How Hindus lost their knowledge infrastructure in this crucial south Indian district.
In the early decades of the twentieth century, Kanyakumari district was part of the Travancore state. Those were the decades when colonial evangelists were making heavy inroads into the district. The earlier rulers, ceremonial Hindu kings, who eagerly participated in rituals of the state temples, were always aware of the colonial power wielded by the missionaries. So as not to earn the displeasure of their colonial masters, these kings offered vast land grants to the missionaries for both churches and their educational institutions. Apart from this, evangelicals like Charles Mead were appointed as magistrates, who used the prisoners to build churches in the land allotted to them by the Travancore kings.
Consider the following:
It was 28 July 1853. Four years before the great rebellion in north India, the following questions were asked about the state of Christian teachings in the princely state of Travancore, as part of the proceedings of a committee in the House of Commons. The missionary, who answered them was Rev J Tucker. The question, numbered 9,020, was about Travancore. It was about whether the missionary had permission to teach Bible in the state-run schools. Missionary Tucker answered in the affirmative and stated that "the Scriptures were introduced and are up to, I believe, the present day, taught in the Rajah's school”. Of course, the diwan had asked the missionary, who had opened the subject in the presence of Col Fraser, who was the regent of the East India Company, that the attendance should be voluntary. But it is easy to imagine how the real situation should have been. Tucker informed the committee that he himself had tested the boys in the schools and found them well-versed in Bible.
In another question, numbered 9,027, Sir R H Inglis asked the missionary if he thought that "the British Government in India really occupies neutral ground with respect to its schools, and the introduction of Christianity into them?”. The missionary says “No” and then explains that "the very teaching of the various English books, which are used in all the Government schools, is of itself a departure from neutral ground, because it at once assails the religion of the Hindoos”. It was not direct but 'indirect' by 'inculcating physical truths'. Why the Hindu princes and even a Muslim nizam in India should allow the teaching of Bible in state-run school, the missionary was asked. Tucker crisply answered, “simply because the Europeans have requested it”.
Note the important aspects of this proceedings. Even before 1857, though it was British East India Company that was supposedly ruling India, the House of Commons admitted that it was actually "the British Government in India” that was ruling. Secondly, the schools run by the princely states with the money of the Hindu subjects were made to teach Bible both directly, and through every subject taught in a way to assail Hinduism, also indirectly. The princes of Travancore were either helpless or were proactive in pleasing their colonial masters.
The same pattern continued even after Independence. Here is an excerpt from the missionary report 'Church Missionary Gleaner' titled 'Tidings from Travancore', dated August 1864.
May he be brought to the knowledge of Him who is the true Preserver of all who trust in Him, and thus become, not the servant of Vishnu (Palmanabah Dausa), but the servant of Jesus Christ! ... A visit to the Maharajah’s school was interesting; the more so, that by his express desire the Bible is freely taught in this school to all the upper classes.
Not only the ‘upper classes’ but also the so-called slaves – until recently the most degraded of the population of Travancore – were also urged by their ‘heathen employees’ to attend the missionary-run Christian schools, we are told by the missionaries. The reason? Because of the "improvement, which Christianity is accomplishing in their character” by which they "become honest, useful and good servants”.
In other words, we have a system in Travancore, where the so-called upper castes – the ruling class – was showing their loyalty to the colonialists by learning Christian gospels themselves and making it a part of their school curriculum. On the other hand, they were also forcing the downtrodden in the society to become Christians by attending the missionary schools so that they would obtain "honest, useful and good servants”.
It is important to note here that while the indigenous education system produced real warrior savants like Iyya Vaikundar (1809-1851), Thycaud Ayyavu Swamikal (1814 – 1909), Chattampi Swamigal (1853-1924), Ayyankali (1863-1941) and Sri Narayana Guru (1854-1928), the missionary education produced "honest, useful and good servants”.
Iyya Vaikundar, through his ‘Nizhal Thangal’, organised people to educate themselves in both spiritual and temporal matters. This movement spread and created a series of places, where people could gather together and study. The movements of Chattambi Swami, Sri Narayana Guru and Ayyankali all focussed on creating centres, where Hindus could learn their spiritual scriptures. This was indeed a great democratising movement. Through their toils, efforts of spreading awareness and civil struggles, the downtrodden and marginalised were no longer "useful and good servants”. They demanded their rights.
It was in such a socio-political milieu that Maharajah Sree Padmanbhadasa Sree Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma (1912-1991) became the king. Though he ascended the throne in 1924 at the age of 12, it was only in 1931 he actually became the king. He was known for the implementation of temple entry for all Hindus in 1936. He was highly influenced by his Diwan C P Ramaswamy Iyer. Despite some controversies over Iyer, the duo created a real dharmic welfare state.
It was also during this time that a chain of libraries were established by the king (definitely with inputs from and influence of Iyer) for the promotion of Hinduism. Supported by the state for the first time, the general public were having a chance to read about Hinduism. Set in a scenic place at the heart of the town, the Chitra Hindu Religious Library was established with a view that it would not be just a library but a place that would host cultural and social activities. Similar Hindu libraries were established in the temple towns of Suchindrum and Thiruvattar. For the next two decades, these libraries were largely functional. The library in Nagercoil houses rare Tamil, Sanskrit and Malayalam books on Hinduism.
However, slowly the function of these libraries began to erode and they still continued to function as a place where community events were held. During Markazhi, there would be Thirupaavai-Thiruvempavai competitions. During Navratri, there would be concerts. Then these events also ceased. The library with a huge hall was being lent for secular events. Originally, it started with book exhibitions. It was painfully amusing to see anti-Hindu Dravidianist and communist books being sold in book exhibitions held in a hall meant for the dissemination of Hindu religion. Later, this too would cease. The library became a bazaar, where "any product priced at Rs 10” were sold.
Thus a knowledge infrastructure created for Hindus was left to rot and made into a ‘secular’ commercial establishment under the control of Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HRCE) Department. This is in a district, where the Hindus are already fighting aggressive proselytising by both Abrahamic religions. The district has state-of-the-art libraries for both Islamic and Christian organisations, as well as book depots. For Hindus, however, there are no such institutions. The post-independent Indian government has continued in the name of secularism, the same attitude exhibited by the colonial rulers, and has executed similar policies, which discriminate against Hinduism in subtle ways.
After years of passively petitioning the government, in June this year, Hindu organisations under Swami Chaitanyananda Maharaj, head of highly-respected Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Ashram, decided to go for a civil discontent demonstration. On 6 June, the monk and members of a Hindu organisation for temple protection went inside the library and organised a dharna.
This created quite a stir. The HRCE, which was (mis)managing the library and has until now kept it in a state of suspended animation, was forced to reopen the building. To everybody’s horror, valuable books were exposed to termites and seeping water of the rains. The authorities made a commitment that they would make the library functional and slowly restore it to its intended purpose. An agreement was reached that from 11 June, the library would be open from 7 am to 1 pm, and then 4 pm to 7 pm with Monday as a holiday.
When this writer went after one-and-a-half months of this commitment, this is what he found. The books were haphazardly displayed in a few wooden bureaus. The bureau numbers suggested that there should have been more such bureaus. The study room was without windows or proper ventilation. Just a few commercial magazines and a few vernacular newspapers were on display. There was neither Hinduness nor a library in that small dungeon of a room. Just a visit to a book depot of CSI diocese, a 10 minutes walk from that library showed the enormous difference.
Hindu resistance is the need of the hour in Kanyakumari to preserve knowledge culture. This knowledge culture of Hindus was kept alive by various networks that resuscitated the dharmic movements in this part of India – from Iyya Vaikundar to Sri Narayana Guru. For Hindus, the cultural and historical Chitra Hindu library in Nagercoil came as a great asset in their resistance movement for survival. But, the way HRCE destroyed this asset with their criminal neglect and converted it into a junkyard as well as a commercial site is a tragedy that has to be seen to be believed. Even now, the way the library has been opened is more an insult to the Hindus and an attack on the memory of a king, who was far ahead of his time in thinking.