February 14, 2020
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The Thread Is Thin

Brahmins here are too few, too middle class to be a political force

The Thread Is Thin
Srikant Kolari
The Thread Is Thin
This Forge Is Too Muddy
  • There is a quiet introspection about the Mayawati effect
  • There’s scepticism, do Brahmins have the numbers to count?
  • A sizeable number of Brahmins constitute the middle and upper classes, and they aren’t interested in politics
  • In the South, the Brahmins’ rural population is minuscule
  • Dalits aren’t united, difficult to forge an alliance with


The Dalit-Brahmin alliance may have fomented well in Uttar Pradesh, but in South India it’s unlikely to create any impact. Still, there’s been some curiosity about the dynamics it may unleash in the country in future elections. The Brahmin community, at least in Tamil Nadu, sees the ‘inclusive’ experiment in UP as an opportunity to shed its ‘historical image’ of being Dalit oppressors.

So is this a "political moment" for the community, when everyone can get past the hate and vitriol generated against the community by Periyar’s fierce anti-Brahmin movement? Can it now turn the tables on the Dravidian parties for neglecting the cause of the Dalits and promoting the feudal middle castes in the last few decades? It’s a pragmatic strategy, although the message itself is communicated in a pathological rhetoric of self-pity.

Sample this agenda for the June 10-11 executive council meeting of the All India Brahmin Federation at Tirupati in Andhra Pradesh. There’s an action plan and the slogans are ‘Last Rites to Untouchability’ and ‘Brahmin’s Hitam (good) at Dalit’s Doorstep’. This when the meeting circular still asserts that "intelligence" is primarily with the Brahmins as also the "responsibility" to save Hinduism. The circular also says, "Hug the Dalits with affection and in turn expect their respect."

The tactical necessity to align with the Dalits is evident, but is it a genuine course correction? It’s this that worries a non-Brahmin like Tamil poetess Kutty Revathi. She says of the UP experiment: "Brahmins will soon start dominating in UP. They will engulf and eat up the Dalits...it’s too early to comment on this experiment." As if to confirm Revathi’s fears, N. Narayanan, president of the Thamizhnadu Brahmin Association (thambras), which has 750 active branches across the state, is already speaking the language of deal-making: "You should remember that the Mayawati formula did not happen overnight, it was carefully worked out over a long period of time."

The comeback hope of the Tam-Brahm is also based on the fact that by default ‘anti-Brahminism’ as a political plank has run out of steam. Notes Karti Chidambaram, a recent entrant to the Congress and son of Union finance minister P. Chidambaram: "There isn’t any animosity left, the Brahmin community’s numbers are insignificant to a political party’s victory. They are not a votebank here. Also, political affiliations have become more important than caste in TN. In Sivaganga, my father’s constituency, our Chettiar community is in a minority, and we are pitted against the majority Thevars, but that hasn’t come in the way of his victory." He says the new voter, in the changed social milieu, is disconnected from Dravidian philosophy.

Tamil writer and journalist Vaasanthi confirms Karti’s assertions in her recent book on Tamil politics, Cut-outs, Caste and Cine Stars: "Dravidianism as an ideology caught the attention of a generation for two reasons. First, it was the clarion call for the awakening of non-Brahmins to uproot the hegemonic control the 3 per cent Brahmin class had over Tamil culture and society. The second was regional rights, generated through language agitations. Both anti-Brahminism and anti-Hindi agitations have become non-issues today, with the Brahmins effectively sidelined and the ‘Tamil only’ slogan put on the backburner...."

The older generation of Brahmins, the ones who suffered the ‘hate campaign’, may aspire for a pre-eminent political space of their own, but there are roadblocks. First, a majority of the Brahmin population in the South constitutes the upwardly mobile middle class, unlike in the North. In a recent survey by THAMBRAS, it was found that in Tamil Nadu only 7.5 per cent Brahmins were in the BPL category, while 50 per cent were middle class. Over 5 per cent were upper middle class. Rues Narayanan, "The problem lies here. Like all the middle classes now, the Brahmin middle class is also the pleasure-seeking and pub-hopping type. They have no traditional values and are not interested in politics."

The second hurdle for a UP-style alliance is that the Dalits in Tamil Nadu are dispersed under far too many political banners. "If they unite under one force, then there is some hope for a similar alliance. If Mayawati takes an initiative in Tamil Nadu, we are with her," adds Narayanan. Even assuming there is a federation of Dalit organisations, there is little chance they would be interested in the Brahmins. The community can only hope to be a minor partner.

There’s also the issue of the near-complete absence of the rural Brahmin in the South. For, unlike in the North, they either reside in semi-urban or urban areas. When the anti-Brahmin movement started in TN, they migrated out in big numbers to places like Pune, Nagpur and Delhi, besides the neighbouring states of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. In fact, one of the initiatives of THAMBRAS has been the ‘get back to the agraharams (Brahmin villages) movement.’ "They had vacated the villages due to the hate campaign of the Dravida Kazhagam. The rural Brahmin was made a scapegoat while the oppressors were from other land-owning communities," says Narayanan. Unlike in the North, there are no clear unambiguous forward castes in the South like Bhumihars or Thakurs. The British didn’t help matters here, because for every non-Brahmin forward caste in the South, they put one of their sub-sects in the Backward Caste (BC) list. For instance, Arcot Mudaliars are a forward community, but Sengunda Mudaliars come under the BC list.

In fact, the conflict between Dalits and Brahmins in the South has been relatively less compared to other dominant communities. Tamil novelist Asokamitran says the conflict has been more between land-holding caste Hindus and Dalits. "Brahmins have been at the forefront of the reformist movement. Even before Gandhi, people like T.S.S. Rajan spearheaded the temple entry movement," he says. Kutty Revathi adds: "The Dravidian movement never included the Dalits. It fought for the social mobility of the dominant middle castes. So, hypothetically, it would be far difficult to bring together a Dalit and a Vanniyar than a Dalit and a Brahmin."

So it comes down to the idea that there is no conflict, and hence an alliance is possible. Even here, an inherent problem exists. How does one cure the middle-class South Indian Brahmin of his clear disinterest in the political process?

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