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.
Dr. Vijay Asokan, researcher in electron-microscopy, Chalmers University, Sweden is interviewed by Karthick Ram Manoharan for The Periyar Project. Excerpted and translated interview below. Full video interview in Tamil at the end.
The Periyar Project (TPP): What is the purpose of starting the European Periyar Ambedkar Comrades’ Association?
Vijay Asokan (VA): The Tamil Nadu diaspora is growing in Europe only of late. Their settled population used to be much less when compared to other immigrant population of skilled labor. But this is the time when there are people from the age of 25 to 40 and there is a scope to create a space for politics. In social media, there is a lot of attention on Tamil Nadu and India… now there is an open space and arena. In parallel, in India the right-wing Hindutva forces are working vigorously at the level of politics, NGO, social engineering and so. That impact is there on Europe as well. They are also targeting the people in the similar age group. It is our opinion that Periyar is the right person to go to in order to counter the Hindu Right. Periyar and Ambedkar together would be the right weapons to take to the youth, to shape them politically, to build a positive politics for the India of the future.
TPP: The name of your association itself implies a form of solidarity among progressive groups. But you might be aware of other opinions. For instance, there are some who see Dr. Ambedkar as a leader of Dalits exclusively. There are others who see Periyar as a leader of the intermediate castes. How do you see this and how do you bring these two leaders together?
VA: Projecting Ambedkar as a leader of the Dalits alone is a calculated politics. It has been happening in India for a while, and in Tamil Nadu since the 1990s, especially through some writers and intellectuals, to show Ambedkar and Periyar as opposing forces. This is a need for Hindutva politics. In Tamil Nadu, there has been an opposition to this design from the Periyarists. The Periyarists refuted such writings since the 90s in newspapers and in political forums. Many Dalit activists are also of the opinion that they can let go of neither Periyar nor Ambedkar. There are some who are still rigid in placing them as opposites. But in the larger political framework, there is an understanding that Periyar and Ambedkar are inseparable. As an impact of this process in Tamil Nadu, we also feel that in Europe this solidarity must be maintained to counter divisive politics. Dr. Ambedkar is not for Dalits alone. He is an intellectual, a social architect, someone who created a model for social engineering. Periyar, who was his contemporary, has also said that Ambedkar is my leader. So those who travel the path of Periyar also accept Ambedkar as their leader. That is our outlook.
TPP: Are the youth of contemporary Tamil Nadu interested in Periyar? How do you think Periyar is relevant to contemporary Tamil Nadu?
VA: There is still an impact of Periyar. One key reason is that since there are forces strongly opposing Periyar there is also a reaction, a search for Periyar. When Periyar is seen as a fixed institution, then maybe the interest may decline, as is the case with other institutions. But only when there are opposing forces, there will be a competition, for the best to win. As the forces opposing Periyar have grown in the last ten years, so have the people reading and defending Periyar. As people read Periyar, they find out how false the accusations placed on him are. There is a new wave of interest in Periyar among the youth. For example, Vidiyal publishers released copies of Periyar: Indrum Endrum (which are selections from Periyar’s works). It is a top selling book despite it being a volume as big as an encyclopedia. Many of those who purchased it, if you look at Vidiyal’s records, were women. Another example, Periyar’s Why Were Women Enslaved book has been published as several editions and recently, it was also marketed targeting school children… His works are reaching a wider audience in this generation. This generation has a modern thinking. In a globalized world, India’s structure has changed, India’s social model has also changed. Tamil Nadu is far ahead than other states. There is a bigger population of educated, well-read people in the state. If you take the right literature to them, they will use it. Else, they will just neglect it. If we are able to take Periyar’s thoughts to this group, it is because of the growing aggression of Periyar’s opponents, and the increased need to take Periyar forward. People have started to think ‘Why do they want to attack Periyar? Why do they want to reject Periyar? Why do they take offense when Periyar is mentioned?’ That is why books on Periyar, discussions about Periyar on YouTube channels are becoming popular… The contemporary generation thinks that by reading Periyar they can compete in the contemporary political world. Many believe that Periyar is necessary to tackle politics today.
TPP: You have written a lot about ecological issues, like the protests against neutrino, methane projects in Tamil Nadu. Does a Periyarist perspective help to address this?
VA: Definitely. Periyarism influenced not only my involvement in environmental activism, but also my involvement in the Eelam issue. The fundamental concept of Periyarism is resistance to oppression. Whether it be his opposition to god, caste or religion, his core idea is resistance to oppression… When you compile his views and read systematically, he is totally a rebel against oppression. He opposed exploitation, he was a believer in equality, that power should be distributed equally. This is his totality. From here, I am inspired to support Eelam politics. One must support a struggle against oppression. Irrespective of whether the oppression is on the basis of caste, religion or nation, Periyarism holds that we must take the side of the oppressed. Likewise, in environmental issues. The methane project in Tamil Nadu is exploiting the land, disturbing the livelihoods of the people. It worsens their economic condition. In this, we can can take insights from the Periyarist opposition to North Indian economic exploitation of the South. This is also expressed in Anna who felt that when the North as a single economic-political entity will exploit the South. Kudankulam protest is not about economy. But the people there do not want the reactor on their land, they think it will be a danger to them, yet the powers want to impose it on them. When the powers are adamant, we need to stand on the side of the people.
Disclaimer: The interview been excerpted, edited, and translated from the original Tamil interview with the interviewee’s consent. The views expressed by the interviewee are his own. The Periyar Project cannot be held responsible for the content of his views.