Or Lost Idol?
By S Anand
24 September, 2004
no god. He who created god was a fool; he who spreads his name is a
scoundrel and he who worships him is a barbarian."
Periyar E.V. Ramasamy
By this yardstick,
Tamil Nadu was never the land that Periyar had in mind. It is 125 years
since Erode Venkatanaicker Ramasamy (1879-1973) was born into a life
that gave him the title Periyar (The Great Man). He crisscrossed the
Tamil country spreading a heady message of rationalism, atheism, anti-Brahminism
and self-respect for the so-called Shudras. But very little of what
he preached has sunk in or inspires any action today. While Bahujan
Samaj Party leader Mayawati celebrated the iconoclast with statues and
Periyar Melas in UP in the mid-90s, back in his own state, Periyar
seems to have little or no following. Periyar swore by rationalism,
and yet the most visible representative of Dravidian self-respect, Muthuvel
Karunanidhi, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) president for life, always
wears a yellow angavastram whose religious significance remains mired
Puratchi Thalaivi J. Jayalalitha, another flag-bearer of Dravidian ideology,
is more unabashed in her religiosity and has espoused the cause of numerology,
adding an a to her name. The two leaders will of course
ritually garland a Periyar statue this September 17, his birth anniversary.
Tamil Nadu is today
steeped in superstitions and irrationalitiesevery year children
are buried alive for a few moments to ward off evil; fire-walking is
commonplace; Dalits are still subjected to the worst atrocities imaginable;
powerful religious cults like Bangaru Adigalars hold sway; men
and women give up limbs and lives for political leaders and film stars
who are venerated like gods; children, such as 13-year-old Bharanidharan
alias Salem Kutty Swami, posing as gurus, command a better
following than Dravidar Kazhagam, the original Dravidian platform founded
But who is, or was,
Periyar? Many in India know of Periyar only as a river and sanctuary
by that name in Kerala. Says K. Veeramani, general secretary of Dravidar
Kazhagam, "Theres a need to spread awareness about Periyar
and his ideology." Nobody will dispute him, given that the only
definitive edition of his writings and speechesthe three-volume
Thoughts of E.V.R. Periyarwas issued once by V. Anaimuthu of Tiruchi
Thinkers Forum in 1974.
This work has never been reprinted. Theres no critical biography
of Periyar; good renditions of his work are not available in English.
This is unlike the case of Mahatma Jyotiba Phule or Babasaheb B.R. Ambedkar,
whose writings have been made available at subsidised prices by the
Periyar, born in an affluent business family of Naickers in Erode, studied
only up to Class IV, and as a young man left home to tour the nation.
He even lived the life of a sanyasi in Benares. Socially active since
1917, he joined the Indian National Congress in 1919 and was a staunch
Gandhianswearing by prohibition and khaditill what he called
Brahmin domination within the Congress led to his founding of the Self-Respect
Movement in 1925. In 1938, he headed the Justice Party. Six years later,
he converted it into the non-political social outfit Dravidar Kazhagam,
whose offshootsDMK, AIADMK, MDMKhave defined Tamil politics
as we know it.
Periyar was an indefatigable
public speaker who campaigned on various platforms between 1917 and
1973, extending support to different parties at different times. On
an average, he campaigned 220 days of the year. In 1973, at the age
of 95, he spoke at 42 public meetings in the three months before his
death. The firebrand atheist sought to usher in rationalist humanism
by breaking idols of Ganesha (on Buddha Purnima, 1953) and burning portraits
of Rama (1956), and with his radical retelling of the Ramayana.
Says C. Lakshmanan,
Fellow with the Madras Institute of Development Studies, "These
gestures did have a short-term impact, but in the final analysis they
amounted to mere rhetoric. The fundamental problem is the construction
of a non-Brahmin bloc as a monolithic category, jettisoning contradictions
between the elite non-Brahmins, the most backward castes (MBC) and Dalits.
Periyar was more anti-Brahmin than anti-caste." According to Ravikumar,
activist-theoretician of the Dalit movement who has been spearheading
a critique of Periyar, "Periyars eccentricities seem to have
provoked people to turn more zealously to religion. Tamil Nadu produces
the largest number of mass circulation magazines devoted to spreading
bhakti and astrology."
movement did open up spaces monopolised by Brahminstemples and
government jobsto the larger intermediary castes. "However,"
says Thol. Thirumavalavan, leader of Vidudalai Chiruthaigal (Liberation
Panthers), "Periyar had no separate agenda for Dalits. The enthusiasm
Periyarites have even today for sanctum entry and in challenging Shankaracharyas
is not shown in leading Dalits into temples controlled by non-Brahmins.
Periyars only success was in displacing Brahmin hegemony. On all
other frontsthe battle against superstitions, for equality, atheism,
rational humanismhe has failed."
But there are many
who argue for the continued relevance of Periyar. Says G. Aloysius,
author of Nationalism Without a Nation in India, "When Nehru, E.M.S.
Namboodiripad or Jyoti Basu spoke about their atheism, they were celebrated.
Whereas when Periyar espoused atheism, the brahminical intelligentsia
was not comfortable because his atheism struck at the root of the caste
system." Aloysius believes that oppressed groups like Dalits and
MBCs might appear to have arrived late on the scene, but they are at
least able to stake their claims. "In the southern districts of
Tamil Nadu, Dalits retaliate when they are physically attacked. In northern
India, this is unthinkable." As Veeramani sees it, "If Tamil
Nadu happens to be the only state where 69 per cent reservation is allowed,
it is thanks to Periyar. OBC leaders like Uma Bharati and Kalyan Singh
are products of the Periyarite legacy even if they do not realise that."
Chandra Bhan Prasad,
author of Dalit Diary: Reflections on Apartheid in India, provides a
contrary perspective. "In August, I was in Kattukoodalur, a village
near Neyveli. Dalits here have to sip their tea standing, even if chairs
at the teashop are empty. The local barber would not serve them. In
parts of TN, even touching a Dalit is considered polluting. TN proves
that the Shudras, when empowered, can be more socially violent than
the Brahmins." Prasad contrasts the UP situation: "While 42
per cent Dalits are independent cultivators in UP, in TN it is only
12.8 per cent." There are those who posit Periyar as a useful resource
against Hindutva. But Ravikumar finds even this problematic. "Periyar
worked solely for the cause of the non-Brahmin, non-Dalit intermediary
castes. He deployed the concept of majority for this purpose.
Theres only one difference between the majoritarianism that the
Hindutvawadis propound and that of Periyars: that is, over the
exclusion of Brahmins from this majority. How else would Dravidian parties
so easily ally with Hindutva?"
Today, as his legacy
and relevance are debated, E.V.R. Periyar remains a bearded, bespectacled,
state-erected statue looking down helplessly at Tamils. Come election
time and every Dravidian party features him on their posters. Speaker
after speaker finds it convenient to rewind to his sayings. But beyond
that, Periyar remains an icon more forgotten than remembered.
A Rebuttal To S.Anand's Critque Of Periyar
By Dr. Iniyan Elango