#India- Caste in Tamil Nadu


A History of Nadar Censorship

Vol – XLVIII No. 03, January 19, 2013 | M S S Pandian

Representations have been made by some of the political parties of Tamil Nadu to have a particular chapter in an NCERT Class IX textbook removed; the chapter is being attacked for discussing the past of the infl uential Nadars as “untouchables” and for highlighting the role played by 19th century Christian missionaries in the community’s subsequent upward mobility. The present clamour for a censored caste history has a right-wing Hindu character to it. If memories of degradation are an enabling resource in producing alliances against continuing forms of oppression, in this instance erasure of such memories is what is being sought by an upwardly mobile caste.

M S S Pandian (mathiaspandian57@gmail.com) is at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

I am grateful to Vincent Kumaradoss and Mani Manivannan for sharing with me sources of information which made this piece possible. I also thank Anandhi S and A Kalaiarasan for their comments on an earlier draft. This is the first of a two-part series on caste in Tamil Nadu today. The second part will be published next week.

Certain communities have denied social equality to the Nadar community. The Nadars have…from time to time asserted their claim to social status. But unfortunately they have attempted to maintain their claim for equality by seeking to prove that they were Kshatriyas… Such a method of establishing your status is very unfortunate. For, the moment you claim to be Kshatriyas, you recognise the validity of the caste system and reserve to yourself the right of treating certain other as being inferior to your own. I must…congratulate you on your spirit of tolerance which is evidenced by the amicable personal and social relationship which you have maintained with that portion of the community who have embraced Christianity. Keep up these social virtues at all costs.

– Shanmugham Chetty, Presidential Address, Nadar conference, 1927 (The Indian Social Reformer, 8 October 1927, pp 88-89).

This is a story of the Nadars, today an intermediate caste in Tamil Nadu, not heeding to the perspicuous advice given by Shanmugham Chetty in the 1920s. The present-day story may begin with the Tamil Nadu politicians’ enduring love for the school textbooks produced by the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT).

In October 2012, S Ramadoss, the leader of the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), a party of the intermediate caste Vanniyars, issued a public statement in Chennai. The statement objected to a chapter on clothing in the Class IX history textbook of the NCERT. The part of the text which offended the sensibilities of Ramadoss recounts briefly how the Shanars, who are known today as Nadars, struggled against the Travancore state during the first half of the 19th century and earned the right for the Shanar women to cover their breasts in public. The book also refers to the contribution of Christian missionaries in the struggle.

Ramadoss claimed that the Nadars are the sons of the soil of south Tamil Nadu and objected to them being referred to as Shanars. Of course, there is no need for him to know that it was only in 1921 that the ministry headed by the non-brahmin Justice Party in the Madras Presidency substituted the term “Nadar” for “Shanar”. “Shanar” was official till then. Discounting the contribution of the protestant missionaries in the breast cloth revolt, Ramadoss finds in Vaikunda Swamy, an important Hindu Shanar social reformer, the source of Shanar women’s liberation.

The fact, however, is, when the Travancore state issued the first order on the right of Christian Shanar women to cover their breasts in 1812, Vaikunda Swamy was just four years old. When the final order, which allowed both the Christian and Hindu Shanar women to cover their breasts, was issued in 1859, he was dead for no less than eight years. Death of history may be the beginning of politics. Ramadoss wanted the life of Vaikunda Swamy to be included in textbooks produced by the state as well as the centre.

Political Representations

Ramadoss was joined by the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader J Jayalalithaa and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam chief M Karuna­nidhi. Jayalalithaa, in a letter to the prime minister, characterised the Nadars as the lofty descendants of the Tamil royal dynasties of the Cheras, the Cholas and the Pandyas and sought the removal of the lesson from the NCERT textbook. While her letter was silent on the extensively-documented role played by Christian missionaries in the social and economic mobility of the Nadars, it made sure to invoke Vaikunda Swamy: “The said text has neglected the struggles of Aiyya Vaikundar in the ‘upper cloth revolt’ and also his social reform”. No surprise here: “anti-conversion” was one of the favoured themes of Jayalalithaa in the past. Karunanidhi, who is supposed to have familial compulsions to take up the issue, listed a number of Nadar greats such as K Kamaraj, W P A Soundra Pandian, and K T K Tangamani, and registered his protest against the NCERT text. Consumed by narcissism, he could not resist adding his own role in conferring a positive caste identity on the Nadars. If he was silent on Vaikunda Swamy, he was silent on the Christian missionaries as well.

Now it was time for the caste leaders to join the chorus. Sharad Kumar, an actor who heads an inconsequential political party, Samathuva Makkal Katchi (SMK) and a Nadar himself, was hurt about, among other things, the text not talking about the sacrifices of Vaikunda Swamy. But he too was silent about the Christian missionaries. So was the case with the representation made by the Vaikunta Swamy Dharma Pracharana Sabha which claimed an exalted past for the Nadars.

To cut a long story short, there is more or less a consistent pattern in the representations against the NCERT text. First, there was a refusal or an unease to come to terms with the untouchable past of the Nadars who are today both econo­mically and professionally influential. Second, there is a reluctance to acknowledge the labour of Protestant Christian missionaries in the social mobility of the Shanars. Instead, it is Vaikunda Swamy who is being celebrated.

There are, of course, exceptions to this pattern. The representation made by the History Council of Kanyakumari ­District does recognise the contributions of ­Rev Charles Mead, Rev William Tobias Ringeltaube and other Christian missio­naries to the breast cloth revolt. ­D Peter, the chairman of the Kanyakumari Institute of Development Studies, is even more candid. He found nothing wrong with the NCERT text and added that if the text was deleted, “…it would become a great loss to the student community as well as an insult to the Protestant Christian Shanars of the South Travancore…”

Nadar Censorship: An Early Instance1

Before engaging with the current demand by the Nadars and their political backers to withdraw the NCERT text, it may be of some interest to take a look at the late 19th century when the Christian Nadars, as a consequence of their upward mobility, sought a history for themselves which would silence their degradation at the hands of the upper castes. The campaign led by a section of the Christian Nadars against Rev Robert Caldwell’s book The Tinnevelly Shanars (1849) is illustrative of such a trend.

Caldwell, a well-known scholar missionary and the author of A Comparative Grammar of the Dravidian or South Indian Family of Languages, worked among the Shanars of Tirunelveli district for about half a century. While his missionary labour established in the region a large community of Protestant Christians drawn from among the Shanars, his ­educational efforts, which resulted in a network of schools and colleges, made the community economically prosperous and socially acceptable. His commitment to the region and its people made him, during his last visit to England in 1883, to declare, “For Tinnevelly, I have lived, and for Tinnevelly, I am prepared to die”. Caldwell’s mortal remains lay interred at the altar of the Holy Trinity Church at Idayangudi, the first Christian village that he established in the region.

The very upward mobility which the Christian Shanars experienced due to the exertions of Caldwell, turned the Shanars against him. In 1883, Samuel Sargunar, a sub-registrar in the Chinglepet district, published a pamphlet,Bishop Caldwell and the Tinnevelley Shanars. It not only contested Caldwell’s description of the lowly social status of the Shanars, but also claimed a kshatriya status for them. A spate of petitions were sent to the ­Society for the Propagation of the Gospel and the archbishop of Canterbury seeking Caldwell’s removal from the Tirunelveli mission. Some demanded Caldwell to write a new text affirming the Shanars as kshatriyas. Y Gnanamuthoo Nadar, who described himself as “Antiquarian and Representative of the Shanar Race”, sent a series of petitions appealing to “various representatives of the British Government and the missionary ecclesiastical structure demanding that the British censure Caldwell and remove his offending book from circulation”. Caldwell withdrew the publication from circulation.

The Turn of the Hindu Nadars

It is not that the Hindu Nadars did not seek a kshatriya status in the late 19th century. They did. Yet, their present clamour for a censored caste history with an anti-Christian tilt has a right-wing Hindu character. In 1980, it was P Thanulingam, a Hindu Nadar from Kanyakumari district and a former Congressman, who along with Ramagopalan, a brahmin, formed the Hindu Munnai. Under their vituperative provocations, Tamil Nadu witnessed the first large-scale communal riot between the Christian fishermen and the Hindus in the coastal village of Mandaikadu. The present Tamil Nadu state BJP President Pon ­Radhakrishnan is also a Hindu Nadar from the district. He was returned to the parliament from the Nagercoil Lok ­Sabha constituency, as a BJP candidate, in 1999.

Such brahmin-Hindu Nadar alliance has, of late, evolved into forms of “intellectual collaboration”. A case in point is the South Indian Social History Research Institute (SHRI), run by S Ramachandran, a brahmin who happens to be an epigraphist with an unenviable skill in selectively interpreting inscriptions to assign higher varna pedigrees to castes which are traditionally deemed to be shudras. In the specific context of the present controversy about the NCERT text, it is necessary to have a look at the widely circulating Tamil book Thool Cillaik Kalakam: Therintha Poikal, Theriyatha Unmaikal (“Upper Cloth Revolt: Known Falsehoods and Unknown Truths”) authored by Rama­chandran along with A Ganesan, a Hindu Nadar (who, according to Ramachandran, is the embodiment of Nadar “racial memory”). The book was published by the SHRI in 2010.

The book confers a kshatriya status on the Nadars and makes them “Sandror” (“people of noble qualities”) instead of “Shanar”. It targets the Christian missionaries, in particular Caldwell, and celebrates Vaikunda Swamy for, among other things, ensuring the Christian converts’ return to Hinduism. If Ramachandran’s is a barely veiled Hindutva project, its endorsement comes from those who openly espouse right-wing Hindu agenda. Aravindan Neelakandan, in a review of the book, claims it to be a model historical research and argues why figures like Vaikunda Swamy are important for the spiritual and social liberation of the Hindus.2 Neelakandan’s recent book, ­co-authored with Rajiv Malhotra of the Hindu fundamentalist Infinity Foundation located in the US, is Breaking India: Western Interventions in Dravidian and Dalit Faultlines. If that does not tell it all, then one just needs to have a look at his Hindutva: A Simplified Introduction.

If memories of degradation are an enabling resource in producing alliances against continuing forms of oppression, erasure of such memories is what is ­being sought by the upwardly mobile castes. The Nadar case is no exception. Yet, not everything is lost. A section of the Christian Nadars, perhaps to the dismay of Samuel Sargunar and Gnanamuthoo Nadar, continues to acknowledge their untouchable past. For instance, Samuel Jayakumar, a theologian and a historian of Christianity in Tamil Nadu, in his book Dalit Consciousness and Christian Conversion: Historical Resources for a Contemporary Debate (ISPCK, Delhi, 1999) equates the Shanars along with the Parayars as dalits in the past – with no discomfort at all.

Notes

1 Most of the details in this section are drawn from Y Vincent Kumaradoss, Robert Caldwell: A Scholar-Missionary in Colonial South India, ­ISPCK, Delhi, 2007.

http://www.tamilhindu.com/2011/01/thol see lai-kalagam-book-review/

 

Koodankulam: Latest Ground Report


 

dianuke.org

Jyothi Krishnan visited Koodankulam along with Aruna Roy on 24th July 2012, to express solidarity with the local protestors. We are thankful to her for sharing her experiences and pictures here.

Jyothi Krishnan

The government’s repeated statements of commissioning the first two nuclear reactors at Koodankulam has not deterred local the protestors in any way. Local people have been on continuous struggle for a year now, which includes the ongoing relay fast as well as the intense, indefinite fast in the month of March 2012 in which thousands participated. Our visit to Koodankulam and Idinthikkarai on 24th July 2012, our meeting with people from both these villages and the large number of people who had assembled at the protest site at Idinthikkarai, was clear proof of the people’s determination to put an end to the government’s nuclear plans on their land.

Together in Struggle: Aruna Roy and Dr. S P Udayakumar

When we reached Koodankulam, members of the Struggle Committee, Ganeshan and Rajalingam met us at the main gate of the KKNP plant. We walked through the Koodankulam village which is just 1.5 kilometres away from the plant, where about 20,000 people live. A quiet, coastal village, mostly inhabited by the Nadar community who are engaged with trade of various kinds. Amongst the people we met, four were elected representatives of the Koodankulam grama panchayat (three of whom were women members). The women and men we met as we walked through the Koodankulam village, groups of women sitting together and rolling beedis, shop keepers, passers-by, all of them had one consistent story to narrate- the story of how the police harassed them for protesting against the nuclear plant. All the people we met, including the panchayat members, had been charged with police cases for being a part of the protest against the nuclear plant. The situation is no different in the Idinthikkarai village. The women and children in Idinthikkarai were as vociferous as their sisters in Koodankulam. We spoke with Udayakumar, Pushparayan and other struggle leaders. Udayakumar and Pushparayan have been on self-imposed exile at Idinthikkarai for almost five months now. If they move out of Idinthikkarai, they may be arrested by the police. They have been confined to the Parish Priest’s Bungalow where they have been staying these past few months and the front porch of the St Lourdes Church where the relay fast is staged. In anticipation of the police arresting these two leaders, women and children sleep in large numbers around the Parish Priest’s Bungalow. The youth of the village, whom we met that day, also sleep on the village outskirts. In short, people are on the alert day and night. People from the neighbouring village of Koodankulam also take the responsibility of providing security to these two leaders.

It is an irony that while India plans to increase nuclear power generation from the existing – to by 2032, basic living conditions are still a dream for a majority of the poor in India, both rural and urban. While the country has pumped in crores of money into the KKNP, a small stream let that flows through the Koodankulam village has degraded into an open sewage channel with stagnant water. It would undoubtedly be the source of many communicable diseases in the area, particularly amongst the children. Such instances of sheer neglect makes us disbelieve the claim that energy security will improve the living conditions of the poorest in our country. The Tamil Nadu government offered a 500 crore development package in March 2012, soon after it withdrew its support for the local struggle. It was evident that the underlying motive behind providing this development package was to detract the local people from protesting against the plant. It is sad that the government was prompted to assure the people of houses and roads only when they expressed their strong dissent against the plant. More so that the government believes that it can negate people’s dissent in such a manner. One of the main components of this development package is the provision of cold storages that will enable the fisherfolk of the surrounding villages to store their fish catch. If the plant is to function, the daily release of water used to cool the plant is bound to affect the fish catch. The fish will also be exposed to routine doses of radiation. That of course does not appear to be a concern of the government.

Dr. S P Udayakumar interpreting Aruna Roy’s speech in Tamil

As most of us know, the protest against KKNP heightened following the Fukushima disaster in March 2011. Since August 2011, people from the neighbouring villages have been on continuous protest, a strong, non-violent protest. The government and the KKNP have on their part shown no inclination to engage in a dialogue with the people. The only response from the side of the government has been to charge the peaceful protestors with police cases, which includes non-bailable charges of sedition. There are people who have been charged with as many as 200 cases. Aadilingam, a visually challenged sixty-year old man from Koodankulam village had been charged with 200 cases. Selvamani, Ward Member of Koodankulam panchayat says she has no clue about the number of cases that she had been charged with. Swayambhu Nadar, a resident of Koodankulam village, an old man with severe diabetics and hypertension, barely able to walk, was imprisoned for 15 days. During this period, he had to be hospitalized. Each one had a similar story to share. Residents of the neighbouring villages of Vyravikenaru, Kurunjikulam, Vijayapathi, Aavadiyalpuram, Kamaneri, Kadutala, Tillainagar, Arasarkulam, Puthenkulam and Puthenpuli, all of which are located within a 30 km radius of the plant fear the consequences of a nuclear plant located in such close proximity. A total of 1.2 million people live within a 30 km radius of the plant.

No matter what the safety claims of the KKNP be, the fears and apprehensions of such a large population of people cannot be wished away. The KKNP has taken care to locate the staff quarters 10 kilometres away from the reactors. The Koodankulam village is just a kilometre away, and even closer is the tsunami rehabilitation colony that was built after the tsunami affected the area in 2004. In the fishing village of Idinthikkarai, the thatched sheds in which the fisher folk keep their nets face the two large domes of the reactors. If the plant functions, water released from the nuclear plant will wash the shores of Idinthikkarai in no time. Does this fall within the safety definition of the government and KKNP? People were angry about the mock safety drill that the KKNP conducted last month, which was a mandatory requirement. Instead of conducting it in the villages of Koodankulam or Idinthikkarai, they conducted it at a location 10 kilometres away. While the authorities did not intimate the local people, they brought people from outside for this exercise. When the local people questioned them, they said that they were conducting a survey of the incidence of dengue fever in the area. It is a shame that our institutions make a mockery of all regulations and assume that people will believe their claims. It was evident that people have lost all trust in the government, disillusioned and dismayed at the manner in which their legitimate dissent has been negated. And each step taken by the government aggravates this distrust. What kind of governance is this? On the one hand we talk of local self governance and panchayati raj. On the other hand, the government negates any form of self governance.

While the intensity of the struggle heightened during the past one year, discontent and dissatisfaction has been brewing ever since the KKNP acquired agricultural land for the project. Land on which they grew various varieties of pulses, beans, cotton and tamarind, was taken up by the KKNP. Some of them fought court cases, but the land was acquired. They were paid a meagre amount as compensation, ranging from Rs 200-1200 per acre of land that was acquired. They were promised jobs and development, but none of this was fulfilled. Deprived of agriculture, today a large number of women in Koodankulam earn a living by rolling beedis, getting Rs 100 for every 1000 beedis that they roll. They earn Rs 1000-1500 a month.
All the villagers- the women who roll beedis, the fisher folk, small traders like Perumal who owns a shop selling electrical equipments, the grocer, the vegetable-seller, contribute 10% of their weekly earnings to the movement, in order to meet the campaign expenses. Most villagers have joined in, except for a few contractors. While a few rich households do not openly participate in the protest, they contribute money. It is these regular contributions and of course, the conviction of the people, that have kept the movement going. People have continued to work while the normal pace of their lives has been thrown apart by police arrests and intimidations. And despite this, the Prime Minister alleges that the movement has been instigated by foreign funds.

Aruna Roy Talking to women in Idinthakarai village

Women were present in large numbers at the protest site. We were moved by the conviction with which they spoke. Said an elderly woman, “We have lived more than half our lives. We may not be around for long. But what about our children and theirs?. How can they live in such unsafe conditions?’. It was when the Fukushima disaster took place that they were convinced about the potential danger that lurks less than a kilometre away. ‘Those two domes began to frighten us’, says Poomani. ‘For a year now, coming to the samara pandal has become a daily ritual. We are forgetting how we used to lead normal lives’, said another. It is a common sight to see children sleep in the samara pandal, while their mothers attend meetings. Their exemplary behaviour in the samara pandal, as though the children had completely understood what was required of them in these difficult times. Young men and women were also present. One young man broke out into tears as he spoke with sorrow and anguish, saying that all they thought of during the past one year, was of police arrests. They were living in fear of their leaders getting arrested. There are innumerable cases where passports of local people, (including young persons absent from the struggle and protests, but inhabitants of the area) have been impounded and where fresh applications for passports have been turned down. The youth feel that they have nothing to look forward to if this plant is commissioned.

Truly, this is one of the most remarkable struggles that India has seen. If the government is serious about governance, then they should be courageous enough to place all information, facts and figures about the Koodankulam nuclear plant before the local people. Let there be an open debate on the issue. Let it not think that it can silence people’s demands for justice. What the people fear most, is the fatal consequences of exposure to radiation. Can the government assure them of a safe future?

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