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CJI DY Chandrachud repeats the story about Nangali and the ‘breast tax’, the veracity of which is disputed: Here is what he missed

The story of breast tax and Nangeli is fictional, because before Muslim rulers and European colonists, both men and women in India didn't cover their upper body, and it was not associated with any morality or modesty

On December 17, Chief Justice of India, Dhananjaya Yashwant Chandrachud (CJI DY Chandrachud), delivered the Ashok Desai Memorial lecture. The Bombay Bar Association organised the event in the memories of the late Advocate Ashok H Desai, the Attorney General of India, from 1996 to 1998. During his lecture, CJI referred to the ‘breast tax’ story from Kerala.

Referring to the story of Nangeli, a lower caste woman who, as per the story, cut off her breast to oppose the breast tax, he said, “It was a cry of anguish against social stratification. When Dr BR Ambedkar dressed in a three-piece suit, he reclaimed his community’s status in society.”

According to this legend, the ‘breast tax’ was imposed on women from lower castes in Kerala to prevent them from covering their breasts. It says that lower caste women who covered their breasts were forced to pay a tax, and it depended on the size of the breasts. The folklore goes on to narrate the story of Nangeli, saying that she had cut her breasts and offered them in place of the tax to the king, protesting against the tax. The folklore also talks about the ‘moustache tax’ imposed on lower caste men who wanted to sport moustaches.

While Twitter handles that report such events live pointed out the mention of the ‘breast tax’ from his speech, it was surprisingly missing from all the news reports. We checked India Today, Hindustan Times, The Hindu and Deccan Herald but no one mentioned the ‘breast tax’ story. Even Live Law and Bar & Bench decided not to include the mention in the reports on the website while their tweets were still available till the time report was published. Missing an important point from CJI’s lecture was strategic. NDTV did mention ‘breast tax’ in its report but did not go into the details.

While there are some travel accounts that allegedly talk about the Breast Tax being real and the story of Nangeli too having veracity, there are other versions that dispute the authenticity of these claims. We will delve into the contrarian view in this article, where we analyse the version that puts forth arguments saying that the Breast Tax and Nangeli folklore is not what the popular account suggests.

Is the story of Nangeli real?

The simplest possible answer is possibly – no. According to several arguments made by historians, the story of Nangeli is a fiction based on folklore that had no names whatsoever. It is possible that the CJI mentioned this story without taking into account the contrarian view because renowned publications like BBC and The Hindu mentioned the story.

In 2018, OpIndia published a detailed report on the origin of the story of Naegeli. Recently, our Hindi team did an explanatory video on the matter after Drishti IAS’s UPSC instructor Vikas Divyakriti’s video narrating the story went viral. The story, which is based on less-known folklore, talks about upper-caste Nairs and Nambithiri Brahmins in Kerala who did not allow women of the lower castes to cover their breasts. As the story goes, a ‘breast tax’ was imposed on them based on the ‘size of their breasts’. In such an exploitative society, the story goes, rose Nangeli, an Ezhava woman, protested the unfair tax system by chopping her breasts off, attaining martyrdom. To add more punch to the story, the author made his husband jump into the pyre.

While it is true that lower caste people were taxed by the rulers in Kerala, it had nothing to do with breasts or moustaches. As the land tax was low at that time, the kings had introduced various kinds of other taxes to collect revenue, and one such tax was separate taxes for men and women. The tax to be paid by men was called talakkaram or head tax, and the tax to be paid by women was called mulakkaram or breast tax, only to differentiate it from the tax for men. The head tax was also called the moustache tax, in line with how the breast tax was named. The tax had nothing to do with actual breasts and moustaches, it was just the words used mean men and women. The rate of tax was different for men and women, therefore they were named this way.

While it is possible that a women named Naegeli had protested against this tax, this tax was possibly not for covering breasts.

Kerala’s sartorial history

Women’s attire in 19th-century Kerala was based on the tropical climate. It is a widely observed pattern that the traditional attire of a people is directly dependent on the climate of the land. Owing to the humid heat all through the year, a piece of cotton cloth draped around the middle with another (optional) hung over the shoulder as an afterthought has largely been the traditional attire of the people of Kerala, regardless of gender or caste.

A 17th-Century Dutch visitor William Van Nieuhoff writes about the attire of Ashwathi Thirunal Umayamma Rani, then queen of Travancore. He said, “I was introduced into her majesty’s presence. She had a guard of above 700 Nair soldiers about her, all clad after the Malabar fashion; the queen’s attire being no more than a piece of callicoe wrapt around her middle, the upper part of her body appearing for the most part naked, with a piece of callicoe hanging carelessly round her shoulders.”

He sketched the queen and her attendants in his work (Voyages and travels to the East Indies; 1653-1670), where it is quite clear that the queen and her attendants wore little to no cloth to cover their breasts.

If the 17th Century seems a bit dated for our debate, let’s look at a few pieces of evidence from the 19th and early 20th centuries, the very era in our fable is supposed to have taken place. The story implies that nakedness was a humiliation imposed by the upper caste on the lower caste women, with the intention of depriving them of modesty and the luxury of wearing a second piece of cloth. This accusation hardly holds water when you realise that women of Nambuthiri families and affluent Nair families themselves saw no need for a breast-covering garment, either as a sign of luxury or ‘modesty’.

In fact, not just Kerala, covering the body above the waist was not a norm in the entire Indian subcontinent. Both men and women didn’t wear anything on their upper bodies, apart from jewellery. It is evident in all paintings and carvings and statues from that era. For both men and women, covering the upper body was not seen as a necessity, and no issue of modesty or shame was associated with it. It was not just limited to lower castes, even upper caste people and even people of royal families followed the same system of attire, they only covered their lower bodies. Higher-class people sometimes wore a shawl on their shoulders, but it was just a status symbol and not associated with any modesty or moral values.

The concept of women requiring to cover their upper body was actually introduced by the Muslim rulers and European colonists in India. While the Islamists had brought the Sharia rules of modesty with them, the British came with their Victorian rules on the subject. After the Muslims had introduced upper body covering in the country, the Europeans introduced stitched blouses for women. It is after this that women covering their breasts started to be considered essential practice.

Even today, there is a tradition of not wearing stitched clothes in many temples in India. While the rules have been relaxed for women over time, priests in many temples don’t wear stitched clothes even now.

Who came up with the story?

It was first published in The Pioneer, and the author was C Radhakrishnan in 2007. In a video statement that was added to OpIndia Hindi’s video, he clearly mentioned that he cooked up the story based on folklore. There was no documented evidence of the story. However, the story was repeatedly picked up by media houses and even research papers as a “true story”. It is understandable that anyone gets confused and takes it as a historical fact in India, as we have a tendency not to look for sources. It is the reason the left-liberal section of academia was able to distort Indian history and teach it in our schools and colleges.

In 2009, blogger Michael Davitt published the tale on the Devian Art website. In 2013, The Hindu published a long story on Nangeli and the ‘breast tax’ and called it a “fading story” from history. In the same year, it also found mention in a 2013 book ‘Oru desathinte kadha, kayarinteyum’ by advocate and politician D Sugathan. The book title should not be confused with the 1971 Oru Desathinte Katha by Pottekkat SK.

In February 2016, Vegabomb published the story. But the real damage was done by the British media house BBC when it picked up the story in July 2016. BBC featured paintings created by Chithrakaran T Murali, who still believes that the story of Nangeli is true. According to him, he read about it four years before making the paintings and then spent time in Cherthala, the place where Nangeli was believed to have lived.

A number of obvious actors, including Feminism India, a portal famous for anti-Hindu rants, picked the story and published it in September 2016. In February 2017, The Hindu again picked up the story. In March 2017, India Times’s Vijay Singh wrote a story on Nangeli on Women’s day. Again in 2017, artist Orijit Sen created a comic strip based on the story. In September 2017, Scroll published a story based on Orijit’s comic strip that was covered by Guftgu. The News Minute also covered it based on Orijit’s strip. The reference to the article by Feminism India was used in a research paper titled ‘Conversations on Caste Discrimination in South India’ in 2018. In 2021, Homegrown published and claimed Nangeli brought “casteism” to its knees.

Despite being debunked numerous times by OpIndia here and here, WION News, Rani Sajitha for UpWord and Chakshu Media, Wing Commander Sathyan for Gusty Indians and others, the story is not only thriving but is referred to by publications and even the judiciary in India and abroad.

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B.Sc. Multimedia, a journalist by profession.

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