In the Report of the Ceylon Labour Commissioner for 1914, 1915, D.H.M. Bowden, the Deputy Commissioner, wrote about his meeting with Ayyankali. Bowden was sent to scout for places and castes from which he could hire coolies for the Ceylon tea plantations. After touring the Tamil-speaking regions of Madras Presidency (and noting approvingly that villages with Pariah and Shanar Christians were among the best places to hire from), he visited the princely state of Travancore and was encouraged to hire from the Pulaya caste in the state by its administration. Two administrators told him that he would need Ayyankali’s help to convince people to migrate. There only was negligible migration from Malayalam-speaking regions to Ceylon and it is likely that this meeting was not followed through. This report, however, further underscores the significant role that Ayyankali had in Dalit political assertion of the early 20th century.
Recruiting of Travancore Pulaya Coolies
Report by Deputy Commissioner
In accordance with your instructions, I arrived at Quilon on 27th ulto, to enquire regarding the above matter.
Before leaving for Trivandrum, I visited some villages on the Shencotta Road where riots had recently occurred between Pulayas and Nairs. The latter object to the rise of the Pulaya community due to the fact that education is spreading among them owing to the schools instituted by the late Dewan Gopala Chariar, and they had burnt a large number of Pulaya houses. The Pulaya people had mostly taken to the jungle as they were under the impression that, as they were a depressed class, they would be blamed for the whole business. Incidentally they had burnt two Nair houses in revenge for the loss of their homes.
On Saturday, the 30th, I visited the British Resident at Trivandrum, Mr. Graham, who advised me to see the Dewan as emigration is not a matter concerned with the British Government in any way. He said that he did not know much about Pulayas, but thought it possible, in view of the unrest among them at present, that they could be persuaded to emigrate. In the afternoon I visited some villages a little distance to the east of Trivandrum and went to a place called Vallappal, where I saw Pulayas at work and made enquiries as to their mode of living, rate of wages &c. On my return, I called on Mr. Sri Narayanan Tampi, who is the son of the late Maharajah. He is the proprietor of large lands and also is the Managing Director of the Travancore Commercial Corporation which runs the Motor Bus service between Quilon and Cape Comorin. He told me that the old bond between Pulayas and Nairs had been broken. It is not so long since the Pulayas were absolutely slaves and it was possible to buy and sell them, and although this slavery was done away with by the Government, the Pulayas remained dependent upon Nair landlords as there was no other kind of work available for them. He also told me that the spread of education among them is making them discontented, and, although one sees little of the results of the caste system in a town and it environs, it is palpable that the system still obtains favor in the country places. Mr. Narayanan Tampi was of opinion that the recent troubles would help in the direction of inducing Pulayars to emigrate. He also said that they are good workers but inclined to be dishonest. I do not know if this disqualification is peculiar to depressed classes.
On the 31st, I expected to see the Dewan, but as he returned from Camp at a late hour, I was not able to arrange a meeting with him.
On the 1st November I had an interview with the Dewan Mr. M. Krishna Nair at an early hour, and after that, left for Nagarcoil. The Dewan thought it would be a very good thing if a proportion of the Pulaya community could be induced to migrate. He expressed the opinion that it would be difficult to move them, but said that, if the co-operation of Ayankali could be obtained, it would be of very great assistance in this work. He also said that the recent troubles would be of assistance. The Dewan informed me that the State had no objection whatever to emigration and at present there are no laws at all on the subject of emigration to British India or any other place.
On the 3rd, I returned to Trivandrum, and leaving the main road about 8 miles from the latter place, I went 4 miles along a branch road to Venganoor where I had an interview with Ayankali, who is the General Secretary of the Sadugana Paripalana Association. This person is a Pulaya and is their local representative and mouthpiece. He is the Pulaya member of the Sri Mulam Popular Assembly, which is much the same as the local Legislative Council. He was elevated to this position after the Maharajah on the advice of the late Dewan, as he was considered to be most influential among the Pulayas. His place of residence at Venganoor is surrounded by a large tract of country which is almost entirely inhabited by Pulayas who make a poor living out of the land owned by Nairs. The Pulaya Association of which he is Secretary meets every Sunday, and he asked me to send him some Malayalam advertisements to be read out at one of these meetings. He promised to do all in his power to send coolies and said that he was quite certain that a large number would go. He asked that his nomination for maistries be accepted and said he would send men who could read and write to take this post. He also expressed himself desirous of sending families only, and I told him that this was what was required. Having had this satisfactory interview with Ayankali, I then returned to Trivandrum.
On the 4th I interviewed Mr. A.J. Vieyra, who is the Chief Secretary for the Travancore Government and is of burgher extraction. He has been in the Travancore Government service for the past 30 years and has a very wide knowledge of the State. He told me that it would be necessary to get the assistance of Ayankali before much could be done in the recruitment of Pulayas, and when I told him that I had already interviewed this person, he said that the present was a favourable time as the Pulayas do not enjoy the same advantages as they had during the regime of Mr. Gopala Chariar , the late Dewan, and as the present Dewan is a Nair. I then returned to Quilon where I stayed the night, and left for Trichinopoly the next morning.
The houses of the Pulayas which I saw do not compare unfavourably with those of the Tamil Pariahs and of low caste coolies, and are generally made of mud walls and palm leaf roofs, and these are kept in a moderately clean and tidy condition. The coolies themselves are of about medium size and tall men are uncommon. They seem to be quite capable in wielding a mammooty or in carrying a head load. I understand that Superintendents of Estates in Travancore find that the Pulaya is fairly satisfactory as an Estate labourer. In the southern parts where I recommend recruitment, they are mainly employed in cultivation of paddy in ordinary wet cultivation, and on lands that are not suitable they grow tapioca and other dry crops. Their staple food is boiled tapioca and canjee water. This is a very cheap food, and the cost of it represents their daily earnings. At one place I saw women bringing in large head-loads of firewood ready bundled for the town market, and they were drawing from 1 to 3 annas according to the size of the loads they brought, and the latter figure was reached only in the case of coolies of about average strength. Their average earning on ordinary agricultural work is about 2 annas per day, and as far as I can ascertain, they are not under advances to any field owners.
Extract from Report of the Ceylon Labour Commissioner for 1914, 1915, in the library of the Tamil Nadu State Archives, Chennai, X:9.4498′N14 N15, Accession number: 67211.