Tharoor Line| The enduring legacy of Mannam

At the Mannam Jayanti celebrations at NSS headquarters in Perunna : Manorama

I began the week by inaugurating this year’s Mannam Jayanti celebrations at NSS headquarters in Perunna. I was deeply conscious that I was standing on ground hallowed by the likes of Rajaji and Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and consecrated by the efforts of Shri Mannath Padmanabhan, whose work marked the foundation and expansion of NSS during his lifetime -- from a dream in the mind of fourteen Nairs in a tiny village, to a strong, influential and thriving statewide organisation. Fifty-two years after Mannam’s death, his legacy continues to guide lakhs of Malayalis and to inspire the more than 15,000 persons who gathered in Perunna to celebrate his 146th birth anniversary.

For me, at the start of my fifteenth year in politics, the honour of addressing the vast gathering gave me the opportunity to pay my own humble tribute to this towering colossus of Kerala society, a remarkable visionary, institution-builder, educationist and social reformer who, through sheer determination and remarkable organisational prowess, dedicated his entire life in service to the empowerment of the Nair community and, through these efforts, other communities as well, helping shape the modern Kerala society we celebrate today.

Delving into the story of his life, from an impoverished childhood in a fatherless home, without enough money to see him through school, and having to drop out of school in the first form to earn money to supplement the family’s income, was to appreciate Mannam’s iron will to shape his own destiny despite adverse circumstances.

Without even finishing high school (since he could not afford it) he passed the teaching examinations and became a government schoolteacher at the age of 16. Without ever attending college, he qualified to practice law in the lower courts. Despite making a success of both professions, he quit to devote himself single-mindedly to the creation of the Nair Service Society. And he triumphed beyond his wildest dreams. By the time of his death, this school-dropout had established 25 high schools and 125 colleges – accounting even today for more than 90% of the NSS’ formidable educational network in the state.

Mannam’s emphasis on education emerged from his own upbringing and the difficult circumstances he faced during his formative years, which instilled in him the strong conviction that the only way to emancipate and truly empower the Nair community was by ensuring access to high-quality but affordable modern education for every individual : KK Ajin/Manorama Online

These institutions are open to students from all castes and communities – a vital component of Mannam’s vision. The NSS was a community organisation without being a communal organisation. Under Mannam, the NSS worked for the uplift of a Nair society mired in decline, superstition, and centuries-old malpractices [anacharangal], and assailed by destitution and poverty -- but did so as part of a Kerala renaissance that was intended to benefit all Malayalis. Mannam’s emphasis on education emerged from his own upbringing and the difficult circumstances he faced during his formative years, which instilled in him the strong conviction that the only way to emancipate and truly empower the Nair community was by ensuring access to high-quality but affordable modern education for every individual. He strongly believed that the educational institutions built by NSS should offer the same opportunity to all, irrespective of their caste and religion.

Equally remarkable was how Mannam, without financial support from either Maharajahs or banks, developed a concept of micro-financing through small donations from Nair households whom he approached personally and inspired with his vision. His creative concepts like ulpanna piravu and relentless focus on ensuring a viable income for the NSS through the acquisition of revenue-generating agricultural land, ensured a substantial treasury for an organisation that began from nothing. “Self-reliance” is a slogan these days, but it was put into practice by Mannam, who was first and foremost a visionary institution-builder. He built up an organisation that worked from the ground up – karayogams, taluk unions, vanita swayam-sahaya sanghams – and created a cadre of self-sustaining individuals motivated, like himself, by the spirit of service. He managed this vast network of institutions with minimal bureaucracy and no technology, and the standards he set for his educational institutions were so high and so far-seeing that when the UGC issued new regulations in 2016, it was found that the NSS’ colleges were already in full conformity, even though their modes of operation were established 75 years earlier!

Shashi Tharoor
Shashi Tharoor inaugurated the public meet as part of the 146th birth anniversary of Mannathu Padmanabhan, the founder of the Nair Service Society (NSS) of Kerala at Changanassery. Photo: Manorama

As early as 1924-25, the NSS under Mannam persuaded the Travancore Government to enact the Nair Regulation, which saw the archaic Marumakkthayam practice being replaced by the more equitable and just Makkathyam system, providing for paternal and maternal property to be divided among all the children. It was a testament to the remarkable progressive outlook of Mannam and his ability to not just understand and address the challenges that afflicted the Nair community, but his capability as a tactical leader to leverage the institutional power of the NSS to usher in social reforms.

It must be emphasised that though Mannam was principally concerned with the empowerment of the Nair community and remained the community’s moral force and conscience keeper till his demise, he was also acutely driven by the need to ensure that the Nair community’s strength and capability was channelled towards a larger national cause when the need arose. And so it was that in his lifetime and under his leadership, both he and the larger community became instruments of a larger project of social integration and unity in Kerala society.

This explains his brief forays into politics – whether in the freedom struggle, when he heeded Gandhiji’s call and led the Vaikom and Guruvayur Satyagrahas for temple-entry for all castes, or in getting elected to the first legislative assembly of Travancore-Cochin after independence, or in leading the Vimochana samaram and finally in challenging the political establishment by creating the Kerala Congress. All these were interventions in the nation’s political life, rather than milestones in a sustained political career, because Mannam was not a politician. He saw himself as stepping into politics when society needed correction, and stepping out again when that purpose was served.

The lessons from his life are evident today: At a time when our state is reliant on remittances from hard-working Malayalis abroad, Mannam points the way to financial self-reliance; while the Kerala government is drowning in debt, Mannam shows us the path of responsible financial management; while Kerala attracts practically no serious investment, Mannam demonstrates the importance of revenue-generation; when Kerala’s youth are fleeing the state in quest of educational and employment opportunities outside Kerala, Mannam reminds us of the vital importance of anticipating their needs and preparing them for the future; while communalism [vargiyatha] is on the rise, Mannam’s example is one of fraternity between communities [sahodaryam].

All this is Mannam’s legacy, and the Kerala we live in would be wise to follow his inspiring example to create a better future for ourselves tomorrow.
Tailpiece: It is not widely known that when Mannam founded the NSS in 1914 it was initially called "Nair Bhruthya Jana Sangham" (NBJS), along the lines of Gopalakrishna Gokhale's "Servants of India Society” (“bhrutya” means “servants”).

It was the legendary M.A. Paramu Pillai who recommended a few months later that NBJS change its name to the more impressive Nair Service Society. While some wondered whether a society established in rural Kerala should bear an English name, Pillai persuaded its founders that as time went by, even non-English speaking Nairs would come to understand the meanings of "Service" and "Society" as they would become part and parcel of Malayalam vocabulary. The statewide success of the NSS proves that he was right.

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