Closing Address for Anti-Caste Thought Conference

Full text of Meena Dhanda’s closing address for the “Anti-Caste Thought” conference, on 30 October 2021.

Meena Dhanda

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.

Have a restful weekend!

Meena

https://researchers.wlv.ac.uk/M.Dhanda

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!

Anti-Caste Thought: Theory, Politics and Culture

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.

For a gist of what was discussed at the conference, have look at threads on the project Twitter page here for Day 1 and here for Day 2.

The program schedule is below:

DAY 1 – FRIDAY 29TH OCTOBER 2021

9.15 [BST] Welcome Address – Karthick Ram Manoharan

9.30 – 11.00 [BST] PANEL 1: Caste and Culture

Chair: Selvaraj Velayutham (Macquarie University)

• Sunidhi Pacharne (Jawaharlal Nehru University) – The Gendered Politics of Caste in Indian Cinema: Interrogating the Sexual Impurity of Dalit Women

• Drishadwati Bargi (University of Minnesota) – Revolution, in the mirror of love: Facing the “Failures” in Malika Amar Shaikh’s memoir I Want to Destroy Myself

• Swarnavel Eswaran (Michigan State University) – Caste: Cinema and Spatiality

11.00 – 11.30 [BST] – BREAK

11.30 – 13.00 [BST] PANEL 2: Caste, Nation and Spatiality

Chair: Malini Ranganathan (American University)

• Shrinidhi Narasimhan (University of Oxford) – Place-making from the Margins: Asia in the Tamil Buddhist Imagination

• Ganeshwar S (Delhi University) – Periyar’s Spatial Thought: Region as Non-Brahmin Discursive Space

• Anish KK (Tata Institute of Social Sciences) – Conceptions of Community, Nation and Politics: The Ezhavas of South Malabar and their Quest of Equality

13.00 – 13.30 [BST] – BREAK

13.30 – 14.45 [BST] PANEL 3: Caste and Institutions

Chair: Gaurav J Pathania (Eastern Mennonite University)

• 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

Chair: Gajendran Ayyathurai (Gottingen University)

• Dhivya Sivaramane (Delhi University) – Repudiating Religion, God and Caste: Self-respecting Social Radicalism and Rationalism of Periyar E. V. Ramasamy

• Nidhin Donald (Jawaharlal Nehru University) – Ambedkar as a Sociologist of Indian Christianity

• Suhasini Roy (University of Calcutta) – Barishaler Jogen Mondal: Construal of the undisputed dalit leader of undivided Bengal through a twenty-first century Bengali novel

12.30 – 13.00 [BST] – BREAK

13.00 – 14.30 [BST] – PANEL 5: Anti-Caste Thinkers

Chair: Dag Erik Berg (Molde University College)

• Mahitosh Mandal (Presidency University) – Dalit Resistance in Times of Bengal Renaissance: Five Untouchable Thinker-Reformers from Colonial Bengal

• Vignesh Karthik KR (King’s College London) and Vishal Vasanthakumar (Independent Scholar) – Beyond Anti-Caste Activism: A Periyarist Gaze at Social Justice

• Prem Ram MR (Crescent School of Law) – A discourse on communication between Iyothee Thass and Periyar: Possibilities of transgressing Caste equations

14.30 – 15.00 [BST] – BREAK

15.00 – 16.30 [BST] – PANEL 6: Anti-Caste Theory

Chair: Scott Stroud (University of Texas)

• Uday Yerramadasu (Jawaharlal Nehru University) – A Veritable Chamber of Horrors: The Annihilation of Caste as a Theodicy on Responsibility

• Sitharthan Sriharan (City University of New York) – Universalism as Foundational to the Critique of Caste: Towards a Comparative Reading of Ambedkar and Hegel

• Jadumani Mahanand (OP Jindal Global University) – Ambedkar’s Anti-Caste Philosophy as Democratic Theory

16.30 – 17.00 [BST] – Concluding Address by Meena Dhanda

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.

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.


Social Differences

-Periyar E.V. Ramasamy

Translated by Karthick Ram Manoharan and Vilasini Ramani

By anthropological studies, Indians can be broadly divided into three categories – Aryans, Mongoloids, and Dravidians. Among these, the Dravidians are the oldest tribes of India. The Aryans came from outside to settle here. 

The languages of the Dravidians are Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam and a few other tribal languages. The languages of the Aryans are Sanskrit, Hindi etc.

The Dravidians did not have any caste discrimination among them and they worshipped a single god.

The Aryans have caste differences and they worship many gods. The Aryans believe in heaven, family deities, rituals etc. The Dravidians worship warriors, respect and adore great persons who work for the good of the society, feed the poor who cannot earn a living, and build lodges for travellers. 

The Aryans teach that we should offer gifts to the Brahmins in order to attain salvation and anything else that we do is useless. 

The Dravidians believe that helping the poor and offering them a livelihood is a duty for those in privileged positions.

There are many such differences between the Aryans and Dravidians. A condition is imposed that if the Aryans and the Dravidians are to live together, it can happen only when we accept that the Aryans are superior upper castes while the Dravidians are inferior lower castes. However, if we claim equal rights, we are called as Aryan haters and Brahmin haters. This is why we have protests and fights between the Aryans and the Dravidians in the Dravidian land. As the struggle intensifies, the Dravidians are forced to demand that the Dravidian land be separated from the Aryan land and that the Dravidians must establish their own rule. 

Whether the British accept or not to the idea of a separate Dravidian land, the Dravidians have decided that they will uphold this demand to live on their own. 

Ireland which has a population of about 75 lakh people was part of Great Britain but they are now a separate country. And the British have accepted that. They even allowed Burma to become independent.

If Britain does not permit Tamil Nadu that has a population of about 4 crore Dravidians to separate from the Aryan land and live as a British protectorate, it is a loss only to them, but it doesn’t mean that the Dravidians will not get their Dravidian land.

Editorial, Viduthalai, 01.05.1941.

Source: Periyar E. V. Ramasamy. 2011. Periyar Kalanjiyam 8: Jaathi-Theendaamai, Paagam (2). [Periyar Repository 8: Caste-Untouchability Part (2)]. Second Edition. Chennai: Periyar Suyamariyathai Prachaara Niruvanam, pp. 141-143.

Gandhi-Periyar Dialogue

Translated by Karthick Ram Manoharan and Vilasini Ramani

(Periyar along with his close friend S. Ramanathan visited Mahatma Gandhi in Bangalore in 1927. Their conversation was first published in Kudiarasu in 1927 and republished in Unmai in 1970. We have translated their conversation as it appears in the Periyar Kalanjiyam.)


Periyar: Hinduism should go.

Mahatma Gandhi: Why?

Periyar: There is no Hindu religion.

Gandhi: There is.

Periyar: The Brahmins have propagated this and have duped people.

Gandhi: Aren’t all religions like that?

Periyar: Not so. Other religions have proof for their history and their religious figures, and their ideas are generally accepted by their followers.

Gandhi: But aren’t there such things in Hinduism?

Periyar: What is there? One is a Brahmin. One a Sudra. Another a Panchama. Apart from these divisions, is there a common idea, or a common source? And apart from the social belief that the Brahmin is high, while the Sudra and Panchama are low, what else is there?

Gandhi: Well, at least there appears to be this idea!

Periyar: But what is the use of this? According to it, the Brahmins are higher while you and I are lower.

Gandhi: You are in error. In varnashrama dharma, there are no high and low castes.

Periyar: You say this. But it does not work that way.

Gandhi: It can be made to work that way.

Periyar: As long as there is Hinduism, that is not possible.

Gandhi: It can be done only through Hinduism.

Periyar: Then what do we do with the religious texts that are proof for the divisions of Brahmin and Sudra?

Gandhi: But you yourself claimed that there is no proof for a Hindu religion?

Periyar: I say that there is no Hindu religion, and that there is no specific proof for the same. But then, shouldn’t those who accept the existence of this religion also accept the proofs that come along?

Gandhi: We can accept a religion and develop our own arguments.

Periyar: That is not possible. If we accept a religion as valid, we cannot change anything.

Gandhi: What you say is applicable for other religions. Not for Hinduism. Once you accept the religion, you can make changes in its name. No one can question you.

Periyar: How can you say this? Who will agree? Wouldn’t you need to provide a basis for this?

Gandhi: What you say sounds right. That is, there is no religion called Hindu religion. Fair enough. I agree. I also agree that it does not have a well-defined set of ideas. But that is exactly why we, as Hindus, have the liberty to make our own ideals. Today, in this country – why – in the world itself, the Hindu religion can be used to bring people to the right path. Other religions cannot. Because other religions have historical proofs and concrete ideas. Those who interfere with these (proofs) will be opposed. What Christ said, or what the Bible says that he said, that is the only way for Christians to behave. Likewise, what the Prophet Muhammad said and what the Koran says, that is the only way for the Muslims to behave. Differing interpretations will be seen as blasphemy. Those who have different opinions can state them only from the outside. If they try to do so from the inside, that will not be permitted. This is the nature of the ‘true’ religions.

But since Hinduism is not such a religion, anyone can become a saint here and say anything. And that is how many great men and saints of Hinduism were able to say the things that they said. Thus, we too can stay within Hinduism and bring about several reforms.  

Periyar: I am sorry. But this cannot be done.

Gandhi: Why?

Periyar: A selfish group in Hinduism will not allow this.

Gandhi: Why do you say this? Do not the Hindus agree when we say that there is no untouchability in Hinduism?

Periyar: Agreeing is one thing. Practicing it is another. It does not happen in practice.

Gandhi: I practice it! Would you not agree that there has been a significant change in the last 4-5 years?

Periyar: I understand what you are saying.  But there is no change at a fundamental level. Due to your public influence and because they seek to make use of you, these people act as if they agree with you. And you also believe them.

Gandhi: (Laughing) Who are these actors?

Periyar: Why, the Brahmins!

Gandhi: All the Brahmins?

Periyar: Yes! Why? All the Brahmins who are with you!

Gandhi: But don’t you believe a single Brahmin?

Periyar: I find it difficult.

Gandhi: Don’t you even believe Rajagopalachariyar?

Periyar: He is a good man. An honest man. Ready to sacrifice. Selfless. But he is honest in pursuing the interests of his class. Will sacrifice for the same. Is selfless in that pursuit. But I am unable to hand over the interests of my class to him without suspicion.

Gandhi: That is surprising!  Is it your opinion that there is no honest Brahmin in the world?

Periyar: Who knows? I have not come across any!

Gandhi: Please don’t say that. I have seen a Brahmin. Without doubt, I consider him a good Brahmin. Do you know who that is? Gopal Krishna Gokhale.

Periyar:  Ah! When a Mahatma like you could find only one good Brahmin in this wide world, how can an ordinary sinner like me find any?

Gandhi: (Laughing) The world is controlled by the intelligentsia.  Brahmins are the learned class. They will thus always command power. There is no point in criticizing them. Rather, others should reach their level.

Periyar: Other religions are not like that. It is only in Hinduism that an exclusive group like the Brahmins form the intelligentsia. Among the rest, 90/100 are illiterate and innocent. In a society, when only one section of people can belong to the intelligentsia, isn’t that religion detrimental for all other castes except that privileged caste? Thus, I say that such a religion is false, harmful to others, and must go.

Gandhi: Can I assume that your position is that both Hinduism and the Brahmins should go?

Periyar: If Hinduism, this false religion, goes away, there will be no more Brahmins. Because there is Hinduism, there are also Brahmins. You and I, we are sudras. All power is in the hands of the Brahmins, I would say.

Gandhi: That is not so. Do they not listen to me? By being within the Hindu religion and acting in its name, we can still remove the negative aspects that you have pointed out.

Periyar: It is my humble opinion that you will not be able to do this. Even if you can, after your time, some other great person like you might emerge and undo all your work.

Gandhi: How?

Periyar: As you said earlier, in Hinduism’s name, anything can be said to convince the people.  Similarly, a great man in the future may do anything in the name of Hinduism.

Gandhi: I don’t think such a change might be easily possible in the future.

Periyar: Forgive me for saying this. Within the Hindu religion, it is not possible for even someone like you to bring about a permanent change. The Brahmins will not allow you to go to that extent. If they feel that your stand affects their interests, they will start opposing you. So far, no great man has been able to bring a substantial change here; if anyone does try, the Brahmins will not spare them.

Gandhi: You have a wrong opinion about the Brahmins. Your position is clear to me. I think we have not arrived at any conclusive agreement in our conversation. However, we should meet again 2-3 times. Later, we can decide on what we can do together.


Kudiarasu 1927, Unmai 14-9-1970

Source: Periyar E. V. Ramasamy. 2011. Periyar Kalanjiyam 7: Jaathi-Theendaamai, Paagam (1). [Periyar Repository 7: Caste-Untouchability Part (1)]. Second Edition. Chennai: Periyar Suyamariyathai Prachaara Niruvanam, pp. 48-53.

Both are Worse!

-Periyar E.V. Ramasamy

Translated by Karthick Ram Manoharan and Vilasini Ramani

The discrimination that follows from notions of high and low among the human community based on birth, skin color, religion, or any other reason is worse than barbarism and such practices should be demolished. We have been saying at different occasions that getting equal rights and equal justice should be the ultimate goal of all people. 

While around the world, discriminations and differential treatment based on color is slowly changing, unfortunately, the discrimination based on one’s birth or one’s work still continues to exist in this subcontinent and is even legalized; worse, such discriminations are covered-up in order to turn them into a permanent affair.

Even the Whites are ready to change their laws and give up on racist practices; but in this country, whether the land is hit by a massive flood or devastated by an earthquake, people are adamant on not giving up such practices. 

Those who pay attention to the living condition of the common people here will understand the suffering they undergo based on how they are being discriminated against based on birth. 

We ask if someone can refuse the truth that people here are seen as untouchables, prevented from using the roads, discriminated against on the basis of the food they eat. Is it fair when prejudiced people of this country complain that the Whites are racists? One should note that discrimination based on one’s birth is worse than discrimination based on skin color.

The Whites have realized their blunder of being racists and are changing; they apparently have decided to supply weapons to the citizens of South Africa for self-defense. The racial discrimination in industries are slowly being eradicated in Canada. There is a news on 27th July 1941 that says that the woodworks union in America have decided to include all other unions without discrimination on color. The same news further says that based on this move, the union in Vancouver has decided to include Indians and the decision has been welcomed. 

Perhaps because of the turbulent times, they have realized the harm that befalls upon themselves due to ignorance and stupidity. But here in this country, if casteist and arrogant people have no mercy and have hearts of stone, how is it wrong if we say that they are worse than the racists?

It is only because racial discrimination was not eliminated, the biggest empires that spread across the world were shaken in the course of time. One could be glad that the realization dawned, even if very late. But unless racial discrimination is completely abolished, we believe that the worse effects it has left behind will take a long time to heal.  

Though one can deduce from their actions that the Whites have started regretting their mistakes, the ones from this country have still not realized the bigger mistake of discriminating against people in the name of caste and birth. It is by keeping us permanently divided on this basis that one class has been able to exercise dominance over us. We don’t realize that because of these divisions crores of our people are controlled by a minority group of people who rule over us. Worse, the common people fight against each other and reinstate the divisions between them.

By observing the developments in the world or at least by looking at how the Whites are strengthening themselves by giving up that which is discriminatory, shouldn’t we also have a change of mentality? It is not an honest approach to condemn others for their discriminatory practices while we continue to practice our own. The knowledgeable wouldn’t act this way. The world would only mock them saying ‘Look at your own mistakes before pointing fingers at others.’ So those who condemn racial discrimination should first come forward to annihilate the racial and caste discrimination in their own land, practiced by their own class. If only they are ready to do it, wouldn’t the miseries of this subcontinent vanish away?

Viduthalai  23.03.1942


Periyar E. V. Ramasamy. 2011. Periyar Kalanjiyam 8: Jaathi-Theendaamai, Paagam (2). [Periyar Repository 8: Caste-Untouchability Part (2)]. Second Edition. Chennai: Periyar Suyamariyathai Prachaara Niruvanam, pp. 183-185.

A Life of Slavery

-Periyar E.V. Ramasamy

Translated by Karthick Ram Manoharan and Vilasini Ramani

The ancient community of the Dravidians were enslaved by Aryans, a foreign people that settled here, and were degraded by being called sudras and panchamas by the latter and were thus unable to make any progress in their lives. The naïve Dravidians, who were illiterates and who were living as small groups without any communication between them due to lack of transportation, were easily cheated and enslaved by Aryans. 

The Aryans tactfully made the Dravidians accept their religion, which is devised exclusively for the former’s betterment, and through the same they disparaged the Dravidians.

In god, in religion, in education – in all institutions important for life – they forced their culture, through which they claimed themselves to be superior and they enslaved us. They deceived us into accepting that we are inferiors in the name of god and religion. It is therefore crucial for the Dravidian Kazhagam to free people from such deception.

This is why we relentlessly preach to the Dravidians that, “You should destroy the god that you are not allowed to touch; You should reject the religion that has turned you into sudras and panchamas; You should dispose the texts of shastras or puranas that treat you as lesser beings.”

We are not saying that the god who is non-discriminatory and teaches people good virtues, the religion that leads people in the righteous path, the shastras and the puranas that insist people to be just and honest, should be denounced. We only say that the religion and the god and its shastras that humiliate the innocent Dravidians who are made to starve, who are not rewarded for their hard work and are thus exploited, should be criticized. As long as the Dravidians remain oppressed they would never be given opportunities nor benefits. The Justice Party in its inception understood this, and later the Self-Respect Movement was started to remove this shameful situation. 

Only after the formation of the Self-Respect Movement did the Dravidians start to gain respect. They started to think about the caste degradation that has been forced on them. Even though there were many Alwars and Nayanmars in the past, none of them seem to have bothered about caste oppression. They did not care about how Aryan culture has kept us oppressed. Instead, they have glorified it in their songs. In the records of the Aryans, we have proof that some Dravidian Kings were against Aryan culture. There are stories where kings like Iraniyan, Ravanan were demonized and were shown as criminals, and immoral tyrants, and how they were tactfully killed by the Aryan kings. The stories of their slayings are celebrated in epics, religious texts and as religious festivals, so that no would breathe a word of opposition against the Aryans ever. Later, the Buddhists and the Jains tried to fight against Aryans but they were destroyed too.

Many Dravidian Tamil scholars have opposed this. But they were also turned into saints and Siddhars and their arguments were sidelined. Valluvar who wrote the Thirukkural had opposed this to a very great extent. But his works were translated wrongly. Today, we are the ones to take over this struggle. When we say we demand for annihilation of caste supremacy, it doesn’t mean calling for annihilation of Brahmins themselves. 

Brahminism which is an Aryan culture has to be annihilated because it is the reason for caste discrimination. We are only against Brahminism and not the Brahmins.

All of this is suppressed in today’s regime. The outsiders from the North are made into leaders. The reason that the wealth of this country is owned by the outsiders and those who are hand-in-glove with the rulers is because these Northerners have the liberty to exploit our wealth as they wish. Since religious beliefs are protected, it has given way for some to claim themselves as superior, even superior by birth. 

There are claims that untouchability has been abolished. But the truth is that the ‘abolition of untouchability’ is in the same state today as it was under the Justice Party 27 years back. 

The Justice Party made rules for everyone to have the right to use roads before 1923 itself. It was only the Brahmins and the Congressmen who prevented this then. But today, they claim our measures to be theirs. But ‘untouchability’ with respect to religion, the right to conduct rituals, to give food to idols, and loot money given for prayers, is still in the control of the Brahmins alone. In the name of God, they continue to claim rights to loot and enjoy free food without doing any work.

Also, it is claimed that ‘untouchability has been abolished’. But the very basis of the untouchability, which is caste discrimination, is still allowed. The religion which is the reason for caste discrimination is untouched and so are the rights for this religion. All the superstitions like temple-chariot processions, weddings of the gods etc. in which money, knowledge and materials are being wasted, are being validated. There is still support for cheating and fraud in ‘His’ name.

Periyar’s speech at a general meeting in Karur on 01-01-1950. Published on Viduthalai on 04.02.1950.


Source: Periyar E. V. Ramasamy. 2011. Periyar Kalanjiyam 9: Jaathi-Theendaamai, Paagam (3). [Periyar Repository 9: Caste-Untouchability Part (3)]. Second Edition. Chennai: Periyar Suyamariyathai Prachaara Niruvanam, pp. 174-177.

Marguerite Ross Barnett (1942-1992)

By University of Houston – Head shot of Marguerite Ross Barnett, Courtesy of Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8538267

Marguerite Ross Barnett was born on 21 May 1942. Her Wikipedia page informs us that she was was the first Black woman to lead a major American university, as chancellor of the University of Missouri–St. Louis from 1986 to 1990. Barnett had a PhD from Chicago and taught at Chicago, Princeton, Howard and Columbia. She was the also first Black academic to study the Dravidian Movement and her book The Politics of Cultural Nationalism in South India (1976) is a rigorous academic study of the complex interplay of region, caste and ideas in Tamil Nadu. Her book credits Periyar as being chiefly responsible for radicalizing the Dravidian Movement and identifies him as a key influencer in the politics of the state. The book is an objective, methodical and critical study of Dravidian politics and a must read for those interested in the subject. Barnett’s book was written soon after the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam captured power in 1967 and is a historical record of the personalities, events and processes that shaped the post-independence politics of Tamil Nadu.

-Karthick Ram Manoharan

A Dialogue about the Kural Conference

-Periyar E.V. Ramasamy

Translated by Karthick Ram Manoharan and Vilasini Ramani

First Person: Is this conference on the Kural being held with such grandeur only to confront the Brahmins?

Second Person: Why do you think so? We had conferences on Ramayana, Periya Puranam etc in the past. Were they held just to oppose someone?

FP: Those conferences were about the merits of those works.

SP: So you don’t think Kural is a work of literature?

FP: It is. But why do Brahmins in trams and buses say that an anti-Brahmin conference is being held in Broadway?

SP: Brahmins do not approve of the Kural. The Kural is opposed to Brahminism. Thus they hate the Kural very much. Since we are organizing the conference, the Brahmins suspect that we will malign Brahminism.

FP: Is that all? They were talking as if they were struck by thunder. From what they spoke, I anticipate that we might have a ban on the conference.

SP: Never. But even if it did, let it happen.

FP: What would you do if they ban it?

SP: We will stop the conference. We are not the Dravidar Kazhagam to fight against Section 144.

FP: So, if you stop the conference and if they run their conference at the same place what would you do?

SP: What else can we do? We will inform the government that we are not conducting the conference but they are.

FP: Won’t the government hold you responsible?

SP: Let them. What else can they do to us? We will also become the Dravidian Kazhagam. 

FP: Then you might be put in jail?

SP: There is no place there.

FP: They will beat you up like how they did at Kumbakonam.

SP: Only if they can get hold of us. We will claim that we did not do the conference. How can they attack us after that? We will go into hiding.

FP: What will then happen at the conference?

SP: What else would happen at a conference convened by Kalyana Sundaranar, Meenatchi Sundaranar, Somasundara Bharatiyar, Chakravarthy Nayinar, Kandasamy Mudaliar etc? Tell me.

FP: Why on earth do they want to conduct this conference? Please tell me. I’m asking you sincerely. There is no secret between us, isn’t it?

SP: Now we are talking. Our intentions are; First: We want to dismiss the ideas that there are no moral texts for Dravidians and that only the Mahabharata and Ramayana are the moral texts for Dravidians. We want to prove with facts that the moral codes for Aryans and Dravidians are different. To eradicate the differences among Dravidians that were created by Aryans, we want to dismiss the idea of many gods and we want to make everyone realize the right approach to god. To eliminate all superstitious beliefs and barbaric behavior among Dravidians in the name of morality, religion etc. We want harmony and solidarity among people. Second: The selfish slaves and the irrational idiots spread vicious and foolish propaganda that ‘Dravidians and rationalists will destroy Tamil culture and Tamil literature and that they do not have any knowledge about our literature or culture.’ We want to prove them wrong and expose who these idiots, scoundrels and Aryan slaves really are in our conference.

Today, for the Dravidians, including those illiterate, the Kural is the only moral text. But this is forgotten by the high court judges, the prime minister, the commissioner, political leaders, god men. Even many Dravidians want to please the Brahmins and propagate the Mahabharata, Ramayana, Thiruvilaiyadal, and Periya Purana. We want to change this and want the public to denounce these texts. 

FP: So how did the Dravidar Kazhagam take part in this?

SP: Is there any particular group called the Dravidar Kazhagam? Excluding the ones that are mentioned above, that is, those who have greed for power, who are selfish, crooks, criminals who hide behind the puranas, the rest are all Dravidians.

FP: Is it so? After hearing the Brahmins in the tram, I thought this conference was about bashing the Brahmins. Only now do I understand it better. 

SP: Whenever a measure for the Dravidian people’s respect, welfare and progress is taken, the Brahmins cry foul saying that religion, god, literature, culture etc are all being ruined and that hatred is being sown against Brahmins. They pick the traitors and idiots from among us and make them join their drama. This is nothing new, this has been happening from the times of Skanda Purana or Ramayana. 

FP: Is it so? WIll anything change over just one conference?

SP: Let it change or not. What do we lose? Thousands of years of humiliation and ignorance will continue for some more time. In the future that our children will inherit, all these things, including the traitors among us, will vanish. In about ten years, if things do not change, the Dravidian land will turn into a communist land. Not the ‘underground’ kind, but a real communist country. So, if things do not change right away there is no loss.

FP: Well, let me take leave.

SP: Please do. 

Periyar’s satirical dialogue in the fictional name ‘Chithiraputhiran’. Published on Viduthalai on 12.01.1949.

Source: Periyar E. V. Ramasamy. 2015. Periyar Kalanjiyam 37: Thirukkural-Valluvar. [Periyar Repository 37: Thirukkural-Valluvar]. First Edition. Chennai: Periyar Suyamariyathai Prachaara Niruvanam, 87-91.