Saturday, April 5, 2008

The Subterranean Caste in Kerala

It might seem hard to believe that discrimination based on caste exists in the modernized social set up in Kerala, the image projected being contrary to the fact, either as part of a well calculated programme of the implementation of caste system or as a social reality that is practiced without being aware of it. With the presence of the Progressive left parties, which sees all struggle as class struggle and only as class struggle, either straight or distorted, the reality of caste discrimination is back grounded, but never eliminated. It still pervades the society, with the perpetrators of it in Kerala being intelligent enough to do it with a fine sense of perfection and skill that it does not attract the atrocity act. Conversation with Prof. Yesudasan, the HOD of Department of English CMS College, Kottayam, Kerala, opened up certain “subterranean operation of caste system in Kerala”. This form of casteism can be broadly identified into politics and religion, though these are not the only manifestations of it.
Politics:
Kerala has a political set up which leaves the voters with practically no electoral choice- it is either the Congress led United Democratic Front [UDF] or the Left Democratic Front [LDF]. The prevailing notion that the UDF is a pro rich political group has resulted in the flourishing of the Left in the state, which commits the fundamental fallacy of overlooking caste as a reason for social discrimination. In addition, the pride that the society takes in calling itself educated and modern prevents it from blunt caste discrimination as is seen in other states of the country. This does not mean that Kerala society is caste free; neither is the Marxist Party. Caste discrimination still exists, with its long history of poverty and discrimination.
At the higher level, where Chief Minister of Kerala, Com. V.S. Achudananthan is projected as traditional, a non-techno man, ignorant of globalization, caste operates wrapped in what Prof. Yesudasan calls “scientific explanations”. At an intermediate level, Dalit women activists are rarely offered a post in the Party and are compelled to leave the Party, like C.K. Janu, the founder of the Adivasi Gothra Mahasabha. At a lower level, Marxism, one of the best humanistic ideologies, dehumanizes Dalits to the level of political hooligans, for the benefit of the higher ups in the Party. The diminishing number of membership in the Party in Kerala, as is expressed in the Coimbatore Party Congress 2008 can be traced to such inhuman tendencies.
As Kerala developed, sons of the forest were thrown on to the streets. They are deprived of all modernity, except for the way they dress. Their language is not educated, for that is yet to reach them. But the modern notion of wild life protection has reached them, displacing them of the right to have a living from forest. Neither of the political Fronts has been able to solve their problems. This led to recent agitations like the ones in Changara, referred to by Arundhati Roy in her interview. (Please find the interview at the end of the article). An attitude to extend a helping hand is lacking. But why? Is it because they are expected to tolerate, the strange argument being they are used to it? But who has made them so and why is nothing being done towards their cause? In an era of modernization, democracy and universal brotherhood, this lapse can be traced down to nothing but the operation of an undercurrent of caste discrimination by the rulers.
Religion:
The two major religions under consideration in the study of caste discrimination in Kerala are Christianity and Islam. Both do not recognize caste. The Muslims of Kerala have their internal divisions based on belief and class, not caste. Christianity has a peculiar attitude to caste and conversion. There are sects within the Christians, who believe in ethnic purity (the Knanaya Community for instance) and others who claim Brahminic identity (saying they were the decedents of the Brahmins who were converted to Christianity by St. Thomas). These Christians and Hindus share the same ritual purity and sacred rules. They harbor a pride and superiority, and practice endogamy to maintain this purity. Yet, there are Christian sects and missionaries who preach brotherhood and equality.
Conversions do happen in Kerala, though it does not concern the religious polity of the state. Interestingly, much of these conversions are either inter sect conversions or inter religious, with the Dalits forming the majority of the converts. This was mainly for a community identity, which was not possible in Kerala. While, in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu the Dalit working class was tied to the land of the landlord and thus fragmented, did not live as a community. Also, Christianity exposed them to modernity and modern education. Even though the plight of the Dalits is better in Kerala compared to other states, the plight of Dalit identity and sense of the Dalit community are more in other states. This unity was brought about by Christianity. The role played by the Pentecost church which is a Dalit church predominantly, has been great towards social reform. Yet what makes the attitude of Christianity in Kerala peculiar is its being modern and casteist simultaneously. The society looks down upon these Dalit churches.There are instances, as Sarah Joseph point out in her novel Othappu, where a converted Christian is allowed to take only a distorted form of the an original Christian name (Ousep for Joseph, Chacko for Jacob etc.). There are churches which consider the Dalits as the object of their charity, providing modern facilities, but hesitate to have a Dalit priest. *some text missing*
Need for Connectivity
In Kerala, the need of the hour is to unite the Dalits, by reforming the education system. Thanks to the lower financial status, majority of the Dalits attend government schools, while the non Dalits prefer English medium schools, more suited for professional courses. Apart from the quality of education, there is a serious ghettoization happening from the grass root level. Reservations are only a token help. What is required is a legitimate share in opportunities to reach a level when reservations are no more required. The scattered Dalit communities are required to unite to claim for itself a culture and tradition which is no inferior but at par with any other similar culture and tradition. As Prof. Yesudasan says, “Not denying education alone is not enough. The education provided should lead to the cultural connectivity and unification of the Dalit community.”

14 comments:

Oommen said...

Part of a well-made documentary on Caste. May be helpful.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=49MjqSI1XAw
There's a second part of the video too, along with some related clips.
Thanks

K.M.Venugopalan said...

This piece, read together with the interview with Arundhati Roy makes excellent commentary of how the institution of caste operates in Kerala . With its too many insidious elements that escape the attention of both the outsiders as well as quite a lot many of the 'leftist'insiders..

[bTW, please make the appearance of your blog more conducive to the eyes; for example, the white/red bright letters against the black background give much trouble in reading,esp when the texts are long...no suggestion is made here, as to the modifying of background, colours,etc, though..]
In fraternity,
K.M.Venugopalan

Editors said...

Hope this color-font scheme is more pleasing to the eye

Editors

But pappu can talk sala said...

See an interesting video

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vc8SZCv6sf0

The short film, made apparently by Syrian Christians, deserately attempts literally to prove that they are "upper caste Hindus". It proudly laps up a (very true to many extent, but actually shameful for any Syrian Christian) comment (made by Fr Philip in the film) that "Scratch a Christian, you will find a Hindu." Perhaps they do not dare to further scratch that Hindu to find a racist.

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Aps said...

who are cheruvils then?

Anonymous said...


The savarnas( the term was mainly used by namboothiris to denote themselves earlier) were much interested in creating castes and new subcastes.this created a lot of subcastes amoung the so called upperclass.bhrahmins of kerala was also divided by different subcastes.the top most is the wealthy namboothiris called as addyians and poor was called aasiyans. As found every where poor did't got much respect and their situation did't improved much. They were given jobs to assist wealthy namboothiris as servants.in the 20th century there were many namoothiri hotels which served food for money.but at first they were mainly intented for the bhrahmins,some permitted upto nairs but for them seperated place and plates were used.but avarnas were not served there.at that time all the workers in these hotels were namboothiri. Later it these namboothiri hotels meant reduced to the hotel name ,that means the workers were taken from all castes even from other religion too. All were allowed to dine there.

Even with highest social status the customs of bhrahmins of kerala was too pathetic. Only the first son of the family was allowed to marry.other sons have no right to marry.but they can mate with any women upto nairs. Not all but some kshatriya families of kerala were ready to allow their ladies to enter in relation with these namboothiris . the most infamous amoung these family was the cochin rulers or thrippunithura kovilakam.these practice created a lot of branches headed with seperated women. The namoothiris which entered in relation with these royal families were like in service or like given job.they were treated well money was given to them and to their familes. Ofcourse these money came from the state treasury and to the treasury from the working people.the income generating people were the farmers , traders and few industrialists.they made the majority of kerala population and consists mainly of so called avarnas which included ezhavar,pulayar and others.but they were not given recognition and rights. Ezhavars which forms the largest community of kerala is belived to be the Buddhist followers earlier.learning institutes were maintained by them which offered studying sanskrit and tamil languages. Medical treatment was one of their main occupation.anyone who is brilliant enough to learn sanskrit and medicine was allowed to learn in these institutes and can become a doctor. They were revered by the royal families and the namboothiris even during the period of untouchabilities. But the rules for untouchability was always relaxed when question of survival and workability comes.numerous stories and court case records shows these practices. Trade and factories were mainly run by the members belonged to this caste.

santhosh kumar said...

but why the caste name nair got so famous and became known to all keralites despite kerala was divided in different countries ruled by many kings.why was the caste name nair be selected and claimed as all same from kshtriyas to bottom most caste of savarnas as nair.its one of the classic examples which shows how the mind set of people can be changed with education which was far distanced or have no corelation to the actual facts.it has been shown earlier that the word nair itself was not considered as a good word and it contained a bad meaning attached to it and how untiringly many have tried to give new meaning to it.the word was not mentioned in any official records such as stone inscriptions,land records ,orders from the king etc.one other reason for this may be it denoted a very small subcaste mainly employed as house hold servents.even no good literature in the medivial kerala used that word.but there were some reference to this caste indirectly in some literatures such as chambu set of literature which uses a mixture language of malayalam and sanskrit ,which was more popular amoung the bhrahmins of kerala.but from the second quarter of 19th century this word nair became popular slowly.this was because of the modern english education.some how when portughese came to kerala they some how got the idea that the soldiers of kerala were all nairs.may be they called the soldiers as nairs.in the books and writings they wrote they used the word nair to denote the soldiers of kerala.they being came from a thick and last era of fedualism,where class division of society was strong ,they were easy pray to the misunderstanding that nairs where the soldiers or nairs alone where the soldiers of kerala.this misconcept was passed on to others and was continued by other europeans such as detch ,english and french.these other later europeans learned about kerala from the writings of portughese.they too absorbed the prejudice that nairs were all soldiers or the kerala soldiers were all nairs.this passed unchecked so mcuh that in almost all the writings the word nair was used to denote the army of kerala.when the english education was introduced in kerala in the second decade of 19th century ,this same misconcept was later taught to the kerala children in schools and thus the misconcept and prejudices were taught to the actual people itself.and above all even today many learned persons and even historians thinks that nairs are the only soldiers of kerala.But in reality many nairs were not soldiers or have nothing to do with warfare.

it have been shown earlier that the army commander of marthanda varma was anantha pathmanabhan who was a channan or nadar and not a nair.he was also the commander of the personal body guard battalion of the king.it consists of 36 warriors selected by the king personnaly.they were all channars.in many victorious battles conducted by marthanda varma the commander was ramayyan who was not a nair.his caste is not known clearly.he was born in tamilnadu and came into the serice of the travancore king at a very young age.for many years he was considered as a bhrahmin,but some have pointed out that he belonged to the maravar community of tamilnadu.what it is clear is that he is not a nair .kanakku ,pillai,chempaka raman etc were given as titles to the courters or to those who were in service or to those who have done service to the king. it was not given on community basis nor to a particular caste.it cant be competetant persons are to be taken to service and it cannot be found from a particular caste,not always from upper caste .

santhosh kumar said...

in kerala the largest about one third population is ezhavars another caste.many ezhavars were in military service in olden days.not only they were soilders but also were commanders and officers in the armies.varnapalli family was the army chiefs and ministers of kayamkulam kingdom, so was ambanattu panikkar in service of ambalapuzha kingdom,ambantttu family of kollam was another ezhava family in service of kollam or desinganadu principality.Akathayyadi panicker was the cheif army commander of elaidatthu soroopam or kottarakkara kingdom.(Ref: Pathonmpatham noottandile keralam by Bhaskaranunni),Renakeerthy and dharmakeerthi chekavars - Commandor of Marthandavarma. (Ref: Travancore state manual.).ezhavars were largely in the service of cochin kingdom ,sankthan thampuran specialy appointed a ezhava military betallion in the guard of vadakkum nathan temple , commanded by a ezhava officer.in malabar area ezhavar were largely addressed by the name thiyyar and chekavar.chevam means military service in malayalam.those who were soldiers were known as chekavar.as thiyyars were so much in military service that ,it became another caste name of ezhavars.the word chaver pada or suicidal squad was actually derived from the word chekavar.whether it actually existed a question still not answered.

in modern age too majority of the martial arts school of kalarippayattu or kalaris are run by ezhava caste.all the ancient kalaries still existed are owned and run by them.in trivandrum where southern style is more popular its run by another caste ,nadars.nairs are not much in the kalari training or teaching.but the famous cvn kalari was started by c v narayan nair was a nair.but his teacher was a thiyya guru.kannur is famous for gymnastics and circus.the circus companies of kerala were founded and owned by thiyyas.it was because they had the practise of learinging kalarippayattu which gives very importance to acrobatics again due to the martial history of that community.keeleri kuzhikannan was the first to start circus company in india.

it is also a common misconcept that bhrahmins were the sole keepers of sanskrit language.but actually many books in sanskrit was written by bhuddhist and jains.in kerala during mediveal period sanskrit was actually taught by medical practitioners ,astrologers etc.these schools were mainly run by buddhist familes or ezhava familes.until the 20th century majority of these schools were run by them also it should be noted that many other castes were also used to run such schools.ayurvedic phisicians were ezhava and nadar familes ,also it was practised by some bhrahmin families and other castes which are now in obc list.

padmakumar said...

During last decade of 19th century ie during 1890's a man called C.V.raman pillai who was living kerala wrote a novel,a historical romance.it was one of the first novels in Malayalam.the novels name is marthanda varma-the famous king of travancore who enlarged travancore to a bigger country and made it strong with new revenue administration .he also weakened the feudal system there which was slowly emerged and formed from 14th century.C.V.Raman was very high caste spirited person (as was like many at the time.even now its said that nairs are the most caste spirited persons in kerala ).so he named all the important characters of the novel with surname pillai, some of the characters were real historical figures .they too were christian-ed with pillai surname.this novel was very popular and was taught in schools and colleges(even now) .many thought foolishly that it was the real history.but actually many characters were his creation which he thought needed for a love story.he knew many folk songs and from that he formed his own story.some parts of these songs are including at the start of each chapter.

Many after reading this novel tried to read the history accordingly ,doing so they corrupted the real history.as all know kerala people is very caste spirited specially the upper castes and christians.the caste organizations of kerala also tried to make profit from this novel.and thus when the real social history surfaces many people find it difficult to believe and accept.

 The author C.V.Raman was a learned man .but at his time travancore state government jobs were mainly given to tamil bhrahmins.new educated malayalees wanted to have jobs in government and they organised and started demanding this need.a memorandum was submitted to king which was signed by thousands demanding appointment of malayalees in administrative jobs of travancore.but it was rejected.later some relaxation was given.many ezhavars awere also signed in that memorandum including Doctor Pulpu ,one of the great reformation personalities of kerala,along with the nairs and others.when government began to accept malayalee youngsters to service,ezhavar and other castes were denied this right.it was like a 100% reservation for the upper class,mainly benefited by nairs.it aroused a new hate and separation between nairs and ezhavars who were now in obc list and were untouchables at the time. but ezhavars were already organised and actively taking part with the reform movements of sndp .nairs and bhrahmins lagged back and were clinging tight to the old customs.many learned persons from upper class including nairs and bhrahmins were actually part of the reform movements and were working even with sndp .eventually removements started in upper class and new organisations were formed.nairs were so few in number.so many small castes , sects and groups joined together and took the umbrella name nairs and formed the organistion named nair service society(nss).after the formation of nss many sects were included in it.eventhough it was a organization meant for the modernization or civilizisation as explained by its leaders at that time ,it eventually became involved in politics after independance and is the most benefited caste organization in kerala.

rajeev kumar said...

Ananadha padmanabhan is the central or hero of the novel mathanda varma written by C.V.Ramana.this character again appears in another novel by the same author.the marthanda varma novel is also love story between anadha padmanabhn and a nair girl.anantha padmanabhan is a trusted friend and companion of marthanda varma.he is very good in arms and is a good warrior.he saves the king many times from the hands of ettuveetil pillamar.another family is also comes into importance in the novel .it is the mangoikkal family.marthanda varma was saved by that family and in that act the family house was burned down.they helped marthanda varma escape from the enimies and he stays in their family.but the enemies suspecting this attacked the house ,but they were stopped by the paraya (another caste now in scheduled list) soldiers and others of the mankoyikkal family.enemies tried to kill marthanda varma by setting fire to the house but bharathan channan or anantha padmanabhan saves the marthanda varma.in the novel ananthapadmanabhan is made nair by making him the son a thirumukkathu pillai.mankoyikkal family is also made nair by using the word kurup and pillai surnames to its family members some of whom also appears in his another novel dharma rajah.

in reality the anantha padmanabhan is a historic figure and belonged to channar community.his house still exists in kanyakumari district which was constructed by him during the period of marthanda varma king.he was the caprtain of the body guard battallion which included 36 warriors who were all channars selected personnaly by marthanda varma.he was a great friend of marthanda varma and served the king as his minister and army commander.actually he helped marthanda varma is securing the support of channar and nadar community to fight against the madampis of travancore who helped the thampis in their claim to thrown.these powerful feudal lords were trying to kill the marthanda varma.anantha padmanabhan died in the year 1953 after the establishment of travancore kingdom.

santhosh kumar said...

the mankoyikkal family also existed and their house too is in kanyakumari district of tamilnadu.kanyakumari was part of the travancore kingdom till 1956.they belonged to channar caste.now the channar caste name is not used.the channar caste and nadar caste combined together in 1925 and is now a single caste.they too held high posts in the period of marthanda varma and rama varma.its likely that they were given the title kurup as they trained soldiers.king marthanda varma also formed a title called chempaka raman pillai which was given to the most eminent personnalities who helped in the government.this title was given to these two families.

the word ettuveetil pillamar too was coined by C.V.Raman pillai and got popular in such a way that all, even historians use the same word.but they were not all pillais or anyone of them belonged to caste vellala pillai who now use the surname pillai.these eight houses were very powerful feudal lords and they held influencial posts .ramana madam and pallichal were ministers of attingal soverign of which ramana madom was a bhrahmin family.kulathoor and chempazhanthi were ezhava families.the arms trainer or kalarippayattu teacher of kazhakuttom was an ezhava man named kesava panikker.later he left from kazhakuttom with his diety whom he worshiped to another place called thozhuvancode where he established a temple now known as thozhvancode devi temple.its priests are even today members of his family and those families related to him and also they belonged to ezhava family.there is no bhrahmin priests in that temple.the word used in the old documents for mentioning these people are ettuveetil madampimar and not ettuveetil pillamar.in the document which mention the punishment of these madampis only 4 houses are stated.the reason is that all were not supporters for the eliminations of marthanda varma.because of the popularity of the word ettuveetil pillamar ,through the novel many people thought that all the pillais or nairs were against marthanda varma and it was a fight against nairs and the ruling family and in the fight nairs lost.

Rajan Rajiv said...

Claims of some Christians that they were converted from Nambudhiri caste and Jews is totally false. Kerala's top historian, Prof. Ela,kulam Kunjan Pillai has pointed out that there were no Nambudhiris in Kerala in first century A.D. when St. Thomas visited Kerala. Jewish conversion is also false because one Thomas of Cana projeced as a Jew was a fictitious figure and Portufuese and Armenian records show that he was a very old Armenian merchant, migrated from Armenian settlement in Madras. CMS records show all converts were from untouchable castes, especially Ezhavas. Largescale marriage with Portuguese soldiers and merchants, after interrace marriage was officially ordered by Albuqurque, gave untouchable converts good skin colour and physical features.