Recasting the Self: Missionaries and the Education of the Poor in Kerala (1854-1956)

Research Project (to be discussed at the Winter Academy) by Divya Kannan.

Divya Kannan is currently pursuing her PhD in Modern Indian History at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Her study seeks to examine the history of education and discourses on poverty in the late 19th and  20th century Kerala, particularly amongst so-called lower caste groups.

The history of education in India is relatively a new field of research compared to its counterparts in sociology and psychology. Although, there have been studies on the system of modern education in the country from the 19th century onwards, most debates have tended to look at policy shifts. These can be broadly classified into two categories. One category of research comprises chronological histories of Indian education, detailing major policy shifts and the impact of western education on Indian society and polity. This group has argued within the simplistic framework of impact-response of the benefits of English education for India. One of the debates which has occupied scholarly attention in this regard has been the Anglicist-Orientalist controversy of the 1830s. Another loosely defined category, particularly in the post-independence period, has mined rich sources (albeit a majority of them official) to understand the trajectory of schooling in colonial India by looking at aspects of technical, vocational and mass education. The historical study of education has moved beyond the noting of enrolment figures towards assessing the role of education in shaping political contexts and social relationships. Questions of inequality, poverty, discrimination, assertion, empowerment and politicization have come to the forefront of new research on education.

Despite their evangelical agenda, mission schools became an important factor in local societies by enabling formal schooling opportunities to hitherto excluded groups. These mission schools provided instruction in the three Rs as well as subjects such as history, geography, elementary science and basic vocational training. For labouring populations, this opened up new opportunities, albeit limited, to develop new modes of expression, participation in the literate public sphere and to aspire for social mobility through new jobs. Missionary schooling, particularly for Christian converts also had a dual objective. European protestant missionaries aimed at moulding a new sense of self amongst their converts by attempting to break down caste markers. Education was the domain to introduce new habits, patterns of work, social organisation, gender roles and language for Christian converts.

It is this aspect of forging a new ‘individual’ that characteristically marks the project of schooling the poor in colonial India. It can be argued that it was a ‘double civilizing mission’ on the part of European missionaries and colonial government.  On the one hand, in tune with the colonial idea of a civilizing mission for Indians, as a whole, and on the other, ‘the civilizing of the lower caste/classes’ in particular.  In villages, missionaries opened schools for marginalised groups, and vernacular instruction was often provided only up to the elementary level, owing to financial constraints, among other reasons. They, however, actively engaged in the secondary and higher education in the towns, chiefly aimed at attracting the upper castes/classes and providing an English education which many wanted to gain government employment. This gulf in the educational provision tended to perpetuate existing social divisions. This research seeks to examine these overlapping motives by directing the historian’s lens to the education of the poor in the late 19th and 20th century Kerala, in south-western India.

 The history of education in India is relatively a new field of research compared to its counterparts in sociology and psychology. Although, there have been studies on the system of modern education in the country from the 19th century onwards, most debates have tended to look at policy shifts. These can be broadly classified into two. One category of research comprises chronological histories of Indian education, detailing major policy shifts and the impact of western education on Indian society and polity. This group has argued within the simplistic framework of impact-response of the benefits of English education for India. One of the debates which has occupied scholarly attention in this regard has been the Anglicist-Orientalist controversy of the 1830s. Another loosely defined category, particularly in the post-independence period, has mined rich sources, albeit a majority of them official, to understand the trajectory of schooling in colonial India by looking at aspects of technical, vocational and mass education. The historical study of education has moved beyond the noting of enrolment figures towards assess the role of education in shaping political contexts and social relationships. Questions of inequality, poverty, discrimination, assertion, empowerment and politicisation have come to the forefront of new research on education.

During the colonial period, one of the neglected arenas of administration was elementary education. By the 1830s, the British were taking initiatives  primarily in higher education and emphasizing upon the ‘filtration theory’ of education. They were  not concerned with  ensuring mass education and similar to conditions in England at the time, the education of the poor and working classes were left to the philanthropic and charitable actions of the various missionary groups, reformers and individuals.  While the Anglicist-Orientalist debate has predominated discussions on the subject, the schooling of the poor has remained relatively less explored.

Given the caste ridden nature of social systems permeating the field of education, this is not surprising. Caste peculiarities largely determined conditions of educational access and opportunities for the poorer, so-called low caste populations and had varying consequences on the social histories of various regions. In the contemporary context, as we debate the nuances of the Right to Education Act enacted in 2009, the historical debate on the education of the labouring poor remains less acknowledged.

Despite their evangelical agenda,  mission schools became an important factor in local societies by enabling formal schooling opportunities to hitherto excluded groups. These mission schools provided instruction in the three Rs as well as subjects such as history, geography, elementary science and basic vocational training. For labouring populations, this opened up new opportunities, albeit limited, to develop new modes of expression, participation in the literate public sphere and aspire for social mobility through new jobs. Missionary schooling, particularly for- Christian converts also had a dual objective. European protestant missionaries aimed at moulding a new sense of self amongst their converts by attempting to break down caste markers. Education was the domain to introduce new habits, patterns of work, social organisation, gender roles and language for Christian converts.

It is this aspect of forging a new ‘individual’ that characteristically marks the project of schooling the poor in colonial India. It can be argued that it was a ‘double’ civilizing mission on the part of European missionaries and colonial government. On the one hand, in tune with the colonial idea of a civilizing mission for Indians, as a whole, and on the other, ‘the civilizing of the lower caste/classes’ in particular.  In villages, missionaries opened schools for marginalised groups, and vernacular instruction was often provided only up to the elementary level, owing to financial constraints, among other reasons. They, however, actively engaged in the secondary and higher education in the towns, chiefly aimed at attracting the upper castes/classes and providing an English education which many wanted to gain government employment. This gulf in the educational provision tended to perpetuate existing social divisions.

This research seeks to examine these overlapping motives by directing the historian’s lens to the education of the poor in the late 19th and 20th century Kerala, in south-western India. In 1947, the literacy rates were abysmally low and yet, some regions, especially the native princely states marked immense growth in educational provision during the time. One state was contemporary Kerala ( linguistically formed by the union of the princely states of Travancore-Cochin and British administered Malabar in 1956), which enjoyed a status that continues till date.

The ‘Kerala Development’ model has been a subject of study amongst various social scientists over the past few decades. Although it has been hailed for achieving certain parameters of human development, it continues to be critiqued and debated. One of the major constituent arenas of focus in this regard has been  education, which is recognized as having played a transformative role. In a broader sense, education, in the context of Kerala’s changing socio-political and economic milieu has moved beyond the confines of literacy and includes political processes, women’s participation and expansion of the public sphere to incorporate hitherto marginalised groups. In other words, it has been seen as crucial for developing human capabilities.

While it is true that the princely states of Travancore-Cochin heralded significant progress in education and Malabar fared better than other districts of colonial Madras Presidency on the eve of independence, there has been few attempts to assess the relationship between education and poverty in a historical perspective. There is an academic tendency to uncritically appraise these developments. This is more so with regard to the contribution of Protestant missionaries in expanding literacy in the state. While the historical debate on the role of Christians missionaries is now moving away from the simplistic binary of collaborator/opponent of imperialism, the nuances of their relationship to educational change in Kerala has been less explored.

This study proposes to examine the role of education in shaping the discourse of poverty in the nineteenth and twentieth century Kerala by focusing on schooling practices, intervention by Protestant missionaries, various communities and the state to understand the debates involved and its implications on caste and gender. The term ‘labouring poor’ shall include all those castes and communities who have been traditionally involved in agricultural and other manual labour and excluded from state institutions until the turn of the twentieth century. Since caste and occupational status were co-related in the concerned period, this comprises the erstwhile untouchable castes belonging to different religious faiths in Kerala. However, for the purpose of this research and due to lack of language fluency in Arabic, the Muslim community shall not be discussed in detail.

The question of whether Christianity and commerce are interlinked is not a recent one. It has been a site of debate even within missionary circles from the nineteenth century onwards, although couched in a language of evangelism. Andrew Porter has astutely shown how the debate among missionaries can be broadly divided into two. Christianity was seen as synonymous to the idea of civilization and progress and one group of missionaries argued that without the spread of the Christian religion, the civilizing of the heathen populations would remain incomplete. The other group considered that the imparting of Christianity required some basic prerequisites in place. This, they believed, could be heralded only by markers of Western civilizations, particularly expansive trade and industry.  Education finds a crucial place in this debate. The first step taken by most missionaries overseas was the establishment of schools. They were seen as avenues for future conversion of heathen populations via the conversion of children. At the same time, while the running of schools intended predominantly at proselytisation, the agenda was intertwined with that of the colonial civilizing mission. Schools attempted to teach children new ways of social conduct, cultural habits and values to make them ‘useful, productive beings’, an idea constantly repeated.

Both the Ezhavas, Pulayas as well as various other lower  castes and sub-castes have fought to shed the ’inferior’ status accorded to them by upper caste hegemony, and education has been a factor in this redefinition of identities. The acquisition of both formal and informal schooling was enabled significantly by the activities of the western Protestant missionaries such as that of the London Missionary Society, Church Missionary Society, Basel Evangelical Mission, amongst others, who arrived in Kerala, and set up the earliest schools. Owing to caste inequalities, the missionaries were the first ones to provide elementary education to agrarian, lower caste populations, although their agenda was evangelically motivated. This, however, induced various responses and engagement with the missions. The establishment of missionary schools, imparting modern education and the threat of mass conversion , prompted the orthodox administration of Travancore to initiate a modernization programme. One of the first tasks they embarked upon was the establishment of government primary schools across the region offering free education.

The protestant missionaries established a network of primary and secondary schools, providing education both in English and regional languages. The beginning of printing presses and wider circulation of reading material allowed many caste groups to voice their demands in the open and petition the government directly. The dissemination of religious and secular literature also contributed towards a greater political awakening in Kerala. This, coupled with anti-caste ideology, propagated through popular religious idioms by philosophers such as Narayana Guru played a significant apart in self-respect campaigns. Narayana Guru, led community reform initiatives by challenging Brahmin monopoly over temple worship and access to public institutions. His exhortations to the people to ‘Strengthen through Organisation, and Liberation through Knowledge’ became the clarion calls for wide scale political agitations for education from the government. Education was pivotal to this process of democratizing knowledge. These attempts at democratizing knowledge have had a far reaching impact on Kerala. For the Ezhavas, it meant a greater share of administrative jobs and distancing from past selves as ‘toddy tappers’ and ‘manual labourers’. In short, education became the site for the project of modernity for these social groups. Changing notions of ‘status’ and ‘work’ were centered around educational practices. In the 1920s and 1930s, Malabar witnessed the participation of local youth in the national movements of non-cooperation and Civil Disobedience. The anti-untouchability and temperance campaigns headed by Gandhi and the Congress also saw the participation of newly educated groups. The right to temple entry campaign, which was a major episode in the history of self-assertion witnessed individuals across caste lines participating. Schools, newspapers, reform organisations all played significant roles in disseminating public consciousness and competition for resource accumulation for those partaking of it.The history of the public library movement in Kerala has highlighted the ways in which the rural poor were brought within the ambit of a literate public. This study proposes to examine the role of education in these political processes and mobilization of the poor.

One of the key questions which I propose to examine is the idea of work that is produced and reproduced in the education of the poor. This is significant to help understand how the discourse of poverty is also shaped alongside that of education. The demand for education is usually accompanied by larger socio-economic imperatives, primarily the search for a decent employment or skills to equip oneself with a particular livelihood. But in reality, not all pupils who attend various schools and have varying educational attainment are able to be find the employment that they initially aspire to or desire. While on the one hand, the curriculum seeks to impart, generally in a  top-down fashion, certain new ideologies of work, it also attempts, as Bourdieu’s work shows, to reproduce existing societal inequalities.

RESEARCH QUESTIONS

  • What are the historical processes that have contributed towards the schooling of the poor in late nineteenth and twentieth century Kerala?
  • Has the intervention of Christian missionaries been crucial to provoke State intervention in the field of education for lower castes? What meanings of labour and modernity did missionary education seek to impart?
  • What are the linkages between education, caste and gender? What are the aspects of missionary education for women? What notions of ‘domesticity and femininity’ did they seek to inculcate in girl pupils?
  • What educational practices were adopted by the state, missionaries and indigenous groups? What aspects of education were given prominence, for instance, science, industrial and technical education?
  • What have been the various schooling practices involved in educating the poor? What kind of textbooks and pedagogical techniques were employed?
  • What are the cultural changes that have been brought about by mass schooling amongst lower caste communities in Kerala in the twentieth century?

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