Periyar Erode Venkat Ramasamy was born on 17 September 1879 in the Erode town of Tamil Nadu. He died on 24 September 1973 at the CMC Hospital in Vellore at age 94. His father, Venkata Naicker, was a businessman. His mother, Chinnathayee was often referred to as ‘Muthammal’. He was married at the age of 19 to 13-year-old Nagammal.
When he was 25, Periyar visited Varanasi (Kashi), where he was thrown out of a dharamshala built by a Dravidian trader because food was provided only to Brahmins there. Starving, Periyar ate the leftovers discarded outside the hostel. Stray dogs also shared the food with him. This event left a lasting distaste for the caste system in his mind. He also developed disgust for Varanasi, a city that endorsed the caste system. It was in Varanasi that he realized how the Aryans were treated differently from the Dravidians. This turned Periyar into a strong critic of the Brahmins, who believed that they were superior. He decided to struggle all his life against casteist arrogance.
It should be noted that Periyar was a successful businessman. He became popular because of his consistent work in the social arena. After joining politics, his popularity grew and he was appointed to different positions in various organizations. The programmes initiated by him were well-received. However, since this article is in the context of caste, so its focus is on Periyar’s thoughts and programmes related to the caste system.
In 1922, Periyar was named the President of the Tamil Nadu Congress Committee. At the regional convention of the Congress at Tiruppur, he moved a resolution demanding that Dravidian ‘untouchables’ be allowed entry into temples. But it was rejected. Most of the opponents were Tamil Brahmins. Disappointed and angry, Periyar announced that he would not only boycott two books – Manusmriti and Ramayana – which promoted the notion of Brahmin supremacy but that he would also burn them. In 1923, the government of the Justice Party passed a bill in the Madras State Legislative Assembly, enabling framing of laws to prevent the Brahmins from committing atrocities in the temples. Despite being in the Congress, Periyar supported the measure. That was because he was firmly committed to the cause of social justice.
In 1924, the Congress launched a Satyagraha, led by Periyar, on the issue of social justice from Vaicom town in Kerala. This movement lasted for over a year and Periyar was jailed twice during this period. Once, he had to spend six months in jail. This movement led to members of all castes getting access to the lanes around the temples in the religious town of Vaicom. Till then, the Brahmins had restricted the entry of untouchables into these lanes.
There was a national training school ‘Gurukulam’ at Cheranmahadevi in Tirunelveli. Brahmins and Dravidians were treated differently at the hostel of the institution. Periyar vehemently opposed this discrimination and when his plea was not heard by the Congress, he resigned from the post of secretary of the Tamil Nadu Congress Committee. He worked at different positions in the Congress and continued to struggle against caste discrimination. He used his position to promote his cause and worked towards building a political atmosphere conducive to it. He moved resolutions in various conventions of the Congress, calling for reservations for Dravidians in educational institutions and in jobs but failed to get any of them passed. He moved such resolutions in Tirunelveli (1920), Thanjavur (1921), Tiruppur (1922) and Salem (1923) conventions. Angered by this state of affairs, Periyar used a new term, ‘Brahmanocracy’, while addressing a meeting at Salem. He used to publish a weekly ‘Kudi Arasu’ which aimed at freeing the Dravidians from caste and religious atrocities. He continued to struggle against the anti-Dravidian attitude of the Hindu religion and the Brahmins. At a Congress meet at Kanchipuram in 1925, he moved a resolution seeking separate representation for the non-Brahmins. But like earlier, it too was turned down. This annoyed Periyar so much that he broke all relations with the Congress. His bitter experiences made him even more committed to his ideological struggle against Brahmanism. It was after this that the Dravidian self-respect movement was launched. He organized non-Brahmin conventions to highlight the conspiracies of the Brahmins against the Dravidians and to boost their representation in various fields. He also participated in conventions of Brahmins in Tamil Nadu and continued to publicize the Dravidian self-respect movement. In his meeting with Gandhiji – who was a supporter of the Varnashram system – at Bangalore, Periyar made it clear that only the abolition of the caste system could solve the problem of untouchability. Taking the self-respect movement forward, he urged the people to abandon the Brahmanical wedding ceremonies and opt for a much simpler system involving only exchange of garlands. There was no place for priests in the new system and it allowed inter-caste and inter-religious marriages, besides widow remarriage.
Periyar always practiced what he preached. He organized mass marriage ceremonies. In connection with one such ceremony in 1933, he was arrested under Section 144. His deep commitment to the Dravida cause can be gauged by the fact that in 1940, he demanded a separate ‘Dravida Nadu’. In sync with his thoughts, he changed the name of the ‘Justice Party’ to ‘Dravida Kazgham’. In 1946, Periyar organized a Black Shirt convention. Brahmanical forces tried to disrupt it using goons. Later, the convention was banned. This showed that his influence was growing. He considered the assassination of Gandhiji a crime committed by Brahmanism. He organized a meet to condemn the murder of Gandhiji and proposed that India be named ‘Gandhi Nadu’.
As a result of three decades of Periyar’s struggles, in 1951, the First Amendment to the Indian Constitution saw the addition of Clause 4 to Article 15. This clause provided that the OBCs will be entitled to equal rights and opportunities. The subsequent reports of and recommendations made by Baba Kalelkar and BP Mandal were based on this amendment. In 1953, opposing idol worship, he smashed idols of Pilleyar (Ganesha) at public places to demolish the Brahmanical belief that idols of gods have power. Chakravarthy Rajgopalachari wanted that the profession of the parents should be taught to their children in schools. He considered this an educational reform. To Periyar, this was a step against non-Brahmins and he protested against it with such vehemence that Rajgopalachari had to resign from the post of chief minister. He continued his struggle to combat Brahmanical influence on society and offer a fair chance to Dravidians across all levels. A congregation organised in 1954 on Buddhist philosophy and teachings was a part of this struggle that helped open a new front in the fight against Brahminism. It was in this year that he met Dr BR Ambedkar. Periyar suggested that he and his followers should embrace Buddhism to deliver a big blow to Brahmanism.
In 1955, Periyar bared the anti-Dravidian character of the Ramkatha, stating that Valmiki’s Ramayana was, in fact a literary and cultural tool for promoting Aryan supremacy. This was also the time when he wrote ‘The Ramayana: A True Reading’ in Tamil which was translated and published in English in 1959. The Hindi translation of the book was published in 1968 under the title Sacchi Ramayan. There were widespread protests against the book and the government banned it. However, this book turned out to be a great inspiration for Indians who opposed Brahmanism. It was one of Periyar’s important accomplishments.
His fight against caste dominance also led Periyar take a stand against the courts. In 1955, RS Malayappan was the District Collector of Tiruchirapalli. He had sympathy for the Dalits and was from a backward class. During hearing of a case in Madras High Court, two Brahmin judges made uncharitable remarks about Malayappan. At a meeting at the Town Hall Square in Tiruchirapalli, Periyar rebuked both the judges and exposed their casteist face. As a result, Periyar had to face contempt of court proceedings but even during them, he highlighted the Brahmanical conspiracies. Periyar remained struggled not in social and political fields, but also in courts. Through a movement launched in 1958, Periyar ensured that hotels dropped the term ‘Brahmin’ from their signboards. He was charged with inciting his followers against Brahmins and was sentenced to two months in jail. In 1960, he burnt a map of India minus Tamil Nadu to emphasise that the rule of the Central Government was, in fact, rule of the Brahmins. His also fought against the symbols and signs which sought to project Brahmin supremacy in India. In 1968, Periyar persuaded the then Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, SN Annadurai, to issue a circular directing removal of the images of gods and goddesses from all government offices. This was a crucial step to ensure that India remained secular. In 1969, he took yet another step against casteist discrimination. Till then, only the Brahmins were allowed entry into the sanctum sanctorum of the temples. He initiated a movement to change that and also ensured that religious rituals were performed in Tamil instead of Sanskrit. Through his efforts, Periyar achieved a significant success in making the socio-cultural life of non-Brahmins better. He remained dedicated to the truth. He remained a true patron of truth and debate. Even his Ramayana was titled ‘true’. He thought it necessary to expose the untruths in the original version of the text to highlight the racial discrimination practiced by the Aryans and the conspiracies of the Brahmins. He remained active till the very end of his life. He started a new bi-monthly magazine, Unmai (The Truth), in Tamil in 1970, at the age of 91. Its title showed his insistence on truth. In order to unite the rationalists, he launched a non-political ‘Rationalist Forum’. He launched a monthly English magazine, Modern Rationalist. Periyar organised social conventions in Theedal, Vapari and Madras on 8-9 December, 1973 which were attended by thousands. Speaking at these events, Periyar urged Dravidians to step forward and fight against Brahmin supremacy. Periyar continued his fight against casteist and racial discrimination throughout his life. On 19 December 1973, Periyar delivered the last speech of his life at Tyagraj Nagar and five days later, he passed away.
Periyar’s articles and speeches can help one understand his thoughts on caste and they can be analyzed too. He used simple language and arguments to present his thoughts. There are several contradictions in the Hindu texts written by the Brahmins that were elaborated by Dr BR Ambedkar in his book The Riddles of Hinduism. Although Periyar did not write as systematically as Dr Ambedkar did, but his literature is no less illuminating. In the editorial in Viduthalai dated 4 March 1969, Periyar writes, “Until some time ago, Vaishnav and Shaiva priests used to wear pleats like the people of Kerala. Now this distinction has ended. Today, Brahmins think that whatever happens, whatever changes their caste makes them superior to all others. They appear to be prepared to do anything to prove their supremacy.”
Periyar emphasised how the Hindu texts establish Brahmin supremacy. The norms and socio-cultural structures were altered from time to time to maintain the supremacy of the Brahmins. This is why; changes in Hindu religion should be seen as progressive changes. One must take core Hindu thoughts as opposed to newer beliefs to understand the differences. We have been hearing that the Vedic hymns are too pure to be heard by the lower castes. However, this norm does not apply uniformly. In the same editorial, Periyar says, “In Punjab, the Arya Samajis chant Vedic hymns loudly so that even dogs, horses and donkeys can hear them. In Tamil Nadu, it is said that Vedic hymns must never fall on non-Brahmin ears.” Elaborating further, he says, “In 1930, the people from every fifth caste were not allowed to enter the temples. In Kerala, members of every fourth caste were not allowed to do the same. Today, everyone is allowed to enter the temples. But despite this, the gods have not fled from temples.” These anomalies were used to maintain Brahmnin supremacy. As per their needs, they presented themselves as traditional or reformist.
In some of Periyar’s caste-related writings, Periyar argues that Dravidians should not be seen as Hindus. The emphasis on Aryan and Brahmin supremacy in Hinduism made him feel that way. In the editorial in Kudiyarasu (Republic) dated 6 January 1945, he wrote, “We have been saying for a long time that Hinduism is Aryan religion and that the Aryans are Hindus. This is why I feel that Dravidians must not call themselves Hindus. In accordance with this, in the 1940 convention of the Justice Party a resolution was passed under my chairmanship. It said that the Dravidians must not call themselves Hindus or say that they are connected with Hinduism in any way.” Periyar always considered the Aryans to be outsiders and also believed that the Aryan social system had led to the rise of the caste system. “From the Aryan texts, it seems that they had only objective in life: that they should live comfortably while a large section of society must serve them.” The recurrent undertone in his writings was how exploitation was glorified in Hindu texts. He writes, “Who is responsible for creation of four varnas? Who is responsible for breaking up one nation into thousands of castes and classes? Have the Aryans not done this? Have they not broken our spirit of unity by dividing us into many separate groups, restricting our interactions and fixing different roles for every caste? Is this not the reason that the people of our country do not think of the nation and they are least worried about the other people? We are ashamed that we have become slaves of Aryans and foreigners.” Periyar wanted freedom from both these slaveries. If freedom was to be only from the British, it would be an incomplete one. It will only be complete when Dravidians would get freedom from the racist discrimination of the Hindus and are not exploited. He wrote, “Hindus are parasites. We do all the hard work and they reap the benefits of it. If the freedom struggle does not free us from this, then there is no point in it. If you read the Aryan texts like the Manusmriti, the Puranas or any other such texts you will find that they have a history of living off others and they continue to do so even today.”
Periyar also elaborated on the tales of origin of the various castes. In this context, he also explained how the origin of lower castes was portrayed in a humiliating way. It is claimed that the lower castes were born of illegitimate physical relations. The idea was to shame all the castes except the Brahmins. In his editorial published in 1930, he says, “Thus, it was established that all other castes, except the Brahmans, are low in status. They are not worthy even of the touch of a Brahmin and neither can Brahmins eat at the same table with them. All the other castes were deprived of rights and their primary function was to serve the Brahmans. This was because they were branded as born out of illegitimate relations.” Periyar wanted the caste system to be abolished when the British were still ruling the country. He believed that without efforts at the level of the government, this system would not change. He felt that as soon as the British would leave, the situation would worsen. “The situation in India is such that 999 out of 1,000 people do not wish to abolish the caste system. Instead, they hope to enhance their status so that they can join the Brahmins in exploiting the rest of the population.”
According to Periyar, the base of Hinduism was the caste system. He has explained with examples that whether it is the Hindu sects or Hindi texts, they all were based on the caste system. In a speech on 3 January 1931, he said, “In Hinduism, whether it is Vaishnavism or Shaivism, can you show castes where there is no discrimination. Apart from this, the acts of gods, the preaching of the Mahatmas and the incidents described in Puranas and historical episodes – all endorse the caste system. The 64 Nayanars (Shavaite saints) refer to 64 castes. The 12 Aalwars (Vasihnavite saints) came from 12 castes. If you consider Manu’s religion as the basis of Hindu way of life, then you will find many endorsements of discrimination between castes. No matter how you approach these texts or how religious you are, there is no way you will not see that caste distinction is inherent in Vedas, Shastras, Puranas and history of Hinduism.” Periyar strongly believed that the theoretical basis of caste discrimination lies in the constructs of Hinduism.
Several thought-provoking points about the caste system can be ferreted out of Periyar’s writings as well as his speeches. Periyar said that religion made the caste system crueller. He sought to look for the root of this evil system of Hindu society in Hindu religion. It was his firm belief that Hinduism was brought in by the Aryans and they never had good relations with Dravidians and never would. Any meaningful dialogue between the two is possible only if the notion of racial superiority is completely discarded. The seeds of discord between the two have already borne fruit in the arena of culture and no easy solution can be expected He cited the Ramayana multiple times. He saw the book as a protagonist for Aryan supremacy. It was his belief that the book was used to promote the supremacy of the Aryans and degrade the Dravidians.
The second aspect of Periyar’s caste-related thoughts is the notion of Brahmin supremacy. Whether in texts that supplement the Hindu religious beliefs or the cultural tales like Ramayana, all establish the supremacy of the Brahmins. Brahmins have been described as gods on earth and superior in all conditions and circumstances. Even the Brahmins doing something wrong were considered worth worshipping and above the law. As a result, those born in lower castes considered themselves inferior all their lives. There have been some changes in the treatment meted out to other castes over time, but the core remains as it was. The tales about the origin of lower castes have humiliating references. However, one does not find any such tales about the Brahmins. It is easy to see that these stories are fictional and are meant to portray the Brahmins as superior, pure and legitimate. Periyar wanted to expose the conspiracies behind such insulting tales and wanted that the lower castes should not believe in them. He undertook this daunting task all his life. To strengthen his efforts, he launched programmes, magazines, gave speeches, organised meetings and confronted the Congress. He was not just a thinker. He actively propagated his thoughts in society.
Subsequently, the position of non-Brahmins improved in the politics of Tamil Nadu. After Independence, the Central Government was challenged by Tamil Nadu on numerous occasions. Of the four south Indian states, caste played the biggest role in the politics of Tamil Nadu. However, it was not just about vote-bank politics. It promoted social justice. Those who see the ‘question of caste’ as ‘casteism’ often ridicule it, but understanding caste is crucial to understanding social structures. With time, several thinkers have come to realise the importance of caste for India. In recent times, the Left has also acknowledged the role of caste. It is clear that caste plays a key role in the emergence of class in India. If it is ignored, the retrograde forces will continue to take advantage of the caste divides. It has also been emphasised that without understanding the caste system, any analysis of class in India would be incomplete. This year (2018), at a function organized at JNU for the launch of the book Lok aur Ved: Aamne Saamne by Chauthiram Yadav, in his speech, Veerbharat Talwar emphasized that one will have to talk about caste to understand Indian society. Post-2016, the Leftist parties have been showcasing the images of Dr BR Ambedkar with Bhagat Singh to make their point. This shows the widespread acceptance of the importance of caste. Periyar was among the intellectuals and politicians who understood the relevance of debate on the caste much before others. He played a key role in converting Tamil Nadu into a land of social justice.
(Translation: Susmita Mukherjee. Copy-editing: Amrish Herdenia)
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