Conversation : S V  Rajadurai, V Geetha &  Vidya Bhushan Rawat on Periyar’s ideology, self respect movement and opportunism of political parties

S V Rajadurai is one of the leading intellectuals from Tamil Nadu who has written, in English and Tamil, on a range of issues to do with Marxism and literature; with Tamil politics and modern history, including Periyar and the Dravidian movement and translated widely, both fiction and non-fiction. Associated with a broad spectrum of left movements, he has worked for several years in the civil liberties movement and was Vice-President, PUCL.

Geetha is a feminist historian, writer and translator, who has been active in the women’s movement for several years. She writes, in English and Tamil, on issues to do with caste, education, feminism and contemporary Tamil society.

Geetha and S V Rajadurai have worked together for over 25 years – as authors and translators. Their major work comprises essays on the Dravidian movement and politics published in the Economic and Political Weekly, and the book, Towards a Non Brahmin Millennium: from Iyothee Thass to Periyar. They have also authored monographs on western Marxism, including a comprehensive volume on the life and thought of Antonio Gramsci. Rajadurai and Geetha continue to translate poetry and fiction from English to Tamil.

The importance of Periyar and his self respect movement is immense and yet neither the Indian state nor the state of Tamilnadu where politicians chant his name, none have felt it important to compile Periyar’s speeches and writings and make it available to rest of the country men. This rare conversation of Vidya Bhushan Rawat, with Rajadurai and Geetha will definitely be important for students of social movements and political science in India. Even though it is lengthy yet it explains so many things hitherto unknown to common people.

VB : Periyar was one of the tallest revolutionaries of India. His thoughts on secularism, on Brahmanism surpass any other political leaders of his time. He was enormously popular with the masses. Why does today’s Tamil Nadu seem absolutely reverse to Periyar’s thoughts when we see the growing religiosity in the state and a huge number of Shudras following it? 

SV & VG : Periyar‘s radicalism comprised several parts – his critique of Brahminism was manysided. At one level, it was a rejection of the Brahminical abhorrence of labour and touch. Describing the differences he harboured with Rajaji, who was also a personal friend, he remarked that C. Rajagopalachariyar (Rajaji) stayed true to his mission, which was that he did not want his caste men to have to pick up a spade and labour‘. In another instance, speaking of the winning flexibility of Brahmin intellectualism, he observed that some Brahmins might abhor a Panchama‘ entering their homes, whereas others might not be averse to the same Panchama‘ entering their kitchens; why, some might even allow‘ a Panchama to enter the sanctum sanctorum of their altar-room, and there were Brahmins who did marry Panchamas. In all this, though Brahmins made choices that worked to their advantage – he used the Tamil word balithavarai‘, that is whatever worked‘ for them. At another level Periyar argued that Brahminism had to do with the hierarchical logic of varnadharma, which, like a ladder implicates everyone – in this sense, each of us carries a ladder in our consciousness, and we measure ourselves and others on the basis of where we are placed on this ladder. However, what drew the attention of the people at large was his critique of the Brahmin community‘s proneness to separate and ‗upgrade‘ themselves whenever they were challenged; and the hegemonic role they exercised in matters of everyday religiosity, culture, and in the modern period in arbitrating social values. Brahmin religious authority was also scorned – and Hindu religious lore was subject to merciless criticism.

Periyar also argued that Dravidian‘ faith and rituals were as soiled‘ by Brahminical exegesis and arguments, and dismissed, on this basis the Tamil Saivites‘ claim to a faith (Saiva Siddhantha) which, they argued, was different from Brahminical Hinduism; he was equally dismissive of local practices of ritual, of village cults and so on. Yet, given that the political force of his critique of Brahminism addressed Brahminical Hinduism, the Dravidian‘ practitioners of Saivism, as well as those who were bound by local lore and faith, could detach Periyar‘s animosity towards religion in general from his anti-Brahmin critique, and uphold the latter, while ignoring the former. This was not of course true of his more consistent followers, including women. This is important to note, because atheism as household practice was common amongst those in the organisations he founded – and there were several intrepid women, who were proud to declare themselves atheists and insisted on secular burial rituals, when they passed away.

All this made for a public culture, where Periyar‘s radical rejection and critique of faith – breaking of the Ganesha idol, slippering1 portraits of the god Rama in public – enjoyed visibility and support; yet his more fundamental critique of faith, and the angry denunciation of caste that was implicit in his denunciation of Brahminical Hinduism were not always taken in and internalized.

Also, historically, religious ritual, including temple festivals, and the granting of ‗honours‘ to local heads of communities during such events have served the purpose of affirming social status and rank in the Tamil context. This is as true of local temples as it is of the gigantic royal and Brahminical edifices that mark the Tamil landscape. So, in a sense, social personhood is bound with temple ritual – with religious and secular authority being nested in each other. This is why Dalits see it fit to challenge the prerogative that dominant castes arrogate to themselves during such festivals, and demand places and roles for themselves in the conduct of the latter.

Further, even those temple spaces which had been outside the sacred spaces dominated by Brahminical Hinduism have, over the last few decades, been upgraded‘ and they began practising Brahminical temple rituals – which of course require a Brahmin priest. Worshippers at such temples which have been so ‗upgraded‘ are mostly from the so called Shudra groups, those we would designate as backward and most backward castes, if we are to resort to state terminology. On the other hand, as we saw when the courts banned animal sacrifices in temples outside the purview of Brahminical control, there were widespread protests – and the local was upheld in the face of the supralocal‘ Brahminical view of faith. What was forgotten in this debate was that the local did not always mean that it was inclusive of Dalits – and that while Dalits too may be invested in the local, it was always  their‘ local. That is, they were not part of a putative and trans-caste local culture.

Here it must be noted that in the 1940s and after, particularly in northern Tamil Nadu, when Dalits were drawn to the Scheduled Caste Federation, and to Buddhism, they (some of them) gave up such practices of the local – they refused to be part of temple rituals in some cases, gave up animal sacrifices in others, and took to Buddhism. But Tamil Nadu is yet to witness large scale conversion to Buddhism as occurred in Maharashtra.

So, if we are to view Periyar‘s life and work in the context of the longue durée2 of history, and of the complex relationship between Brahminical Hinduism and local and regional practices of faith, we are likely to end up with a more sober view of his influence – he interrupted, powerfully and with intellectual and social verve a longer history of religiosity, but that does not mean that this history was stood on its head. Its logic persists to this day. Also, we know, from the histories of other nations that disavowed faith, that it was State power that dislodged the institutional authority, material power and resources of religions – and not rational persuasion or consistent civil opposition. This is as true of Napoleonic France, as it was of the Soviet Union.

VB : Most of the parties who claim to follow Periyar have become the parties of personal fiefdom of certain individuals and their families. It has resulted in huge corruption in the state. These parties have time and again compromised with the Hindutva forces. How would have Periyar reacted to such a situation if he were alive today? 

SV & VG : Periyar would have raged against these practices – for one, he was suspicious of political power, as such, and many a time noted that power can and does corrupt, not merely in the material sense, but that it also compromises one‘s social vision. He also noted that staying out of the precincts of power granted him a certain latitudinarian freedom, to criticize social and faith-based practices. Secondly, while he was a pragmatist and did envisage a role for the State in bringing about laws that would enable social change, such pragmatism did not ever stop him from continuing to criticize social and religious practices. That is, the demands he made of the State and of governance did not mean that these automatically fell in with those in power – and this is evident in his support for the Congress government in Tamil Nadu under the headship of the late K. Kamaraj.

As we all know, political pragmatism can be principled or not – Babasaheb Ambedkar‘s position in this context is the most complex, and ethically mindful. At the same time, we have seen left and Dalit political groups, who are ideologically fierce, adopting a pragmatism that was not always as mindful – the CPI‘s stance during the Emergency, the CPI‘s and CPM‘s support in the past of corrupt and anti-people governments and parties in Tamil Nadu, and Mayawati‘s support for Modi during the Gujarat post-carnage-2002 elections. Clearly, pragmatism is viewed as ‗alright‘ in the long run, while embarrassing and problematic in the short run – but this was not a position Periyar or Babasaheb Ambedkar would have accepted. Further, even when he supported governments that appeared to him to be receptive to social justice ideals, Periyar did not ever allow such support to interfere with his critical work in the civil and public realms.

Probity in public life was an important value for Periyar – and he always wrote scornfully of how much those in power earn, or benefit in a material sense. Yet he was not unmindful of what money could do, and kept a tight rein on his own organisation‘s financial resources, and did not plot a role for kin in managing the latter.

VB:  Many writers from Tamil Nadu portrayed Periyar as loud and foul who might have been anti-Brahmin but not really pro-Dalit. Many Dalit scholars used this analogy in their critique of Periyar. What do you think is the reality? 

VB:  It is ironical that Tamil Nadu is the hotbed of anti-Dalit violence. Most of these come from powerful communities like Vanniyars and Thevars. Tamil Nadu’s Dravidian movement was also dominated by them, but today the legacy is divided among various castes. Most of these parties have been converted into caste parties. Parties like PMK or Vanniyar Samajik Sangam have openly called against SC-ST Act. They support violence against inter caste or love marriages between Dalits and Vanniyars. Where is Periyar in all this? Why is it that mere anti-Brahmanism philosophy won’t work unless we have a very clear programme to take with us the vast sections of those who may not be numerically powerful communities?

Periyar was a man ‘extraordinaire’, a genius whose connection with masses was supreme. He was a man of masses which we have seen from the huge sea of people on his death, in Chennai. Though he talked about anti-Brahmanism, take us to what were his specific views about untouchability as well as rights of the Dalits and Adivasis?

SV & VG :  As we feel these questions are inter-related, we would like to give a combined answer:

These are important and complex questions. We will try and answer it as succinctly as possible. Let us start with brief historical descriptions of the four so-called dominant Tamil Shudra castes.

The first backward caste, numerically dominant in northern Tamil Nadu and well mobilized into caste organizations, comprises Vanniyars – associated for long with agriculture, but chiefly as tenants, and labourers, rather than as owners of land, at least until urbanization which saw an exit of landlords to cities which gave tenants and sharecroppers access to land, though on a modest scale; there are some segments amongst this caste that took to weaving as well. More recently, they have moved into the professions, including government employment on account of the larger logic of economic transformation, and of course reservation provisions, though their presence in these occupations, is not commensurate with their presence in the population. With large numbers still present and active in agriculture, they have also faced the brunt of the agricultural crisis, and in any case over the years, particularly in and around the Neyveli Lignite Power Plant, have steadily lost land to the project. The Vanniyars are well organized and politically have been active in the Dravidian parties, as well as Congress, and to limited extent in the left Kisan Sabhas – their political leadership has concentrated on agitating for a fixed share of reservation for Vanniyars – declared most backward – and on their representation in whatever political party is in power, at the state as well as central governments.

The next caste that we need to take note of comprises a bloc of communities, since known as the Mukkulathors, many of which are found in the southern districts of the state: a section of which is a de-notified community. Historically these castes – Agamudaiyars, Kallars and Maravars – have lived on the fringes of agricultural society, and were given to policing work and active militias in the pre-modern period. They do not appear to have been identified with particular occupations, though in the eastern districts, there are agriculturalists amongst them, including powerful landlords. Many of them migrated to work on tea and rubber plantations in Sri Lanka and Malaya3 in the late colonial period. Elsewhere, they have settled into agriculture, as in the central districts, bordering Kerala – as a result of being pacified‘ by colonial authority and missionary activity. These communities came into their own in the 1950s – with the emergence of a powerful and charismatic local leader, who has since acquired the status of a revered ancestor, and is worshipped as such. They received a fillip through overt political support from the ruling AIADMK in the 1980s. On account of local circumstance, political patronage, and reservation they came to populate local administration, particularly revenue and police at the lower levels in the southern districts.

On the other hand, segments of the Mukkulathors were active in the left movement, particularly where they are agriculturalists, and in some left-led trade unions. They have been also present in large numbers in the Dravidian parties, Forward Bloc and Congress.

The third community that has proved influential comprises the Gounders, also known as Kongu Vellalas. Noted for their unrelenting labour, and often on rain-less lands in western Tamil Nadu, the Gounders are essentially peasants, whose skill earned the admiration of colonial administrators. Due to the economic changes that took place in this region, sections of the community have moved from being peasants to successful entrepreneurs in the textile and related industries, including in the export sector, associated with the hosiery industry in the boom town of Thiruppur. Kinship and caste ties have been central to capital mobilization by the Gounders, and while class differences persist, the caste as a whole is viewed as successful and upwardly mobile. Politically the elites amongst them were associated with the nationalist Congress, though large numbers were part of the Dravidian and communist movements as well. Caste associations have become increasingly prominent in the region, and their shrill politics of identity, coupled with demands for higher reservation have rendered them attractive to small town and rural ideologues, often silently supported by economically powerful caste interests.

The fourth caste I wish to describe are the Nadars – who were consigned to near-untouchable status in the 19th century and have since been one of the most mobile of communities in the Tamil context, with sections of them having become dynamic entrepreneurs, educationists and not only in the Tamil context, but in the all-India context as well. Nadars are not locked into status battles with Dalits, but have been with other backward castes in the past – though they are as watchful of endogamous limits as others. Some segments of the community have been drawn to Hindutva ideologies, and while to an extent this has to do with trade rivalries with Muslims, that is not of course the only reason as to why they have chosen to be with the Hindu Right. This is ironical, given that in the heyday of the self-respect movement, they were amongst the staunchest of Periyar‘s followers. Their anomalous positon in the caste order has not ‗required‘ them to practise untouchability, so to speak, but if one wishes to upgrade oneself within the social order, it implicates the self and community into observing varnadharma – and in the case of the Nadars, perhaps, that some have chosen to abide by Hindutva is indicative of the intermeshed secular-religious framework of the caste order.

Of these castes, Vanniyars, Mukkulathors and Gounders have been in the forefront of attacks against Dalits – though smaller sat-Shudra and the so-called most backward castes which are locally dominant have also been resolute in refusing to concede equal rights to temple honours for Dalits, and have been as inimical to marriages where one of the spouses happens to be Dalits.

Attacks against Dalits emerge from a position of social anxiety and of feeling threatened by educated Dalits, upwardly mobile Dalits, by their resolute refusal to heed caste hierarchies. Such anxiety is expressed in and through acts of crude violence, and often endorsed by caste outfits and political parties – for reasons that are contingent on the one hand, and have to do with the logic of the caste order on the other.

The question of course arises, and has been most sharply posed by Dalit leaders and parties, how may one reconcile these emergent caste interests, often expressed in charged language, and defined by their clearly spelt out antagonism to Dalits, with the fact that this is a state that witnessed a powerful anti-caste movement and one that came to political office. Young Dalit intellectuals are wont to argue that the hypervisibility of these castes in political and economic life, and the social authority they continue to deploy against Dalits, points to the limited success of the Dravidian movement – that it was more successful in articulating an anti-Brahmin politics, rather than an anti-caste politics, and perhaps neither the movement, nor its chief arbiter, Periyar were as invested in the latter.

This is not a question that can be easily settled in the Tamil context, but the fact that in spite of over 50 years of non-Brahmin governance, violence against Dalits and resentment at their mobility and success, such as has been possible, persist – this is something that has to be taken seriously – and to do this, we ought to reflect on the past, as well as on how that past is invoked to explain, justify or argue present day concerns.

Incidentally, in Tamil Nadu there are as many Dalit intellectuals who find ideological and inspirational arsenal in Periyar for their anti-caste struggles (these are the ones not enjoying the benefits of bi-lingualism that enables one to reach out to an All India audience) as those who, for their own reasons and logic, tend to dismiss him as irrelevant to Dalit cause.

We would like to start by noting that we don‘t think there is either historical accuracy or conceptual weight to the argument that Periyar was not committed to the annihilation of caste. Nor is it fair to claim that he was concerned only about non-Brahmin claims to equality with Brahmins. If one were to examine his long political life and the manner in which he – and the organisations he founded, and the ideologues, publicists and people who were part of these – expressed their anti-caste politics, one could see that there were differences in emphases and arguments over time.

During 1925-1931, Periyar and his self-respect movement espoused a radical atheism, and strong commitment to ending untouchability; to the cause of civil rights, of Dalits, to access public spaces, including temples. They offered a principled, charged and satiric critique of what they termed political Brahminism – this was their definition of Congress nationalism. They were equally critical of Brahminical Hinduism, of Hindu scripture, lore, and ritual and so on. They held strong views on the women‘s question, and argued through a politics of female freedom and autonomy – which insisted on women being arbiters of their own sexual and conjugal choices, and as free, as men, to commit themselves to public life and the public good, through the pursuit of reason, equality and justice.

From 1932 to 1937, especially until 1935, Periyar’s critique of caste was bound with a critique of its material and economic basis – following his visit to the Soviet Union in 1931-32. During this first decade of the Self-respect movement, we find Periyar addressing non-Brahmin Shudra and sat-Shudra castes, Dalits, women, men of property, learning as well as the very poor. Dalit groups, caste associations, non-Brahmin civil groups were in touch with the Selfrespect movement, and Periyar and others spoke in all these forums – and one of the most important indices of Periyar’s recognition of the centrality of Dalit claims on equality and justice is the unconditional endorsement that he and others in the self-respect movement extended to Babasaheb Ambedkar’s position on the communal award, and they were as fiercely critical of Gandhi as Ambedkar would be, in the future.

What we ought not to forget though is that Periyar was neither singular nor the first to address the Dalit question in Tamil Nadu, or in Old Madras. Dalit organisations, linked to newspapers, church groups, and to a politics of assertion and rights had been active in the province from as far back as the last quarter, if not earlier, of the 19th century, as is evident from the phenomenal life and work of Pandit Iyothee Thass. Further research undertaken by young Dalit scholars such as Mathivannan, Stalin Rajangam, Ko. Raghupathy, and Balasubramaniam has brought to our attention the existence of complex histories of Dalit organizing across the state, which does not fit in all that easily into familiar political locations, whether to do with Congress, the Dravidian movement or the left movements. So, in a sense Periyar spoke to a political constituency that was already politicized – and to be sure, he brought in startling new themes to do with radical republicanism and women‘s equality, but his critique of Brahmins, and Hinduism were not unfamiliar themes in Dalit political circles – and in fact had existed from the late 1890s.

To summarise, this first decade of anti-caste politics witnessed a call to annihilate caste – in and through a denunciation of what Periyar called Brahminical Hinduism, temple worship, and through the practice of a politics of self-respect comradeship, which was founded on rationalism, and a radical politics of social and gender equality. A radical sense of self, founded on selfrespect was also seen as essential to lead a life, free of caste.

During 1938-1947, from the time when the Self-respect movement spearheaded a struggle against the imposition of Hindi as a language of instruction in the Tamil context, the critique of political Brahminism acquired salience – as Periyar and his followers read this move to impose Hindi as representing the political and cultural will of the nationalist Brahmin-Bania combine, a will that they argued rendered Indian nationalism narrow in its focus, and committed to the hegemony of the upper castes. This decade thus saw a critique of caste aligned to a critique of nationalism – and as India stood on the brink of independence, this double-edged critique expressed itself in and through a language of Dravidian nationalism. This is the most complex part of our story, because it proved consequential: for one, it advanced a critique of the Indian nation-state which proved complex and subtle, which expressed the right of self-determination of the Dravidian nation; and it argued that the latter was, in essence, a caste-free utopia. However, the critique of caste that was implicit in this politics did not possess the acute social edge that it did in the former decades.

During the next important historical period – 1948-1952, we see Periyar fulminating against Hindu-Hindi-Hindustan in very radical ways and draw closer to the left. However, post 1952, following the first general elections, and almost until 1967, he essayed a pragmatic turn, and gradually looked to the non-Brahmin Congress leader K. Kamaraj (who was Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu from 1954-1963) and his government in Tamil Nadu to fulfil his dreams of social justice – which had to do with reservation, the presence of Non-Brahmins in political office, and with pursuing modern, institutional and industrial growth. Critiques of caste were now expressed in and through an Periyar‘s endorsement of K. Kamaraj‘s policies to do with affirmative action, and his commitment to a modern social and economic order.

Further, during this period, especially in the early 1950s, we see Periyar conceding that Dalits are better served by Dr Ambedkar, his ideas, and organisations and in this context, it would appear to those who wish to misread him, that he presented himself as a leader of the Shudras, and not of a putative anti-caste constituency.

Given this complex political history, how do we assess the legacy that he handed on? On the one hand, the Dravidian movement has achieved limited success, drawing on his radical legacy, with respect to reservation, and a populist welfarism. Dynamic and built into policy-making during Kamaraj‘s time, this welfarism has since turned fierce (especially under the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). This has also resulted in a situation where the Dravidian movement‘s ideologues and leaders, of whatever political dispensation, have come to be identified with the ‗oppressed‘. On the other hand, this has meant that the graded logic of the caste order, the material basis of caste power and the cultural weight of caste when it comes to marriage have been matters relegated to the background by Dravidian political parties; even as particular caste constituencies were cultivated in the context of electoral politics.

Now if we are to put together the story of Periyar‘s political journey and the historical changes that have beset the lives and fortunes of major castes in the Tamil context, we see a pattern emerging – Periyar‘s anti-Indian State politics, his anti-Brahminism and opposition to an imperfect federal polity did not translate into a locally effective ideology or plan to annihilate caste, though it possessed all the necessary ideological instruments to do so. To be sure, his Dravidar Kazhagam (DK) that he founded (in 1944) was very effective in particular contexts, addressing specific instances of casteist violence, and in taking the part of Dalits during such conflicts, and in encouraging and supporting trans-caste marriages; but the DK did not develop a specific programme that dovetailed various activities into a concerted plan. Meanwhile, the logic of development and of electoral politics (as we have briefly described in our account of the four dominant backward and most backward castes in Tamil Nadu) infused fresh life into older – and local – hierarchies of caste; even as Dalits sought to challenge the same. And the end result has been violence against and hatred and anger against Dalits.

To return to the question of the so-called backward and most backward castes, in this context: those members of these castes, who went with the ideologues and activists of the Dravidar Kazhagam in the post-Independence period, in a public, political sense, agitated against Brahmin power and sometimes against the caste order; at the same time, in their own locations, they remained particular castes, defined by their region, occupation, and relationship to Hinduism. And their relationship to Dalits was acutely shaped by both factors: in some cases, positively by experiences of comradeship at least in the public realm; and in other cases, by local caste considerations, especially of status, precedence, and competition for public goods. For example, if we are to take the Vanniyars they would view Dalits as fellow comrades in public campaigns against the Indian state, or for the cause of the Tamil language, and in the context of limited class struggles. However, and more often than not, they would be equally given to viewing them in a spirit of competitive envy. Further on their own too, they had specific demands, for instance to do with reservation, and in these and other contexts, where they upstaged their ‗backward‘ness, such assertion, even when just‘ in the context of graded inequality, was always shadowed by acts of violence against Dalits.

With the Mukkulathors, we find a different logic at work: challenged by Dalits from fairly early on, from the 1950s, if not earlier, they have sought to ‗punish‘ Dalit assertion and independence, especially Dalit insistence on marking their own political space, through setting up statues of Dr Ambedkar, or other local Dalit leaders (such as the revered and much loved Immanuel Sekaran, who was cold-bloodedly murdered by a group of Mukkulathors).

With Gounders, we see yet another practice of dominance: and here the late Dr Balagopal‘s analysis of what he calls the provincial propertied classes comes in useful – Dr Balagopal argues that in Andhra Pradesh, these classes, comprising economically powerful and socially dominant upper Non-brahmin peasant communities,  such as the Reddys and Naidus, sought to assert political clout and power in a regional context, and against the national Congress, For them the practice of punitive violence against Dalits becomes a requirement, an assertive act of violence to mark their own recently acquired political authority. While the Gounders are not necessarily opposed to the Congress, they are a powerful peasant caste that has come into industrial wealth and growth, and they underscore their social dominance through acts of humiliation and violence directed at Dalits.

Let us summarise: in the Tamil Nadu situation, some things are clear – from the early 20th century, Non-Brahmins and Dalits resented Brahmin authority and came together for various purposes. Theirs was not a class unity or a comradeship based on ideological consensus about the caste system. Rather, it was defined by anger at Brahmin power and venality, and opportune politics; to be sure, critiques of varnadharma urged forth by Periyar and his selfrespecters and later by the Dravidar Kazhagam were heard out, perhaps even internalized and accepted by some; as was the critique of faith, particularly Hinduism (certainly by Dalits, more than others). There have been dramatic and particular campaigns against casteist authority, and centred on particular demands especially in the early period, from the 1920s to the late 1940s – and yet it must be said that while ideologically, the annihilation of caste was centred on a critique of Brahminical Hinduism, and the caste order it sanctioned, such critique did not always express itself through a singular programme for the annihilation of caste. At times, the emphasis was on the abolition of untouchability, at other times on economic equality; at times on angry denunciation of unregenerate non-Brahmin caste pride and arrogance; and sometimes the emphasis was on female freedom and self-respect. From the 1940s onwards, the destruction of caste was linked to exiting from an unjust federal polity, and challenging the ‘Brahmin-Bania’ Aryan state, and in imagining a caste-free ‘Dravida Nadu’ or Dravidian nation. However, when the anti-caste agenda came to be thus nested within a larger politics of resistant nationalism, and when Periyar’s anger was trained against the unitary Indian state, the internal tensions, contradictions and cleavages that marked the larger ‘Dravidian’ community, particularly between Dalits and other castes failed to receive as much critical attention. Meanwhile, the socio-economic changes that transformed Dalit as well as other caste lives came to be mediated through an unregenerate politics of caste pride and violence.

Periyar was not sanguine about his life‘s work. When interviewed for All India Radio a few months before he passed away, he said that his life‘s work had not amounted to more than attempting to haul and overturn the mountain of caste, using a single lock of hair. He had attempted what appeared just and right, but that did not mean that justice had been secured – the struggle was difficult, long, wearisome and arduous.

Before we conclude, we would like to add a few words on the left: the communists had an agenda for the material expropriation of the dominant class-caste nexus, but they did not have a programme that would take into account and work against the logic of graded inequality, against the fact, so astutely noted by Dr Ambedkar, that caste was not just a division of labour, but of labourers. To be sure, in particular contexts and struggles, there was great and affectionate comradeship, but the question remains, whether that translated into sustained new social and fraternal values, into that associational life that Dr Ambedkar valued, or that self-respecting samadharmic existence, which Periyar upheld in the face of Manudharma. The left worked with constituents of the Dravidar Kazhagam, especially in the 1940s and early 1950s, and did endorse struggles against caste-based inequality and violence, and enrolled Dalits in large numbers in its agricultural workers‘ organisations, its trade unions in the plantations and in those that emerged in the leather trade and with respect to sanitary labour. But even here there were autonomous Dalit organisations, including trade unions, and the record of the left and these latter working together has not been very good though not absent. But clearly the onus was on the better organized and resourceful left groups to have learned from Dalit groups the salience of the caste question and responded to it with the sustained attention it deserves. Sadly, instead of doing this, the parliamentary left has sought to retain its meagre presence in the legislature through opportunist alliances with one or the other of the Dravidian parties.

Things have changed to an extent over the past decade, and the recent assembly elections saw the left and Dalit groups coming together in what was clearly more than a strategic alliance – and in many contexts the CPM‘s Anti-Untouchability front and the Dalit party Viduthalai Siruthaigal Kachi (VCK) work together.

 VB :  How would have Periyar reacted to growing capitalism in India which is ‘developing’ structure at the lives of innocent tribes by displacing them from forest, killing their culture. Capitalism has joined hand with Brahmanism in India which is the biggest threat to socialist nature of our state as Brahmanism never believes in a welfare state. 

SV & VG :  Periyar did not develop consistently argued views on the economy, but he was clear-eyed about capitalism and its relentless march towards amassing wealth, irrespective of how that affects the larger common good. His insistent characterization of the modern Indian nation-state as ‗Brahmin-Bania‘ was not only on account of its cultural-social core but also because he saw the state as subserving capitalist interests. He viewed the State as being a truly republican institution, with the people being sovereign in every sense – and the State in this capacity had a role to play, arbitrating the greater common good, and devising laws and plans that would ensure the realization of such a good. This is why he insisted that the State be responsive to the claims to power and representation of different sections of the population and upheld the importance of reservation – for otherwise, how may a State be considered a people‘s State, or one that was sovereign?

In another sense too, Periyar was critical of capitalism – private property he argued was central to the making of social and conjugal relations, for it was only because one wished to pass on property (or resources, as the case may be) in a generational sense that marriage was deemed a necessity, and in the Indian context, this also meant that one passed on one‘s caste legacy as well. Marriage, he argued was central to the reproduction of an unjust social order and an exploitative economic system – an argument he adapted from Engels, and reworked to suit the caste context.

VB :  How strong were Periyar’s views on Women? I know he believed in women’s equality and defended her right over her body. Personally, I feel, no other political leader of his age came near to him in his ideas about women’s freedom. What is your opinion? 

We can write reams on this – but here we would simply refer you to various things written in the past on this subject (readers can start with the chapter Women: Coeval with Men, in our book, Towards a Non Brahmin Millennium: From Iyothee Thass to Periyar, 2nd edn, Samya, Kolkata, 2008). His radicalism in this context grew with age, and we find him stoutly criticizing marriage, motherhood, and the imperative of women to marry and start a family even when he was well into his 70s and 80s. He was critical of romantic love, of conjugal violence and cultures that led to the objectification of women‘s bodies, and caste practices which relegated them choicelessly to lives of sexual service. He approved of what was known as ‗free love‘, arguing that it was possible to hold one‘s passion responsibly – this meant one had to understood that love, marriage, property, lineage and progeny were linked and make choices that did not lead to a reproduction of economic and social hierarchy.

We give below excerpts from ‗Periyar: Countering Caste and Gender Differences and Inequalities‘, a talk that V. Geetha gave on the occasion of Savitribai Phule‘s birthday at the University of Mumbai in 2013:

Periyar and his self-respect movement understood the caste system to be essentially unjust and hierarchical – Peiryar likened it to a ladder with castes positioned on each of its steps, but more interestingly he remarked that it was a ladder that we also carried within us, and so we were prone to placing ourselves below some and above others – not very different from Babasaheb‘s observation that the logic of caste may be understood in terms of an ascending logic of reverence and a descending logic of contempt.

If this was the case, argued Periyar, caste does not make for a healthy sense of the self, and to develop such a sense, one would have to practise self-respect, learn to value one‘s self. In fact this had to precede all other values and objectives, including freedom and self-rule, in short even swaraj. Periyar defined self-respect in diverse ways, and depending on the context of his utterance and the historical moment in which that utterance was required, self-respect was aligned to socialism, Islam, to the Buddhist notion of samadharma…in fact Periyar‘s use of the word samadharma, as a counter to Manudharma, and as an adjunct of socialism (which he argued had to do with the logic of just distribution, whereas samadharma required a just and equal ethics which implicates all of us) was not very different from Dr Ambedkar‘s sadhamma: the form of that ethical consensus that we forge with each other, that we shall hold and exercise rights and compassion in common.

Another adjunct of self-respect was comradeship – for in place of that self-serving ethics which made a person view only his caste as worthy of respect, or progress, and against the insistence of no birth-based privilege, one needed an ethics that bound human beings to one another. What was maithri or fellowship for Ambedkar was comradeship for Periyar. In fact it was his movement that gave to the left the Tamil word for comrade, ‗thozhar‘ which is gender-neutral, and can be used to address both men and women and others.

These concepts, of caste as unequal hierarchy and its opposites, self-respect, samadharma and comradeship were also deployed as analytical terms to understand caste society, and it is here that caste and gender emerged as categories that constituted each other. Thus S. Ramanathan, an early self-respect ideologue argued that historically, the enslavement of women and of Dalits happened at roughly the same time. Dalits were required as captive labour, and women had to be limited and imprisoned within the family and kin group, so that men could exercise control over them, which in effect meant, to control and regulate their reproductive power and labour. Periyar would extend this argument in the 1940s to argue that women not only reproduced their own subordination, but also reproduced family and caste status. The principle of hierarchy, in other words, hinged as much on the organization of reproduction, as it did on Brahminical texts, the social division of labour, and the logic of high and low which divided not just occupations into high and low, but labourers into higher and lower castes.

Elsewhere, while commenting on how the dharma shastras explain varna differences, Periyar too issues with the fact that miscegenation was made the basis for graded differences: whether a Brahmin married or kept a woman made a difference to their offspring, and to which caste he or she would belong to; whether a Shudra man married a upper or lower caste woman had, likewise its own consequences for the status of children, and the future of communities. In other words, hybrid offspring were packed off into castes, and the proliferation of castes meant the continued existence of crossing varna lines to love, mate, produce children. Periyar made it clear that it did not matter to him who married and slept with whom, but since communities appeared to be ranked on that basis, it was important to discard the whole edifice altogether, and think of marriage and children entirely differently: as based not on identities given or taken, or defied or imposed, but on choice, desire, love…

Dalits, Shudras and women could not therefore hope to gain anything at all from the caste system and their liberation lay in refusing hierarchy and opting out of it. The way out for Shudras and Dalits was to emerge into communities for self-respect, to adopt a different ethics of the self, and a rethinking of everyday practices, of labour, rituals, faith, marriage… For women, in addition to all of these, the challenge lay in opting out of the traditional family order, which limited their minds, controlled their bodies and consigned them to domesticity and the family. Comradeship was marked as important for women as well and through the 1940s, after the self-respect movement transformed into the Dravidar Kazhagam and mobilized peacefully to secede from the impending Indian union, we find Periyar addressing women as comrades and citizens (in striking contrast to other fellow thinkers and ideologues, whose views I briefly alluded to, earlier): he rebukes them for settling into conjugality, asks them to eschew marriage, and work towards realizing the utopia that was to be, in the wake of secession from a unitary, and ‗Brahmin-Bania‘ dominated India.

To resist hierarchy required in Periyar‘s universe, a radical practice of equality. For, when aligned to self-respect/comradeship, equality meant absolute, substantive equality between all beings: both Dalits and women were therefore comrades and citizens, This meant not only equal access to education, political representation and fair and just labour, but as far as women were concerned, a radical understanding of sexual difference. In the self-respect universe, biological differences were not germane, and as Periyar famously remarked, apart from bearing and nursing an infant for the first few months of its existence, male and female roles are interchangeable. In other words ‗difference‘ could not be made the basis for either complementarity or an un-equal society.

Periyar was likewise opposed to a sexual ethics that was premised on biology, and refused to concede that promiscuity became a man, and chastity a woman. In his later years, he grew increasingly impatient with the notion of difference as such, and spoke and wrote with fervour on technological changes that might render motherhood a matter between a woman and her womb. He welcomed science that would help us move towards non-sexual reproduction, and this along with his growing disdain for marriage as an institution made for a provocative politics of sexual freedom. I will return to this theme in a short while.

Another valuable index of equality was the destruction of ‗masculinity‘, which in an unequal society referred to attributes that men were supposed to have as well as to ‗being men‘ in an unambiguous, unjust way. Sexual justice for women, as well as their freedom, Periyar argued was contingent on the destruction of masculinity. More generally, in Periyar‘s thought, justice was what equality would bring about: and here both social and cultural transformation as well as political fiat (and state power), which produced policies that would legislate equality and deliver justice, were deemed important.

The challenges that the self-respect movement posed the caste order, both in an everyday political sense, as well as in terms of the knowledge – the concepts it made available – however constitute only one part of Periyar‘s critique of existing gender arrangements. The other part owes a great deal to emergent arguments – in the late 1920s and 1930s – on the question of female sexuality, marriage and motherhood. In addressing these concerns, Periyar went on to produce a fascinating set of concepts and arguments – which in retrospect appear to express his sense of what I have earlier referred to as the relative autonomy of the gender and sexuality question.

Periyar and the self-respect movement‘s understanding of the women‘s question acquired its distinctive edge in the late 1920s, when three sets of legal debates were in progress: to do with raising the age of consent to sexual congress, restraining child marriage and finally the devadasi abolition bill. From 1925 onwards, marriage reform was widely discussed. In 1924, H.C. Gour had drafted a bill to amend Section 375 of the Indian Penal Code, which sought to raise the age of consent in marital and extra-marital relationships. Colonial government was reluctant to act on the bill, but a year later, it proposed its own bill, fixing 14 as the age of consent in extra marital cases and 13 in marital cases. It became clear though that very few instances of the infringement of the law in the context of marriage came to the courts. Gour then turned his attention to the existing marriage law and suggested, through his Children‘s Protection Bill, that parents ought not to marry their children off before they attained a certain age. Even as this bill was on the anvil, Har Bilas Sarda, an Arya Samaj reformer who had consistently addressed infirmities faced by women, advanced his own bill, which eventually came to be referred to as the Child Marriage Restraint Bill.

The devadasi abolition debates, occasioned by Dr Muthulakshmi‘s bill that sought to end the practice of dedicating young girls to temples, got under way in 1928. The Tamil cultural world was soon beset with a host of questions to do with social and sexual practices in caste society and the sexual subjugation of women.

These legal debates apart, there were two other themes that occupied the attention of reformers and their detractors. For one, Tamil radical thought to do with gender also benefited from nationalist horror over the publication of Katherine Mayo‘s infamous Mother India in 1927 and the subsequent defences of Hindu culture which followed in the following years. Self-respecters utilized Mayo‘s arguments to put forward their distinctive critique of caste and of women‘s status in Hindu society. This was also a time when birth control arguments were in vogue, and they proved wide-ranging. Some invoked typically Malthusian spectres of an overpopulated world, teeming with the wretched and ignorant poor; while others, following Gandhi, spoke of the importance of sexual restraint.

Periyar‘s – and the self-respect movement‘s – response to this important historical conjuncture was exceptional. They of course endorsed the Sarda Act, and actively propagandized in its favour. But they did more: Periyar offered startling re-definitions of marriage, rights of spouses in marriage, and more fundamentally, produced a critique of conjugality itself. Periyar‘s views on marriage may be gleaned from the many speeches he made at self-respect marriage gatherings. In a sense, one might say that practice preceded argument in that self-respect marriages had begun to take place in the late 1920s, while the bulk of his most effective writing on the subject belonged to the succeeding years. Starting out as marriages which eschewed the services of Brahmin priests and gradually all ritual and scripture, they evolved into full-fledged ‗contracts‘ entered into by two confident, self-conscious adults who had decided to choose their own life partners. Periyar and his comrades deliberately sought to ‗desacralise‘ marriages by insisting on their contractual – and therefore provisional – nature, and arguing that if there was no god to please or scripture to look up to, a marriage remained what it ought to be, a human arrangement that like all human arrangements work to the extent that the people involved in its making are committed to its continued existence.

In this context, Periyar made the valuable observation that shorn of its sacral quality, and marked as provisional and therefore changeable, marriage could only mean one thing: a context for the expression of love and the resolution of desire, love and desire being ‗natural‘ emotions in Periyar‘s lexicon. To imagine marriage in this manner required two human beings to come together in freedom, and not in conditions of coercion, servitude or inequality.

For the same reasons that he advocated that marriage be viewed as a contract, Periyar supported the right to divorce, and the right to re-marriage, not only for widows, but for those who desire to opt out of unhappy marriages, and who may be childless or not. In other words, re-marriage was not merely a panacea for the widow‘s supposedly stifled and ultimately destructive sexuality, but a logical option for those who understood marriage to be a contingent practice that either of spouses could choose to end. Divorce was likewise to be seen as an option, but here Periyar urged the case of female unhappiness as reason enough for creating a divorce law. Dwelling poignantly and sympathetically on the lot of women trapped in loveless and slavish marriages, and burdened to remain monogamous, he spoke of how divorce would free them and offer them hope – currently, he noted, men were allowed to be licentious, and women were prevented from separating, a state of affairs that did not bode well for sexual equality. He refused to be dissuaded by arguments that lamented the loss of morality should the right to divorce come about – and pointed out that provisions for freedom need not automatically imply a total absence of restraint or morality, rather they could become the basis for a new, common morality. One need not fear therefore that women would become immoral, but see how a common morality may be put in place.

For all his interest in marriage reform, Periyar did not think much of the institution itself. He counted it as one amongst the many social arrangements that human beings had devised to regulate sexual love, beginning with the incest taboo. The importance granted to marriage, he was wont to say, was because of the need to secure property and lineage and thereby keep unequal social arrangements in place. Women saw in marriage a guarantor of food and clothing, and if they had access to education, a trade and property rights, they would not want to get married at all, he argued. Periyar was aware too that the centrality granted to marriage, especially the prohibitions against remarriage and so on, were prevalent mostly amongst the higher castes, and that matters were far more flexible with other castes – but even in those instances, he did not think marriage worked to women‘s advantage, and this is why he made it clear that women must have the right to not marry as well and in this instance too pooh-poohed male anxiety over unmarried single women.

Periyar was fond of quoting what he imagined were exceptional socialist examples from the Soviet Union – free love, he said, was possible there because there was no property; as for children, they ceased to tie women down, since the state was responsible for them, and so women – and men – loved chiefly because they desired or chose people they wished to be with. In the 1940s and after, Periyar spoke out against marriage forcefully, and argued that women may as well not waste their time getting married, and instead devote their time to the improvement of society and state. In fact this is a theme that occupied his mind in other contexts as well – for instance in arguing against sanctions of beauty imposed on women, he noted that it was only because beauty was the chief measure by which women were judged, they were obsessed with it, and if they saw themselves as valuable in other ways, they might not devote as much time as they currently did to make themselves look agreeable, fashionable and so on. He was not against wanting to appear pleasing, but against the need to dress up, to fall in line with arbitrary social norms, he clarified.

Buttressing Periyar‘s views on marriage were his arguments on the theme of karpu or chastity – Periyar was clear that this was a partisan norm, meant to keep women in sexual servitude while allowing men to be promiscuous. He did not think that chastity resided in any particular thing or emotion or ideal. If at all it resided only in those mutual limits that two human beings in love or those who had agreed to marry set themselves, and in any case, in such circumstances, chastity ceased to be a bind, and so would not impede freedom. As for the persistence of chastity as an ideal, Periyar put it down to two things: women‘s own acceptance of this imposed ideal on account of ignorance, fear, superstition and scripture; and secondly, men‘s desire to legitimize their promiscuity by allowing themselves the sexual freedom they denied their wives. This is why, observed Periyar, chastity was linked dialectically to prostitution. In fact the one cannot exist without the other, he said. For, in order for women to be unfree sexually and men to be free, there needed to be a sexually available population and these were women in prostitution, from the traditional devadasi to those who offered paid sex.

In this sense, in his universe, prostitution and chastity cancelled out each other – and only acquired the force of meaning that is associated with either term in the context of conscious arrangements that had been made and imposed in our historical evolution. To blame prostitutes, and not men who go to them – even as these self-same men took umbrage when their wives were considered ‗uncontrollable‘, lewd‘, etc. – smacked of rank sexual hypocrisy as far as Periyar was concerned.

The larger problem though he conceded was not even this, but that we do not see sexual arrangements as contingent, endlessly relative and constantly changeable – sexual habits vary, sexual taboos are diverse, as are conjugal arrangements; different societies and climates produce different types of behaviour… and so, ―Sexual arrangements, howsoever they be, if entered into by two individuals, are their business, and the do‘s and don‘ts that apply such cases may not apply as such when it comes to public morality‖. Here, in any case, one cannot impose an arbitrary set of rules, but only those that which do not interfere with individual freedom, choice, and which do not discriminate amongst human beings on the basis of birth, wealth or other unjust criterion. Ultimately, and here Periyar rested his case, public sexual morality could only be guided by what appeared just in a given instance, and justice in turn, depended on whether we, as individuals or as group, are willing to grant to others what one wanted to grant oneself. Mutuality and understanding alone could sustain public morality, in this argument.

In this context, it is important to underline Periyar‘s views on love and pleasure. Time and again, Periyar invoked the order of nature against the order of an unjust society, with respect to love and sexual desire. Yet he was not willing to endorse a romantic vision of love, as effusive, spontaneous, non-rational, overpowering, and so on. While he granted the reality and inevitability of emotional rapture, sexual drives and the desire to seek sexual fulfilment, he did not think that these necessarily had to be driven only by passion and/or power. Love required understanding, comradeship and the freedom to remain true to one‘s sense of right and wrong – in other words, being in love or being a conjugal unit did not mean that individual rights are secondary or are automatically dissolved in a vague commonly held right.

Like love, pleasure was for Periyar a ‗natural‘ emotion, and marriage or any other arrangement between a man and woman made sense only for the fulfilment of this objective – not that pleasure could not be bought‘ or ‗bartered‘ or ‗sold‘ but free love, in Periyar‘s understanding, sought fulfilment on its own terms. Pleasure and the desire for pleasure were of the natural order of things, and it was because human beings sought to curb, restrict, and manage these in cruel, slavish ways, argued Periyar that there was no dignity or happiness in conjugality or in promiscuity.

Periyar‘s views on love, marriage, comradeship were shadowed by his views on female promiscuity, which came into focus with the devadasi abolition bills. Like many others during his time, who saw themselves as reformists, endorsed abolition, argued that devadasis had become a ‗caste‘ and that to insist on their continuing to be what they had come to be, was tantamount to supporting sexual slavery. Periyar also protested arguments that held the devadasi system as necessary to protect the chastity of the home, and that if this manner of satisfying men‘s lust was not available, morality would cease to be. He pointed out that such chastity that required policing ‗our‘ women while demanding ‗other‘ women remain promiscuous cannot be ‗chastity‘ in an ethical sense. Besides, it did seem specious to him that the chastity of wives is to be guaranteed by the promiscuity of their husbands (Kudi Arasu, Sub-editorial, 30.10.1927).

The devadasi remained an ambiguous figure in Periyar‘s universe: while he did, at times, subscribe to the reformist notion that she represented danger and degeneracy and therefore the system which allowed her to exist, must be abolished; at other times, he was compelled to admit to a) they were independent, mobile and educated, when other women were not and b) that the devadasi existed largely because men had given themselves to be promiscuous and besides were not held to account for their hypocritical attitude to sex: they required their wives to be chaste, when they were not, and besides, they mandated that some women remain committedly unchaste! Periyar also argued that the existence of the devadasi and prostitution in general cannot be seen in isolation and has to be seen in the context of a culture of conjugality, where women could not hope to exercise emotional, sexual or other choices, and remained trapped by what was expected of them.

Domesticity and prostitution, in Periyar‘s view were thus dialectically linked and he himself sought to resolve the dialectic, so to speak, by suggesting that women become free, rational, learn to exercise control over their lives, especially their wombs – the Tamil word he deploys, karbaatchi, literally translates as exercising rule over one‘s womb – and step outside the confines of family, marriage and into public life.

As a counter to a slavish and bound sexuality, Periyar counselled a free and responsible sexuality and it is in this context that his views on contraception and motherhood assume importance. He made it clear that he supported contraception or what he termed ‗women‘s rule over their wombs‘ not because he feared that the poor would overrun the planet, or because he was concerned about social hygiene and economic progress. He was of the opinion that child-bearing at best was a nuisance and if women are freed from having to be mothers, their lives would be considerably lightened, and they stood to gain – they would not be bound by the need to marry, they would not have to plan for the future in a restricted sort of way, because ‗there were the children‘. Importantly, they would not have to put up with loveless and cruel marriages that held no happiness or pleasure for them.

Periyar‘s views may be summed up somewhat schematically in terms of the five rights for women that he upheld: the right to property, the right to marriage and divorce, the right to ‗see‘ (that is the right to be out of purdah, and to be mobile) and finally the right to make their own moral choices (without being told that their choices are likely to compromise social morality). Ultimately though these rights made sense only if women could be free – a right in this sense was not the same as freedom; it explained and legitimized a claim, or claims that women were likely to make, but it did not guarantee freedom. Freedom in this sense was something that women had to grant themselves: freedom from the bind of beauty and chastity, in short from self-objectification; freedom from child-bearing; freedom to marry or not marry and finally moral freedom, the right to enter in whatever social and sexual relationships they desired, as long as they granted that right to others.

VB: Many people accuse Periyar of being amoral even when he had said clearly that this morality is of nothing but Brahmanical virtues to keep women subjugated. A question arose when Periyar married his long time secretary; then, he was blamed to have misused his position and done an immoral act. He was 75 then and she was perhaps 26. How did Periyar respond to these questions raised by his close associates like Annadurai? 

SV & VG :  Criticism of Periyar on this score is both primitive and puritanical. He married a woman who, he reasoned, was fond of him, and would stay loyal to his vision. She was not averse to such a match, from what we know, and was a capable intelligent woman. He married her less for romantic than for pragmatic and political reasons – he wanted a comrade that he could trust and one who would shore up his legacy. He did not want either his kin or his longtime political associates to do so – he was not partial to his kin, and he had grown wary of his political comrades, for various justified and unjustifiable reasons. Annadurai‘s ostensible reason for leaving Periyar was this marriage, but as S.V. Rajadurai has argued brilliantly and persuasively in his book in Tamil (Periyar: Augsut 15, Vitiyal Publications, Coimbatore), it was Annadurai and his cohorts‘ desire to be part of Hindu-Hindi-India, and benefit from its electoral politics that made him leave the Dravidar Kazhagam and start the DMK.

VB :  Periyar had a lot of respect for Babasaheb Ambedkar. They met at certain time but it is the biggest tragedy of Indian politics that they could not join hands in a common struggle. What would have been the reason? 

SV & VG :  Well, Dr Ambedkar and Periyar did join hands, on the eve of India‘s independence – when either supported the Pakistan demand, and argued for the rights of the Shudra and Dalit communities within the future polity, such as it was beginning to emerge. They also were in conversation about Buddhism, and Periyar accompanied Ambedkar to a major world Buddhist conference in Burma in early 1950s. Periyar followed Babasaheb‘s work on the Hindu Code Bill and wrote warmly about it. He had, earlier, supported him in the matter of the communal award – and it was Periyar‘s magazine that first translated and published Annihilation of Caste into Tamil (as early as in 1936; translations in other Indian languages followed much later) and his journalists kept a close watch on Babasaheb‘s movements, and reported on them, constantly praising him, and endorsing his points of view from the late 1920s.

Periyar was unhappy about Dr Ambedkar joining the Constituent Assembly – he felt that in order to secure the abolition of untouchability as a fundamental right, Babasaheb had to forego his larger objective, the annihilation of caste as a constitutional goal and as a fundamental right. Periyar also understood his refusal to stay with Hinduism as a brilliant political move that forced the hand of the Congress to concede some of his demands (sic) whereby the cause of the Shudras was left behind.

VB:  Why was Periyar not part of India’s Constituent Assembly or any deliberations on India’s freedom? The Constituent Assembly invited Ambedkar to be the chairman of the drafting committee. We know Periyar was not a legal expert but he could definitely have given a great strength to our constitution. Was he kept out or did he opt out of it? What were his reservations? 

SV & VG: See above; also, Periyar had interesting and complex views on matters such as rights. He upheld State power and authority in redefining custom, lore and in laying down the law even when it interfered with freedom to practise one‘s faith – as he argued such freedom could also be invoked to justify untouchability and violence against women. His presence in the Assembly would certainly have provoked admiration as well as denunciation – but we must not forget that like Socrates, Periyar was a man of the streets, of the Agora, rather than Parliament.

VB : Where do you think Periyar and Ambedkar differ in their approach? I feel one of the most powerful statement of Periyar was that he never considered state mightier than people and never opted for any state recognition or never wanted to be part of it. Even when Anna Durrai and his colleagues wanted to fulfil their ‘dream’ to ‘help’ people, Periyar was against their forming DMK? Why was Periyar against formation of political party? 

SV & VG : As we have noted above, Periyar was insistently critical of the political sphere, which to him, was inexorably given to instrumental reasoning and limited goals. He felt that being active in this sphere could prove corrupting – and so decided to keep away from it, and instead function as a permanent dissident and critical movement in society.

VB :  Periyar had proposed that Tamil become the official language of the ‘archakas’ in the Tamil Temples which was contested by the Supreme Court under the pretext that it is the internal affair of Hindus. The Brahmins got right to worship in Sanskrit. Did he change his view or he remained so? 

SV & VG : This again is a complicated story, and here we quote from our book:

It is entirely logical that his [Periyar‘s] last struggle should have been provoked by what he characterized as the Brahminic logic of the modern Indian nation. In 1970, the Government of Tamil Nadu, then under the rule of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) with M. Karunanidhi as Chief Minister, passed amendments to the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act—Tamil Nadu Act 2 of 1971—to do away with the practice of appointing archakas (temple priests) on a hereditary basis in over 10,000 temples, permitting persons from all castes to be eligible for the posts of priests. For Periyar, this seemed a matter of urgent import, for he had all his life held that it was the Brahmin‘s time-honoured relationship to sacrality that granted him his exclusive identity and prowess. This act that was passed by the Tamil Nadu Legislature was, however, challenged in the Supreme Court.

The five-judge bench of the Supreme Court upheld the DMK government‘s reasoning in respect of the appointment of non-hereditary priests: it accepted that the matter of appointing priests had evolved out of secular imperatives and there was nothing sacred about this practice. But the Bench refused to accept the consequent argument that priests could henceforth be appointed from all castes. It was argued that such a practice, if instituted, would be a clear violation of agamic injunctions which were very severe with respect to the conduct demanded of a prospective priest. Further, if such injunctions were to be wilfully ignored, this would mean a direct interference with the Hindu worshipper‘s practice of his faith. The Bench observed that for the Hindu, the idol was a sacred object of immense significance. The devout Hindu would not countenance anyone but a traditional priest to touch the idol, for his faith was clear on this matter. Further, ‗any State action which permits the defilement or pollution of the image by the touch of an Archaka not authorised by Agamas would violently interfere with the religious faith and practices of the Hindu worshipper in a vital respect and would therefore be prima facie invalid under Act 25(1) of the Constitution‘ (AIR 1972: 1592-93).

Needless to say, such sentiments angered Periyar and confirmed him in his opinion that the Indian nation was not interested in all those who were condemned by the Hindu religion to be less than human simply because they were not Brahmins. The circularity of this kind of reasoning proved particularly bothersome to Periyar, who sensed there was really no way out of it. The learned judges of the Supreme Court had, after all, quoted without demur P.V. Kane‘s reference to Brahma Purana: ‗when an image… is touched by beasts like donkeys… or is rendered impure by the touch of outcastes and the like… God ceases to dwell therein.‘ Further, the Bench had unequivocally stated they were duty-bound to protect the freedoms guaranteed under Articles 25 and 26 of the Constitution:

The protection of these articles is not limited to matters of doctrine or belief, they extend also to acts done in pursuance of religion and therefore contained a guarantee of rituals and observances, ceremonies and modes of worship which are integral parts of religion… what constitutes an essential part of a religion or religious practices has to be decided by the Court with reference to the doctrines of a particular religion and include practices which are regarded by the community as part of its religion (AIR 1972: 1593).

Under these circumstances, damned to eternal Shudrahood, by law, custom, precedent and practice, Periyar could not but dream of Utopia again. Thus, in 1972, he revived with vigour the demand for a separate Tamil Nadu, for a state of being and a community where touch may not defile and where angst and despair would not torment those unlucky millions who had been born as Shudras and Panchamas. Perhaps he cursed and laughed bitterly all the way to his grave, fuming at an injustice that seems to have been mandated by the ‗Gods‘ themselves. But, then this is the laughter of prophecy, which dares to dream again, and yet again, and which points to the necessity of struggle, even as it anticipates utopia (Awaiting the Millennium, Chapter 13, in Towards a Non Brahmin Millennium: From IyotheeThass to Periyar, Samya, Kolkata, 2008).

VB:  Could you please narrate Periyar’s heroic work at Vaikom to fight for the Dalits rights? How did Gandhi convert it into ‘temple’ entry movement when it was not? Periyar felt betrayed by Gandhi and perhaps that was the reason why he left Congress. What were the main points of difference between Gandhi and Periyar? 

SV & VG :Periyar‘s critique of Gandhi was multi-faceted and cannot be understood in and through the Vaikom prism alone. Let us quote from our book to make clear what this critique was all about.

(Periyar wrote): ―His [Gandhi‘s] religious guise, god-related talk, his constant references to Truth, Non-Violence, Satyagraha, cleansing of the heart, the power of the spirit, sacrifice and penance on the one hand and the propaganda his disciples and others— nationalists and journalists—who in the name of politics and the nation consider him a rishi, a sage, Christ, the Prophet, a Mahatma… and a veritable avatar of Vishnu on the other, along with the opportune use of Gandhi‘s name by the rich and the educated… have together made Gandhi a political dictator‖ (Kudi Arasu 23.7.33; Anaimuthu 1974: 389-90).

Periyar compared Gandhi to Annie Besant and pointed out that like Gandhi she had dominated nationalist politics by talking of the Bhagavad Gita, by claiming she communed with gods and mahatmas and by professing to know peoples‘ previous and future births. The popularity of people such as Besant and Gandhi, noted Periyar, derived from their habit of putting their religious sensibilities to political use and endowing their political acumen with a mystical aura (Kudi Arasu 23.7.33; Anaimuthu 1974: 389-90). Writing a couple of months later, on the death of Annie Besant, a Kudi Arasu obituary noted that the waning of Besant‘s influence in the Congress coincided with the entry of Gandhi and the growth of his influence in that party. The obituary suggested that in many significant ways, Gandhi was a fit substitute to Mrs. Besant (even as he was presented as an antidote to her powers and influence in the Congress), combining as he did matters of the spirit and issues of political import (Kudi Arasu, 24.9.33).

The Gandhian conundrum for Periyar was best represented in the Gandhian ideal of Satyagraha. In an article titled ‗Satyagraha‘, he dwelt at great length on the meaning and relevance attached to this ideal in the Gandhian lexicon. He noted that the SelfRespecters could not possibly wage this ‗war of truth‘. For those against whom this war would be waged, would consider opposing the Self-Respecters in name of a ‗truth‘ of which they were convinced. Periyar went on to detail the nature of the Self-Respecters‘ struggle and their achievements in respect of their anti-caste and anti-untouchability campaigns. He argued that as opposed to claiming to speak and act in the name of an ineffable truth, Self-Respecters had sought to persuade rather than force a change of opinion. They had travelled from town to town, from village to village, holding meetings, prevailing upon the public to listen and if convinced, heed their words. But they had not sought to explain and interpret their ideas to suit the occasion or the context. This mode of public debate, implied Periyar, was in stark contrast to the habitual Congress mode of conducting its public and political campaigns. Congress was interested in displays of power and sentiment; it was given to shows of defiance against India‘s imperial rulers and was clearly interested in rousing rather than educating people‘s sentiments and feelings on matters of import to them.

Periyar also pointed out that the appeal of Satyagraha of the Congress variety derived from its semantic associations. Congressmen were wont to attribute to the ideal of Satyagraha notions of dharma, sacrifice and divine will. Satyagraha, it was claimed, being morally and spiritually right, could not but succeed, could not but win its victories. By rendering Satyagraha as an ideal and a mode of protest naturally and inevitably successful, Congressmen had come to interest the people in its causes. Whether these causes actually succeeded or not, the aura associated with these, on account of their inherent ‗truth‘, sustained and redeemed them in the eyes of thousands of ordinary Congressmen. Yet, pointed out Periyar, ‗there need be no truth in a particular cause (for which one conducts Satyagraha) nor need a winning cause need to be a particularly truthful one‘. This was because Truth was never singular in character and could be interpreted differently and understood in a number of ways. Besides, what appeared true to one need not necessarily be true to another. ‗What is Truth? Untruth? For which may one conduct Satyagraha? Is there indeed a way of testing these things? What appeared as truth to, say, Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya need not be true as far as the SelfRespecters were concerned.‘

Periyar‘s problem with the Gandhian notion of Satyagraha was simply this: It rested on faulty premises in that its relevance and worth could not be measured, except in and through its own forms of expression. Secondly, were one to interrogate its truth claims, one would have to admit that these were arbitrary and relative. Thirdly, and this proved particularly bothersome to Periyar, one could never be sure if the efficacy of Satyagraha was due to its inherent worth, or due to the fact that its proponents, by claiming they were ‗acting in Truth‘, had coerced their opponents or those whom they addressed, into heeding their claims. Thus, he wondered if it was because the Satyagrahis‘ arguments and ideas were persuasive and convincing that they were heeded, or because those who were forced to confront their obduracy had to give in to their claims, not being able to find a way out of a situation forced on them by the Satyagrahis. It was because the ethical effects of Satyagraha seemed to escape definition that Periyar held, the practice of Satyagraha demanded and required the simultaneous practice of manipulation, deception and falsehood.

Periyar also argued that, desirous as the Self-Respecters were of building a samadharmic society where property will be held in common, they could not possibly expect or hope that the conduct of Satyagrahas will enable Adi-Dravidas to acquire land or a share of the wealth that was held by religious institutions and temples. Neither would Satyagraha prove successful against zamindars and merchants and kings who were determined to keep their working population captive to their interest and who gave them enough only so that they may live to labour. What Satyagraha could do and had indeed achieved for all its pains (and for all the impetus given it by Gandhi and the Congress) was that it had forced the common people to trust to the divine powers of truth and instilled in them a false faith as to what could possibly be achieved to ameliorate their conditions of existence (Kudi Arasu, 6.9.31). For Periyar, then, Satyagraha served as an expressive modality in and through which the discourses of Gandhian nationalism had habitually been made available to the world at large. The moral ambiguity which lay at the heart of discourses and practices of Satyagraha were interpreted by him to represent the problematic nature of a politics that attempted to subsume its partisan concerns in a universal rhetoric of truth, patriotism and sacrifice. Satyagraha in this sense represented  the favoured mode of expression of nationalism and one that rendered the latter an appealing idea (The Ideal Society: Imagining Dravida Nadu, Chapter 12, in Towards a Non Brahmin Millennium: From Iyothee Thass to Periyar, Samya, Kolkata, 2008).

VB: Why do you think Indian state avoids Periyar even today? It has accepted Ambedkar, it has accepted Jyotiba Phule, it talks about Buddha; why is Periyar a ‘persona-non-grata’ for the Indian state and mainstream political parties except for those in Tamil Nadu? 

SV & VG : Well, let‘s say that the Indian State for thoroughly opportunist reasons appears to have ‗accepted‘ Babasaheb and Phule, but what does that mean, in a substantive sense, besides celebrating birthdays, putting up statues, and making ponderous dishonest speeches? We suppose the question is why has Periyar been not accepted even in this sense? Well, Periyar rejected the Indian State and nation – which cannot endear him to its ideologues and rulers. He also consistently identified nationalism with political Brahminism; further he was fiercely critical of nationalism, and even his campaign for a separate Dravidian nation was on account of his opposition to caste, to what he called the Brahmin-Bania Indian nation-state and not because he was committed to a romantic ideology of a resistant Dravidian nationalism. He also had no use for or investment in the instruments of State power, unless they subserved his ideological and political vision – and this pragmatism was easily foregone, in the interests of the vision that he valued above all.

Further, unlike Dr Ambedkar he did not represent a potential political constituency that had to be wooed. To the end, he remained his own man, adored, loved, contested, reviled, but his followers were not definable by their specific political identities – they could be nationalist, liberal, Dalit, non-Brahmin, communist, anarchist, feminist, and from literally all social groups, so the State had no reason to ‗cultivate‘ him or to ‗tame‘ him.

His atheism, his feminism, his communitarian sense of his own autonomy – these have also made him a permanent dissident, a presence that is both exhilarating as well as one that provokes unease and discomfort.

VB :  Irony is that Periyar’s thoughts are not part of curriculum in schools and universities in Tamil Nadu. There may be a few exceptions, but his role as emancipator and fighter for the rights of Dravidian people is not much highlighted anywhere in the state? 

SV & VG :No, the State has not even thought it fit to compile his writings or to support their publication and dissemination.

VB: As political leader what was Periyar’s political philosophy? I mean, how Periyar would have responded to current socio-economic and political climate of the country and the globe? I know he visited Soviet Union and was impressed. Was he impressed with communism? What kind of politics he espoused for? What were his views on democracy? How would have he responded to his own political parties today which swear by his name, seeing their conditions and corruption? 

SV & VG : We think we have addressed these questions above. But we would like to say a few words about his understanding of democracy. He was a democrat in a fundamental intellectual sense – he was open to differences, to worldviews different from his own, and believed in unfettered expression of ideas, opinions and in conversation and dialogue, and in political decorum that did not allow ideological and political positions to come in the way of everyday civility. He was also a democrat in his understanding of the caste and gender questions – in his commitment to absolute equality and comradeship, as well as justice. Politically, he was uneasy with democracy in practice, fearing as he did, the power of uninformed opinion-mongering and political opportunism, and felt that electoral democracy was the last resort of unprincipled scoundrels. His organization was not democratically managed or arranged, and at various times in its history, his own trusted comrades felt impelled to leave – some for instrumental or limited reasons, others for more principled ones. Yet he was a radical republican and imagined the state as embodying, or as serving as, an instrument of rule that ought to represent the greater common good and that was sovereign only because it was a people‘s state.

Vidya Bhushan Rawat is a social and human rights activist. He blogs at twitter  @freetohumanity  Email:

One Comment

  1. K SHESHU BABU says:

    Such profound interviews and discussions not only help in knowing more about Periyar, but also spread the thoughts of the great social worker. Periyar is known to very little section of North people. His works must be promoted in all parts of country.
    It is sad that the home state of Periyar has become an abode of brahminism again. The state dalits and other minorities must unite and start mass movement against spread of brahminical culture.