It was at the time we were staying on the premises of the Malayala Manorama in Kottayam. Night had not yet fallen. I was upstairs, studying. I was aware that downstairs, Appachen’s (the author’s father and then editor of Malayala Manoroma, K.C. Mammen Mappillai) friends had come as usual to see him. I recognized T.M. Varghese’s voice. With him was his inseparable companion, C. Kesavan. Both these men later stamped their names indelibly on the political history of the country—C. Kesavan became the chief minister and T.M. Varghese a minister. P.S. George of Thiruvalla, the wealthy owner of a cashew factory, was also with them. They had all arrived in George’s car. P.S. George, one of the most intelligent men in Kerala, was highly influential in the University of Kerala as a member of the (Kerala) University Syndicate for over a quarter of a century and his brother, P.S. Abraham, was the university registrar during that period. Had he not lost to P.K. Vasudevan Nair in the Thiruvalla Lok Sabha constituency, George would have become a giant in national politics.

Appachen read, wrote and received guests in a room which was both his living room and his office. Betel-leaf stains that looked like bright red chethi flowers were found around his favourite planter’s chair. There were a few cane chairs for the guests. The aroma of frying eggs and simmering chicken curry being prepared for the visitors would waft from the kitchen to this room. Actually, Appachen would have told Ammachi that a meal had to be served for the guests just a short while earlier. ‘Varghese vakkil and some others have come. We need dinner for five people.’ No sooner would Appachen have said this than Ammachi would have begun activities in the kitchen. The dishes would be simple but delicious and piping hot. Ever since Appachen and Ammachi started living in their home on the Malayala Manorama premises, Ammachi had become used to preparing such instant meals.

The leaders who had come home that night were explaining the political scenario in Travancore to Appachen and trying their best to convince him about something. T.M. Varghese was telling Appachen that the new government reforms in Travancore were mainly directed at pleasing certain people connected to the palace. T.M. Varghese and C. Kesavan had obviously come in order to personally describe to Appachen the uneasiness smouldering in Travancore because of these so-called reforms that were being effected by the government. They wanted to make sure he would extend his support and cooperation to the All Travancore Joint Political Committee that had been formed to oppose these proposals. Since both men were close friends of Appachen, they evidently convinced him of the seriousness of the situation. For a while, I did not hear any voices from the room. Maybe Appachen was wondering what to do, and his friends were awaiting his decision.

Until then, Appachen had nurtured only the natural interest a newspaper editor has in politics. Although he was active as a member of the legislative assembly, he had no political ambition. In the legislative assembly, he reacted mainly against issues of social distress and injustice and sought attention for matters concerned with development.

The Freedom of Movement Resolution connected to the Vaikom Satyagraha was presented by N. Kumaran on 2 October 1924. He had succeeded the famous poet Kumaran Asan as general secretary of the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam (SNDP Yogam). Appachen made a speech at that time, which became historic, claiming that it was the basic right of every human being to have freedom of movement. C.V. Kunjuraman wrote an editorial in the Kerala Kaumudi of 13 February 1925 praising this speech. The Freedom of Movement Resolution was defeated by just one vote...

The Vaikom agitation was the first important movement to be organized in Travancore that aimed at doing away with laws related to untouchability. The satyagraha began on 30 March 1924. This movement sought permission for Hindus of ‘backward’ castes to walk freely on the roads around the Vaikom temple. When Mahatma Gandhi came to participate in it, the Vaikom satyagraha received national attention.

I recall the support the Malayala Manorama extended to this movement. The editorial published on 29 March 1924, a day before the satyagraha, under the headline ‘The Eradication of Untouchability in Travancore’, marked a true beginning for the Vaikom satyagraha. It was one of the first editorials to be written by a newspaper in support of this movement...

In the editorial of 1 April 1924, the Malayala Manorama first described all the events that took place after the satyagraha started and then assessed the situation:

“It is not proper for the Travancore government to insist that the evil custom of untouchability be observed in the twentieth century...

“On this occasion, when the people of Bharat are raising their voices in protest against a foreign government in the cause of the right of all citizens to equality, it is not a matter of pride that we have to raise a similar protest against our own government. Therefore, we trust the government will put its heart and soul into taking a decision that will benefit the lower castes as soon as possible and not allow the agitation that has started in Vaikom to continue."

23 November 1925, a decision which became a milestone in Kerala’s social renaissance was taken: freedom of movement was permitted in answer to a protest movement that had lasted 603 days. On that day, the roads leading to the Vaikom temple were thrown open to all Hindus, irrespective of caste. As a result of the many protest movements that were launched in several places demanding the right to walk on all roads, the paths to every temple in Travancore had to be thrown open to all Hindus, irrespective of caste, by 1928. And it was Appachen, my father, who demanded in the Travancore Legislative Council that all waterways and bathing ghats be thrown open to people of all castes.

That night, in Kottayam, Appachen took the most important decision of his life: that he would secretly support the movement that took shape later as the Abstention Movement...

It was on the same night that the way was paved for Appachen’s public life to merge with that of Travancore and for the tragic times we went through later.

The meetings held at night in the Malayala Manorama grew longer after that. It became a regular routine for T.M. Varghese, C. Kesavan and the others to come home every Saturday by dusk. The discussions that took place in the Malayala Manorama during this period determined the political destiny of Travancore. Appachen held the senior-most position in those informal talks. Many decisions that created a tumult in Travancore politics later and propelled the state forward through stormy times were the fruit of those discussions. The Abstention Movement was born from the discussions that took place in that room in the Malayala Manorama...

Travancore was longing for change, and people’s emotions kept igniting the whole country like a fire. Although the Sree Chithira Thirunal State Council and the Sree Moolam Assembly had taken shape through the government reforms proclaimed in 1932, Christian, Ezhava and Muslim communities could not satisfy the conditions necessary to achieve representation in the legislative assembly and this made them uneasy. People had hoped that the proclamation of reforms would help them establish most of their rights, but they were faced with disappointment. There were seventy-two members in the Sree Moolam Assembly according to the new reforms. Fourteen of these were government nominees and ten were officials. For landlords and representatives of trade and industry put together, there were five members. The remaining forty-three members had to be chosen from the public appointment constituency.

The state had been divided into forty-three constituencies and the higher, wealthier classes had manipulated the formation of these constituencies in such a way that other social classes had lost their representation. The Nair community in Travancore numbered about 8,68,000 in those days. According to the formation of the constituencies, the Nairs would be able to get at least thirty seats, while the Christians, who numbered more than sixteen lakhs, would not get more than ten seats. Meanwhile, about 8,70,000 Ezhavas and around the same number of Muslims would not, if they competed, get even one seat. The condition of the Sree Chithira Thirunal State Council was more or less the same. Twenty-five people were government nominees or officials and the sixteen remaining members were elected to the council. Of these sixteen, it was certain that the Nairs would get ten seats and the Christians four, while the Ezhavas and Muslims could not be sure of even one seat each. The Christians, Muslims and Ezhavas therefore united to form the Joint Political Committee to protest against this disregard for their rights. This committee voiced its protests by claiming suitable positions in the government service, and representation according to population in the Travancore representative bodies. Their method of protest was to refuse to take part in the elections held by the new government body that had completely ignored them. Nearly 70 per cent of the population of Travancore consisted of Ezhavas, Muslims and Christians and they jointly refused to cooperate in the elections. The Abstention Movement that rewrote the future of Travancore began like this. The challenge that strengthened this movement arose from the meeting of the Joint Political Committee that took place on 25 February 1933.

The Joint Political Committee rapidly grew into an immensely strong group in Travancore and, in the process, became the Joint Political Congress. Since Congress abstained from the Travancore elections, the government retaliated by arriving on the scene with obstructive measures and forms of harassment as well...

Slogans demanding representation according to population in the legislative assembly, the public services and the army and the right to vote for every adult began to echo throughout Travancore. The Joint Political Congress decided to present a petition enumerating these demands to the maharaja.

It was 7 December 1933, the day that Appachen, who had been directing the drama from backstage, appeared on the stage as the main actor. It was K.C. Mammen Mappillai who read out the Memorial to the maharaja on behalf of the group of petitioners. The petition itself had been prepared at the Malayala Manorama office by Appachen and his very close friend, the famous lawyer, T.J. Mathew Thelliyil.

An edited excerpt from The Eighth Ring: An Autobiography, with permission from Penguin.