A controversy over five paragraphs of text in an NCERT book, prescribed for Class IX students of CBSE schools, threatens to snowball into a prolonged agitation as political parties have already pitched in to demand a correction on the passages that are perceived to denigrate the Nadars of Kanyakumari district. But a close reading of the ‘offending’ passage makes one wonder if it is just a case of polemics between pedagogy and popular sentiments.
For, the lesson titled ‘Clothing: A Social History’, an essay on the change in sartorial styles in different cultures in the backdrop of social transformations by Janaki Nair, a professor in the Centre for Historical Studies in New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, is primarily based on written history.
The contentious passages form part of the essay subtitled ‘Caste conflict and dress change’, which deals with the historic ‘Upper cloth revolt’ that raged in Kanyakumari, then under the princely state of Travancore, from 1820s to 1859. While encapsulating a socio-political struggle that spanned four decades, unfolding at different battlegrounds, involving a plethora of dramatis personae, in five paragraphs, the author has confined herself to the basic facts: Women of the Shanar caste were barred from covering their upper torso once and that they gained the right to upper cloth after a prolonged violent conflict.
But three points have raised the hackles of some political parties and activists from the Nadar community. One, the reference to the caste as ‘Shanar’; two, the line ‘...a community of toddy tappers who migrated to southern Travancore to work under Nair landlords’; and three, to the ‘blackout’ of the name of Ayya Vaikundar, a 19th century religious savant-social activist from Swamithope in Kumari, who had played a prominent role in the movement.
Speaking over phone, Balaprajathipathi Adigal, the descendent of Ayya Vaikundar, now the high priest of the Ayya Vazhi cult, referred to the passage, ‘Under the influence of Christian missions, Shanar women converts began in the 1820s to wear tailored blouses and cloths to cover themselves like the upper castes’, and said: “It was Ayya Vaikundar, who had been fighting for the rights of the lower caste people in the district since the age of 17, enunciating the maxim Pennuku thaai seelai, aanuku thalai seelai (upper cloth for women and head cloth for men).
“The textbook blacked out his role in the upper cloth movement,” he said and took exemption to the use of the term ‘Shanar’; the description of them as ‘toddy tappers’; and the mention that they migrated from elsewhere. “Nadars were the natives,” he said.
Above all, the leader of the religious cult that has followers all over Tamil Nadu is against the very idea of recalling the oppressive past of the community in school textbooks, now that the community has grown in all areas.
Till changes are brought about in the book and the name of Ayya Vaikundar is incorporated, his followers, spread out in 7,000 villages, will go on an indefinite fast at Swamithope, the seat of cult. “For the next 100 years, 100 people a day will sit on a fast,” he said, adding that a final call on the move will be taken at a meeting on November 25.
Political parties too are gearing up for a big fight against NCERT. At the MDMK agitation at Nagercoil on November 9, it was announced that if the changes in the text were not made before December 28, a massive rally would be organised at Marthandam on December 30.
On November 8, the DMK had organised a protest at Nagercoil. Though it was PMK founder S Ramadoss, who brought the issue out in the open through a statement, in which he said that the lesson showed the Nadars in bad light, Balaprajathipathi Adigal said that it was Arjun Sampath of the Hindu Makkal Katchi who first noticed the blackout of Vaikundar’s name in the lesson taught in schools across the country for the past two to three years.
But some academics beg to differ with the politicians and leaders of Nadars’ associations who have issued statements and given press conferences. As Ivy Peter, a retired history professor of Women’s Christian College in Nagercoil, says, the first stirring of the upper cloth movement started under the influence of the Christian missions, as mentioned in the NCERT book. It is evident from the order issued in 1813 by Col John Munro, the British resident in Travancore court, granting permission to women converted to Christianity to wear stitched upper cloth, that the protest began way before Vaikuntar got active. He was born only in 1809 or 1810, says Ivy Peter.
According to the Ayya Vazhi legend itself, the reincarnation of Vaikuntar took place at Tiruchendur only when he was 24 years old. While no one can deny the role of Vaikuntar in bringing about social transformation for the Nadars, academics point out that the NCERT text only mentions that women ‘started wearing’ upper cloth under the influence of Christian missions. With the essay not tracing the history of the movement in detail, the omission of Vaikuntar’s name cannot be termed a blackout, say academics.
On the use of the word ‘Shanar’, D Peter, a retired Economics professor in Nagercoil who is a social activist, local historian and editor of a local magazine, Samuthaya Sinthanai (Social Thoughts), says that till July 7, 1921, when the then Government of Madras issued a GO, saying the term ‘Nadar’ be adopted in the place of ‘Shanar’, the caste was referred to as ‘Shanar’ and hence it was not wrong to use the word.
To the objection raised over the statement on the migration of Shanars to Kanyakumari, Peter says that there are three theories, all of them suggesting that they could have come from different places. “Whether the people came from elsewhere or not, they are the natives as they have been living there for centuries. On that count, there is no need to raise a hullabaloo over a lesson in a school textbook,” he feels.
However, almost all those who want the text to be corrected are insisting that Nadars were the sons of the soil.
Though Janaki Nair is not willing to speak to the media on the issue, it is learnt that she had sourced the information on the migration from the book ‘The Nadars of Tamilnad’ by Robert L Hardgrave, a political historian of USA, which was published in 1969. In the book, Hardgrave says: “The migration undoubtedly occurred quite early perhaps during the sixteenth century when the Travanacore king held control of the southern region of Tinnevelly, including the sandy wastes of Manadu. In the luxuriant lands of Travancore, these Nadars continued as palmyrah climbers, laboring on the lands of aristocratic Nadars or Vellalas in the eastern portion of Kanyakumari, and towards the west, on the lands of the powerful Nair community.”
But leaders of today’s Nadar community, which has shown rapid strides in economic, social and academic growth since those days, are not prepared to accept Hardgrave’s version. Besides, they point out that not all Nadars were serving the upper castes and were toddy tappers. There were wealthy families, owning large tracts of land even in the period mentioned in the essay, they say.
A group of affluent Nadars, from Kanyakumari and now living in Chennai, recently met and decided to issue a legal notice to NCERT and Janaki Nair demanding changes in the essay. “We are the sons of the soil, there can be no second opinion on that,” says M G Devasahayam, an ex-IAS officer and social activist part of the group.
Will NCERT give in to popular demand and make changes in the text? One has to wait and watch.