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MULAKARAM AND THE FORGOTTEN FEMINIST UPRISING IN COLONIAL INDIA
Author: Divyanshu Ganesh, I year of B.A., LL.B.(Hons.) from Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law, Punjab
During the colonial times, Indian society was plagued by many ills the roots of which were the caste system, gender inequality and patriarchal structure of the society. The most distressing and pitiful was the condition of women. The birth of a girl was considered inauspicious, her upbringing and marriage a burden and her widowhood a curse. At a time when female infanticide was very common, those who were lucky enough to survive were made to suffer for the rest of their lives as a result of child marriage. All this was further exacerbated by the caste system, which also acted as a major impediment in the generation of nationalistic feelings and promotion of democratic ideas. The late 19th century saw the birth of many socio-religious reform movements like BrahmoSamaj, SatyaShodhakSamaj, AryaSamaj, PrarthanaSamaj etc. to save Indians from the vicious web created by the inhuman religious superstitions and social obscurantism. These movements promote female education, gender equality and widow remarriage.
However, not all occurrences are as well documented and popularised as Sati, child marriage, slavery and untouchability. One such horrifying part of Indian history is the Mulakaram, a ‘Breast Tax’ that was levied on lower caste and untouchable women who wanted to cover their breasts.[i] It was imposed by the kings of the State of Travancore, who had filled their treasury by burdening the people belonging to the lower caste with unjust and inhumane taxes. Land tax was very low in Travancore, but the Rajahs made up for this ancestral blunder through other levies. If you were a landless fisherman, you had a tax on your fishing net. If you were a man sporting a moustache, your facial hair fell within the mandate of the revenue inspector. If you owned slaves, you most certainly had to pay tax on these bleeding units of muscle.[ii]The main aim of all these taxes was to keep people belonging to the lower caste perpetually in debt, abject poverty and to subjugate them, thereby maintaining the caste-class status quo,[iii] while also ensuring the prosperity of the people belonging to the upper caste.
Mulakaram was collected by a state official called the ‘parvatiyar’ from every lower caste household that contained a woman who had attained puberty. The official physically examined the size of the woman’s breasts and imposed a proportionate tax. The members of the lower caste, specifically the Nadar and Ezhavacastes lived a life full of poverty and hardships were unable to pay the tax and bare breasts served as an indicator of their position in the society. The monarchy of Travancore deemed this tax necessary to remove this indicator as its payment was considered to be a sign of respect to the upper caste people. Things like clothing and ornaments which were a marker of being rich and respected were only reserved for the people belonging to the upper caste. Even the women belonging to the upper castes had to bare their breasts in front of the Brahmins when entering a temple, highlighting that this problem was not only concerned with the caste system but also with the gender inequalities prevalent during those times.
Channar Revolt: In the mid-1800s, Nadar women to escape the oppressive and humiliating system embraced Christianity, which they saw as a ticket to a dignified and better life. The Christian Nadar women started to cover their breasts with a jacket like a blouse known as the ‘kuppayam’[iv] and this suit was also followed by the Nadar Hindus. However, they were not allowed to cover their breasts as the upper caste women did and this was done to humiliate and demarcate them from the upper caste women. This resulted in sustained protests across the State to end this discrimination, which culminated in a series of violent clashes between 1813 and 1859, in which Christian institutions were burnt and demolished and Nadar women, who wore the ‘kuppayam’ were stripped in public. Ultimately, after the direct intervention of Charles Trevelyan, the Governor of Madras who pressured the Kings to issue two proclamations in the year 1859 and 1865, related to ending the discriminatory provisions regarding the ‘upper cloths’ for the Nadar women.
The demands of Nadar women were met after decades of struggle, violent repression and sacrifice. It acted as an inspiration as well as a catalyst for the lower caste people in their fight for equality and dignity, related to the right to enter temples, walk on public roads and proportionate payment for the work done by them. The Channar Revolt, which was led by women and was able to not only achieve its demands but also inspired several other such revolts has been deleted from the school textbooks as the chapter containing details about the revolt has been removed in the year 2016 by the CBSE.
Naegeli of Cherthala: The Channar Revolt only acted as a boon for women belonging to the Nadar community but the women of the Ezhava community continued to be oppressed, humiliated and objectified. This all changed because of the uncompromising and unflinching attitude of one woman, whose indomitable will refused to give up despite all odds against her.
According to this legend, in 1803 Nangeli, a woman from the Ezhava community who lived in the Cherthala region of Travancore in an act of defiance started to cover her breasts but refused to pay the Mulakaram. When the authorities came to know about her disobedience, a tax collector came to her house to assess her breasts and levy proportionate tax. Uncompromising in her resolve but not having the money to pay tax as she lived in abject poverty, she cut off her breasts and presented it to the officer, who fled the scene in horror. She succumbed to her injuries and her husband committed Sati out of grief and sorrow. After her death, Mulkaram was annulled and Cherthala was renamed ‘Mulachiparambu’ meaning the place where women of breasts lived. With time, her rebellion had now become a fading memory known only to a few people and the place named to remember her sacrifice cannot be found on the maps, because of being poorly recorded some even consider it to be just an urban legend.
The unique thing about the events discussed above is unlike the Indian Feminist Movement which was started by prudent men and later joined by women, these events were solely undertaken by women, who opposed their humiliation and oppression and were successful in achieving their goals. This was also the first instance when Dalit and other lower-caste women came together and vociferously fought for their rights. It can be said to be a precursor of the ‘Dalit Feminist Movement’ which came into being in the late 1990s. The contribution of these events is inalienable in cementing the foundation of present-day Kerala, a state famous for its good governance, empowered women, educated masses, healthy children and healthcare system. Countless forgotten historical events like this have also inspired the framers of The Indian Constitution.
This is evident from The Preamble which ensures to all its citizens, equality of status and of opportunity and Article 15 which prohibits discrimination based on religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth. The Supreme Court has time and again upheld a woman’s right to equality, dignity, property and sexual autonomy, through its various progressive and prudent judgements. Rather than erasing the struggles of the lower caste women against Mulakkaram and letting it go into oblivion, it should be promoted and popularized among the masses as events such as these serve as cautionary road maps which have to be avoided at all costs and also act as an inspiration for the future feminists.
[i]VarshaRoysam, ‘Women at the Intersection of Caste and Sex: History of Breast Tax’ (2020) in.makers.yahoo.com, at https://in.makers.yahoo.com/women-at-the-intersection-of-caste-and-sex-history-of-breast-tax-030006956.html?guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAAM-Zh8Kqok-p0njhOJDpWbr29SUI9S61nTAkElbZYHEXO_3qga8ggTcpDb9pe90xbFC9MAyAcSX7VZDfqkNV7ly3TX0XMKwacYmbEXnlpB0DMA_AQCb3-oHbc60ATt6HBOpR83_hz544JwAbDyVLqNYN51iHnayx0tb_v7y4fcnC. (last accessed 31st Dec.)
[ii]Manu S. Pillai, ‘The woman who cut off her breasts’ (2017) thehindu.com, athttps://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/the-woman-who-cut-off-her-breasts/article17324549.ece. (last accessed 31st Dec.)
[iii]Supra note 1.