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As we all know, Indian society is built on caste and its policies of discrimination. Periyar and Ambedkar are two leaders who uncompromisingly fought till their last breath to demolish this caste system and bring about a casteless society built on equality, liberty and fraternity. Those who are on top of the caste hierarchy and hence wish to retain the caste system as it is, have clearly understood these two leaders even better than us. That is why they cry against any organization in their name, either individually or combined. The combined name rings a louder alarm for them. When an organization bears the name of both Ambedkar and Periyar, then they know that it is clearly an organization against the caste system. And that is why they too raise a louder voice.

periyar in framesThough Ambedkar and Periyar had different approaches and strategies towards annihilation of caste, they declared that their sole objective was to bring down the caste system to pieces.

Thanks to the abundancy of text available in English by and about Ambedkar, the ideologies of Ambedkar are known across the country. But, that is not the case of Periyar. We accept that we lag behind in bringing out the texts of Periyar in English and other Indian languages. As such, Periyar is one of the most under-estimated and less understood leaders of our age.

Some say he is an atheist. Some say he is a feminist. For some, he is anti-brahminist. For some others, he is anti-casteist. Some think he is a Tamil nationalist. Some others think he is a Communist. While some others look at him as a rationalist. Which is true?

I will say that, while his ideology has all the above features, it is not confined to them. As he himself puts it 'my ideology is humanism. Development through humanism'. Yes! Periyar was a humanist who formulated his ideologies based on human liberty, equality and fraternity.

Periyar did not codify his ideology. Hence in order to understand his ideology, it is essential to read through all of his writings. Most of his published works are his speeches made on various occasions in public gatherings. Periyar was a leader who spent most of his lifetime travelling across the state and speaking in meetings and public gatherings, preaching for equality, liberty and fraternity. Right from 1919, when he joined the Indian National Congress from which he resigned in 1925, until 1973 when he died at the age of 96, he had travelled almost 8,20,000 miles which is almost 33 times the circumference of the earth. He took part in 10,700 meetings in which he spoke for 21,400 hours. It is not like today when travelling is easy, comfortable and fast. Further, he had a number of medical complications. He had to carry a urine bag with him, as it was continuously dripping. With all this discomfort, if he had the will to travel and talk, it is only because of his love towards his fellow beings and determination to establish a world of equality and fraternity.

In the Indian social context, he understood that the Caste system is the biggest hindrance to achieve this goal of equality and fraternity. He knew that unless this caste system is annihilated, the people of this country can never be equal or liberated. Hence he dedicated his life to annihilate the caste system. In that process, he stood by the side of the deprived and the oppressed.

He understood that the caste system was having a close nexus with the Hindu religion. Caste was imposed upon people in the name of religion and God. The oppressed people were made to believe that they being born in that caste and that they are oppressed is all divine. That was their destiny. Hence he was clear that it is impossible to break down the caste system without breaking down the concept of divinity attached to it.

His atheism, thus, was not just an outcome of scientific temper but more of social consciousness.

He explains, “I want to burn down the system of caste which is anti-human. When I say that, people claim that the system of caste is tied to the tree of religion. I told them, if you do not separate religion from it, it will be burnt too. Then they said that religion is rooted in the Vedas. Again I said, if you do not separate them, it will also be burnt. Then they said that Vedas are from God. I replied, if it is so, then you cannot avoid God being burnt down too”.

Hence if it is God, who through his Vedas created a religion which is the base for the caste system that discriminates and degrades fellow human beings, then it is that concept of God which is to be burnt down.

In 1925, when he started his own movement after resigning from the Indian National Congress party, he named it the Self-respect movement. He said that each and every human has his or her own self-respect and has the right to defend it by all means. Ninety years ago, when the people of those castes kept in the lowest strata of the caste hierarchy believed that all the humiliation they suffered were due to their fate and it was God's will that they suffer, and caste system was considered divine, Periyar declared that the caste system was against human dignity and called for each and every person locked in it to realize their self-respect and revolt against the caste system.

As many understand, he was not just an anti-brahminist. His anti-Brahminism was not just against brahmins and their domination in the society as a whole. But it was against Brahminism which has created the caste system as a hierarchical system by which no two castes are equal to one another. This hierarchical system gives each caste the advantage of oppressing another caste. Hence, though being oppressed, each caste wants to maintain the status quo to retain their hegemony over some other castes. Thus they forget to raise up against the brahmins who have kept themselves in the top of this caste hierarchy. And they promote Brahminism by oppressing castes below them. He understood this nuance of the caste system and thus targeted the intermediary castes or the Sudras who are both the oppressor as well as the oppressed.

He spent years propagating among them on how this caste system makes them believe that they are in a dominant position which is nothing but a myth. His famous quote “Without getting rid of the title of Sudra, it will not be possible to get rid of the title of Panchama ', explains how unless the Sudras understand that they too are oppressed and hence stop oppressing the Dalits, both will not be liberated from the clutches of the caste system.

He not only questioned the caste system, he also raised rational questions against the Hindu religion and its scriptures, the Vedas and the Puranas. While even today, questioning the institution of religion is considered highly sensitive in all parts of the world, way back in the 1920s and 30s, he started questioning the very base of the Hindu religion and its Gods. Though all his ideologies were based on social and human outlook, his scientific temper is incomparable. His satirical writings on how vulgar the inception of each God is described in the Puranas brought about huge shock waves in the society. His question on the story of God Ganesa stands as a classic example for his rationale and humor. “If the goddess Parvathy created Ganesa from the dirt of her body, how much dirt should she have accumulated in her body to create such a huge figure? They say that after God Siva beheaded the child created by Parvathy, an elephant's head was fixed on the neck of the body and thus came God Ganesa. Please compare the diameter of the neck of a human child and that of an elephant. How will it fit one another even if it was just an elephant cub?” – asked Periyar.

While he was satirical while talking about the Puranas, he was equally tough when it came to Vedas and Sastras which actually laid the rules of the caste system. He came down hard on them, explaining how they discriminated humans based on birth to the benefit of those on top of the caste hierarchy. It was he who explained in detail how Manu Sastra degraded the dignity of the so-called Sudras and Panchamas.

When he founded the Dravidar Kazhagam, he used the word ‘Dravidar’ to denote all the indigenous people of India termed by the invading Aryans as Sudras and Panchamas. Earlier these people were collectively called as non-brahmins, which was in a way a negated term. Thus quoting historians, he started using the term Dravidar or Dravidians, as a direct term to denote the indigenous people of this country. It was he who popularized the word which had till then only been used in the history books and research papers. Dr. Ambedkar too was in his line when he mentions, "…. Tamil or Dravida was not merely the language of south India. But before the Aryans came, it was the language of the whole of India, and was spoken from Kashmir to Cape Comorin".

When Hindi language was made compulsory all over the country, Periyar identified it as a cultural invasion in the form of language. As we could see today, many of the North Indian states have lost their own languages and have become completely Hindi-ised. If you visit Mumbai, Marathi language is rarely seen or heard. It is Hindi all over. The philosophy of Hindutva is one religion, one language, one culture all over the country. The Hindutva groups and parties are sticking by it even today, and now with the BJP in power, we could see how they are implementing their ideology. Hindi symbolizes Sanskrit language and culture, which is the Aryan culture. And that is why Hindi is used as a tool to Aryanize the country. Periyar was able to identify this plot way back in the 1930s.

And that is why, the anti-Hindi agitation which he spear-headed was not just language-oriented, but as he puts it, it was a cultural invasion in the form of language. He felt that the imposition of Hindi was to impose the Vedic culture of Aryans as against the culture of the indigenous people.

When India was declared independent on August 15, 1947, he called it a black day. He termed it as a day when the authority and power were just made over by the British to the Brahmins of this country. He declared that only when caste is annihilated, thereby liberating the indigenous people of this country from the clutches of caste, he will call the country truly independent. He stood by it till his last breath.

His concept of Dravida Nadu and later his declaration 'Tamil Nadu is for Tamils' was more a social declaration rather than a political declaration. He said that he was aiming only at a casteless society and hence if he could have even a small piece of land where he could create such a casteless society, then it is that land which he would truly call as liberated.

Periyar's approach towards liberating the oppressed people was three folded. The first was towards annihilating caste as a whole through inter-caste marriages. The second was the realization of the self-respect of the people by themselves, thus alighting themselves above the caste customs. The third one was representations in the governance of the country in the form of reservations in education and employment.

Periyar's struggle for reservation started much earlier than any other leader in any other part of the country. And that is why the Madras Province was the first to implement proportional representation in employment. It has been there in Madras Province from 1920. This proportional representation was not only for the State Government jobs and educational institutions, but it was also extended to the Central Government jobs in the Province in 1934. This was made possible only by the continuous struggle by Periyar and his peers.

But it was revoked from Central Government jobs in just two months after India was declared independent on August 15, 1947. Later in 1950, when a lady by name Shenbagam Durairaj from Chennai, filed a case, stating that she was denied a seat in the Medical College just because she was a Brahmin, the Madras High court revoked the proportional representation in the Madras Province. Later it was found that this Shenbagam Durairaj had not even applied to the Medical College at all and that she had crossed the age limit to apply. That is a long story.

But this case was qualified based on section 29(1) of the constitution which states that no individual should be denied of any right based on their religion or such criteria. And the proportional representation law of the Madras Province was considered against the constitution and was hence revoked as per section 13(2). Further, the Hindu law protects all those practices that are customary as per religious practices. This means that untouchability and other such inhuman acts that are carried out in the name of caste can be legal as they are customary religious practices.

All this triggered Periyar to fight against those sections of the constitution that protected caste and the religion that implements it. He declared that he would be burning those sections of the constitution on November 26, 1956. He was arrested the previous day. But thousands of his comrades burnt those sections of the constitution in various places of the state. More than 3000 people were arrested. All of them gave the same statement in the court, which was already published in the magazine Viduthalai by Periyar. Many comrades died in prison.

Soon after this agitation, Jawaharlal Nehru spoke in a public meeting in Tamil Nadu, stating that those who do not accept the Indian constitution may very well leave the country. Periyar promptly replied stating that Nehru does not belong to Tamil Nadu and hence he must immediately leave the state. He further announced the next level of agitation, calling for burning the Map of India except Tamil Nadu and burning the National Flag of India. He continued his struggle to liberate the people from the title of Sudra and Panchama.

If we need to talk about Periyar's struggles for reservation, that alone is a huge topic which cannot fit in our time frame. So I go by quoting a few of the logical questions he raised for reservation. These stand good even today as those against reservation still put forth the same arguments.

Initially, the reservation was provided only for employment. Periyar rightly asked, "You have provided pipes all over for us to take water. But you have not filled the tank. Then what is the use of the pipes. Reservations in employment, without providing it in education is like that".

While replying to the question of merit if the reservation is implemented, Periyar asked, "You say that if our people enter governance through the reservation, there will be no merit. Ok. But it was you who were occupying all posts in this country, you the brahmins, who were leading this country, administering, as IAS and IPS officers, in governance, in politics, everywhere it was only you. How far has India developed with your so-called merit? What is it going to lose with our people coming in?"

This statement of Periyar prevails even today. The Socio-economic Census data taken in 2011 has revealed that 37% of the rural population are still illiterate, and 33% of the rural population are below the poverty line, which is just 27 Rupees per day. The rural population means it is the backward castes and the scheduled castes. Hence those forward castes who had retained all the authoritative positions have done nothing to the indigenous people of this country. By development, they have just done good to themselves alone. Such is the merit of the dominant castes who cry aloud against reservations.

As I mentioned earlier, Periyar's first and foremost tool against caste was inter-caste marriages. Periyar not only found it as a tool to annihilate caste but also to liberate women.

In the caste-based society of India, social, political, economic aspects along with caste and religious pride continue to remain the overriding factors in arranging marriages rather than biological factors. In Indian culture, marriage is not just a bond between two individuals, but between two families. Caste is the primary and uncompromising criterion in deciding the marital relationships. Inter-caste marriages have always been considered a dishonor to the family. Caste based endogamy is nothing but honor marriages or marriages for honor. The victim of these honor marriages is always the bride.

Women are never included in the process of decision making on any affairs, be it domestic, social or political. Their voice is seldom heard. Their choices are known only to themselves.

In a society where caste rules, the worst form of psychological violence thrust upon women is the denial of their choice of a life partner. In the Indian patriarchal casteist society, the role of a woman is nothing more than reproduction. Hence the male has all the right to choose his mate to safeguard his interests, including caste pride and property.

The woman is totally denied her right to choose her mate. She is expected to wait for a male to choose her. Arranged marriage is a concept where the woman is expected to present herself before the visiting male's family and impress them to choose her. The male and his family have the right to choose or reject the girl. But the girl, even in this modern era where most of them are well educated, cannot utter her opinion or preference loudly. Marriage is forced on her.

Periyar found inter-caste marriages as a means for women to make their choices beyond the rigidity of caste. He went to the extent of stating that 'marriages within caste have to been banned and those who marry within caste should be legally punished'. But whatever he had said seems to be the need of today.

The Genetic scientists have now found that generations of such marriages within the caste have resulted in the huge increase of genetic diseases in our society.

"… the high incidence of genetic and population-specific diseases that is characteristic of present-day India is likely to have increased only in the last few thousand years when groups in India started following strict endogamous marriage," says Kumarasamy Thangaraj, of the CSIR-Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad, India.

Periyar was a social scientist who found marriages within caste harmful to society. Now the genetic scientists have proved that it is not only socially harmful but also genetically and medically harmful.

Periyar's thoughts on women's liberation are far-reaching even today. He said that only women should have the right to decide on childbirth. He says that from different perspectives. Giving birth to a child, and nurturing it, is not only a personal responsibility but also a social responsibility. And this responsibility falls on the women than the men. Hence only when a woman feels that she is ready mentally and physically to take up this responsibility, she can decide on childbirth.

Men use childbirth and the menstrual cycles of women to brand them as a weaker sex. Hence Periyar rightly said, "if it was the womb that holds you back, you just remove it and move forward."

He suggested that male and female children are nurtured in the same way, including appearance, the games they play and the education they get, and also in the way they are named. We must understand that he spoke of all these when women were not even allowed to come to the doorsteps of their own homes, without a man.

Periyar was very particular that women be educated so that they can be the decision-makers of their own lives and in society. Now, we see women well educated and working in different fields. But still, it is rare that women are truly decision-makers of their own life. This is because, the education has not taught them to break the mental blocks that the Hindu religion, its Sastras and Puranas have deeply fixed in her.

Periyar's ideology beyond suggesting ways to socially and politically liberate people is basically an ideology that liberates individuals from the clutches of religion and other forms of conditioning that the society has thrust upon us, and think rationally and arrive at scientific decisions. It enables one to be psychologically liberated, more than anything else. In that sense, Periyar stands as a true liberator of humanity.

(This is a speech delivered by Kolathur Mani, President of Dravidar Viduthalai Kazhagam, in 2015 to the members of Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle, Bangalore.)

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