Kula Kalvi Thittam (1953) and Relaxation of Child Labour Laws (2015): An Allegorical Reading.

This is an account of two political stories, one which unfolded more than five decades ago and another which still remains to do so. The write up tries to employ an allegorical reading, finding similarities between the two and tries to establish certain socio-political commonalities between the two.

An allegory is a narrative strategy whereby while telling a particular story another is alluded to as well. Allegory as a story telling technique has been used throughout history. One tries to find clues in a story for resemblances to another story. Recently reading a news report on a proposal of the central government, I found certain clues to another story and in the most unlikely place, i.e. a news website, found an allegorical reference. Basically this write up is a fancy way of saying “History repeats itself”.

Story I

On April 8th 2015, it was reported that government is planning to relax laws to allow children below 14 to work in “select family businesses”.These businesses shall not include any hazardous industries but only familial occupations such as helping out the family on the fields, forests and other home based works. Moreover it is also proposed that this work can be carried out only in the spare hours after school, during vacations or whilst attending technical institutions. This, as some officials claim, is being done to promote entrepreneurship among children and also to maintain the “social fabric” of the Indian society “where children learn by participating in work with family elders”. Another logic being given is that this will help the poor families “where children help in subsistence”.

Child rights activists have raised objection to this proposal. According to them child labour is already an underreported crime. By relaxing the laws there are chances that even the hazardous industries will see an increase in the cases of employment of children. Moreover apprehensions are that this relaxation will also negatively impact upon advancements made in expansion of elementary education, specially affecting those made in girls’education.

Apart from these protests there hasn’t been a widespread opposition from all sections of the society to the move, with some government supporters even defending the proposal.

Story II

In 1952 C. Rajagopalachari (Rajaji) became the chief minister of Madras state. Appointed by the Congress high command, he represented the brahamin image of the Congress in Tamil Nadu politics. In 1938 during his earlier stint as the chief minister he had introduced compulsory Hindi textbooks in schools which was openly resented and protested against by no less than E.V. Ramaswamy aka Periyar. In 1953 however Rajaji did something which irrevocably solidified his brahiministic legacy and also cost him his leadership in Tamil Nadu politics.

He introduced a scheme of vocational education based on “hereditary calling”. The scheme aimed at imparting the traditional occupation of parents to their children. Once again it was Periyar who fiercely condemned this move and called it out on its conspicuous casteist character. He went on to brand this educational pattern as “Kula Kalvi Thittam” (caste education scheme)and exposed its design of perpetuating the “varnashrama dharma”. Dravida Munetra Kazhagam (DMK) joined in the protest against this scheme and after the tireless crusade of Periyar the scheme was dropped following which Rajaji had to tender his resignation. Following this Kamraj the non-brahamin face of Congress in Madras was appointed the chief minister. Thus this episode proved to be a decisive victory against the brahiministic dominance in Tamil Nadu politics.

Calling a spade a spade

Apart from the insistence on “Hindi”, the two episodes also share the insistence on continuing/learning/participating in, in the familial occupations. Indian social fabric and tradition are famous for their casteist and brahministic designs. The idea of preserving the “social fabric” as suggested by certain officials today, further cements this analogy.

One of the many debilitating effects of caste system is the denial of upward mobility in society due to occupational immobility. In simpler words, a person from lower caste finds it difficult to move up in the social ladder because she is restricted by the occupation ascribed to her caste. For very few who break the caste barriers and improve their socio-economic standing, it involves immense struggle, hardships and continued stigmatisation and discrimination even after achieving success. In such a scenario it becomes even more difficult for those who are trapped by poverty to defy not only their class but also their caste. Thus to say that children should work in familial occupations to help their poor families for subsistence, is not only a statement rife with casteism but also filled with a class bias. Rather than helping out poor families to break the shackles of poverty and let their children attain hindrance free education, this move reinforces their class and caste status. And there are ample proofs that if given the opportunities, these children rather than joining in their ‘traditional’ family occupations can strive for etching their own success in this modern secular world, a section of which deliberately denies them the opportunity to do so.

That’s why Periyar was alarmed by Rajaji’s scheme and one should be by this proposition as well. But perhaps what Tamil society was in 1953, i.e. equipped with a strong anti-caste, anti-brahamin sentiment, Indian society of today isn’t and might never be. The caste agenda has been diluted beyond recognition and the brahaminical authority is not being challenged anymore in mainstream politics. Allegories may be interesting but it is unfortunate that we may keep finding ones such as this, in government proposals and announcements in future as well.

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