Questioning Periyar Is Necessary for Forging a Progressive Anti-Caste Politics

The caste system has always been based on collusion between multiple hegemonic forces. Periyar failed to recognise that.

Periyar (R) with DMK founder C.N. Annadurai. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Periyar (R) with DMK founder C.N. Annadurai. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

recent article in The Wire on Periyar by writer P.A. Krishnan received a response from two social scientists, Karthick Ram Manoharan and S. Anandhi. I believe that Krishnan’s criticism of certain aspects of Periyar’s political discourse was not aimed at disfiguring (or dressing up) the image of a long-deceased political leader. Rather, it sought to correct a few serious fallacies in Periyar’s discourse based on historical facts, towards forging a healthy and truly progressive politics addressing the enduring malaise of caste oppression in Tamil Nadu.

Targeting Brahmins as a community

There is enough and more evidence in Periyar’s collected works to establish that on the pretext of opposing Brahmin hegemony, he did indulge in hate-mongering against the Brahmins, which included women as well. Manoharan and Anandhi wisely refrain from addressing this issue directly.

The fact is, right from the 1920s, “Brahmin hegemony”, as alleged, could be rolled back through political means. And with the coming of independence and universal adult franchise in a state with 65-70% OBC share of the population and Brahmins a mere 3%, the “hegemony” was dismantled in no time. There was never any compelling need for hate-mongering of the Periyar kind. Unfortunately, it is one element of his legacy which has endured to this day, even after 50 years of rule by the two major Dravidian parties.

If Periyarists were truly progressive and liberal, they would concede that what Periyar did consistently for over four decades was undesirable and wrong, and declare that such hate-mongering against specific communities should have no place in the politics of the present. Otherwise there would be nothing to distinguish their ideology from the anti-Muslim bigotry of Hindutva fanatics. There is no such thing as a superior, more benign and progressive variety of communal prejudice and racialist abuse. It’s all the same poison, even if it is spewed by Periyar.

Claims of Brahmin “hegemony”

It is commonly understood that ownership of productive assets, access to finance capital through ownership of banks, leadership of state agencies and institutions, community networks and now, ownership of mass media outlets are factors that determine the social hegemony of a class or a community of people. But this broad concept of material hegemony was jettisoned by Periyar in favour of a polemic that was as removed from conceptual soundness as it was from the existing social reality. So for the past 100 years, only the Justice Party memorandum of 1917 protesting the preponderance of Tamil Brahmins in certain government posts is being quoted as evidence in support of Brahmin “hegemony”. Rigorous studies of Tamil society of that period suggest otherwise. This is from Eugene F. Irschick’s Politics and Social Conflict in South India: The Non-Brahman movement and Tamil Separatism 1916-1929:

At the start of the twentieth century, the great landholding caste groups in Madras were the Vellalas in the Tamil areas, the Balija Naidus in both the Telugu and Tamil districts, and the Kammas and Reddis in the Telugu districts. Both Telugu and Tamil Brahmans also had sizable landholdings, however. No complete statistics of landholdings by caste are available for the early years of the twentieth century in Madras presidency, but of a total Tamil Brahman work force of 35,450 males in 1911, some 11,155 derived income from land. The large landowners, particularly the zamindars, and the main peasant groups were all non-Brahman caste Hindus. Census figures on factory ownership in 1911 indicate that here, too, non-Brahmans—mainly Balija Naidus, Vellalas, Kapus, Nattukottai Chettis, and Komatis—were far ahead of the Brahmans.

Clearly, there were other groups just as powerful as the Brahmins. Besides, equating the preponderance of Brahmins in government posts under the British for a limited period (1900-1920) to “a monopoly over the state apparatus” is plain fabrication. The “preponderance” was only temporary and a result of the unusually high rate of literacy among Tamil and Telugu Brahmin males of that period, an imbalance which was corrected in due course. Therefore, the concept of hegemony appears baseless. As Krishnan points out, from 1920 to 1967, the year in which the DMK came to power, Tamil Nadu was ruled by a Brahmin chief minister for only four years. By 1962, the Tamil Nadu legislative assembly had less than 10% Brahmin members.

B.R. Ambedkar and Periyar in 1954. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

B.R. Ambedkar and Periyar in 1954. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Nor was it true that Brahmins were the sole beneficiaries of British rule. Non-Brahmin upper castes, particularly the landowning Mudaliars and Pillais, were very much a part of the British-Indian bureaucracy. Nearly all the zamindars, with rights over large estates granted by the British, were non-Brahmins. Many among the top echelons of the Justice Party were close to British rulers and received titles and honours.

Given that Periyar’s polemic about Brahmin hegemony dates back to the pre-independence period, one would expect social scientists to incorporate new knowledge and concepts that have become available since then to ascertain the validity of the claim of Brahmin hegemony. Nothing of the kind has happened in a partisan climate that values prejudice over all else.

Instead, Manoharan and Anandhi write:

Periyar polemically attacked the ritual status of the Brahmin: the privileges the Hindu religion bestows upon him, his caste purity, his role in maintaining caste hierarchy, his role in engendering patriarchy and his monopoly over the state apparatus. Brahmanism as an ideology was embodied in the agent of the Brahmin and an emancipatory politics was impossible without dislodging Brahmin overrepresentation in the public sphere.

First: caste privileges, caste purity and maintenance of caste hierarchy are not exclusive to the Brahmins. They are shared widely by other dominant castes. ‘Engendering patriarchy’ is such an odd, possibly-meaningless phrase. We have already talked about “monopoly over the state apparatus”. The last proposition is falsified by history. There is no Brahmin overrepresentation in the public sphere now, but casteism is rampant at all levels of society in Tamil Nadu, which consistently reports the highest number of atrocities against Dalits.

We can only conclude that the actual structure of caste society and the dynamics of caste in various contexts have been misunderstood and misrepresented. Simply repeating Periyar’s exaggerated claim in 2017 is to blindly perpetuate such misrepresentation.

Periyar with Jinnah and Ambedkar. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Periyar with Jinnah and Ambedkar. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

‘The Brahmin is the root of caste. To eradicate caste, we must eradicate the Brahmin’

This statement is by Periyar aimed at justifying the identification of Brahmins as the exclusive target of his anti-caste polemic. How true is this statement? Is the Brahmin to be held solely, or even primarily, responsible for engendering caste, spreading it in the rest of society and sustaining it? Neither Periyar nor Periyarists have ever had a proper, rigorously-argued justification for this evidently irrational statement. Let us turn to social scientists for some light on the question.

In his 1916 paper ‘Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development‘, B.R. Ambedkar categorically states his view on the role of the Brahmin in the spread and growth of the caste system:

The spread and growth of the Caste system is too gigantic a task to be achieved by the power or cunning of an individual or of a class. Similar in argument is the theory that the Brahmins created the Caste. After what I have said regarding Manu, I need hardly say anything more, except to point out that it is incorrect in thought and malicious in intent. The Brahmins may have been guilty of many things, and I dare say they were, but the imposing of the caste system on the non-Brahmin population was beyond their mettle. They may have helped the process by their glib philosophy, but they certainly could not have pushed their scheme beyond their own confines. To fashion society after one’s own pattern! How glorious! How hard! One can take pleasure and eulogize its furtherance; but cannot further it very far.

We know that caste society is made up of different castes and sub-castes, each maintaining itself through practising endogamy (marrying within the community). Each caste polices its own boundary and protects it against transgression through (threats of) coercion and/or violence. How could such a widely distributed, self-organising phenomenon be propagated and sustained by a single community? What coercive power did they have to compel so many people from without to adopt a set of stringent caste rules? Periyar’s statement on Brahmins being the root of caste is patently absurd.

Why, then, do the different caste-based communities maintain and sustain the caste system? At the top layer, it is to maintain one’s privileges and the ability exploit others lower down the hierarchy. At the intermediate layer it is for self-preservation and maintenance of superiority over those at the very bottom. At the bottom layer, comprising Dalits and Adivasis, maintenance of caste is essential for survival. Any attempt to transgress boundaries would invite violence.

Running through this social structure is the odious principle of Brahmanism, which Ambedkar describes as follows:

By Brahmanism I do not mean the power, privileges and interests of Brahmins as a community. That is not the sense in which I am using the word. By Brahmanism I mean the negation of the spirit of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. In that sense it is rampant in all classes and is not confined to the Brahmins alone though they have been the originators of it. This Brahmanism which pervades everywhere and which regulated the thoughts and deeds of all classes is an incontrovertible fact. It is also incontrovertible fact that these Brahmanism gives certain classes a privileged position. It denies a certain other classes even equality of opportunity.

It follows from the above that Periyar’s equation of Brahmanism with the Brahmins is false and wilfully dishonest.

Landowning castes in Tamil Nadu

A statue of Periyar in front of the Periyar University building. Credit: Chinchu.c CC BY-SA 4.0

A statue of Periyar in front of the Periyar University building. Credit: Chinchu.c CC BY-SA 4.0

In his study of caste, M.N. Srinivas shows how a landowner in rural areas is in a patron-client relationship with tenants, labourers, artisans and members of servicing castes. Since each category, including the landowner, forms a hereditary caste group, landowners play a major role in maintaining the caste system locally, aligned to local demographics. It is further noted that the power and prestige which landowning castes command affect their relations with all castes, including those ritually higher.

Tamil Nadu is home to a set of landowning castes which have, between them, owned most of the arable land in the state for centuries, based on brutal and sustained exploitation of the labour of Dalits and, in a different way, the intermediate castes. The caste system was to pre-modern agriculture in Tamil country as slavery was to the plantation economy in the American South. Yet, this material vanguard of casteism was not given a prominent place in Periyar’s anti-caste rhetoric. Notwithstanding their bloody history of caste oppression, to Manoharan and Anandhi in 2017, the landowning castes are naturally a part of Periyar’s “secular non-Brahmin project.”

Finally, the caste system has always been based on collusion between multiple hegemonic forces. No single caste can shore up the caste system by itself at any given moment in history. In Tamil Nadu, the landowning Vellalars and Brahmins had been in a collusive relationship of cooperation and competition for more than 1,000 years. There is no trace of this relationship in Periyar’s discourse. Instead, he uses the term Sudra to claim verbal victimhood for the landowning castes as well.

All three problems discussed above show that Periyar’s anti-caste polemic suffered from serious misconceptions and omissions, which is why it hasn’t succeeded in eradicating caste and why it never will. It falls to us in the present day (including Periyarists) to develop a true understanding of our social history and reality in terms of caste and to address it more honestly and effectively than Periyar was able to. Invoking thinkers such as Frantz Fanon and Antonio Gramsci from completely dissimilar contexts to shore up Periyar’s crude methods and lapses is ultimately pointless and helps no one, especially not the Dalits who are still being marginalised and oppressed by Periyar’s “secular” non-Brahmin coalition.

The question of intermediate castes

The conflict between the intermediate castes of Tamil Nadu and Dalit communities has a long and bloody history, but it has never appeared prominently in Periyarist discourse. As far as Periyar was concerned, the intermediate castes were also part of the “secular non-Brahman project” to dislodge Brahmin hegemony and establish what Manoharan and Anandhi call an “emancipatory politics”. Periyar, and the Periyarist movement after him, never tried to address such casteism with censure. The standard Dravida Kazhagam line has been: ‘We non-Brahmans are united and there are no differences among us. These conflicts between the intermediate castes and Dalits are being engineered by the cunning Brahmin. Yes, the Nadars and Maravars do have a casteist attitude towards the Dalits and often indulge in violence. But that’s because the poison that’s been injected by the Brahmin for over 2,000 years takes time to wear out’.

Now it’s even more difficult for any of them to talk about it, because these caste groups are in charge of the state, police and administration. So it’s quite meaningless to say that he was aware of the casteism among the non-Brahman groups. If at all he was, he spent far more time hating on the Brahmins than in attacking non-Brahman casteism. The eradication of caste among the non-Brahmins, except in terms of rhetoric, didn’t claim much of his attention.

Periyar and colonialism

On colonialism, Manoharan and Anandhi state:

Periyar’s conviction was that as bad as British rule was, independent India, under what he believed would be Brahmin rule, would be worse if there were not adequate checks and balances to curtail the dominance of the Brahmin castes.

This may be true, but in 2017, isn’t it possible for Periyarists to say that in independent India, his non-Brahman constituency came to power through the universal adult franchise that was brought in by the very same Brahmin castes that he was suspicious of, something that wasn’t available as long as the British were in power. Isn’t it time, comrades, to admit that Periyar was mistaken in his conviction?

The democratic revolution

According to the 2011 census, Tamil Nadu has the highest OBC share of state population in the country (70.8%). The figure may be exaggerated due to false registration and is actually probably around 65%. It’s the balance between OBC and others (upper castes + minorities) in terms of share of the population that determines the dominant political formation in any state, not any inherent revolutionary tendencies. Tamil Nadu achieved OBC reign sooner than others because certain OBC castes were highly developed even in the early decades of independence. The revolution through transfer of power to the intermediate castes in Tamil Nadu would have happened through the electoral process at any rate, with or without Periyar.

Now those who were caught on the underside of that revolution, the Dalit groups and the serving castes at the lower end of the OBC category, are still waiting for a version of ‘emancipatory politics’ to redeem them. To claim perfection, infallibility and all-encompassing nobility of intent for Periyar and his discourse at this stage, backed by a dominant political formation, may indefinitely put that post-revolutionary politics on hold. It’s this danger which makes it imperative now to examine and debate Periyar’s discourse honestly and dispassionately. Both sides of the debate are of course aware, in their own way, of what lies at stake.

N. Kalyan Raman is a Chennai-based translator of contemporary Tamil fiction and poetry.