An enquiry into the past

Print edition : November 11, 2016
A study of the exchange between traditional structures and modernising agents within the Ezhava community in Kerala and of forces that shaped that exchange.

“THE worrying thing at the moment is that history—including tradition—is being invented in vast quantities.... The world is today full of people inventing histories and lying about history and that’s largely because the people who do this are not actually interested in the past. What they are interested in is something which will make the punters feel good. At present it’s more important to have historians, especially sceptical historians, than ever before.” When he observed thus in an interview with Tristram Hunt for The Guardian in 2002, the historian Eric Hobsbawm was returning to a topic he had constantly engaged with and one that obviously troubled him. It was an engagement that went on for several decades through which the historian and his fellow academics aggregated considerable data from across the globe on the subject. In the process, the analysis and arguments around the topic became more nuanced.

In 1983, Hobsbawm and fellow historian Terence Ranger edited and published The Invention of Tradition following a conference of historians that dwelt on the subject. The theme “The Invented Tradition” foregrounded attempts to depict and pass off newly made-up rules or rituals as part of a historical tradition by establishing continuity with a suitable past. It sought to bring into focus attempts to use history as a legitimator. In 2002, however, Hobsbawm pointed out that history itself was being “invented in huge quantities” by “inventing or collecting a past”. He highlighted instances of this growing phenomenon from some of the new nations that had come up in Europe following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the East European “Socialist bloc” in the 1990s. Several other developments involving institutions, organisations and movements from across the world were also cited as examples of the phenomenon.

Developmental Modernity in Kerala: Narayana Guru, SNDP Yogam and Social Reform by P. Chandramohan does not make any overt claim about responding to the eminent historian’s call. In fact, the primary premise of the study that resulted in this book is to not address actively the “inventions” that have been sought to be imposed on Narayana Guru, unambiguously the greatest social reformer in the history of Kerala, and the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana (SNDP) Yogam, the organisation that was inspired by the guru’s teachings and was led by him in the early years of its existence, in many contemporary narratives as well as consequent social and political action. Chandramohan’s study is in relation to the period from 1900 to 1938, approximately the first three and a half decades of the SNDP Yogam. Through this exploration in a specific time frame, Developmental Modernity in Kerala delineates the manifold and at times erratic and turbulent, social, cultural and organisational dimensions of a creative pursuit by the SNDP Yogam and its leaders, resulting in the evolution of a distinctive, development-oriented modernity, focussing specifically on the backward caste Ezhava community of the State.

Yet, the objectivity of the study based on meticulous research, along with the circumstantiated presentation of facts, impart the value of sceptical historical investigation to Developmental Modernity in Kerala. In other words, Chandramohan’s work substantiates, once again, that a thorough and dispassionate intellectual inquiry into the past at the multiple levels of events, happenings, perceptions and argumentations is a powerful instrument to depict history factually and even unravel the historical truth. These, in turn, could become the defining paradigms for a contemporary social, cultural and political engagement that rebuffs attempts at the invention of tradition and history. A number of happenings in contemporary Kerala targeted at the “invention of history” also underscore the value and relevance of Developmental Modernity in Kerala.

Some of the most conspicuous attempts at reinventing Narayana Guru and the SNDP happened over the past 10 months. The latest was as recent as the second week of September when the leadership of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Kerala unit called Narayana Guru “the greatest Hindu sanyasi that Kerala has contributed to the world”. In the process, it conveniently bypassed Narayana Guru’s long and consistent struggles against the caste system in the Hindu community and his absolute rejection of the varna dharma, one of the central components of the organised Hindu religious social structure. It sought to gloss over these struggles and viewpoints by terming them revolutionary measures aimed at removing the blemishes in the Hindu religion and modernising it.

Another conspicuous instance of playing around with the legacy of Narayana Guru and the SNDP was during the campaigning for the Assembly elections in Kerala held earlier this year. Vellapally Natesan, the incumbent general secretary of the SNDP, who has a considerably long record at the helm of the organisation and also in using that position for political scheming, launched a new political outfit, evidently drawing upon the organisational resources of the SNDP. The Bharath Dharma Jena Sena (BDJS) was formally launched after a campaign yatra led by Natesan. The yatra, across the State, mostly led by Natesan himself, was marked by communally polarising anti-Muslim propaganda.

Once again, this was in contrast to the teachings of Narayana Guru, who had placed propagation of religious and communal harmony at the core of his philosophy. The Guru’s opposition to the varna dharma was vehement, as reflected in his discussions with Mahatma Gandhi during the Vaikom Satyagraha of 1924, the iconic struggle in Kerala for temple entry by the backward castes. Developmental Modernity in Kerala notes that caste was abhorrent to Narayana Guru “not only on moral and ethical grounds, but also because of its rules and regulations, which ‘hampered social mobility, fostered social division and sapped individual initiative’”.

Chandramohan does note in the book that there have been attempts earlier too by several sections of interested groups, communities, organisations and individuals to appropriate the legacy of Narayana Guru and portray him as a votary of their partisan interests. He refers to diverse attempts, starting from the 1940s and going into the 1970s and beyond, to paint Narayana Guru as a “champion of revived Hinduism”. The interpretations of Swami Dharma Theertha in the 1940s and the Hindutva ideologue P. Parameswaran in the 1970s were central to these attempts. Chandramohan also points to other attempts driven by identity politics to describe Narayana Guru as a crusader of Dalits in their movement for “social justice”. Evidently, what one is witnessing in the second decade of the 21st century through the efforts of organisations such as the BJP and the BDJS are repackaged and nuanced efforts to revive the sectarian projects that Kerala witnessed in the 20th century.

But, as mentioned earlier, Developmental Modernity in Kerala is not an active critique of these vested interest drives. At its core, the book seeks to study the phenomena of the SNDP Yogam and Narayana Guru on the basis of the conceptual and practical exchanges between modernising agents and traditional structures. It “attempts to provide answers to the question of how certain ‘modernising’ agents, influenced and conditioned by existing as well as emerging structures, tried to change ‘traditional’ structures”. The SNDP Yogam is positioned as one of the earliest social reform movements in Kerala that linked questions relating to social reform, religion and caste. In doing so, Chandramohan points out that such conceptual and practical exchanges had come up in different parts of India in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with different social and political groups, organisations and individuals driving them. The reformulations generated and consolidated through this exchange had “wide ramifications that influenced existing socio-economic organisations and generated new ideas”. The book also points out that “all communities in Kerala were subjected to these influences, although the time of their occurrence, the degree of emphasis, the vantage points and the intensity of change may have differed from community to community”.

Methodical and objective

Thus, Developmental Modernity in Kerala is essentially a study of this exchange between traditional structures and modernising agents within the Ezhava community—demographically the largest caste among all communities of Kerala—and of the prominent forces that guided and shaped that exchange and its outcomes. Naturally, this led to a closer study of the SNDP Yogam, which was formally launched in 1903, and “its inspiration”, Sree Narayana Guru. Chandramohan goes about this methodically and objectively. The genesis of the book can be traced to the time he was engaged in research at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University on the social and cultural history of modern Travancore and to his long stint as Museum Curator at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML). This also explains the depth of academic rigour the book reflects.

The positioning of Ezhavas as a caste, especially the positioning of the emergence of an Ezhava middle class, and the societal relations that existed in Travancore during the second half of the 19th century provide the historical context for the rise of the SNDP movement. The reform initiatives of Narayana Guru even before the formation of the SNDP Yogam and the inspiration it provided to the founders and early activists of the SNDP Yogam, such as Dr Palpu, Kumaran Asan, C.V. Kunhiraman and T.K. Madhavan, have been addressed by highlighting the organisation’s class character, its expansion, the struggle against deprivation in education, government employment and in the promotion of industrial and commercial activity.

The distinctive qualities of Narayana Guru and the sociocultural impact of his socio-religious reform initiatives are also discussed along with comparisons to the social reforms that were taking place elsewhere in India in that period. Central to these discussions are the spirited struggles against untouchability, the political dimensions these initiatives acquired cumulatively and the social alignments they caused among Ezhavas, Christians and Muslims in Kerala in their fight for civil rights. The divergent viewpoints within the leadership of the SNDP Yogam at different junctures on different issues and the resultant contradictions in terms of defining the organisational aims and objectives from time to time are also presented with commendable attention to detail.

In totality, this extensive delineation becomes an objective record of the SNDP Yogam, the socio-political-cultural context in which it worked, the contributions made to it by Narayana Guru and his associates and the multidimensional imprint it left on Kerala society. An important aspect of this record is that it includes the divergences and nuanced positions that existed within the organisation and its leadership right through its early years. Some of these divergences were in relation to the direct intervention of the SNDP in day-to-day politics. Significantly, this record underscores the point that these divergences and nuances did not take away from the central characteristics of the SNDP Yogam.

The components of this central characteristic were the building up of modernist values among the deprived communities of Kerala, especially the Ezhava community, by obtaining access to education and government jobs as also the promotion of industrial activity. In order to achieve this, the SNDP questioned the discriminatory rituals in Hindu communities, built up its own radical practice and observance of religious activity, fought against caste discrimination not only among the larger Hindu community but also within sub-castes of the Ezhava community, focussed on self-improvement of members of the community through the adoption of modern values of life and built alliances with other deprived communities.

Indeed, at many levels, the SNDP did not live up to the expectations of Narayana Guru, who wanted it to be in the vanguard of a “Liberation Movement”. Again, what Narayana Guru conceived as a casteless structure later turned out to be a vehicle of empowerment and assertion essentially for the Ezhava community and specifically the elite upper class and middle class within it. The disassociation of the Guru himself and of other leaders like Dr Palpu from the SNDP was essentially on account of this change in character and the failure to be part of the “liberation vanguard”.

Undoubtedly, these expressions of disillusionment were pointers to the degenerative trajectory that the SNDP has pursued in more recent times. Chandramohan’s account of this historical trajectory places things in perspective. It emphasises the original objectives of the organisation and its creative pursuits during its early years that had a positive and decisive social impact and also highlights the pitfalls that the organisation encountered as it grew in size and gained power and influence in social and political spaces. The objective record of historical processes that is reflected in Developmental Modernity in Kerala serves as a reminder of the models of positive social intervention that emerged during the period of the national liberation movement. It also brings out some of their inherent limitations. And in doing so the book serves as a caveat against invention of history and its vulgarisation through contemporary social and political exercises.