Periyar – The Socrates Of South Asia
By Satya Sagar
26 April, 2015
Trust Markandeya Katju to rush in where angels fear to tread – casually disparaging the legacy of E.V.Ramaswamy Naicker or ‘Periyar’, founder of the Dravidian movement and arguably one of the greatest social reformers in modern India.
According to former Justice Katju, in a recent post on his Facebook page, “Periyar ( E.V. Ramaswamy) was objectively a British agent, who preached caste hatred, particularly against Brahmins”
It is perhaps a fitting tribute to the revolutionary character of Periyar that, four decades after his death, he is still reviled by upper-caste Hindus of India,of both the Establishment and ‘anti-Establishment’ variety. And Markandeya Katju is not the only ‘secular, progressive’ intellectual in this country to have such contempt for or very little knowledge of Periyar and his work.
In recent times, alarmed by the rapid growth of Hindu extremism, communalism and the open attack on Constitutional rights of religious minorities Indian secularists and liberals have evoked the memories of Gandhi, Nehru, Maulana Azad and in more leftist circles that of Bhagat Singh. Few however have bothered to rememberor evoke the memory of Periyar, whose championing of secularism or human rights was far more radical, courageous and long-term in its implications.
While such indifference to Periyar in the past could be put down by many to ignorance today it is clear that the reality is much uglier. Unfortunately there seems to be a deliberate denial of Periyar’s legacy by ‘upper’-caste ‘progressives’, who cannot envisage someone from any ‘lower’ caste being far more revolutionary, radical or even humane than their ‘lordships’. While the domination of the Indian Establisment since Independence (and before) by ‘upper’-caste Hindus in general has been well recognised the sad truth is that even now the ‘anti-Establishment’ is also run by the same priviliged castes.
This essentially means that much of what passes off as Indian ‘politics’, including its so-called ‘revolutionary’ version, is essentially a clash between two sections of the same elite – somewhat like a modern-day Mahabharata war between royal cousins fighting over property that belongs to neither of them. No wonder then, in seven decades since Independence,nothing has changed in a country with the world’s largest number of absolute poor, levels of malnutrition worse than sub-Saharan Africa and where a bulk of the population gets ground to dust between feudal oppression and crony capitalism.
Anyway, to come back to Periyar, I will argue that without understanding his philosophy, actions and methods of mobilisation or his insights into the history and contemporary realities of India it is not possible to challenge the idea of Hindutva and the forces of obscurantism, communalism and upper caste hegemony it represents. And, without defeating the racist Brahmanical culture that underpins the entire Hindu caste system there is little possibility of actually carrying out any revolutionary transformations in India either.
Undoubtedly Periyar’s greatest cause was that of thoroughly exposing varnasharma dharma, the Hindu caste system, which confers superior or inferior status to people by birth and not their individual merit. Though he was certainly not the first to point this out Periyar was the most forceful critic of Hinduism’s arbitrary division of society into the ‘high’ and the ‘low’.
“One should respect another in a way in which one expects to be respected by the other. This is a revolutionary principle for the Hindus. It can materialise not by reform but only by revolution. There are certain things that cannot be mended, but only ended. Brahmanic Hinduism is one such,” said Periyar.
The politics, administration and education system of Tamil Nadu at beginning of the twentieth century, like many other parts of India, was overwhelmingly dominated by Brahmins. For instance, although the Brahmins were only 3.2% of the population, 70% of the university graduates between 1870 and 1900 were Brahmins. Again in 1896, Brahmins occupied 53 per cent of the 140 posts of Deputy Collector, 71.4 per cent of the 18 posts of Sub-Judge and 66.4 per cent of the 128 District Munsif posts. Most of the graduates and teachers in educational institutions were from the Brahmin community.
Again, in Madras Presidency in 1912, Brahmins occupied 55 per cent of deputy collector posts, 82.3 percent of sub-judge posts and 72.6 percent of munsif posts. In contrast, the respective shares of non-Brahmins, despite their much larger numbers were 2.5, 16.7 and 19.5 percent only.
All this together with their control of Hindu religious institutions, practice of untouchability and use of the derogative term ‘shudra’ against non-Brahmins led Periyar to dub the existing order as a ‘Brahminocracy’. In response Periyar and his followers attacked the political, economic, social and cultural foundations of Brahmin power in Tamil Nadu.
All this had nothing to do with ‘hatred of Brahmins’ that Katju alleges. Periyar’s growing popularity as a social reformer in Erode led the Congress stalwart C.Rajagopalachari, a Brahmin, to befriend him and invite him to join the Congress in 1919. Periyar joined and became an ardent Gandhian making numerous personal sacrifices during the non-cooperation, anti-liquor and swadeshi movements.
He also went on to become the President of the Tamil Nadu Congress Committee but failed to get his own party’s support on issues such as the right of non-Brahmins to enter the sanctum sanctorum of temples or for the creation of trusts to manage religious instiuttions. In 1925 though, he finally quit the party in disgust after failing repeatedly to get its support for the policy of reservation for non-Brahmins in government jobs and educational institutions.
Periyar joined hands with other political groups challenging Brahmin hegemony to demand proportional reservation for non-Brahmins in all government jobs and educational institutions. Despite strong opposition from the Brahmin lobby Madras state, the precursor to Tamil Nadu, was the first state to implement such reservations in 1928.
Later on, in 1950 when the Supreme Court held that such reservations were ultra vires of the Indian Constitution the resulting agitation in Tamil Nadu forced the government of Jawaharlal Nehru to bring in the first constitutional amendment to uphold the right of the government to enact laws which provide "special consideration" for weaker sections of society, such as the reservation policy.
Along with leveling the playing field for non-Brahmins in employment and education, Periyar sought to deconstruct the theoretical basis of the caste system, which claimed legitimacy from the Vedas and Hindu scriptures like the Puranas or epics such as Ramayana and Mahabharata. Periyar and other scholars of the Dravidian Kazhagam (DK) he founded laid bare the contradictions, immorality and biases of these texts in great detail and showed how they provided religious sanction to the caste system.
For example, the Dravidian movement offered a detailed critique of the Ramayana, which according to Periyar was essentially a tale of conquest by migrant Aryans coming from outside the sub-continent of the indigenous people of India – broadly categorized as Dravidians. The Brahmins of Tamil Nadu had used Max Muller’s concept of the culturally ‘superior Aryan’ to legitimise their authority and the Dravidian movement took opposition to this concept as the point of departure in its politics.
In their reading of the Ramayana the hero of the epic Rama is actually the invading villain and Ravana, the so-called ‘demon king’ is the victim of Rama’s aggression. The book ‘Ravana Kavyam’ a Tamil epic on Ravana, written in the early period of the Dravidian movement extols the virtues of Ravana, while DK activist and film personality M. R. Radha’s theatrically provocative parody on the ‘Ramayana’ depicts Ravana as a great hero. In numerous public meetings the Ramayana was burnt by Dravidian activists for its portrayal of Dravidians as ‘rakshasas’ or at best as monkeys and bears who were allied to Rama.
“Invocation of Ravana functioned as an antidote restoring the pride of the Tamils in the non-Sanskritic regional culture and unleashing a critique of brahminism. If Indian nationalism uncritically prided itself as Aryan, Ravana was the response from the alienated south” wrote M.S.S.Pandian, the late scholar of the Dravidian movement.
Periyar opposed blind faith in religion and superstitious practices by promoting rationalist thinking based on the study and understanding of modern science. In particular he attacked the phenomenal waste of hard earned money and resources of ordinary people on meaningless rituals and donations to temples that ended up enriching only the Hindu upper caste.
Despite his opposition to religion in general and being an atheist personally, Periyar asserted the right of non-Brahmins to enter the sanctum sanctorum of Hindu temples, arguing that stopping them from doing so was to deny them the status of human beings. In 1970 Tamil Nadu, again became the first state in India to have a legislation brought in by the newly elected Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government of C.N.Annadurai to ensure people from all castes could become temple priests if they wanted.
One of the keys to the success of the Dravidian movement was its brilliant use of language and culture to awaken people is legendary with many of its leaders being not just skilled orators but also good quality Tamil poets, musicians, actors and writers. Opposing the imposition of Hindi on southern states by the Indian government was a natural corollary to the Dravidian movement’s arousal of pride in the Tamil language and culture, with Periyar even threatening to fight for a separate ‘Dravidanadu’ in response.
It was public mobilisation around this issue that propelled the DMK, a breakaway group from Periyar’s own Dravida Kazhagam (DK), to power in Tamil Nadu in the 1967 elections. The spectre of separatism together with the fierce anti-Hindi agitation compelled the Indian government to take the demands of the Dravidian movement seriously enough to offer many concessions on the economic and political front to the state.
On the social front, in order to reduce the role of Brahmins in the daily life of ordinary people, Periyar promoted what he called ‘Self Respect Marriages’, which enabled couples from any religion to get married in a secular manner through just a simple exchange of garlands and without the services of any priest. These marriages were legalised through a special Act brought in by the DMK government in 1967.
Periyar’s most revolutionary insights were perhaps in his espousal of radical feminism, which he theorised well before the term itself was invented anywhere in the world. Periyar for example attacked the oppressive notion of female ‘chastity’ thus: “To insist that chastity is only for women and should not be insisted upon for men, is a philosophy based on individual ownership; the view that women are the property of the male determines the current status of a wife.”
Periyar’s championing of the right of women get educated, work and to live and love as they please was too bold for many of his own ardent followers in the DK movement, which has failed to elaborate or even uphold his thoughts on this issue. As the feminist and Periyar scholar V.Geetha pointed out in a recent talk in memory of the 19th century social reformer Savitribai Phule, “Periyar has been de-radicalised and made an exponent of the reservation policy, crude atheism and a strident anti-Brahmin rhetoric and so his views on caste, hierarchy, the gender and sexuality question have all been relegated to a forgotten archive”
Indeed, much water has flowed in the Kaveri since the heydays of Periyar and the political parties born out of the Dravidian movement, have decayed to a point where they have compromised on many of other issues too. Today Tamil Nadu’s ruling politicans have become notorious for rampant corruption, casteism, patriarchal attitudes and in more recent times even forming alliances with the BJP, once seen as a hated promoter of ‘Aryan supremacy’ and Hindi chauvinism.
The state has also courted infamy in recent years for attacks on Dalits by the middle-castes who, while benefiting from the anti-Brahmin movement, do not want those further below them to assert their own rights. This was something Periyar had warned about when said that as long as there was a hierarchy of castes in Hindu society there could always be conflict between those on different rungs of the ladder.
Despite all these subsequent distortions of Periyar’s legacy it can be said that the Dravidian movement effected the most successful social transformation in modern Indian history on the issues caste, education, assertion of language and gender rights anywhere in the country. Tamil Nadu, thanks to Periyar, is one state where the Brahmins no longer dominate politics and society or set the standard for cultural ‘superiority’ in any way – one important reason why Brahmins of all hues everywhere, either explicitly dislike Periyar or pretend to ignore him completely.
The assertion of pride in the Tamil language too resulted in widespread literacy in the mother tongue while the social welfarist leanings of the Dravidian movement have helped the state develop the best primary health care infrastructure in the country today. Compared to other parts of India Tamil Nadu also has the least amount of communal disturbances with the Hindutva forces finding it extremely hard to grow here, despite many desperate attempts to do so.
The influence of Periyar’s ideas have also had a deep impact nationally, in particular through the rise of backward caste and Dalit movements challenging upper caste hegemony in many other parts of India, including Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Tamil Nadu’s historical defence of local language and culture has also encouraged other states in India to assert their regional identities, ultimately strengthening the principle of federalism, diluting concentration of power in New Delhi and helping to preserve national diversity.
What is truly remarkable is that all these achievements were made through a largely non-violent movement drawing its strength on well-researched arguments, creative communication techniques and popular mobilisation. With all its imperfections, the Dravidian movement offers an excellent model to the rest of India to combat the barbarism of the caste system and establish a society where reason and democracy prevail over the dictatorial urges of a tiny minority of upper caste Hindus.
One area though where the Dravidian movement’s legacy needs to be complemented is emphasis on class issues. While Periyar was a great fan of the Soviet Union, after a visit there in the 1930s, and a proponent of socialist principles he did focus a bit too much on caste at the expense of differences in wealth and income in society.
In the current juncture of Indian society where an unholy alliance of global and domestic capital with traditional religious elites is leading the country towards majoritarian fascism it is only the united front of caste and class assertion that can offer a fitting response.
Learning from Periyar and building upon his great legacy is surely the only way forward in our times. For a self-styled champion of secularism and socialism like Mr Katju to accuse him of being a ‘British agent’ or a preacher of ‘caste hatred’ just signals that we have a long battle ahead before any real transformation takes place in this country.
Satya Sagar is a public health activist and writer who can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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