Textbook wars hit India

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tags: education, textbooks



Do you remember the story of Nangeli, an Ezhava woman from Cherthala in Kerala? Her powerful and haunting gesture in protest of breast taxes – chopping off her breasts and handing them to the tax collector on a plantain leaf before dying from the loss of blood – is a local legend, but missing from official archives. Over the last few years her story has been revived in some cultural spaces, but it once ran the risk of fading into oblivion. According to Kerala-based painter T. Murali, who has illustrated her horrific story in paintings, it is a reminder of how hideous epochs in the history of India’s caste relations can be all too easily forgotten.

“We can’t teach students about Nangeli’s sacrifice in textbooks yet because there is no exact date for it, and needs more evidence,” he says. “But my book Amana uses paintings to bring her story to life.”

We may just be witnessing another bout of forced amnesia about caste atrocities. On Monday, 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 an 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, 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. This was perceived as a sign of respect towards the ‘upper’ castes, and the Nadars had to pay a mulakkaram or ‘breast tax’ if they chose to cover themselves. In 1822, the practice sparked a series of violent agitations known as Maru Marakkal Samaram, or the Channar Revolt, where women from the Nadar and Ezhava communities demanded the right to wear the same clothing as ‘upper’ caste women. Hostility around the issue continued until 1858 because the Nadar women were unsatisfied with the compromises they were being asked to make – those who were Christian converts were allowed to wear a kuppayam (a jacket-blouse of sorts), but not allowed to wear any apparel in the style of Nair women, who wore an upper cloth around their torsos.




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