The reform movements of the 19th and early 20thcenturies that had worked wonders in the South have run out of steam. Pressure is building up on the beneficiaries of these movements to forget the glorious moments of their struggle.
It was in the southernmost part of the state of Travancore, which now constitutes the Kanyakumari district of Tamil Nadu, that the revolt against social and political oppression first took concrete shape. Travancore, which merged with neighbouring Cochin, and the Malabar district of Madras presidency in 1956 to form the state of Kerala, is today remembered widely as one of the handful progressive princely states.
But at the dawn of the 19th century it was under social despotism of the worst kind. Hindu orthodoxy barred women belonging to castes relegated to the lower rungs of society from covering their breasts and the Maharaja’s regime collected tax on if they dared to cover their breasts. In 'A Social History of India', a product of painstaking research, the late Dr. S.N. Sadasivan says the breast tax was one of more than 120 extortionist levies the princely regime imposed on poor communities.
The first to openly challenge the cruel social order was Vaikunta Swami (1809-1851) who dubbed its defender, the Maharaja, 'neechan' (evil-doer) and his protector, the East India Company, 'ven neechan' (White Evil-doer). At the instance of orthodox Hindu elements who feared his growing influence, the Maharaja had him arrested and brought to the capital where he was subjected to torture. Public protests forced the ruler to release him. His followers belonging to the Nadar (also known as Shanar or Channar) community today revere him as an incarnation of Vishnu.
Christian missionaries, who were engaged in promotion of education and won some converts from the Nadar community, constituted another force that acted as an agent of change. They encouraged women to defy the obnoxious bare breast rule, pointing out that Christian women in the northern parts of the state, belonging to the ancient Orthodox Church, were not subjected to such restrictions. However, when Nadar women appeared covering their breasts, Nair defenders of Hindu orthodoxy tore up their upper garments. The authorities characterized the events of the period as 'Channar Revolt'). A royal proclamation of 1829 commanded Nadar women 'to abstain in future from covering the upper parts of the body'.
The Nadars refused to be cowed down, and the British tacitly supported them. In a bid to mollify the British the Maharaja’s regime allowed the Christian converts to wear upper garments, like women of the older Christian communities. The Nadars, who maintained matrimonial links across religious lines, were not satisfied. So were the British, who cited Queen Victoria’s promise not to discriminate against her subjects on grounds of caste and creed. The Maharaja’s regime then permitted Nadar women of either religion to cover their upper body in any matter whatever, but not like Nair women. But the struggle continued until the caste supremacists and the regime agreed to equality in the matter of dress.
The Channar Revolt was the starting point of a social revolution which swept the South. Unlike the renaissance movement which originated in Bengal, the first region to come under the British heel, the southern movement was not initiated by English-educated Hindu 'upper castes'.
In Travancore, it was followed by the movement of Sree Narayana Guru who shook the citadels of orthodoxy by building and consecrating temples without the involvement of Brahmin priests. The influence of the Sree Narayana movement gradually spread northward and all of Kerala accepted the ideal of a land where all lived in fraternity, free from caste differences and religious hatred, which he placed before them. Ayyan Kali launched a movement for the uplift of the Dalits. Taking note of the impact of their movements, the Nairs, who, while remaining Shudras, had enjoyed honorary Savarna status, and the Namboodiris, the local cadre of the Vedic establishment, also began efforts to reform their own social practices.
In Tamil Nadu, E.V.Ramasamy lit the flame of social reform by launching the Self-Respect Movement in 1925 after ending six years of association with the Congress. He also worked through the Justice Party which endeavoured to check the social, economic and political power of the Brahmins. In 1944 he converted the party into Dravida Kazhagam, from which sprang the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, which are today the contenders for power in the state.
While the Nadars were fighting the feudal dress code, at Cherthala in north Travancore a young woman named Nangeli, in a gritty protest against the breast tax, cut off her breasts and flung them before the tax collector. A few years ago, a young artist, T. Murali, took upon himself the task of keeping alive Nangeli’s memory through a series of paintings, which have attracted wide attention. Curiously, at this point, some people in Tamil Nadu were seeking to obliterate the memory of the heroic struggle of the Nadars to establish their right to dignity.
Ten years ago the National Council for Educational Research and Training had included an account of the Nadar community’s struggle in a section titled 'Caste Conflict and Dress Change' in the Social Science textbook prescribed for Class IX students of schools under the Central Board of Secondary Education and 15 state boards. Some political parties of Tamil Nadu and a section of the Nadars objected to it, alleging it contained wrong information and denigrated the community. In 2012, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa wrote to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh seeking removal of the objectionable references in the textbook.
Recently the CBSE informed the 19,000 schools affiliated to it that the section stands omitted from the curriculum and there should be no questions relating to this section in the 2017 examination. The CBSE decision has come in the wake of the sustained efforts mde by the Rashtreeya Swayamsevak Sangh, since the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power, to doctor the curriculum to suit its Hindutva ideology.
The Hindutva school’s eagerness to suppress the history of caste conflict is understandable. But communities which rid themselves of social oppression after hard fights cannot afford to forget it, especially when casteist elements are working overtime to re-establish hegemony under cover of political power As Edmund Burke has said, 'those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.'
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