Dr.Padmanabhan Palpu LMS, DPH (Cantab) FRIPH (London) is one of the immortals of the Indian Renaissance. He was by profession a bacteriologist - a fighter of germs. Circumstances made him a social revolutionary - a fighter of manmade social evils. Towards this end he waged a long, heroic and self-less battle, with his mighty pen. It was mainly against the official and priestly sections of the contemporary society. In the face of all their organized opposition and ill-treatment, he stood apart as an apostle of liberty and unfailing champion of the oppressed classes.
He was born on November 2, 1863 in Petta, Trivandrum part of Indian princely state of Travancore, present-day Kerala, from a wealthy Ezhava family. Dr. Palpu was a contemporary and follower of Narayana Guru. He was a prominent Indian literary, physician, and philanthropist during the Indian Independence Movement. He was father of Nataraja Guru, who was the direct disciple of Narayana Guru. A London trained physician who later abandoned his profession to affect social and spiritual reform within his community.
He remains ever an example of the persecution that the backward communities suffered in Kerala in those days. In 1884 Dr. Palpu appeared for the pre-qualification entrance examinations conducted by the Travancore State Government and was ranked fourth. However, he was denied a seat to study medicine due to his lower caste which was a form of discriminations prevalent during this time in Kerala. Dr. Palpu Later gained admission at the famed Madras Medical College. He faced more obstacles when he returned to Travancore when the Government denied him a career in medicine for the same reason. A determined young Dr. Palpu went to Mysore, a neighboring state, and started his practice there at a princely sum of Rs. 100 a month. At the time the Government of Travancore was offering a salary of Rs 5.
Dr. Palpu sought the advice of the famed Indian saint Swami Vivekananda to unite and work towards the emancipation of the Ezhava caste. It was the advice given by Swami Vivekananda to associate with some spiritual person in his effort to fight for the rights of the Ezhavas that drew him to Sri Narayana Guru. The Swami asked Dr. Palpu to Spiritualize and Industrialize the Masses. Swami told him that the garb of spirituality was essential for any organization to be successful in India. In 1903 Dr. Palpu founded the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam, known as SNDP. SNDP later became thus beacon for many social movements in Kerala. Little did he realize then that this organisation would later become the cornerstone of major social and religious reformation that would envelope the entire state. Although an Ezhava himself, Dr. Palpu was not limited to working within the bounds of his own caste.
Dr. Palpu was a relentless fighter for the cause of the Ezhavas in Kerala. He wrote many articles in English newspapers published from India highlighting the degrading customs in Kerala that made the condition of the Ezhavas miserable. He published at his own cost the book, Treatment of Thiyas in Travancore, a compilation of the memorandums that were submitted to the Travancore Government., and the articles that he wrote in newspapers. This book, and its translation that he published in Malayalam, became records for the future generations to know about the horrible social situation that existed at that time.
Ezhava Memorial was landmark in the struggle of the backward classes for gaining their legitimate rights from the Government that was representative of the mad social customs that prevailed in the state at that time. During that period, Malayali Memorial which was submitted to the Maharaja of Travancore in 1891 marked the beginning of the united social effort in the state to press the demands of jobs for locals. This mass petition in which Dr. Palpu was the third signatory complained about the ‘Divans’ (government officers) who came from outside the state, and appropriated a greater part of the jobs for their own people. The memorandum spoke about the pitiable condition of Ezhavas of the State who were denied even the lowest government Though jobs for their counterparts could occupy even higher jobs in the Malabar State due to the absence of any discrimination there. The government in its reply dated 1891 April 21st stated that since the Ezhavas were generally uneducated, it was better for them to pursue their present occupations like cultivation, coir making, and toddy tapping than trying to get education.
As Dr. Palpu was irritated by this humiliating reply from the authorities, he frequently visited the state to organize the backward people to protest against the callousness of the rulers. He realized that organized protest was the only way to put an end to the inhuman discretion that the government practiced against the majority of its own people. He soon formed the Ezhava Maha Sabha (Greater Ezhava Association) and more than 300 hundred people attended its first meeting held at Thiruvananthapuram. The meeting decided to submit a mass petition to the government signed by ten thousand Ezhavas demanding the abolition of the discrimination against them. Dr. Palpu himself took the initiative to get the signatures, and on 1896 September 3rd the petition, the historically famous Ezhava Memorial, signed by 13176 people was submitted to the Government In the memorandum Dr. Palpu enumerated as an example the humiliations that the members of his own family had to suffer from Government
His next move was to bring to the attention of the British Parliament the injustices done by the Travancore Government to the Ezhavas, and the difficulties that they experienced in the social life in the state. Dr. Palpu sent Barrister G.P.Pillai with a letter secured from Sister Niveditha, the disciple of Swami Vivekananda, to England to get some Member of the British Parliament to represent the case of the Ezhavas. Dr. Palpu shared the major part of the expenditure. In addition to this, when he went to England for higher studies, he got Deadbeat Navroji who was a member of the British Parliament to raise a question regarding the condition of Ezhavas in the Parliament. With his help a memorandum was submitted to the State Secretary for India. All these measures taken by the doctor began to have results at home when the British Government began to enquire about the condition of the Ezhavas in the State.
As a social reformer Dr. Palpu was a firm believer in the principle of Dharma. This symbolized such factor as absolute truth, self-less love and benevolent service. All his philanthropic efforts as the right-hand man of Sree Narayana Guru were geared to this noble goal. The Dharma Vs organized perfidy, Priestly and Official is an open declaration of the faith of this social reformer. The following quatrain which sums up his attitude to Dharma is said to have been used by the Guru as his message:
Dharma knows only one caste
And it tends only one religion
That Dharma is our only God
Let all men abide by it.
To uphold Dharma, Palpu was ready to make any sacrifice. The extent of this sacrifice is amply evident in the Will he has left for posterity. It is a noble record of the ideals he preached and practiced. He dedicates in it all his material and non material acquisitions including that of his children for the uplift of the masses. A part of it runs as follows: We are all public servants and must live for the welfare of the society. To uplift it a good financial reserve is essential. I therefore set apart all my material assets and possible future earnings, all wealth that is due to my wife and children and their earnings for the benefit of the society at large.
Dr. Palpu also started the Malabar Economic Union. A large portion of the proceeds of this venture was spent of welfare and philanthropy. Dr. Palpu died on January 25, 1950. A day before India became a Republic. He has influenced the works and lives of several noted personalities in Kerala like Kumaran Asan, T. K. Madhavan.