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: So, is this conference on the Kural being held so grandly 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 confront someone?

FP: Those conferences were about the literature value of those works.

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

FP: It is. But why do Brahmins chat in trams and buses that ‘Brahmin-hatred conference is being held in Broadway’?

SP: Brahmins do not approve of Kural. Kural has many messages against Brahminism. Thus they hate Kural very much. Because we are conducting the conference, Brahmins say that we would be discussing things that are against 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: Then what would you do if they ban it?

SP: We will stop the conference. We are not the Dravidian 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 would claim that we did not do the conference. How can they beat after that? We will go into hiding.

FP: Whatever will 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 idea that there are no moral texts for Dravidians and the belief 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 what should be the approach to the idea of 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 do 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 the conference that we want to conduct.

Today, for the Dravidians, including those illiterate, Kural is the only moral text. But this is forgotten by people like the high court judges, the prime minister, the commissioner, political leaders, god men, and 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 about it. 

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 only 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 is going to be there only for a little while more. 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.

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

Ambedkar is an Extremist in Annihilating Caste!

-Periyar E.V. Ramasamy

Translated by Karthick Ram Manoharan and Vilasini Ramani


Ambedkar belongs to the world of great scholars. What is the reason for him to become such a great scholar? His education, talent etc. come only secondary. There are perhaps people who are more educated and more talented than him. So the reason why Ambedkar is a great intellectual is not only because of his education and talent, but also because we the people reap benefits from his intellect, while others use their learning for their own benefits.

Ambedkar is an atheist. Not just today, he has been an atheist for a very long time. Let me tell you one thing. All those who are true intellectuals in the world are all atheists. And only those who are atheists can research and be scientific and live as shining individuals. They are the ones to put their knowledge to use.

Dr. Ambedkar is a great scholar. And because of that he is a great atheist. He uses his original intellect to talk boldly about what he observes. In our country, those who are considered to be scholars are afraid of talking the truth. But Dr Ambedkar is nothing like them, he talks very boldly. 

Recently there was an incident that the entire world watched with awe. That is Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism. He has formally joined Buddhism now, but he has been a Buddhist for quite some time. 

Dr Ambedkar has rejected Hinduism for the past 20-30 years. When he talks about Gandhi, he says, ‘Gandhi is a staunch Hindu. He wants to protect Varnashrama and Manusmriti. What can he do for the Adi Dravidars?’ He thus attacked Gandhi, rejected the slokas of Varnashrama, and said that Gandhi is behaving this way only because he is a devout Hindu.

Ambedkar was into propagating the annihilation of caste from 1930-35. In Punjab they have created a forum for caste annihilation (I think it is called Jat Pat Todak mandal). They even added me as a member of it. The group had arranged for a meeting for eradicating caste and asked Ambedkar to head it. Ambedkar also agreed to head the meeting and wrote about 100 pages in English to be read out. Using facts, he has mentioned at many places that to annihilate caste we should reject Hinduism. Hearing about this, the members of the group had asked him to give the paper to them before he presented it. In the text, he had written categorically that Hinduism should be rejected. After reading it, they requested to him that, ‘Your keynote address is not appropriate to be read in our meeting. This is an organization that works for caste eradication and not for the removal of religion. So please remove the chapter in which you have mentioned about the rejection of Hinduism.’ Ambedkar replied, ‘Rejecting Hinduism is crucial to the annihilation of caste. We cannot exclude that in the talk. Hence, I cannot remove the chapter.’ Malaviya had tried to convince him. To which Ambedkar responded, ‘Let me talk what I have to talk in the keynote address. You can condemn my talk in the same meeting if you want. You can even make a resolution about it. I will address that in my endnote.’ The meeting never happened.

I asked Ambedkar to give me that speech and published that as a book in Tamil with the title Saathiyai Ozhikkum Vazhi. He was very committed to this idea for a long time. 

When we were only talking about Ramayanam in 1932, he had already burnt it. N Sivaraj was the head of that meeting. All of this has been reported in Kudiarasu

When he visited Chennai once and talked about The Gita, he said that it was nothing but gibberish. On hearing this, people like C.P. Ramasamy Iyer made noise saying that, ‘Talking ill of The Gita is atrocious. If Ambedkar as an individual had said this, it could be excusable. But not as a council member and not when visiting Chennai.’

I had invited Ambedkar to a meeting on social reform in Erode. RK Shanmugam Chettiyar gave the opening speech at the meeting. Ambedkar could not come for unknown reasons. MR Jayakkar had come instead. He spoke some words of appreciation and left. Had Ambedkar come, it would have been much better. 

Around that time, Ambedkar said that he wanted to convert to Islam. S Ramanathan and I immediately sent him a telegram from here. ‘Please don’t make a hasty decision. You should have at least one lakh people following you to get respect even there. Else, you might have to dance to the tune of the Maulanas. They claim that Islam is a perfect religion. Just doing prayers and other rituals will be like being in jail for you. If you go alone, there will not be any respect. If you are attacked, don’t you need support?’ we said in the telegram. Many other people also went to his house and had requested him not to convert. It was published in newspapers. He was very serious about converting to another religion. Finally, he chose Buddhism. 

But he was already a Buddha. 

I met him in Burma when we went for the World Buddhist conference. I was supposed to give a speech as per the program. But they had not informed me about it. I attended the meeting. But instead of me they asked someone else to give a speech. During this visit, Ambedkar said to me that we should formally convert to Buddhism today.  

‘Mysore Maharaja is very fascinated by the doctrine of Buddhism. Even I would like to settle down in Mysore. He has also agreed to give many acres of land. With all the resources that we have we could start a university instead of just talking until we die. Shouldn’t we do something significant before we die?’ Ambedkar said this and many other things. And he is living his words now. He has now boldly converted to Buddhism. And he made a statement after that. 

‘I will no longer accept Rama, Krishna, Siva, Indra as my gods anymore. I will not accept  their incarnations as my gods. I do not believe in idol worship. I do not believe in caste, moksha, hell etc. I do not believe in rituals around death, offerings and oblations. I will not perform them anymore.’ 

Whatever we reject or condemn today, he has already spoken about it. 

Ambedkar is a guide for the people. He has always been very outspoken in his criticisms of caste and religion. He worked for others selflessly. He is well known throughout India. He has shown a way to his people by converting to Buddhism. There is a chance that people from here might also convert. He has helped his community to attain education and employment. He has secured 15 percent reservations. 

He is a great leader by himself. There will not be another leader like him in future. He was a natural leader, anticipating an egalitarian time. After Ambedkar, there can be no other leader like him.

Periyar’s talk at Velore Municipal Council on 28-10-1956. Published on Viduthalai on 7-12-1956.

Source: Periyar E. V. Ramasamy. 2010. Periyar Kalanjiyam 10: Jaathi-Theendaamai, Paagam (4). [Periyar Repository 10: Caste-Untouchability Part (4)]. Second Edition. Chennai: Periyar Suyamariyathai Prachaara Niruvanam, 190-194.

What is Civilization?

-Periyar E.V. Ramasamy

Translated by Karthick Ram Manoharan and Vilasini Ramani

No matter how we approach the concept of ‘civilization’, we have to acknowledge the differences and changes in people’s activities, clothing habits, food habits, behavior, social relationships etc. in a large way. We cannot exactly say how this change has happened. Somehow everything adapts to change and keep going. 

Our women never used to wear blouses. Today, there are many styles of blouses. In the Western world, women’s clothing looked like one that swept the streets. To make their hip look thin, they wore dresses that looked like cones below their waist. Rich women used to have servants to hold their long dresses at the back. That was a time in civilization. Nowadays, the Western women wear much shorter clothes. This is also civilization.

When we talk about these things, we talk without any attachment, i.e., we should talk as freethinkers without having affiliation to caste, religion or nation so as to understand these changes better. Only then we will perceive the truth of it. 

Once upon a time, one needed to put sacred ash on the forehead and mutter ‘Siva Siva’ to pretend to be a person of good traits. We live in times where we make fun of such things. We ridicule such actions.

When we take husband-wife for instance, there used to be a time when only those wives who took abuse from their husband without complaint, who enslaved themselves to the husband and took care of his needs, were respected. But today, the wives challenge the husband if they are maids to do service to him, if they are enslaved creatures. The husbands should learn to behave well, else things won’t be nice. The wives of today who demand equal rights, equal freedom, and ask to be treated as equal partners are seen as cultured and civilized. 

Earlier, one had to talk about epics or religions to be known as learned and renowned. But today aren’t they ridiculed and seen as old-fashioned? Things that do not make sense were discussed before out of sheer ignorance and arrogance. But today we need rational explanations and we respect learned experts who can give scientific reasons for everything.

Civilization is nothing but what adapts to the context, the country and the times. It keeps changing. The behavior that evolves with the times is called civilized. And time does not hold on to old things. The new is born from the old and revolutionary change is inevitable. 

We talked about mustache, hair style etc. What we consider as civilization today eventually becomes indigestion. It moves towards another change.  

Such concepts sell through the smartness of speech. It can be anything – truth or lies, right or wrong. In the future there might be a situation where physical labor will reduce. It will be the way of life then. 

Why should we keep slogging always? Should rationally thinking beings slog? Should we earn our food only through hard labor? If we raise such questions, we can work for the progress of human society without much difficulty or sacrifice. This can be seen as a way of life and may benefit all. We used to think that nation-state, nationalism, patriotism were necessary for civilized behavior. But today civilization means we leave past all these things and talk about compassion and camaraderie among the world citizens.   

We ridicule today what was once a social practice. Man used to carry caste pride. He proudly claimed himself as either Nayakkan, or Mudaliar, or Vaishnavite or Saivite, and wanting to be up in the caste hierarchy through Saivite and Vaishnavite rituals, he wore the sacred thread, applied sacred ash in vertical or horizontal lines on his forehead and talked high of his beliefs. 

But today we condemn these practices as senseless and regressive. Once upon a time different thoughts were in practice. For example, vying for power by different castes and nations was appreciated greatly. But we started to realize today that anything that is good for one caste or one nation is evil for the other caste or the other nation.

Dear Comrades, I would like to stress on one particular thing here. We are growing as progressive beings through our matured experiences. We consider the wellbeing of all people through our informed thoughts. 

For example, we know that the businessmen hurt the welfare of others for their profits, that the usurers are the destroyers of humankind, and that religious fanatics bring misery to humankind.

I said earlier that civilization is a very complex thing. How could our women wear saree without wearing a belt to support it? How does it stay on their waist? And how could the women make a bun of their hair without a comb? Why are we spending money each day on our platter? We must be aware of Westerners who wonder at these things. If we do not realize what is right for us, we end up being mystified.

The affiliation we have towards our caste, relationships, language, nation – all of these make our thinking blunt. If this affiliation or affection is not gotten rid of, we cannot think of anything good. We cannot differentiate our right actions from the wrong. 

When Gandhiji visited abroad, he was adamant that he would only wear a knee-length dress. He suffered the cold in England (all for the pride of Indian values) without a proper dress. How is this even sensible? Can we call this an action of a sensible person? Can we make everyone do this? Is it even right to make everyone do this?

The world evolves with new thoughts and actions everyday. You should not fail to make use of what is best for you. Wear rationalism on your sleeves and think and strive for what is best for human kind. You will achieve success only through this.

Even those who were staunch believers of God started realizing that only hard work pays and they talk and act accordingly. Hence, you should be confident about yourselves and come forward to fight for the liberation of people with a rationalist approach.  

Those that are comforts, good deeds and necessities for the individual must be made available to every single person in the society, and this is what is called civilization. Such a concept of civilization can be seen as the yardstick to measure the progress of a society. This changes according to time and the scientific expansion of knowledge. What is civilization is nothing but that which makes peoples’ lives joyous.

Periyar’s 1933 speech on “The civilization that we see in India today” during his Europe tour. Published on Viduthalai on 9-2-1964.

Source: Periyar E. V. Ramasamy. 2013. Periyar Kalanjiyam 34: Pagutharivu, Paagam (2). [Periyar Repository 34: Rationalism Part (2)]. First Edition. Chennai: Periyar Suyamariyathai Prachaara Niruvanam, 155-159.

Will the Enslavement of Women End?

-Periyar E.V. Ramasamy

Translated by Karthick Ram Manoharan and Vilasini Ramani

A varied range of opinions about what type of education should be given to Indian women come from many quarters. Women however are not ready to accept the opinions of the reactionaries. They are only ready to accept progressive ideas.

“Indian women should continue to live without any opinions or freedoms of their own. In the spirit of the old saying ‘Whether stone or reed, it is my husband’, they should be sincerely committed to their husband and always think of what is best for him and yield children and raise them. This is the only way to a cultured life for Indian women. If they breach this, their respect in social life will get affected. This will lead to losing their pativrata (devotion to husband). The Indian culture will be spoiled. Hence it is enough if you provide education about family and religion to women,” so say the reactionaries. We don’t have to pay heed to men with this sort of opinion. Given their selfishness, we cannot expect any other better opinions from them. Any radical thought would surely endanger their selfishness.    

But if women also talk like this themselves, then we should be surprised. And we must consider if there is some sinister plan behind this.

A few days ago in Lyceum Club in London, during the annual day of Bombay Inter-Cultural Women’s Association, the head of The Madras Women’s Christian College, Ms Eleanor McDougall made an announcement. She said,

“It cannot be said that giving higher education to women will result in a positive outcome. Indian women are the best in faith and the strongest in willpower. They are very attached to their families. If they lose interest in the family, the value of life in the Indian society will go down. Hence, along with higher education, they should also be taught the highest values of Christian beliefs. If not, education will only bring evil to them.”

We cannot but pity the fact that even a woman like Ms McDougall from a progressive country had spoken like this. But given her supposed genuine concern over the social life of Indian women, we must assume that she has some sinister motive behind saying such things. And the motive is very clear in her words. They are, “With higher education, Christian values are to be taught.” Thus, this is clearly an agenda of a Chrisitan missionary to spread Christianity over here in India.

Just like how Ms McDougall thinks that Christian Education is important for Indian women in higher education, the Indian religious conservatives think that Hindu religious education is important for Indian women.

But we deny both these opinions. It is very wrong to think that women deserve only family life and are capable of raising children alone. As long as this belief exists, women can live only as slaves, that is, subservient to men. If women want to live an equal life with men, it is very important that they have the right to choose to pursue an education or a job as per their desire and talent. We believe that they should not be even aware of something as ‘religious education’. The men who are learned of religious texts remain enslaved, cowardly, superstitious and without self-belief. That’s why we are doing propaganda to uproot religion completely. In such a situation how can we endorse views that say women should be given religious education?

Even if they are not given religious education, through questioning and by observing practices, we can deduce the condition of the religious-minded Indian women in our society. Who can refuse the fact that it is only religion that keeps our women enslaved, backward, superstitious, ritualistic and cowardly? We cannot even slightly endorse the opinion that suggests women be given religious education.

“Like men, women should be given training to become physically strong. Women should be encouraged to be fit and be given training in weapons. They should have all the means and strength to protect themselves from savage men who are sexual predators. If needed, they should also join the army to fight the enemies.” This is how progressive minds think. Even women endorse such thoughts and opinions. When the world thinks this way, how can anyone claim that it is no use to give higher education to women? We acknowledge the fact that education in the present times is quite terrible. Education only helps one secure a job as a peon, it doesn’t help one acquire life skills. Henceforth, it is crucial to change the present education system and introduce a new one, without inculcating a belief in religion that makes people enslaved and cowardly, one that helps in learning life skills and fosters a spirit of equality between men and women.


First published in Kudiarasu on 17-7-1932.

Source: Periyar E. V. Ramasamy. 2011. Periyar Kalanjiyam 5: Pennurimai, Paagam (1). [Periyar Repository 5: Women’s Rights Part (1)]. Fourth Edition. Chennai: Periyar Suyamariyathai Prachaara Niruvanam, 179-182.

Those who believe in caste and religion should not inaugurate the statue of Anna!

-Periyar E.V. Ramasamy

Translated by Karthick Ram Manoharan and Vilasini Ramani

In this country, birthdays are celebrated not just for those who were born or those who have departed but also for those who were never born, never died or never lived too. Such celebrations are used for propagating the ideas of those concerned. Our people view Raman, Krishnan, Kandhan, Ganapathy as gods and celebrate their birthdays. But we know that they were never born. God is a being that has no birth nor death. There is an insidious agenda to celebrate the birthdays of gods and those of the Nayanmaars, Aazhvaars, and other saints, which is to propagate their ideas.

This is why we celebrate the birthdays of those who served the country and its people, in order to take their ideas to the masses and encourage them to follow it. Likewise, we are inaugurating Anna’s image here because there is no other great man like him in the entire country. Anna was the only leader in the whole of India who dismissed god and also rejected religious literature like epics and puranas that were degrading. He did all this in a society that is as backward as ours, made the people realize their roots, won their votes through his ideas, and established a government.

From the times of Cheras, Cholas, Pandiyas to the recent rule of the Congress, none formed government by rejecting God, religion, and caste. From Gandhi to Kamaraj, everyone in the Congress party only tried to save religion, god and caste. The other political outfits, be it the Tamizharasu Katchi, the Democrats, RSS, Swatantra Party, or even those who claim to be most revolutionary, namely the Communist Party, each and everyone of them want to protect religion, god and caste. Anna is the only one who denounced these and declared that they are not necessary.

When Anna came into power, the Self-Respect marriage that was pronounced invalid by the courts was immediately made valid. Any Self-Respect marriage in the past, present or future that rejects religion and rituals has been made legal and valid by Anna in the assembly.

A law will soon be passed to allow anyone, including the oppressed castes, to perform rituals in the sanctum sanctorum of the temples. Tomorrow the bill will be passed for it in the assembly.

Anna has broken the gods. He has exposed vulgarity in the puranas and the epics in his writings. He has set ablaze the Kamba Ramayana. He highlighted the offensive portions of the epic and wrote Kambarasam in response. Only those who do not believe in religion or caste are worthy to inaugurate the image or statue of such a tall personality like Anna.   

If someone is not so, then it clearly means that such a person is greedy and is behind power. Anna is our greatest asset. We do not have such a government in the whole of India. There is no other party that has such manifestos. Only this government can eradicate the worst caste oppression. No other rule can do that.

Think about the condition of our people before the Self-Respect Movement and the Dravidian Movement. Out of hundred, only five were educated. They were given humiliating jobs. Because of our movement, today at least half of them are educated. Not only are Tamils placed at respectable jobs, there are also around 5-6 district collectors from our comrades in the Adi Dravidar community. Brahmins are not calling anyone as Shudras anymore.

The ideas of rationalism are our ideas. And they are “There is no god, there is no god, there is no god at all; He who invented god is a fool; He who propagates god is a scoundrel; He who worships god is a barbarian.” Soul’s salvation, hell, rebirth, the world above, all these ideas are propagated by scoundrels. And those who believe it are idiots. And those who benefit from such beliefs are the worst of scoundrels.

The idea of god was invented by man and introduced to man. It is not natural to man. Because of invention of god, the Brahmin claims himself to be superior. If we go by facts, Tamils did not have gods or religion. The gods that our people are worshipping have North Indian names. If Tamils had a god of our own, we should have had a Tamil name for it, isn’t it? Because there is none, we know that Tamils do not have gods.

Likewise, Tamils do not have religion too. The ‘Hindu religion’ is an Aryan religion. And Hinduism is not a religion. It is evident from this that Tamils do not have gods or religion.

While out of 100 people, 97 who do hard labor are called Shudras and live as the most oppressed by doing humiliating work like manual scavenging, without proper food or clothing, 3 out of the 100 eat sumptuous food and get fat, wear fancy clothes, and claim themselves to be upper caste. This is because of our people’s gullibility and their belief in god, religious superstitions.

How are we different from the Brahmin? How is he greater than us? Our people have to question why this difference exists. We plough the land. Our womenfolk sow the seeds. We do tough jobs like breaking stones. We weave clothes. We construct houses. Whatever are the basic needs of human society, we fulfill them through our hard labor. Despite doing everything for the society, we have been called Shudras, as unclean communities, and the least in the caste hierarchy. Without doing any of this work, but exploiting our naivety, the Brahmins who came to this land for survival, who are only 3% of the population, remain upper caste.

If we question the Brahmin on what basis he is the superior and we are all inferior Shudras, he responds that this has been laid down by god, rituals and religion. Only because god and religion exist, we live as Shudras, as oppressed, as lower castes. If we can abolish this, we can also get an opportunity to live an equal life, and that is why we encourage people to renounce god, religion, rituals, temples, myths, caste that keep us oppressed.

If only man had this wisdom and self-respect, he would have destroyed these things himself. Because we don’t have either, we remain oppressed. The Dravidar Kazhagam, the Self-Respect Movement, the DMK, the Rationalist movement are working towards inculcating such respect and wisdom in our people.


Periyar’s Speech at Karaikudi on 08-11-1970. First published in Viduthalai on 01-12-1970.

Source: Periyar E. V. Ramasamy. 2010. Periyar Kalanjiyam 20: Jaathi-Theendaamai, Paagam (14). [Periyar Repository 20: Caste-Untouchability Part (14)]. Second Edition. Chennai: Periyar Suyamariyathai Prachaara Niruvanam, 66-70.

Communism cannot grow as long as Brahminism exists

– Periyar E.V. Ramasamy

Translated by Karthick Ram Manoharan and Vilasini Ramani

The laborers are in their state today only because they are born as Shudras and for no other reason. Are there any Brahmins who plough the soil? Do the Brahmins work with ploughs? No? How did they become a non-working class? Because as Brahmins, they are born into a caste that doesn’t need to work but can sit and eat. We are born as workers. Our work makes someone else flourish. We are lower-caste or Shudras. According to this setup, we are workers because we were assigned as such at our birth. Without confronting this, what is the point in just talking about ‘workers’ again and again? I’m asking this question to our communist heroes. Isn’t it their responsibility to talk about the fundamentals of this discrimination? Instead they brand the people who talk about this discrimination or the reasons of this discrimination as regressive and classist. Is it fair? 

If the communists claim that they are simply doing what has been followed in other countries, it is wrong. There is a huge difference between this country and others. There are no Brahmins or Paraiyars in other countries. There are no Gods, no religion, no culture, no practices that serve as the foundation for such a caste discrimination. The division of humans on this land as Brahmins and Paraiyars, where the Brahmins are the upper caste and the Paraiyars are a lower caste, is not known in other countries. Communists of other countries make their plans depending on the state of affairs and the nature of society in those countries. How is it fair to imitate the plan for another country in our very different situation, thinking that it would fit? 

Someone told me this recently. People from other countries do not know about the structure of this society nor what happens here. If people of today are unaware of the problems and issues here, how is it possible that Marx or Engels from a previous time could have known this?

Not only do they not know of this, they wouldn’t have imagined that there would be a country with such an arrangement where people born into one caste would get all benefits and people born into a different caste would be put through misery all their lives. When this is the case, just think how fraudulent it would be to say that their words should be exactly put into practice here. 

Ask (Josef) Stalin to say the words ‘Paarpaan’ (Brahmin) or ‘Paraiyan’. I don’t think he can even pronounce them right. Because there is no such differentiation in his country.

Comrades! Let me tell you another thing; Stalin has said recently “India needs to first have social reform and achieve social progress for communism to be born.” 

When I said the same thing, my dear communist friends blamed me for not knowing communism. Now Stalin has said the same thing. I’m eager to know what the communists have to say about it.

I’m not against communism or socialism. I have more commitment and interest in communism and socialism than others. But we must have a communism and socialism that is adapted to this country’s social needs. Unless and until the superiority of the Brahmins and Brahminism, which are most powerful and are fundamentally opposed to socialism or communism, are abolished in this country, communism or socialism cannot form here. Instead only Brahminism will get strengthened. 

Who heads the communist or the socialist party of this country? Only the Brahmins talk of communism or socialism. Who are they to teach communism to us? Do we believe that the communism they teach will change the discrimination in our lives? 

Despite knowing this, if you think that speaking out against caste differences is regressive  and classist, what is it but deception?

I challenge the communists to say that “It is not right that the brahmins are upper caste”. Likewise it is wrong that the others are lower caste. Let them also say that they will burn in the fire everything that is foundational for such discrimination. I will welcome that. But without doing that, if they say that we should not talk about these issues at all, what can we achieve then? How can we bring communism here?


Periyar’s speech at a public meeting at Perambur on 2-1-1953. First published in Viduthalai on 04-01-1953.

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. 253-256.

Online Meeting on ‘Rethinking Social Justice’

The Dravidian Professionals Forum organized a meeting on 17 March 2021 to discuss the volume Rethinking Social Justice (Orient BlackSwan 2020). According to the publisher’s website Rethinking Social Justice, co-edited by S. Anandhi, Karthick Ram Manoharan, M. Vijayabaskar and A. Kalaiyarasan, offers a more transdisciplinary approach to envisioning a just society that encompasses the intersecting issues of caste, capital, nationalism, gender, region, urban planning and visual representation.

Anandhi, Vijayabaskar and Karthick spoke at the event which largely involved a politically informed activist audience. Anandhi spoke about the key ideas behind and the current significance of the volume. She highlighted the academic interventions of M.S.S. Pandian to whom the book was a homage and whose works were critically engaged and built upon by the contributors to the volume. Speaking about her own chapter and ongoing work, she stressed the need to have more critical attention to the politics of gender in the Dravidian movement.

Vijayabaskar spoke about the political economy under the successive Dravidian parties, highlighting the inclusive model of growth and responding to certain general criticisms of the Dravidian rule. He noted how patterns of growth, industrialization, land reforms, public distribution system, and welfare schemes contributed to the gradual empowerment of marginalized sections of the population. The Dravidian Model, a book authored by Kalaiyarasan and Vijayabaskar, that deals with these topics in greater detail will be published by Cambridge University Press this year.

Based on his ongoing research, Karthick spoke about contributions of the Dravidian Movement and Periyar to the democratic culture and the pluralist ethos of Tamil Nadu’s politics. He noted how at a time of ethnic and religious fundamentalism, the Periyarist legacy eschewed all forms of chauvinism and imagined an idea of ‘Dravidian’ based on shared solidarity than ethnic, religious or caste markers. He used the Laclauian concept of ‘floating signifier’ to explain how ‘Dravidian’ was conceived as an inclusive identity. 

The presentations were bilingual (Tamil and English) and in a manner that was easily accessible to a non-specialist audience. An interactive session followed the presentations. There was an engaged discussion on how marginalized groups like the Dalits can lay claim to the Dravidian movement, the challenge of Tamil nationalism in a time of neo-liberalism, and other issues related to contemporary Tamil politics.

The recording of the event is available on Facebook and has been seen by over 1000 viewers as on 19 March 2021.

Confronting Caste: Panel Discussion at KCL

Panelists and Titles:

Karthick Ram Manoharan (University of Wolverhampton): The Black Shirt Challenge: Periyar contra Aryanism.

Meena Dhanda (University of Wolverhampton): The Concurrence of Anti-racism and Anti-casteism.

Hugo Gorringe (University of Edinburgh): Changing Caste Cultures.

The panel was moderated by Srilata Sircar and Vignesh Rajahmani.

Safai Karamcharis as Covid Warriors in a Casteised Society

-Lotika Singha [i]

Covid warrior is the term chosen by the Indian government for a raft of essential service-providers when the most draconian lockdown – just four hours’ notice for a country of over a billion – came into force on 25 March 2020. These Covid warriors include not only baton-wielding police personnel but also health workers, the media and safai karamcharis as illustrated in posters created by members of the public to showcase the country’s positive, community-orientated  (‘I’ to ‘We’) response on the MyGov Self4Society website specially dedicated to the pandemic.

Safai karamchari is the Hindi term for manual scavengers, but is also used for sanitation workers more widely as often the same people also do other sanitation work. Most safai karamcharis are Dalits (Safai Karamchari Andolan, n.d.), which is a political collective term for certain caste groups historically considered  ‘untouchable’, but let us be mindful that we are living history at all time.

Caste as Babasaheb Ambedkar (1916/1979/2004) said ‘is enclosed class’. How different is that from class per se? When you are born into a class, you can possibly leave it. You can possibly consider an occupation different from your parents. But when you are born into a caste, you cannot leave it. Contrary to the placement of Covid warriors in a horizontal row in a cheerfully bright poster on the Self4Society website, castes exist in a vertical order. If you think of this order as a building, the most caste-oppressed groups, including safai karamcharis are in the basement, below ground zero, outside the caste society. The three hegemonic caste groups, the savarnas, who form about a fifth of the population (Desai et al, 2010; Piketty, 2020) but include most mainstream media personnel, many doctors and senior police officers, will be found in the top floors and penthouses. In Perumal Murugan’s (2021) words, ‘The space that each caste can inhabit and traverse is clearly demarcated’.

For cleaning the shared spaces in the top floors, or reception areas, or streets, shopping malls, parks and our public sewer systems, and so on, the barriers are lifted – for not everyone may clean. But when we lift the barriers to let the sanitation workforce in to clean, we do it with a sense of anxiety, which we deal with by un-seeing it. Image 8/18 of the Vadapalani Bus Stand Depot, Chennai in the photostory ‘Out of Breath’ (Palani Kumar and Utkarsh, 2020) foregrounds a safai karamchari emerging from a (man)hole covered in sewage, He is very visible to the viewer of the image. But the public crossing this point are largely oblivious of him or purposefully turning away from the sight and smells.

The question then arises, can using the Covid warrior label for a range of service providers make for only positive stories as desired (or instructed?) by Self4Society in a deeply hierarchal society? Did it in the lockdown? Does it now as the pandemic continues? Will it in the post-pandemic ‘normal? Because pre the pandemic, the ‘warriors’ were a select caste group: the Kshatriyas, who form about 5 per cent of the Indian population (Piketty, 2020). And alongside the positive stories posted on the government’s Self4Society website shown above, the wider internet is swamped with reports that tell other stories, starting from the titles:

From these stories, we gather that Covid warriors have lives beyond the workplace. But as we announced the lockdown, we did not ensure that essential items would be available for those warriors who cannot afford larders and or do not have store cupboards. We did not ensure that protective gear was available for everyone from day 1. Supplies rolled in slowly, some items even after the lockdown was over, some of poor quality. We refused many safai karamcharis leave as we needed more sanitation. In some areas we needed less cleaning because we were all safe in our homes. There we let them go without compunction, to walk back to a home that might have even been a few hundred miles away (Mander, 2020), as they are mostly contract workers. We did cheer those who continued to work by clapping, banging plates and showering them with flowers and garlands. Our casteised anxieties of sharing space were not affected because while the pandemic appears to be about physical distancing, mostly it just reaffirms our preference for social distancing. And of course those we are keeping our distance from know that very well too. As Sheela from Mumbai, whose safai karamchari husband Ashok was consistently denied leave and who died after contracting the virus said “Nothing happens just by chanting ‘safai karamcharis are Covid warriors’” (quoted in  Shinoli [2020]). Another worker in Chennai mused: “People of course say they are grateful now, that we are keeping the streets clean and saving them from infections. We have had television channels interview us.  But that is what we have always done.” (quoted in Palani Kumar [2020]).

The Indian government also put out an appeal to us to become citizen volunteer Covid warriors. It put out some information about what we can do to help: professional work if you have the relevant qualifications to social service of various kinds, including distributing personal protective equipment (PPE) to sanitation workers. And what about sanitation work itself? The training matrix on the website does not include this work. The jobs are listed alphabetically and Rural ASHAs at number 44 are followed by State AYUSH Staff at number 45.

The role of caste in these contradictions has mostly been analysed by focusing on the caste of the worker. But the contradictions persist . Our anxiety in public spaces persists. Hence as I have argued previously taking the example of domestic cleaning (Singha, 2020), we need to shift the focus of analysis from them as caste-oppressed beings to the caste-of-the-mind (Guru 2012a; see also Khatarker, 2019) of hegemonic-caste people. The people whom I have been referring to as ‘we’. We dominate public policy-making spaces (Barik, 2004; Dhingra, 2019; Mitra, 2020; Varma, 2012; Yadav, 2016) as well as all the good jobs going around (Harad, 2020; Ilaiah Shepherd 2018; Sagar, interview with Ilaiah Shepherd, 2017). How did we become hegemonic and why the anxiety around manual labour and sharing spaces?

Historically, in terms of class, middle-class status is linked to physically distance from manual labour, which continues to be seen in India (Ray and Qayum, 2009/2010). But casteism – caste-of-the-mind – takes this to another level, social distancing, which means distancing ourselves from the material reality in which we actually live. In his seminal essay, ‘Archaeology of Untouchability’, Gopal Guru writes about the need for greater social recognition as part of the human struggle to exist in meaningful ways. To reduce the competition for this recognition, the aim of the Indian ideology of purity and pollution and the attendant caste system, underpinned by the varna theory, is to produce ‘a kind of total rejection’ of some other humans, that is, to push them ‘beyond the civilizational framework, rendering the latter completely un-seeable, unapproachable, and untouchable’, and without any feeling of compunction (2012b:211–212).  That is, the caste-of-the-mind teaches us to perceive reality as an illusion, so that nurturing that reality is no longer seen as our work but of those who are still living within the reality (Sarukkai, 2012).  In this I have even heard the rules of purity and pollution that determine casteist practices around domestic work referred to as ‘refined’ norms.

In such a society, as already noted by Periyar decades earlier, when societal organisation is rooted in ‘varnadharma’, hegemony is maintained by using the simple idea of a mental-manual dichotomy in work/labour as a discursive tool, a kind of everyday violence. There is no empirical grounding of the distinction (Singha, 2019), but repeated again and again and attached to another notion, that of karma, that is said to be ‘cosmically’ ordained, generations of us have believed and continue to believe that doing so-called manual work lowers our status, it is an affront to our dignity. So the ideology lets us easily distance ourselves from manual work even while we continue to enjoy the benefits that are produced by that work, but which are denied to the manual workers themselves (Periyar, quoted in Rajadurai and Geetha (2013).

The Safai Karamchari Andolan, an NGO started by children of manual scavengers and led by Bezwada Wilson, campaigned for years before we passed legislation prohibiting employment of manual scavengers in 1993.[ii] But many of us, including the government itself ignored it. So we amended it in 2013 (Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act) and again in 2020 (Akhilesh, 2020). What will be the outcome this time, given that we still have caste-in-the-mind, and start the policy-making process from a position of denial. For example, we claim Delhi is free of this scourge when it is not. We quibble over the numbers. We do little to ensure that the families of those who die while cleaning our septic tanks and sewage systems get the monetary relief we promised them (Penkar, interview with Bezwada Wilson, 2018; also Akhilesh, 2020; Shankar and Swaroop, 2020; Thekaekera 2020; also Coffey and Spears 2018). As I wrote this, I realised how eerily this account is similar to Periyar’s observation in 1944, almost 8 decades ago, that

‘[o]ur agriculture continues to be the same as it was 200 years ago. To some extent irrigation facilities and over-head tanks were introduced to provide water for cultivating new lands. There is no other substantial improvement. The agricultural department has merely recruited a few new hands. Even that was helpful only to the Brahmins, who know not the ABCD of agriculture. There was no improvement in the production of food grains. There was no improvement in the mode of cultivation. The tillers are not able to get substantial gains form their work. Agriculturists have not been enlightened about their profession. … They are kept as mere irrational human beings.’ (Periyar 2020)

Just like Periyar observed how the exploitative conditions of work of agricultural labourers had remained unchanged over centuries because those benefiting from it did not have to suffer those conditions themselves, we can see the same issue in sewage work today – those who have the power to implement the bills do not do so because they think they will never have to do it. So, will our very public show of appreciation of the safai karamchari Covid warriors give new meanings to cleaning work? Flatten the hierarchical triangle by August 2021, the new ‘deadline’ for elimination of manual scavenging by the introduction of mechanised means of work (Thekaekera, 2020)? Reduce our casteised anxieties, our segregated lives and occupations, our close attention to some, but perfunctory attention to other occupational conditions of work?

The mainstream Indian press which is largely run and contributed to by ‘us’ writes about these things, highlights our failures, but it has largely ignored Isabel Wilkerson’s 2019 international best-seller Caste: The Origin of Our Discontents, which has put caste on the global map. That is something we actively try not to do, for example by countering Dalit efforts to include caste as a particular form of oppression in international instruments of discrimination (e.g. at the World Conference Against Racism in 2001 and the United Nations Durban Review Conference in 2009 (ISDN n.d.),[iii] ESCAP conference in 2014 on gender equality in the Asia-Pacific region (Menon, 2016) and the World Conference on Youth in 2014 (Kamble, 2015). Similar pressures are seen at country level outside of India, for example against the proposal to include caste as a factor of discrimination in the UK’s Equality Act (2010) by hegemonic caste groups in the diaspora (Dhanda 2020).

Wilkerson (2019) reiterates what the Black Lives Matter movement highlights: that the responsibility to change things lies with those who create and reproduce oppression. In India too, this point has been raised time and again by scholars and activists from caste-oppressed backgrounds (e.g. Yengde, 2019) while also pointing out how casteism absolves the hegemonic castes from feeling any guilt:

‘The casteised mind doesn’t feel guilty of oppressing others. The ideology of the caste system actually encourages people to continue to exploit … you don’t have to feel guilty about it because people are where they are based on some cosmic justifications … Therefore the policies which continue to operate today are very difficult to break through …’ (Suraj Yengde, 2019) .

But why not snatch this opportunity, this revealing of our anxieties even as we tried to become invisible to the virus by hiding inside our homes to adopt more anti-casteist approaches, for example by moving the spotlight of social injustice analysis from caste of the worker to the caste-of-the-mind within us?

References

Akhilesh, P. (2020) The Prohibition of Employment of Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation (Amendment) Bill-Part I. Dalit Camera, September 16.

Ambedkar, B.R. (1916/1979/2004). Castes in India: their mechanism, genesis and development. In M. Mohanty, (Ed.). Class, Caste and Gender. New Delhi: Sage, pp. 131–153.

Barik, RK. (2004). Social background of civil service: some depressing trends. Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 39, no. 7, pp. 625–628.

Coffey, D. and D. Spears (2018). Where India Goes. Delhi: HarperCollins.

Desai, Sonalde B., A. Dubey, B.L. Joshi, M. Sen, A. Shariff, and R.D. Vanneman. (2010). Appendices: design and variables. In Human Development in India: Challenges for a Society in Transition. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, pp. 220–228.

Dhanda, M. (2020). Philosophical foundations of anti-casteismProceedings of the Aristotelian Society, vol. cxx, part 1, pp 71–96.

Dinghra, S. (2019). Dalit IAS officer used to think caste bias was a myth. Now he’s fighting it. The Print, 26 April.

E.V.R, Periyar (2020). Towards the complete destruction of the old order. Prabuddha: Journal of Social Equality, [S.l.], v. 4, n. 1, p. 1-8. ISSN 2576-2079. Originally published on 13 October 1944.

Guru, G. (2012b). The archaeology of untouchability, In Gopal Guru and Sundar Sarukkai, The Cracked Mirror, An Indian Debate on Experience and Theory, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, pp. 200–222.

Guru, Gopal (2012a) Casteism is Dead: Long Live Caste, Manipal Centre for Philosophy and Humanities, 13 August 2012.

Harad, T. (2020). Caste is not a thing of the past: Bahujan stories from the newsroom floor. Journalist Fellowship Paper. March 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation.

IDSN. (n.d.). UN Documentation: Durban Review Conference. International Dalit Solidarity Network.

Ilaiah Shepherd, K. (2018). Where are the Shudras? Why the Shudras are lost in today’s India. The Caravan, 30 September.

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Khatarker, D. (2019). The stumbling block of caste in solving India’s sanitation crisis, The Wire, 23 October.

Mander, H. (2020). Locking Down the Poor. The Pandemic and India’s Moral Centre. Delhi: Speaking Tiger.

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Mitra, R. (2020). ‘Caste’ to a corner. The New Indian Express, 16 February.

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Author Bio

Lotika Singha is Honorary Research Fellow, Faculty of Business, Arts and Social Sciences, University of Wolverhampton, UK.


[i] An earlier version of this paper was presented in the New (Normal) Materialist Decay: a series of conversations on the University College London Institute of Advanced Studies theme of Growth/Waste, session Key Work and the Anxiety of the Public Space, 3 February 2021 (https://www.ucl.ac.uk/institute-of-advanced-studies/events/2021/feb/virtual-event-ias-growthwaste-key-work-and-anxiety-public-space).

[ii] India’s Supreme Court has ruled that the practice of manual scavenging violates international human rights law, including protections found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). India is also a party to other international conventions that reinforce obligations to end manual scavenging.

[iii] The Durban Review Conference was organized to evaluate progress towards the goals set by the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Durban, South Africa, in 2001.

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