My article in the Outlook Magazine which has come out with a special issue on Gandhi and Dissent.
Periyar E.V. Ramasamy must easily be one of the most controversial political personalities of 20th-century India. A people’s man, he spent the last 50 years of his long life practically on the move, haranguing at street corners, frequently getting abused and having stones thrown at him. The Tamils are rightly proud of him because he was one of his kind. Periyar was a proud person, but never selfish. His love for the Tamil people and the underprivileged was unquestionable. He did not know how to mince words and often went overboard. He truly detested religion, God, caste, social discrimination, Brahmins, the ideas of Gandhi and the very idea of India.
Of the three major leaders who stoutly opposed Gandhi, two, Jinnah and Ambedkar, are well-known and their works are available in English. The third, Periyar, is familiar to non-Tamils only through a minuscule, translated portion of his enormous output and some adulatory accounts of his life by his admirers. There is not a single biography of him in either Tamil or English, which satisfactorily covers his extraordinary journey. Not that contemporary historians, especially non-Tamil ones, are complaining. As far I know, none of them has made any serious effort to a get a complete picture of Periyar.
The lacuna is cleverly being exploited by Periyarist intellectuals who, without any compunction, attribute to Periyar views which they think he would have been better off possessing. Periyar was stark black and white—the person you get today is a highly colourised and heavily touched-up version of his real self. There is no doubt that his real self itself had much to commend. He was, by a long chalk, the greatest social reformer of Tamil Nadu who kept asking uncomfortable questions. The problem was he almost always thought he had all the right answers himself and came down heavily on those who said they too had a few alternative answers.
The Gandhi Devotee
Initially, Periyar said of Gandhi: “All countries cry for his help. Even Westerners compare him to Jesus Christ.”
Periyar entered Tamil Nadu politics in his middle age as a follower of Gandhi, at the instance of Rajaji, with whom he remained a steadfast friend throughout his life. “The momentum of ‘Swaraj within one year’ swept me away. My relatives and neighbours thought I had gone mad… There were several others who were as mad as I was. Rajaji, Ramasamy Naicker (as Periyar was known then)…and others too were roaming around and thousands gathered to hear these madmen speak.” This is T.S.S. Rajan, a freedom fighter, writing in his Tamil memoir published in 1947. Rajan is talking of the euphoria that captured the nation when Gandhi announced the non-cooperation movement in 1920. Periyar was then one of the star speakers of the Congress. His earthy way of approaching problems and his simple and direct Tamil attracted people all over the Tamil country. He picketed toddy shops and advocated temple entry for Dalits and other downtrodden communities, went to prison for the effort, sold khadi and started a magazine called Kudiayarasu (The Republic) which, for a period, had on its masthead the slogan ‘Long live Mahatma Gandhi’. He was so reverential of Gandhi that he chided, in one of the issues, all those who criticised Gandhi as political schemers. “All subjugated countries cry for his help. Even the Westerners, who have all the independence needed, compare him with Jesus Christ,” he said.
The same Periyar, in his very last speech made in December 1973, said: “These are our five principles—annihilation of God, annihilation of religion, annihilation of Gandhi, annihilation of Congress and annihilation of Brahmins…Before we could annihilate Gandhi, the Brahmins did the task for us.” In the intervening years, there was not a single leader who criticised Gandhi as intensely—and as unjustly—as Periyar did. Yes, he was shocked when Gandhi was killed and wrote that India should be renamed Gandhi Desh. But he quickly recovered and started calling Gandhi names again.
How Did The Break Happen?
Periyar’s supporters keep harping that his rift with Gandhi occured because of Gandhi’s views on varnashrama dharma (caste system). But then Gandhi’s notions of varnashrama dharma were known much before Periyar became his admirer. They troubled many other leaders too, who continued to be with the Congress. Periyar himself says his demands were of a higher order: “My friend Ramanathan and I told the Mahatma (when we met him) that three tasks had to be completed for India attaining independence and self-respect. The first would be the destruction of the Congress party, the second the destruction of Hindu religion and the third the destruction of the domination of Brahmins. The third would automatically happen when the first two tasks were completed. Gandhi’s response was not to our satisfaction.” This was in 1927.
Gandhi’s views on varnashrama dharma became less rigorous as he evolved. The Gandhi of 1948 was not the Gandhi of 1927. On the other hand, Periyar regressed. He became more bitter, more abusive, especially after India won independence. This was what he said in 1957 when he called for the burning of Gandhi’s pictures: “We were cheated by Gandhi. Our land (the Tamil land) has been enslaved to the Northerners and Brahmins by Gandhi. It is because of Gandhi that people lost all great qualities they had…(and) it is now impossible to live without being immoral, dishonest, deceitful and traitorous”.
The Bitter Antagonism
Periyar’s formula during those days was simple—listen to what Gandhi says and take a diametrically opposite stand. He was among the few leaders who welcomed the Simon Commission. He vigorously opposed the Salt Satyagraha and joined the Justice Party, which was embarrassingly pro-British. In the party convention held under Periyar’s leadership in December 1938, the Justice Party resolved that Tamil Nadu should be made a separate state, loyal to the British and directly under the secretary of state for India. In 1939, Periyar became more ambitious. He organised the Dravida Nadu Conference and advocated a separate and independent Dravida Nadu. There was practically no support for him from either within Tamil Nadu or from the other three states of south India, but it did not deter him from repeating the demand the following year when Muslim League came out with the Lahore resolution demanding the establishment of Pakistan.
Periyar expectedly gave full support to the demand for Pakistan and tried to enlist the League’s support for the creation of his Dravida Nadu, only to be rebuffed by Jinnah. The underlying ideology of Dravida Nadu was pure racism. He held that south Indians, especially Tamils, were a separate race and the Brahmins who came from the north were intruders and possibly Jews. Later, when India attained independence Periyar boycotted the day, much to the horror of his own disciples like Annadurai.
The Ghost Of Democracy
Gandhi was a democrat. He was clear that India would be run by a government elected by its own people through adult suffrage. This is what he said: “I am wedded to adult suffrage… Adult suffrage is necessary for more reasons than one, and one of the decisive reasons to me is that it enables me to satisfy all the reasonable aspirations, not only of the Musalmans, but also of the so-called untouchables, of Christians, of labourers and all kinds of classes.” Periyar’s views on democracy were spectacularly opposite to Gandhi’s. There is a haphazard collection of Periyar’s sayings curiously called The Collected Works of Periyar, compiled by K. Veeramani, the head of Dravidar Kazhagam. It has a quote by Periyar which can be summarised as follows: The entire country is in the clutches of three ghosts and five diseases—God, caste and democracy are the three ghosts; Brahmins, newspapers, political parties, legislatures, and cinema are the five diseases.
“Gandhi cheated us. Tamils have been enslaved to the north and Brahmins by Gandhi,” Periyar said in 1957.
The apologists of Periyar hold that he was a democrat in a fundamental intellectual sense, which clearly means he was not one in practice. They add “he was a radical republican and imagined the state as embodying an instrument of rule that ought to represent the greater common good and that was sovereign only because it was a people’s state”. That he most certainly was not. Whenever the state came down on helpless people with all the force in its command, Periyar usually sided with the state. During the anti-Hindi struggle of 1965, he sided with the rampaging government and demanded even harsher measures on the agitators. When 44 helpless Dalits were burned alive in Kilvenmani in 1968, he came out with two astounding statements. In the first, he said as long as democracy existed, the honest would have to disappear and the dishonest would take centre stage. He went on to state that Indians were barbarians and the Indian dharma was the dharma of criminals. In the second, he wanted democracy to be destroyed and the rule of kings to be established!
Periyar was a spontaneous man. His spontaneity was his problem. As his admirers say, he was certainly a man of the street, though none of the streets he frequented could really be called an agora. He was no Socrates either. Socrates took up complex problems and tried to find solutions to them. Periyar thought every complex problem had a simple solution—readily available with him.