Debate: Periyar Offered No Real Solutions to the Caste Evils He Was Fighting

Other than making grand speeches, Periyar did nothing substantial towards the annihilation of castes.

This is the last article in a series debating Periyar and his legacy. You can read the debate here. Readers are welcome to respond in the comments section.

Punitha Pandian’s latest article on Periyar is but a fusillade of whatabouteries.

These are Pandian’s main points:

  1. If Periyar is condemned as a Brahmin-hater, so could be B.R. Ambedkar. If Periyar is condemned as an anti-nationalist, so could be Ambedkar.
  2. I have not said anything in condemnation of the gurus Shakaracharya and M.S. Golwalkar.
  3. The persons who support me come from the Sangh parivar circles.
  4. I have made a statement that ‘education was the only asset the Brahmins possessed’, as if they never had any other material possessions.
  5. There are 17 volumes of Periyar’s writings and speeches devoted solely to the issue of caste and untouchability, running to close to 5,500 pages – Periyar Kalanjiam published by Dravida Kazhagam.
  6. While Periyar was never opposed to giving reservations to Brahmins proportionate to their number, I am silent on the fact that the Brahmin-led Nationalist Congress was not even willing to consider these concessions.
  7. When one talks of Dravida Nadu demand, she/he must also talk of C.P. Ramasamy Iyer’s effort to keep Travancore princedom independent of the Indian Union and also Sarat Chandra Bose’s demand for United Bengal.

My response:

  1. Comparing Periyar and Ambedkar on their approach to Brahmanism is like comparing Mahatma Gandhi and Vinayak Savarkar on their approach to Hinduism. As Pandian himself says, Ambedkar was nuanced in his approach. On the other hand, Periyar was at his crudest when it came to the abuse of Brahmins. Sample this: To a question why the faces of some Brahmins looked peculiar, his answer was, it was because they worshipped Hanuman. On another occasion, he said Brahmins were like cats because of their thieving nature. I can go on and on. We will also do well to remember that no contemporary Dalit movement of consequence propagates the kind of anti-Brahmin sentiment that the Periyarists do without let.

As regards nationalism, Ambedkar never spoke against India; Periyar, from the late 1930s, never spoke for India. That was the crucial difference between them.

  1. If Pandian had read any of my many articles in Tamil, he would not have said this. I have nothing but contempt for the ideology of Golwalkar or the antediluvian views of Shankaracharya. Moreover, this is precisely the whataboutery I am talking about.
  2. I don’t choose the persons who support me. Periyar kept supporting the Congress for 20 years after independence, which did not mean that the Congress was for the vivisection of India, which was what Periyar was demanding in those days.

I have said this once and let me say it again: I am a proud secular democrat. If the abuses I receive from the Periyarists were to be measured in kilos, the abuses I receive from the Hindutva fiends would have to be measured in tonnes. In any case, it is ridiculous to contend that all voices critical of Periyar would be of the Hindutva/BJP variety.

  1. In my very first article, I had said that many Brahmins had land to sell, which they sold for educating their children. However, they were not a predominantly landed community by any means. A majority of the community was engaged in priestly or educational vocations.
  2. Periyar’s writings were principally devoted to wild abuses of Brahmins and crude comments on Hindu mythology. They were no doubts leavened by spectacular tirades against caste and untouchability. I have no doubt that he was genuine in his anger against these twin evils. Unfortunately, he had no practical solutions to counter them, except a few jejune ones. Inter-caste marriage was one such solution that had been flogged beyond death by several others. That Periyar advocated it does not make him an original theorist.

I have a suggestion for the members of the Periyar club. Please come out with an English translation of his collected works. Let the non-Tamil readers read for themselves what he really said.

  1. It is not correct that the Congress was opposed to reservation. In fact, it was the Justice Party which did not go anywhere near implementing reservation. Let me quote Granville Austin again: “After the Congress eclipsed the Justice party in the 1937 elections and later, it made ‘compulsory discrimination’ very much its own policy even while led by Tamil Brahmins like [Chakravarti] Rajagopalachari.”
  2. Though I have also separately written about the perfidy of C.P. Ramaswami Iyer and the naiveté of Sarat Bose during the last days of the freedom movement, there is no reason why they should be brought in while Dravida Nadu is being discussed. Nevertheless, the difference between them and Periyar is that they did repent later but Periyar, until the very end, was against India.

During the freedom movement, the Congress broadly represented the aspirations of all Indians and I consider it is a slur to call it a party of Banias and Brahmins, even if Ambedkar had called it so. It was easy for Ambedkar, Jinnah, Savarkar or Periyar to make sectarian and wholly impractical demands, but the Congress could not afford such luxuries. They had to speak for the entire nation, and what was more, they were straight in the firing line of the British, a fact conveniently ignored by the Congress bashers. Jinnah, as I said in my earlier article, had the support of Muslims. Ambedkar had every right to be bitter. Periyar had neither the support of the people nor any inherent right to be bitter. If caste were to be the sole criterion to determine one’s ideology, we must remember that Periyar too came from a very rich mercantile clan. He also led for some time one of the most reactionary parties of India, the Justice Party. His fight was primarily for the rights of the elitist intermediary castes. It is no accident that he did not lead any temple entry movement in Tamil Nadu. It is also a historical fact that other than making grand speeches, he did nothing substantial towards the annihilation of castes. Yes, he did burn the Indian constitution. If this constitutes a step towards the annihilation of castes, I have nothing more to say.

Even today, it is quite easy for a Periyarist intellectual or an orator of Tamil Nadu to make a racist statement against Brahmins – especially Brahmin women – and get away with it without even a murmur of protest. In all probability, the person will get applauded for his/her effort.

Pandian speaks about political leaders praising Periyar. They surely will. They have clear political agendas. After all, Amit Shah’s newly-found idol is Ambedkar. I am not a politician. I don’t have any agenda.

P.A. Krishnan is an author in both English and Tamil. He regularly contributes to various journals and magazines.

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