It Makes No Sense to Celebrate Ambedkar and Vilify Periyar

Periyar and his legacy can always be problematised. But a necessary pre-condition for this is that he must not be decontextualised.

The faces of B.R. Ambedkar and Periyar on a wall in Chennai. Credit: ferozfoto/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The faces of B.R. Ambedkar and Periyar on a wall in Chennai. Credit: ferozfoto/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

I have been a Dalit activist and journalist for over two decades, inspired equally by Babasaheb Ambedkar and Periyar. The three recent articles (authored by P.A. Krishnan and N. Kalyan Raman and available here, here and here) in the The Wire upholding B.R. Ambedkar on the one hand and accusing Periyar as someone who was nothing more than a Brahmin-hater on the other, therefore, comes to me as a surprise. Or maybe not.

For 20 years, I have been editor of the Tamil journal Dalit Murasu, each issue of which carried passages from the writings and speeches of these two great anti-caste revolutionaries on similar themes. Since P.A. Krishnan and Kalyan Raman are familiar with Tamil print culture and claim to advance an anti-caste agenda, it is surprising that they have not taken note of this. Or again, maybe it is not surprising.

As a Dalit activist, my position is very simple. It was not Periyar who made me a Dalit but Brahmanical Hinduism. Even if I become rich or become a priest, I continue to be a Dalit and an inferior individual. Periyar has no role in this. If anything, he waged a relentless struggle till his death to annihilate caste just as Ambedkar did. As Krishnan and Kalyan Raman know, it was Periyar who carried the Tamil translation of Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste (seen as the ‘Communist Manifesto for the servile classes) in his newspaper and cited Ambedkar’s work in several of his writings and speeches.

On the accusation that Periyar hated Brahmins and not Brahminism, unlike Ambedkar – it is interesting to see what Ambedkar has to say in this regard:

Historically they [Brahmins] have been the most inveterate enemy of the servile classes (Shudras and the Untouchables) who together constitute about 80 per cent of the total Hindu population. If the common man belonging to the servile classes in India is today so fallen, so degraded, so devoid of hope and ambition, it is entirely due to the Brahmins and their philosophy. The cardinal principles of this philosophy of Brahmanism are five: (1) graded inequality between the different classes; (2) complete disarmament of the Shudras and the Untouchables; (3) complete prohibition of the education of the Shudras and the Untouchables; (4) ban on the Shudras and the Untouchables occupying places of power and authority; (5) ban on the Shudras and the Untouchables acquiring property. (6) complete subjugation and suppression of women. (B.R. Ambedkar, Writings and Speeches, vol. 9, p. 215)

Ambedkar’s observations on the role of the Brahmin in perpetuating Brahmanism do not end there. He goes on to say:

… India is the only country where the intellectual class, namely, the Brahmins, not only made education their monopoly but declared acquisition of education by the lower classes, a crime punishable by cutting off of the tongue or by the pouring of molten lead in the ear of the offender. … There is no social evil and no social wrong to which the Brahmin does not give his support. Man’s inhumanity to man, such as the feeling of caste, untouchability, unapproachability and unseeability is a religion to him. It would, however, be a mistake to suppose that only the wrongs of man are a religion to him. For the Brahmin has given his support to the worst wrongs that women have suffered from in any part of the world. Widows were burnt alive as sattees. The Brahmin gave his fullest support to Sattee, the burning alive of a widow. Widows were not allowed to remarry. The Brahmin upheld the doctrine. Girls were required to be married before 8 and the husband had the right to consummate the marriage at any time thereafter, whether she had reached puberty or not did not matter. The Brahmin gave the doctrine his strongest support. The record of the Brahmins as law givers for the Shudras, for the Untouchables and for women is the blackest as compared with the record of the intellectual classes in other parts of the world. For no intellectual class has prostituted its intelligence to invent a philosophy to keep his uneducated countrymen in a perpetual state of ignorance and poverty as the Brahmins have done in India. Every Brahmin today believes in this philosophy of Brahmanism propounded by his forefathers. He is an alien element in the Hindu Society. The Brahmin vis-a-vis Shudras and the Untouchables as foreign as the German is to the French, as the Jew is to the Gentile or as the White is to the Negro. There is a real gulf between him and the lower classes of Shudras and Untouchables. He is not only alien to them but he is also hostile to them. In relationship with them, there is no room for conscience and there is no call for justice. (Ibid, pp. 215- 216)

Another allegation that the two writers make is that Periyar was a supporter of colonialism. Let us look at the apprehensions that Ambedkar had about an independent India:

… On this analysis, Swaraj would make Hindus more powerful and Untouchables more helpless and it is quite possible that having regard to the economic advantages which it gives to the Hindus, Swaraj, instead of putting an end to Untouchability, may extend its life.” (ibid, pg. 198). He warns again: “one may ask what really can happen if India does become a sovereign and an independent state? One thing is certain. The governing class will not disappear by the magic wand of Swaraj. It will remain as it is and having been freed from the incubus of British Imperialism will acquire greater strength and vigour. (Ibid, p. 212)

Democratisation of birth

Both Ambedkar and Periyar have consistently pointed out that economic upliftment or social amelioration does not actually eradicate caste in society, which is the basis of all inequalities in the country. Speaking on behalf of what he termed the ‘servile classes’, which include both the Shudras and the ‘Untouchables’, Ambedkar said:

I have no doubt that what they expect to happen in a sovereign and free India is a complete destruction of Brahmanism as a philosophy of life and as a social order. If I may say so, the servile classes do not care for social amelioration. The want and poverty which has been their lot is nothing to them as compared to the insult and indignity which they have to bear as a result of the vicious social order. Not bread but honour, is what they want. (Ibid, pp. 212-213)

That Periyar chose the name ‘Self-respect Movement’ suggests the social and political ideal he shared with Ambedkar. Rather than address specific instances of caste violence, both Ambedkar and Periyar believed that it was much more important to destroy the ideology that not only perpetuates such violence but, more importantly, prevents the formation of a fraternity that is critical to any democratising project. Essential to such a project is the democratisation of one’s birth, which can happen only by the abolition of caste. According to the India Human Development Survey (IHDS) conducted in 2012, the largest share of households practicing untouchability was among Brahmin households – 52%. Such everyday practices are much more critical to reproducing caste hierarchies.

We also know that despite Phule, Ambedkar, Periyar and the long line of anti-caste crusaders starting from the Buddha, Brahmins continue to hold a much larger share of positions in the higher bureaucracy, judiciary and the media. It is only in the legislative domain that there has been a shift towards the backward castes and, to a lesser extent, to the Dalits. The question clearly therefore is: Where does this need to vilify Periyar and celebrate Ambedkar as a national icon come from? ‘Divide and rule’ has been a long-term strategy of the Indian governing classes. It also has to do with the fact that upholding Ambedkar is essential as it allows them access to a vote bank whereas Periyar offers them no such political capital.

The other question is: Why now? Is it because there is an emerging coalition of the servile classes in Tamil Nadu that is worrying those who are in power? I believe that the answer is yes. Only the caste-blind can afford to not see the growth of the Brahmin-Baniya alliance under the present Hindutva regime. Since both Ambedkar and Periyar have consistently pointed to the dominance of this alliance, it is understandable that the beneficiaries of this regime feel threatened.

Anyone who wants to seriously and honestly engage with Periyar ought to be aware that  the ‘street’ or ‘gutter language’ he employed to attack the Brahmins was almost equally used against his own audience – in whom he wanted to instil a sense of shame (for their ‘shudra’/adi-shudrahood), self-respect and self-worth. This was the case with Malayalis as well, whose dignity Krishnan so zealously wants to guard. Krishnan does not understand that Periyar’s intention was to shame those who prided in having Brahmin blood in their persons. It was M.S. Golwalkar, the ultimate guru of the RSS-BJP who glorified ‘crossbreeding’:

Today experiments in crossbreeding are made only on animals. But the courage to make such experiments on human beings is not shown even by the so-called modern scientist of today. If some human cross-breeding is seen today it is the result not of scientific experiments but of carnal lust. Now let us see the experiments our ancestors made in this sphere. In an effort to better the human species through cross-breeding the Namboodri Brahamanas of the North were settled in Kerala and a rule was laid down that the eldest son of a Namboodri family could marry only the daughter of Vaishya, Kshatriya or Shudra communities of Kerala. Another still more courageous rule was that the first offspring of a married woman of any class must be fathered by a Namboodri Brahmanan and then she could beget children by her husband. Today this experiment will be called adultery but it was not so, as it was limited to the first child. (M. S. Golwalkar, Organizer, January 2, 1961, p. 5;  quoted by Shamsul Islam, In Defence of Caste and Against ‘Cross-Breeding’ in Kerala: Golwalkar, Sabrang, March 15, 2016)

Of Brahmin intellectuals-turned-champions

Now, let us see how the ‘democratic’ views of the late Paramacharya of Kanchipuram unwittingly substantiate the reading of Ambedkar (in What Gandhi and Congress Have Done to the Untouchables) on the Brahmin-Kshatriya tie-up of yore.

In one of his discourses, he argued that since the Manusmriti is the basic source of Hindu law, it should form the cornerstone of the ideal Hindu state. He nostalgically recalled that the Dharmashastras functioned as the basis of our administration, as a ‘Constitution for the whole country’:

“Of all the ‘Dharmashastras’, the ‘Manu Shastra’ is said to have provided clear, specific guidance to the king of yore… None of the kings attempted to change the rules presenting the essence of ‘Dharmashastras’ propounded by selfless ‘rishis’. There was no question of any amendment to such rule.” (‘The Unique Election Method in Uthiramerur: Democracy in the Vedas’, Bhavan’s Journal, vol. 36, no. 8, November 30, 1989, pp. 13-53)

Dismissing the ‘moderates’ among the Brahmins as those who believed that ‘our way of life according to the Shastras requires to be reformed to suit the times’, he argued that the Manusmriti still had contemporary relevance. To make sure, he suggested a few electoral reforms, such as the abolition of universal suffrage and replacing it with a system in which “the qualification of voting must not be confined to particular caste, religion and economic status, but must combine all these aspects”.

Lest one be deluded by some of the democratic-sounding words in this formulation, the ‘mahaswami’ prescribed the following qualifications for the candidates contesting the elections:

  1. They should be revenue paying owners of the land,
  2. Should own a house,
  3. Should be between 30 and 60 years of age, and
  4. Most importantly, be well-versed in the ‘Dharmashastras’.

He also intended “to show to the world that we are a great democracy, in the process, if we allow our dharma and dharma’s values to be compromised, it would only be like embellishing a dead body” (Ibid).

His successors are no less ‘progressive’. They advised the Dalits to not trouble themselves to enter Hindu temples but be content with building their own, separate, temples. If they still desired to visit the great temples, they should do so only after cleansing their bodies thoroughly.

We are yet to see Brahmin intellectuals-turned-champions of the Dalit cause interrogating such obnoxious, anti-human and anti-national statements (couched in ‘polished language’) of these swamis – let alone attending any of the protests against caste and communal violence and ‘honour killings’ that are being energetically organised by the Dalits, Periyarists and the Left forces. It is high time these intellectuals put their own house in order.

Fallacious contentions

It does not, however, mean that Periyar and his legacy need not be problematised. At the same time, a necessary pre-condition for this is that he must not be decontextualised. Like all other anti-caste leaders in India, he believed in nonviolence, and in this he was arguably more Gandhian than Gandhi himself. Periyar condemned violence during the ‘Quit India’ movement in 1942 as well as during the anti-Hindi agitations in Tamil Nadu in 1965. In this instance, his reasoning was that once Nehru himself had given an assurance to Kamaraj of the continuance of English, an assurance further reiterated by Lal Bahadur Shastri, a violent agitation involving the deaths of ordinary men, police personnel and the destruction of public property was unjustified. In 1968, he made a blanket condemnation of violence irrespective of the parties involved in the Kilvenmani killings. However, there is no evidence to show that he was on the side of the landlord. On the contrary, apart from his refusal to see the criminal landlord who sought an audience with him, some of his followers violated his norms of nonviolence to kill the perpetrator of the killings.  

It must be put on record that Periyar accepted the invitation of All India Radio to appeal to the people to remain calm in order to prevent any violence against Brahmins that might have broken out in Tamil Nadu following Gandhi’s assassination (as it did in certain regions of Maharashtra). It must also be remembered that Periyar’s demand for proportional representation in education and employment was inclusive of the Brahmins and never meant to deny them their socially just share.

Kalyan Raman also argues that since Tamil Nadu registers the highest incidence of caste atrocities (though no data has been presented for this), it is clear that Periyar and his followers have failed. This contention is as fallacious as saying that despite Uttar Pradesh having had a Dalit chief minister thrice, atrocities on Dalits have not abated.

The same argument can be made about Ambedkar in the context of violence against Dalits in Maharashtra, his birthplace. Interestingly, the two writers – while commenting on violence against Dalits in Tamil Nadu – make no mention of the contemporary flowering of Dalit literary and other creative output in the state. Do such works remain unseeable?

Periyar addressed the caste question from the realm of his lived experience and on the basis of empirical evidence. He described the task of annihilating caste as an attempt to climb a steep mountain with one’s legs in the air. He never laid claims to any grand theories but, on more than one occasion, admired Ambedkar’s genius and accepted him as his own leader. He never had any illusion about his work, which he likened to ‘pulling a mountain with a single hair on the head’. It is left to successive generations to address the caste question with even more intellectual acumen and decisive actions.

Punitha Pandiyan is a leading journalist and writer, and editor of Dalit Murasu

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  • Anjan Basu

    A fascinating debate, one that has great topical interest, too. My sympathies tend to incline to the case made here by Punitha Pandyan, rather than to the two other scholars who mounted a blistering attack on Periyar in The Wire’s columns lately. But I have two questions for Punitha. One is about Periyar’s anti-colononialism or the lack of it. Against the suggestion that Periyar was NOT against colonialism, Punitha merely quotes Ambedkar with the intention to show that Ambedkar was virtually on the same page as Periyar on this matter. Was Periyar, then, against England’s colonisation of India? I would like to know that for sure. — My second question, or rather reservation, is about the unequivocal statement being made in Punitha’s article — and also being ascribed to Ambedkar — that casteism is the root of ‘all evil’ in Indian society. Punitha even goes on to quote Ambedkar where he says that the ‘servile classes’ do not seek ‘amelioration’ of their poverty and other economic deprivations, that they are solely concerned about their the social inequalities stacked up against them. It seems to be an extraordinary position to take. How can we overlook class divisions and the economic exploitation of the poor and the marginalised that arises inevitably out of class society? There is no doubt that casteism further aggravates the deprivations of the poor, also that casteism has a life ( a sinister life) of its own, but to claim that caste is all that matters while fundamental economic inequalities are all secondary issues is, to my mind, a huge fallacy. Worse, it is an obnoxious over-simplification of the structures of inequality ruling all unequal societies.

  • Anjan Basu

    Thank you for your intervention! I am appalled by my own ignorance of Periyar and his legacy. But when you quote from the proceedings of the 1916 conference, do you mean Periyar was also a part of that conference, if not its leading light? On another level, isn’t it true that ALL Indian political formations, the Congress included, have at times tended to look up to the British empire as benevolent, as a unifying force in the Indian context? So the more relevant question would be if Periyar’s view of the British rule later evolved into a more progressive one, or did he stay stuck in his anti-Brahminism alone?

  • Vinayagam

    Nicely written article. I enjoyed reading it.

  • Cartman san

    Brilliant article!

  • The Wire

    The following response to Punitha Pandiyan’s article was submitted by Kalyan Raman, and is being published in full:

    “At the outset, I would like to clear up a few minor points related to Mr. Punitha Pandiyan article above.

    First: it is not my chosen mode of discourse to vilify or celebrate any iconic political figure. For me, the purpose of political discourse is to understand and analyse the social reality of the past and the present, and arrive thereby at a programme of political action for social change. Needless to say, important thinkers of the past will have their due place in this process, including as points of departure.

    Second: I, too, would like to contextualise Periyar, but in the present instead of the past. To me, justifying his limitations and methods by empathising with his historical moment is a pointless exercise. The past is another country and none of us should be forced to live there. We should take the past into account only insofar as it has led to the conditions of the present.

    That said, the three main pitfalls that I’ve pointed out in Periyar’s declared ideology remain unaddressed.

    Ideology that ignores the present

    The existence and functioning of caste in our society cannot be attributed solely to the Brahmin. Caste exists because it affords certain classes privileges and modes of exploitation over certain other classes. All the classes which access this privilege and benefit from the exploitation are guilty of perpetuating caste.

    The Brahmin was never the sole hegemon in caste society. Caste dominance has always been the result of collusion between multiple hegemonic caste groups.

    If we consider present-day Tamilnadu, it is still a casteist society. Under the rule of Dravidian parties, Tamils have successfully imported caste into secular, modern institutions such as political parties, organs of the state, educational institutions and so forth. Are Periyar’s core propositions about the Brahmins valid for this society? Obviously not. What use is a political ideology like Periyarism, whose validity is predicated on turning a blind eye to the present? For all their political fervour, Periyarists rarely offer a critical perspective on the caste-based alignments and antagonisms that are an egregious feature of social life in Tamilnadu today.

    As an aside, the passage quoted from Ambedkar by Mr. Punitha Pandyan is not applicable to the Tamil country and elseewhere in India, where the Brahmins certainly did not have a monopoly on knowledge. In Tamilnadu, Vellalars, a Tamil landowning caste, have been accomplished poets since the early Bhakti period. Kamban, who wrote the Tamil version of the Ramayanam in the early 13th century, was a Vellalar. The entire textual culture of Tamil was preserved and transmitted through the centuries by scholars of the Vellalar community. This is evidence enough that Brahmin-Shudra binary, as propounded by activists like Periyar, is not always an adequate guide to the understanding of the social history of caste. Ambedkar, too, was always categorical in his assertion that no savarna caste could ever be exempt from the taint of caste oppression against the Dalits

    Inferiorization as the main political issue for Dalits?

    “It was not Periyar who made me a Dalit but Brahmanical Hinduism.”

    While the oppression of Dalits has always been a material phenomenon, Brahmanical Hinduism is an abstraction. Caste oppression consists of perpetually ongoing exclusion, discrimination, subjugation, exploitation, coercion and violence, all of which require human agency and complicity on a wide scale. It would be more accurate to say that Dalits are created and oppressed by the entire caste Hindu society. But, astonishingly, Mr. Punitha Pandiyan privileges “inferiorization” of an arriviste Dalit over all the other injustices that Dalits routinely face, perhaps because that’s the only complaint Dalits could possibly have in common with the landlords, their primary oppressors, against the Brahmins. Such is the price to be paid by Dalits for being part of the Periyarist “secular non-Brahman project”. It deflects the Dalits from their true political mission, which is to liberate themselves from the shackles of the entire caste Hindu society and claim their due share of power and resources.

    Failure of the Periyarist project

    Since the DMK’s ascendancy to power, the Dravidian parties have systematically marginalised Dalits both within the party and the structure of governance at all levels. In rural Tamilnadu, Dalits do not have safe access to public spaces and routes. They have highly restricted access to public resources. I have personally heard Thol Thirumavalavan, VCK leader, attest to these conditions in various speeches around the time of TN Assembly elections in March-April, 2016

    These conditions are perpetrated by the very people – ruling coalition of certain OBC caste groups – who are endlessly serenaded by Periyarists as the finest flowering of “social justice” of the Periyarist kind. Since they have turned the State machinery into a brutal instrument for extraction of surplus from the public and since their caste prejudice, fuelled by the arrogance of power, is rigid beyond redemption, the condition of Dalits appears to be fairly hopeless under this dispensation.
    To this extent, the Periyarist project has certainly failed. To repeat myself acknowledgment of this failure is an essential pre-condition for forging a more progressive anti-caste politics in the state.

    Dalit literature

    I am indeed familiar with the flowering of Dalit literature, particularly of independent writers like Raj Gowthaman, Poomani, Sivakami, Cho Dharman, ND Rajkumar and Sukirtharani, both as a reader and a translator. Dalit narratives and memoirs supply the social history that has been obscured by the Periyarist din. In nearly all of them, the role of the landowning caste as the vanguard of caste oppression in the rural hinterland is portrayed vividly. In fact, it is the Dravidian/Periyarist establishment which has carefully avoided according due recognition to these independent voices and worldviews. The events and social conditions described in these narratives seldom find a place in Periyarist discourse.

    A fascist idea

    One final word about the exhortation to “Brahmin intellectuals”. The very notion that a person can only be a representative of the community into which he is born is a fascist idea. The vision of a casteless future is predicated on the possibility of a secular discourse based on universal values that transcend narrow caste interests. I am proud to speak for that possibility. Evidently, it is not a part of the political objectives of the Periyarist cult, which has always been casteist in its own way.
    ‘A revolution endures in the blood and sinew of the people who live and practise it every day and not in the sanctity of the original idea,’ wrote the American writer Norman Mailer in his Pulitzer-winning classic of New Journalism, The Armies of the Night (1969). By that token, the Periyarist “revolution” became moribund a long time ago.