Social Marginality, Precarity and Dignity: Rethinking Periyar

-Ramaswami Mahalingam

We are living through a pandemic in a globalized world. We are more likely to recognize the preciousness of our lives than the interdependent nature of our lives. To acknowledge that our lives are interconnected, we need to recognize our fellow human beings’ dignity. Dignity is an embodied praxis, a constellation of processes by which we embody, recognize, intervene, preserve, and cherish the very core of what makes us human. When such processes are trampled and systemically violated, they dehumanize marginalized community members (e.g., oppressed caste groups in India, African Americans, sexual minorities, or native Americans). Such dignity violations undermine the well-being and sense of belonging of members of marginalized groups. Recent protests in the U.S. against police brutality against African Americans illustrate the police’s systemic problems that fail to recognize their dignity. Misrecognitions result in deadly consequences normalizing the invisibility of the sufferings of those who embody multiple marginalized identities. Invisibility and precarious working conditions are ideal for the proliferation of dignity injuries. Based on my research, I identified three kinds (Mahalingam, 2019) of dignity: (a) personal; (b) intersubjective; and (c) processual. Personal dignity refers to our inherent human quality, including our performative aspects. Intersubjective dignity refers to our ability and commitment to recognizing the dignity of others in our everyday interactions. Processual dignity refers to our commitment to foster a culture of dignity in our communities (e.g., family, workplace). I study dignity among janitors, women engineers, and hospital patients waiting for surgery. For all participants, dignity injuries undermind their agency, purpose in life, and well-being. 

My earliest memory of dignity was associated with E.V.Ramasamy, known as Periyar. I heard the word suyamariyathai (self-respect) in marriage ceremonies officiated by elders, not by Brahmins. My earliest exposure to the notion of dignity was in Periyar’s idea of self-respect that negated all cultural, religious, or traditional practices that undermine a person’s self-worth and dignity. Periyar fought for the dignity of the individual and the need to recognize the humanity of fellow human beings irrespective of their caste, gender and social class. Periyar questioned religious practices, customs, and traditions that violate personal and intersubjective dignities. Periyar called for a rational engagement to rethink and reexamine taken-for-granted assumptions about every aspect of life that undermine personal and intersubjective dignities. He also practiced what he preached. He recognized the humanity and dignity of others, especially those who disagreed with him. Irrespective of age, status, and gender, he addressed everyone with respect, a rare quality appreciated even by his staunch critics. His sense of humor and sharp wit, and a commitment to respect the dignity of others illustrate his commitment to processual dignity. For me, Periyar is an exemplar of my conception of dignity as an embodied praxis.

Questioning any taken-for-granted assumptions which naturalize inequitable and unequal social relations was one of the unique characteristics of Periyar. He was uncompromising in his desire to challenge any human being’s dignity violations and mistreatments because of their caste, class, or gender. Periyar was an organic praxologist with an acumen for finding effective, efficient, and economical solutions to social problems to alleviate the sufferings of socially marginalized community members.

Globalization normalized the gig economy and precarious working conditions. Dignity violations and sufferings of those who survive in the gig economy are invisible. To make ends meet, young people have to do multiple jobs where they are their own “boss.” Unite Here, a labor union for workers in the service industry, came up with the slogan, “one job should be enough,” to counter the hegemonic narratives of the gig economy. I wonder what Periyar would do now. Periyar, in his lifetime, unmasked many practices that undermined human dignity. He will point out that the gig economy has disproportionately affected marginalized communities (e.g., immigrants, refugees, and ethnic minorities). He will foreground dignity to challenge institutional practices that render the sufferings of the marginalized invisible. He will call for a radical humanist program foregrounding dignity to meet the challenges of our time.

We need to reengage and reinterpret Periyar to retool our theory and praxis to meet the challenges of our time. In that spirit, the EU H2020 funded project Freedom From Caste: The Political Thought of Periyar E.V. Ramasamy in a Global Context, where Dr. Karthick Manoharan will undertake a novel research on Periyar under the supervision of Prof. Meena Dhanda at the University of Wolverhampton, is a timely intervention to bring the organic praxology of Periyar to a larger audience. It is high time scholars around the world critically engage with Periyar’s work. Karthick Manoharan’s work is historically significant and a much needed critical intervention to bring the legacy of a maverick like Periyar to a western audience. Periyar’s unwavering commitment and a quest for social justice and equality will inspire a new generation of scholars worldwide to creatively engage with issues of inequalities, social marginality, precarity, and identity politics, and develop a praxis for coalition building and solidarity for social change.


Mahalingam, R. (2019). Mindful mindset, interconnectedness, and dignity. Global Youth, 230-253.

Author Bio

Ramaswami Mahalingam, Director, Barger Leadership Institute, Professor of Psychology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

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