“Freedom from Caste: The Political Thought of Periyar E.V. Ramasamy in a Global Context”, a project funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 initiative, held its launch event on 11 November 2020 through a webinar hosted by the University of Wolverhampton (UoW). Dr. Karthick Ram Manoharan, who joined the UoW in October 2020 as Marie Skolodwoska-Curie Actions Individual Fellow will be working under the supervision of Prof. Meena Dhanda to provide a comprehensive and comparative account of the thoughts of Periyar, an iconic anti-caste leader from South India.
Prof. Miceal Barden, Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Business and Social Sciences, UoW, Prof. Ram Mahalingam, Professor of Psychology, University of Michigan, and Dr. Suraj Yengde, Senior Fellow, Harvard Kennedy School, spoke at the event along with Dhanda and Manoharan.
The webinar was moderated by Dhanda who welcomed and introduced the speakers, and provided a brief overview of the research aims and goals. Barden congratulated and extended a warm welcome to the incoming Fellow, and highlighted the important research on caste that had been undertaken at UoW by Dhanda in the recent past.
Mahalingam, who has researched extensively on the practices of caste-based discrimination, talked about the significance of academic work on Periyar. Noting that the concept of dignity was crucial for “rethinking social relationships”, he highlighted how dignity was a crucial concern for Periyar, whom he called a “radical humanist”. Mahalingam also drew attention to Periyar’s unique sense of humor with which he addressed complex social problems.
Yengde, author of the bestseller Caste Matters, spoke about how important it was to investigate caste from a philosophical standpoint, referring to caste’s “ontological debasing of our own existence.” Yengde noted how Periyar was inspired from radical traditions of the European Enlightenment as well as Buddhism. He drew similarities between the works of Periyar and Dr. Ambedkar, and said “we have much to excavate from the great legacy of Periyar”. He added that in the study of caste in a global context, Periyar was one of the “important theoreticians” to look at.
Manoharan, thanking the speakers, referred to the past and current scholarship on Periyar and Dravidian Studies and the need to expand it significantly. Projecting Periyar as a thinker of global significance, he spoke about how his research will be using new material from the 37 volumes of the Periyar Kalanjiyam to provide new perspectives in conversations on caste, identity and gender. Over 100 people from six countries participated in the webinar. Participants included senior academics working on Dravidian, Dalit and caste politics, activists, journalists, scholars and students. A lively Q&A session involved discussions on the scope of the studies, the contemporary relevance of Periyar, and critiques and prospects of Periyarism.