The National Council of Educational Research and Training has drawn widespread criticsm in Kerala for its decision to delete from the Class 9 history textbook a chapter on the Channar Revolt, a 19th-century agitation by lower-caste Nadar women in the erstwhile kingdom of Travancore.

The Channar Revolt, or the upper cloth movement, which took place between 1813 and 1859, saw Nadar women defying diktats imposed by the upper castes that lower caste men and women must not clothe their upper bodies.

NCERT textbooks are used in schools affiliated to the Central Board of Secondary Education across the country.

The textbook in question is titled India and the Contemporary World. The Channar Revolt is included in the chapter titled Clothing: A Social History, which describes the history of clothing in India the 19th and 20th century.

Two other chapters – relating to the history of cricket in India and the livelihood of peasants and farmers – have also been deleted.

The three chapters were expunged from the Class 9 history textbook as part of a curriculum rationalisation exercise initiated by Human Resource Development Minister Prakash Javadekar, with the declared aim of reducing the burden on students.

This is the second textbook revision that the Narendra Modi government has ordered, reported the Indian Express. The revised textbooks will be published before the start of the new academic year in May.

Criticising the decision to drop the chapter on the Channar Revolt, the Renaissance Protection Committee, a platform of various community organisations under the aegis of Kerala government, said the Union government was attempting to erase the historic struggle of lower-caste women from the record.

Channar Revolt

The Channar Revolt was one of the early battles against caste oppression in Kerala.

It was triggered by the cruel and arbitrary rules that were imposed on members of the lower caste by the upper castes. Nadar men and women, for instance, were not allowed to cover their upper bodies before the dominant castes as it was considered a sign of disrespect. They were also prohibited from using umbrellas, donning footwear or wearing gold ornaments.

Unable to bear this oppression, several members of the Hindu Nadar community started converting to Christianity in the early 19th century. Starting from 1820, Nadar women also started wearing tailored blouses. Over the next decade, this led to several incidents in which members of the upper-caste Nair community, agitated at this display of defiance, attacked Nadar women who had covered their breasts, and stripped them of their blouses.

In 1829, the Travancore government issued a proclamation that Nadar women should abstain from covering their breasts. But the women ignored this decree. Over the years, this defiance led tensions to build up between the lower and upper castes. The tension exploded in January 1859, when severe riots broke out in Travancore in which Nadar women were not only attacked and stripped of their upper clothes, but Nadar homes were looted and their chapels burned. The riots lasted five months.

In July 1859, the King of Travancore issued another proclamation permitting Nadar women, whether Christian or Hindu, to wear a jacket of the kind Syrian Christan women wore, or to cover their upper bodies “in any manner whatever, but not like the women of high caste”.

Importance of history

Former minister and senior politician from the Nadar community A Neela Lohithadasan Nadar said the Channar Revolt demonstrated the Nadar community’s strong resolve to fight against caste oppression. “It was the first fight against caste oppression,” said Nadar. “It is still a matter of pride for the Nadar community. The revolt provides fuel for future agitations.”

He said the Channar Revolt was an important struggle against the caste system and that is why Hindutva forces do not like to discuss it. “Hindutva forces do not want to remind youngsters about the struggle against caste system,” said Nadar. “That is why the government removed the chapter from the textbooks.”

There are many reasons why the Brahminical order found the Channar Revolt disconcerting, said historian J Devika, who teaches at the Centre for Development Studies in Thiruvanathapuram. “It was an agitation against an extremely dehumanising practice legitimated by a Hindu King who was much celebrated for his contributions to devotional culture,” Devika said. “The lower caste women revolted against it with the help of missionaries.”

That the narrative of the Channar Revolt ran contrary to the traditional social reform movements in India was another reason for the disquiet among upper castes, she said. “We always hear about upper-caste elite men reforming people from the lower caste,” said Devika. “But the Channar Revolt is entirely different. Here the pace of the struggle was set by lower caste women who had braved the attacks by upper caste men to wear upper cloths. It was not a struggle just to protect their modesty. Of course, they were opposing sexual exploitation, but they also wanted caste equality.”

Kerala board

Several school teachers were disturbed at the NCERT decision.

“NCERT is ignoring important historical events like Channar Revolt,” said a history teacher at a Kendriya Vidyalaya in Kerala on condition of anonymity. Kendriya Vidyalayas follow the Central Board of Secondary Education.“At the same time, it has introduced a poem by the late BJP leader Atal Behari Vajpayee [in the Class 8 Hindi textbook]. This is pathetic.”

The Channar Revolt is also part of the curriculum of Kerala State Education Board schools, which use textbooks prepared by the State Council Educational Research and Training. These will not be affected by the NCERT revision.

“We have been teaching the Channar Revolt in Class 7 and Class 10,” said Balakrishnan, a history teacher in Kozhikode.

Kerala has 12,971 schools that follow the state board and 1,316 schools that follow the Central Board of Secondary Education.

Also read:

A Travancore Tale: The graphic story of Nangeli, the woman who cut off her breasts to protest a tax