Roughly 2500 years ago, there lived a man called Socrates, who maintained that a life not examined was a life not worth living. Tragically, for that very reason, he was put to death by being forced by the Athenian state to drink hemlock. Closer home, in the first seventy-odd years of the twentieth century, lived a Socratic figure, called Periyar E.V. Ramaswami, who suffered a fate worse than state-sponsored murder. For nearly two decades after his death in 1973, his ideas were abandoned and, if at all his name was invoked in the state of Tamil Nadu, where he lived most of his life, it was either a symbolic gesture or a political gimmick. Periyar, unsuspecting of a parallel denouement to the story of his own life, often quoted the Greek wisdom with fervour in his writings and speeches.
The book under review is to be commended for resurrecting Periyar’s most radical and thought-provoking ideas and publicizing them for a wide English-speaking audience. In a sense, this collection of essays is a sequel to the authors’ Towards a Non-Brahmin Millennium: from Iyothee Thass to Periyar, which was published in 1998. V. Geetha and S.V. Rajadurai offer these books as a tribute to the memory of Periyar, whom they describe as a ‘great Tamil iconoclast and subversive genius’.
Periyar—like M.K. Gandhi—lived through turbulent times, between 1879 and 1973. Like Gandhi, Periyar had a clear preference for the workings of civil society over the state. However, unlike Gandhi, Periyar turned to Reason and maintained that the ‘truths’ Gandhi claimed as his personal truth were not universal, and therefore not of much use. If the immediate was of paramount importance to Gandhi, the future was full of promise for Periyar. Gandhi searched within himself for the female and the untouchable; Periyar looked outwards for these categories, towards the socio-political collective. All in all, Gandhi’s satyagraha principle was too remote and abstract for the man of reason, Periyar. In 1927, Periyar parted ways with Gandhi, because of the latter’s unshakeable faith in varnashrama dharma.
As founder of the Self-Respect movement of the non-brahmins in Tamil Nadu, and the Dravida Kazhagam Party, Periyar had novel insights into the caste question and these may be summed up in the following terms: There can be no liberation of the non-brahmins—particularly shudras—without the liberation of the Panchamas (the fifth caste, also known as dalits or, in former times, untouchables) as well as women. In fact, according to Periyar, female chastity was a meaningless concept, as far as the new, independent Tamil woman was concerned. Two years before his death, Periyar proclaimed that caste could be abolished only if god, religion, the shastras and brahmins were abolished. Sadly, the mainstream Tamil Nadu Dravidian parties, the DMK and the AIADMK, have both reneged on the question of dalits and women. Apart from legalizing the secular self-respect marriages and securing women’s right to property, they have done precious little to facilitate the liberation of Tamil women. If Periyar wished to broaden the public realm so that it could become a genuine forum for political debate among all the castes, the Dravidian parties have, in fact, effectively shrunk the public sphere, substituting it with cinema tinsel and spectacle. In ‘Off with Their Heads: Suppression of Dissent in Tamil Nadu’, the authors refer to the domestication of Periyar by the then Chief Minister, J. Jayalalithaa, and pose the rhetorical question: ‘What better way to render Periyar irrelevant than to iconise him and then, systematically, flout his principles?’ (p. 137). Periyar, as a dynamic social reformer of Tamil Nadu, had acquired a celebratory status even during his lifetime. His opposition to the imposition of Hindi by the Central Government and his love for Tamil are well known. But Periyar’s sentiments had two historical precedents. One was the valorization of the Tamil language in the mid-nineteenth century by British missionaries like Robert Caldwell and F.W. Ellis, who simultaneously proclaimed Tamil as linguistically independent of Sanskrit. Another was the discovery of the antiquity of ancient Tamil Sangam classics by U.V. Swaminatha Iyer in the 1890s. These classics were believed to be as old, if not older, than those in the Sanskrit language. Nevertheless it must be emphasized that Periyar was neither a Tamil purist nor a blind admirer of Dravidian culture. He was critical of the Chola kings’ celebration of brahminical values and believed that Tamil could freely borrow from all other languages, except Sanskrit.
If there is a single word which best describes the general ethos of this book, it is ‘memory’. Indeed, the best essays in this book, written between the early 1990s and 2007, are all about the need to remember the past, and commemorate historical processes rather than events. In one of their early essays, ‘Dalits and Non-Brahmin Consciousness in Colonial Tamil Nadu’, the authors discuss the life and works of a late nineteenth-century dalit Buddhist scholar known as Iyothee Thass Pandithar. Iyothee Thass was proficient in Tamil, English, Pali and Sanskrit and edited in Tamil a well-known publication called Thamizhan (initially known as Oru Paisa Thamizhan) in 1907. Thass maintained that a Tamil dalit group called paraiya was originally Tamil Buddhist and he read the Tamil classic, Tirukkural, as he would a dalit Buddhist text.
Another excellent essay, ‘Periyar, Women and an Ethic of Citizenship’, has to do with—among other matters—the lively debates around the Devadasi question in the 1930s and 1940s. These discussions revolved around issues of sexual exploitation, female desire, and sexual autonomy, following the publication of a controversial book called Dasikalin Mosavalai (Devadasis’ Web of Deceit), written by a former Devadasi called Amamrithammal. What is interesting about this essay is that it reminds us that present-day controversies around female sexuality, like the dance bar girls’ situation, for example, are not without historical precedents. In fact, knowledge about what happened in the past is bound to illuminate our present-day conundrums.
In ‘Marx, Periyar and Freedom’, V. Geetha informs us of Marx’s influence on many of Periyar’s ideas. Taking off from the well-known Marxist dictum that it is important not merely to interpret the world, but to change it, Geetha points out that knowledge indeed was central to Periyar’s struggle against caste ideology. As Periyar has repeatedly pointed out, the estrangement of members of the lower castes from knowledge of themselves is alienating and pernicious. This has resulted in the phenomenon of self-loathing within these caste groups. It has been Periyar’s contention that a new attitude to knowledge could lead to radical consequences, especially in the case of the Panchamas. For example, the lower castes, who have been involved in productive activities, could learn to valorize production in economic terms, and thereby turn the moral tables on the old brahminical categorization of the consuming castes being ritually superior to the productive castes.
A couple of essays in this volume initiate an animated conversation of the brahmin and non-brahmin categories in Tamil Nadu. Dubbed the ‘Irish Brahmini’ by Dr. T.M. Nair, one of the main architects of the Non-Brahmin Manifesto in 1916, the Theosophist, Annie Besant, was a great admirer of the brahmin community and castigated the Tamil non-brahmins for their so-called anti-nationalist stance in opposing the brahmin-dominated Congress Party. Indeed, even today several scholars do not see brahmins as the principal enemy of the lowest castes, the dalits. Some like Nicholas Dirks and C.A. Bayly, point an accusing finger at the Kshatriya and Vaishya varna, respectively; others like the dalit intellectual Chandra Bhan Prasad oppose shudras more than brahmins. Nevertheless, as Geetha and Rajadurai point out, brahminism as ideology still works, because the caste order heeds the logic of graded superiority based on brahminical scriptural authority. V. Geetha’s ‘A Dangerous Play with Time: Brahminism and the Anxieties of History’ discusses this strange phenomenon called brahmin thought, which has a varied and protean existence, is contingent on time and place, has a winning flexibility, adaptability, and reliance—all of which are guided by an unchanging will to power. In modern times, brahmins have given up their pious occupation of priesthood and turned to worldliness. They have become the champions of secular modernity and now seek to reform the caste system!
The article ‘Who is the Third that Walks Behind You?’ continues this discussion, in response to an essay on the subject by Aditya Nigam in the Economic and Political Weekly. While the author of the article, V.Geetha, agrees with Nigam’s argument that the dalits, by and large, reject the brahminical version of modernity, she rejects Nigam’s contention that the dalits are averse to secular modernity, tout court. She points out how Periyar, who understood and represented Panchama aspirations, had a two-pronged strategy, as it were. Periyar worked against the brahminical secular modern, even while re-appropriating the secular modern in other distinctive ways.
In addition to the ‘general-interest’ essays, there are a few articles in this collection that are topical and context-bound like the one mentioned above. A couple of these are eloquently presented, and written with passion, in the heat of the moment, as it were. The authors don their activist cap and register their sharp protest over the excesses of the AIADMK-led state government in the early 1990s. ‘Power appears ominous in Tamil Nadu, as it flurries by in a veritable convoy of cars ably guarded by Rambo-like “Black Cats” or glowers at you from the Himalayan heights of garishly coloured cut-outs and hysterically loud posters’ (pp. 132–133).
Despite some repetition and a few proof-reading errors, this volume is a must-read for anyone who believes that an understanding of Indian democracy should include an appreciation of regional politics and ideology.
Nalini Rajan is Associate Professor, Asian College of Journalism, Chennai.