Nadar Controversy Shows Why Shedding Colonial Narrative Is Key To Rewriting India’s History
Only when our curriculum is formulated on the basis of local histories and Indic resistance movements to colonialism, evangelism and social stagnation, can real history be put on record.
It is as ever interesting to note the kind of insensitivity and cultural illiteracy that the allegedly 'progressive' media exhibits, every time there is a sensitive issue arising from the south.
It was so with Jallikattu, and now it is so with CBSE deciding to not teach the controversial portions of history regarding the Nadar (a Tamil caste) women. The Huffington Post India reports, “CBSE Removes From Textbook a Section On Nadar Women's Struggle For The Right To Cover Their Breasts”. The NewsMinute (TNM) website states that “CBSE says Nadar women’s historic struggle to cover their breasts ‘objectionable’”. While the TNM news story claims that some DMK and AIADMK MPs objected to the relevant, controversial portion, the Huffington Post India is totally silent on the objections raised by the parties.
Both the news reports do not forget to provide the narrative that was found objectionable by the Nadar community itself.
This is what the Huffington Post India said:
“In Travancore, lower-class women were not allowed to wear clothes that covered their breasts and shoulders. Baring their chests was meant to be a sign of respect to the higher-classes. Many from the Nadar community embraced Christianity and started to wear long cloths and eventually started emulating the kind of clothes that higher-class women wore.”
This is from the TNM news story:
“In May 1822, the subordinate caste Shanar women (later known as the Nadars) revolted against the common practice of lower caste women leaving their upper torso uncovered. Local custom allowed only upper caste women to do so in those days. The Shanar women chose to defy the same inspired by Christian missionaries. From 1822-1859, a long struggle ensued that subjected them to assault by Nairs in public places on many occasions. The government was hence forced to intervene in the matter, and in October 1859, issued an order permitting the Shanar women to wear a jacket or cover their upper bodies in any manner but unlike that of their upper caste counterparts.”
For an outsider, it may even look that the reason this particular passage has been removed by the BJP government is because it involves the Christian missionaries empowering a subjugated community. However, one should remember that the passage was found objectionable by the influential and powerful Nadar community itself. Those who know the local history of the events will at once find that the Christian narrative of 'missionaries empowering communities subjugated by upper caste' is an entirely cooked up colonial evangelical construct.
So what is the truth?
The first objection is to the depiction of Nadar community as being subjugated or a subordinate community. It should be remembered that the first Protestant church in the area in question was built on a land donated by a Nadar. This clearly shows that the Nadars were not slaves but land owners and could donate their land as they wished. Surely they were not uncivilised slaves as missionaries like Caldwell wanted the colonial subjects and evangelical donors to believe. It is this propaganda which was fiercely resisted by even the converted Nadars of the day, which has been used as historical data by the establishment.
The second objection has been that the textbook is not recognising one of the foremost figures who really fought for the rights of Nadars in Travancore. To a Nadar, or for that matter any person living in Kanyakumari district, that one can write the valiant social history of Nadars without referring to social reformer Ayya Vaikundar is to say the least, unthinkable.
To understand these objections, one needs to comprehend the complex social conditions that colonialism and social stagnation brought to South Travancore. What actually happened during this troublesome period in the history of Travancore, has been brought out by local historians in a detailed study published in 2010. The study titled ‘Shoulder Cloth Riots: Known Falsehoods and Unknown Truths' (Tamil) authored by veteran community historian Ganesan Nadar and renowned epigraphist S Ramachandran, and published by South Indian Social History Research Institute (SISHRI), has brought out the reality of this much distorted social event.
On the one hand, the British regent compelled the Travancore government to pay the British Rs 8 lakh annually as protectorate. This resulted in the Travancore government levying new taxes. In 1807 CE alone Rs 18,523 was collected as palm tree tax. Communities like Ezhavas, Channars, Cherumars, Chambavas and Pulayas had to pay individual head tax for individuals in the age of 16 to 60 years. And under this tax, Rs 1,63,000 was collected annually. The government exempted Nair, Vellala, Muslim and Kanmala communities from paying these taxes. Then in 1815, the then Travancore regent Col Manroe made an announcement that the converted Shanars need not pay the tax levied on them by the state to pay through physical labour at the temple. On the other hand, he lowered the market price of food grains. But he refused to proportionately lower the taxes the paddy producers had to pay. This made the landed class, Vellalas, get frustrated with impotent anger.
Thus various factors were slowly evolving, deepening the social fault lines rather than harmonising and easing them. At one point, an internal social confrontation became inevitable. Because of these cumulative events, the anti-Christian, particularly anti-London Mission sentiments, started rising in the psyche of the Nair-Vellala community. A small conflict between converted and non-converted Shanars at a small village in Travancore, regarding tax payment to the Travancore state, transformed into a major anti-Christian riot. Christian Shanars were perceived as traitors who were disobeying the native state with missionary support. There is no doubt that the results of such riots were simply on the very lines calculated by the missionaries.
Does all this mean that the indigenous social system lacked the ability to transform itself towards social justice? That would be the crucial question regarding the shoulder dress revolt.
Ayya Vaikundar (1809-1851), a social reformer and spiritual warrior, venerated by the people of Kanykumari district as the Avatar of Maha Vishnu himself, appeared on the scene now. Ayya Vaikundar condemned the birth-based discriminations, economic exploitation and more importantly perceived the whole causal chain of events which were deepening the social divisions and aggravating the exploitation of the weaker sections of the society. The genius of Ayya Vaikundar has not been properly recognised in the history of Indic spiritual cultural and social renaissance. Usually the history of modern Indian renaissance starts with Raja Ram Mohan Rai.
But here was Ayya Vaikundar, who reformulated the traditional leadership role of his own community, but at the same time collected the oppressed sections of the society without any discrimination and forged an alliance against the casteist-colonial state of Travancore. He brought together not only the Nadars, but almost every community that suffered from colonialism: from Barbers to Mathva Brahmins - Ayya Vaikundar lists in his work 18 communities then oppressed in the Travancore state. He created a powerful alliance for social justice and spiritual conservation of Indic traditions. He made them drink from the same well and dine together. In fact, the shoulder dress revolt has more to do with Ayya Vaikundar's socio-spiritual revolution than the missionary enterprise.
Perhaps, Ayya Vaikundar was the first Indian philosopher-saint to make this critique of colonial historiography and wanted Indians to formulate their own framework for studying these problems. For example, after terming the British as the 'white demon', Ayya states:
This alien Nazarene (British) had destroyed human worlds elsewhere
He had destroyed the ethical lives of Chanars who led a life valuable and virtuous.
He destroyed their names, their ability to do charity and their social infrastructure
He simply sucked their life energy out of them.
What Ayya Vaikundar intuitively understood centuries before, the curriculum framers of CBSE could not even comprehend. Instead, they borrowed the colonial data and repeated faithfully the colonial-evangelical narrative. Only if the framers of our curriculum start looking into the local histories and local Indic resistance movements to colonialism, evangelism and social stagnation, that they can write proper history - the real holistic history of this nation that is diverse in forms and united in the spirit.
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