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A Victorian era struggle for a shoulder cloth and against caste strictures

In this excerpt from his book ‘Caste Pride’, Manoj Mitta recounts the protest of the Kerala Nadars in the 1800s to win the right to wear clothing of their choice

Pokkali rice variety farming in Kerala. (Photo credit: K.A. Shaji)
Pokkali rice variety farming in Kerala. (Photo credit: K.A. Shaji)

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On 1 November 1858, shortly after the British Crown had taken over from the East India Company, Queen Victoria made a proclamation. Disclaiming any intention ‘to impose our convictions on any of our subjects’, Victoria affirmed that ‘none [shall] be in any wise favoured, none molested or disquieted by reason of their religious faith or observance’, and that all shall enjoy ‘equal and impartial protection of the law’. A restatement of the colonial relationship, it was meant to provide a healing touch to a country recovering from the great uprising. 

But the proclamation had a curious effect in Travancore—a princely state on the southwestern tip of peninsular India that had little to do with the 1857 revolt. Like other princely states, it was ruled indirectly by the British under a subsidiary alliance. 

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The proclamation led to an escalation of caste tensions in Travancore. The Malayalam translation of it apparently intensified a local skirmish in which men of the dominant Nair caste assaulted both men and women of the Nadar caste. Their objective was violent—they wanted Nadar women to uncover their breasts. 

The assailants converted Victoria’s proclamation into a licence to revive a misogynous practice: that lower-caste women should be, as a token of their inferiority, bare-breasted in public. This caste restriction was enforced particularly against Nadars, who were known then as Shanars. They were an assertive lot for a variety of reasons, including conversions to Christianity, exposure to education, increase in economic strength, abolition of slavery in India in 1843 and the relatively greater freedom enjoyed by their caste counterparts in the contiguous areas of the Madras Presidency. 

The prohibition on lower-caste women covering any part of the body above the waist and below the knee was part of an elaborate set of caste restrictions that were peculiar to Travancore and its vicinity in the nineteenth century. Another aspect of such restrictions was the notion of graded distance pollution. The greater the difference in caste status, the larger the physical distance that a lower-caste member was required to maintain from an upper-caste member.

Accordingly, a Nadar had to keep away by as much as thirty-six paces from a Nambudiri, who, as a Malayalam-speaking Brahmin, embodied the apex of the caste hierarchy in the Kerala region. In keeping with the logic of these varying levels of purity and pollution, the distance that a Nadar was ordained to maintain from a Nair was only twelve paces. 

Though the Nambudiris and Nairs comprised the landed aristocracy in Travancore, the Nambudiris, who were the arbiters on caste matters, relegated the Nairs to the status of Shudras, the lowest in the four-tier varna system. Therefore—despite the fact that the Nairs constituted the bulk of Travancore’s military—they were alternatively referred to as ‘Soodras’ in contemporaneous official documents and press reports. 

On the other hand, the Nadars were stigmatised for their traditional occupation of toddy-tapping—although they too claimed to be Shudras, even if only at the bottom of that category. Since they were considered beneath the varna hierarchy, the Nadars were subjected to the disabilities of untouchability, including restrictions on carrying an umbrella and wearing shoes or gold ornaments. It was because untouchability was practised most egregiously in the Kerala region that it saw the highest percentage of conversions to Christianity, especially from the Nadar community.

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In deference to the Nairs, the Hindu rulers of Travancore did precious little to protect Nadar women from being stripped and shamed. Instead, on 27 December 1858, the Travancore administration came out with an order that blamed the violence on the victims for covering their bosoms with what was called the shoulder cloth. Indeed, all that was in dispute in tangible terms was an unstitched garment that was used to cover the breasts and therefore referred to variously as the shoulder cloth or breast cloth or upper cloth. At the time, even the higher-caste women in Travancore did not wear a stitched garment, such as a jacket or a blouse. 

Therefore, the wearing of that unstitched garment by Nadar women was deemed an infringement on the prerogative of the higher castes. The upper-caste sentiment was offended even though the alleged caste marker was worn by the Nairs and Nadars in their own different ways. As a contemporaneous news report put it, ‘while the Soodra woman wears a distinct small cloth over one shoulder, crossing the breast, and brought down to the waist on the opposite side, the Shanar woman wears a continuation of the body cloth itself brought up over one shoulder in a similar style’.

In the legalistic approach adopted by the government, the Nadars fell foul of the law by their mere act of wearing the shoulder cloth. Though discriminatory, the existing usage was deemed sacrosanct. Calling out the troops, the government ordered that Nadar women who persisted in wearing the shoulder cloth were liable to face strict action. 

Whereas some Shanar women, contrary to the usage which has prevailed up to this time, are now wearing the shoulder cloth, in consequence of which disturbances are taking place between Shanars and the higher castes, and whereas, if it were thought desirable to set aside a usage of such antiquity, the proper way would be to make a representation on the subject to government and act according to the orders that government might issue, whilst it is clearly wrong to violate ancient usage without authority, it is therefore hereby announced, that whoever does so in future, shall be severely punished. Shanars are to hear this and act accordingly.

 The authority issuing this regressive order was ironically the very dewan or prime minister who reputedly modernised Travancore and developed it into a ‘model state’ in the nineteenth century. That dewan was Tanjore Madava Row, whose statue is a landmark in Thiruvananthapuram, standing right in front of the Kerala Secretariat. In fact, the seat of the state government is known as Statue Junction. In the crucial phase of reconstruction that followed the 1857 revolt, Madava Row was an inspirational figure across India. He demonstrated successively, in Travancore and two more princely states, that Indians were capable of governing themselves. 

For all his contributions, though, Madava Row, a Marathi-speaking Brahmin from the Madras Presidency, was a laggard in the sphere of social reform. Anticipating Justice K.T. Telang’s approach to social reform of taking ‘the line of least resistance’, he advocated his own brand of pragmatism, as evident from a posthumously published compilation of his opinions. ‘Do not attempt to abolish all caste distinctions … Every social reformer discards judicious judgment and wants to assert intellectual excellence or independence by rushing to extremes and wants to display a heroic spirit by attempting present impossibilities; the consequence being that little or nothing is actually achieved.’

Madava Row’s rejection of the Nadar women’s right to wear the shoulder cloth lay in his theory of unalterability, that is, ‘The quantity, quality and style of dress must generally remain unalterable.’ Alluding to the violence over the Nadar women altering their dress, Madava Row said: ‘I know that European missionaries have attempted a change in some places, but have failed except in a few individuals and in their presence. The impossibility of altering costume or dress must be particularly recognized in the case of women.’ He drew on precedents to maintain the status quo forbidding Nadar women to cover their breasts with the shoulder cloth....

Travancore was one of the tributary states of the Madras Presidency. In his first report on the caste violence to the Madras government, dated 13 January 1859, the British resident of Travancore, Lt Gen. William Cullen, wrote that ‘the wearing of the cloth by Shanar women, like that of the Sudras [Nairs], had led gradually to violent outrages and quarrels and almost to an insurrection’.  But Cullen’s superiors in Madras were equally concerned about his own accountability—especially since he was found to have taken no step to prevent the Travancore government from reacting intolerantly to the Nadars’ legitimate aspirations. The Nadar inhabitants of Travancore flagged their misgivings about Cullen’s role in representations to the Madras government....

In the light of such petitions, as also reports regarding the ongoing violence in Travancore, the governor of the Madras Presidency, George Harris, held a meeting with his officials on the matter on 26 January 1859. The day after these proceedings of the Governor in Council (the formal designation for the governor and his cabinet), the chief secretary to the Madras government, Thomas Pycroft, wrote a sharply worded letter to Cullen, instructing him ‘to be careful to give no countenance to the idea that the British government recognises any exclusive distinctions, or the right of any set of men to prevent others from following, in all matters of social or domestic life, such course as they may see fit, provided it be not repugnant to public decency and morals’.

As a corollary, Pycroft urged Cullen to impress upon the Travancore rajah that prohibitions, such as those contained in the 1814 and 1829 orders, were ‘unsuited to the present age and unworthy of an enlightened prince, and that he is not to look for the support of the British government in any attempts to maintain them, as respects any class of his subjects’. This stinging note led to a prolonged and telling correspondence between Madras and Travancore on the unlikely subject of whether—or how—certain women could cover their breasts.

Excerpted with permission from Caste Pride: Battles for Equality in Hindu India by Manoj Mitta, published by Westland Books

Manoj Mitta is a Delhi-based journalist focusing on law, human rights and social justice.

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