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Re-reading Periyar

By Ravikumar

02 March, 2006

If one was asked, ‘Who invented the test tube baby?’ it is likely that a western scientist will be credited. But a Tamilian would contradict you, claiming that it was actually Periyar who was responsible for this scientific miracle. In the same vein if you asked him who introduced modernity to Tamil culture, he would once again name Periyar. There are many such appelations attached to him, the main one being the saviour of the Untouchables. This may explain the widespread culture of Periyar worship in Tamilnadu, notwithstanding the fact that he himself protested against all forms of idol worship. But instead of debating whether we should accept ‘their god’ as ‘our god’, the question is whether Periyar deserves to be regarded as the saviour of the untouchables?

The Hindus organised a meeting in Mumbai on 30 September 1932, (i.e., a week after the signing of the Poona Pact), to form an All-India Anti-Untouchability League. Since Gandhi, who planned it, did not like the name, it was changed it to ‘Servants of Untouchables Society’. It was on this occasion that the Hindus joined together to fight against untouchability. There were eight members on the board. Ambedkar, M.C.Rajah and Rettamalai Srinivasan were included as representatives of the untouchables. All three subsequently withdrew from the board. Gandhi then renamed it as Harijan Seva Sangh.

In his book, What Congress and Gandhi Have Done to the Untouchables, Ambedkar explains the circumstances which led to his joining this forum: ‘After the Poona Pact, I proceeded in a spirit of forget and forgive. I accepted the bona fides of Mr. Gandhi as I was asked to do by many of his friends. It was in that spirit that I accepted a place on the Central Board of the Sangh and was looking forward to play my part in its activities’ (133). He added that he had wanted to discuss the programme of the Sangh with Gandhi but could not do so as he had to leave for London to participate in the Third Round Table Conference. However, he did write a detailed letter to A.V. Thakkar, Secretary of the Sangh, giving concrete proposals regarding the services to be rendered by the Sangh.

Ambedkar understood that Hindus approach the issue of untouchability in two ways. First, most Hindus believe that ‘the individual belonging to the Depressed Classes is bound up with his personal conduct.’ Second, they believe that ‘the fate of the individual is governed by his environment and circumstances.’ Accepting the second view as comparatively sound, Ambedkar felt that the League should not dissipate its energy fostering private virtue, but should concentrate on a programme ‘that will effect a change in the social environment of the Depressed Classes’ (135).

The programme drafted by Ambedkar had four components: (i) a campaign to secure civil rights; (ii) equality of opportunity; (iii) social intercourse; and (iv) agency to be employed. Let us examine the significance of these proposals in detail.

The campaign to secure civil rights: This all-India campaign should aim to ‘secure to the Depressed Classes the enjoyment of their civic rights such as taking water from the village wells, entry in village schools, admission to village chawdi, use of public conveyance, etc.’ This programme, he wrote, ‘will bring out a social revolution in the Hindu society, without which it will never be possible for the Depressed Classes to get equal social status’ (Ambedkar, vol. 9, p. 135). Such a social revolution would inevitably result in the breaking of heads and in criminal prosecutions by one side or the other. In this struggle, ‘the Depressed Classes will suffer badly because the police and the magistracy will always be against them. The moment the caste Hindus see the Depressed Classes trying to reach equal social status with them, they will announce complete boycott of the Depressed Classes’ (135).

The League should have an army of workers in the rural parts of the country to encourage the Depressed Classes to fight for their rights and help them with legal proceedings arising from these battles. This programme would involve ‘disturbance and even bloodshed,’ he said. The salvation of the Depressed Classes will come only when the caste Hindu is made to think and forced to feel that he must alter his ways. ‘For that you must create a crisis by direct action against his customary code of conduct. The crisis will compel him to think and once he begins to think he will be more ready to change than he is otherwise likely to’ (136).

Equality of opportunity: The reason for the misery and poverty of the Depressed Classes is due to the ‘absence of equality of opportunity which is in turn due to untouchability’ (137). He explained that they could not enter the economic sphere or involve themselves in trade as no Hindu would buy from them. Their situation is similar to that of the Blacks who were the last to be employed in the days of prosperity and the first to be sacked in times of adversity. In addition, untouchables were confined to the lowest paid departments irrespective of their efficiency. ‘Even in the low paid departments he cannot rise to the highest rung of the ladder’ (137). They could not earn like the caste Hindu employees because of social discrimination.

Ambedkar said that the Anti-Untouchability League must create public opinion against this injustice and immediate set up working groups to deal with cases of inequality. ‘Much can be done by private firms and companies managed by Hindus by employing them in their offices in various grades and occupations suited to the capacities of the applicants’ (138).

Social intercourse: The League was encouraged to take steps to annihilate the nausea felt by caste Hindus towards untouchables. Ambedkar felt that the admission of the Depressed Classes into the houses of caste Hindus either as guests or servants would help achieve this. He wondered, however, whether those who were on friendly terms with untouchables on normal occasions would come to their rescue in times of distress. ‘The Depressed Classes will never be satisfied of the bonafides of these caste Hindu sympathisers until it is proved that they are prepared to go to the same length of fighting against their own kith and kin’ (138), if necessary like the Whites of North America did against the Whites of the South for the emancipation of the Negro.

Agency to be employed: The League was to employ a large army of workers to carry out this programme. Persons belonging to the Depressed Classes were to be appointed, who alone ‘will regard the work as love’s labour’ (139).

But the Anti-Untouchability League did not pay any attention to these proposals; they did not even acknowledge his letter. History records the way the Congress used the ‘Harijan Seva Sangh’ to kill the movement of untouchables after the withdrawal of the three representatives from the League.

These proposals put forth by Ambedkar applied to all non-dalit organisations which claimed to work for the uplift of untouchables. Hence, Periyar’s Dravidian movement and its activities must also be judged in this light. Let us review his activities in relation to each of these proposals.

Campaign for civil rights of the untouchables: It is necessary to understand that Periyar’s movement was not started for the uplift of the untouchables. When non-brahmin leaders in the Congress party ventured to create an association in Madras challenging the Justice Party in 1917, Periyar supported the move by sending a telegraphic money order for Rs 1000. In turn he was selected as a vice-president of the association. Later, Rajaji persuaded him to join the Congress in 1920. Periyar stood by Gandhi who entered Indian politics in 1919 and captured the Congress. He remained a sincere Congressman until his resignation from the party in 1925.

Gandhi involved himself with many causes on his entry into politics, but he never touched the issue of untouchability. The problem of untouchability gained attention only in the 1930s, during the First Round Table Conference. Many leaders acknowledged the validity of the claims made by untouchables, who demanded social security on par with other minorities and did not want to be clubbed with the Hindus. It was only when untouchability became an unavoidable question that Gandhi moved on the issue. His objective was achieved by the Poona Pact in 1932.

Periyar, who headed several of Gandhi’s protests, resigned from the Congress before Gandhi took up the issue of ineducability. During the tumultuous time of the Poona Pact, he was travelling in Europe. He neither organized any protests for the civil rights of the untouchables, nor did he participate in protests organized by them. He only made public speeches. Moreover, he spoke about untouchability mostly at conferences that were organised by untouchables.

Periyar spoke against the leaders of this community, criticising them for demanding reservation in jobs, education and politics: ‘You are roaming around asking for more wages, a ministership, jobs, education. Are these sensible demands or honourable?’ He described untouchability as the worst kind of atrocity in the world. He stated that no one had done any useful work to annihilate the practice and everybody was fooling the people by simply talking about it. Unfortunately, he too never crossed that boundary.

The only thing that Periyar did was to offer advice to the victims of untouchability. He did not create a crisis among caste Hindus by direct action that opposed their attitude, as suggested by Ambedkar. Periyar’s followers cite his Vaikkom movement. First of all, it is important to note that the Vaikkom movement was not conducted in connection with untouchables. Let us look at what Periyar said about it:

‘The Vaikkom movement was sparked by a small incident. Our lawyer friend, Madhavan., B.A., B.L., went there to appear for a case. The court campus was part of the Rajah’s palace. The "pandal" made for the Rajah’s birthday celebrations covered the court campus too. Madhavan had to enter the court. The Rajah’s birthday prayers began. Since the lawyer belonged to the Eezhava community, he was prevented from entering the court …. Castes like Eezhavas, Asaris, Vaniyars, weavers were not supposed to walk on that road.’

The leaders of the humiliated Eezhava community decided to fight against this condition. Nineteen leaders, including lawyer Madhavan, barrister Kesava Menon, P.K. Madhavan and George Joseph participated in the agitation. All of them were arrested and as president of the Tamil Nadu Congress, Periyar was asked to continue the satyagraha by the Congress of Travancore. The agitation looked more like a social event than a political one. This was the background to the agitation. Periyar was given a grand welcome; the police commissioner himself came to receive him. If we compare it with the agitation led by Ambedkar at Chawdar tank in Mahad, only then will we understand which one created a crisis among caste Hindus.

In March 1927, a conference of untouchables was held at Mahad in which more than 2500 people participated. At the end of the conference the participants led by Ambedkar went to the Chawdar tank for water. ‘The Hindu inhabitants of the town saw the scene. They were taken by storm. They stood aghast witnessing this scene which they had never seen before. For the moment they seemed to be stunned and paralyzed. The procession in form of fours marched past and went to the Chawdar tank, and the untouchables for the first time drank the water. Soon the Hindus, realizing what had happened, went into frenzy and committed all sorts of atrocities upon the untouchables who had dared to pollute the water’ (Ambedkar, vol. 5, p. 250).

It is apt here to remember what Dhananjay Keer had to say about it: ‘The offended orthodox Hindus sharpened the claws of the social boycott. Confirmed zealots and purblind bigots from the orthodox and reactionary camp forbade the Untouchables to take their rounds in the villages and dislodged them from their lands. They refused to sell them corn and picked quarrels with them under this or that pretext, and prosecuted and jailed quite a number of them’ (Keer, p. 78).

Periyar describes the scene in Vaikkom: ‘Everyday 200-300 activists had food in the big pandal. Heaps of coconuts and other vegetables were stored. The cooking was done as in a marriage hall.’ This helps us understand the ‘seriousness’ of his protest for we are forced to ask what kind of relationship the Nadars in Tamil Nadu, who are the equivalent of Eezhavas, maintained with Dalits.

Let us now look at S. Gurusamy’s piece in Kudiarasu, the official organ of Periyar’s movement, condemning Gandhi’s fast against the proposal that untouchables should have a separate electorate. The article was titled, ‘Gandhi’s Suicide’ (quoted in S.V. Rajadurai and V. Geetha, p. 186). Gurusamy writes: ‘Near Devakottai Nadars and Maravars of your great Hindu religion are beating up Adi-Dravidars, attacking women for covering their breasts and setting fire to huts. Don’t you preach to them the greatness of your Hinduism?’

The Nadars, who were once treated as untouchable, (even as unseeable) have been involved in violence against untouchables in Tamil Nadu. But the devotees of Periyar hide this truth and instead claim that he fought for the untouchables in Vaikkom.

Periyar never did anything for the untouchables with as much commitment as he worked to promote khadi in every nook and corner of Tamil Nadu or to cut 500 coconut trees from his land as part of the agitation against toddy drinking. When he spoke about the problems of untouchables, he equated those with problems faced by non-brahmins. Since he viewed the problem of untouchability as equivalent to the treatment of sudras by brahmins, he could say: ‘There is no difference between ourselves and you in terms of our philosophy of social life.’ This same is the problem in temples too, he said, adding that the term ‘Sudra’ is more humiliating than the word ‘Pallar’ or ‘Parayar’. By saying this, he usurped from the untouchables even the position of victims. Instead of rising against the atrocities of caste Hindus, he took steps only to pacify them.

Around the time Gurusamy wrote in Kudiarasu about Adi-Dravidas being beaten by Nadars and Maravars, Periyar justified their actions: ‘I am agitated to hear about the atrocities done to Adi-Dravidars by other castes. But, when I think of their actions, I also understand that they are not responsible for what they have done. They are doing this because of the faith they have in their religion; because of the idea of karma and fate, that is all.’ He even accused the untouchables, who rose against such atrocities, saying: ‘You think only at that moment – as great injustices and do not reflect on why it happens, what is the reason behind this, and what we can do to purge it. You are not ready to listen to those who take steps and join with them in their action.’

Did he ever conduct a protest opposing the caste Hindus? Did he ever provide any help to the untouchables? Or did he at least create a crisis in the attitude of caste Hindus? ‘No’ is the only answer to all these questions that anyone who has a conscience will give.

Equality of Opportunity: Until today untouchables have not got equal opportunities in any social sphere. But Periyar kept on insisting that they already had sufficient reservation. The hostility was explicit in his campaign against the Constitution as well as on other occasions.

Periyar described the Constitution as written by brahmins to suit their own interest and to enjoy all kinds of privileges. Commenting on the constitutional safeguards provided to the untouchables, he said: ‘Dr. Ambedkar fought for his Adi-Dravida (untouchable) community. They told him, "You can ask whatever you want. We will oblige. But don’t talk about others." Accordingly, Ambedkar sought solutions for his community alone. So they drafted the Constitution giving due reservation to the untouchables. They have given placements to Adi-Dravidas as demanded by Ambedkar. At least he got that much. Will anyone demand like that for our community? No. While giving this much reservation for Adi-Dravidas, they say that our demand for reservation is not justifiable.’ Do we need to quote any further to determine whether Periyar felt happy or sad over the rights secured by the untouchables?

On another occasion he says: ‘If Muslims and Scheduled Castes get reservation, leaving the rest to be occupied by the Brahmins, then who will ultimately get affected? What will happen to you, the non-brahmin Tamils, the Dravidians, other than the Muslims and Christians? What will happen to your future?’

In the reservation policy that existed between 1927 and 1947, 14% untouchables got only 8.33% reservation. That too was not exclusively for the untouchables. It fell under the category ‘Others’, which was largely occupied by Parsis, Jains and some other caste Hindus. It was obvious that the above mentioned sections had greater opportunity of education than the untouchables. The British government also knowingly allowed that.

The untouchables were not only deprived of their rights in jobs, but deprived of their place of survival by caste Hindus. Mullaly, who served as the sub-collector of Chingleput in 1889 was deeply disturbed by the fact that the untouchables did not even have a proper place to reside.

After his visit to a street of the untouchables in Tirukkazhukkundram, he identified that the untouchable settlement ‘covered only 3.46 acres but had 34 houses in which 65 families lived.’ The total population living in that area was 333 individuals, an average of 10 persons per house: ‘To form a proper conception, it must be remembered that each house consists of only one room, 12 by 8 feet.’ In his diary entry for 7 July 1888, Mullaly described the situation in Palar village: ‘I find that most of the paracheri (paraiyar cheri or paraiyar living area) lands are entered in the names of the Mudaliars (vellala Mirasidars) and that they threaten to evict them (the paraiyars) if they don’t work gratis or very cheaply for them’ (Irschick, p. 171-172).

The non-brahmins who were described as ‘equivalent to the untouchables in social life’ by Periyar, never allowed the untouchables to better their lot. They treated them inhumanely. This historical truth continues even today. Periyar led many agitations demanding equality of opportunity. But it was only for those castes described as non-brahmins and not for the untouchables. Even when he talked about reservation on 25 April 1940, he classified government employees in two categories – brahmin and non-brahmins.

Social Intercourse: Before considering Periyar’s role in this regard, let us look at his memories of childhood. In the annual issue of Navamani 1937, he says, ‘When I was six years old, I was sent to a Tinnai school. It was located a little away from Erode town. (Now, it has become the centre of town). It was surrounded by the houses of Chettiars (a trading community). We could always hear the sound of the oil press, mat and basket makers were busy doing their jobs on the roadside. Some Muslim huts were also there. So, those living around the school either belonged to Chetty, Christian or Muslim communities.

‘In those days people belonging to higher castes would not take food in their houses. So when I went to school, I was also given similar instructions: "They belong to the lower castes. Don’t drink water from their houses. If you want, drink it from your teacher’s house." Later, when I saw people in the teachers house contemptuously washing the glass that I had used, I began drinking water and sometimes also I have eaten snacks on festive occasions from the houses of Chettiars and Christians.’ ‘I have eaten from the houses of Muslims too,’ Periyar recalls with revolutionary fervour.

He continues: ‘I was later prevented from continuing my education for being involved in these unpardonable crimes.’ His legs were tied. ‘Once both my legs and my shoulders were put in stocks for more than 15 days. I still used to go out to play with them’ (Sami. Chidambaranar, pp. 29-32). Is it possible that in a household where Periyar was put in stocks for drinking water, untouchables would be admitted? Is it because of this that Periyar never gave a responsible position to an untouchable in any of his institutions? This continues even today. No untouchable is given a respectable position in the Dravidian parties.

Even those who argue that Periyar worked for the untouchables only cite the participation of untouchables at the lowest level. They cannot provide evidence of anyone holding a higher position. They repeatedly refer to a few of his actions as ‘revolutionary’, like Periyar’s meetings with Ambedkar, the publication of the Tamil translation of Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste and the intercaste marriage conducted by him between Annapoorani Ammal, an untouchable woman, and a non-brahmin.

Neither Periyar and nor those in his movements were ever involved in an agitation against their kith and kin over the question of mixing with untouchables as proposed by Ambedkar. Untouchables serving food in Justice Party meetings, and eating in an untouchable’s house were claimed as achievements of the Dravidian movement in the 22 April 1947 issue of its journal, Viduthalai. Nowhere do they record a meeting led by an untouchable. Perhaps they felt that an untouchable was fit only for serving food.

Agency to be Employed: Periyar’s movement did have an agency. But its aim was not the one mentioned by Ambedkar. Of course, untouchables participated in his movement. But their function was to invite Periyar and arrange meetings. Even those movements of untouchables that hail Periyar did no more than arrange meetings for him. He came to those gatherings and gave advice. This shows that Periyar and his movement learnt little from the proposals made by Ambedkar. Yet the argument that Periyar did a great deal for the uplift of untouchables is deeply rooted in Tamil Nadu.

Gandhi had to resort to numerous gimmicks to cheat the untouchables. The only plausible reason for this is that he had to face the great power called Ambedkar. But, unlike Gandhi, Periyar cheated them easily. Periyar appropriated the sphere of protest set up by Pandit Iyothee Thass and Rettamalai Srinivasan without even acknowledging them. Had Ambedkar been born in Tamil Nadu, he would have been completely blocked out by these non-brahmin leaders.

Ambedkar did not conduct a detailed study of Periyar’s Self Respect Movement. But the views he expressed in the proposals I cited earlier are applicable to Periyar and his movement. While describing direct action in the context of the campaign for civil rights for untouchables, Ambedkar says: ‘I know the alternative policy of adopting the line of least resistance. I am convinced that it will be ineffective in the matter of uprooting untouchability. The silent infiltration of rational ideas among the ignorant mass of caste Hindus cannot, I am sure, work for the elevation of the Depressed Classes.

‘First of all, the caste Hindu like all human beings follows his customary conduct in observing untouchability towards the Depressed Classes. Ordinary people do not give up their behaviour just because somebody is preaching it. But when a custom is believed to have behind it the sanction of religion, mere preaching, if it is not resented and resisted, will be allowed to waft along the wind without creating any effect on the mind… The great defect in the policy of least resistance and silent infiltration of rational ideas lies in this that they do not compel thought, for they do not produce crisis’ (Ambedkar, vol. 9, p. 136). These words are best understood as a criticism of Periyar and his movement.

We cannot say that Periyar never created any crisis. His protests relating to the issue of non-brahmins did create such crises. In matters relating to untouchables, however, his attempts remained at the level of rhetoric.

Ambedkar concludes his book, What Congress and Gandhi Have Done to the Untouchables thus: ‘The Untouchables will still have ground to say: "Good God! Is this man Gandhi our Saviour?"’ (vol. 9, p. 297). If the deeds of Periyar are analysed, the Dalits in Tamil Nadu would ask a similar question: Good God! Is this man Periyar our saviour?

* All quotes of Periyar are from Ve. Anaimuthu (ed) Periyar E. Ve. Ra. Sinthanaikal, (3 volumes), Sinthanaiyalar Pathippakam, 1974.


Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Writings and Speeches, Volume 9, Education Department, Government of Maharashtra, 1990.

_______ Volume 5, Education Department, Government of Maharashtra, 1989.

S.V. Rajadurai and V. Geetha, Periyar Suyamariyathai Samadharmam, Vitiyal Pathippakam, 1996.

Sami.Chidambaranar, Thamizhar Thalaivar: Periyar Vazhkai Varalaru, Periyar Suyamariyathai Pirachara Niruvana Veliyeedu, 1996 (10th edition).

Dhananjay Keer, Dr. Ambedkar Life and Mission, Popular Prakashan,1997 (third edition, 9th reprint).

Eugene F. Irschick, Dialogue and History: Constructing South India, 1795-1895. Oxford University Press, 1994.









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