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Phenomenal has been the upward mobility of the Nadars of South India. Within a span of two centuries, they rose from near untouchability to a position of social and economic power.
When history dawned on the Nadars, traditionally known as Shanars, they were found principally in the two southern districts of Tirunelveli and Kanyakumari. Palmyra climbing and toddy tapping were their traditional occupations. The entire family was engaged in producing different palm products such as fermented juice, jaggery, baskets, mats, cots, and roof beams.
Trade in a small way supplemented their livelihood. A tiny fraction of the caste, known as Nadans, were wealthy landowners. In the Hindu caste hierarchy the Nadars ranked very low because of their association with alcohol.
Low-caste status meant that they were forbidden entry into temples, public places like roads, law courts and schools. They could neither carry umbrellas nor live in multistoreyed houses. Worst of all, Nadar women had to go about bare-breasted as they were prohibited from covering their upper torso with shoulder cloth.
Nadars began their social and economic ascendance in the early 19th century. Mercantilism and Christianity played crucial roles in facilitating their upward mobility. The consolidation of the British rule in the southern districts opened new frontiers of trade and commerce. Nadars were quick to take advantage of the opportunities including commercialisation of the economy and urbanisation.
They established a chain of fortified settlements along the main trade routes to extend comforts to Nadar merchants, to house their wares and to protect themselves from bandits. These settlements known as ‘pettais’ served as a medium of cooperation among them and as an encouragement to economic mobility. Local caste associations grew out of this channel of commerce. This trend culminated in launching apex bodies such as the Nadar Mahajana Sangham and Dakshinamara Nadar Sangham, symbolically affirming cohesiveness and solidarity.
Emerging as a commercially active group by the late 19th century, Nadars achieved dramatic changes in their economic fortunes. This advancement was followed by a clamour for social recognition.
Hostility to the efforts of Nadars to establish a new status resulted in a series of violent outbursts culminating in the riots of 1899 known as the Sivakasi Riots. Their old name of ‘Shanar’ was abandoned and the honorific title ‘Nadar’ was adopted. The Justice Party government adopted the term in all public records from 1921.
The community also took advantage of Western education as they realised the benefits accruing from it. Ability to recognise new opportunities and adaptability to new contexts marked their advancement.
With foresight, the Nadar elite established a network of institutions such as colleges, hostels and even a bank, the Tamilnadu Mercantile bank.
Conversion to Christianity was another platform that helped the Nadars move up. Protestant missions made the most impact, in Tirunelveli and Kanyakumari districts. Conversion swept into the Christian fold a high proportion of Nadars during the 19th century. By converting to Christianity, they defied the old order and questioned caste-based discrimination.
Traditionally denied education, they now found access to education in mission schools and colleges. Nadar converts tackled the problem of local persecution by migrating and establishing a series of autonomous settlements. The creation of these Christian villages as the exclusive domain of converts, enabled them to safeguard themselves against upper caste assaults. They could also evade the discriminatory taxes and forced free labour that used to be imposed on them
A convert named Sattampillai who founded the schismatic Hindu Christian Church of Lord Jesus in 1857 in Prakasapuram, Tirunelveli district, invested the Nadars with a sense of superior identity. He constructed a new history of the Nadars, reinventing their past as proud kings in the South Tamil country.
Nadar converts of erstwhile South Travancore (at present part of Kanyakumari district), with the support of the missionaries, demanded the right for their women to use breast cloths. This led to violent clashes between the Nadars and upper castes that ravaged South Travancore for about fifty years. In the face of missionary and British official intervention, a government proclamation of 1859 recognised the right of Nadar women to wear shoulder cloth.
While the missionaries made efforts to remove the disabilities of Nadar converts in South Travancore, some Hindu Nadars took recourse to a heretical cult founded by Vaikunda Swamy, a Nadar who challenged the caste-based iniquities. In his preaching, Vaikunda Swamy opposed the excessive taxes and corvee labour imposed on the Nadars. Several practices that he propagated such as the opposition to idol worship and giving up of animal sacrifices, betrayed a close affinity to missionary preaching.
The educational efforts of the missionaries were used by converts for their own social and economic benefit. The opening up of coffee and tea plantations in South India, Ceylon and Malaya in the 19th century provided employment as clerks and field workers for English-educated Nadar Christians. Some of them on their return developed interests in plantations. A few like P P Joseph, P D Devasahayam and A V Thomas became extraordinarily successful planters.
During the second half of the 19th century, a large number of Nadar Christians migrated to Ceylon, Burma and Malaya to find employment as soldiers, railway clerks and petty government officials. Among the succeeding generations of Nadar Christians, an appreciable number became distinguished and affluent landowners, entrepreneurs, lawyers, judges, physicians, engineers, architects, journalists, and top government officials and bureaucrats.
Nadars emerged, in the words of historian Hugald Grafe, as ‘‘one of the earliest groups who rose from social lowliness to occupy places formerly reserved for Brahmins.’’
The current generation Nadars do not even have memories of their past oppression. Scattered throughout the world, the community has produced a diverse array of prominent men in different walks of life: K Kamaraj, the Congress ‘‘King Maker’’, K T K Thangamani, a barrister and communist leader of standing, V S Azariah, the first Indian Bishop consecrated by the Church of England, S P Adityan, who founded one of India’s most successful newspaper empires, Shiv Nadar, a technocrat who heads a multinational IT giant, Admiral O S Dawson, former Chief of the Naval Staff, M S S Pandian, renowned social scientist, David Davidar, prominent publisher and writer, Manuel Aron, India’s first International Chess Master and the first chess player to be honoured with the Arjuna Award, Ranjan Roy Daniel, Physicist conferred Padma Bhushan and Sam Rajappa, distinguished journalist.
While the paths of advancement followed by the Hindu and Christian Nadars are as different as their faiths, both of them identify themselves first and foremost as Nadars. In the past, inter-religious marriages among the Nadars were quite common. These bonds of unity forged in the face of adverse social and economic conditions, are loosening. The mobilisation by the Hindu rightwing in the southern districts is systematically undermining the familiar unity of the caste. The future of the Nadars, as a caste group, rests critically on how this new challenge to their unity is met.
Some of the story of our communities
M G Devasahayam
An infantry officer in the army (he participated in the Indo-Pak War of 1965), M G Devasahayam joined the IAS (Haryana Cadre). In 1985, he took voluntary retirement from the IAS and has since been in NGO work and, for a while, in politics. As Member of the High Power Committee on Agricultural Policies and Programmes that went into the issue of ‘‘transforming Agriculture into an Industry’’, he wrote the theme chapter. He also became closely associated with Mother Teresa and Jayaprakash Narayan (JP). He helped the Missionaries of Charity to set up the ‘Home for the abandoned and dying destitutes’ (Shanti-Dan) at the heart of Chandigarh and a sanctuary for lepers in the City’s outskirts. During the Emergency, when JP was jailed at Chandigarh, Devasahayam was the District Magistrate cum IG Prisons of the Union Territory and thus JP’s custodian. The relationship developed then continued until JP’s death.
At 43, David Davidar has become the most famous name in Indian publishing. As CEO and Publisher of Penguin Books India, he notched up many firsts to his credit. He was the youngest publisher in the world when he took charge at the age of 26. He is reputed to have played a catalyst’s role in the writing careers of some of India’s most celebrated authors. He became one himself with the release in early 2002 of his novel The House of Blue Mangoes. This is a generational saga spread over more than a hundred years in the life of a Nadar family settled in Nagercoil in Kanyakumari district. Though Davidar’s grandfathers originally hailed from Kanyakumari district, they later moved to Chennai and established a settlement, David Nagar, near Tambaram. Before he came to Penguin, Davidar was executive editor of Gentleman magazine published from Bombay. A graduate from Madras University, he has a diploma in publishing from Radcliffe College, Harvard University. He has also taken senior management and finance programmes at top management schools such as the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad and INSEAD, Fountainbleau, France.
When Microsoft Chief Bill Gates first visited India in 1996, the first person he met soon after having breakfast with the Prime Minister was a man who proudly retained ‘Nadar’ in his name — Shiv Nadar, Chief of HCL Group. His friends call him by another name — Magus, Persian for wizard.
Shiv Nadar, aged 53, began making computers in his garage 24 years ago and rose to head a company with a net worth of about US $1.2 billion. Graduating in electrical engineering in 1967, Nadar began his career as a system analyst with Cooper Engineering. From 1968 to 1975, he was a senior management trainee at the Data Products Division of DCM. It was in 1975 that he persuaded six of his colleagues to join him to launch HCL. It began by making office products like copiers, then stepped into the computer supply business until it came out with its own computer. Nadar’s achievements in IT can be attributed to his human resources management skills. The company has a large workforce, well-trained and committed. The emphasis on training led to the setting up of the software training firm NIIT. ‘‘The ability to execute a business strategy ruthlessly and the ambition to become the number one are Nadar’s strong points,’’ his colleagues say.
When chess was hardly known as a sport in India, Manuel Aaron became the first Indian to become an International Master. He still holds the record for winning the maximum number of National titles (nine times) at the senior level. Grandmaster Pravin Thipsay is the second best with seven National titles. Aaron, who has also won the Arjuna Award, competed in many Chess Olympiads. His most famous Olympiad victory was over Dutch Max Euwe, one of the best players in the history of chess and world champion for a short period in the 1930’s. Aaron’s strong points were his steely determination and pragmatic approach in chess. He never gave up till the end. After retirement, he turned his focus to coaching and organising. He runs an academy in Adyar and is the secretary of the Tamil Nadu Chess Association.
Dr Y Vincent Kumara Doss teaches at the Department of History, Madras Christian College, Chennai.