Why Do Dravidian Intellectuals Admire a Man as Prickly as Periyar?

“The Jews are only interested in themselves, and nobody else. They somehow contrive to have the rulers in their pocket, participate in governance and conspire to torture and suck the lives out of other citizens in order that they live (in comfort).” These blatantly anti-semitic lines were penned on March 20, 1938, when Hitler’s flag was flying high. If you had read them in isolation and if you were familiar with the history of the Nazis, it is likely that you would think they must have been fished out of some sordid pro-Nazi tabloid.

These are the next lines: “Are they not comparable to the Brahmins who too have no responsibility but have the rulers in their pocket, have entered the ruling dispensation and been lording over (all of us)?”

This is Periyar E.V. Ramasamy writing in his magazine Kudiyarasu, and he is being unusually mild here. (Naan Sonnal Unakku Yen Kopam Vara Vendum, vol. 4, p. 532, compiled by Pasu. Gowthaman)

Periyar was a selfless and incorruptible man of considerable personal charm. He spent his long life tirelessly working in support of what he believed in and against what he detested. What he believed in were self-respect, rationalism, gender equality and his own version of social justice. What he detested were caste discrimination, Gandhi, god, religion, Brahmins and the then-prevailing idea of India. Unlike B.R. Ambedkar, who was a prodigious scholar, Periyar was a street-fighter, and the things he said in anger are largely unprintable (though it is available in print in Tamil). What he said in cooler moments – rare though they were – are also available.

The Periyar that the non-Tamil intellectuals know is a sanitised version of his real personality, lovingly packaged and offered by his admirers.

Against the Brahmin

It is almost axiomatic in Tamil Nadu, and constantly parroted by non-Tamils too, that it was thanks only to Periyar that reservations in jobs and education came into being in the state. But as Granville Austin writes in his seminal book, Working a Democratic Constitution (1999), “After the Congress eclipsed the Justice party in the 1937 elections and later, it made ‘compulsory discrimination’ very much its own policy even while led by Tamil Brahmins like [Chakravarti] Rajagopalachari.”

In fact, reservations were first introduced in Tamil Nadu in 1927, when P. Subbarayan was the chief minister and had the support of the Swarajya Party, and when Periyar was just leaving the Congress. It was expanded in 1947 by the then-ruling Congress party, and when Periyar was busy demanding a separate ‘Dravida Nadu’. Similarly, while it is true that Periyar did agitate in 1951 when the Madras high court struck down the orders on reservation – and the Government of Madras subsequently lost its appeal with the Supreme Court – it was on the recommendations of the Congress Government of Madras and on consideration of the need for ‘removing man-made equalities’ (in Granville Austin’s words) that the Nehru dispensation brought in the First Amendment to the Indian Constitution.

Bear in mind that Periyar in the 1950s did not have the larger than life image that he has now. Though he was personally liked by almost all political leaders, almost all of them considered him to be maverick, unrestrained and irresponsible. Between 1949 and 1967, the former being the year his disciple Annadurai broke away from him and formed his own party and the latter being the year he formed the first non-Congress government, Periyar’s harshest abuses were reserved for his former disciples.

In all his agitations – and he had many – the lowest common denominator was the Brahmin. Even while criticising non-Brahmin national leaders like Gandhi, Subhash Chandra Bose and Sardar Vallabhai Patel, Periyar said that they were all victims of a Brahmin conspiracy.  He said, without so much as a pause, that Gandhi was killed by Brahmins because Gandhi was turning into a Periyar himself!

Periyar was clear that he was against Brahmins, not Brahminism. However, this seems confused in hindsight. In his last ever speech, on December 19, 1973, he spoke that he had been striving for long to annihilate god, religion, the Congress, Gandhi and the Brahmin. One might think that by Brahmin he meant Brahminism. However, he stated the opposite in an earlier meeting on August 31, 1959:

Who do you hate? The Brahmin or Brahminism? What is Brahminism?’ – for questions such as these, my reply is Brahminism came from Brahmins and hence it is the Brahmins who should be annihilated. It is like asking whether you hate thievery or the thief. It is because one is a thief, one indulges in thievery. When someone says he hates thievery, it means he hates the thief, too, doesn’t it? Thus, [my stand is] Brahminism grew out of the Brahmin and I am striving to annihilate the root.

What is the reality? Was the Brahmin the bogeyman, the Baba Yaga of the Tamil country?

Brahmins in colleges and government jobs

There is no doubt that in the late 19th century and early 20th century, Brahmins dominated the educational scene in the state. Colleges swarmed with them. As a result, most of coveted government jobs went to the Brahmins. But statistically they were not very significant. The total number of students in both the arts and professional colleges was around 3,000 in 1890 (The Politics of South India, C.J. Baker, 1976, p. 46). Fewer than 1,000 students would have had to be passing out every year in the 1890s.

This number increased to around 14,000 in 1936. This would mean that around 4,500 students would have had to be passing out every year in the 1930s. The population of the presidency of Madras (a.k.a. Tamil Nadu today) in 1931 was around 46 million.

Thus, less than 1% of 1% of the population were graduating from these colleges. Also, by the 1930s, the majority of students in both arts and professional colleges were not Brahmins. On the employment front, the total number of Brahmin gazetted officers were 620 in 1928. Overall, there were about 15,000 Brahmins out of about 80,000 government employees (Political Career of E.V. Ramaswamy Naicker,  E. Sa. Viswanathan, 1983, p. 126).

(Baker points out in his book that there were 10,237 students in first grade colleges in 1931; the number of available government posts carrying a salary of Rs 35 per month were 29,081. He adds that in 1927, a ‘Staff Selection Board’ had to select 467 persons. Even if it had chosen every non-Brahmin applicant who possessed the barest qualification, it could not have met the stated quota.)

Even then it was clear that the trend was changing. The Tamil Brahmins started migrating to cities both within the Tamil land and without – whereas an overwhelming majority of them had been living in villages at the dawn of the 20th century. In 2001, about a hundred years later, around 4.3% of them resided in villages – the figure would be 5.6% if the non-Tamil Brahmins were also added.   (Tamil Brahmans: The Making of a Middle Class, Fuller and Narasimhan, 2014, appendix). Their land holdings dwindled to almost nothing as they had to sell them off to get higher quality education.

In short, while Tamil Brahmins used the opportunities that the British Government provided, it was not that they arm-twisted anybody to get where they did. The Justice Party came to power in 1920 and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in 1967. In the intervening years, Madras had a Brahmin chief minister for only four years (including the uncertain years between 1952 and 1954). The British had no love lost for them because most of the intellectual leaders of the Brahmin community were with the Congress.

A bias against Brahmins

Unfortunately, Periyar and his disciples could not look at the problem from this perspective. They attributed – exactly like Hitler did with the German Jews – grand conspiracies and clever manipulations by Brahmins for the plight of the non-Brahmins. It did not ever occur to Periyar that independence would open the sluice gates of education and other opportunities. He wanted the British to continue to remain in power – while simultaneously complaining that they were succumbing to the machinations of the Brahmins.

At times, Periyar issued blood-curdling threats to Brahmins, but in action he did not believe in violence. Many of his black-shirted followers were fine individuals personally. At the same time, Periyar was also paranoid that democracy would result in Brahmins completely taking over the reins of the government. His words: “India should never go anywhere near democratic principles. The reason is 90% of our population are fools and 97% of them are persons of low birth. How will their rule set right our country?” (Periyar’s writings compiled by Pasu. Gowthaman, vol. 4, 2017, p. 432)

Another case in point followed in 1968, when, in Tanjore district, 44 Dalits were butchered by the goons of a landlord. Periyar commented on the murders thus: “So long as democracy exists, the honest will have no other option except to fade away, giving the dishonest room to dance around. The people of India are barbarians. The dharma of India is the dharma of criminal tribes. As long as the ones who follow Manu dharma exist, the nation will never have discipline, integrity, honesty and justice. India has gone into the hands of scoundrels after the departure of the British.”

There is no doubt that Periyar genuinely wanted the Dalits to break out of the shackles of caste oppression but his approach was more paternalistic than what Gandhi was being accused of. He was miffed that the Constitution did not provide reservations for non-Brahmins. He accused Ambedkar for selling himself to the Brahmins: “The Brahmins had paid him a price. The price is this: he asked for 10% reservation and they gave him 15%. They knew that even if they gave him 25%, not even three or four percent of qualified people would be available [among the Dalits]. He accepted the Constitution written by the Brahmins and signed on the dotted lines. He did not think about others.” (Periyar E.V.R. Chintanaikal, Anaimuthu, 1974, p. 1,860)

It is nobody’s case that the Brahmins were angels. They were arrogant, casteist and possessed a general contempt for the ‘unwashed’ millions, and even the washed others. Then again, they were not alone. The problem with Periyar was that he used his bludgeon only against the Brahmins while the oppressing classes belonged to a wider spectrum. He either ignored the prejudices of others or simply admonished them to behave well in the future. He did so because he considered all the upper caste non-brahmins, many of whom were landlords, money lenders, traders and merchants, to be victims – when the reality was that they, too, were part of the machinery of oppression.

Periyar’s atheism was crude and obnoxious. His so-called research on the Ramayana dwelled on such grave issues as whether Sita slept with Valmiki. His rationalism was hollow and lacked any useful content. Though his love for science was childlike, he did not have the intellectual rigour to understand what the scientific enterprise was all about. He once said that the white people who lived in the temperate regions were less brainy than the ones who lived in Tamil Nadu. The reason? Their flowers were less fragrant than the flowers of Tamil Nadu. Their snakes don’t have venom but the Tamil snakes do.

Given all this, why is he being heralded as a great thinker by the Dravidian intellectuals?

The reason is simple. The national landscape is verdant. It has such giant trees as Gandhi, Nehru, Rabindranath Tagore, Ambedkar, Ram Manohar Lohia, Jaiprakash Narayan and a score others. The Dravidian landscape, on the other hand, is an arid desert. Periyar was the only cactus plant to have bloomed in it. And prickly though he was, he did have a few beautiful flowers. The only flowers.

Note: This article was corrected on September 22, 2017, to state that reservations were first introduced in Tamil Nadu in 1927 with the support of the Swarajya Party, not the Justice Party as was stated earlier. In 1927, the Justice Party had been in the opposition.

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