Periyar in the North: A Note on Arjak Sangh and Lalai Singh

-Asha Singh

The effort to acquaint the North Indian public with Periyar’s ideas had already started in the sixties. The name of ‘Arjak Sangh’ can be taken prominently in the movements influenced by the intense ideas of Periyar who put Brahmanism and patriarchy in the dock. Arjak Sangh was a socio-cultural movement founded in 1968 in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh based on the rationalist principles of Buddha, Ambedkar, Phule, Marx and Periyar.[i] Arjak [literally, the one who labors to produce] Samaj – was imagined as a society of productive castes, also termed as Bahujans, that officially are part of SC, ST and OBC lists.

The founder of this humanist organization Ram Swaroop Verma (1923 – 1998) was the Finance Minister (briefly) in the government of Chaudhary Charan Singh in Uttar Pradesh in the 1960s. Later, Bihar’s journalist and politician Jagdeo Prasad Mahto (1922 – 1974) founder of ‘Shoshit Samaj Dal’, who is also known as Lenin of Bihar, also joined.[ii] Both of them belong to cultivator castes of kurmi and koeri respectively. Karpoori Thakur (1924-1988), former Chief Minister and the father of affirmative action in Bihar, also became a sympathizer of Arjak Sangh during his last days. Even today this movement continues in various forms.

Ramswaroop Verma’s ‘Manusmriti – Nation’s Stain’ [Manusmriti Rashtra Ka Kalank] characterized Brahmanism as a hindrance to mutual equality and fraternity because it is based on the principle of graded inequality. Varma considered the doctrine of reincarnation, fatalism and aversion to manual labor as fundamental features of Brahmanism.[iii] The Arjak Sangh denied the existence of God and soul. In his work titled Manavtavadi Prashnotri (Humanist Quiz), Verma underlines – one, the non-existence of after-life and two, the central role of matter and labor in building the historical understanding of society. Other works by Verma include – Kranti Kyon aur Kaise (Revolution: Why and How?), Achuton ki Samasya aur Samadhan (The Question of Untouchables and its Solution), Niradar kaise mite? (How to Remove Disrespect?).

Arjak Sangh adopted many anti-caste traditions. It rejected Hindu festivals and prepared a calendar of ‘humanistic’ observances and feasts, which includes the birth and death anniversaries of Buddha, Ambedkar, Phule and Periyar.[iv] On the lines of Periyar’s self-respect marriage and Phule’s Satyashodhak marriage, they started the tradition of Arjak marriage, in which the role of the priest was rejected and the process of marriage was simplified.[v] Oaths by the groom and bride and signing a marriage contract was introduced in the marriage ceremony.

They even composed new songs for the marriage ceremony instead of traditional songs.[vi] The names of anti-caste thinkers like Phule, Periyar, Kabir find place in these songs. Considering the prevalence and significance of folk songs (oral cultural productions) in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, it is a unique attempt to make women of peasant castes aware of these thinkers. The success-failure of these songs is a matter of investigation, but in a society where tools of literacy are few and far between, such efforts should be appreciated. It is worth noting that these songs are not in Hindi but in Awadhi and Bhojpuri, because Hindi is not the mother tongue of the common people of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, Hindi is only the official language. Recently, I found a slim book in Bhojpuri written by Late Subedar Singh ‘Avanij’ of Buxar district in Bihar titled Aas-Kirin (ray of hope) published in early 2000s. It is a lyrical ballad based on the life and work of Periyar. Like Arjak Sangh songs it can be counted among those creative productions which are results of individual enthusiasts from hinterlands, working with limited resources to disseminate anti-caste thoughts. Although there are certain factual errors in this book, its intention however was to popularize Periyar among the masses.

Lalai Singh, a writer-publisher associated with the same Arjak Sangh, made Periyar’s ‘Sachchi Ramayan’’ [Ramayan: A True Reading] popular among the North Indian public by publishing it in Hindi in 1968.  Singh started his work for social change and annihilation of caste even before the establishment of the Arjak Sangh. He took the initiative to popularize the literature of Ambedkar and Periyar in North India.[vii]  In 1969, the then Uttar Pradesh government banned Sachchi Ramayan and confiscated all copies stating that the book hurt religious sentiments. Lalai Singh challenged this decision in Allahabad High Court and won. The government appealed to the Supreme Court against the decision of the High Court. In 1976, the Supreme Court, unanimously ruling on the matter, dismissed the appeal of the state government.[viii] This judgement was a landmark in the history of free speech jurisprudence in India.

Born in the second decade of the 20th century in Uttar Pradesh, Lalai Singh came from an ordinary family who began his career as a policeman in erstwhile Gwalior principality. Lalai Singh’s full name was Lalai Singh Yadav. By the early 1960s, he embraced Buddhism, inspired by Dr. Ambedkar, and dropped ‘Yadav’ to replace it with ‘Baudh’ (budhhist). Since Lalai Singh devoted a significant part of his life to Periyar, he is also called ‘Periyar Lalai Singh’. In Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, in Arjak Sangh’s events, the names Lalai Singh and Periyar are often taken in one breath.

After the advent of the internet and rise of Bahujan media spaces, one can see a growing body of literature in Hindi on Periyar and Arjak Sangh by anti-caste activists. This, one hopes, would facilitate scholars from Hindi backgrounds in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar to take up systematic research on such anti-caste traditions.


References

[i] Bharati K. 2018. Ramswaroop Verma’s contribution to Bahujan Renaissance. Forward Press, Sept.6.

[ii] Mani, P. 2018. My Memories of Ramswaroop Verma. Forward Press, Aug 28.

[iii] Verma R. (1996). Manusmriti Rashtra ka Kalank. Arjak Sangh (U.P.)

[iv] Singh A. 2018. Ramswaroop Verma: Andhavishwas Sampradayikta ke khilaaf tark aur manavtavaad ki baat karne wala neta. The Wire Hindi, Aug. 22.

[v] Patel A. 2017. A wedding far removed from hypocrisy. Forward Press, June 5.

[vi] In a forthcoming paper, I will be analyzing Arjak marriage songs. Singh, Asha (Forthcoming) ‘A Pedagogy for Social Transformation: Analysing the New Oralities of Arjak Sangh’ in Caste, Communication and Power, SAGE.

[vii] Bharati Kanwal. 2016. Lalai Singh Yadav: Fiery Hero of Rebel Consciousness. Forward Press, Sept. 24.

[viii] State Of Uttar Pradesh vs Lalai Singh Yadav on 16 September, 1976 Link: https://indiankanoon.org/doc/751132/

Author Bio

Asha Singh is Assistant Professor of Gender Studies at Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta (CSSSC)

Disclaimer: The views expressed by the author are their own. The Periyar Project cannot be held responsible for the content of their views.


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