Vivekananda and Caste Discrimination: theory-ladenness

1. You ask whether or not it was ‘factual’ that a ‘paraiah’ was not allowed on the same street as a Nair or a Brahmin. The evidence we have says that a Paraiah was not allowed to be on the same street as a Nair, but it is not clear whether it also applies to the presence of a Brahmin. First, here is some of the evidence.

The Portuguese traveler Duarte Barbosa was among the first to talk about it in ‘The Book’. Though written in 1518, it became known to the European world through the Italian translation in the book of travels edited by Gian Baptista Ramusio. In the English translation, we hear who the Nairs are: “None may become a Nayre, save only he who is of Nayre lineage. They are very free from stain in their nobility. They will not touch anyone of low caste” [Dames, 1921 #273, 39]. You need to keep in mind that Barbosa does not speak of ‘low caste’, as an earlier footnote by the English editor and translator, Dames, indicates: “The word used in the text in vilam (villão in modern spelling) corresponding to the English villain in its ancient sense” [Dames, 1921 #273, 30, Footnote 1]. In other words, Barbosa appears to have seen a distinction in lineage or a distinction between the Nobility and the Rural folk when he saw the Nairs and the ‘low caste’ people.

One of the more extensive descriptions of Nairs is to be found in Le Grand Dictionnaire Géographique et Critique of Bruzen la Martinière, a French writer, in 1726. Speaking about Malabar, he says: “The Malabarians are divided into two orders of people; the Nairs of Nairos and the Poliars. The former carries weapons and the others are tradesmen, workers or fishermen. The Nairos are proud of their nobility and they do not marry. The sport with the wives of other men as much as it pleases them, so much so that passionate women are free to do what they want in this land… The rest (of the population) may not even speak to them (the Nairs). If a poliar meets a Nair on the street, he withdraws himself away with much respect.” About Cochin, he says: “The Naires, or the Nobility…have big ideas about their nobility because they think that they have descended from the Sun. They do not recognize anyone as their superior except the Portuguese…They have a great disgust for the caste of the heathens one calles ‘Poleas’. If Polea were to come so close to a Nair that the latter can smell the former’s breath, then the Nair feels polluted and is obliged to kill the polea; because if the king came to know that the Nair did not kill the polea, then the king would kill the Nair or, if he decided to spare the Nair’s life, he would sell the Nair as a slave…In order to prevent this from happening, the Poleas continuously shout out their presence when they are in the fields so that the nairos would not come close to them…” And, much more generally, about the Nairs, says Bruzen, “these Naires are esteemed so highly that when they pass the streets, people hide themselves or withdraw until he has passed them. That is why these Nairs buy servants who could announce the coming of their masters loudly when they walk the streets”.

Ludovico di Varthema compares Nairs also with the Nobiity: “The fifth class are called Poliar, who collect pepper, wine, and nuts. The sixth class are called Hirava, and these plant and gather rice. These two last classes of people, that is to say, the Poliar and Hirava, may not approach either the Naeri or the Brahmins within fifty paces, unless they have been called by them, and they always go by private ways through the marshes. And when they pass through the said places, they always go crying out with a loud voice, and this they do in order that they may not meet the Naeri or the Brahmins; for should they not by crying out, and any of the Naeri should be going that way and see their fruits, or meet any of the said class, the above mentioned Naeri may kill them without incurring any punishment: and for this reason they always cry out. .” (Badger (1863), 141-142)

Vasco Da Gama speaks about the Nairs as a “race of gentleme,, refined in blood’, who are distinguished from all other ‘low people’.

So, yes, there is some factual evidence that Paraiahs were not ‘allowed’ to be on the same street as the Nairs and, one supposes, the Brahmins, in Malabar region.

2. You ask whether conversion to Islam removed this ‘disability’. Well, yes. But listen to how Vasco Da Gama ‘describes’ this fact; you call it ‘removal of disability’ and he calls it ‘the diabolical way the Moors converted people into Islam’: “from this trade the Moors were very powerful, and had so established and ingratiated themselves in the countries of the sea ports, that they were more influential and respected than the natives themselves, so that many of the heathen became Moors, in such manner that they were more people than the natives, by a diabolical method which the Moors found; because in this region of Malabar the race of gentlemen is called Nairs, who are the people of war: they are people who are very refined in blood and customs, and separated from all other low people, and so much do they value themselves that no one of them ever turned Moor; only the low people tuned Moors, who worked in the bush and in the fields. And these people are so accursed that they cannot go by any road without shouting, so that the Nairs may not come up suddenly and meet them, because they kill them at once, for they always carry their arms, and these low people may not carry arms to defend themselves; and when they go along thus shouting if any Nair shouts to them they at once get into the bush very far from the road. The Moors, understanding that it was a good way to increase their sect, said to the King, and to the rulers of the places in which they traded, that they met with great difficulties with their merchandise, because they had not got laborers to cart it from one point to another, because the laborers, being low people, could not go amongst other people, as the Nairs would kill them whenever they met them, and therefore they would esteem it a favor if those of the low people who might turn Moors should be able to go freely wherever they pleased; since, being Moors, they would then be outside of the Malabar religion and usages, and that they might be able to touch all sorts of people; because if this was not agreed to they would not be able to transport their goods to sell them in their provinces. At the same time giving some fees tot the magistrates and confidantes of the King, they succeeded in getting this consented to. On which account these low people [desired] to enjoy so great an advantage, because they were such accursed people that they lived in the bush and in fields, where they ate nothing but herbs and land crabs, and by becoming Moors they could go where they liked, and gain their livelihood, and eat as they pleased. When they became Moors the Moors gave them cloths and robes with which to clothe themselves, and so many of them became Moors and were converted to the religion of Mohammed, and they increased so much in numbers that all the country became full of them; which caused these Moors to be very influential and powerful by their trade through all the countries, and especially in the country of Malabar, and above all in this city of Calecut, where they had their principal port for shipping pepper and drugs…” (Stanley (1869), 155-156) The reason why Moors could move around the streets freely is because “theu would then be outside Malabar religion and usages”, quite apart from their ‘powerful’ position.

3. You ask whether the rulers of Travancore, Malabar, etc enforced this practice. I do not know about ‘etc’ (do you mean to say, the “whole of India”?) but, yes, the rulers in Malabar (the Nairs) enforced the practice of Nairs.

4. However, what follows from this? We can indeed notice that in Malabar and Cochin the servants of the Nairs announced the arrival of their masters such that the paraiahs and ‘others’ would hide themselves from the sight of Nairs. Does it indicate ‘caste discrimination’ or the better-known attitude of ‘the nobility’ towards those who do not share this lineage? In many places in the world, the ‘criers’ used to announce the arrival of dignitaries, nobility and so on such that those who did not ‘belong’ would fall on their knees, hide their faces, run away and so on. Today, the wailing sirens, police escorts clear the streets when ‘dignitaries’ travel the roads we use. I suppose this is the modern version of an older practice, even if we want to justify it as a preventive measure against ‘terrorist attacks’. Even if this justification is ‘allowed’, is this not the same action as that of the crier of a Nair in Malabar of yesteryears?

5. The ‘faciticity’ of an alleged fact depends on how it gets described. Describe the above fact as having to do with ‘the caste system’, it becomes a ‘caste-related’ fact; describe it (as these citations indicate) as a more familiar ‘nobility-related’ fact, we can become the all too familiar bourgeois who looks down on ‘the feudal privileges’. Describe it as the paranoia about ‘terrorism’, it becomes a fact of today’s political world. Make it a question of ‘usage and custom’, it remains restricted to the people of Malabar of yesteryears; make it ‘caste-related’, it becomes a damning indictment of Modern India. So, you see, Vivenkananda’s fact is just about as worthless as the language in which he describes this story about Malabar: even if what he says about Malabar is ‘true’, it remains undeniable that this story about the Malabarians and Nairs was repeated ad nauseaum for more than 350 years by any number of foreign travellers and merchants before Vivekananda talks about it. Why, I wonder, did Vivenkananda have nothing to say about Calcutta, Delhi, Bombay or Bangalore? Why Malabar? Why not Chitradurga or Gurugaon?