Tinkering with History Textbooks-The Case of Channar Revolt
Politics over history textbooks is a bane of modern India. In the month of March this year, National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) under the political dispensation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi decided to drop chapter on Channar revolt (upper cloth movement) in History textbooks of Class 9, a 19th century agitation by lower caste Nadar women in erstwhile kingdom of Travancore against diktats of upper caste members where women were not supposed to cover upper part of their bodies marks a step backward in academics. It was reasoned that expunging of these chapters has been done under curriculum rationalization. However, the selection of chapters raises important questions on inclusion of events of caste struggles in history curricula. It is widely acknowledged that study of History as a parent discipline has ignited countless inquiries and investigations into various aspects of human life through ages. The expanse of History as a discipline cuts across geographies, ethnicities and civilizations. It cannot be gainsaid that study of History is basically plural in character. Learning history is not trickery. It is certainly not defined by a limited spectrum of events and epochs. Rather, it is about a profound examination of people and their place in society through various stages of human evolution. It is not just about the political regimes, social systems and religious mores.
Appreciation of history is also about rigidity and flexibility of social values through rough and tumble of life in general. Scholarship on the subject has grown over the years. Now inquiry goes beyond the mundane visitation of empires and kingdoms, but also encompasses environmental history, food history and detailed examination of customary social practices. It is also very much now about lifestyle to which people were accustomed to in the past, food choices and availability of this choice for different classes and castes, labour relations, caste practices, community belief systems, occupations and apparel choices. The exploration of the subject now ventures into the realm of interdisciplinary studies with historians delving into biographies of people, towns, complex socio-economic patterns in societies and even tracing evolution and growth of scientific components of the past. For instance, historians like Rob Boddice have produced a work titled The History of the Emotions which pitches for study of emotions as a historical category and promotes interdisciplinary research. Any historical inquiry cannot afford to be monolithic but ideally should propel towards a plural appraisal of the past. Several views and counter views need to co-exist in scholarly discourses.
School students learning the craft of history must be introduced to diverse strands of history and it is best to leave them to analyse, discuss and debate the different aspects of history. Once academic curiosity is stimulated in a student, who knows one day he may go on to undertake serious academic pursuit in the discipline and contribute fully in the intellectual growth of nation. It also needs to be observed that at times history is perceived in a certain way by societies to give succor and reassurance to their predilections, fantasy, imagination, pain or even political skullduggery. While discussing the craft of historian, EH Carr in his seminal work “What is History” had observed that historians are prone to pass moral judgments on events. He argued that Germans welcome the denunciation of Hitler’s individual wickedness as a satisfactory alternative to the moral judgment of the historian of the society which produced him.Caste struggles are vital to the understanding of Indian society as caste and related disabilities mar the social life of a big section of our population.
Relevance of Caste Struggles
Caste struggles and caste atrocities dot the landscape of India. Not a single day passes when a caste atrocity is not reported. Caste struggles in different parts of India in pre independence era were led by personalities like Jyotiba Phule and Dr.BR Ambedkar, but there were also struggles which were localized in character like the Channar revolt. We need to recognize their contribution in the larger narrative of caste struggle. Students need to learn about them as well. Reforms movement like the Channar revolt are significant as these emerged out of the collective conscience of lower caste community against sustained tide of victimization at the hands of caste system with all its handicaps. Study of history has evolved with the passage of time and needless to say, it includes diverse voices, studies, and case based analyses than ever before. Why ignore harsher truths like caste based discrimination perpetrated at home? A society which refuses to face demons lurking in the backyard can never rise above sectarian beliefs. Denial of students to an enriched academic exposure of caste struggle does not sit well with the contemporary academic developments in the field of Dalit literature. Needless to say, Dalit literature has carved a niche in the world of academia by proposing serious arguments and reasons through biographies, caste chronicles, personal histories, poems, essays and diverse narratives. Names like Kancha Ilaiah, Om Prakash Valmiki, Bama, Meena Kandasamy, Namdeo Dhasal constitute a distinct set of intellectuals and thinkers who cannot be brushed aside while appreciating Dalit literature.
Why Channar revolt should be taught?
Perhaps there are very few parallels of well articulated social protest movements like the Channar revolt which took place in erstwhile kingdom of Travancore. World over, Rosa Parks is feted as torchbearer of gender rights and emancipation of Blacks as she is said to have stood up while asserting her right to retain her seat in Montgomery Bus Protest (United States of America) incident on December 1, 1955. In comparison, Channar revolt acquires an equally grand halo around it as the courage demonstrated by lower caste women in this case transcends social opprobrium and ostracism.
Why do we say, democracy is a good model for governance? If democracy and its evolution as viable political system is taught by drawing comparisons with dictatorship of Nazi Germany, then it makes much sense to teach caste discrimination not just by pointing out some discriminatory practices but also taking into account the voices which became vantage point of protest and led to overthrowing of hegemonic and rigid caste related practices over a period of time. Often, in classroom teaching, symbols and attendant motifs of power of oppressive socio-political systems are recalled to drive home the point that democracy affords better protection of individual rights and facilitate an environment where the talent potential of citizens is exploited and families and societies benefit from same and advance in life.
Should the students not learn about the horrors of caste discrimination? Can caste discrimination be understood by simply referring to the Varna order and the position of Sudras at the bottom of the hierarchy? Specific actions of denial of rightful claims and sustained discrimination of lower castes in public life populate the universe of caste discrimination. It is by visiting and revisiting these symbols and indicators of caste discrimination that a learner of history can situate caste bias and resultant inequality and its continuity in public discourse. What better way to teach struggle against caste bias by teaching about a movement like Channar revolt led by lower caste women of Nadar community?
Atrocities committed on Dalits are well documented and recognized academically. Dalits were not allowed to drink from the same vessel. Dalits were not allowed to learn. Innumerable indignities were heaped upon them and brutal assault also has never been an exception. Dalits, it can be said irreproachably, even today face societal boycott for minor acts like riding a mare during marriage processions and are often forced to leave their dwelling abode for daring to challenge rigid caste hierarchy.
Decision to junk Channar revolt (the upper cloth movement) is disappointing news for students. Channar revolt is a chapter of extraordinary courage of Dalit women in history. It is something worth inspiring and motivating for all. It can serve as a lighthouse of hope for dogged struggle against caste oppression. Fighting dogma and discrimination is an ongoing process as caste discrimination cannot be just wished away. Movements like Channar revolt need to be shared and discussed in classrooms. It needs to be shared so that future generations realize that human dignity and securing womanhood rights especially for Dalit women was never a one day event and is not still a reality. Erasing chapters of significance like Channar revolt from history books will foreclose critical inquiry into history. Movements like the Channar revolt deserve academic focus. Two other chapters relating to the history of cricket in India and the livelihood of peasants and farmers which have been proposed to be deleted should also be taught as these represent plurality of historical understanding. The study of history goes beyond the simplistic linear development of cause and effect of an event. It must include diverse voices and viewpoints as expressed through pieces of writing, archaeological evidence, oral traditions, ballads and movements to enrich the critical learning faculty of students.
- TA Ameerudheen, NCERT decision to remove chapter on caste struggle in Kerala from history textbooks draws criticism, https://scroll.in/,https://scroll.in/article/917353/ncert-decision-to-remove-chapter-on-caste-struggle-in-kerala-from-history-textbook-draws-criticism,1-2
- Carr E.H. (1961)What is History, UK, Penguin
- Omvedt Gail (2012), Understanding Caste: From Buddha to Ambedkar and Beyond, New Delhi, Orient Blackswan,
- Boddice, Rob,(2018)The History of Emotions, Manchester University Press