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A historian who destabilised categories 

Working through the categories of “Brahmin” and “Non-Brahmin” in his well-researched history of the Dravidian movement, he showed how the non-Brahmin was constructed in opposition to Indian nationalism for overlooking the question of caste and social reforms in the early 20th century

Professor M.S.S Pandian, my PhD supervisor and a critical historian of the Dravidian movement, popular culture, agrarian economy, caste, nation and politics, breathed his last at AIIMS, New Delhi, on 10 November. He had succumbed to cardiac arrest.

He joined JNU as a professor of contemporary history at the Centre of Historical Studies. Earlier he had worked at numerous prestigious universities and research institutes, including the Madras Institute of Development Studies. He held a PhD from Madras University on agrarian economy, and had left his mark on other disciplines such as history, politics and popular culture.My association with Pandian began in 2010 when I attended his immensely popular classes on nation, caste, language and subaltern intellectual history. He was a brilliant teacher who worked the whole week to prepare for his two-hour weekly lecture. His lectures were absolutely coherent and lucid. He also encouraged us to ask questions. We eagerly waited for his sharp comments, which often made us rethink our project.

Exclusion of “the concrete”

He began his research in economics, writing a PhD thesis on the agrarian economy of Nanchilnadu, a region in Tamil Nadu. His work was placed in the context of the famous “mode of production debate”, ensuing from the green revolution. Broadly speaking, there were at least two schools that explained why during the green revolution, the foodgrain production fell short of expectations. Expressing broadly the government’s position, the “techno-economic school” blamed the failure in planning of agricultural inputs. On the contrary, Marxist scholars, belonging to “mode of production school”, argued that the existing semi-feudal production relations in the countryside was to account for the failure of the green revolution. The surplus, according to Marxist scholars, was used by the landlords in non-productive activities such as money-lending and trade.

Professor M.S.S Pandian

Against this background, Pandian (The Political Economy of Agrarian Change: Nanchilnadu 1880-1939. 1990) joined the debate. While he preferred the “mode of production school” to the “techno-economic” approach, he also criticised the former for glossing over “the concrete reality” of Indian agriculture and mechanically implementing the theories of Marx and Lenin. In the words of Pandian, “in the mode of production debate, there was a one-sided over-emphasis on theory per se to the almost exclusion of the concrete”.

In this study, he drew on the works of Mao. Thus, he differed with the scholars of the mode-of-production school for their failure to give primacy to the internal conditions as the prime movers of change. In sum, the work of Pandian showed the limitation of Marxist categories through their neglect of the concrete and failure to give primacy to internal contradiction.

Cinema and Politics

After his PhD work in economics, he entered the domain of politics and popular culture to understand the “MGR phenomenon”. M.G. Ramachandran (MGR) began his career in Tamil cinema in 1936. The film star then was a member of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) from 1953 to 1972. His popularity as an actor yielded a great haul of votes for the DMK as the party used cinema for political communication. As Pandian (The Image Trap: M.G. Ramachandran in Film and Politics, 1992) noted, the cinematic image of Ramachandran was transferred to politics and it gave his image “a certain life-like authenticity”. Put differently, the cinematic image of Ramachandran as a hero helping the poor was exploited to draw huge masses to electoral gains.

Riding on his popularity, he rose to become the chief minister of Tamil Nadu and dominated the regional politics till his death in 1987. For Pandian, the rule of Ramachandran (1977-1987) as chief minister was one of “darkest” periods of contemporary Tamil history. He criticized Ramachandran for dilution of subaltern culture, snuffing out dissent and promoting corruption.     In my view, the major contribution of Pandian’s Image Trap has been to underline the need to study how the ruling classes produce the structure of consent from the subaltern classes. Pandian expanded this further: “In my view, the MGR phenomenon could be a worthwhile instance, from the contemporary political history of Tamil Nadu, to be studied in order to explain this relatively unexplored area of how the elites produce consent for their kind of politics from those whom they dominate. This essay on the MGR phenomenon is, thus, situated in a specific academic context as well.”

Non-Brahmin movement  

It was perhaps Pandian’s deep involvement in non-Brahmin politics that pushed him to write a history of the Dravidian movement and reach out to the non-Tamil readers. Working through the categories of “Brahmin” and “Non-Brahmin” in his well-researched history of the Dravidian movement, he showed how the non-Brahmin was constructed in opposition to Indian nationalism for overlooking the question of caste and social reforms in the early 20th century.

In 1916 a group of “prominent” nationalists such as T.M. Nair and Pitti Theagaraya Chetti broke ranks with the Indian National Congress in Madras Presidency. They then issued a “non-Brahmin” manifesto, arguing that if the British granted self-rule to Indians it would “result in the tyranny of Brahmins over others” as they, constituting just 3 per cent of population, dominated colonial professions and bureaucracy.

Further, Pandian made a searing criticism of both the Cambridge school, which denied non-Brahmin identity as “flabby fatuous”, and of the supporters of non-Brahmin identity, who took this category as fixed. Instead, he asserted that an identity is constructed in a particular historical period and is constantly challenged by ever-emerging new identities.

For example, the non-Brahmin category posed a challenge to the unity of Indians much in the same way the rise of Dalit politics in the 1990s in Tamil Nadu destabilised the category of non-Brahmins. Pandian, therefore, pointed out that “Dalit Voice had thus fissured the homogenized and singular non-Brahmin identity by bringing to life the other possible identities submerged by it”. In other words, his work does not take any identity as eternally fixed and his notion of politics, thus, is the perennial contestations of different forms of power.

“Denationalising” the past

This method of resisting any categories as fixed led him to critique Indian nationalism. In his creative reading of E.V. Ramasamy, who was the leader of the Self-Respect Movement and opposed the Congress, Pandian (‘Denationalising the Past’, EPW, 1993) argued that Ramasamy, better known as Periyar, critiqued the “nationalisation” of the past, disengaging it from the past. In other words, the Brahmanical intellectuals, in Periyar’s view, propagated the myth of a classical Indian past to maintain its hegemony over the rest of society. It is to be noted that Periyar, in Pandian’s reading, not only demolished the myth of Indian nationalism but also questioned the construction of an ancient Tamil past.

The same line of argument was later developed in his famous essay ‘Nation Impossible’ (EPW, 2009), in which he vehemently attacked the processes of nation-making that involve “uniformity”, “homogeneity”, “exclusion”, “violence” and “contradiction”. His critique of the nation state  is informed by the violence and ethnic cleansing unleashed by the Indian and Sri Lankan states. Finally, Pandian argued for going beyond the 200-year-old nation state form, supporting “de-territorialized imagination”.

While I have discussed some of the key concerns of Pandian, this brief tribute is in no way an adequate treatment of his complex writings. The best tribute to him will be paid when we engage with his works and carry forward his legacy of critical thinking.


Published in the December 2014 issue of the Forward Press magazine

Forward Press also publishes books on Bahujan issues. Forward Press Books sheds light on the widespread problems as well as the finer aspects of Bahujan (Dalit, OBC, Adivasi, Nomadic, Pasmanda) society, culture, literature and politics. Contact us for a list of FP Books’ titles and to order. Mobile: +917827427311, Email: info@forwardmagazine.in)

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