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Caste

Periyar Lalai Baudh: The Unsung Hero of the Anti-Caste Movement in North India

A true Ambedkarite and Periyarist, his work, activism and translations are priceless in India's equality movement.

Periyar Lalai Baudh was a policeman, a playwright, a translator, a publisher, and above all, a fierce anti-caste activist who dedicated his life to spreading the message of Ambedkarism, Periyarism and Buddhism among the oppressed north India.

Periyar Lalai Baudh was born on September 1, 1911, in Kathara village near Jhinjhak railway station in Kanpur Dehat district of Uttar Pradesh. He belonged to the Yadav community, classified as an Other Backward Class (OBC) in India. He received his primary education in his village and later joined the armed police force of Gwalior state in Madhya Pradesh, in 1933 as a constable. However, he was dismissed after two years for supporting the Congress party’s struggle for independence, which was considered a crime by the British government. He appealed against his dismissal and was reinstated later.

He founded the Non-Gazetted Employees Union of Police and Army in Gwalior in 1946 to raise the issues of police personnel facing exploitation and discrimination by the higher authorities. He also wrote a book titled Sipahi Ki Tabahi (‘The Destruction of a Soldier’) in 1946, which exposed the corruption and oppression in the British police and army. The book was not published but was typed and distributed among soldiers. However, it was confiscated by the Inspector General of the Army when he came to know about it.

In the same year, he also organised a strike among the ranks of the Gwalior police and army, demanding better wages and working conditions. He was arrested on March 29, 1947, and charged with sedition and conspiracy. He was sentenced to five years of rigorous imprisonment. He spent nine months in jail until he was released on January 12, 1948, after India’s independence and the merger of Gwalior state with the Indian Union.

Encounter with Ambedkarism and Periyarism

Periyar Lalai’s life changed when he came across the writings and speeches of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, the leader of the Dalit movement and the chief architect of the Indian constitution. He was deeply impressed by Ambedkar’s analysis of caste, religion, democracy, and human rights. He became an ardent follower of Ambedkar and started propagating his ideas among his fellow policemen and villagers. He also joined the Scheduled Castes Federation (SCF), the political party founded by Ambedkar in 1942.

Periyar Lalai Baudh also eventually learned about Periyar E.V. Ramasamy, the leader of the Dravidian movement and the founder of the Self-Respect Movement in South India. He was inspired by Periyar’s critique of Brahminism, Hinduism, and Aryanism. He admired Periyar’s rationalism, atheism, feminism, and social justice agenda and decided to translate Periyar’s works from Tamil to Hindi to make them accessible to the north Indian audience. He translated Periyar’s The Key To Understanding True Ramayan as Sachi Ramayan Ki Chabi in 1959. This book exposed the Brahminical distortions and fabrications in the Ramayana and presented Rama as a villain and Ravana as a hero. It also questioned the authority and authenticity of the Vedas, Puranas, Smritis, and other Hindu scriptures.

As is well known, Ambedkarism and Periyarism are social and political philosophies that emerged in India in the 20th century. They are named after their respective founders, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar and E.V. Ramasamy Periyar. 

Also read: Why Do Dravidian Intellectuals Admire a Man as Prickly as Periyar?

Both Ambedkarism and Periyarism are based on the principles of equality, liberty, fraternity, and dignity for all human beings. They both reject the authority and authenticity of the Hindu scriptures that justify the caste system and its associated practices, such as untouchability, endogamy, and ritual pollution. They both advocate for the emancipation of the socially oppressed by abolishing Hinduism and adopting alternative religions or ideologies that respect human rights and values. They both strive for political empowerment and representation of the marginalized sections of society through democratic means.

Social activism and struggles

Periyar Lalai’s translation of Periyar’s True Ramayan created a massive uproar among the Hindu fundamentalists and ‘upper’ castes. They accused him of hurting their religious sentiments and demanded a ban on his book. They also filed a case against him under Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which deals with deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings.

Periyar Lalai faced harassment, threats, and violence from his opponents. His printing press was attacked, and the police confiscated his books. He had to fight a long legal battle to defend his right to free speech and expression.

He also faced opposition from some of his caste fellows loyal to the Congress party. He was critical of Bahujan leaders for being a puppet of the ‘upper’ castes and for betraying the cause of the oppressed masses. He also denounced Bahujan leaders like Ramdhan Pasi and Motiram Kori for being subservient to Brahminism and urged the Dalits and OBCs to unite under Ambedkarism and Periyarism.

Literary and cultural contributions

Periyar Lalai was a prolific writer. However, he wrote everything intending to raise anti-caste consciousness among the masses. He was one of the first ones to publish Ambedkar’s speeches in Hindi and ran printing presses such as Ashok Press, Sasta Press, and Periyar Press. He published books, pamphlets, magazines, and newspapers on various topics related to caste, religion, politics, economics, history, culture, and education.

Some of his notable publications are: Baman Vadi Rajya Mein Shoshito Par Rajnaitik Dakaiti (1962), a book on the political and economic exploitation of the oppressed by the Brahminical state. Buddha Ki Drishti Mein Ishwar, Brahma Aur Atma (1978) is a book on the Buddhist philosophy of no god, no soul, and no self.

Also read: While Celebrating Ambedkar as a ‘National Hero’, We Must Not Forget His Central Thesis

Dr. Ambedkar Boudhha Kyon Bane (1978), a book on the reasons and significance of Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism.

The play Shanbhuk Vadh (1964) is based on the myth of Sambuk’s murder. It is a story that is found in the Uttara Kanda; according to this story, Rama, the king of Ayodhya, killed a shudra ascetic named Shambuka for performing tapas (austerities), which was against the rules of dharma (duty) for his caste. This act of Rama was supposed to restore the balance of the cosmic order and revive a Brahmin son who had died due to Shambuka’s transgression.

However, this story has been criticised and rejected by many scholars and thinkers as an interpolation and a fabrication that was created to justify the caste system and Brahminical domination. Some of the prominent critics of this story are Rabindranath Tagore, B.R. Ambedkar, and Kuvempu. They have challenged the validity and morality of this story and have offered alternative interpretations and perspectives on it. They have also used this story as a basis for their critique of Brahmanism and the Varna system.

The play Eklavya (1965) is on the famous myth of Eklavya. It is a story from the Indian epic Mahabharata, which tells the tale of a young tribal prince who aspired to become an archer under the guidance of Guru Dronacharya, the royal teacher of the Kuru princes. However, he was rejected by the Guru because of his low caste and social status. Undeterred, Eklavya made a clay statue of Dronacharya and practiced archery in front of it, considering the statue as his Guru. He became so skilled that he surpassed Arjuna, the best archer among the Kuru princes and the favorite student of Dronacharya. When Dronacharya learned of this, he asked Eklavya to give him his right thumb as a Guru Dakshina (a gift of gratitude to the teacher), knowing it would cripple his archery. Eklavya, out of devotion and respect, willingly cut off his thumb and offered it to Dronacharya. The story of Eklavya is often seen as an example of loyalty, sacrifice, and self-learning.

Periyar Lalai viewed Eklavya’s story as a tragedy of social injustice and discrimination.

The play Angulimala (1966) is based on the myth of Angulimal. It is a story from the Buddhist scriptures of a blood-thirsty murderer who lived when the Buddha walked the earth. He was known for the garland of fingers he severed from his victims and wore around his neck. His name means “finger necklace” in Pali.

He was initially a brilliant student named Ahimsaka, but his jealous classmates tricked him into believing he had to collect a thousand human fingers to graduate from his teacher. He became a ruthless killer, terrorising the people and the king. He encountered the Buddha when he collected most of the fingers and decided to make Buddha his final victim. However, he could not catch up with the Buddha, who calmly told him to stop harming others. The Buddha’s words moved Angulimal, and threw away his weapons, following him to the monastery, where he became a monk.

Also read: What Dr Ambedkar’s ‘Who Were the Shudras?’ Tells Us About the Sacred Books of Hinduism

He faced many difficulties and dangers as a monk, as people still hated him for his past deeds. He also had to endure the consequences of his actions, such as being stoned and beaten by angry mobs. However, he remained patient and faithful to the Buddha’s teachings and eventually attained enlightenment. Buddhists see him as a symbol of spiritual transformation and the power of compassion.

Apart from these plays, Periyar Lalai also wrote poems, songs, slogans, and dialogues to inspire and mobilise the masses. He used simple and colloquial language to communicate his message effectively. He also organised cultural programmes, rallies, conferences, and camps to spread awareness and education among the people. He invited prominent leaders and thinkers like Dalai Lama, A.R. Akela, Ramswaroop Verma, Kanshi Ram, and others to address his gatherings. 

Conversion to Buddhism

Periyar Lalai was an Ambedkarite Buddhist who renounced Hinduism and embraced Buddhism in 1967, along with thousands of other Dalits and OBCs. Following Ambedkar, he adopted Buddhism as a way of life that offered equality, liberty, fraternity, and dignity to all human beings. He removed the word ‘Yadav’ from his name and replaced it with Baudh (Buddhist). He did this to express his rejection of caste identity and his affirmation of human identity. He also wanted to inspire others to do the same. He said: “I am not a Yadav. I am a human being. I am a Buddhist. I have no caste. I have no religion. I have only one dharma – humanity.”

He wrote extensively on Buddhism.

Periyar Lalai died on February 7, 1993 at the age of 81. He left behind a rich legacy of anti-caste literature and activism that inspired generations of Dalits, OBCs, and other marginalised groups in north India. He was one of the pioneers of the Bahujan movement that sought to unite all oppressed castes under a common identity and agenda. He was also one of the unsung heroes of the Dalit-Bahujan literature that challenged the hegemony of Brahminical literature and culture.

Periyar Lalai’s life and work are still relevant today as India continues to grapple with the issues of caste discrimination, religious intolerance, social injustice, and human rights violations. His writings and speeches provide a powerful critique of Brahmanism and Hindutva and a positive vision of an egalitarian and democratic society based on Ambedkarism, Periyarism, and Buddhism.

Periyar Lalai deserves more recognition and appreciation for his courageous and creative contributions to the anti-caste movement in North India. He should be remembered as a true Periyarist and follower of Periyar’s motto: “Be not afraid; Be not ashamed.

Dr Sandeep Yadav is a University Gold Medalist in PG. He has been teaching english as an Associate Professor in SLC(E) at the University of Delhi for the last 15 years. He has been a permanent faculty member at the Central University of Jharkhand for four years. He has published many books, among which ओबीसी और भारत has a consistent best seller. Yadav is a social activist.