Dakshayani Velayudhan was the first and only Dalit woman to be elected to the constituent assembly in 1946. She served as a member of the assembly, and as a part of the provisional parliament of India from 1946-1952. At 34, she was also one of the youngest members of the assembly.
Dakshayani Velyudhan’s life was defined and shaped by the upheavals in Kerala society in the early 20th century. Even before her birth, two of Kerala’s biggest reformers, Sree Narayana Guru and Ayyankali had begun movements that would push Kerala’s virulently casteist society to the brink. They organized civil disobedience movements that defied the restrictions on movement and school entry for the depressed classes. They organized satyagraha marches and encouraged women and men to discard practices imposed on them as a sign of their lower class. Restrictions included walking on streets marked for upper class, walking with head bowed before the upper class, wearing necklaces to indicate caste and more.
One of the more novel forms of protests came from an organization called the Pulaya Mahajan Sabha in 1913. Founded by Kallachamuri Krishnaadi Asan, Pt. Karuppan and T.K Krishna Menon, along with K.P Vallon, the Sabha, named after the Pulaya caste, organized a Kayal Sammelan or lake meeting in Vembanadu lake. The meeting that took place on a catamaran was in defiance of the king who had proclaimed that no Dalit group could have a meeting in his land. By holding the meeting on water, the group claimed that “they did not disobey the order” of the king.
Dakshayani Velyudhan was the niece of Krishnaadi asan, and the sister of K.K Madhavan lawyer, MP and editor of Veekshanam (Congress Daily)*.
She was one of the first girls in her Pulaya community to wear an upper cloth. She was also a part of the group of people who saw the death of discriminatory practices in the then Travancore district that sought to clearly demarcate the upper and lower castes.
Growing up at a time of tremendous social changes, and into a family that spearheaded many of these changes, the right to wear an upper cloth was just the first in a series of firsts in her life. Movements that called for democratization of public spaces, education, work security, equality and abolition of caste slavery saw her generation become the first group of educated Dalits in India.
She was the first Dalit woman to earn a degree. Armed with a scholarship from the Cochin State government, she went on to get a B.Sc Chemistry from Maharaja’s College, Ernakulam and a teachers training certificate from Madras University. The stigma and the institutional discrimination she faced as an educator in a government school pushed her to reconsider her career and see politics as a valid means of getting justice for her community and as a chance to serve the country. She followed in the footsteps of her brother, K.P Vallon, and was nominated to the Cochin legislative council in 1945. in 1946, she was nominated to the constituent assembly from Madras Presidency.** She was the first and only Dalit woman to be elected to the constituent assembly.
Dakshayani’s term in the constituent assembly was defined by two objectives, both inspired and molded by her time with Gandhi and Ambedkar. One was to make the assembly go beyond framing a constitution and to give “people a new framework of life” and two, to use the opportunity to make untouchability illegal, unlawful and ensure a “moral safeguard that gives real protection to the underdogs” in India. Her idea of moral safeguards rested on the idea that an Independent India as a “socialist republic” would give equality of status and guarantee an immediate removal of social disabilities that would enable the Harijans to enjoy the same freedom that the rest of the country enjoyed. Interesting in her arguments, on the 19th of December 1946 soon after Nehru had tabled his aims and objectives resolution was the invocation of the Licchavi Kingdom of ancient India as an example a republic. Licchavi kingdom which originated in Benaras, was infact a tribal confederation as described by Kautilya. It had a council of ‘rajas’ who elected a leader to rule over them. The other notable part of the discussion is her take down of Churchill’s promise to safegaurd the scheduled castes in an independant India and her remark that the communist party was only exploiting the harijans. She held strong to the conviction that only an Independent socialist republic can help uplift the dalits and give them the liberties exercised by every other citizen.
Dakshayani’s admiration for Gandhi and his vision for India was only matched by her respect for Ambedkar and his mission to raise the status of untouchables in India. Their antithetical positions regarding the status of minorities, and her own views on how the minorities should be represented was one of her most defining speeches during the assembly. Delivered on the 28th of August 1947, after Sardar Patel submitted his Minority report, her arguments against separate electorates in any form and her censure of the reservation system was in support of a nationalist narrative that sought economic and social upliftment rather than looking to politics as a means to eradicate the system of untouchability. She noted in her speech on 28th August 1947 “As long as the Scheduled Castes, or the Harijans or by whatever name they may be called, are economic slaves of other people, there is no meaning demanding either separate electorates or joint electorates or any other kind of electorates with this kind of percentage. Personally speaking, I am not in favour of any kind of reservation in any place whatsoever.” Her dismissal of the separate electorates and reservations was in keeping with the notion that an Independent India should work towards creating a stronger, common national identity rather than maintain practices that would further the social fissures that the British left behind. Her concern as evidenced through her speeches was not the political safeguarding of minority rights, but the breakdown of integrity and stability of a nation that would push back the advancement of Harijans, economically and socially. She saw an independent, united India as being more beneficial to the abolishment of castes, rather than a measured divvying up of electoral politics.
Her speech in support of a system that would use economic and social means to create an equal and just society coincidentally came 15 years after the Poona pact of 1932 was signed. The fruit of Gandhi’s fast against the suggested separate electorate of the Communal Award and the Poona deal that Ambedkar would pillory time and again, went on to set the tone for the Government of India Act of 1935 that would become the basis for Independent India’s constitution.
Her biggest criticism was reserved for the draft constitution presented by Ambedkar. She stood up on 8th November 1948 to declare that she found the draft constitution “barren of ideas and principles”. The blame she pointed out had to be shared by all members of the constituent assembly who in spite of their lofty ideals, illustrious backgrounds and prodigious speeches could not come up with an original constitution. Her criticism like many others centered around the idea of maintaining a strong center without much decentralization and the idea of a slightly reworked adaptation of the British India government act of 1935. She expressed dismay about carrying over the idea of governorship and centrally administered areas from British system and in the lack of originality in the framing. One fascinating idea that she suggested was to have the draft constitution put to vote during the first general elections and to test its mettle with the people who would ultimately use it. A democratic test of the document that would make India a republic, she felt would ensure the process of constitution making was fair.
Unlike many of her peers and fellow women members, she moved away from direct electoral politics into creating groups that worked towards the upliftment of Harijans. She saw untouchability being abolished by a constitutional article and lived to see reservations last longer than the 10 years the members agreed upon. Her final foray into electoral politics was an unsuccessful contest for a Lok Sabha seat in 1971. Her husband’s cousin K.R Narayanan went on to serve as India’s first Dalit President.***
*The post previously mentioned K.P Vallon as her brother. Corrected after a relative contacted with accurate details.
**The post previously mentioned that she was elected to the assembly from the cochin legislative assembly
***Correction: K.R Narayan was mentioned as her cousin. Post reflects correction.