On 24 December, a tweet by the Tamil Nadu wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) mocked Periyar’s marriage to Maniammai, who was 40 years his junior. Soon the tweet drew widespread condemnation both in Tamil Nadu and elsewhere, and was quickly removed. It briefly reappeared under the Tamil Nadu BJP IT wing’s twitter handle before being removed again. The tweet went: “Today is the death anniversary of Maniammai’s father Periyar. Let us support the death penalty for people who sexually assault children and take the pledge that we will create a society without any POCSO accused”. POCSO stands for The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act 2012. V. Geetha, who has researched and authored books on Periyar, contextualizes both the marriage and this outburst in an email interview with FORWARD Press:
What kind of mindset does this malicious tweet represent? What do you think these people’s view is on women, and Periyar? What is the objective of those behind it?
This tweet hits a new low, as far as the Sangh Parivar’s views and expressions on Periyar are concerned. They have never lost a chance to run his ideas down, and to make a monster out of him. In a sense, this is not very new. Previously, Tamil Brahmins were prone to doing this – they would circulate malicious gossip about him, in order to discredit him personally or call into question his political sincerity. And this gossip gets around: I remember being shocked – this was in 1995 – when one of India’s best known and highly regarded sociologists, then in his 80s, took me aside at the end of a conference on urban cultures, to ask if I knew that Periyar was secretly a theist! He had been told I was writing a book on Periyar and this was his contribution to that book! I said this was not true at all, and possibly gossip, but he affirmed he had it from sources he did not doubt – and he had been told Periyar had a shrine dedicated to Ganapathy in his garden and that he offered worship there secretly.
But I guess what the Sanghis are up to today is qualitatively different: whereas Brahmins and other dominant castes fear Periyar’s acute criticism, and are aware of the extent of his influence in Tamil Nadu, and therefore try to minimise his importance, Sanghis have a different project: they not only want to vilify him, they wish to create a culture of hatred around his name, work and ideas. Considering Periyar’s own practice of a culture of civility in the face of caste – to adapt Suryakant Waghmore’s wonderful phrase – this is of course violently ironic. But their agenda is clear: Periyar must be castigated if their version of politics is to find a home in Tamil Nadu. Also, because he was such a relentless critic of Hinduism, a great supporter of Islam as a faith that historically invoked and practised brotherhood, they are doubly angry. Further, his rationalism mocks their politics. And they have chosen to express their hatred through gendered expressions – again, not surprising. Their hatred of Muslims has always been gendered: Muslim men are viewed as inherently promiscuous, Muslim women as abject, and an entire politics of fear and anxiety has been built around the myth of high birth rates amongst Muslims, and their so-called proneness to polygamy … and the criminalization of triple talaq is of course an expression of their punitive attitude to what they consider Muslim masculinity. Where Periyar is concerned, they have responded as viciously, but there is this additional twist: Periyar, as we know, wrote on sexual equality, women’s right to their bodies, against compulsory marriage and motherhood, and he made it clear that sexual morality is really historically relative – and that what one generation considers “normal” another might find odd and strange. He was particularly opposed to women being viewed as mere breeders – something that the Sangh Parivar favours and tries to legitimize by drawing on imagery to do with “mothers of the nation”, etc. To criticize Periyar on the grounds of those principles he held dear – this is clearly their aim. Additionally, they have sought to build on a pervasive culture of moral and sexual panic that they have actually helped naturalize, with their plans for surveillance of people with an intent to catch out sexual offenders, and their endorsement of the death penalty for rape and sexual crimes against children. Hence the tweet: on Periyar’s death anniversary they choose to recall his marriage to a woman 40 years his junior, reference POCSO in this context, and ask for the law to be stringent with respect to crimes against children.
To associate Periyar with POCSO is of course vicious and calculated to offend many of us in Tamil Nadu. But also to build on the current moral climate. Periyar’s decision to marry Maniammai, a 31-year-old woman, who was a member of his DK, and a co-worker was not a unilateral one. Maniammai consented, and he viewed her as a companion and as his legal representative who would ensure that the resources he had garnered for his party’s future were spent in the spirit he meant them to be spent. It was a rational decision – to thus “adopt” an heir, not of his caste, a woman to boot, was not a legal option for him. Remember the Hindu Law of adoption had not yet been amended, and therefore it was not possible to adopt a young woman as a legal heir, and he then resorted to the only legal option he had, which was marriage. However, he was criticized by some of his closest followers, including the first Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam [DMK] Chief Minister C.N. Annadurai, who had used this marriage as a pretext to leave the DK and start his own party [DMK]. Clearly, though, Annadurai’s reasons, explained in and through gendered expressions that cast Maniammai in derogatory terms, did not have to do only with the marriage: he was unhappy with the DK’s decision to declare August 15 a day of mourning – Periyar considered the onset of Indian independence as signifying Brahmin-Bania rule and hence to be denounced – and equally with the DK’s decision to stay away from electoral politics. Being the fiery populist that he was, Annadurai and a band of like-minded men waited for an opportune moment to exit the DK. He drew on a well-known repertoire of gendered arguments to explain his exit – and in the event, made Periyar seem an old man who had compromised on his principles, and Maniammai an adventurer who was out to profit from this decision. It is a matter of sadness that Annadurai’s expressions were tinged with sexual innuendo of a kind that is hard to stomach.
My point is that Periyar’s radicalism, to do with gender, Hinduism and Brahmin authority, has not all enjoyed equal currency in the Tamil context. Politically he counts, but whether those who uphold him in a political sense are as committed to these other aspects of his thought, or seek to debate them intelligently and critically – that remains an open question. And it is this ambiguity that shadows our public affirmation of Periyar – and unless we work at it creatively, we are not going to be able to address the Sanghis from a position of critical strength. Political outrage is alright, as far as it goes, but we need to be asserting our essentially different world views, and upholding the values that have come down to us from the great anti-caste traditions of this country.
How would Periyar respond if he were alive today?
Most likely, he would have contextualized his decision to marry Maniammai, and sought to explain himself rationally, and also to deconstruct public perceptions of marriage, as such. With respect to the Sanghis, he would have treated us to a deeply satirical and sharp critique of their sexual perversity, their lack of respect for women, and also pointed to the ruses resorted to by Brahmanism in our times – to discredit world views that challenge the latter. He probably would have censured Tamil Non-Brahmins for their complicity, for allowing the Sangh Parivar to grow to a position of at least media prominence. But most important, he would have alerted us to the many meanings coded into the anti-Islamism of the Parivar, and how we would have to take that on, and not shy away from that hatred for all things Muslim.
He would have wanted us to engage not only with Muslims, but Islam as well.
Is Periyar an obvious target of the Sangh Parivar? Why so?
I think I have addressed this above.
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