Dr. Gajendran Ayyathurai on Iyothee Thass and Critical Caste Studies

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

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.

Both are Worse!

-Periyar E.V. Ramasamy

Translated by Karthick Ram Manoharan and Vilasini Ramani

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Viduthalai  23.03.1942

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

A Life of Slavery

-Periyar E.V. Ramasamy

Translated by Karthick Ram Manoharan and Vilasini Ramani

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?


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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.

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