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periyar 336Annihilation of caste from within caste associations may sound highly improbable and an anachronism, but that’s what Periyar E.V. Ramasamy ventured out to do. It may be a sort of unprecedented effort from a social reformer who abhorred the very idea of Varnas, and the hierarchical caste system based on Manuvadi notions of purity principle, which placed the twice-born Brahmin on top of the ladder. The crusader who valiantly fought against the Brahmin dominance inside the Congress movement as its president left the movement with a resolve to fight for the annihilation of caste and carried on till his last breath.

The strategies he designed and adopted had a vast range and kept on evolving, for he was aware of the hydra-like character of the caste system, which was sure to surprise the crusaders with newer validations and vile designs. The Self-Respect and rationalism were the tools he wielded in his war against religious faith and superstitions advanced by it. The rationalist had no regard for any kind of religiousness and carried on the criticism relentlessly. But caste was the ultimate target.

He quite vividly understood that the Brahminical hierarchical caste system based on the Varna principle and the Hindu religion were mutually dependent on each other for their very existence and sustenance. The identification of power relations involved therein convinced him that only a double-pronged attack on both was the only way out. This, along with his unusually early understanding of the paucity of a plausible reason to celebrate the nation's idea, added up. The idea of Nationhood, Nationality, Sovereignty, Citizenship failed to fascinate him, and he rejected them all outright.

Periyar E.V.R. was quite sure that caste hierarchy and Hindu religion endowed Brahminical supremacy cannot be uprooted within the framework of the idea of Bharath or India the nation. He categorically announced that the replacement of the British Raj will not end the supremacy of Brahmins and their stranglehold over the Governance and will surely be replaced by a Brahmin Raj. Is it not true today?

 These forums were organized by the so-called upper and intermediary castes to exhort the greatness of their caste and to reminiscence the glorious past they had, and at best they ended up appealing to the government in power to reward them suitably with grants and concessions and to permit them to continue their caste ethos undeterred. Their requests, most of the time, centered on recognition or acknowledgment of their esteemed position in the Varna system, like the claim for ‘Kshatriya’, ‘Vaishya’, and ‘Sath Sudra’ statuses.

What prompted these forums to mushroom is another long story. It all started with the census conducted in the British India by the Colonial government. The first census was conducted in the year 1871, and the same was attempted to be done on Varna and Caste basis. This kindled the hornet’s nest. The Dravidian land, ie. Madras Presidency, which had no trace of the Varna system's existence, was caught in a turmoil and the whole situation was vitiated and messed up. There were Brahmins, who claimed Aryan descent and a top position on the Varna table, but the rest of the lot were all either Sudras and or Avarnas. This nonexistence of Kshatriyas and Vaishyas kicked up high anxiety among the so-called Sudras and a scramble for a higher position in the caste ladder, making them approach the authorities census commissioner’s concerned with petitions for a higher placement.

These petitions needed a detailed document to support their claim, and this gave way for the writing of a plethora of caste narratives to prop up the claim. The caste narratives written were mostly imaginative and repetitive and were done through hired scholars who did it for a hefty payment. To do this petitioning and assigning the job of writing caste narratives, the caste men gathered, and this collection turned out to be an association. These caste associations had to permanently carry on the task as the census was enumerated every ten years, and this permanent bodies carried out annual conferences to reiterate their claims. This had to continue till 1931 when the last caste wise census was done, and the unfortunate fact is that their claims were never acceded to by the colonial government.

On the contrary, the census commissioners categorically stated in their reports that the Varna table is not applicable to Dravidian people. But never failed to record Brahmin's preeminent presence, for the report was every time compiled by Brahmin officers who handled the census. That speaks volumes about the perpetuation of hierarchical anxiety that was brought about and sustained. The claim for placements in Varna table was conclusively nailed in the census report for the year 1901. This report ordered the castes based on the presence and absence of Brahmin in the caste men ceremonies. The castes which had the favor of the Brahmin in all their household ceremonies topped the table, the position declined as the presence of Brahmin become less frequent, and the absolute absence Brahmin ensured a place rank outside the honorable placement. The question Avarnas being listed was out of the question.

 But this was not the whole story and confining them to the upper caste meets will not be fair, for there were quite a lot of caste association meets of depressed castes like Adi Dravidas and Devendra Kula Velalas with genuine grievances about the atrocities perpetrated on them by the upper and intermediary castes and the callous attitude shown by the government in power, which fails to address the same. As such, the single largest caste association meet Periyar attended were the ones conducted by Adi Dravidas or Parayars and Devendra Kula Velalas. These meets spanned a period of twenty-odd years from the twenties to forties. Strangely he was called to speak at Christian Adi Dravida meets as well.

The manner and method adopted by him while addressing these meets punctuate the clarity, he had with regard to the project of annihilation of caste for these were assigned the last order of the caste hierarchy. Annihilation of caste with regard to these caste groups was absolutely on a different footing and needed a different strategy, and the language employed needed to be with a difference to instill the requite rapport that’s needed to converse with them. A close reading of the discourses he made in those forums may dispel certain misgivings that are aired in this regard. I will take up and discuss this in detail later.

 It may not be far from truth to say that Periyar’s initiative to participate in caste conferences was prompted by his arch-rivals, the Brahmins, for they were the first to jump the guns against caste conferences of others. They had the audacity to do this while conducting numerous conferences on and about the necessity of continuance of Varnashrama dharma, the divine dictate. Hundred-plus caste conferences, ranging from the so-called upper castes, intermediary castes, and the depressed castes, were attended by Periyar from the early 1920s to 1960s. While the conferences happened quite frequently between the 1920s and 1940s, they thinned out post-Independence.

The caste association forums were the least probable place for people with the mission of annihilating caste to be seen around, they were either shunned by them or scoffed at. Usually, these conferences were Chaired by dignitaries of the day like Chief Ministers and Ministers, and when Justice party formed the government in the 1920s, these conferences flourished for they had the blessings of the government in power. The dignitaries made a formal appearance and wished associations well and left in a rush. Periyar saw any gathering that’s willing to come together for a common cause, though the cause was related to the specific interest of a caste, a potential place to make an attempt to air his views. As far as caste associations, he had a positive attitude towards them and approved and acknowledged that people of non-Brahmin and depressed classes should come together to express their grievances and aspirations, for they had a debilitating social stigma of “untouchability” and “caste hierarchy “ to escape from.

He was quite convinced that they should aspire to wriggle out through their effort and that these meets were truly equipping facilitation venues. These forums were the right place to explain to them the cause of their misfortune, and the perpetrators of the evil need to be exposed unsparingly. When the opportunity came, he grabbed them greedily and made optimum use of it. But the climate and situation that made it possible for a confirmed and outspoken iconoclast like him to be taken into confidence by caste associations may be unbelievable. Still, the groundwork done by quite a few of his predecessors who shared his concern was solid. It started out quite early, and a few of the forerunners who need to be acknowledged are like Vallalar, Ayothi Dass, Athippakkam Venkatachalam, and non-Brahmin movement spearheaded by Dr. T M Nair, Dr. Natesan, Piti Theeyagarayar, and others.

Periyar was no stranger to caste associations, for he had met with a few of them as the President of Tamil Nadu Congress Party. The emergence of the non-Brahmin movement effectively triggered a debate against Brahmins' dominance in Congress. As secretary and president, he was working with leaders like Varatharajulu Naidu, Thiru.Vi. Kalyanasundaram and others to negotiate, moderate, and end the same. In fact, quite a few caste associations like Nadar sangams had continued to be in touch with him.

The earliest of documented evidence about Periyar EVR, pertaining to the year 1923 reported in ‘Nadar Mithran ‘, while he was the President of Congress Party, states that a delegation of people from the Nadar community met him in Aruppukottai, a town near Madurai, to complain about the secretary of the Congress Party. They went to air their grievance, for the Secretary (Probably Shriman Madurai Vaidyanatha Aiyar and this was the man, later in the year 1938, credited with leading a delegation of Dalits and Nadars into Meenakshi Temple in Madurai) who had promised to pass a resolution in the Madurai conclave, with regard to the permission to Nadars to enter the temples in Madurai, Ramanathapuram region, but held back the same on resistance from Brahmins and upper castes.

In the editorial of ‘Kudi Arasu’ magazine on 24.01.1932, he elaborates on the cause and necessity that brought about numerous caste conferences and the justification for the conduct of the same. Periyar writes, ‘Due to the factor that a limited political power got extended and the increased protestations on that score, awakened the caste groups who were underdeveloped in education and unrepresented or underrepresented in government employment and local self-government positions. The presence and sight of a large number of people from a very few upper castes educated, endowed with titles (the ones like Row Bahadur, Row sahib, etc.) and in local body offices, prompted other caste groups to organize caste conferences with an intention to demand their due share from the government on that score. It’s only fair to fight for an equal share in power, titles, and political office for all sections of the society, in a country of so many class and caste groups ‘.

It goes on to state that people living on the cliff of the hills, living in caves, living in middle ranges of the hills, and the ones living in the foothills, should be allowed to live in plains as one community with equal opportunities. (The ‘hill’ and the ‘levels’ referred to are not ‘literal’ but only suggests the multiple layers of social ordering. But that may not be fair to reduce and confine the suggestions as symbolic, for Periyar had a broader agenda of ‘eradication of villages’. This ‘village eradication’ scheme was a part of caste annihilation project and an effective counter to Gandhian Village Resurrection Project). The possibility that this effort in due course will ensure the erasing the caste and cultural differences and make them live as brothers only make us support and attend such meets for a long time now. We also insist that people of progressive views should organize such conferences and with an attitude to bring about change in society and not by people with a view to continue the age-old abusive customs and with an intention to perpetuate the caste system. The argument that these caste conferences should not be held and that seeking proportional representation is an anti-national act will hamper the cause of national freedom is the Brahmin community's vile scheme, and a few upper castes to hold on to power forever.

The caste conferences Periyar participated should have been in hundreds, but the data available is for a hundred plus meets, and the speech content that could be accessed is limited to less than fifty. The conferences he attended can broadly be categorized into the following. 1) Adi Dravida and Devendra Kula Velala conferences or Dalit conferences (It’s to be noted that the majority number of conferences Periyar attended were Dalit conferences. The conferences he participated were held in Colombu, Sri Lanka, Penang and Malasiya and a Theeyar community conferences in Ernakulam, Kerala) 2) Nadar (essentially a trading community, originally supposed to have involved in palmyra tree climbing and toddy tapping and were listed along Avarnas) caste conferences 3) Sengunthar Conferences (a caste group involved in weaving and trading of textiles especially sarees) 4) Vanniar sangam (a dominant backward class caste, now listed as most backward community, comprising mostly agriculture laborers and with small land holdings) 5) Other backward class communities which included 1) Parkavar caste (a land holding caste, the land holdings ranged from little to very large estates but a section of them were involved in pottery as well), 2) Isai Vellala (involved in music and dance. legendary maestros of composition of music and instrumental music like Nageswaram. The leader of DMK, Kalaignar Karunanidhi were born in this community) 3) Chettiars (another big time traders and essentially money lenders, who were in possession of large extent of land in Malaysia and Burmah (now Myanmar) 4) Agamudayar caste (considered to be one of the Mukulathor caste group and a dominant backward class caste) 5) Vellala Goundar (another dominant backward class caste cluster, originally a farming community now a pre dominant Tamil industrial class).

 One should make a note of the fact, the editorial in “Kudi Arasu” happened in the year 1932. This was by way of explaining his position on questions being raised by  ‘nationalists and gentlemen socialists’ who wished not to see or hear the caste question. They were very focused on achieving the ‘Freedom’ and imagined that a sovereign India would resolve caste issues in due course, for they either knew not a way out or did not want it to go. Though most of them were not hardcore Hindu Nationalists, they thought that the meddling with the very complicated caste hierarchy deeply embedded in the Hindu idea would hamper the freedom project. For Periyar, a non-conformist to the core, the idea of a Nation never appealed, but the dismantling of caste hierarchy was urgent and time-bound. So, the editorial was an observation made from experimentations made, and experiences gathered on caste forum’s platforms, which started in the year 1925 itself. The process involved in bringing this about was meticulous and calculated.

When Periyar found it proper to take up the project of ‘annihilation of caste’ to the doorsteps of caste abode itself and utilized the conference platforms that sprouted out of the anxiety that prevailed among caste groups about the missing opportunities. The conference speeches, he chaired invariably started out with an appreciation for certain community development works done by it and went on to narrate the necessity of communities coming together to alleviate the sufferings of the group and to voice their needs. Now comes the takeoff, he insists that caste associations while working for amity among caste men should ensure peaceful co-existence with other caste people around as well.

This peaceful co-existence project is made simple if someone accepts and supports the fact that “nobody is above and likewise nobody is below as well”. Then, he moves on to narrate the state of affairs prevailing and the cause that perpetuates the same. Early on, he started criticizing the irrational belief system and tried to inculcate the idea of ‘rationality’ and scientific temper. Shortly he started harping on the idea of Sudra identity while speaking among backward class caste groups, and the manner and method he adopted then were quite harsh, for he wanted them to realize the fact. These harsh Sudra discourses were warranted and legitimized by the claims of caste associations for higher placement in the Varna table. The very idea of the plea enraged him and made him make a vehement attack on the Manu Dharma Shastra which facilitated the codification / classification of castes in hierarchical order with the Brahmin on top and the Varna concept that upheld it and the Hindu belief system that approved and sustained the same.

The ritual supremacy bestowed on the Brahmin by the Hindu religion and the ‘pollution’, ‘purity’ principles that empowered them to dictate terms to the society were quite offending to him. In time he arrived at through various deliberations and numerous ruminations came to the conclusion that ‘annihilation of caste’ is not done without dismantling the idea of Hindu religion and dethroning the Brahman who presided over all these evils.

The discourses he made in caste conferences are quite unique and unbelievable. A close reading of a few of the discourses may help in understanding the kind of rapport he had established and the kind of confidence he had instilled in them, the liberty he took to make such daring statements among the caste men in their caste associations.

 As we had observed early on that almost thirty percent of conferences, he attended were the ones of Dalit communities. It is not something that’s to be wondered about for those were the castes found themselves completely burdened and suffocated by the caste hierarchy, though being placed rank outside the Varna table. The centuries-old servitude thrust upon them and with an add on ‘untouchability’ was unbearable and intolerable.

There were two major schools of thought involved in the mission of ‘annihilation of caste’ in general and eradication of untouchability in particular during that period. The one proposed and experimented by Gandhi and the other spearheaded by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, the messiah of caste oppressed Indian mass in general and Dalits in particular. The Gandhian approach of appealing to the conscientiousness of the upper castes, the perpetrators, and practitioners of the ‘heinous crime’ to take up the cause of eradication of untouchability. Though this act of condescending nobility is great as a gesture, to make it work was an impossibility and fell apart on the departure of Gandhi. On the other hand, Ambedkar’s prescription was for a proactive role of Dalits with an emphatic approval and acknowledgment by the government in power. Ambedkar wanted not an empathy of the upper castes and men in power, but a stringent and efficient/working law to back up the upward mobility of the Dalits.

Periyar was a close friend and a great admirer of Ambedkar and approved most actions of his. They shared the view that the Hindu religion and the Brahminical caste hierarchy are the worst enemies of humanity. On two occasions, he differed with him, the first one being the signing of Pune pact with Gandhi. He wanted him not to sign the pact. The second one related to the idea of religious conversion as a way out from the evils of caste hierarchy and untouchability. So, when he addressed the Dalit masses, he wanted them to unite and rise.

He was categorically clear that others will never aid their ‘freedom’, and the burden is on them to do it. A pertinent point that’s not to be missed in his discourses is that he never attempted to club them with non-Brahmin masses, except on occasions when the narrative harped the Hindu religion and the belief system. He was candid in his talks and went on to state that those of them who are championing the cause of eradication of untouchability are not to be believed, for they are doing just lip service. The charge that he clustered them with non-Brahmin castes is far from the truth, for he always addressed them as ‘you’ and ‘yourselves’ and failed not to make it known that they are the ‘other’ of the so-called caste Hindu non-Brahmin lot.

 While insisting on effort from within the Dalits, he was not sympathetic to aspirations of finding a placement in caste order by Dalit communities. Addressing the meets of Devendra Kula Velalas, he minced no words about the ignominy involved in calling themselves as ‘Devendrars’. Likewise, another essential feature not to be missed is the ones he made in Christian Adi Dravida conferences. These speeches entirely deviate from his usual line of attack on the Hindu religion and never mention Brahmin's stranglehold. The speeches open with the observation that the act of leaving the Hindu religion has not helped them escape the caste oppression. He squarely blames Christianity for the failure and states that they should hold the priests responsible. He unsparingly attacks the Christian missionaries and says that they will find the peace and solace not here but only in the ‘heavenly abode’ and death is the quick way to make it there.

 The kind of discourses he could make at non-Brahmin / backward class castes are varied and a treasure of ideas on caste annihilation. As we had seen earlier after a few formal appreciations, he launches on right away. The earliest talk that could be accessed was made at Coimbatore district Sengunthar Conference (speech made on 27, 28.12.1925 and reported in Kudi Arasu on 10.01.1926). In this conference, he lauds the efforts of caste men in bringing about economic development to the community, but points out to the practice of ‘Pottu kattuthal’ (the Devadasi cult which sanctioned ‘marrying off’ of a girl child to the presiding deity of a Hindu temple. This was just an ‘pretense’ for the child become a public property at the disposal of the head Brahman priest) This caste group who were basically weaver community were involved in Silk weaving and a few of them become traders which resulted in affluence to a section of the society. Hence the small group practicing the above system and whose menfolk were players of Nathaswaram, a classical musical instrument, were treated as outcastes and were left in a lurch. Periyar chooses a moment of pride to remind them about the negligence. For him, community coming together was welcome, and the purpose should only be for the uplift of everyone, not to show off.

Similarly, two of the backward class castes who were on the undying mission of achieving ‘Kshatriya’ status right from 1871 were not spared. The Vanniars wanted the title of ‘Vanniya kula Kshatriya’ and Nadars sought ‘Agni Kula Kshatriya’ title. Periyar questioned the very idea of the Varna system and chided them for humbling themselves for a title that has no relevance to Tamils. Periyar continued the tirade against the various Varna title claims of Nattu Kottai Chettis, who wanted to be ‘Vaishyas’, Maravars who claimed ‘Kshatriya’ title and Saiva Vellalas who wanted to be termed as ‘Sath Sudras’.

 Periyar did most of these on caste platforms, and the access given to him when it was known that this was the line he would take was well known is the one factor that eludes comprehension. Adding to the sense of disbelief was the fact that the feminist utterances he went on to make in caste forums. In a Nadar youth forum in a small town called Porayar in Tanjore district of Tamil Nadu, he made the notoriously famous statement that women should dress like men in trousers and shirts, cut their long hair off and not stopping there went on to state that they should also stake claim to marry more than one man if their spouses do so.

The whole project of annihilation of caste, decimating of religious belief system, dethroning of Brahminical hegemony was anchored on ‘Self-Respect’. The self-Respect of Periyar is at once empowering and subverting. First, let’s consider the empowerment aspect. Self-Respect dissuades one from acceding to the notion of the superiority of another person, especially the question of superiority by a birth factor it denies. While denying the claim of superiority by birth to another person makes it naturally so for the self. Hence was the sermon like a repeated reminder to the caste groups in particular and masses in general made by Periyar, that ‘one should never admit that somebody is above you and likewise somebody is below you’. The prescription is innocuously simple, but the fact remains that once the mental attitude of hierarchy in relation to caste is effectively removed, what remains in the ‘hollow form’ caste is obviously empty. Yes, when the basis of caste pride anchors on hierarchy, the absence of the same steals the ‘meaning and essence’ of caste itself. The subversion happens simultaneously, along with empowerment.

- VMS Subagunarajan

Selected Bibliography:

1920 - ஆதி-திராவிடர் பூர்வ சரித்திரம். இது சென்னை 'நியுரிபார்மர்' பத்திராதிபர், D.கோபால செட்டியாரால் எழுதப்பட்டு, சென்னை கிரந்தி - ராமஸ்வாமி செட்டியர் அச்சியந்திர சாலையில் பதிப்பிக்கப்பட்டது.

1923 - தமிழர் நாகரிகம் அல்லது வேளாளர் யாவர்? இது பல்லாவரம் பொது நிலைக்கழக குருவும் ஞானசாகர ஆசிரியருமான ஸ்ரீலஸ்ரீ சுவாமி வேதாசலம் என்னும் மறைமலையடிகளால் இயற்றப்பட்டு பல்லாவரம் பொதுநிலைக் கழகத்து டி.எம். அச்சுக்கூடத்திற் பதிப்பிக்கப்பட்டது.

1957 - சாதிவேற்றுமையும் போலிச் சைவரும். பல்லாவரம் பொது நிலைக்கழக பல்லாவரம் பொது நிலைக்கழக குருவும் ஞானசாகர ஆசிரியர் சுவாமி வேதாசலம் என்னும் மறைமலையடிகள் இயற்றியது. திருநெல்வேலி சைவ சித்தாந்த நூற்பதிப்புக் கழகம்.

1999 - அயோத்திதாசர் சிந்தனைகள் -1. தொகுப்பாசிரியர் ஞான. அலாய்சியஸ். பாளையங்கோட்டை: நாட்டார் வழக்காற்றியல் ஆய்வு மையம்.

2000 - சேந்தன் திவாகரம் பிங்கலம் சூடாமணி, சென்னை: சாந்தி சாதனா.

2013 - அத்திபாக்கம் அ.வெங்கடசலனார் ஆக்கங்கள் திரட்டு, பதிப்பு : வீ. அரசு, சென்னை : என்.சி.பி.எச்.

2014 - தமிழ் அச்சுப் பண்பாட்டில் சாதி நூல்கள், ர.குமார், சென்னை: என்.சி.பி.எச்.

1874 - W.R. Cornish, Census Report Of Madras Presidency 1871, Madras Government Press.

1883 - Lewis  McIver, Imperial Census Of Presidency Of Madras 1881, Madras Government Press.

1893 - H.A.Stuart, Census of India 1891 Vol.XIII Madras, Madras Government Press.

1902 - W.Francis, Census of India 1901 Vol.XV Madras, Madras Government Press.

1912 - J.Chartres Molony, Census of India 1911 Vol.XII Madras, Madras Government Press

1922 - G.T.Boag, Census of India 1921 Vol.XIII Madras, Madras Government Press.

1933 - M.W.M.Yeatts, Census of India 1931 Vol.XIV Madras, Madras Government Press.

1906 - Abe J.A.Dubois, Hindu Manners Customs and Ceremonies, OUP.

2012 - Uma Chakravarti,  Beyond the Kings and Brahmanas of 'Ancient' India. Delhi : Tulika Books.

2013 - Nicholas B. Dirks, Caste of Mind: Colonialism and The Making of Modern India, Delhi: Permanent Black.

2018 - வீ.எம்.எஸ். சுபகுணராசன் (தொகுப்பும் பதிப்பும்), நமக்கு ஏன் இந்த இழிநிலை: ஜாதி மகாநாடுகளிலும் ஜாதி ஒழிப்பு மகாநாடுகளிலும் பெரியார். சென்னை : கயல் கவின்                                      

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