Can an oft repeated folklore be really construed as history? This is the question that a considerable section of historians in Kerala have been asking while discussing the story of Nangeli, the woman who cut off her breasts to protest the alleged ‘mula karam’ or breast tax that was supposedly levied on women belonging to lower castes.
A story that had hitherto remained unknown suddenly found space in the mainstream media with many writers lauding Nangeli for ushering in the emancipation of women in the erstwhile Travancore Kingdom. The social inequalities that prevailed during the period in question and the atrocities committed on those belonging to lower castes are well documented and will remain the darkest chapters of the history of the Kingdom. The men and women belonging to the oppressed classes were denied the right to a dignified life and livelihood by the ruling elite. But the fact remains that for a story to find its place in the annals of history, it should be backed by sound evidence and logic. Unfortunately, when one takes a deeper look into the story of Nangeli, the lies slowly begin to unravel exposing a tale the authenticity of which can never be ascertained by even its most vociferous proponents.
The unfolding of facts
It was in the year 2013 that the interest in the story of Nangeli piqued with articles appearing in the mainstream media commemorating 200 years of her sacrifice. Tracing her roots to a place called Chertala in Kerala, her story was widely propagated as the most gruesome chapter in the history of Travancore kingdom. Interestingly an event that shook the very foundation of the kingdom does not find mention in any of the historical records. Neither is there any proof of a tax like ‘breast tax’ ever having been levied on the public.
When the timeline of the event is taken into consideration, the plausibility of the existence of such a tax diminishes even further. Going by the story in circulation, 1813 is the year that Nangeli is believed to have revolted against the system. Here, the time period is deeply problematic as by then all the administrative reforms were well documented by the kingdom. In addition to this, the presence of Christian missionaries meant that it was not just the positives but the negatives were also meticulously recorded. So, if there was indeed a tax as dastardly as breast tax in existence in Travancore, the story of Nangeli would have never been confined to a mere folklore. The event would have elicited scholarly discussions on tax reforms and human rights in a monarchy. Unfortunately, there are no evidences that point towards such a subject becoming the topic for debate anywhere in the kingdom.
Another interesting fact about the year 1813 is that it was the time when Travancore was reined by the regent queen Gouri Lakshmi Bayi with Resident Colonel John Munro as the kingdom’s Dewan. Together, they implemented some far reaching social and economic reforms that rooted out many of the then prevalent malpractices. The most prominent among them was the introduction of a modern judicial system thereby ending the practice of giving both the administrative and judicial power to a single officer. The police were also reorganised to check corruption and high-handedness. This meant that the subjects of the kingdom could resort to judicial recourse if their rights were being exploited.
Among the important social reforms implemented by the Queen was abolishing the purchase and sale of all slaves which gave castes like Ezhavas and Kaniyans freedom from bonded labour. A restriction put on the Sudras and other lower castes for wearing gold and silver ornaments were also removed. This again is important because according to the story circulated Nangeli belonged to the lower castes. How could have tax been levied on a section that had till the issue of the Proclamation did not even have the right to freedom from the landed classes? This is a question that needs much pondering over.
The merging of propaganda and history
History when not supported by facts can become a potent tool to create divisions in the social fabric. More than spreading hatred, it takes away the right of entire generations to know and understand their roots. Once such example is that of Channar Rebellion which was largely construed as the fight of the Nadar women to cover their breasts. The fact that was conveniently omitted out of the discourse was that it was the fight to cover their upper body in a particular way. In 1813 when Colonel John Munro issued an order allowing women who have converted to Christianity to cover their upper body, what unsettled them was they were denied the right to wear clothes like upper classes women. The Channar rebellion was a fight against caste differences and for the right to equality. Instead of perceiving it the way it is, the current discourse surrounding it has given it a religious undertone and made it the saga of oppression of one religion by another.
Also, it needs to be understood that the covering of upper body was a practice that the British rule brought with it. In a society that was essentially matrilineal, the concept of dignity was not attached to the covering of breasts. Though it is a concept that might seem crude in today’s times, the society then rested on different ideals. It is a fact that historians need to understand when analysing the events that unfolded centuries ago from a vantage point.
All the instances stated are not to discredit the trying times the oppressed classes were put through by the ruling elite. But the questions raised are important in giving a comprehensive view of history. It is vital that a folklore is not propagated as history. By doing so, what is being spread is a particular school of thought that has irresponsibly thrown around the question of Dalit rights to make their point. Nangeli’s story in all probability is a medium that a certain section has used to oppose the present political climate. But keeping the speculations apart, let us as a nation strive to preserve its history. Let there be an atmosphere where the students are taught to probe into facts before ascertaining the authenticity of a story. If this is not done, the day is not far when history will be written and rewritten to suit the whims and fancies of some powerful elements in society and facts will be lost forever.