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A Sudra’s Story: Belated review, with IITs and OBC reservations in mind

Book Review: “Memoirs of: A.N. Sattanathan”; Edited by: Dr. Uttara Natarajan; Published by: Permanent Black 2007
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By Raju Rajagopal*
I grew up in a privileged upper caste family where caste prejudices were on display every day. But a class reading of Basavanna’s vachanagalu on caste and class had left a deep impression on me as a middle-schooler. And I vaguely remember promising myself that I too would be an anti-caste crusader. But in the real world, I wasn’t able to summon the courage even to call out the worst forms of caste discrimination within my own family.
At one time, I was determined to marry outside ‘my community’ just to make a statement. But I ended up doing what most Hindus did: Marry within my birth caste. Thankfully, my life partner had similar thoughts on caste discrimination and had walked the talk in her interactions with people around her.
I was privileged to study at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras (IIT-M) in the sixties. With little presence of Dalits and Bahujans, the only side of caste reservations that I was subjected to was the resentment of friends outside that even the best of them had to struggle to get into a good college in Tamil Nadu.
I had little exposure to the other side of the ‘reservation question’ until decades after graduation, when IIT-M was the subject of much criticism as a Brahmin-dominated institution, insular to change.
It is in this context that I was fortunate to come across “A Sudra’s Story,” the memoirs of A.N. Sattanathan, who lead a distinguished career in All-India Services in the forties and fifties. He was appointed as the Chairman of the first Tamil Nadu Backward Classes Commission in 1969 under a DMK government, which laid the foundation for reservations for so-called OBCs.
If the pioneering experiment in Tamil Nadu later set the tone for the Mandal Commission recommendations in 1980, much of the credit goes to the diligent work of Sattanathan.
His notes, hand-written in English in 1958, cover his life from 1905 to 1928, until his second job. They were discovered in 2001 by his grand-daughter, Dr. Uttara Natarajan, a Reader in English at Goldsmiths, University of London. She edited and published the notes as a memoir in 2007.
Natarajan sums up her grandfather’s “autobiographical fragment” as “a unique record of non-Brahmin low-caste life in rural South India, where the presence of poverty and caste prejudice is the more powerful for being understated.”
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Sattanathan’s story starts in Shenkottai, Tamil Nadu, with an absorbing account of his early years growing up in a poor, low-caste, women-dominated household. He talks at length about his domineering grandmother, whose fondness for him he took for granted. He describes with some pride her multi-tasking personality and her entrepreneurial skills born out of necessity. If Sattanathan grew up to be a young man with great self-confidence, perhaps his grandmother was one of his role models.
His father was a naadaswaram artist, who earned his living at weddings and festivals. As a young boy, Sattanathan often trailed the musicians, attending to their needs. The festivities, especially Brahmin weddings, made a great impression on him. But he was also a keen observer of different caste practices on such occasions — memories that he tucked away, which must have informed his later work on caste.
His father was also an ordained priest in his native village. The family observed all the “customary rites of Dravidian worship,” including poojas, fasting, and temple visits. Sattanathan describes one such rite in which a devotee bears a kaavadi (literally, ‘burden’) containing offerings to Lord Muruga. The gaily decorated kaavadi is carefully balanced on the devotees shoulders in a pious and celebratory family processional to a temple.
Sattanathan describes the rite as teaching humility and respect for religion. However, when the family decides that it is his turn to bear the kaavadi, he “stoutly” refuses, describing it as rank superstition. Perhaps, this early anecdote illustrates his ability to see both sides of an issue and to “inhabit a range of polarities,” as Natarajan puts it.
He paints the picture of a father singularly focussed on educating him in English so he could enter government employment. To support this dream, the father supplements his unsteady income by teaching naadaswaram. “His proficiency as a music instructor was greater than his reputation as a performing musician” wryly notes Sattanathan.
The family’s constant struggle to finance the dream of educating him leads to the emergence of a rich benefactor (‘K’) in the village, who is persuaded to support him. But that support does not always come easily and takes patience and persistence — sometimes requiring hours of waiting for an audience with K. When Sattanathan later discovers K’s past close connection with his family, he observes, “In poverty one does not even know how and what to ask.”
K continues to support him through college, but that creates some jealously within K’s family. Sattanathan describes a “pinprick” during an outing with the K family. One of K’s brothers is furious with him for not picking up and carrying his chappals during a river crossing. The brash young Sattanathan defiantly pushes back on what he sees as a menial job.
The K family is visibly annoyed. Sattanathan’s family then has to “eat the humble pie and apologize to the gentleman concerned.” If they had not borne the humiliation, he says, his continued education may have been in jeopardy.
Sattanathan also shows a range of emotions towards Brahmins during his school and college years.
He recalls his close Brahmin friends and playmates by name. He alludes to the general feeling in those days that Brahmin teachers treated children of other castes with contempt. But, he says, “I did not feel that I was being treated unfairly. Perhaps, the teachers, being themselves very poor, may have felt some sympathy…”
As he advances in school, however, he has several close encounters with cast prejudice. And he later decries the “lack of humanity” among Brahmin teachers, which “retarded the progress of education of the vast non-Brahman classes for several decades.”
None of these encounters, however, stops Sattanathan from competing hard and trying to excel in his studies. In the meantime, his father constantly experiments with his son’s education, sending him to different schools to find the quickest path to success in a world dominated by the upper castes.
In the end, Sattanathan’s success surpasses his father’s dream: He goes on to a college in Trivandrum and graduates with Honours in History, a subject that may have aided in his later contributions to social justice. While in college, he co-habits with students from different backgrounds and makes several close Brahmin friends. He says that he was treated like a friend by many professors and became their favourite student.
However, his experiences in his first two jobs as a college teacher leave him deeply disturbed, despite his natural inclination to hold a balanced view of caste relations:
A college in Madurai reaches out to him with an offer for his first teaching job. Upon arrival there, he is unable to secure accommodation in the preferable parts of town and settles for a room in a non-Brahmin locality. When he shares this information, the Principal is shocked to discover that he is not a Brahmin. “My academic record, my self-assurance, and my style of talking both in English and Tamil led him to believe that I was a Brahman.”
To add insult to injury, the Principal then advises him not to disclose his roots to anyone and cautions him not to meet the top officials of the college.
Sattanathan had always secretly entertained the idea of joining the Indian Civil Service (I.C.S.). Before being accepted to take the I.C.S. exam, applicants were required to go through a medical examination. Sattanathan sends in his application and anxiously awaits a response, as he continues teaching.
One fine morning, the Principal sends him an envelope clearly marked as a Madras Government communication. To his shock, Sattanathan finds that it is a call to appear for a medical exam that very morning! But worse, he discovers that the college had received the letter some days back and the Principal had kept it from him, “thinking that it might be important, [I] had it locked up.” As a consequence, Sattanathan forfeits the opportunity to sit for the I.C.S. exam.
Sattanathan describes it as the bitterest experience of his life. “The one great hope of my life, which had sustained me through years of hardship, suffering, and humiliation was shattered.”
In his second teaching job in Trichy in 1928, he goes through yet another humiliating experience: After being offered a job, the Principal asks him one day whether he is an Iyer or an Iyengar. Upon finding that he is neither, the Principal confesses that he had assured The College Committee that he was indeed an Iyer. When asked how he had assumed so, the Principal points to his academic distinctions.
“First class Honours was not necessarily a brahman prerogative,” Sattanathan retorts. But history repeats itself, as the Principal advises him not to make the customary courtesy call on the Chairman of Committee.
Sattanathan’s memoirs abruptly end here, but he did qualify for Superior Civil Service later and leads a very successful and long career in Customs and Central Excise, with several innovations to his credit.
His story re-emerges only in 1969-70 through his post-retirement contribution to the caste debate and his recommendations for Backward Classes reservations.
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Natarajan makes up for the lack of later narratives of Sattanathan’s life, by appending three of his lectures from 1981, which take a critical look back at the Dravidian Movement and the reservations policy. Short though they are, the lectures are illuminating and reinforce Sattanathan’s record as an independent thinker:
On the one hand, he reminds us of the history of Brahmin domination of Civil Service during British times, quoting statistics that show that a vast majority of the jobs were held by Brahmins. And he laments the fact that even after several elections in independent India, “one feels aghast that a 96 per cent majority should seek safeguards against a petty minority of 4 per cent.”
On the other hand, he decries the fact that a decade after his policy recommendations, “backwardness is becoming a vested interest.” And he advises Backward Classes that they cannot depend upon State support forever.
It is notable that the most important part his 1970 recommendation included an income test for OBC reservations, which successive DMK governments were unable to implement due to popular resistance. And today, thirty years after Sattanathan’s passing, we are still debating his idea of a “Creamy Layer.”
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“A Sudra’s Story” is an easy read, with a first person narrative that holds ones attention to the end. Natarajan has done a great service by offering an alternative to the many scholarly books on caste that one finds intimidating. Her well curated annotations are very helpful to connect her grandfather to the present, without interrupting his story.

In the last few weeks, the whole world has seen a whirlwind of protests, triggered by the George Floyd killing, with demands for major structural changes. Many see the outpouring of support for Black Lives Matter as signalling new opportunities for honest dialogue on racism and police brutality.
Perhaps the time has also come for such uncomfortable conversations In India on casteism and religious bigotry, especially among people of privilege and at institutions like the IITs.
Sattanathan’s memoirs is a must read for all Indians who want to work towards dismantling the legacy of caste.

*Hindus for Human Rights (HfHR)

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