Around 108 years ago, on 21 April, hundreds from the Pulaya (a Dalit community in Kerala) and other lower-caste communities came together on small boats on Kerala’s backwaters. This floating mass assembly – Kayal Sammelanam – was a unique gathering that played a key role in the lower caste political movement in Kerala.
Why was the meeting held on water?
Early 20th century Kerala witnessed a range of anti-caste movements including the Chanar revolt or the upper-cloth movement: lower caste women fought for their right to wear an upper cloth that covered their breasts. Vaikom Satyagraha was another, that fought against untouchability and caste discrimination. In 1912, leaders of the Pulaya community regularly arranged meetings with the goal of setting up an organization that would effectively anchor their political and social work. However, they were not allowed to assemble on land due to their lower caste status. To get around this, Krishneti Asan and K.P. Karuppan, well-known lower caste leaders in Cochin, decided to conduct a meeting on water.
Hundreds of Pulayas as well as other oppressed communities gathered on small boats in the backwaters for a meeting and created wooden rafts that were used as platforms. Key leaders of the Dalit community attended the meeting including Dakshayani Velayudhan – India's first Scheduled Caste woman graduate who would go on to become the youngest and only Dalit woman member of the Constituent Assembly.
The meeting led to the formation of the Cochin Pulaya Mahasabha – an institutional platform for the Pulaya community – that engaged in advocacy around and campaigned for the betterment of the Pulayas’ living conditions. It also mobilized other lower-caste communities in Kerala.
The decisions taken at the Sammelanam resulted in a series of Pulaya conferences, the first being held in May 1913. At this conference, the Pulayas unanimously prepared and submitted a petition demanding access to public spaces and educational institutions to the Government and the King of Kerala - Rama Varma.
These developments catalyzed lower caste emancipation movements and played a significant role in transforming the social, economic, and political structure of Kerala. Dakshayani Velayudhan is reported to have asked for her biography, if written, to be titled ‘The Sea has no Caste’ in tribute to the Kayal Sammelanam.