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CfB Bureau

Mary King’s new book titled ‘Gandhian Nonviolent Struggle and Untouchability in South India: The 1924-25 Vykom Satyagraha and Mechanisms of Change’ is painstakingly researched work. It is the story of the nonviolent struggle that took place in Vykom in erstwhile Travancore to open the roads surrounding the local Brahmin temple to everyone.

King’s book describes how for centuries, any person or animal could walk on those roads except those Hindus without caste – the ‘untouchables’ – whose proximity was considered ‘polluting’ to higher castes. “For centuries, any Christian, Jew, Muslim, dog, or pig could walk these roads, with the exception of so-called untouchable Hindus, who would “pollute” the high castes should their shadow fall upon them,” she says.

In what was modern India’s first important social struggle, ordinary people in the princely state of Travancore took action to oppose the extreme practices of untouchability in the Hindu caste system. From April 1924 to November 1925, a satyagraha was waged to gain access for the excluded groups to the forbidden routes encircling the temple compound.

King is well qualified to undertake this study of the previously neglected Vykom satyagraha. She participated in the civil rights movement in the United States in the 1960s led by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr and has been a prominent scholar in the field of nonviolence ever since. Moreover, she is thorough, as the extensive footnotes in her book illustrate.

King spent hundreds of hours in archives with both palace and British original documents, and newspaper morgues, in assessing the role of Gandhi, the dilemmas that he faced, and the mistakes that he made. “I also interviewed specialist Keralan (sic) historians. I have reconstructed a verifiable chronology for what actually happened at Vykom (and its controversial settlement) and in this corrected context, trace the dynamics of civil resistance during this movement… Broadening my scope, I give fresh analysis of satyagraha and analyze the impact of the Vykom struggle on the concept and workings of civil resistance on the global level to the present day,” she says.

Within a decade of the Vykom campaign the narrative that emerged, and which has persisted to this day because of its unquestioned promulgation in several well-known books on nonviolence, is that this was achieved. However, King presents new evidence that the suffering of activists – whether untouchable or caste Hindu – was ineffective in ‘converting’ orthodox upper-caste Hindus in Vykom.

If you want to read more about Mary King’s efforts as both an activist and scholar of nonviolence, then you can find out more on her website: http://maryking.info/.

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