C Ahmed Fayiz
Last month, the Madras High Court had asked CBSE to remove “objectionable content” on the Nadar community from class IX social science textbooks. It directed the Board to pass the required orders within three months, while disposing of a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by the Advocates Forum for Social Justice.
According to the forum, ‘Indian Colony Athikkam’ (Transformation and Colonial India) – a chapter from the textbook contained wrong information. It stated that during British rule, South Travancore was known as Kumari district, its natives were known as Naikers and that the Nadar community had come and settled there to make a livelihood. They further alleged that the historical representation of the book was incorrect and some of the contents ‘degraded’ the entire Nadar community. On, 14 September, the forum issued a notice asking CBSE authorities to rectify the mistakes in the book.
The PIL stated that the textbook, published by NCERT (National Council for Educational Research and Training), contained wrong information “in respect of evaluating the history of the Nadar community”. It further stated that the Nadar community hails from an ancient period in Kanyakumari district, which was the then Travancore State. The petitioner submitted that Nadars had also held important portfolios in that administration. Many in the community had participated in the freedom struggle, undergone much suffering and sacrificed their lives for the nation’s independence, the forum added. The petitioner submitted he had learnt that another Nadar forum had made a similar representation in 2012, but no action was taken in this regard for the past four years.In its response, the CBSE stated that NCERT had constituted a committee to review the textbook, and directed the forum to approach the NCERT, which was overturned by the court.
The controversy is not a new one, nor is it unprecedented. Apparently, the references to these women had created a big stir in 2012 and attracted strong condemnation from political parties, but reports indicate that the issue was already muddied. DMK leader M. Karunanidhi and MDMK chief Vaiko had said it was unpardonable to describe the Nadars as a community of migrants that settled in the southern districts. PMK leader S. Ramadosshad also criticised the claim in the book that Nadar women converted to Christianity for dress reasons. Later that year, the late Chief Minister Jayalalithaa wrote to the Centre seeking its intervention and asking for the ‘objectionable’ references to be removed.
The textbook chapter was based on the “Upper Cloth Movement” or widely known as the Channar Revolt that took place in the 19th century in Travancore, parts of which fall in today’s Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The chapter involves a discussion of the Nadar community, whose men and women were forced to keep their upper bodies uncovered by the National Council of the Pidagaikars, the caste council of the Nairs of the state of Travancore in the early 1800s.
In May 1822, the lower caste Shanar women (later known as the Nadars) started revolting against the practice of lower caste women having to leave their upper body uncovered which is later known as Maru Marakkal Samaram, or the Channar Revolt. The women from the Nadar and Ezhava communities demanded the right to wear the same clothing as ‘upper’ caste women. Bare chests were seen as a sign of respect to higher castes. Unable to bear such practices, many Nadar women converted to Christianity and started wearing long clothes, almost similar to what the high-class women wore. The Nadars had to pay a mulakkaram or ‘breast tax’ if they chose to cover themselves.
From 1822- 1859, a long struggle continued by the Nadar women that subjected them to assault by Nairs in public places on many occasions. In 1829, the Travancore government issued a circular that directed the Shanar women “to abstain in future from covering the upper parts of the body”. However, in 1859, the government issued an order permitting the Shanar women to wear a kuppayam (a jacket-blouse of sorts) or cover their upper bodies in any manner but unlike that of their upper caste counterparts.
Whatever may be the real history, on 19 of this month, the CBSE announced its decision to remove a section entitled ‘Caste, Conflict and Dress Change’ from its social science curriculum for Class IX students, following the order by the Madras high court that directed it to remove “objectionable content.” The removed section of the NCERT textbook, used by the CBSE and 15 state boards, has been scrapped despite affirmation from Professor Kiran Devendra, the coordinator of the book, that the section is factually correct and there have been no complaints from any child or school teacher regarding the contents.
Today, we study a very north Indian version of Indian history in school. We do not know about the Nadars or the Nairs, who are a significant part of Indian history. We do not know much about the rigid casteism prevalent in south India. We do not know about the doubly suppressed Dalit, ‘low’ caste women who tried to fight a system which discriminated against them, both by sex and caste. Now, the saffronised right-wing in Tamil Nadu is ensuring that the CBSE removes whatever little is known of this from its syllabus. To create a false picture, we will now pretend like oppression never existed. Instead of doing a thorough fact-check, and improving the accuracy of the information provided, the court deemed the entire lesson ‘objectionable’, and ordered CBSE to remove it.
In a nation where the Hindutva brigade is quick to blame Muslim ‘invaders’ for all cases of social violence, the truth about their own violently discriminatory and cruel behaviour is hard to stomach. In this case, it is also hard for the historically oppressed to accept, because it involves acknowledging the fact that the belief system they are so faithful to today, was actually the reason they were considered socially subordinate. It would also involve admitting that Nadar women converted to Christianity because of this shamefully unjust nature of Hinduism. Facing the truth about the weaknesses of one’s religion is the opposite of what they wish to do. Instead of doing research on the subject and unearthing evidence to credit those who fought to remove such caste-based discrimination in India, they want to gloss over the entire history of the region, trivializing the struggles of the Nadars who weren’t always as socially secure as they are now.
The Nadars were just one community out of many ‘lower’ castes who were subjected to such oppression. Many communities across Tamil Nadu, Kerala and parts of Karnataka were subjected to this, and this move whitewashes the pain of all these people. It forgets the humiliation of Nangeli, the fabled Ezhava woman from Kerala who cut off her breasts in protest against breast taxes, handing them to the tax collector on a banana leaf, before dying of blood loss. Only remembered through art as myths and legends, these women are lost in the pages of history.
This lesson about caste and clothing was an important lesson in the politics of discrimination in particular, because even though it was unfair to everyone, the rule was worse for women who wanted to have the right to their modesty. ‘Lower’ caste women even today are far more vulnerable to sexual violence in society, and the intersectional discrimination Nadar women suffered back then was not very different. The fact remains that the sexism they faced through such a rule was casteist, and the casteism they faced was sexualised.
The current move of CBSE to remove a part of history which says about the golden path of struggles the subaltern women had covered should be seen within the political situation where a government which is controlled by Sangh Parivaris is trying its best to distort and eliminate historical facts and manipulate history for their own interest. Removing the factual,widely acknowledged history from India’s social history is almost cruel, because people still suffer from casteism, and not acknowledging that reality means never changing that for the better, and turning history into a falsified Brahminical narrative.
Republished from the Companion