The Politics Of Naming
28 September, 2005
The Sunday Pioneer
3 September, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is all set to inaugurate
National Center for Siddha Research in Chennai. The research centre
was originally to be named after Pandit C. Iyothee Thass (1845-1914),
a renowned practitioner of the Siddha form of native Tamil medicine,
and also a pioneer of the Tamil Dalit movement. However, the name of
Iyothee Thass has been dropped. The foundation for the project was laid
on March 27, 1999 by the then Tamil Nadu chief minister M. Karunanidhi
in the presence of then Union Health Minister, Dalit Ezhilmalai, of
the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK). It was at the behest of Dalit Ezhilmalai
that the institute was named after Iyothee Thass.
After seven years,
Iyothee Thass's name does not figure anywhere. Dalit organizations are
protesting. Se. Ku. Tamilarasan of the Republican Party of India (RPI),
a sitting MLA, has announced a black flag demonstration against the
prime minister and union health minister Anbumani Ramadoss if they refuse
to name the institute after the Dalit leader.
The last decade
of 20th century marks a significant chapter in the history of Tamil
Nadu as the Dalits waged a fearless war against the shudra repression
in the sociopolitical realm. The caste war which started in the southern
districts slowly spread to the northern districts. The Vanniars designated
a Most Backward Class were the main perpetrators of atrocities against
dalits in the northern districts. To take the sting off allegations
of being casteist and anti-Dalit, the PMK, a party of Vanniars, made
Dalit Ezhilmalai a Union minister in the BJP-led government. Within
a year, Ezhilmalai demonstrated that he had a mind of his own and started
functioning independent of his political masters. It was during Ezhilmalai's
ministership and with his patronage that a section of Tamil Dalits rediscovered
The Dalit thinker's
writings were reprinted in five volumes through a publishing house called
Dalit Sahitya Academy owned by Ezhilmalai. Thass emerged as an icon
of Dalit assertion in the ideological sphere. Though the medical knowledge
of Iyothee Thass was recognized by many of his contemporaries, including
Colonel Henry Steel Olcott of the Theosophical Society and Thiru. Vi.
Kalyasasundaram, a famous Tamil scholar, the attempt made by Dalit Ezhilmalai
to name the Siddha research institute after him must be understood in
the context of the political assertion of dalits in the 1990s.
Iyothee Thass is
perhaps one among the several Dalit icons whose names have been blacked
out by mainstream history.
Born on 20 May 1845,
Thass's original name was Kaathavarayan. His grandfather has served
as a butler to Lord Arlington. Kaathavarayan gained expertise in Tamil
literature, philosophy, Siddha and had good knowledge of English, Sanskrit
and Pali. After organising the tribal people in the Nilgris in the 1870s,
he established the Advaidananda Sabha in 1876. He launched a magazine
called Dravida Pandian along with Rev. John Rathinam in 1885. He issued
a statement in 1886 announcing that the so-called untouchables' are
not Hindus. He established the Dravida Mahajana Sabha in 1891 and during
the very first Census urged the so-called untouchables to register themselves
as casteless Dravidians. This in fact makes Tamil Dalits the true descendents
of the anti-Brahmin legacy which is today claimed by non-Brahmin non-Dalits.
meeting with Olcott was a turning point not only in his life but also
for the Tamil Dalit movement. In many ways, Thass was a forerunner of
Dr B.R. Ambedkar.
He led a delegation
of prominent Dalits to Olcott and pleaded for his help in reestablishing
Tamil Buddhism. With Olcott's help Thass visited Sri Lanka and got diksha'
from Bikkhu Sumangala Nayake. On his return, he established the Sakya
Buddhist Society in Chennai with branches in many places including Karnataka.
The contemporary Tamil Dalit movement has rediscovered its Buddhist
roots through Thass.
Thass launched a
weekly called Tamilan in 1907 and published it till his demise in 1914.
Here, he devoted his energies in critiquing the Swarajya politics of
the Congress. Thass was the driving force behind the establishment of
several panchama schools in Chennai. He focused on education and the
land issue. He interpreted Indian history in an entirely different light
in the work Indirar Desa Sarithiram (History of India) which can be
classified as subaltern history in a true sense.
Today, even uttering
the name of Iyothee Thass in the Tamil public sphere has become an act
of a rebellion. The Dravidian parties, communists and Tamil nationalists
- nobody has any regard for Thass. No wonder his name has been dropped
from the National Center for Siddha Research. This is an insult not
just to Dalits but Tamils as such.
author is the founder of www.navayana.org,
a publishing house that focuses on caste issues)