Widely acclaimed as one of the most progressive states, Kerala was once a haven of social evils like slavery before the reform movement started dismantling the rigid and exploitative social order two centuries back.
Not only were saint-reformers like Sree Narayana Guru and Chattampi Swamigal in the early 20th century trail blazers of enlightenment, but even some royal rulers contributed to this process, often under the influence of the British rule. For instance, the practice of buying and selling people of the so-called lowest strata of the caste hierarchy as slaves prevailed in parts of Kerala till its abolition two centuries back.
Two decades before the British Parliament banned slavery in England by passing the Slavery Abolition Act, a 20-year-old queen issued a royal decree in the erstwhile princely state of Travancore (south Kerala today) in 1812 prohibiting it. Interestingly, it was under the influence of British administrators and Christian missionaries that queen Rani Gowri Lakshmi Bhai issued the order to stop slavery and trading in slaves in the princely state.
According to historians, though slavery was not rooted out completely with the royal decree, it turned out to be a decision of great historical significance, paving the way for more social reform measures in the future. Noted historian Prof TP Sankarankutty Nair feels the real hero behind abolition of slavery in Travancore was the then British resident Colonel Manroe, who doubled as 'Diwan' (Prime Minister) of the princely state during the period.
"Kerala is one of the first Indian states which abolished the centuries old practice of slavery. Manroe’s progressive policies and influence of Christian missionaries persuaded the Travancore royal rulers to ban slavery. But it took many more decades to completely eradicate the evil practice in its varied forms from the state," Nair told PTI.
Records show that prisoners, ex-convicts released from jails after undergoing long years of punishment and people from depressed sections were generally victims of the inhuman practice.
The days of enslavement meant they were bound to obey orders of their masters without question. They were given a meagre subsistence allowance, too low for their hectic work.
Children born to slaves would become slaves for all practical purposes. Men and women were sold and bought like cattle once in the state.
European merchants also used to buy slaves from here and ship them to their colonies to make them work as bonded labourers, Nair said.
Records show that despite the 1812 royal decree, slavery continued to prevail in the land in one form or other. People from lower strata, mostly from Dalit communities like Kuravas, Pulayas, Pallars, Malayas and Vedas had been virtually treated as bonded labourers long after the abolition.
In 1836, slaves who worked as bonded tenants in government lands in Travancore had been released. By 1843, slavery and slave trade had also been banned in British India.
Following this, Christian missionaries like Bailey, Bekar and Meedh Mart submitted a memorandum to the Travancore government to impose a complete ban on slavery and slave trade by law.
After that, the then Travancore king Uthradam Tirunal banned all forms of slavery and slave trade in 1853.
Following the trails of Travancore, the neighbouring princely state Kochi also banned the practice in 1872.
Before the state re-organisation in 1956, Kerala had remained politically fragmented into Travancore and Cochin princely states and Malabar district directly ruled by the British.
Kerala has since then emerged as a progressive state on account of path-breaking legislations it made for agrarian reforms and making education and health care accessible to all sections of the people.
Social scientists have called this experience of the state a 'Kerala model' and recommended its salient features for other states.