Caste

Remembering Rettamalai Srinivasan, the Lasting Emblem of Dalit Political Aspiration

The reformer, editor and social justice warrior who passed away on this day in 1945 walked the talk when it came to securing justice for Dalits in Tamil Nadu and India.

Tamil Nadu has always been distinctive.

It was a pioneer in introducing reformative and socially progressive thoughts into the modern Indian political discourse. Parties in power, beginning from the Justice Party, and then on to Congress and the Dravidian parties have all inherited theses ideals and attempted to govern the state in accordance with these principles.

Interestingly, Dalits were the first to plant the seed of social and political reformation in the then Madras presidency. They were the trailblazers in introducing progressive social justice thoughts as early as the second half of the 19th century into the political discourse of the day, which still continues to reverberate in modern Tamil Nadu politics.

But these facts do not find a place in history books (written in English or Tamil) covering modern Tamil Nadu. The Dalit leaders who spearheaded these reformative movements also do not get adequate recognition. Rettamalai Srinivasan (1860-1945) is one such leader.

Today is his death anniversary.

Srinivasan, along with Dalit leader M.C. Raja, played an important role at an all-India level too. They were recognised and respected by Dalit political organisations in other presidencies as well.

Srinivasan was among the few reformers who kept uo dialogues with both Gandhi and Ambedkar. Photo: By special arrangement

Though Srinivasan’s major work centred around the upliftment of Dalits, his contributions helped in the social reformation of the who of Tamil society in no small measure. This was so because Dalits were the first to start newspapers and socio-political organisations in the Madras presidency. Having encountered modernity, and thus progressive European ideas, much earlier than other communities, they used every opportunity to spread them through their periodicals and political meetings. Thus, they were the first to launch a direct attack on the caste system.

Srinivasan, who actively participated in the political process in the presidency, and later at the national level, was born in 1860 in Kozhiyalam, a small village in the outskirts of Madras city. Thanks to the trading relations his father Rettamalai had with the British, his family was economically self-sufficient, and could afford to send him to a residential school in Coimbatore.

He was the only Dalit student among the 400 pupils in the school. He then worked as an accountant at Ooty which was then the summer capital of the Madras presidency. Ooty was brimming with Dalit political activism then and Srinivasan grew interested.

In the background of the social upheaval happening all around during the colonial administration, it became necessary for him to highlight the position of the oppressed communities to the administrators. It was during this important period that Srinivasan made immense contributions in the socio-political space.

He forged contacts with high ranking officials in the government and various other important individuals of the time. His brief relationship with Colonel Henry Olcot and Madamme Blavatsky, founders of the Theosophical Society, seems to have influenced him in the initial years. However, he had joined their Yoganubha Sangh and left it soon. 

Madras

Srinivasan’s work during 1890s centred around Madras city. There were many active Dalit organisations, and a number of periodicals run by Dalits in Madras during this period. Comparatively speaking, unlike Dalits, no other community, except Brahmins, seemed to have engaged in active politics then. Each of these Dalit organisations followed different ideologies and approached the Dalit question in a way that was quite different from others. These groups engaged in heated debates not with just upper caste groups, but amongst themselves too regarding the new emerging identities around caste, religion, political representation and caste names. 

From 1890, for three years, Srinivasan collected historical records and evidence to remove the stigma attached to the Tamil caste Paraiyar. He collected information regarding the special treatments they were accorded in temples across Tamil Nadu. During the same period he also worked towards implementing the 1893 government order regarding education for the depressed classes.

Organisation and newspaper

It is in this background that he founded the Paraiyar Mahajana Sabha in 1892 and began the Paraiyan, a periodical in October, 1893. Newspapers served two purposes for a political organisation: to inform the government of the aspirations and demands of the people it represents and politicise people by having a dialogue with them. Colonial administration in modern India depended on print culture and relied heavily on written material as evidence.

Sensing this, Dalits used print media to the maximum. The first known Dalit newspaper was Suryodhayam (1869). In the next 20 years, there were number of journals run by Dalits; Panchaman, Dravida Pandian, Mahavikata Thoothan, Boologavyasan and Paraiyan, to name a few.

Paraiyan is the name of an oppressed community in Tamil Nadu. When debates were happening around the use of the term for a paper, many called it derogatory, yet Srinivasan stuck to it. Thanks to the considerable political consciousness among Dalits then, the newspaper was a success. Within two days of its launch, it sold over 400 copies. Within three months, the paper, which began as a monthly, turned into a weekly. Paraiyan was published continuously for seven years but not a single issue of it survives.

The paper was published as the official newspaper of the Paraiyar Mahajana Sabha. It carried reports on Sabha activities. Readers sent in their grievances to the newspaper too.

Some of them were published in the newspaper, thus bringing them to the notice of the government. Many of the reported grievances were addressed by the government. Similarly, conferences conducted by the oppressed communities on land, education and so on, and resolutions passed in these conferences were reported upon.

The Paraiyar Mahajana Sabha had sought schools for Dalits, and when these schools came up, the paper brought to the notice of the government the problems faced by students from caste Hindu teachers in these schools.

Amidst the frequent reporting, Collector James Tremenheere made sure to allot 12 lakh acres of land to Dalits. These were called ‘Panchami Lands’. When the brahminical newspaper Swadesamitran complained about the Collector’s alleged favouritism towards Dalits, Paraiyan issued a scathing rebuttal to Swadesamitran’s casteist diatribe.

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It also pointed out that instead of speaking of caste inequities in the society, and formulating action plans to remove the barriers, the Congress is only after representation in governance for Brahmins. In more or less during the same period that Indian nationalism was emerging as an idea, Srinivasan labelled it a thought propounded by Hindu upper castes to establish a Hindu nation.

He felt that any self -governance rights demanded by the Congress for the whole of India would only benefit the upper castes. Therefore, he requested the British to provided adequate representation to all communities before transferring any rights to Indians to govern themselves. Thus, a strong foundation was laid by Dalits for the non-Brahmin movements that came up later, and their representation in politics.

It is important to note that it took another 30-40 years for other non-Brahmin communities to raise such demands.

ICS examinations and conflict with nationalism

The British colonial administration had decided to conduct exams in London to select civil servants to serve the British administration in India. But the Congress opposed the move to conduct the examinations in London as it felt this will prevent most Indians from writing the exam.

Srinivasan disapproved of Gandhi’s views on untouchability. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

It petitioned the government to conduct the exams simultaneously in India and London. But Srinivasan felt that conducting exams in India will benefit only upper castes in India, who in turn will enforce further caste disabilities on Dalits. The Paraiyar Mahajana Sabha entreated the government to conduct the exams in London alone.

Their petition was 112-feet-long and had been signed by 3,412 people. The Sabha was keen to show that the oppressors were not the British alone, and the call for freedom could not be unidimensional. For every petition that the Congress made, a petition on behalf for the depressed classes was made by the Sabha. These petitions forced the government to provide representation for Dalits when it later decided to include Indians in the administration.

Conferences

Organising people, advocating amongst them the policy of their political organisation, educating them of their rights and demands, and using the thus collectivised group to pressurise the government to meet their demands are some of the essential features of a modern political organisation.

The depressed classes’ conference organised by Srinivasan at Victoria Hall in 1895 was one the biggest conferences that Madras had seen until then. Also, this was the first time Dalits had organised a meeting inside the prestigious Victoria Hall. He also organised a long march in Chennai on December 6, 1895 to petition the governor Elgin to ameliorate the conditions of the depressed classes.

Paraiyan stopped publishing in 1900 as Srinivasan made plans to go to London. Eventually, however, he spent 20 years in Africa, first in Zanzibar, and then in Natal in South Africa before returning to India. His colleagues continued to run Paraiyar Mahajan Sabha during his absence. 

Also read: Why Caste-Based Wrist Bands in Tamil Nadu’s Schools Must Be Banned

Politics in India had undergone a sea change while Srinivasan was away. Particularly, the Adi-Dravida politics, and the arrival of M.C. Raja in the scene.

B.R. Ambedkar. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Srinivasan was not in complete agreement with B.R. Ambedkar either. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Under the dyarchy system of 1919, in which presidency legislative councils both nominated and elected members, Dalit members were included in the council. Srinivasan was appointed to the Madras presidency legislative council as a nominated member. He introduced a number of bills and actively participated in the debates. His key contribution was the historical legislation to open up public spaces like wells, streets, public buildings to Dalits, and the criminalisation of any prohibition on use of these public facilities by Dalits. This was made into law.

In the early 1930s, Srinivasan participated in the Round Table Conferences along with Dr. B.R. Ambedkar as a representative of the depressed classes. Pursuant to these Conferences, separate electorates were awarded to Dalits. Gandhi opposed the idea of separate electorates for Dalits and went on a fast in the Poona Jail to pressurise the British government to withdraw the award. After prolonged negotiations, Ambedkar and Gandhi’s supporters signed a pact, generally known as the Poona Pact. Srinivasan was one of the signatories to the agreement on behalf of Dalits.

Srinivasan had also worked with Gandhi in South Africa. Though he joined hands with Dr. Ambedkar after 1920, he was in friendly terms with Gandhi until his last days. Srinivasan disapproved of Gandhi’s views on untouchability and even published a small pamphlet in 1920 explaining why the Congress’s methods are wrong. When Gandhi visited Chennai, he along with his supporters rebuked him, and told him that his views on Dalits merely mirrored the commonly held notions against them. This was a dialogue he kept up with Gandhi until the end. 

Also read: ‘I am Tam, But Not Brahm’: My Dalit Experience At BITS, Pilani

It was not as if he agreed entirely with Dr. Ambedkar either. He differed with the latter’s religious conversion idea and opined that Dalits were generally not a part of Hinduism, and therefore there was no need for conversion. Before his stint abroad, Srinivasan gave attention to the political demands of his community, Paraiyars, their history, name, religion, and culture. But after his return he concentrated only on political work. Instead of speaking for a specific community, he now spoke on behalf of the ‘Adi-Dravidars’, a new name given to depressed classes in Tamil Nadu, and later on behalf of the Scheduled Castes, continuously evolving with the changing situations. 

In addition to the Paraiyan newspaper, he published small pamphlets on various issues, like the petitions the Sabha made, and the result of those petitions. These are now testaments to the political aspirations of Dalits in Madras presidency in the second half of the 19th century.

Finally, in 1938. he wrote a short autobiography, titled Jeeviya Sarithira Surukkam (‘A Short History of my Life’) giving us a glimpse of important events in his life and his achievements. This must be the first known biography of a Dalit in Tamil.

Srinivasan passed away on September 18, 1945.

Stalin Rajangam is a Tamil scholar writing on Dalit history. He has written six books on politics, cinema and literature. A. B. Rajasekaran is a Chennai-based lawyer with a deep interest in social history.