The CBSE board (Central Board of Secondary Education) has removed, from its Grade IX Social Science textbook, a section titled “India and the Contemporary World” that discussed the civil rights struggle of the Nadar women of Travancore. The women were forced to keep the upper part of their body uncovered or pay a tax that was therein commonly referred to as the ‘breast tax’.
The textbook by the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT) which contained the section, was being followed by the CBSE and 15 other state boards since the year 2006. The talked about section, “Caste, Conflict and Dress Change - talked about the strict social codes of conduct regarding food and dress in India history.
Back in the early 1800’s, men and women from the Nadar and Ezhava communities weren’t permitted to cover their chest in front of the upper caste community. Clothing symbolized wealth, and the lower castes weren’t rendered the luxury of such abstractions. Samuel Mateer, the author of ‘Native Life in Travancore’ lists down almost 110 extra taxes that only the members of the lower caste were compelled to pay. Paradoxical? Wealth evidently wasn’t an outcome of labour but privilege. The tax system ensured that the upper castes thrived and the lower castes remained embroiled in a vicious cycle of debt.
Of all the uprisings and rebellions that took place due to this oppresion, the story of Nangeli stands out. Nangeli; a name unheard by the epics of revolutionaries in Indian history. Hers is a story that became popular as the woman who ‘cut off her breasts’ to protest against the barbaric tax imposed on the community of Nadar’s in erstwhile Travancore. She was a destitute Ezhava woman who resided in Cherthala. Her family was one that couldn’t afford to pay the required taxes; hence they were under burdening debt. The ‘parvathiyer’ (tax collector) visited her house and demanded that she pay the tax to retain clothing. Nangeli, in anguish over her predicament, cut off her breasts and presented them to parvathiyer on a leaf. Aghast at this, he fled the place with fear, while Nangeli bled to death at her doorstep. When her husband, Chirukandan arrived home, he was devastated to see his wife mutilated and lifeless. Overcome with despair and grief, he jumped in her funeral pyre. The truism hidden behind the fall of successive totalitarian regimes rests on the grief of such anecdotes. When the misery of life supersedes that of death, there is no act beyond approach and no morality beyond its recourse.
This incident that occurred in 1803, created a stirring uprisal amongst the citizens. According to Mr. Sugathan, who mentions Nangeli in his acclaimed book, “Oru Desanthinte Katha, Kayarinteyam”, the absurd practice of collecting this tax was put to an end in 1812. The death of the tax signified the passing of her legacy.
On Monday, the CBSE announced its decision to completely remove a section named “Caste, Conflict and Social Change” following an order by the Madras High Court that commanded them to remove ‘objectionable content’. According to a report in The Telegraph, the CBSE issued a circular to all its 19,000 affiliated schools mentioning that the section “stands omitted from the curriculum and no questions regarding this subject shall feature in 2017.” The omitted section consists of a discussion of how the Nadar men and women were under the obligation to keep their upper bodies uncovered by the caste council of the Nairs of Travancore in the early 1800’s. The coercion of the Nadar’s to pay a breast tax or ‘mulakkaram’ for the basic privilege to be able to cover their body. In the year of 1822, there were a consequent series of revolts, where women from lower communities demanded that they be given the rights to wear same clothes as the upper castes.
The conflict circling this controversy isn’t a contemporary one. This contradiction created a small uprising in the year of 2012. According to previous reports, late Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa had objected to this section, claiming that this information would mislead the students and give young minds a wrongful impression. K Balu, who is the President of the Advocates Forum for Social Justice had filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the court, stating that the History textbook of the CBSE ( Grade IX ) contained incorrect information on the history of the Nadar community and urged the authorities to remove the ‘objectionable’ content. The petitioner, K Balu, made a presentation to the authorities on September 2016, pointing out the factual errors. The CBSE board acknowledged this and directed Mr. Balu to approach the NCERT.
However, in an interview with The Ladies Finger, Mr. Santosh, an assistant professor in the Department of Humanities at IIT Madras associated this strategy of the CBSE to a rather treacherous movement of writing out historical events out of syllabi. “This controversy is the latest addition to a series of incidents where government bodies give in to the pressure tactics of organized caste and religious groups when it comes to the framing of syllabus. Each of these organizations wants a highly sanitized version of history to be taught in classrooms.” J. Devika who is an historian at The Centre for Development Studies in Thiruvananthpuram elucidated that the Nadar revolt is of importance for the students because the controversy is about dignity and caste. According to her, eliminating this discussion is a ridiculous move aimed at perverting education and erasing the struggle against casteism.
Historians and researchers have extremely bold opinions about the consequences of completely eradicating this section from the textbook altogether. They believe that students mustn’t be oblivious to the Nadar community and its struggle against casteism. Wiping out their struggle would make the concealed community devoid of their social visibility. Intellectuals believe that the CBSE board, instead of removing that specific section altogether, should correct the factual inaccuracies in a precise and clear cut manner. They should be concentrating on rectifying necessary facts like – portrayal and description of the Nadar community as migrants (the Nadar’s are the original inhabitants of the district in question) rather than wiping out an entire chunk of imperative historical circumstances that are crucial towards the understanding of our perennial social battle against casteism.
Moreover, there is a pertinent academic question. History is perceived as a factual, value free enterprise. History is the inevitable destination of time, untouched by the corruption prejudices and narratives. Indian history deserves to be told of Nangeli’s sacrifice. Is our perception of history so deeply hallowed by taboo that we fail to see the lesson she is yearning to impart? The evolution of one of the darkest chapters of our civilization through the institution of caste is riddled with such sacrifices. Until we can rid our social fabric of discrimination, it is a story that must be told.
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