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How to look at a Social Institution
Aravindan Neelakandan

In the just concluded Chennai Book Fair (2011) what is the most important book for those who are interested in South Indian social history? Very surely it is 'Thol Seelai Kalagam' (Shoulder Cloth Riots: Known Falsehoods and Unknown Truths) published by South Indian Social History Research Institute (SISHRI also www.sishri.org). The team of two authors is an unique combination: Thiru. A.Ganesan a social activist and community leader and Thiru. S.Ramachandran - a reputed epigraphist of Tamil inscriptions.

This particular historical event that forms the core of discussion of the book stretches across decades from early 19th century to its middle in Southern Travancore kingdom of what is now known as Kanyakumari district. In public perception today this historic agitation is the result of the civilizing mission of the missionaries who educated the oppressed Chanar (Nadar) people and civilized them so that they started claiming human dignity and self respect for themselves assisted by the British missionaries. This narrative has been told and retold to reinforce the idea of Hindu civilization as inherently oppressive while colonialism and Christianity being inherently liberating as well as egalitarian.

The authors have examined this public perception of history in a painstaking manner going through first hand accounts, archival material, epigraphic evidence and socio-economic conditions of that period. Were the Chanars barbaric uncivilized slaves kept in such a state by upper ruling classes of pre-British India? Were they civilized and made aware of their human dignity only after the advent of colonialism and Christianity? These are the questions the book seeks to answer. Also the book brings out forcibly what lessons the historic events have for the present and posterity in terms of social harmony and social justice.

The strength of this work is its exhaustive documentation from various sources - including missionary archives, British- East India Company correspondence, Court judgments, letters of the British bureaucrats and of course epigraphic data which has been harmonized in tune with the social reality. The researchers do not cull out data to support their assertion, rather they quote the entire document, its social context and arrive at their results. Usually in social researchers this is a rare honesty -particularly for those who research in the social histories of India.

For example, both in protestant missionary literature as well as in current socio-political discourses a picture is consistently constructed depicting Nadar community as being uncivilized or minimally civilized slaves. But the very 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 uncivilized slaves as missionaries and their successors would like us to believe. But through the propaganda that the very native donors were uncivilized slaves the ungrateful missionaries in utterly unscrupulous manner milked their European donors.

Where does lie the importance of this book? The book deconstructs the powerful images that the missionaries have built for themselves from the colonial period to the present day. The book also questions the assumption that Hindu society is inherently incapable of egalitarian social reforms. Our society is pluralistic. Indic Jaathi system (falsely termed caste) is pluralistic and capable of a range of social dynamics. It has helped Hindu culture and spiritual traditions withstand a variety of attacks. However with the advent of modern age of imperialism and colonial globalism the Jaathi relations underwent a qualitative metamorphosis which was dark and mostly pyramidal. This has resulted in Jaathi relations becoming perceived as abusive, exploitative and divisive. British colonial administration used every trick in the trade to reinforce these perceptions at one hand and tried to make them as much abusive as possible by siding with upper sections of the newly reinterpreted caste pyramids.

Unless we understand the historical processes, economic relations, social intentions and dynamics that have shaped these newly evolved caste pyramids of colonial eras we cannot understand the social history of our communities and the relations between them. The authors provide exactly that data and trace the chain of events at various levels.

A picture emerges. On the one hand colonial forces, the East India Company as well as London Mission and Society for the Propagation of Gospels (SPG) missionaries create an environment that divides the society. On the other hand those communities which have power try to exploit those in the lower rungs of the society. What complicates the picture is this: those in the lower rungs of the society and for that matter those in the upper echelons of the society have not been there perpetually. It is a dynamic system. However what now newly enters is the advent of the British as a colonial force which makes the powerful upper sections powerless. They in turn vent out their anger at those on the lower section in abusive and inhuman ways.

The exploitation is economical and is a chain reaction of the capital drain started by British. The social reactions range from violence to cultural abuse and subjugation of vulnerable sections. This creates an ideal milieu for large scale religious conversions. British subtly encourage this:

On the one hand the British Regent compelled Travancore government to pay the British Rs eight lakhs annually as protectorate. This resulted in Travancore government to levy new taxes. In 1807 CE alone Rs 18523 was collected as palm tree tax. Those communities like Ezhavas, Channars, Cherumars, Chambavas and Pulayas had to pay individual head tax for individuals in the age of 16 to 60. And under this tax Rs 1,63,000 was collected annually. The government exempted Nayyars, Vellalas, Muslims and Kanmalas communities from paying these taxes. (page.84)

Apart from this a printing press was started for Christian propaganda at London. For this press, papers were imported for which there was no import tax. Those who got converted to Christianity were given special concessions. The administrative restrictions created by the Travancore state, with the prompting of British from behind the curtains, were resented by all sections of the society. Already during the sordid episode of Velu Thampi Thalavai, the Nayar community had tasted the cruelty of punishment that would be inflicted upon them if they were to revolt against the British. Even as these social tensions were building up, In 1815, then the Travancore regent Col. Manroe made an announcemnt that the converted Shanars need not pay the tax levied on them by the state to pay through physical labor 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 have to pay the land. This made the landed class - Vellalas- get frustrated with impotent anger.

But it was not the land owners alone who got affected by these acts. The land-laborers -mostly the scheduled castes- were affected by these 'reforms'. They were hitherto being paid in grains and they bartered these grains in the markets. But with the market value of grains following down, they had to move to urban centers for their existence. Here they were converted and were taken as bonded laborers to colonies outside India. Particularly the Sambhava community suffered in this fashion.

Thus various factors were slowly evolving deepening the social faultlines rather than harmonizing and easing them out. At one point an internal social confrontation became inevitable:

Because of this the anti-Christian particularly anti-London Mission sentiments started burning in the psyche of Nayar-Vellala community. A small conflict between converted and non-converted Shanars in a small village at 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. (page.94)

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. The answer is perhaps in the chapter titled 'Sacred Saint from the Grove of Poovandar'. This is about Ayya Vaikundar - a social reformer and spiritual warrior venerated by the people of Kanykumari district as the Avatar of Maha Vishnu Himself. 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 exploitations of the weaker sections of the society.

The genius of Ayya Vaikundar has not been properly recognized 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 is Ayya Vaikundar who reformulated the traditional leadership role of his own community but at the same time collected the oppressed sections of all society without any discrimination and forged an alliance against the casteist-colonial state of Travancore. From Barbers to Mathva Brahmins -then oppressed in the Travancore state- he created a powerful alliance for social justice and spiritual conservation of Indic traditions. In the words of authors:

(Cattle herding communities like)Ayyars, Kurup (Krishna-clan, artisan communities like masons, smiths and also manual laborers like Dhobis and many depressed communities became his devotees. (page.115)

Not only that, he also reconverted the converted people to their ancestral folds. Here authors are astonished by the authentic re-formulation of traditional history of the oppressed community by Ayya Vaikundar. Every word of his seems to be imbibed with uncanny accuracy of historic knowledge and traditional wisdom.

Ayya vaikundar calls his people 'Children of the eye'. This is not simply a call of endearment but has a mythological motif weaved into it. Ancient inscriptions speak of Chanars as 'Eye-Chanars'. Upamanyu Bhatha Vilasam calls them as 'Witnessing Clan borne Nobles', 'Preceptors of (martial) arts' etc. It is this tradition that is being recognized and revived by Ayya Vaikundar's call of 'Children of the eye'. Ayya Vaikundar obtained Maha Samadhi on 1851 June 3 (Kerala Calendar : Vaikasi 21 Kollam 1026) During his last days he was at a village called Osaravillai where he established a temple similar in its numerical dimensions to the Chidambaram temple - which was the traditional coronation centre of Chola kings. Similar to the Lingam of the Ether or Space in Chidambaram Ayya Vaikundar established a roof with 96 fittings which symbolized the Chithasa beyond the 96 principles in Saivaite theology. Vaikundar proclaimed his Dharma Yuga rule - rule of the righteous eon from this village. He had already condemned proselytizers as being ignorant of Chithakasa concept which pervades all existence. His establishment of this place of worship with such symbolism was a reaffirmation of this truth. (pages.116, 118-9)

For the first time Indian socio-historic event has been studied from the wider aspect of colonial mindset and its socio-economic impact. Even this approach has been foreboded in Ayya Vaikundar. Perhaps he was the first Indian philosopher-saint to make this critique of colonial historiography and wanted Indians to frame their own framework for studying these problems. For example after terming 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 and made into a crisp verse the authors have converted and confirmed through this elaborate study. The modern Hindu intellectual criticism of colonialism should start with Ayya Vaikundar.

However let us see the kind of picture that the missionary scholar far esteem Bishop Caldwell gives of the same Shanar community. The authors say:

According to Caldwell Shanars came to India as refugees from Sri Lanka and climbing palms for toddy making was their livelihood. Caldwell further stated that the Shanars were never accorded an elevated status in the social hierarchy of Hindu society and their worship also was far removed from Vedic Hinduism and was constituted by worship of minor deities. The missionary saw them as 'dense and ignorant'. (page 131)

The reason why Caldwell fabricated such a false picture of Nadars or Shanars was not because of ignorance. The more he portrayed the Shanars as uncivilized more his mission of conversion would be perceived with sympathy and awe by the Europeans and that meant more opening of big purses and flow of funds for conversion.

An important falsehood spread by the missionaries was that the shoulder dress revolt was supported and even prompted by their civilizing mission which gave Nadars for the first time the sens of self dignity. Is this true? The authors for the first time go through the archival material of missionary correspondence of that time and prove from the writings of missionaries themselves that it was because of the ancestral civilization pride and change in the socio-political conditions that the Shanars rose against this inhuman subjugation of the communities suppressed by the Travancore state. Heathen women of Shanar caste had been wearing long before upper garments and they were fighting only to revive their old lost right agree the missionaries then (page.140) But now they depict Nadars as uncivilized exploited slaves for whom civilization and redemption were brought by missionaries. Such is the abject falsification of history by missionary propaganda!

It is not just the shoulder cloth revolt, but in each and every issue of social conflict British and missionaries had adapted a subtle, intelligent position which promoted injustice but put the blame on the Indian culture while British administrators pulled strings from behind the curtains. An example is the temple entry rights of Shanars. Vellalas who were competing with Shanars for higher ranking in social hierarchy tried to project Shanars as communities prohibited from entering the famous Subramaniya temple of Thiruchendur. However Shanars produced epigraphic evidence showing their traditional Kshatriya status. A Siva Brahmana from Thiruvanakka Pachur Shanar Mutt produced clinching evidence in favor of Shanars. So in 1872 the case judgement went in favor of Shanars.

In the 1872 census Shanars were registered as 'Pandya Kula Kshatriyas'. Howver in 1890 the scenario had changed. When Rameshwaram princely state ruler Bhaskara Sethupathi went to court against the right of Nadars to enter the Madurai temple, it was Caldwell's portrayal of Nadars which was presented as the evidence of their 'low status' in Hindu society. Meanwhile an out of court settlement was being planned between Nadar community leaders and Bhaskara Sethupathi which was scuttled by the British government. The British collector in a letter sent veiled warning to the prinecely state ruler against such settlement. Either the Nadars would be subdued or would be converted to Christianity, and in both cases they would not bother about temple entry the collector said. However if after the out of court settlement any violence was to erupt then Sethupathi would be held responsible the collector threatened. Sure enough in the case that followed the Shanars were denied the right to enter the temple. Interestingly the Chidambaram Deekshitas testified in favor of the temple entry rights of the Nadars and were humiliated in the court by the judge for their stand. (Pages:163-172)

What happened then also happens now. Those in the marginalized sections of the society are culturally alienated through dubious racial theories that have no basis in truth or history. However, there are also birth based discriminations in Indian history which are a hangover from pre-modern social systems which need to be changed. Usually the change happens gradually and society is eased out of tensions in ideal situations. But with the predatory civilization forces taking advantage of each and every social conflict those who seek to unite Hindus do not have the luxury of such healthy gradual changes. The Hindu society has to change itself radically or perish. It was the radical revolution of Ayya Vaikundar who not only uplifted the community in which he was born but formed an alliance of the depressed sections of the society is an excellent example for the Hinduthva forces to follow. At another level Hindus need to make holistic study of their history at macro and micro level and through various dimensions. Jaathi is not a thing to be painted black or white. It is a social institution that had served many purposes and today it is outliving its existence. Hindu society should treat with respect and ease out the system through its swan song. This book perhaps provides a historical guide to do that,

Shoulder Cloth Riots: Known Falsehoods and Unknown Truths (TholCiilaik Kalakam: Therintha Poikal, Theriyaatha Unmaikal)

Authors: S.Ramachandran and A.Ganesan

Publishers: South Indian Social History Research Institute, Chennai - 44

Price: Rs 100 Pages: 192.



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