Periyar's Detractors Are Misrepresenting His Words

Periyar problematised what freedom meant, who it benefitted and who it excluded. But that doesn't mean he gave a clean chit to colonialism.

Periyar (R) and B.R. Ambedkar. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Periyar (R) and B.R. Ambedkar. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The antagonism of rabid Hindu right-wingers toward Periyar is not surprising and is in fact quite natural. This was after all a man who stood in uncompromising opposition to Brahminical dominance and the Sanskritic Hinduism that he identified as being the root of the former.

Interestingly, some right-wing intellectuals have tried to pit B.R. Ambedkar against Periyar. You have Aravindan Neelakantan, a writer from Tamil Nadu, who identifies Periyar as anti-Indian and Ambedkar as pro-Sanskrit. Subramaniam Swamy believes that Ambedkar should be called a maharishi while dismissing Periyar as a naïve stooge of colonialism. Tamil Nadu’s BJP leader H. Raja, in the wake of the Ambedkar-Periyar study circle controversy in IIT-Madras, praised Ambedkar as a freedom fighter while condemning Periyar as an anti-national and objected to combining their names.

The love of the Hindu right for Ambedkar has several reasons, key being their utilitarian strategy to accommodate Dalits into their fold. But their visceral hatred for Periyar hinges on one crucial aspect of the iconoclastic leader – his criticism of the legitimacy of the Indian state. Periyar and Ambedkar shared a lot of common ground: their advocacy for universal education, women’s rights, annihilation of caste and so on. One could also say that Ambedkar’s criticism and rejection of Hinduism was more theoretically intensive than that of Periyar. Periyar, however, rejected the nation-state and its ideology, either in its ‘secular’ or ‘communal’ manifestations. Hence, Periyar remains untouchable and ‘anti-national’.

Consider these words:

“Hindu society as such does not exist. It is only a collection of castes. […] Indeed the ideal Hindu must be like a rat living in his own hole refusing to have any contact with others. […] There is no Hindu consciousness of kind. In every Hindu the consciousness that exists is the consciousness of his caste. That is the reason why the Hindus cannot be said to form a society or a nation. There are however many Indians whose patriotism does not permit them to admit that Indians are not a nation, that they are only an amorphous mass of people.”

Thoroughly ‘anti-national’ indeed, if one were to go by the standards set by the likes of Swamy and Raja. But these are not Periyar’s words but of Ambedkar, the Dalit icon that the Hindu Right is desperately trying to appropriate. Ambedkar, in his key text Annihilation of Caste, dismisses the claim of Hindus or the Indians to be a homogenous nation. Periyar, who incidentally oversaw the translation and mass distribution of this text of Ambedkar, takes this argument further and advocates the right of self-determination of nations in the subcontinent. His challenge to the legitimacy of the Indian state is something the Right cannot tolerate.

However, it is not just those like Swamy  who have a bone to pick with Periyar. The writer P.A. Krishnan in a recent article in The Wire has asserted that Ambedkar was a “prodigious scholar” while Periyar was a “street-fighter”, not to mention a proto-fascist. Others on the liberal Left have also accused Periyar of collaborating with colonialism, not standing up to intermediate caste violence and not paying adequate attention to Dalit concerns, and for not giving socio-economic reforms their due.

Periyar and fascism 

Did Periyar found his politics on a racialist thinking, an assumption on the inherent superiority or exclusiveness of one’s own race? Read Periyar’s response to such allegations in his article published in The Hindu in 1950: “I am not a believer in the race theory as propounded by the late Nazi leader of Germany. None can divide the South Indian people into two races by means of any blood test. It is not only suicidal but most reactionary.” In an earlier piece in his party paper Kudiarasu, he had accused the ruling Congress party of running an Adolf Hitler-like government, with the suppression of trade union activities and imposition of Hindi on non-Hindi speakers.

Periyar’s Dravidian identity was based neither on racial supremacy nor racial exclusiveness. In fact, he used the Dravidian identity as an umbrella identity for all victims of social and economic oppression across the world. In one instance, he refers to the Palestinians as Arab Dravidas. To accuse someone who abhorred the use of physical violence, who routinely questioned structural violence, who engaged with those holding opposing views through dialogue and debate, and who did not aim to limit his politics to rigid notions of race or nation, of being fascist reveals a lot more about the accuser than the accused.

And there is nothing inherently fascist about Periyar not differentiating Brahmins from Brahmanism. Ambedkar too said that “it is useless to make a distinction between the secular Brahmins and priestly Brahmins.” This is not a racialist tainting of a persecuted community, but questions posed to power structures. It is a discursive strategy of oppressed groups to identify the nature of oppression with those who are beneficiaries of the system of oppression. In the civil rights movement in the US, not just radicals like Malcolm X, but even pacifists like James Baldwin and Martin Luther King Jr often used “white people” in lieu of “white racism”. The same can be said about Steve Biko, a key anti-apartheid leader of South Africa. The point was not that they incriminated all white people as racists, but rather that they identified who benefitted most from white racism and who ought to own greater social and political responsibility. Or consider feminists who use “men” and “patriarchy” interchangeably, for which they get branded as ‘feminazis’.

Periyar and colonialism

Periyar was reluctant to reduce his views to an either/or argument, that it was either ‘freedom’ or ‘colonialism’. Rather, he problematised what freedom meant, who it benefitted and who it excluded. 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. But this is not giving a clean chit to colonialism; Periyar did argue that colonialism looted India and readily collaborated and strengthened the power of elite castes. But he also gave credit to the agency of the native elite castes for using colonial institutions and bureaucracy to their own advantage. Anti-colonialist theorists like Frantz Fanon and Amilcar Cabral too have taken similar approaches to the native elites, of course in their own contexts.

If words indicate intentions, then consider Periyar’s introduction to Puratchi (Revolution), a paper of the self-respect movement launched in November 1933. Periyar wrote:

Puratchi was not launched to destroy the White master and install the Black master. Puratchi was not launched to end White government and bring in Black government. Nor was Puratchi launched to abolish Hinduism and propagate Islam or Christianity.

Puratchi was born to make a revolution to end the rule of all capitalist classes and all religions, to ensure that all people live with self-respect and that there is universal equality between the male and female genders.

Periyar had a genuine engagement with socialism and held a profound fascination for the Soviet Union. Several Periyarists joined the communists in protesting against landlordism in the Cauvery belt. In fact, some of those who assassinated Gopalakrishna Naidu, the architect of the Kilvenmani massacre of labourers, swore by Periyar’s ideals. While he did believe in decolonisation, he saw the colonial structure as something that would be thrown away sooner rather than later, whereas caste structure was an old and potent form of oppression that would gain new vigour in a modern state. And while he did believe in the communist ideal, he argued that annihilating caste was half the battle won for communism. 

The Periyar memorial in Chennai. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Periyar memorial in Chennai. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Periyar and intermediate castes

Periyar was uncompromisingly opposed to Brahmanism. Throughout his life, 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. But Periyar was not playing a narrow identity politics here; on the contrary, he was accusing Brahmanism of reducing human beings who deserved self-respect into narrow caste clusters in strife with each other, to the benefit of those at the top. And he was also aware of the problem of castes stepping on each other to climb the pecking order.

In 1925, Periyar stressed that communal representation was more important for the Dalits than the intermediate castes. Not only was he fairly consistent on this position, but he was also unsparing in his criticism that the casteism practiced between non-Brahmins was more cruel than the one that Brahmins practiced against others. Periyar was sincerely aware of the problems within the secular project of non-Brahmanism, and how the non-Brahmin intermediate castes had a tendency to look down upon Dalits by being relatively superior in a hierarchical society. Likewise, it was common for Periyar to speak at meetings of intermediate castes, where members of these castes would be there by the thousands, and chide them acerbically for their notions of superiority over the Dalits. It is quite intellectually lazy and historically inaccurate to assume that Periyar considered upper caste non-brahmins to be victims. He located the ideological source of caste oppression in Brahmanism and found the Brahmins to be its greatest beneficiaries; that doesn’t make him a defence lawyer for intermediate castes who committed crimes against the Dalits. Periyar fully agreed with Ambedkar’s observation in Annihilation of Caste that “All are slaves of the caste system. But all the slaves are not equal in status.”

Contrary to the accusations of those who claim he was insensitive to Dalit particularities, Periyar was in fact very keen to address them, and in several cases sided with the Dalits over the intermediate castes. For instance, in the 1957 Mudukalathur riots between the Thevars, a numerically dominant intermediate caste in south Tamil Nadu, and the Pallars, a Dalit caste, he sided firmly with the Pallars and called for the arrest of Thevar leaders who were instigating caste violence. He further dubbed the popular Thevar leader. U. Muthuramalinga Thevar an “anti-social element” and pledged his support to the then K. Kamaraj-led Congress government in arresting him. This is particularly significant because Thevar was a not just a hugely-influential politician in South Tamil Nadu, he was also a god-like cult figure for members of his caste who wield considerable clout in those regions. Periyar knew that he risked losing his support among them but yet took a principled stand for the Pallars against the Thevars.

Periyar and philosophy

Elite Brahmin contempt for Periyar’s ideology of anti-Brahmanism has a long history. Even if Periyar’s radical social programme does not need a certificate from the Hindu Right and their apologists, we would like to reason out here as to why not only Dravidian intellectuals but also anyone who is concerned about social justice must care to understand and engage with Periyar’s anti-Brahmanism and language politics.

Periyar’s social reform was an ideological education of the subalterns and their active participation in transforming conditions of oppression and subordination. Periyar had a long and deep engagement with the fragmented world of the subalterns, their histories, social and political conditions, with their worldview and language. He mobilised and critically engaged with the subaltern ‘common sense’ (in Gramscian terminology) and their languages. He neither celebrated the subaltern worldview and language, nor did he impose middle-class notions of respectability and virtues on the subalterns. He also did not impose some external, transcendental worldview. He did mobilise rationalist ideas, including the works of thinkers like Bernard Shaw, Bertrand Russell and Robert Ingersoll, to enlighten the subalterns. A defender of the Enlightenment, he wanted the subalterns to understand the historical and political origins of their conditions instead of submitting themselves to spiritual determinism of Hinduism and caste inequalities.

M. Karunanidhi (front row, third from left) and Periyar (fourth). Source: YouTube

M. Karunanidhi (front row, third from left) and Periyar (fourth). Source: YouTube

In critiquing the upper caste non-Brahmin Tamil intellectuals’ glorification of archaic Tamil, he constantly reminded them the need of such intellectual activity to be immersed in the lives and experiences of the masses. He saw in the subaltern world a potent challenge to Brahmin hegemony. For him, social reform cannot be directed from a position outside of the common sense. He was not troubled by inconsistency or incoherence, because for him the deployment of language itself was only to reform and enlighten the subalterns and position them as their own philosophers, not to eliminate the subaltern common sense altogether.

Periyar’s was an attack on brahminical ideas of ‘philosophy’. For him philosophy was not a specific intellectual activity of the Brahmins and nor were they considered to be specialists or professionals above the masses. He forced the subalterns to understand that the Brahmanical conception of the world is something external to the organic intellectual world of the masses. His refusal to take part in Brahmanical discourses of language and his dismissal of epics like the Ramayana or Mahabharata has to be seen in this context.

He critiqued Hindi and Sanskrit and rejected them for their lack of democratic and liberating potential for the masses. Equally, he was also critical of Tamil and glorification of Tamil pasts. He condemned Tamil purists for the lack of respectable words for women and lower castes in classical Tamil texts and for the lack of rational ideas. At certain occasions, he also advocated the Tamils to abandon their language and learn English. Periyar was for a truly transformed language that would offer critical awareness to the masses enabling them to transform their oppressive conditions. He was for a ‘new common sense’, à la Antonio Gramsci.

All this would not have been possible if Periyar was not self-critical. Periyar constantly re-looked at his own history, personal and intellectual, his position of power and activities in relations to both the dominant castes and the subalterns. This again would not have been possible without his constant engagement with various contradictory elements of subaltern common sense and their world.

Finally, there is a question of the selection of texts of a thinker to arrive at a judgment. Periyar’s works span over 40 volumes. One could take his words in isolation, out of context, and he could be shown as a Nazi, a colonial apologist, a feudal lord and whatnot. Quoting out of context, both textual and historical, and (mis)interpreting on that basis can be done for any great thinker. Just consider Narendra Modi referring to Ambedkar as a modern Manu. The absence of quality translations of Periyar’s primary works in English unfortunately aids those who seek to spin yarns about him in the non-Tamil press. We hope that work to bring his volumes to an international audience will soon be undertaken.

The authors would like to thank S.V. Rajadurai, M. Vijayabaskar and A. Kalaiyarasan for several inputs on this article.

Karthick Ram Manoharan is assistant professor of political science at Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta and S. Anandhi is an associate professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai.