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
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.
[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.
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.