Welcome Address for Anti-Caste Thought Conference

Full text of Karthick Ram Manoharan’s welcome address for the “Anti-Caste Thought” conference, on 29 October 2021.

We welcome you all to our conference “Anti-Caste Thought: Theory, Politics and Culture”. This conference is a part of the EU Horizon 2020 project Freedom From Caste: The Political Thought of Periyar E.V. Ramasamy in a Global Context and this project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement No 895514. I am the researcher on this project and Prof. Meena Dhanda is the Principal Investigator. A few lines on this project – to the best of my knowledge, this is the first internationally funded research project on Periyar. Over the course of this project, what I intend to do is to provide a systematic and coherent account of the political thoughts of Periyar, relying on the voluminous primary material of his writings and speeches which were published as 37 volumes by the Periyar Kalanjiyam. My work is largely one of intellectual history, but I also draw much from political theory and philosophy and take an interdisciplinary approach. You can find a list of my academic publications on the project website theperiyarproject.com and in due time, there will also be good news of a new monograph, an edited volume and some academic articles on Periyar. For now, I am happy to announce that my short monograph on Periyar and religion has been accepted for publication and is soon forthcoming. Do also follow us on the Twitter handle CasteFreeH2020 for updates.

This conference is one of our project outputs, and it arose tied to our Call for Papers for a special issue of the journal J-Caste which was announced in February 2021. We received several excellent proposals and after a careful process of review, we selected a limited number papers for submission to the journal and another set for the conference. Now some of the speakers here are contributing to both the journal and the conference. We hope that other contributors to the journal are present here as attendees. All papers submitted to the journal, by the deadline we have mentioned, will go through a further process of peer review and we wish you all much luck. For our speakers who here with us today, a very warm welcome and we are all very eager to hear your presentations.

And a very special thanks to our chairs, who have taken time off their busy schedules to be with us today. They are the leading experts in their fields and the authors of pathbreaking academic works in political theory, film studies, sociology, critical caste studies, critical geography, and philosophy. It will be very tough for me to list out their interventions here so I will just ask the audience to have a look at their names on Google Scholar to get an idea of the output that these scholars have produced over the years. We are honored to have you as chairs here and we are sure that our paper presenters will benefit greatly from your feedback.

At the end of today’s session, we will have a book discussion of the five volume B.R. Ambedkar: The Quest for Justice. We have the privilege of having the editor of this highly important work, Aakash Singh Rathore, who will be in conversation with some brilliant contributors to the volume, Kancha Ilaiah, Kanchana Mahadevan and Matthew Baxter. This will be chaired by our own Meena Dhanda who is also a contributor to this amazing volume.

We have our keynote lecture tomorrow morning. AR Venkatachalapathy, the foremost historian of modern Tamil Nadu, will be speaking on “Denying and Defying Power: Periyar’s Approach to Politics”. It may be early in the morning for some of you, but I request our attendees to take the trouble to miss a bit of sleep for this lecture – you will gain a lot.

Let me thank the University of Wolverhampton for providing us the platform for this conference and our excellent technical support team, Elena and Mike, for assisting us. I also thank Lotika Singha and Partha Chakrabarty for their help and advice.

Now, the purpose of this conference as such is to have academic conversations on anti-caste thinkers across India. While Dr Ambedkar is almost universally known across India, some key anti-caste thinkers from the South may not be known in the North and likewise, some key anti-caste thinkers from the East may not be known in the West. We hope to facilitate stimulating intellectual conversations, in an atmosphere of respectful debate, among young and established scholars on these thinkers, their legacies and their impacts.

We humbly acknowledge in our endeavors that these anti-caste thinkers faced unimaginable hurdles in their times, and take due note that discussion of many of them was not prominent in intellectual debates for long. There were and are attempts at slandering such thinkers and silencing informed debates about them. Some attendees might remember the hatchet job called Worshipping False Gods by one right-wing journalist who used to be a prominent commentator in his time. This shoddy unacademic work cherry-picked quotes from Ambedkar to show him as a British collaborator and ‘anti-national’, whatever that means. As far as Periyar is concerned, there are similar attacks too, by caste supremacists of much lesser prominence and relevance. I am sure my friends here can identify such attacks on other anti-caste thinkers. I would say that good scholarship is the best response to such anti-intellectual attacks. Senior scholars in this conference today, like Dag Erik Berg, Meena Dhanda, and Scott Stroud have made significant contributions in taking Ambedkar to an international academic audience. The five volumes on BR Ambedkar edited by Aakash Singh Rathore are nothing short of historic. Scholarship on Periyar and the Dravidian Movement is robustly growing and has challenges and critical questions to face and I hope I will be dealing with them adequately in my own work. I am confident that our presenters here will also contribute to the growing academic literature on anti-caste thought. This conference is a good step in that direction.

I remember telling in a lecture I made in India several years back that these anti-caste thinkers from different parts of India were a constellation of heroes. We need to read them, read them separately, read them together, in comparison, in dialogue, in respectful difference, and ultimately, in synthesis, if at all we are to make sense of the social, political, religious and philosophical issues that we face today. I thank you all again for being here today. Let us now begin a great academic event!

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