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Caste-Struggle History under Scissors of CBSE

CBSE has issued the directive to omit a sub-topic, “Caste Conflict and Dress Change,” contained in the chapter “Clothing: A Social History” from the social science syllabus of grade 9. The directive comes in accordance with a Madras High Court ruling which directed CBSE to consider and pass order to remove the objectionable content about the Nadar community.

The section documents the injustice meted out to the Shanar community—also referred to as the Nadar community—in the name of caste norms, and the consequent struggle of the Shanar women to reclaim their rights. The content had earlier come under scrutiny of several political leaders including the then chief minister of Tamil Nadu, Jayalalitha, who had pointed out the historical  in-authenticity in the textbooks regarding the origin and economic status of the Shanar community. She had sought the intervention of the then prime minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, to remove the objectionable and derogatory content and in a letter had listed the errors. She had pointed out that contrary to what the textbooks say about Nadar community being migrants, they were the original inhabitants of Kanyakumari district of Tamil Nadu. Also they had served as accountants and administrators for the Chera and Pandya kings and were not a “subordinate caste.”


What the section “Caste Conflict and Dress Change” Contains:

  • India had its own set of strict laws, governed by codes of the caste system. Changes in clothing style which seemed to threaten these laws met with violent reactions.
  • The Shanars, a community of toddy tappers who migrated to southern Travancore to work under Nair landlords, were a “subordinate caste” and hence were required to have their upper bodies uncovered in a symbol of respect towards the upper castes.
  • Shanar women converts, under the influence of Christianity, started wearing tailored  blouses and clothes in 1820s. For this they were attacked by Nairs in public places and also their upper clothes were torn off.
  • Following complaints filed against the dress code, the government of Travancore issued a proclamation in 1829 barring Shanar women from covering their upper parts of the body.
  • Both converted Shanar women and Shanar Hindus resisted the proclamation. Unrest and riots ensued and finally the government issued another proclamation which allowed them to cover the upper parts of their bodies in any manner “but not like the women of high.”

CBSE’s ruling has invited  strong criticism which claims it as government’s attempts at sanitising and in the process producing a distorted view of history. Santosh R, an assistant professor at IIT Madras, in an interview with The Ladies Finger, expressed the view that this is another incidence of government yielding to the pressure tactics of organised caste and religious groups in the context of framing of syllabus. He further added that denying students the opportunity to study objective history is a grave injustice to them.