Periyar: Radical Liberalism
Niraj Kumar Jha and A.P.S. Chouhan
Erode Venkatanaicker Ramasamy (1879–1973), better known as Periyar (The Great Man) has a complex legacy. He began as a nationalist, worked as a follower of Gandhi, but turned into a firebrand leader of the anti-Brahminism movement in Madras Presidency. He saw the salvation of the country in the destruction of the Congress, the Hindu religion, and Brahmin domination. He declared the goal of the Dravida Kazhagham, the new avatar of the Justice Party in 1944 to be a ‘sovereign, independent Dravidian Republic’ and called upon his followers to observe Independence Day as a day of mourning representing the enslavement of the southerners’.1 Meanwhile, he saw himself as a social reformer and then as a Communist and again as a social reformer. Even in his call for social justice, we find a juxtaposition of race, varna, caste, class, gender, language, urban-rural divide and Tamil nationalism. On the one side of the divide of inequity, he places the Brahmins, the descendants of northern Aryans and, on the other, the Dravidian shudras. However, underlying his untiring campaigns spanning from 1917 to 1973 is a passionate advocacy of human dignity and in this lies his lasting contribution.
Even in more concrete terms, Periyar’s accomplishments are phenomenal. His movement indeed led to the end of Brahmin hegemony in Tamil politics and social life. His mission helped in spreading the message of egalitarianism and scientific temper. Elimination of caste-based social segregation and discriminations, improvement in the condition of women, right of temple entry and management to non-Brahmins, prevention of supremacy of Hindi over Tamil and obtaining Tamil as official language thereby enhancing its status and contributing to its growth, reservations for backward castes in government jobs, which entailed the first amendment in the Indian Constitution, and the emergence of a new leadership in Tamil Nadu from backward castes are solid instances of his revolutionary legacy which are too visible to be ignored.2
Understanding Periyar must begin with understanding the person. He was born in a rich business family of the backward caste of Naickars in Erode, a town in the former Madras Presidency (Now Tamil Nadu). He studied only up to the fourth standard and as a young man left home to tour the nation. He even lived the life of an ascetic in Benares. It was here that he learnt the deceptions spread in the name of religion. Back home, he reflected his proficiency in business and became active in public activities. He was the Chairman of the Erode Municipality and an honorary magistrate. He held numerous positions of social importance. He joined the Indian National Congress in 1919 and became a staunch Gandhian. He held the positions of the Secretary and President of the Tamil Nadu Congress Committee. In each of his positions, he always strove for social justice, and ‘service’ was his sole motto. In 1924, he led the famous Vaikkom Satyagraha in Kerala. The Ezhavas were not allowed to enter the streets around the Vaikkom temple because of their ‘low birth’. He faced imprisonment but he ultimately succeeded in his satyagraha and was declared the hero of Vaikkom. Though he worked in the Congress in an important capacity, he faced caste prejudices within the organisation. He tasted the prejudices in the party first-hand when he was elected the first non-Brahmin President of the Tamil Nadu Congress party. No sooner was the result declared, than a no-confidence motion was brought in on absurd grounds. It was nonetheless defeated. In 1925, when his resolution for the ‘communal representation’ at the Kancheepuram Congress, which he had been trying to get the party to accept for six years, was disallowed in the open session, he left the Congress once and for all, declaring it as the fortress of Brahmin imperialism.3
Thereafter, he associated himself with the Justice Party which he headed in 1938. Six years later, he converted it into the non-political social outfit Dravidar Kazhagam. The original formation has now been sidelined and its offshoots—the DMK, AIADMK, and MDMK—dominate the politics of Tamil Nadu today. Meanwhile, he launched the Self-Respect Movement committed to social reform and social upliftment. The first Self-Respect Movement was held at Chengalpattu in February 1929. In 1932, Periyar travelled extensively within the Soviet Union and was very much impressed by the rationalistic anti-religious egalitarian social order and scientific, technological, and economic advancements therein. After his return from his prolonged exposure to Communism, he started the Self-Respect Communist Party as a political offshoot of the movement. He was imprisoned and the party was later banned. He was warned that if he did not stop working for the Communist Party, all his activities would be banned. He gave up his communist activities to be able to continue with the Self Respect Movement but his ideas carried their influence.
Periyar cannot be understood without referring to the colonial context. The colonization of India exposed her to the renascent spirit of Europe. For a civilization, ancient but moribund, the encounter was overwhelming. The vigour of their overseas rulers and their modern ways were eyeopeners for the enlightened Indians of the early colonial phase. The Indians who regarded themselves as proud descendants of an ancient civilization were not to submit to the cultural supremacy of the West. Instead, they raised serious concerns about the state of their own culture and civilization. Many rose to the occasion to redeem what they considered as the lost glory of their ancient civilization. The great project endeavoured to entwine the essence of modernity with what they considered good in Indian traditions. In fact traditions were tested on the bases of rationalism and humanism— the twin interdependent fundamentals of modernity. Their endeavours and the accomplishments are known as the Indian Renaissance. The next stage was the propagation of Indian nationhood. The phenomenon of nation, like modernity and related to it, emerged in Europe. It was essentially an ethno-militaristic phenomenon which substituted religion to a great extent in the new rationalist world view of Europe. The phenomenon seeped into colonies too through the empires. In India, the concept of nationhood was also combined with the civilizational mission of self-redemption and with the passage of time a new nation was born but with an ancient spirit.
Renaissance and nation in the beginning were upper caste elitist projects. Nationalism which germinated in the course of the reformist spell of colonial India later subsumed the reform process and also spread to the emerging and expanding middle and lower middle classes. But its appeal was not universal.4 Civilizational redemption carried hardly any meaning to the vast majority of the population of this land. Imperial exploitation, oppression, humiliation and national pride mattered little to those, who led even otherwise, lives of gross degradation and deprivation. Nonetheless, the philosophical foundations of these projects, i.e., rationalism and humanism raised concerns which though not addressed by these projects did awaken people of even those sections who had suffered a dehumanised existence for centuries. The essence of this awakening was the worth and dignity of human beings as such. For many the struggle for dignity and liberty became, and very legitimately so, more important as a social struggle than the anti-imperial struggle.
Periyar was certainly one of the greatest champions who raised the issue of this fundamental freedom. The problem of colonial subjugation was secondary for most Indians who were at the lower rung of the hierarchical caste order of India. The exploitation and oppression perpetrated by the ancient social regimen was immediate and an excruciatingly painful experience. Large numbers faced a scriptural or religious sort of apartheid. Periyar himself faced such caste prejudices despite being an influential Congress leader of the South. Despite the fact that he belonged to a wealthy family, he established himself as a great social and religious reformer and was a very important Congress leader. Yet, he could not avoid being treated as one whose presence or contact was considered polluting or defiling. And he found every move for the empowerment of the depressed castes blocked by a very active and powerful lobby of Brahmins.
In this mission, he did not appeal in the name of God, as has been the practice among most of the great leaders of the world, rather he dismissed the concept of God in the most forthright manner. Neither did he exhort the people in the name of some other lofty ideals. He relied mostly on the faculty of reason possessed by everyone and for this he indulged himself till his last in arguments with people, provoking them to come out of their stupor not only by his words but also with his deeds. He is rightfully addressed as the Socrates of East, as his ways bear a striking resemblance to Socrates.
He was also very impressed by the achievements of the West. He keenly observed that their advances in science and technology had made them the masters of the world and freed them of many of the miseries inflicted by nature. He found their rational orientation, instilled in them by their schooling system, the reason behind their advancement. The western philosophical traditions starting with Socrates and passing through Ingersoll, Broadlaw and Herbert Spencer had strengthened his conviction and even Indian rationalist traditions propagated by such greats like Gautama Buddha and Thiruvalluvar had inspired him and he took on the mantle of completing their unfinished task. His contemporary, Jawaharlal Nehru, who was also an unwavering rationalist, also won his admiration.
Another very powerful phenomenon of his times, Communism, also affected his thinking profoundly. He was very impressed by the rationalistic and anti-religious approach of the movement and the economic development with egalitarianism achieved in the Soviet Union.
Periyar was a rationalist with all his being and objectivity was his avowed means of analysis. Though his tools were scientific and universalistic, his concerns related to his milieu. He was deeply anguished by an imposed and historically institutionalised order of Brahminic hegemony in the name of religion, caste and spirituality which dehumanised the overwhelming majority of Dravidian peoples in the South. He took upon himself the mantle of undoing injustices and laying the foundation of a fair and egalitarian society. But it was a complicated mission. The fight was against something which was internalised and accepted by the suffering people as natural. The battle lines he drew and the wars he fought were more within the minds of the individuals and their collective consciousness. He was perturbed by the miserable existence of the Dravidians in southern India, particularly in Tamil Nadu. He fought for their emancipation but his ideas indeed have wider applications as well implications.
Rationalism, the very basis of Periyar’s principles, was however not impersonal. His appeal for social justice was based on concrete rationalism but as it had to be a missionary campaign in order to defeat deep-rooted injustices perpetrated by a deeply entrenched caste which derived sanctity from a fossilised religion, his approach to the issue was very personal. The war he waged was not abstract. It was direct and very personal. He proclaimed:
I,E.V. Ramasamy, have taken upon myself the mission of making the Dravidian society acquire awareness and become a society of dignity like the societies elsewhere in the world.
I consider myself qualified enough to carry on the mission insofar as I am attached to nothing else, perceive concepts and devise schemes on the basis of rationalism. I consider that by itself it is enough for any one who takes up a social mission.5
He also personified the ideas he professed. For instance, he propagated atheism to be a great personal virtue. ‘If one professes that there is no God, he should then have godly attributes about himself. … he should be aware of the causes behind the phenomenal realities of the world? …, to whom is there no God? There is no God to the truly enlightened. He should have the end of all philosophy. No one would be prejudiced against such an enlightened man. He would also not hate anyone. Anyone who hates him is an idiot.’ And he demanded that a true atheist should not be hated; he is to be appreciated and followed.6
Generally, normative theorizations seek an axiomatic proposition to be developed into a system of thought in a geometrical fashion. This fundamental proposition is either deductive or inductive. Related to this is another aspect of such theorization, that is related to the position of the theorist. There are armchair theoreticians who construct societies in their imagination only, which have little to do with real societies and real peoples. Periyar was not an armchair theorist, who conjectured new worlds in his/her (logical) imagination. He derived his ideas from practice. What he believed in he practiced and what he practiced he believed. He reached his rationalist worldview without taking any recourse to books or research.7 He derived his principles from observing life.8 At the other end, there are practitioner-theoreticians who are so obsessive about their immediate surroundings that their visions do not go beyond the immediate. Periyar’s ideas were indeed derived from experiences - experiences of a very active and effective political leader and social reformer. But his derivations were based on objectivity. He surmounted the follies of both science and activism with considerable success.
Many positivists were also prophets of utopia. Periyar was free from this predilection of scholarship too. He did not provide any visions of utopia. His message was hard-hitting and realistic. He did believe in Communism. But his notion of Communism was rooted solidly in the ground and deeply imbedded in the specificities of the Tamil land. What he wanted from people was very simple—redemption of their humanity. The idea was crystal clear. There was no intimidating philosophy, confusing mystical discourse, jargonised theory building or a goal of an unattainable utopia. The clarity of Periyar’s objective made it sound very simple but its actualisation was a process of colossal magnitude. The mission had to confront millennia of misgivings, prejudices and practices. Nonetheless the magnitude of the mission was well matched by his untiring vigour, immense courage and unwavering conviction.
There are rare combinations of activism and scholarship which go beyond the ephemeral and the immediate. Periyar belonged to that genre of activist-philosophers. Besides, clarity of thought, commitment to objective and making rationality an article of faith and basis of his messianic appeal make him stand out even in that rare genre of activist-philosophers.
Abolition of Caste
The fundamental problem confronting Periyar was thus the denial of basic dignity to the large majority of humanity around him. And basic to his philosophy was the view that all men and women should live with dignity and have equal opportunities to develop their physical, mental and moral faculties. In order to achieve this, he wanted to put an end to all kinds of unjust discriminations and promote social justice and a rational outlook.9 The problem was not related to outright physical subjugation but to an order of oppression garbed in spirituality and religiosity. The order he sought to encounter was Brahminism. This holistic order entailed a hierarchical social system, in which economic vocation, social relations and a number of privileges and restrictions were associated with castes located in that hierarchy. The worst aspect of this order was the practice of pollution and purity which were so extreme that even the sight and shadows of the outcastes, the lowest in the social order, were considered polluting. In this order, the Brahmins occupied the highest position, were considered the purest, and commanded a supreme position not only ritually but in every respect. Ironically all castes were graded superior or inferior in relation to each other except the Brahmin sitting at the top of the heap. And this order as such was sanctified as a divine creation. Periyar himself, though a wealthy man, a man of influence as he worked for the Congress as a leader, suffered humiliation because of his caste even within the set up of that national organisation, the greatest platform of the national movement. He was treated as a being that defiled his surrounding by his presence and the articles he used. Casteism flourished not only in traditional social set-ups and upcoming political organisations but also in factories and trade unions. Even the progressive Marxists were not able to address this deeper malaise of Indian social relations. He fought these discriminations by exposing the conceptual hollowness and deception behind them and by making the fight his personal mission. He asked, ‘A sizable population today remains as untouchables, and another sizable population exists in the name of shudras and the serfs, coolies and menials. Who wants an independence that cannot help change these things? Who wants religion, scriptures and god, which cannot bring about a change in this sphere?’10
The fundamental problem had its ramifications — the moral and material backwardness, social schisms, and mutual hatred among people, which made society weak and caused untold miseries. He theorised that the main reason behind social malaises was casteism, which was imposed on the people of the South by the Aryans for their own benefit. The people were naïve, did not realise the deception of the Aryans and became victims of their divisive designs and domination. The system was sanctified by the basic Aryan scriptures—the Vedas. The principle was the Varnashrama Dharma. According to this the society was divided into four Varnas, viz. Brahmins, Kshatriya, Vaishya, and Shudra and were assigned specific social functions. Brahmins, the offspring of the Aryans, became the self appointed legislators of Indian society. They wrote the Vedas, in fact, for their own benefit and declared them to be the words of God. This was a ploy to avoid comprehension of the truth based on reason, reality, experiences and experiments. They forbade inquiry, and spread the canard of sin and hell to frighten people into subjugation. The Brahmins assigned a superior position to themselves in this order; the other Varnas were extended a hierarchical division among themselves. There emerged castes within Varnas with the distinctions of superiority and inferiority. In this arrangement the society got irresolutely divided. The root of this division was Brahmin supremacy and Periyar decided to eliminate this supremacy.11
Periyar made it sufficiently clear that he was against Brahminism and not the Brahmins. To him, Brahminism was the basis of the caste system which justified social inequality, untouchability and many other problems. His prime goal was the elimination of the caste system which he found against the principles of human civilization and self respect.12 It did all these things on the basis of divine ordination. He raised the fundamental issues of human dignity in a rational manner to counter these social evils. His exhortations were straight and hard-hitting.
A bunch of rascals have enslaved us. They have imposed upon us a certain system that brands us their slaves.13
Your very birth is ignoble of course. The reason for that is ignoble about you is that you have accepted the status of the shudra. At least hereafter, you should feel ashamed of it. It is not harmful to die for the sake of undoing the name of shudras instead of procreating in the name of the shudras.14
How long hence are we going to remain shudras in this world? How long are we going to allow our children to be called the shudras? Aren’t we supposed to do something to eradicate the dishonour and become human at least during this age of freedom and scientific temper?15
When stained with the excreta of a man or an animal we wash our hands with water. However, they insist upon taking a bath if they came into contact with the body of a person or even if the dress of a man brushes against them. Is there anything human about such human beings?16
They lead the cow; take dung and the urine of cows to sanctify the temple. But if a man enters the same temple, they consider the temple to have been defiled and arrange for sanctification. Are they reasonable men?17
We should eradicate casteism in the name of the Brahmin and the pariah getting rid of God, getting rid of all the scriptures.18
He also attacked the caste distinctions among non-Brahmins using only logic to prove his point. ‘Though each caste ascribes superiority to itself on solid bases, all their arguments only serve to show that all of them together are inferior to the Brahmins. Otherwise, all the evidences they cite do not serve any intended purpose. This is the picture of reality as such.’19 This, according to him, meant that people of castes other than the Brahmins belonged to inferior castes, and were untouchables. This deprived them of certain civil rights on par with the Brahmins and made them slaves to the Brahmins. According to Periyar, this discrimination meant that the birth of persons of other castes lacked honour since it may be the result of prostitution or cross-caste union. And he gave the clarion call to do or die.
The untouchable should not go within the sight of the Brahmins. He should not walk about the streets. He should not take water from the pond. What social justice is there in such restrictions? If God does not bring destruction on such a society, how could he be merciful? For how long do you desire such oppressed, suppressed society to be patient, non-violent and passive? It is better to die fighting such social evils rather than live in a society that is the scene of such inhuman acts and attitudes.20
His approach was to tackle the root of the social problems. For untouchability, the worst form of human degradation, he analysed the evil and traced its origin. Untouchabilty, he found, was based on religion and religion found its base in scriptures which again claimed to be the words of God. Attacking the very root of human degradation, he rejected the trio of God, scriptures and religion in totality. Periyar did not stand for cosmetic changes. For instance he did not advocate equality of castes in jobs or in social positions as the only solution to caste discrimination.21 He sought a complete normative and physical transformation to root out castebased discrimination.
Caste was not his sole concern. Among the many issues he touched upon, gender was a major one. For the subjugation of women, he said, they themselves were responsible as they did not feel that they deserved total freedom. And they did not suffer alone from their own bondage. Men lost their honesty and freedom too, since they had families dependent on them. They had to assume unnecessary responsibility and suffer needless anxieties. But men didn’t see reason. They had enslaved women, devised concepts like chastity and categorised women who were ‘unchaste’ as prostitutes but they themselves did not observe such norms with respect to conjugal conduct. Whatever and wherever women were, they were monitored by men. Only when a woman was able to attend to the business of her life independent of a husband or a son could they attain the position they deserved.22
In fact his approach towards women’s issues was quite gendered as he viewed the problem as a separate one. His depiction of the state of women made it clear that women’s liberation was independent of the larger plans of liberation.
The way man treats women is much worse than the way landlords treat servants and the high-caste treat the low-caste … Women in India experience worse suffering, humiliation and slavery in all spheres than even the Untouchables … A woman is for the male, a cook for himself; a maid for his house; a breeding farm for his family and beautifully decorated doll to satisfy his aesthetic sense. Do enquire whether they have been used for any other purpose. The slavery of women is only because of men. The belief of men that God created man with superior powers and woman to be slave for him, and woman’s traditional acceptance of it as truth are alone responsible for the growth of women’s slavery.23
Women were denied education so that they did not have the ability and intelligence to question their slavery. However, the most important factor for women’s subjugation, Periyar held, was that they lacked the right to property. In fact men treated women as their property. It was for this purpose that they devised the principle of chastity exclusively for women.24
Qualities like freedom and courage were claimed as ‘masculine’ thus characterising male superiority as a natural phenomenon. Women would never be free unless they put an end to male domination and they could not depend on men for the same. ‘The pretence of men that they respect women and that they strive for their freedom is only a ruse to deceive women. Have you ever seen anywhere a jackal freeing the hen and the lamb or the cat freeing the rats, or capitalists freeing the workers?’25
Women must get rid of their slavish mentality and they should realise that being civilised was not about dressing fashionably or looking good but living on equal terms with men. He sought rigorous education in rational thinking for women, changes in the custom of marriage and birth control for the sake of women’s liberation. He considered the terms, ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ inappropriate and called them companions and partners. He also rejected the words, ‘wedding’ or ‘marriage’ and termed it as a ‘contract for companionship in life.26
Periyar’s propagation of social justice touched another inequity plaguing India—the urban-rural divide, or what is often today referred to as the divide between India and Bharat. The fact is that economic relations between town and country dwellers are based on unequal exchanges and while villagers do back-breaking labour and survive on the bare minimum, the city dwellers exploit their produce. Periyar equated the status of villagers to that of the Panchamas (untouchables) in the Varnasharama (caste) system, wherein the high castes flourished by exploiting the toiling low caste people. The notion that shudras (backward Dravidians) and the Panchamas were created to serve the high caste Brahmins was applicable to villagers too as it was believed that villages existed to serve towns. He in fact advocated that villages should be eliminated and even the word ‘village’ deleted from dictionaries. Villages, bereft of bare amenities like hospitals, school and parks where ninety per cent of people resided, were hardly places worth living. All the schemes for village development were mere hogwash.
The way out was complete urbanization. He sought newer methods in industry and reorganization of agriculture and total mechanization of all feasible agricultural activities. He wanted the farmers to be brought under co-operative bodies so that the produce could be shared equally by all of them. Villages must be linked together and developed as towns with schools, hospitals, parks, cinema theatres, drama halls, recreation centres, libraries etc. and there should be a magistrate and market for securing all commodities. He also stated that agriculture should be supplanted by smallscale industries located in the vicinity of such clusters.
The root cause of this human bondage and suffering, he found, was the lack of a rational outlook among the people. ‘The reason for the present chaos and deterioration in our country is that we have been hindered from enquiry and repressed from the use of rationality.’27 The Tamilian outlook was largely based on their perceived ancient wisdom. They assumed that they should be what they were two thousand years before. They rationalised their actions on incomprehensible bases. They justified their acts in the name of Gods, writings in scriptures and sayings of sages. This was unlike the West where people were marching ahead, exploring new frontiers of knowledge, inventing new technologies. Their progress was based on their future-oriented rationalist approach. He differentiated scientific approach from the traditional belief systems. His one such illustration made his point clear. He said that Gods, religions, preachers and scriptures all for instance told people that an act of kindness to the poor guaranteed a place in heaven, whereas modern science would work for finding the causes of poverty and try to eliminate it. Here he found, that in the name of scholarship the same old ideas were reiterated. The mode of education was such that it forbade new thinking and forced the learner to accept the old uncritically. In the end this kind of education blunted the faculty of reasoning among people here.28
Periyar asked people not to accept anything without ratiocination. One should not accept anything only because it is old, customary, habitual, generally accepted, based on hearsay, appeared mysterious, magical or divine, spoken by some saint, or claimed to be said by God.29 The distinctive aspect of a human being was reason and s/he must apply his/her this faculty in order to lead a life which could be called proper.30 In this process, he made rejection of God the fundamental application of rationalism. He said, ‘I have examined thoughts fibre by fibre, maintaining the attitude of a dispassionate enquirer into Truth. I could not achieve any perspective of God.’31 He found that the concept of God drained energy out of Indians. He was very particular about not accepting anything on hearsay without applying one’s own reason, which, he maintained, resulted in disappointment and misery. He said, ‘God has never revealed himself to anyone. God is only taught and projected to the uninitiated by those who claim enlightenment.’32 He conjectured that worship in the old human societies as well as the modern ones had its origin from fear and dread of the unknown natural phenomena. He believed that a rational approach was the key for social emancipation and crucial for development. He surmised that economic development was possible only through rationalistic thinking.
Periyar started the Self-Respect Movement with the objective of guiding people to redeem their deserved place in society. Periyar stated, ‘The aim of a genuine Self-Respect Movement is to change whatever appears to be adverse to man’s feelings of self-respect. That which enslaves you to customs of the world, to orthodoxy, to the rigours of religion, contrary to your rationality and awareness of truths of experience, is what I shall describe as antagonistic to self-respect. This all-important awareness of selfrespect based on feelings of dignity and indignity, may be deemed man’s birth right, as the word ‘man’ is itself a word based on dignity. Therefore, he who is called ‘man’ embodies dignity in himself, and only through his right to this dignity, reveals his human qualities. That is why self-esteem is his birth-right. Man must cast aside his feelings of inferiority, the feeling that he is less important than other beings, and attain self-confidence and self-respect, it will automatically set right politics, nationalism and also theology.’33 The Self-Respect Movement was aimed at eradication of caste based discrimination. The objectives of the movement were the establishment of a casteless society based on complete equality of the masses, eradication of all social evils and freeing society from the shackles of superstition and blind faith in God and religion, promotion of educational and employment opportunities for women, popularization of self-respect marriages conducted without any Brahmin priest and propagation of rationalism.34 Conceptually self-respect was the basis for ensuring equality in society. He wished every non-Brahmin to realise that they had their own self-respect to maintain in all their dealings with their fellow-beings. If a man realised that he was equal to all other men and that he had the right of equality with all other men, then he became a self-respecting person. He also wished women to have this self-respect.35
Revolution and Communism
Another aspect of Periyar’s thought was his belief in Communism. He exhorted people to be unafraid of revolution and ready themselves for the next change. He said that revolutionary changes in the affairs of men had been a continuous process since time immemorial. He cited numerous contemporary changes. He cited the abolition of a large number of kingships, which were treated as divine institutions earlier and people feared speaking ill of kings. Similarly in India some people were regarded as agents of God on earth and certain others not fit to be seen or even touched. The disappearance of untouchability indeed brought about a revolutionary change in society. Holy books also ordained girls to be married before puberty banning child marriage legally was also a social revolution. This was also a religious revolution in that the gods of the puranas (mythologies) had become the laughing stock of the people and so did the religion propagating them.36 He moved to exhort people for the final stage of change.
‘Because of these revolutions in man’s ideas and attitudes, we have come to question about the need for kings, priests, castes, religions and Gods as well. The present century has taken on a more revolutionary cry. People are now questioning the very existence of rich people, capitalists and tilted barons. Why should these people exist? We are trying to see how far these parasites are responsible for the misery of the proletariat - the poor of our land.’37
He, however, adapted the ideology to his own vision and mission. He merged the Self-Respect Movement with Communism and founded the Self Respect Communist Party. The action plan of the Party included the nationalization of all industries, railway, banks, waterways, all agricultural lands, forests, botanical wealth, community farming, writing off all debts of peasants, limiting the working hours to eight hours, enhancing the wages and improving working conditions, and providing amenities like access to libraries.38 He later disbanded the party in favour of the Self-Respect Movement but his ideas remained influenced by Communism. He iterated that God, religion and law support the prevalence of the distinction between the rich and the poor, the existence of caste hierarchy and the cruelty of supremacy and servility. Periyar vowed to destroy the government, justice, morality and customs that permitted them.39 Periyar explained the Dravidar Kazhagam was an institution of the workers. Every Dravidian to him was a worker because they worked for the others and had been through the ages, servants as per the scriptures of Manu. All men, whether a cart man, scavenger, street cleaner, washer man, barber, potter, tiller, carpenter, cobbler, weaver or anyone who lived by the dint of manual labour were workers for him. The Brahmins and caste Hindus were not labourers as they did not do any manual labour. Only the shudras did and they were the Dravidians. The movement of the Dravidians was therefore the movement of the workers.40
He offered an economic explanation for women’s subjugation. It was with the advent of private property that the concept of marriage came into existence. Private property created the problem of its inheritance. Men would have thought of bequeathing his property to his own progeny alone which necessitated marriage.41
Periyar believed that only if women, workers and agricultural labourers all joined in the revolution could there be communist government in India.42 He however sought the revolution by revolutionising the thinking habits of people.43 He said that the end of right to property would be the end of God. There would be no place for God, religion, or scriptures in a nation of socialism where property rights did not exist. Intellectual ability assumed the position of prominence in such a nation. There was neither superior nor inferior and no professional hierarchy. All individuals were equal and paid the same wages. The nature of work done alone was different and whoever assumed a higher office assumed greater responsibilities.44
He believed that Communism would hold the whole world in its grip ensuring international peace and prosperity.45 To him, Communism’s objective was making a family, a fraternity of all people of all nations in the world. The wealth of the whole world would be the common property of all in the family. Every member of the family would be equal partner in the larger family.46
Periyar also championed a socialist agenda. The resolution adopted in the Eighteenth State Conference of the Dravidar Kazhagam in December 1948 at Thuthukkuti called for the nationalization of all service industries like the generation of electricity, mines, transport, airways and waterways which were essential to the welfare of the common man; fixing ceilings on property holding in the form of lands, houses and cash as the first step in the process of promoting a socialist state and reducing the wages of the higher income group at the same time increasing the minimum wages to the workers in India.47
The World of the Future
Periyar did have a vision for the future. He said that a rationalist deduced from the past, examined the present and constructed the future on a scientific basis. Nature had provisioned for people in plenty and in modern times mass production had resulted in a glut in markets and yet millions of people did not have the means to meet their basic needs. Periyar rued that though many extraordinary men had claimed to have realised God and were even associated with godhood, none of them could find any solution for the miseries of the people. It was only because people were unable to dissociate themselves from God and religion and see the affairs of the world independently. With rationalist thought and science, the future world would be reshaped. The future was a socialist world in which there would be no private property. In the future plutocrats would not be there to dominate the people; technology would free people from the drudgeries of hard labour and demeaning jobs (like scavenging), slavery would be unknown, one would not live on the mercy of another and women would not want special protection, safeguards and support. With only an hour or two of work, it would be possible for the people to produce the goods they need. The rest of the time would be available for leisure to indulge in fine arts or simple pleasures. Communal life would have reached such heights that the pains and trials of some citizens would be the pains and trials of the whole community. Co-operative effort and unitary feeling would have wiped out all differences and discriminations. Wars and armies would be unknown in the cooperative world state of the future.48
The common thread which joined Periyar’s Self-Respect Movement, his advocacy of rationality and his championing of Communism was his essential humanism. To him humanity alone was the supreme value. He said, ‘Forget God; think of man.’ And the most human act to him was not to cause any suffering to anyone and help fellow beings. It was the very basis of community living. When man chose to live in communities giving up his barbaric way of living, he ought to have sought mutual support, through which each other’s life could be bettered. He further thought that inequalities must be removed in order to ensure a humane society. The only means for achieving equality of all was to form a rational society where there was no place for any superstitions.49
He opposed any sort of violence in human relations. He reasoned that it was in the nature of the tiger to growl and kill other animals. But violence was not natural to man. On the contrary to be human was to be aware of it. It is to the extent one lived without causing suffering to the other that one became a rationalist creature. He advocated that one had to protect oneself from personal suffering but at the same time desist from causing suffering.50 ‘If I were to encourage violent struggle, only the Dravidian would spring upon each other’s throat. None of the Aryans who instigate violence would be touched in the least.’51 He was in favour of results achieved through peaceful rational and loving means even if they were delayed because of the very process. He firmly believed that only such revolutions without any violence involved would ensure real and permanent welfare to the people.52
According to Periyar, humanism consisted of respecting the sentiments of the other. There were bound to be divergent opinions and it was not necessary to accept all but no one could be deprived of the right of the expression.53 He attached great importance to good human behaviour and conduct. He reiterated that one should behave or conduct himself in the same manner in which he expected others to conduct or behave themselves towards him.54
Lastly Periyar’s respect for all individuals and their reason was reflected in his statement, ‘I have told you whatever I could perceive. I request you to accept whatever appears to be right to you and act accordingly. If there is anything wrong in whatever I have said. I request you to pity my ignorance.’55 Though he worked for the Dravidians, his concerns were universal. He clarified that he held no attachment towards any particular country, people or language and that all his activities were guided by his love of humanity and the need to serve it.56
Periyar’s Legacy: A Critique
Periyar aspired and worked for a new society where rationalism would rule the roost. Rationalism to him was freedom. He was very enthusiastic about science and technology which he felt made people’s life easier. He talked of what fundamentally could be construed as self-empowerment. For this matter he was very particular about the prevailing notions and terminology. He never intended to treat a social malaise symptomatically but worked for rooting out the problem and all other systems supporting that evil.
Despite his insistence on rationality and humanism, Periyar presented all the values he championed in his own life. He, in fact, personified rationality, atheism and the cause of justice. He tried but failed to separate his persona with his ideas and his towering persona indeed subsumed the values he imparted. This was perhaps necessary for the wider appeal of his ideas. However its implication in the long term was counterproductive. He was now viewed as a prophet.57 A prophet as an analogy reflected the personality cult and reduced rationalism to revelation. One author presented him as an avatar, ‘The old saying is that whenever impropriety came to reign supreme, God will manifest himself in human form and restore propriety in the world. It is in a way thus that Periyar was born to defeat the impropriety of vested interests and to endow the illiterate and irrational common man with reason and self respect so that he can walk with a head held high.’58 The message was subtle and unintended but it had its repercussion. In this rationality was not an approach to be cultivated by each and every individual but a gospel to be told and believed. The Movement’s fall from grace to become part of the personality cult of Tamil Nadu was perhaps the logical culmination of this approach.
At the second level, even for a rationalist movement, if the social bases of change and mobilization were a parochial or pre-modern collective identity, the mission itself stood negated. Though he proclaimed to attack brahminical practices alone, in reality it seemed to be against Brahmins as individuals. It was testified by the flight of a large number of Brahmins from the state. The caste system he sought to eliminate was in fact reinforced. Like the ‘new class’ of the Communist world, Tamil Nadu also saw the rise of the ‘new caste’ or ‘neo-Brahmins’ negating freedom in newer fashions. The personification of ideas and primordialism in social mobilization went against the modern makeover of Tamil society and politics.
Social relations according to Marxism were based on the mode of production. Periyar’s analysis of caste-oppression as an Aryan import does not fit the bill. Moreover tracing an ancient and unconfirmed causation59 and racial social base of an unjust order was not justified. The fact that displacing Brahmins from positions of power in Tamil Nadu simply did not result in a just society has proven the fallacy in Periyar’s approach.
Godhood is a very high level of abstraction, and it is functional. It is not apparently comprehensible. It is the fulcrum of religiosity which has been a major tool of social organisation so far. For instance Mahatma Gandhi defined God as truth. It is such a high level of abstraction that it sounds almost superstitious and indeed for a layman it remains a superstition, because s/he believes in the concept without knowing its import and his/her conduct in this respect does not conform to the real meaning of Godhood. The fact remains that if Godhood has been used as a justification of statusquo so it has been employed as an inspiration for revolutions.
Nonetheless, Periyar raised issues which are equally relevant today. The problem of dignity is one such vital issue. The point to ponder, which Periyar raised so forcefully, is that the oppression is often self-inflicted. It is the result of ignorance, fear, greed and inaction. One is in fact down because of one’s own vices. Domination and oppression is the product of the belief system rather than of actual social relations. Slavery which is the highest state of domination and oppression is more metaphysical than physical. His great contribution lies in fighting against oppression and for the sovereignty of individual human beings. He attacked the metaphysics of oppression with aplomb but he left his job half-done. He failed to provide a credible philosophy of freedom—a philosophy ensuring and sustaining freedom.
Note and References
- Gail Omvedt, Dalit Visions; The Anti-Caste Movement and the Construction of an Indian Identity, (New Delhi: Orient Longman, 2006), p. 61.
- N. Velusamy, Periyar: the Social Scientist, Salem, 1999, pp. 154–155.
- K. Veeramani, Periyar and his ideologies, (Chennai: Periyar Self-respect Propaganda Institution, 1979), p. 4.
- For instance these words of Periyar can be cited, ‘Is it not shameful on the part of such a country to aspire for Swaraj, Dominion Status or complete Independence? Politicians may say that untouchability will go if we get Swaraj. To them I say not merely Swaraj but Dharma Raj, Rama Raj, Harischandra Raj and the Raj of the very Gods—these were responsible for originating and organizing this blot on humanity.’ See Speech, ‘Revolt’—Volume 1. No. 6, Dated 12th December 1928, Erode.
- N. Velusamy, op. cit., pp. 9–10.
- Ibid., p. 19.
- Ibid., p. 47.
- Ibid., p. 42.
- K. Veeramani, Periyar’s Movement; A Short Summary, (Chennai: Dravidar Kazhagam Publications, 2002), p. 1.
- M.D. Gopalakrishnan, Periyar; Father of the Tamil Race, (Madras: Emerald, 1991), p. 68.
- N. Velusamy, op. cit., pp. 55–57.
- Ibid., p.77.
- Ibid., p. 67.
- Ibid., p. 58.
- Ibid., p. 59.
- Ibid., p. 82.
- Ibid., p. 84.
- Ibid., pp. 108–109.
- Ibid., pp. 116–120.
- Collected Works of Periyar E.V.R., (ed.) Dr K. Veeramani, (Chennai: The Periyar Self-Respect Propaganda Institution, 2005) (third edition), pp. 567–568.
- Ibid., pp. 567, 569–570.
- Ibid., pp. 570–571.
- Ibid., p. 568–574.
- M.D. Gopalakrishnan, op. cit., p. 61.
- N. Velusamy, op. cit., pp. 11–17.
- Ibid., p. 43.
- Ibid., p. 34.
- Ibid., p.18.
- Ibid., p. 23.
- M.D. Gopalakrishnan, op. cit., p. 65.
- K. Veeramani, 1979, op. cit., p. 4.
- M.D. Gopalakrishnan, op. cit., p. 29.
- Collected Works of Periyar E.V.R., op. cit, pp. 367–370.
- Ibid., p. 146.
- Ibid., p. 147.
- Ibid., p. 143–145.
- Ibid., p. 152.
- Ibid., p. 159–160.
- Ibid., p. 163–164.
- Ibid., p. 145.
- Ibid., p. 161.
- Ibid., pp. 157–158.
- Collected Works of Periyar E.V.R., op. cit., pp. 373–377.
- N. Velusamy, op. cit., pp. 171–173.
- Ibid., p. 180–181.
- Ibid., p. 181.
- Ibid., p. 181–182.
- Ibid., p. 173.
- K. Veeramani, op. cit., pp. 11–12.
- N. Velusamy, op. cit., p. 192.
- K. Veeramani, op. cit., p. 12.
- His prophet like demeanour, though in opposition to Godhood, must have been certainly irksome to many, as it emerges in this statement of Ravikumar, an activist— theoretician of the Dalit movement, ‘Periyar’s eccentricities seem to have provoked people to turn more zealously to religion. Tamil Nadu produces the largest number of mass circulation magazines devoted to spreading bhakti and astrology.’ Quoted in S. Anand: ‘Iconoclast, Or Lost Idol?’ Outlook, New Delhi, 20th September 2004, p. 22.
- Velusamy, op. cit., p. 155.
- Periyar’s use of history is problematic. To quote from Adiya Nigam, ‘He … produces a narrative of Indian history as one of the perennial struggle between the subjugated Dravidas and the subjugating Aryans. His search leads him to the discovery of the Dravida Self, which he occasionally expands to include the sudras and the atisudras of the north—an untenable exercise in terms of the canons of history in whose name the fight was being conducted. But then, there is precisely the point—it was what it has always been. It was a narrative already constituted by and therefore subordinate to the political demands of the present.’ ‘Secularism, Modernity, Nation; Epistemology of the Dalit Critique,’ EPW Special Articles, 25th November 2000s, http://epw.org.in