There is need today to re-examine the ideas of E.V.Ramsamy (1879-1973), who came to be known as ‘Periyar’ (the Great Man) after he dropped his caste surname ‘Naicker’. This has to be done for two reasons. Mayawati, who lost her chief ministership in 1995 after she launched the Periyar Mela, is again harping on Periyar today. In Tamil Nadu, the relationship between the Hindutva BJP and the Dravidian parties is getting stronger by the day.
In such a context, intellectuals who write about Tamil society and polity in the English-language media continue to posit Periyar as an important anti-Hindutva voice. If that were to be true, how/ and why is it that we see Dravidian parties like the DMK, AIADMK and MDMK vying with each other to be seen in the company of BJP? Also, why is it that these Dravidian formations brazenly attempt to implement an agenda over which even states ruled by the BJP would hesitate?
POTA, which has become a dreaded national law today, was something the DMK introduced in Tamil Nadu when in power in 1998. Since the then president K.R.Narayanan refused to give assent, it could not be implemented. The DMK government also introduced a GO (on September 19, 2000) that clamped down against Dalit Christians who sought to convert to Hinduism, with the sole purpose of denying such converts the benefits of reservation.
These were acts that even BJP-ruled states of that period did not dare think of. On its part, the AIADMK beginning with its Annadaanam scheme (free lunch in Hindu temples) in March 2002 till the Prohibition of Forcible Conversion of Religion Act of October 2002 has made clear the kind of agenda it espouses. MDMK’s Vaiko, a keen advocate of the very POTA that has landed him in jail, provides us comic relief in this Dravidian drama.
Are these actions of the Dravidian parties to be viewed as merely a result of opportunistic politics? Or is there an inherent tendency in Dravidian politics towards such actions? Moreover, in the 30-plus years of Dravidian parties’ rule, the manner in which the dalits of Tamil Nadu have been affected in terms of education, employment opportunities, their right to land and other sociopolitical indicators, has been elaborated in the Bhopal Document (January 2002). In such a context, there’s a need to reexamine Mayawati’s propagation of Periyar.
Ambedkar had always propounded that the problems of the untouchables are the same as the problems of the minorities. According to him, what is termed as the majority in India is only a religious-communal majority and not a political majority. Political majority is something that can change with time. However, communal majority, since it is based on birth, is unchanging – reason why Ambedkar argued that winning a political majority in an election is not the same as winning the confidence of the people.
In Indian democracy, governments that are established because they win an electoral majority must rule because they have a political majority and not because of a communal majority, according to Ambedkar. He believed that since the Hindus form a communal majority, there should be a check on their influence and authority. He elaborated this idea with reference to the Central Assembly that was functional then. In this, the Hindus who comprised 54.68 per cent of the population must have only 40 per cent representation, the Muslims who were 28.5 per cent should have a representation of 32 per cent; Christians who were 1.16 per cent should have 3 per cent; and the Sikhs who were 1.49 per cent should have a 4 per cent representation, he said.
Ambedkar, for whom the conspiracy of the communal majority was acceptable neither in principle nor could be justified in practice, felt that the communal majority could have at best a relative majority in representation but never an absolute one. Towards this end, he stressed the need for some protective measures in the Constitution. (This was stated by Ambedkar in a meeting organised by the Scheduled Caste Federation in Bombay on May 6, 1945.)
Today, we realise the significance of Ambedkar’s warning even more than we could or did before. But how did Periyar view the question of minorities and the rights to due to them?
When we read Periyar’s article under the head ‘Minority Community’, we suspect that it could have been written by a Hindutvawadi (see ‘Periyar EVR Sinthanaigal’ Vol. 1, page 46; all subsequent references to Periyar are from Vol. 1, Vol. 2 and Vol. 3 of this work edited by Anaimuthu). Says Periyar:
"Under any definition of nationality, in any nation, if people who are a minority in terms of population, in terms of religion or in terms of culture, control power and wield authority, it will be disastrous for the wellbeing and development of that nation. The brahmins and their womenfolk who constitute 3 per cent of our population, without contributing one bit for common societal good, and by commanding us ‘Stay away, don’t come in contact with me’, are leading a luxurious life. The Muslims, who comprise 6 per cent of the population, without doing any coolie work or labour that involves the flexing of bodies, do not let our gaze fall on their women even if these women belong to families that beg for a living, are also enjoying a good life in this country."
"If these be their religious dharma and their religious practice, in whose nation? Amidst which people? Whose religious dharma? Whose religious practice? And who is being insulted by this?
"The products of such minority-appeasing privileges will be ‘betrayal’ and ‘blatant betrayal’. And this is already happening. In our country, selfish irresponsible people who work against the society’s interests use these minorities as a support base and can stoop to do anything. We feared the brahmin, and yielded extra space for the Muslims. We are facing the consequences today. It’s like that old proverb: fearing the dung, we have stepped on shit.
"Why did the Muslims betray? The Muslims must give a satisfactory explanation to the people," wrote Periyar in 1962. But even in 1954 his position was similar. He referred to Tamil Nadu’s Christians and Muslims as ‘non-Tamils’:
"In Tamil Nadu’s entire population it seems the brahmins are 2.75 per cent, the Christians 4 per cent, the Muslims about 5 per cent, the Malayalis 8 per cent, those from Karnataka are it seems 5 per cent – if we combine these, it emerges that the non-Tamils in Tamil Nadu constitute 25 per cent of the population. However, in employment these non-Tamils hold 75 per cent of the top posts. Not just that, the reason why the Tamils are suffering is because the brahmins, Christians, Muslims and others claim themselves to be Tamil."
Periyarists will point out that Periyar had advocated conversion to Islam. "Islam offers a good cure for humiliation and oppression," he had said. But he had explained this: "I am not defending Islam. Nor am I propagating it. This is the truth, the only truth. I have no greater love, friendship, trust or cooperation with or for Muslims than I have for you." In another instance, he asked: "If Sahibs [meaning Muslims] get proportionate representation, and the Scheduled Castes get representation in jobs and education, and if the rest of the slots are monopolised by brahmins, O Sudra, what will be your fate and future?" As a counter-shock, Periyar had suggested conversion to Islam.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that the bases of the electoral alliances of today’s Dravidian parties can be found in Periyar. The spread of an anti-dalit mentality and the reasons for the backwardness of dalits in the last three decades can be traced back to Periyar.
It is true that Periyar was in touch with Ambedkar. It is equally true that Periyar had spoken in praise of Ambedkar. However, we must examine the reasons for this. Tamil Nadu had witnessed the dawn of modern dalit consciousness even before the arrival of Ambedkar. The dalits here had been politically mobilised by leaders such as Iyothee Thass (1845-1914), Rettaimalai Srinivasan (1860-1945, who attended the Round Table Conference with Ambedkar) and M.C.Rajah (1883-1947).
Though Iyothee Thass died before Periyar entered the political scene, the dalits had become a political and intellectual force to reckon with much before the non-brahmin, non-dalit bloc had found its political moorings. Periyar’s praise for Ambedkar was motivated by his keenness to belittle Tamil Nadu’s dalit leaders. After this purpose was served, he was quick to talk of Ambedkar as "a north Indian who succumbed to the Congress".
Tamil Nadu’s untouchable leaders had paid special attention to dalit education. They also fought for jobs in the government sector. Periyar ridiculed this. "Asking the government for jobs, education, duties, huts and housing; and seeking from the Mirasdars two extra measures of paddy will not help in anyway," says Periyar. "Can fighting for all this be intelligent or honourable," he wonders.
The dalit leaders who raised these issues were derided by Periyar. "Whoever your leaders be, they parade you – as lame, diseased, blind, leprous – for money; and even without buying milk to feed you, nor applying any balm on your wounds, they further emaciate you, and display your condition to others to earn more money," says Periyar to the untouchables.
In his public life Periyar was never involved in any direct struggle for the untouchables. Even the Vaikkom struggle (in Kerala, 1924), which the Periyarists praise, was not something initiated by Periyar. The backward caste Ezhavas of Travancore, with the support of reformer Narayana Guru, had initiated this struggle. Periyar was just one among those who participated in the Vaikkom struggle. However, "It is because of our struggle and efforts that today the oppressed are able to walk with their heads held high. We are the ones who showed them the path to progress in the field of education. We were the first to fight for the entry of dalits into temples and streets," claimed Periyar in 1956.
Says Ambedkar: "Every society consists of groups. But it must be recognised that the mutual relations of the groups are not the same everywhere. In one society groups may be only non-social in their attitude towards one another. But in another they may be anti-social." (What Congress and Gandhi Have Done to the Untouchables, p.193). The attitude of the caste hindus towards dalits is anti-social. Therefore, the interactions between them are likely to be mechanical and non-social. In such a setup, individuals will be able to use one another for selfish ends. In such a society, there will not be commonality in thought, nor harmony in intention, nor will there be unity in action. This is demonstrated by Periyar’s attitude.
Periyar was someone who was jealous of the constitutional safeguards that were given to the dalits. Having repeatedly spoken of dalits as a people who don’t have a history, who don’t have a political movement, who don’t have leaders, Periyar even made them believe this. Having used the dalits to serve his political ends, he asked them: ‘Of what use are you to us?’
Periyar worked solely for the cause of the non-brahmin, non-religious minority, non-dalit backward and upper castes. He deployed the concept of ‘majority’ for this purpose. There’s only one difference between the majoritarianism that the hindutvawadis propound and that of Periyar’s: that is, over the exclusion of brahmins from this majority.
Dravidian parties allying with the BJP even as they praise Periyar is no different from Mayawati’s praise for Periyar even as she rules in alliance with the BJP. There’s always a scope in Periyar’s ideas for such possibilities. This is Periyarism.
Ravikumar is a Pondicherry-based writer. The article was written on 1 March 2003 and was translated from the Tamil by S. Anand. A drastically cut version of this appeared in the edit page of The Indian Express titled Questioning Periyar’s legacy dated 12 March 2003.