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Kanyakumari Malayalies (Kanyakumari Malayalees)

Updated: Feb 14, 2020

In 1979, 23 years after the re organisation of states in 1956, Malayalies living in Kanyakumari stepped in to create a forum to voice their plight. They named it ‘The Kanyakumari District Malayala Samajam’.Now, with the forum’s 40th anniversary around the corner, its significance has taken a hit with Kanyakumari’s Malayalees preferring the Tamil language to Malayalam in school education. The decrease in the Malayalam-speaking population in Tamil Nadu has also not helped.  So, once the centre of Malayalam-based activism in Kanyakumari, the Samajam is now reduced to a body that merely conducts the annual Onam celebrations and rewards meritorious Malayali school kids.

“Malayalees had little problem when Congress ruled Tamil Nadu. There was no need for such an organisation then. The trouble began when parties intolerant to languages other than Tamil came to power,” says Gireeshan Nair, the vice-president of the Samajam.The bifurcation of states left a sizeable population of Malayalees stranded in Kanyakumari, resulting in its culture being strikingly similar to that of Kerala. For instance, the Tamil spoken in Kanyakumari has several words borrowed from Malayalam. Even the fish curry made there follows the Kerala recipe.

Padmanabhapuram, the capital of then Kingdom of Travancore, the Adikesavan temple, where legendary king Marthanda Varma prayed before starting his war campaigns, and the countless forts he built along the coastline, are examples of the historic presence of Malayalees  in Kanyakumari. “The Malayali culture belongs to Kanyakumari as much as it belongs to Kerala. It will die unless the government changes its attitude towards our people. Despite having over seven lakh Malayalees here at present, the culture is slowly fading,” says Sudhir, the Samajam president.

No support from Kerala

The Kerala Government neither supported the Samajam during the lawsuits nor voiced its opinion in favour of Malayalees in Kanyakumari. “We feel betrayed. The Kerala Government, while supporting the Malayali diaspora of the Gulf in all ways possible, refused to aid us in any way,” Gireeshan Nair says. At present, the number of students in Malayalam medium schools is dwindling. Even students with a Malayalam background, prefer Tamil now owing to the fear of losing job opportunities in Kanyakumari.

“Only students who intend to move to Kerala study Malayalam here”, says Hema Latha, one of the few Malayalam teachers in Kanyakumari. The Samajam had also considered to demand Union Territory status for Kanyakumari to protect its people with mixed identities in terms of language and religion. “We still remember when the police opened fire on protesters who demanded Kanyakumari remain with Kerala.” Sudhir says.

“We used to run a Malayalam medium school in this very building. Those days, it used to be always brimming with people,” says Gireeshan. The school has closed down owing to paucity of funds. The auditorium, which at the time of construction adhered strictly to intellectual gatherings, is now rented out to people for wedding receptions, so that the Samajam has enough money to print its monthly magazine.

Language legislation came as crisis

Malayalees in Kanyakumari faced a crisis when the Tamil Nadu Government imposed a legislation making Tamil the second language for government school students. The Malayala Samajam took the matter into their hands and appealed to the Madras High Court against the legislation. This ultimately resulted in the court ruling Malayalam question papers be provided, making it possible for Malayali students to take the exams in the language of their choice. “Last year, the High Court asked the government to permanently solve the problem,” Sudhir says.

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