of Typhoid, and he never wrote another again, Jose writes in his autobiography. Another story from his student days he’d like to talk about is meeting Vaikom Mohammed Basheer, legendary Malayalam writer, during his ‘intermediate’ days at Kochi’s Thevara College. “He told me about a speech competition in which I took part and won the first prize – an English biography of Stalin. But the hostel warden, a priest, took it from me and burnt it,” Jose tells us. In his book, he adds another line - “[They are] fools who think they can bring students under control by burning or banning books.”

But it was not the Communist Party that he joined; Jose was more inclined towards socialism. In his college days, he took part in a protest by the State Congress against the decision of the controversial Dewan of Travancore, CP Ramaswami Iyer, to not join the Indian Union at the time of independence. Jose was detained in a police station with other student protestors. “The college authorities sent for my father. I was afraid to go home after that, and took a house for rent in Ernakulam while finishing my studies,” he says.

Dalit Bandhu with his son Saji
Dalit Bandhu with his son Saji

He also gave tuition to pay his way through college. After college, he was still not keen to go home. He got on a train and went to Gandhi’s Ashram in Wardha to learn a course in Gandhism. He met the great socialist Jayaprakash Narayan and was drawn towards socialism. Jose joined him in his travels, but when he could not follow the Hindi speeches JP made, he went back to Kerala and began his stint in politics. Between 1953 and 55, he worked for the Praja Socialist Party in Kerala, becoming its central committee member and district secretary. He was influenced by party leaders Rammanohar Lohia and JP and began writing books on politics – Muthalalitham Bharathathil, Congress Bharanam Ottanotathil, Socialism Mathaviruddamo, and so on. 

During this period, he met with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru when the Congress leader came to visit Thirukochi. The brief exchange had impressed Nehru so much that he invited Jose to come to Delhi and join the Congress. But Jose refused, sticking to his socialist party. Later on, however, he had differences of opinion with the state party leader Pattom Thanu Pillai. That and other reasons made him quit politics in 1955 and come back to his home in Vechur.

The rest of his life was almost entirely devoted to research and writing, churning out book after book of history. 

Accidental tryst with church history

For a brief while, he wrote books about the church and religion. It was by chance that he got to know so much about church history, he writes in his autobiography. Once, while buying beedi from a store, he noticed it wrapped in paper torn from an old magazine about churches. He went back to the store and got the whole stack of magazines, which, he found out, had come from a church after a shelf was cleared. He wrote of the history of the Vechur Palli near his house, built in 1463. “The church people did not like that a layman like me was writing its history,” Jose writes. 

In his book, he also writes that his friendship with Fr Joseph Parecattil (the first Cardinal of Kerala) led him to be part of the All Kerala Catholic Congress, a decision he appears to regret later on. 

“It did not bode well with the church that he and a few others published a statement against their claim that a cross found at Nilakkal had come from St Thomas,” says Jose’s son Saji, who, with his wife Mini, looks after him.

The ‘Nilakkal prashnam’ as Dalit Bandhu calls it, happened in 1983. Together with church reformer Joseph Pulikkunnel, publisher DC Kizhakemuri, and historian and archaeologist John Ochanthuruth, he had gone to Nilakkal to study the cross as soon as the claims had come out. They could see the cross only for a day to study it, and after that, it was announced to be missing. They put out a statement publishing their findings that the cross would not date back as long as the time St Thomas was supposed to have come to Kerala.

Another time, he wrote in the Christian magazine ‘Sathyapeedam’ about the chapel of the NBCLC in Bengaluru, whose windows are built in the form of the Hindu god Siva, and how this showed that Siva belonged to all people of India, not just the Hindus. This too, expectedly did not go well with orthodox Christians.

Dalit Bandhu reads one of his books
Dalit Bandhu reads one of his books

It probably did not help that Jose wrote another book called Vaikathe Chraisthavar (The Christians of Vaikom), against the popularly held belief that the ancestors of Christians there were Brahmins brought from other states. In his finding, they were traders who were invited by kings and rulers for commercial purposes, living in streets around churches. In another book Aadima Kerala Chraisthavar, he wrote that Syrian Christians were not once-upon-a-time Brahmins converted directly by St Thomas as they believe, but Adivasis. 

He has written several such books on Vaikom history, a few of these on the famous Vaikom Satyagraha, a protest that lasted 604 days between 1924 and 25, for allowing access to the lowered castes to areas around the Vaikom temple. Earlier this year, when Kerala celebrated the hundred years of Vaikom Satyagraha, a lot of people came looking for Dalit Bandhu, wanting to know the details, says Saji. Dalit Bandhu’s later books would include his revised opinions about the historical incident. 

Read: 100 years on, remembering Vaikom Satyagraha as an anti-caste civil rights movement

That is a practice he has followed through the years, a willingness to admit his earlier thoughts had evolved with newer readings. In 1962, under the influence of the likes of Ram Manohar Lohiya, he wrote a book called Samskarika India (Cultural India), but that included only Brahminical culture, he realised years later. Jose wrote another book to correct that – Bharatha Samskaram Chila Vichinthanangal – in 1994, covering the Dravida culture, the Indus Valley, and so on. 

Shift in thought after reading Ambedkar

Reading Ambedkar brought a lot of change to his thinking, he says, including his attitude towards Gandhi. For decades he’d fast every year on January 30, the day Gandhi was assassinated. He stopped in 1970, after reading Ambedkar and getting disillusioned by many of Gandhi’s teachings. In 1994, he expressed his differences in public forums, making 125 speeches across Kerala, for Gandhi’s 125th birth anniversary, about how the Father of the Nation had not treated Dalits well. At several venues, he had to run fearing attacks from Congress workers. His changing views also came out as books - Gandhijiyude Mathruka and Gandhi-Gandhism-Dalitar among them.

After his Ambedkar readings, Jose’s writings became more focussed on Dalit history. Channar Lahala was one of the first books in this series. “While I was with the Catholic Congress, I tried to find out about the contribution of Catholics to Kerala, and realised that little was written about the Channars (Nadar community) and that is how I wrote about Channar Lahala,” he says. The 200-year-old struggle was led by women of the lowered Nadar community of Hindu and Christian religions in Travancore - which included parts of Tamil Nadu – for the right to cover their upper bodies. Earlier this year Chief Ministers of both the states came together to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the historical fight that lasted decades. 

Read: A look at the history of the Channar Revolt as Pinarayi, Stalin commemorate it

Jose writes reproachfully that though historians call it ‘Channar Lahala’ (or Channar Revolt), the revolt was not carried out by Channars but by the orthodox privileged caste members and communal people of the time against the Channars. “Channars were victims of their attacks and bore many losses. But the historians who wrote about them were of the privileged castes and called it Channar Revolt,” Dalit Bandhu writes in Channar Lahala.

Awards and recognitions won by Dalit Bandhu
Awards and recognitions won by Dalit Bandhu

Writing about the revolt led him to study Velu Thampi Dalawa, the prime minister of Travancore during the early 19th century. Studying Velu Thampi and later the Vaikom Satyagraha led him to know about the horrible massacre at Dalavakkulam, a pond near the Vaikom temple, in 1806. The massacre of more than 200 youths of the Ezhava caste (one of the oppressed castes, with more privileges than Dalits) happened during the reign of Velu Thampi, when they attempted to march to the pond to protest the ban on lowered castes there. 

“He has been very consistent from the beginning, to take a Dalit partisanship in his writing. Though he is not exactly an academic historian, he has attempted to systematically look into sources, and oral history, to look at events and personalities in Kerala from a Dalit perspective. Though I may not agree with all his interpretations – many are not empirically based – it is still a remarkable contribution to Dalit history. I respect his partisanship,” says Thomas Isaac, Communist politician, economist, and author, who has read many of Dalit Bandhu’s books. 

Jose did not simply sit down to write one book after another, but travelled far and researched aplenty, sometimes for years, before putting his facts down. He would not hold back his thoughts, even if it differed with his political views. Jose was opposed to the Vimochana Samaram that brought down the first elected Communist government of Kerala in 1957. He found it undemocratic and dangerous and made speeches about it - another incident that distanced the church. Not that he favoured the Communists. Dalit Bandhu writes critically of the ‘Communist police’ who beat up and booked protestors in Kerala for burning the Manu Smriti (ancient text of Hinduism that advocates untouchability among lowered castes) on December 24, 1989, the 62nd anniversary of Ambedkar’s famous public burning of the text. 

He angered the erstwhile Travancore royal family too, writing that Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma (the last king before monarchy ended), had killed many of his subjects and that all the gold in the Padmanabha Swamy temple (famed collection exceeding thousands of crores of rupees) came from Adivasis selling pepper produce in the early centuries. There was no gold dug up or brought to the temple after invading another kingdom, Jose wrote. He lamented that the governments of Kerala celebrate the ‘temple entry’ of 1936 but not the 1858 proclamation banning slavery. 

In his books, Jose wrote that Aryans had invaded India more than 3,500 years ago and enslaved the original inhabitants of the country, and they became Dalits. The Parushuram story (a myth of how Kerala was created when Lord Parushuram threw an axe across the sea) was created by Brahmins to take control over the land, Jose wrote. “They will create new stories for taking control of the water and of the air. The story about Goddess Ganga is one such. As for air, oxygen is already locked up in Uttar Pradesh by its Chief Minister,” Dalit Bandhu wrote, referring to the 2017 arrest of Dr Kafeel Khan who was blamed for the deaths in a hospital due to a cut in oxygen supply when in fact he had spent money to bring in oxygen from outside. 

A life of relentless learning

Jose keeps himself updated on all that is going on. Saji says he still reads his newspaper dailies and still works on new books. There is a new one coming, Jose tells us, about his book on Arattupuzha Velayudha Panikkar for the Renaissance hero’s 150th death anniversary. Jose’s memory is intact, complete with the dates. 

Sahitya Akademy Award
Sahitya Akademy Award

Despite the vast areas he has covered, there have been few takers for his books on Dalit history. No one wanted to publish books about Pulaya Lahala (Revolt of Pulayas, Ayyankali (Dalit social reformer) or even Ambedkar. A famous publisher, who was his friend, told him that his was a business enterprise and that no one would read books about Pulayar and Paraiyar (two Dalit castes in Kerala). Eventually, he established his own publishing house - Hobby - to bring out his books. “Land and gold was sold for publishing his books. Now it is just this house and the compound that is left,” Saji says. 

Despite the struggles, Jose continued writing Dalit history books on Dalit Christians, reservation, on the complete history of the Pulayars, and on renaissance heroes of anti-caste. His body of works brought him the title ‘Dalit Bandhu’, conferred by the Indian Dalit Federation, on September 24, 1990. But a state recognition came much later, in 2019 – the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award for Overall Contribution to Malayalam literature. Earlier this year, the Sree Sankaracharya University in Kalady announced that an archive in his name will be launched on its campus.

Dalit Bandhu and Thankamma
Dalit Bandhu and Thankamma

At 94, Dalit Bandhu has not suffered from major diseases, but is diabetic and has kidney issues and hypertension. Until he got COVID-19 some time ago, and while his wife Thankamma was alive till a year ago, Jose had fared pretty well. 

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