A secular, freethinkers’ union was active in Madras in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. It affiliated itself with and was perhaps known to Freethought circles in England. The union called itself ‘the Chennai Suyaakina Sangam’, calling attention to its will to think through rather than accept truth as given and handed down. The sangam ran two journals, Tattuva Vivesini in Tamil and The Thinker in English. We do not know enough about the circumstances that halted their publication, but the forthright and freewheeling critique of scripture and priesthood which Tattuva Vivesini put forth did leave its mark in the Tamil intellectual world. Some of the Tamil Buddhists who gathered around Pandit Iyothee Thass and those who were drawn to the rational aspects of Buddhism such as M. Masilamani and Professor Lakshminarasu in the early twentieth century knew of the Madras secularists.

Periyar during Self respect movementThis tradition of criticizing religion in public and suggesting a recognizably atheistic and rationalist world view was returned to history in the 1920s, with the founding of the Self-Respect movement. Voiced in public forums, private social gatherings and cultural events, and consistently argued in various Self-respect magazines and journals, rationalism and atheism acquired a characteristic resonance, as they spoke to and addressed the critical claims of their vernacular and historical contexts. Drawing on the marvelously lucid and satiric writings of freethinkers in Victorian and Edwardian England and the United States of America, Tamil atheists and rationalists deployed these learnt principles to advance a critique of the indecent inequities of caste society and Brahmins and Brahminism. They called attention, in particular, to the manner in which religion and politics intertwined and informed both the politics and practice of Congress nationalists, in Tamil Nadu and elsewhere in the country. Self-respecters put forth a radical critique of Gandhi’s ‘resolution’ of untouchability, which subjected the Mahatma’s humane piety to pitiless, rational scrutiny. Such a lens was also taken to the women’s question, and this led to the making of an extraordinarily rich feminist point of view, which baffles us even today, by its fearlessness and commitment to equality in both sexual and social relationships.

Revolt: A Brief Description

Amongst the Self-respect journals which adopted radical rationalism as their creed, Revolt stands out. For one, it was the first English language weekly to be published by the movement, and edited by Ramasami Periyar. Secondly, given its potentially wider readership, it constituted the Self-respect movement as uniquely internationalist – aligning it, both discursively and historically, with filial movements in the rest of India and with rationalists elsewhere in the world.

The weekly was launched at Erode, the birthplace of Periyar E.V.Ramasami on November 7, 1928, which, in the words of the leader written for its first anniversary number, was “that memorable day in the history of the nations, the day of the anniversary of the immortal Revolution in Russia, the day which is looked upon as the violent explosion of human liberty, the day which is memorialised by millions in Russia for the mighty mixing up of monarchs and the masses”. It was printed and published by Periyar’s wife Nagammal at ‘Unmai Vilakkam Press’ (Truthseekers Press).

The journal was briefly shifted to Madras and then back to Erode before it ceased publication in early 1930. In the declaration filed before the Judicial Magistrate for registering the journal, Nagammal said: “By the word ‘Revolt’, I mean breaking with restrictions. That is, breaking against that constraint which goes against nature and reason – whether in politics, in bureaucracy, capitalism or in gender relations – whichever constraint that violates human welfare (dharma) and human nature” (Kudi Arasu, 22.4.1928)

Revolt was thus at once agitational and pedagogic and given to the making of a transformed and new commonsense. Along with news of political Non-brahminism and the Self-respect movement, of various conferences and addresses, it carried articles on contemporary politics, social reform and ran regular columns on science, religion and atheism. Revolt’s editors and writers responded with alacrity to the anxieties of the hour, to pressing political and social events, such as the Simon boycott (1927) and the release of the Nehru Committee report (1928); the tabling of the Child Marriage Restraint Act and Devadasi Abolition Bill (1927-28). These situations were well-utilized by the paper’s columnists to expound to the non-Tamil world, critical, home-grown ideas of Self-respect, mutuality, progress and justice. Indignant, wickedly funny and expounding a philosophy of social compassion and comradeship, Revolt provided a much needed antidote to the sanctimonious tenor of political and social debates in Tamil Nadu. Unmindful of criticisms voiced from orthodox quarters and the nationalist press, however vituperative these were, Revolt persisted in its radicalism.

Revolt was initially edited by Periyar, along with S. Ramanathan, Periyar’s peer and comrade in the Self-respect movement. Erudite, brilliant and consistent in his atheism and rationalism, Ramanathan wielded an elegant, ironic pen. Subsequently S. Guruswami, married to the feminist and rationalist, Kunjitham, took over as joint editor. Savage in its satiric intent and mocking in tone, Guruswami’s distinct political humour and incisive prose created enduring vignettes of social hypocrisy, orthodoxy and authority. Most other writers who wrote signed articles in Revolt were associated with the Non-brahmin and Self-respect movements – K. M. Balasubramaniam, P. Chidambaram Pillay, R.Viswanathan, to name some of them. Some, including a few Brahmin contributors, appear curious critics of obscurantism and superstition and it is not clear what their political affiliations were.

Regular contributors to Revolt included those whom we only know through their pseudonyms or initials – ‘Kirk’ (which, if read as comprising Tamil syllables, means ‘madman’),’Fountain Pen’, ‘Ritus’, ‘B.G.’, to name a few. Sometimes we are able to identify the men behind the initials. ‘P.C.P’, for instance, was P. Chidambaram Pillay; ‘Jeejay’, was George Joseph, the intrepid nationalist from Kerala, and ‘Esji’, the inimitable S. Guruswami himself. Typically, editorials and lead articles carried no bylines. There was at least one consistent woman contributor, Miss Gnanam, whose witty and sharply edged criticism of religions is remarkable for its clarity and boldness.

Besides essays and columns by these and other writers, who wrote using pseudonyms, Revolt reproduced, sometimes translated from the Tamil, writings and speeches by Non-brahmin and Self-respect leaders, publicists and intellectuals, including Periyar, R. K. Shanmugam and A. Ramasami Mudaliar. It also extracted articles from like-minded journals published elsewhere in the country that featured the views of the Jat Pat Todak Mandal of Lahore, an anti-caste association, linked to the Arya Samaj; and which reported on Dr Ambedkar and the incipient dalit movement in the Bombay Presidency. Revolt followed anti-caste debates in Kerala, those initiated by Sri Narayana Dharma Paripalana (SNDP) Yogam. The magazine also featured regular news and views from the global world of rationalism and atheism.

Revolt in Its Time

Revolt was active for over two momentous years: from 1928-1930. The mid-and late 1920s were marked by workers’ unrest in Bombay and Calcutta in key industries, the great railway strike and articulated rural discontent in the Andhra region of the Madras Presidency and the United Provinces. These years also saw the determined assertion of a radical anti-untouchability politics in the Bombay province under the leadership of Dr Ambedkar, which directly challenged the Gandhian approach to reform, and threatened to steal nationalism’s moral aura from it. Besides, Congress nationalists had to contend with youthful militancy in Bengal and Punjab. The Young Bengal group and Bhagat Singh’s Hindustan Republican Army (HRA) offered political alternatives that diminished the appeal – at least to the young – of habitual nationalist rhetoric that now appeared wan and discordant.

In the Tamil country, the years 1928-1929 were crucial for other reasons as well. The Devadasi abolition debates, occasioned by Dr Muthulakshmi’s bill that sought to end the practice of dedicating young girls to temples, got under way in 1928. The Tamil cultural world was soon beset with a host of questions to do with social and sexual practices in caste society and the sexual subjugation of women. During the same period, H. S. Gour and Har Bilas Sarda’s legislative efforts to raise the age of consent to conjugal as well as extra-marital sexual intercourse and restrain child marriage respectively incited orthodox opposition and fury in Madras (such fury was not exhibited in other parts of the country). In turn, such fury and ire led to the consolidation of radical opinion on the subject. Tamil radical thought to do with gender benefited too from nationalist horror over the publication of Katherine Mayo’s infamous Mother India (the book was published in 1927) and the subsequent defenses of Hindu culture which followed in the following years. Self-respecters utilized Mayo’s arguments to put forward their distinctive critique of caste and of women’s status in Hindu society.

Tamil publicists and ideologues were also involved at this time in intense debates over the rights of the so-called untouchables to enter temples. Self-respecters were in the forefront of several temple entry struggles and active in other causes to do with opposing and castigating untouchability. They were particularly watchful and critical of moderate reformists who were eloquent on the subject during these years and keenly sensitive to Gandhi’s incredible sophistry in matters to do with the so-called untouchables.

These disparate historical events constellated into a restless and trying historical conjuncture, whose significance was not lost on the nationalist Congress. There were rumblings in its own ranks, expressed best in Jawaharlal Nehru’s call for going beyond a politics of seeking autonomy, home rule or dominion status: in the Madras conference of the Indian National Congress, he insisted that nationalists demand ‘purna Swaraj’. There was discontent of another sort as well, articulated by decidedly ‘Hindu’ Congressmen who were none too happy with attempts to engage the Muslim League’s fears and concerns in the drawing up of a constitutional scheme for Indian governance. These two tendencies had to reckon with a third: the desire expressed by a section of Congressmen to break with Gandhian Non-cooperation and enter the legislature. High idealism, a barely concealed Hindu nationalism and an articulated desire for political office: to address these disparate interests, Congress had to design a solution that was both ethically credible as well as politically astute.

Gandhi turned out to be the man of the hour. He succeeded in both recognizing and restraining the younger Nehru’s political ardour; he endorsed the Motilal Nehru Committee’s proposals for constitutional reform, even though they did not offer nearly enough to the Muslim League; and outlined the conditions in which Congress nationalists could remain opposed to colonial authority, even while being part of the legislature. He also lent this support to the Child Marriage Restraint Bill. The Calcutta Congress session of 1928 was the battle ground on which this Gandhian consensus was forged: a lofty nationalism was proclaimed, which conceded nothing to the political radicalism of either Young Bengal that was on the nationalist fringe, or the HRA; and which chose to ignore the anti-caste protests in the Madras and Bombay presidencies. Hindu-Muslim unity was loudly and endlessly affirmed, even though Jinnah would denounce Congress’ political reform proposals immediately thereafter; and importantly Congressmen were offered an honourable way of being legislators and opponents of government at the same time.

Gandhi’s moral rhetoric and political acumen won the day for Congress, and it is noteworthy that his political and moral choices were not locked in creative tension, as they had been in the Non-cooperation years, and dovetailed all too easily into each other. In fact, this period saw the beginning of Gandhi’s passive revolution, and one that would unfold in all its detailed brilliance in the years that followed, until the Congress took office in 1937. As Antonio Gramsci noted from a faraway Italian prison, Gandhi’s passive revolution secured for the nationalists their hegemony. Over the next decade, they absorbed restive social and political energies and in some instances accommodated them – the emergence of a socialist group in Congress and Gandhi’s Harijan Sevak Sangh engaged with the opposition, so to speak, and sought to co-opt it. Patriotic rhetoric and moral seriousness that accompanied this cooption helped sustain Gandhi’s passive revolution.

The self-respecters responded to these events in anger and derision. They brought their formidable critique of caste inequities and women’s status as well as their distinct vision of a just and free society to bear on the moment at hand. They noted that nationalism was a slippery and dissembling ideology, and pointed to the manner in which considerations of caste and women’s status mediated nationalist understanding in any given instance. They insisted that political reform was meaningless without social reform and argued that the former achieved its aims through actively retarding the progress of the latter.

In this context, they affirmed the importance of political Nonbrahminism and defined its characteristic features. They also proposed their own agenda for social change and progress, which was discussed and resolved at the First Self-respect Conference held in Chinglepet in 1929. The resolutions tabled at Chinglepet expressed an alternative political imagination, and must be read along with the Nehru report, if only to delineate the contours of what was elided and suppressed in nationalist representations.

In its editorials and essays, Revolt captured the intensity of these years and took critical stock of extant political and social debates. In fact much of its content, apart from the regular columns on atheism, science and rationality, comprised views on any or all of these issues. Its genius lay in articulating an analytical framework that integrated diverse historical developments and showed them to be part of a unique and complex conjuncture. Revolt understood too that the possibilities of such a conjuncture stood to be compromised by Gandhi’s passive revolution. Its enduring importance lies in this, that it offered a critical perspective of its time, without the advantage of hindsight.

(Excerpts from the book 'Revolt - A Radical Weekly in Colonial Madras', published by Periyar Dravidar Kazhagam)

- V. Geetha and S. V. Rajadurai


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