Dr. D. Gnanaraj
PhD from Torch Trinity Graduate University in Seoul, South Korea.
On September 17, Periyar’s 140th birthday was commemorated in Tamil Nadu. The very next day, Justice Markandey Katju published an article on Periyar in the The Week, titled: “Whatever His Motives, Periyar Helped the British” (Sept. 18, 2018). He attempts to provide a “fresh, unemotional and objective” assessment of Periyar. I, for one, have my suspicions over any such grand undertaking. As Hans Georg Gadamer, a German philosopher, points out, prejudice is inescapable even in ‘objective’ analysis. In this article, both the objectivity and the freshness of the criticisms that are levelled against Periyar are analyzed and clarified.
By dividing society along caste lines, Periyar was helping the British, whatever his motives may have been.
The reality was that Indian society had been long divided by brahminical caste system. Justice Katju himself agrees that dalits have been treated disgracefully in the country in the name of caste. And it is the Vedas (the brahminical scriptures) that support such divisive hierarchy. Besides, evidences of such abuses are not hard to find in the puranas and Vedas, written centuries before the advent of the British in the subcontinent. To blame the British or Periyar for the entrenchment of caste in British India is to offer a misdiagnosis that would obfuscate history and further obstruct social progress. If at all any existing social system that helped British to successfully implement their ‘divide-rule’ policy in India, it was the then prevalent caste system, passionately supported by the brahmins and their scriptures. Periyar’s raison d’être was the eradication of caste inequality and to blame him for the opposite is simply a brazen historical distortion.
The caste system, whatever be its origin, had evolved into a feudal occupational division of labour in the society, and every vocation became a caste. There was a small section of the society involved in intellectual work. They were the Brahmins.
Here Justice Katju attempts to present a sanitized version of caste system, as a progressive social system of labour division. He does not want to discuss its origin. As for him, it’s just that brahmins happened to be in the right place at the right time! He seems to downplay the evil this compartmentalized system had perpetuated, the sufferings it caused, and the murderous venom it still spews into our social psyche. No one questions the idea of dividing labour among the members of its community. But the question is raised when particular ‘mean’ labours are assigned to a group under ‘divine authority’ for generations. This system effectively ruled out any prospect of their being able to climb out of their miserable predicament. It is important to remind ourselves of Ambedkhar’s insightful remark in this regard: Caste system is not merely division of labour. It is also division of labourers. This demented logic – that human beings are born with innate inclination towards certain vocations – was simply unacceptable to Periyar. This has to be so for any reasonable human being!
Periyar constantly spouted venom against Brahmins and brahminism. “If you see a snake and a Brahmin, kill the Brahmin first”: this was a statement famously attributed to him. … There were many incidents of attacks on Brahmins in Tamil Nadu—their tufts and sacred threads were cut off—leading to a partial exodus of ‘Tambrahms’ from the state.
This unsubstantiated remark has often been attributed to Periyar but there is no documented proof that he ever used it! Periyar did not consider brahmins or any other ethnic group as his sworn enemy. In fact, he did have close Brahmin friends. Rajagopalachari, his political antithesis, remained his close confidant till his death. This is not to say that Periyar did not criticize Brahmins and their religious ideology harshly. He had to call a spade a spade. He had to name the evil (the caste system) and help those trapped under its crushing weight for centuries. In that context, he had to oppose those that were spreading superstitions and perpetuating oppression. His protests against the brahmins were not because of their brahminical identity itself, rather it was due to their devotion for traditions that aggrieved large sections of the society. Besides, Periyar neither encouraged nor endorsed violence. He called his followers to resort to rationalist behavior and restraint. There have been instances of cutting of sacred thread of brahmins. This was done as a ‘symbolic protest’ against the brahminical hegemony. But there was no ‘dedicated violent program’ that resulted in any ‘mass migration’ (as denoted by the word ‘Exodus’) of brahmins out of Tamil Nadu, apart from families migrating to both inland and overseas seeking better economic opportunities.
But, in his attacks on Hindu gods like Rama, whose picture he burnt at a Marina beach procession in 1956, he betrays a lack of scientific temper.
In general, Dravidian intellectuals have viewed the stories of devas and ashuras in the Puranas as based on the actual struggles between the invading Aryans versus the native Dravidians. They look at Rama and Ravana from this sociological view point, as representatives of embattled societies. Kancha Ilaiah, in The Weapon of the Other, credits Tripuraneni Ramaswamy, a Telugu nationalist, for constructing Ravana as a Veerashiva Dravida man (p.131). Similarly, Periyar saw an Aryan superimposition on casting Ravana as the universal symbol of evil, something that he wanted to deconstruct. Ravana’s effigies are burned every year all over North India, much to the delight of the cheering masses. Periyar wanted to wake the Tamils from their historical amnesia, as he launched his daring campaign of burning Rama’s picture in protest. This has to be seen as a bold effort to recover South’s suppressed Dravidian legacy. His followers continue this initiative by organizing Ravana Leela to this day.
Self-Respect: Periyar’s Humanitarian Motive
Justice Katju seems disinterested in Periyar’s motive as he quickly moves on to evaluate Periyar’s political activism. This disinterest is evident in the title itself: “whatever his motive…” However, it is important for us to highlight what motivated Periyar in his political venture. One word that encapsulates Periyar’s politics is Self-Respect (“suyamariyathai” in Tamil), the foremost humanitarian imperative for all people. Periyar valued self-respect as true freedom over political independence. Throughout his life, Periyar remained a people’s leader, a fighter for social justice, equality and human dignity.Though all these are guaranteed in the Indian Constitution, these have been largely idealistic and difficult to realize in practice. It was towards achieving this self-respect for the marginalized, Periyar mobilized all his energy and strategies.
Periyar did not oppose brahmins for being ahead of the curve in learning. He criticized them when Brahmins and their scriptures (Manusmriti) forbade the marginalized from learning, and thereby attaining self-respect: If the Sudra intentionally listens for committing to memory the Veda, then his ears should be filled with (molten) lead; if he utters the Veda, then his tongue should be cut off. In Periyar’s estimation, education was the main way to attain self-respect. When the British policies allowed those at the margins to access education which had been denied for centuries, Periyar expressed his admiration.
Periyar repeatedly called for greater empathy for fellow human beings. Yet ‘the enlightened sections of the society’ largely chose not to respond to his prophetic call to join the fight against inequality. Not even his close friend Rajaji joined Periyar in his fight for equality and the attainment of self-respect for all.
In conclusion, no wonder Periyar’s uncompromising life and revolutionary views had left an indelible mark on the political landscape of Tamil Nadu. The ideological foundation he bequeathed to Tamil Nadu has become the bedrock of civil liberties, social cohesion and respectful coexistence. And expectedly so, this has also incurred the wrath of the gods!
I think the time has come for the whole of India to be reminded of the message of Thanthai Periyar on self-respect, inclusivism and equality for all.
Letter to the Editor
The interview with the leader of Dravidar Kazhagam, Dr.K.Veeramani published in the columns of “The Hindu” dated 21.01.2019 under the caption “Reservation is not a poverty alleviation Scheme” is highly informative and immensely useful for several people. I agree in toto with Dr.K.Veeramani’s views on reservation based on economic criteria. Dr.Veeramani has made his stand correctly and vividly that “In our country, discrimination is primarily based on caste. A person may be rich today and may become (poor) tomorrow and vice versa. But once you are born into a caste, it doesn’t change even after the person’s death, as there are caste-based graveyards. Economic criteria are very volatile. They may change over time”. The reservation for SCs, STs and OBCs enshrined in the Constitution as Dr Veeramani said, is not aimed at alleviating poverty, but to empower these hapless people who have been denied access to education for ages in the name of Vedas and shastras.
He is not against providing reservation to the needy. He is for reservation for all. However the quantum of reservation should be restricted to the population of the respective caste or community. In 1902, Chhatrapati Sahu of the Princely State of Kolhapur, Maharashtra introduced the revolutionary reservation system directing to recruit among the backward classes in all offices in which their representation falls below 50%. Similarly the Justice Party passed Communal GO in 1921 (GO.613) providing reservation to certain communities including Brahmins.
The Scs,STs and OBCs who are legitimately entitled to get reservation are kept at bay in all important, key and strategic positions in PMO, Presidents Secretariat etc. But these positions have been largely occupied by the so called hapless(?) Forward Communities for whom the Government has slogged over and brought out an Act providing 10% reservation an economic basis.
If the Government has serious concern for poor in the forward communities it should go for 100% reservation to all communities. The quantum of reservation should be strictly based on their respective population. The data is available readily. Going ahead with 10% quota on economic basis for the forward communities would endanger the existing reservation on social and educational backwardness.
Dr. S. Devadoss
Chennai – 600100.