The year is 1893, the location, the erstwhile Kingdom of Travancore. Travancore is to witness one of the most defining moments in its long history. Activities go on as normal in the marketplace at Nedumangad, with traders haggling over prices and citizens performing their duties, based on their caste. In the distance, the sound of a bullock cart approaching is heard, not unusual for a marketplace at this time of the day.
As citizens go about their business, they turn to look at the new arrival and one by one, business activities come to a screeching halt. On that bullock cart, dressed in traditional Nair clothing, stands the figure of Ayyankali, a Pulayar (a low caste) throwing down the gauntlet to upper caste Hindus and reclaiming a public space, defined by the very exclusion it thrived on. Seven years later, after protests spreading like a wildfire, the Pulayar community won for themselves the right to use most public roads in the state and threw off the yoke of oppression that had taken from them their freedom of movement.
We go back almost half a century, the year is 1846, the gears of the press start rotating and the press comes to life. We are witnessing the foundation of the first Malayali printing press that will soon print out Nasrani Deepika, the oldest existing Malayalam newspaper still in circulation. Its founder, Fr Kuriakose, would go on to oversee the creation of schools alongside each church, to establish the famed pallukoodam (schools) and set up the mid-day meal scheme adopted by the state of Travancore and later the Indian Union. Before his death, he would go on to establish schools people belonging to the weaker sections of society and establish the first boarding school for girls near Paravoor, hence living his life as a reformer who would be canonised by the Church more than 200 years after his birth.
We go back even further to the start of the century, the year is 1813, Colonel John Munro, the dewan of the erstwhile Kingdom of Travancore issues an order granting Nadar converts the right to wear a breast cloth. The move is met with great resistance from the upper castes in the court and the order is revoked. This back and forth goes on, with Nadars and Ezhavas fighting for their right to dress like any other upper caste, and Travancore upper castes attempting to salvage their privilege through any means possible. Violence ensued sporadically for more than four decades and finally, on July 26, 1859, the king of Travancore proclaims the right for all Nadar women to cover their breasts. Years of struggle finally culminated into the elimination of a practice followed for nearly a thousand years, and against odds which most would have thought of as impossible.
For a state that is increasingly being portrayed as an outlier and one which refuses to fit the narrative of the Hindi heartland, it is important to understand that the very existence of Kerala is one that is built on dissent and reform. When the princely states of Cochin, Travancore and the Malabar district were united to form the state of Kerala in 1956, it was done against the backdrop of the civil rights movements, social reforms and political unrest, leading to the very conceptualisation of the state being a hotbed of dissent.
In this day and age, as the nation grows increasingly polarised and dissent against the government gets painted in shades closer and closer to treason by the media, perhaps one should take a look at Kerala. As the state looks to fight the centre to protect its culture of beef consumption, it would be prudent to remember that more than beef, it is on a strict diet of dissent that the state has been bred.
The author is a student of Public Policy at the National Law School of India University