For Periyar’s anniversary, now celebrated as Social Justice Day in Tamil Nadu, I have compiled an academic (all in English) reading list on Periyar. The list will be updated as and when I come across more relevant material.
Aloysius, G. 2016. Periyar on Category-wise Rights. New Delhi: Critical Quest.
Aloysius, G. 2019. Periyar and Modernity. New Delhi: Critical Quest.
Anandhi, S. 1991. “Women’s Question in the Dravidian Movement c. 1925-1948.” Social Scientist, Vol. 19, No. 5/6: 24-41.
Anandhi, S., Karthick Ram Manoharan, M. Vijayabaskar, A. Kalaiyarasan. (Eds) 2020. Rethinking Social Justice. Hyderabad: Orient BlackSwan.
Barnett, Marguerite Ross. 1976. The Politics of Cultural Nationalism in South India. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Bate, Bernard. 2009. Tamil Oratory and the Dravidian Aesthetic. New York: Columbia University Press.
Baxter, Matthew H. 2019. “Two Concepts of Conversion at Meenakshipuram: Seeing through Ambedkar’s Buddhism and Being Seen in EVR’s Islam.” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Vol. 39, No. 2: 264-281.
Chatterjee, Debi. 2022. “Periyar E.V. Ramasamy.” In Revisiting Modern Indian Thought: Themes and Perspectives. Edited by Suratha Kumar Malik and Ankit Tomar. Oxon and New York: Routledge. 96-109.
Diehl, Anita. 1978. Periyar E.V. Ramaswami: A Study of the Influence of a Personality in Contemporary South India. New Delhi: B.I. Publications.
Eswaran, Swarnavel. 2017. “Periyar as a Biopic: Star Persona, Historical Events, and Politics.” Biography, Volume 40, Number 1: 93-115.
Ganeshwar. 2022. “Periyar’s Spatial Thought: Region as Non-Brahmin Discursive Space.” CASTE / A Global Journal on Social Exclusion, 3(1), 89-106. In special issue on Freedom from Caste: Anti-caste Thought, Politics and Culture. Eds. Meena Dhanda and Karthick Ram Manoharan. https://doi.org/10.26812/caste.v3i1.358
Geetha, V. and S.V. Rajadurai. 2008. Towards a Non-Brahmin Millennium: From Iyothee Thass to Periyar. Second Edition. Kolkata: Samya.
Geetha, V. 1998. “Periyar, Women and an Ethic of Citizenship.” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 33, No. 17: WS9-WS15.
Hardgrave, Robert L. 1965. “The DMK and the Politics of Tamil Nationalism.” Pacific Affairs, Vol. 37, No. 4: 396-411.
Hardgrave, Robert L. 2022. The Dravidian Movement. Oxon and New York: Routledge. (First published in 1965 by Bombay Popular Prakashan)
Hodges, Sarah. 2005. “Revolutionary family life and the Self Respect movement in Tamil south India, 1926–49.” Contributions to Indian Sociology. 39: 251-277.
Kalaiyarasan, A. and M. Vijayabaskar. 2021. The Dravidian Model: Interpreting the Political Economy of Tamil Nadu. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Karthik, KR Vignesh, and Vishal Vasanthakumar. 2022. “Caste, then Class: Redistribution and Representation in the Dravidian Model.” CASTE / A Global Journal on Social Exclusion, 3(1), 107-122. In special issue on Freedom from Caste: Anti-caste Thought, Politics and Culture. Eds. Meena Dhanda and Karthick Ram Manoharan. https://doi.org/10.26812/caste.v3i1.348
Krishnan, Rajan Kurai, Ravindran Sriramachandran, and VMS Subagunarajan. 2022. Rule of the Commoner: DMK and Formations of the Political in Tamil Nadu, 1949–1967. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Manoharan, Karthick Ram. 2022. Periyar: A Study in Political Atheism. Hyderabad: Orient BlackSwan.
Manoharan, Karthick Ram. 2020. “In the Path of Ambedkar: Periyar and the Dalit Question.” South Asian History and Culture, 11:2. 136-149.
Manoharan, Karthick Ram. 2020. “Freedom from God: Periyar and Religion.” Religions, 11(1): 10. In special issue on Dalits and Religion: Ambiguity, Tension, Diversity and Vitality. Eds. Cosimo Zene and Meena Dhanda. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel11010010
Manoharan, Karthick Ram. 2020. “An Ethic beyond Anti-Colonialism: A Periyarist Engagement with Fanonism.” In Rethinking Social Justice. Eds. S. Anandhi et al. Hyderabad: Orient BlackSwan. 159-178.
Manoharan, Karthick Ram. 2016. “‘Anti-Casteist Casteism?’ A Fanonist Critique of Ramasamy’s Discourse on Caste.” Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies. 19 (1): 73-90.
Pandian, M. S. S. 1993. “‘Denationalising’ the Past: ‘Nation’ in E V Ramasamy’s Political Discourse.” Economic and Political Weekly 28, no. 42: 2282–2287.
Pandian, M.S.S. 2007. Brahmin and Non-Brahmin: Genealogies of the Tamil Political Present. Ranikhet: Permanent Black.
Pandian, M.S.S. 2009. “Nation Impossible.” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 44, No. 10: 65-69.
Ram, Mohan. 1974. “Ramaswami Naicker and the Dravidian Movement.” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 9, No. 6/8: 217+219+221-224.
Richman, Paula. 1995. “Epic and State: Contesting Interpretations of the Ramayana.” Public Culture 7: 631–54.
Richman, Paula. 1991. “E. V. Ramasami’s Reading of the Ramayana.” In Many Ramayanas: The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition in South Asia. Edited by Paula Richman. Berkeley and LA: University of California Press. 175-195.
Valan, Antony Arul. 2022. “Pariyerum Perumal and a Periyarite Note on Political Engagement.” CASTE / A Global Journal on Social Exclusion, 3(1), 171-188. In special issue on Freedom from Caste: Anti-caste Thought, Politics and Culture. Eds. Meena Dhanda and Karthick Ram Manoharan. https://doi.org/10.26812/caste.v3i1.355
Venkatachalapathy, A.R. 2017. “From Erode to Volga: Periyar EVR’s Soviet and European Tour, 1932.” In India and the World in the First Half of the Twentieth Century. Edited by Madhavan K. Palat. London and New York: Routledge. 102-133.
Venkatachalapathy, A. R. 2021. “Against the Hustings: Periyar, Elections, and Democracy.” In Crisis of Liberal Deliberation: Facets of Indian Democracy. Edited by Manas Ray. Delhi: Primus Books. 64-79.
Visswanathan, E. Sa. 1983. The Political Career of E.V. Ramasamy Naicker: A Study in the Politics of Tamil Nadu, 1920-1949. Madras: Ravi & Vasanth.
“There is no god, there is no god, there is no god at all. He who invented god is a fool. He who propagates god is a scoundrel. He who worships god is a barbarian.” – Periyar
This statement on god by Periyar E. V. Ramasamy is the most widely cited and popularized quote in the Tamil public realm, which is also a quote that has been subjected to extensive criticism for its denunciation of belief and devotion in god. Believers and traditionalists have referred to this quote on god, to attack Periyar for hurting godly beliefs and religious sentiments. This quote on god has been misinterpreted and sensationalized as an attack on Hindu divinities and the religious sensibilities of the Hindus particularly, which has been done so, with a motive to vilify Periyar and his message of humanity, rationalism and self-respect for establishing a humane society. In a socio-political situation where Periyar’s critique of god and religion is depicted as anti-Hindu and anti-brahmin, a comprehensive reading of Periyar’s speeches and writings informs us that, his critique of god and religion was not focused only on a single religion or on any particular community but that it also involved a criticism of godly beliefs and religious prescriptions of other religions and practices of non-brahmin communities. Periyar raised his critique against godly beliefs, social traditions or practices of any religion that imposed incontestable obedience to norms and behavior that impeded rational thinking and enslaved people to a system of disrespect, ill-treatment, inequalities, cruelties and oppression. He voiced his dissent against religious preachers and practitioners for deceiving people into such belief structures that inferiorized, subdued and humiliated them.
His quote on god does not carry an explicit attack or an exclusive condemnation of god of any particular religion and does not directly refer to religious heads or propagators of any specific religion. It has to be read and understood properly and rightly as a critique against any individual or community, any norm or behavior, any custom or practice, any organization or society that prohibits people from thinking, questioning and reasoning, thereby coercing them to blindly follow and accept life as it is given/exists and creates social stratifications of indignities whereby preventing humans from living a life of self-respect, equality, freedom and dignity. His declaration on god has to be read as a view promoting humanity and social justice. In this context, it becomes necessary to delve into the compiled writings of Periyar, focusing especially on his thoughts on god, to understand what Periyar meant by his statement on god and the message that he sought to communicate to people.
Early people, Periyar says, were afraid of any phenomenon which they could not see, know or understand. In such moments of vulnerability, people created a higher power that will protect and save them and anything that was imperceptible/ unexplainable to humankind was named as god or deemed as godly. God was mostly cited to explain the creation and the existence of universe. The thought of god, Periyar observed, had arisen in humans in the days when they had no knowledge of science, telling how humans ascribed divinity/sacrality to natural occurrences that were beyond their comprehension, perception and knowledge. Periyar explained how god was a social construction, mentioning how the feeling of god does not occur naturally or instinctively in humans, but arises through the teaching of others about god to us. Periyar elaborated how humans had to introduce god, describe tales and deeds of god, take efforts to brief on gods’ potential and create belief in the powers of god. He mentioned how the propagators of god took the prerogative of explaining of what constitutes the divine, how we are required to believe, accept and follow the all-encompassing power of god.
Periyar asked those who believed in god to think about how so many gods came into being, how different images of god came to be created and ordained with human features and how did gods come to have family, children, allies, enemies, feuds and conflicts. He called on people to think about how jewels, weapons, ceremonies came to be created for god and how did wells, ponds, tanks, lakes come to have divine powers and how did such spaces come to have differences of high and low and asked what made humans believe, worship and show devotion to god. Periyar stated how believers of god differed in their perceptions of the reasons, forms, features, powers, potentials, devotion and worship of their respective gods and to Periyar, the differences in human’s perceptions and emotions towards god existed because such beliefs and faith in gods did not occur in humans instinctively or naturally but was ingrained in the minds of the humans through the preaching, propagation and inculcation of godly beliefs and religious rules in them.
Periyar pointed out how those who preached about gods, spoke about god in terms of gods’ utility in human life, referring to claims of how worshipping gods will lead to fulfillment of our desires and demands, on how our sins and wrongs will be forgiven and on how progress and prosperity will be bestowed on us. Such preaching about god, Periyar said, associates god with enhancing self-interest and self-growth of humans, emphasizing on gaining benefits through god. Periyar also encouraged people to think how devotion to god came to be exhibited in the form of performing rituals, such as displaying religious symbols, chanting god’s names, reading religious texts, visiting temples, undertaking pilgrimages, worshipping gods, adorning temples, conducting temple feasts and festivals, participating in processions and in showing reverence to priests and gods. Periyar mentioned how people failed to understand that devotion should include aspects of good thoughts and good deeds, kindness, compassion and respect for others and belief in the equality of all living beings.
Periyar dismissed devotion as an expression of raw selfishness and as of no use to other persons, stating how only those who showed devotion benefitted from their acts of devotion and how that it did not concern the welfare of others. Periyar observed how those who preached god, portrayed god as higher and above all, but failed to see how god came to be laden with human attributes, mentioning how like humans, gods did good to those who did good and punished those who did bad and that not much difference existed between humans and gods. He stated that which is seen as god’s teachings, principles and messages actually contain human emotions and notions and that the gods are but embodiments of human thoughts.
On some people expressing their anger on Periyar for his questioning of god, creation of god and god’s role and existence, Periyar voiced how their angst was an approval to his statements that god did not appear naturally but was created and invented by someone. Periyar opined how only those who earned in the name of god, those who enjoyed the benefits of an unequal system, and those who were enshrined with high caste status and those who wanted to hide their misdeeds through god’s name, were those who got angry. He urged people to think why god’s messages were revealed to a chosen few and why such chosen people came to be god’s messengers and were tasked with teaching god’s principles, further rousing people to think whether such messages of god, were messages for the welfare of all or messages that were used to advance the privileges of few.
Preachers and propagators of god, Periyar opines, by compelling people to believe in and accept god and texts, are asking people to be in obedience to religion, act in conformity with religious tenets, threatening those who acted otherwise that evil things might happen to them. Periyar also reasoned by drawing a distinction between elements that were of natural origin and elements that were of artificial creation. Whilst factors such as eating food, feeling hunger and pain, sleeping, breathing, feelings of love and sexual desire and experiencing the five elements of nature were common and universal to all humans and were indispensable, Periyar stated how elements such as god, religion, heaven, hell, devotion, prayers, status and wealth were aspects devoid of naturalness and constructed out of imaginations and fantasies of humans to protect the vested interests, aspects where one cannot use one’s intellect to explain why we should believe and follow these.
Periyar explained how preachers of god use god as a tool of control, obedience and discipline, saying how propagators of god have condemned acts of thinking and questioning as sinful. Worshipping god and following religious principles are seen as unquestionable endeavors, where people are asked to blindly obey, follow and are forbidden from reasoning. Periyar sees these as acts duping people to keep them in a state of fear, subjugation and ignorance, to enslave them into a certain kind of system that benefits some and demean others, thus barring them from exercising their freedom. Emphasizing on rational thinking, Periyar cautioned against showing unopposed obeisance and undisputed allegiance to godly norms and religious texts and prescriptions without subjecting them to our reason, experience, reflections and analysis. Periyar apprised of how belief in god and in god’s action were kept beyond the rational sense, intelligence and knowledge of humans, coercing them to believe, worship and accept god for fear of being labelled sinners, traitors or criminals.
Importantly, Periyar drew attention to how various aspects of human life – political, economic and socio-cultural spheres – were subjected to the commandments of god and religion and attempts to challenge, reform, and change and destroy the unequal rules and unjust structures were struck down as acts contravening the prevailing order and as acts disrespecting god and endangering religion. Periyar exposed the interconnections that existed between godly/religious beliefs and the sacralization of casteiest structures of oppression, questioning how certain caste customs and religious conducts are defended and upheld in the name of god-willed structures, as divinely ordained order.
In his challenge of godly beliefs, Periyar prodded us to think how in the existing order of things, some are made to labour and suffer, whilst others enjoy and lead lives of leisure, asking when such an order is justified in the name of god, should we not question the god who created this discriminatory structure and question those who extol such gods who protects socially unequal caste system and casteiest practices. Periyar observed how in social life, where certain communities are inflicted upon with caste indignities and are denied equal living, self-respect, freedom and rights, he asks, how that the god who is portrayed as common, belonging to all, gets to be preached by the messengers of god as having created and as supporting caste divisions, asking on what basis should we then place belief in god, that which has created distinctions of low-high, inferior-superior, divine-degraded and touchable-untouchable.
Periyar stated how that the unquestioned beliefs about god is what made people to believe and accept the conditions they were in, for their low caste positions, for their hunger, for their poverty, for their sufferings and lack of opportunities, as they deemed such situations as god-willed and as being destined to undergo it. He noted how those enjoying high caste statuses, endowed with land and wealth, enshrined with religious rights and cultural privileges have used god to protect and maintain their interests and positions as god-given and divinely granted.
Periyar emphasized on the need to think, question and analyze and put statements to the test of reason and exercise our rationality before we believe or accept events and social conditions as they are. Unlike religious preachers who compelled people to believe and follow unthinkingly and threatened them of evil consequences in cases of transgressions, Periyar wherever and whenever he expressed his opinions, gave people full freedom to agree, disagree, to accept or deny, urging them to exercise their rationality while doing so, stating that no opinions, arguments and perspectives should be obeyed or practiced unquestioningly.
Periyar’s thoughts on using one’s reasoning abilities, rational thinking and scrutinizing information, facts, events and available knowledge to critical analysis holds more relevance in the contemporary times. Most importantly Periyar’s critique of god has to be read and imbibed as his emphasis on leading a life where social relations between humans are not governed by dehumanizing and superstitious socio-religious norms and practices but one where social living and conduct of relations between people should be based on a feeling of self-respect, humanity, equality and dignity.
Dhivya Sivaramane is pursuing her PhD in Political Science at the University of Delhi.
Thiruppathi P is pursuing his PhD in Political Science at the Institute for Social and Economic Change, Bengaluru.
Disclaimer: The views expressed by the authors are their own. The Periyar Project cannot be held responsible for the content of their views.
Marie Curie Research Fellow Karthick Ram Manoharan’s book Periyar: A Study in Political Atheism (Orient BlackSwan 2022) was launched in Chennai at the Roja Muthiah Research Library on 4 June 2022. Kanimozhi Karunanidhi, Member of Parliament from the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, released the book.
Sundar Ganesan from the RMRL gave the welcome address and introduced the speakers. Salem Dharanidharan from the Dravidian Professionals Forum spoke about the forum and the achievements of Dravidian politics. The event began with the screening of Vilasini Ramani’s short film The Icon and the Iconoclast. This was followed by a roundtable discussion with the Honorable Minister, the author and Prof. Meena Dhanda, which was chaired by A.S. Panneerselvan from the RMRL. An interactive Q & A session followed.
The event concluded with a keynote address from Kanimozhi Karunanidhi. In her address, she congratulated Manoharan for his research on Periyar, and spoke about the relevance of Periyar for contemporary Indian politics and secularism, emphasizing the need for free and critical debate.
MSCA Fellow Karthick Ram Manoharan’s monograph Periyar: A Study in Political Atheism will be published by Orient BlackSwan in early 2022. This is a research output of the EU H2020 project “Freedom from Caste: The Political Thought of Periyar E.V. Ramasamy in a Global Context”.
Orient BlackSwan announced the publication of the book on 24 December 2021, Periyar’s Remembrance Day. Manoharan, who was a guest speaker at an event organized by the Dravidian Professionals’ Forum on that day, shared the happy news and discussed some of the themes that he was covering in this book. A pre-publication discussion of the book was organized at the University of Nottingham on 17 November 2021, with the philosopher Ian James Kidd as the discussant.
Abstract of the book below:
Periyar E.V. Ramasamy (1879-1973) was a rationalist anti-caste leader from South India. Known for his critical views on caste, nationalism, gender, and social justice, he earned a controversial reputation in his lifetime and after for his views on religion. Criticized by his opponents for being a ‘crude atheist’, Periyar’s critique of religion however was not a simple rejection of god, but a critique of political theology. In this book, Manoharan discusses Periyar’s controversial, sometimes contradictory, but overall nuanced approach to religion, and explores how his criticisms of religion were fundamentally rooted in an opposition to hierarchical social power and a concern for social justice. Manoharan reads Periyar in the anarchist tradition, drawing comparisons with the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, to consider how Periyar was critical of both divine and secular power. With an elaborate introduction that places Periyar in historical and intellectual context, the other chapters discuss Periyar’s political atheism, his approach to Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism and Marxism, and concludes with a discussion of his relevance for contemporary debates on secularism and post-secularism.
Gajendran Ayyathurai is an anthropologist and a historian based in Göttingen, Germany. He spoke to The Periyar Project about his research, his work on Iyothee Thass, and his novel approach to critical caste studies. He highlighted the significance of Thass to anti-caste thought and imagining castelessness.
Disclaimer: The views expressed by the interviewee are their own. The Periyar Project cannot be held responsible for their views.
The Icon and The Iconoclast, a short film directed by Vilasini Ramani, premiered at the Being Human Festival (BHF) on 16 November 2021. The short film is based on a conversation that reportedly happened between Periyar E.V. Ramasamy and Mahatma Gandhi in the year 1927. Over this conversation, Periyar, a rationalist anti-caste leader from South India and the key figure of the Dravidian Movement, and Mahatma Gandhi, the well-known pacifist leader of the Indian Independence Movement, discuss their views on religion and caste.
The Icon and The Iconoclast features Kishore as Periyar, Salmin Sheriff as Gandhi and Swami as S. Ramanathan, a close associate of Periyar. Kishore is a widely acclaimed actor in the Indian film industry. He is most known for his collaborations with the award-winning director Vetrimaaran, Pa Ranjith and he will be playing a key role in Mani Ratnam’s upcoming historical epic Ponniyin Selvan. Kanti, Polladhavan, Vennila Kabadi Kuzhu, Aadukalam, Haridass, Visaranai, Vada Chennai are some of the many films where his performance was greatly lauded. Salmin Sheriff is a playwright who has been involved in theatre for over 25 years and is a founding member of the theatre group Playpen. A well-known and much celebrated artist from Bengaluru, he has also acted in films, most notably Nirmal Anand ki Puppy and The Sky is Pink. Swami is a theatre artist based in Chennai, who has acted in the plays of renowned playwrights like Indira Parthasarathy and others, and The Icon and The Iconoclast is his film debut.
This is the second film for the director Vilasini, who is also a freelance publisher and translator. Her first film No Means No, which is a part of a trilogy titled Are You Divorced Yet?, is currently in post-production. The screening of The Icon and The Iconoclast at the BHF was well attended. The historical background to conversation between Periyar and Gandhi shown in the film was introduced by Dr. Karthick Ram Manoharan, Marie Curie Research Fellow at the University of Wolverhampton, and the project consultant for the film. The event concluded with a spirited interactive session with the director, the actors and the attendees.
Within a month of its premiere, The Icon and The Iconoclast made it to the official selection of several international film festivals, winning awards and honorable mentions at a few.
Excerpt from Manoharan’s introduction below:
“I do think that this interaction throws good light on the approaches of these two leaders to caste and religion. Most importantly, it shows how these thinkers, with significantly different views on religion could nevertheless have a respectful dialogue with each other. Issues of religion involve difficult conversations, but they also need these difficult conversations. Of course, Periyar is greatly attractive to atheists and anti-casteists in India. But what about believers? To those who feel that their religion and caste is threatened, the views of Periyar might appear offensive and blasphemous. To those who are firm of faith, but are open to alternative viewpoints, they might find something humorous and perhaps even something to reflect on in this conversation between Periyar and Gandhi. The lead character of Umberto Eco’s The Name of The Rose says that the mission of those who love humanity is to make people laugh at divinely held truths. I hope our viewers today can laugh and learn from The Icon and The Iconoclast.“
Full text of Meena Dhanda’s closing address for the “Anti-Caste Thought” conference, on 30 October 2021.
In naming ‘Anti-Caste Thought’ as the subject of this conference we took something important for granted: that anti-caste thought was a distinct body of knowledge worth examining intellectually. For too long we have been held back by recurrent discussions about the meaning of the ‘term’ caste, and its usefulness in capturing group identifications that are evidently at work on many levels in the lives of South Asians. Here in the UK, we have faced trenchant opposition to including caste within the scope of race as a protected characteristic in the Equality Act 2010. In public debates on this topic, we are accused of colonial consciousness, of self-hatred, and worse, of instigating hatred against Hindus, just because we raise the caste question. The language of anti-colonialism is weaponised to shield the interests of a misplaced nativism. We experienced a renewed assault a few weeks ago in the widely discussed conference in the USA – let’s call it the September conference – where we discussed caste and Hindutva in a panel. An unsuccessful attempt was made to shut down that conference and the dust from that storm has not yet settled.
In this conference – let’s call it the October conference – by foregrounding anti-caste thought we wanted to step back from a futile and exhausting battle with the enemies of thought. We wanted to offer a secure platform for discussion amongst those who are willing to engage in a serious reflection about the limits and possibilities of anti-caste thought. We wanted critical readings of the great and the good – our friends, our own heroes and heroines, our idols – because we know that to offer such readings we need to read diligently and with attachment. Over the last year, since I started supervising our Marie Curie Research Fellow, Dr Karthick Ram Manoharan in the EU Horizon 2020 project Freedom from Caste: The Political Thought of Periyar E.V. Ramasamy in a Global Context, I have become increasingly aware of the gaps in my knowledge of Tamil Nadu and its politics. Equally, I have realised that Karthick knows so little about Punjab. As two people from two distant parts of a vast country, we must rely on each other if we want to achieve our common intellectual goal of formulating a credible understanding of the idea of ‘freedom from caste’.
At this time last year, I had imagined I might pick up Tamil a little bit, and Karthick some Punjabi. Sadly, I have not picked any Tamil, even though I now see Tamil films on Netflix to get a feel for the language. For academic work, I depend solely on translations of Periyar’s writings. There’s nothing unusual about that as I rely on translations of Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Sartre, or Fanon. What is unusual in the Tamil/Punjabi case is that the ‘culture of caste’ seems deceptively familiar even without understanding the language of the inhabitants of the specific caste worlds of Tamils and Punjabis. I think an active defamiliarization would deepen our mutual understanding: getting details of lived experience from reliable ‘others’ opens new worlds. Punjab is different from Tamil Nadu in some ways, but also similar in other caste-inflected ways.
When we announced this conference, we received a few disturbing emails from people who claimed that Periyar had made very many ‘anti-Brahmin’ pronouncements. There was evidence provided of fiery speeches and links to writings that can arguably be seen as inflammatory. But we also know, from what we have heard in some presentations in this conference that Periyar has said many things to challenge a ‘Brahmanism’ that shores up the caste matrix. For instance, in the Ambedkar book panel yesterday, we heard that in Periyar’s case we must distinguish between being anti-Brahmin and encouraging non-Brahmin positioning.
So, what should our attitude be towards such iconic figures from the perspective of critical thinking? Should we not read a thinker because they have said things which when seen in isolation may indeed be objectionable? I think that in such cases where voluminous writings and speeches exist, a comprehensive study becomes even more important to locate and effectively criticise their stray objectionable pronouncements. Within my subject of philosophy, in the 70s and 80s feminist philosophers depicted the misogyny of male philosophers through re-readings of their texts and a few years later the racism of white western philosophers also came under scrutiny. After these revelations, one could no longer teach Aristotle or Kant, without being troubled by the thought: why do we give these male philosophers so much importance? Were they not totally blind to their own prejudices, whilst espousing justice, friendship, or universal equality?
Similar worries can occur with regards to any thinker, including us, seeking the annihilation of caste. There will, very likely, be biases, prejudices and blind spots which escape critical scrutiny. And there is no guarantee that we are in a better position in the present to make fair assessments of inherited knowledge. However, to give truth and critical thinking a chance to succeed, it is crucial to foster academic freedom. The new generation of anti-caste thinkers need the protection of this space of freedom more than ever.
In this conference, we were especially interested in creating space for new theorisations of anti-casteism by encouraging younger scholars to share their work. In this we have exceeded our own expectations. It has been delightful to listen to 17 papers, with nuanced discussions of historical, sociological, political, and philosophical readings of the presence of caste in our lives. Let me recount briefly what we covered in these two days.
In panel one [Caste and Culture], Chaired by Selvaraj Velayutham, Sunidhi Pacharne’s paper on ‘The Gendered Politics of Caste in Indian Cinema: Interrogating the Sexual Impurity of Dalit Women’ pointed out that there is no presentation of the ‘political Dalit’ in mainstream cinema. Portrayals of Dalit women even in films with Dalit protagonists are governed by what she calls a ‘Brahmanic unconscious’. Drishadwadi Bargi’s paper was a philosophical meditation on sacrifice, the dissolution of the ego in love, and the desire for revolutionary self-transformation in Malika Amar Sheikh’s memoir – I want to Destroy Myself. This memoir of a daughter of communist parents and life-partner of a Dalit Panther, leads Bargi to reflect upon the conditions that create moments of identification with heterogenous others. Swarnavel Eswaran’s paper on three recent films, Pariyerum Perumal (Horse-mounting Deity, Mari Selvaraj, 2018), Maadathy (Leena Manimekalai, 2019), Seththumann/Pig (Thamizh, 2020) discussed the social construction of space where the politics of denial of civil rights is played out on a quotidian basis, and cinematic space where the blurring of rigid casteist boundaries by lovers is depicted.
In panel two [Caste, Nation and Spaciality]: Shrinidhi Narasimhan in ‘Place-making from the Margins: Asia in the Tamil Buddhist Imagination’ argued that the Sakhya Buddhist imagination of ancient India as a Dalit Buddhist land not only produced an emancipatory genealogy for Tamil Dalits but also an alternative, emancipatory geography within which to locate themselves. Her paper reflected on how Iyothee Thass and the movement he led not only reinterpreted the past but also reimagined place, and thus she brings critical geography into conversation with historical analysis to rethink the spatial and temporal contours of late nineteenth and early twentieth century anticaste movements. Ganeshwar’s paper ‘Periyar’s Spatial Thought: Region as Non-Brahmin Discursive Space’ argued that Periyar’s spatial thought stems from his anti-caste thought and is key to understanding his sharp critique of Indian nationalism. The region, for Periyar, was the counter discursive space that would enable the ascendency of non-brahmin politics. The Self-respect movement contributed to the popularisation of the region as a counter-hegemonic force incorporating a distinctive set of non-brahmin values to the Tamil region. Anish KK’s paper on ‘Conceptions of Community, Nation and Politics: The Ezhavas of South Malabar and their Quest of Equality*’ showed how the Ezhavas laying claim to the Buddhist tradition from Sri Lanka, proposed a critique of the prevailing social structure and reinterpreted their own origins as a means to suspend Hindu religious injunctions, their lowly position in caste hierarchy, and their traditional caste occupations. The Chair, Malini Ranganathan wonderfully knitted together the themes of the papers in her comments – suggesting that they were like a draft chapters of one book. She suggested thinking about scaler strategies of space, re-scaling to resist the scale of Brahmanical nationalism.
Panel three [Caste and Institutions], began with Shakhti’s paper on the ‘The Many Faces of Caste in Chennai’s Information Technology Industry’ providing findings from her qualitative interviews and ethnographic research carried out within the IT industry in 2015-16 in Chennai, Tamil Nadu. Despite specific ameliorative measures in Tamil Nadu, there is a continuing primacy attached to ‘merit’ even in the face of calls for caste-based reservation in private-sector employment. The paper demonstrated how caste is shaped by both situated social relations and global networks of capital. Jentle Vargese spoke on ‘Militancy, Radical Democracy and Constitutionalism: Ayyankali and the Dalit Assertion in Colonial Travancore’ presenting a reinterpretation of the Dalit Leader, Ayyankali, from the perspective of a Dalit historiography. He provided the political significance of his activities, his position on religion, his negotiation with the Hindu state and his emergence as the unquestionable leader of Dalits in Kerala. The Chair, Gaurav Pathania gave detailed constructive comments on how the papers might be strengthened for submission as journal articles. To Shakthi he suggested focussing on intersectionality of caste, class, and gender, and to Jentle on examples of Ayyankali’s negotiation of caste oppression in education, public space, and social interaction.
In the last session yesterday, I had the pleasure of hosting a book discussion on B.R. Ambedkar: The Quest for Justice (5 Vols., OUP, 2021) with the editor Aakash Singh Rathore, Kancha Ilaiah, Kanchana Mahadevan and Mathew Baxter, where each of them talked about their contribution to the volumes. In response to my question, they reflected on why it was important in the present times to study anti-caste thought in the writings of Ambedkar, Periyar and others.
Today began with the authoritative keynote by AR Venkatachalapathy [Denying and Defying Power: Periyar’s Approach to Politics] which you will forgive me for not summarising. We heard about the provocative writer, who built several social reform campaigns, from outside electoral politics.
In panel 4 [Caste and Religions], chaired by Gajendra Ayyathurai, Dhiviya Shivaramane’s paper was an attempt to examine the social influences of the Dravidian discourse on caste through Periyar’s views on religion and god. She argued that Periyar sought to direct the focus from the ritual/cognitive realm to the social/experiential realm – where one finds the most pervasive and vicious operation of caste. Next, Nithin Donald, spoke on ‘Ambedkar as a Sociologist of Indian Christianity’, explaining how Ambedkar recovers Christians as political actors at a time when nationalists devalued them for being an ‘insignificant minority.’ He also explained how Gandhism played a key role in ‘denationalizing’ Christians and permanently marking them as objects of suspicion for a long time to come. Nithin uses two key primary sources from Babasaheb Ambedkar: ‘Christianizing India’ and ‘The Condition of the Convert’. The final paper in the panel by Suhasini Roy’s on ‘Barishaler Jogen Mondal: Construal of the undisputed dalit leader of undivided Bengal through a twenty-first century Bengali novel’ explained how Mondal’s politico-ideological agenda of establishing separate/distinct political identity for the Dalits and in Bengal’s context finding solidarity with their Muslim counterparts in agrarian population was lost in the post-War years and abandoned by the new nations since 1947. The Chair, gave extensive comments to the three speakers, reitering the importance of vernacular terms in capturing experience. We must imagine community, he suggested, beyond biological kinship.
Panel 5, on Anti-Caste Thinkers, chaired by Dag Erik Berg, began with Mahitosh Mandal speaking on ‘Dalit Resistance in Times of Bengal Renaissance: Five Untouchable Thinker-Reformers from Colonial Bengal’. He argued that the existence of multiple anti-caste social/political organizations in Bengal for over a century, the proliferation of Bengali Dalit literature in the past few decades, and the occasional documentation of Dalit atrocities in mainstream newspapers, all demonstrate that Bengal as a caste-less land is a myth. The paper theorized the indigenous and complex anti-caste intellectual tradition of Bengal, excluded from the intellectual history of Bengal. It argued that Bengal Renaissance was fundamentally an upper-caste Hindu renaissance that did not (effectively) address the issue of caste subalternity. Ignoring the parallel Dalit renaissance is ‘epistemic violence’. The second paper in this panel by Vignesh Karthick and Vishal Vasanthakumar: ‘Beyond Anti-Caste Activism: A Periyarist Gaze at Social Justice’ examined the hypothesis that while both social empowerment and economic mobility were absolutely non-negotiable goals of the Dravidian Movement, it was the clear-eyed understanding that the latter is not achievable without the former that informed its theory and praxis. It is this worldview that informs the approach of the leaders of the Dravidian movement, which they went on to examine. The final paper by Prem Ram ‘A discourse on communication between Iyothe Thass and Peiryar: Possibilities of transgressing Caste equations’ argued that Dravidian and Dalit discourses can co-exist in their approach to forge a common strategy. It challenged the claim that Dravidian discourse has unconsciously erased the memory of Iyothe Thass, taking a constructive approach to reconcile the two. The Chair, Dag probed the presenters to think about what is an anti-caste thinker and where does caste originate: in social life or in a religious text? He drew attention to regional comparisons and suggested that the archive of the oppressed should be available in translation.
In the final panel, 6 [Anti-Caste Theory], chaired by Scott Stroud, we had three papers. Uday Yerramadasu spoke on ‘A Veritable Chamber of Horrors: The Annihilation of Caste as a Theodicy on Responsibility’. Through the analysis of the killing of Sambuka and the trial of Eichmann, his paper delineated the fiction of Sovereignty and argued, for both Ambedkar and Arendt, the free and responsible individual is historically produced. However, ‘un-naturality,’ rather than making it dispensable, points to the necessity of politics to sustain, cherish and nurture the notions of freedom and responsibility. Thus, he argued that for Ambedkar, responsibility is the essence of religion; religion without responsibility might be a ‘way of life’ but undoubtedly it does not qualify as a religion. The second paper was by Sitharthan Sriharan on ‘Universalism as Foundational to the Critique of Caste: Towards a Comparative Reading of Ambedkar and Hegel’. The paper is work towards a comprehensive comparative reading of Ambedkar and Hegel’s ideas on Freedom, the State, and Religion by ascertaining their commitments to conceptions of universal morality in their respective critiques of the Hindu caste system. The last paper in the conference was by Jadumani Mahanand, commended yesterday in the Ambedkar book panel for his contribution. Jadumani spoke on ‘Ambedkar’s Anti-Caste philosophy as Democratic Theory’. He argued that according to Ambedkar, the philosophy of Brahminism is incompatible, contradictory, and against the idea of democracy. Ambedkar’s writings on democracy theoretically offer a counter revolution to Brahminism. Finally, he argued that Ambedkar goes beyond caste in theorizing an ethical and moral conception of democracy in a universal sense. The Chair, Scott Stroud, pushed the presenters to take their investigations further, for example, by looking closely at the organisation of Ambedkar’s 22 vows.
I hope my summary of the presentations has shown that this conference marks a new beginning, of a flowering, transdisciplinary, contemporary scholarship on anti-caste thought. Many of the papers presented in our conference will be submitted for publication to Caste: a global journal of social exclusion and become a freely available resource, to draw upon in intellectual and political pursuits of social transformation towards a caste-free world.
I end by thanking all the participants from different parts of the world: attendees, speakers, chairs, book panel discussants and our wonderful support team – Elena, Mike, Laura and Dr Lotika Singha, at the University of Wolverhampton. It has been an intense but wholly gratifying period of intellectual interaction with all of you. We are deeply grateful to you for making this conference a success. Please send us your feedback on CasteFree@wlv.ac.uk.
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!
A two-day online conference was organized at the University of Wolverhampton by Prof. Meena Dhanda and Dr. Karthick Ram Manoharan on 29th and 30th October 2021 as a part of the EU Horizon 2020 project Freedom From Caste: The Political Thought of Periyar E.V. Ramasamy in a Global Context. Held as an online event, the speakers at this conference engaged with a variety of thinkers across India who have contributed to anti-caste thought – as theorists, political leaders, social reformers, writers, activists, artists, novelists and poets – over 6 panels on culture, spatiality, institutions, religion, anti-caste thinkers, and theory. This academic event presented new exciting research of young and established scholars on anti-caste thought, and sought to be a step in stimulating global critical conversations on caste studies and anti-casteism. Most of the papers will be submitted to a special issue of J-Caste journal and, following peer-review, will be published. Recordings of the presentations will be made available for public viewing soon.
• S. Sakthi (Indian Institute of Technology Madras) – What’s in a (‘Fancy’) Name? The Many Faces of Caste in Chennai’s Information Technology Industry
• Jentle Varghese (CMS College Kottayam) – Militancy, Radical Democracy and Constitutionalism: Ayyankali and the Dalit Assertion in Colonial Travancore
14.45 – 15.30 [BST] – BREAK
15.30 – 17.00 [BST] – Book discussion of B.R. Ambedkar: The Quest for Justice, 5 Vols. (OUP 2021) with Aakash Singh Rathore (philosopher), Kancha Ilaiah (former Head of the Department of political science at Osmania University), Kanchana Mahadevan (University of Mumbai) and Matthew Baxter (Ashoka University), hosted by Meena Dhanda.
DAY 2 – SATURDAY 30TH OCTOBER 2021
9.30 – 10.30 [BST] – Keynote Lecture – AR Venkatachalapathy (Madras Institute of Development Studies) – Denying and Defying Power: Periyar’s Approach to Politics
10.30 – 11.00 [BST] – BREAK
11.00 – 12.30 [BST] – PANEL 4: Caste and Religions