Channar Kranti: Dalit women’s fight for their ‘right to cover their breasts’
You must have heard the name of Nangeli. The brave woman of Kerala who cut her breasts, decorated them on banana leaves and presented them to the government servant in protest against the ‘breast tax’ tradition. Nangeli was not the only one to raise her voice against this cruel tradition of South India. Hundreds of so called ‘small caste’ women fought against it. They even had to give their life for the right to cover his body with clothes. The name of this struggle was Channar Kranti or Maru Makkal Samaram.
When Channar revolt started?
The story back 19th century. In the southern Indian state of Travancore (which we know today as Kerala), ‘lower caste’ women were not allowed to cover their breasts. A bare chest was considered slavery, so while ‘lower caste’ men were forbidden to wear clothes, women were also required to keep the upper part of the body naked. Even upper caste women were not allowed to wear clothes in front of their husbands, even if they wear them elsewhere. As soon as the breasts of a Dalit girl after matured, ‘breast tax’ was taken from her family.
Its protest started in the year 1813. The two main castes that were among the Dalits of Travancore were ‘Erava’ and ‘Pannayeri Nadar’. Women from these two castes came out on the street demanding that they be allowed to wear ‘Kuppayam’. The ‘kuppayam’ was a type of vest worn by Muslim and Christian women. At the same time, they also demanded that they be allowed to wear all kinds of clothes other than the kuppayam that upper caste women would wear.
For five years she kept demanding her rights but the effect was not to be so quick. In the year 1819, the Maharaja of Travancore, Moolam Tirunal Rama Varma, issued a decree stating that Dalit women had no right to wear clothes. Disappointed. But did not lose courage. The women stood their ground and the protests continued. The result came the next year. In the year 1820, Colonel John Munro, a British Diwan in the court of Travancore, allowed all Dalit women who had converted to Christians to wear clothes.
This decree of Colonel John created panic in the Rajya Sabha. The upper caste members strongly condemned this saying that if Dalit women start wearing clothes, it will be difficult to differentiate between Dalits and upper castes, which will be harmful for the society. The farman was withdrawn and the protesting women were subjected to severe physical abuse. In the year 1822, Colonel John again issued this decree. This time he continued despite complaints from the upper castes. Women converted to Christians to claim the right to cover their bodies, and they had to endure physical and mental torture every day from upper caste people.
From the year 1829, Hindu Dalit women along with converted Christian women started joining the revolt. She covered her breasts and went to the temple and started responding to physical attacks. The upper castes blamed the Christian missionaries for this. He believed that this is a conspiracy to destroy the Hindu society and to Christianize the Hindus. He left no stone unturned to suppress these women. And as the violence escalated, the rebellion grew even more intense.
In the year 1858, all limits were crossed when upper caste men began to throw off women’s kuppayams with the help of spears in the middle of the road. A government employee tore the kuppayams of two Nadar women with his hands, then tied the two women and hanged them from a tree. This was the last test of endurance, to which the Dalit society gave a very terrible answer. Attacks on the upper caste people started. There was arson. Entire neighborhoods were burnt. Now the government could not ignore it. The Raja of Travancore received an order from the Governor of Madras that this violence should be stopped at the earliest.
In response, the king of Travancore gave all Dalit women the right to cover their breasts. This decree was issued on 26 July 1859. Yet Dalit women were only allowed to cover themselves with kuppayam or the clothes worn by fishermen. They got the right to wear simple clothes like upper caste women only in the year 1915 or in the year 1916. Dalit women of Travancore had to struggle for years for such a simple thing as covering their bodies, yet they got that honor in history. Didn’t get what was supposed to happen. Similarly, few people know about these women and their struggle. On top of that, in the year 2016, the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) even removed the mention of them from the school textbooks.
We should not forget incidents like Channar Kranti. We should not forget that what kind of atrocities have been committed by the society on Dalits, minorities, women and how every time revolution has brought improvement in the society. Channar Kranti is an example for all of us, so that our voices against oppression should be raised.