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Great Indian Leader Periyar E. V. Ramasamy (1879-1973) - Nationalism and Anti-Caste Radicalism

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Revolt - A Radical Weekly in Colonial Madras

Nationalism and Anti-Caste Radicalism

The Self-respect movement was not merely a social reform movement. Rather, it considered itself espousing and representing an alternative politics and one in which social concerns were as central to its vision of an ideal polity as political ones.
This politics was defined in two ways:
as a critique of and in contrast to Congress nationalism; and as political Non-brahminism. Self-respecters prised apart Congress Nationalism and subjected its truth claims and patriotic rhetoric to relentless critical interrogation.

Gandhi proved a frustrating object of critique for them: intrigued as well as irritated by his moral creed,they yet dared to disagree with him. They would do this forcefully in
the 1930s, but in 1928-30, the passive revolution that Gandhi had begun, held their attention if not imagination. Later on they would mount adevastating critique of Gandhi and Gandhism, much in the spirit of DrAmbedkar’s latter day, What Congress and Gandhi did to the Untouchables.

However during these years, they were unsparing of other Congressmen, especially the Swarajists in Madras, whom they accused of unregenerate caste pride; nor did they allow Congress Conservatives such as Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya and Sardar Patel their high
moral ground, and were derisive in their criticisms of either.

Self-respecters understood political Non-brahminism as a creed that rejected what one of them termed, in the manner of Dr Ambedkar,the graduated privileges of the caste order, opposed brahminical prideand social power, endorsed the rights of untouchables to an equal,self-respecting and free existence, and which upheld women’s sexual and conjugal choices, as well as their right to education and independence.

In practice, this expansive, radical understanding translated into supporting proportional representation for Nonbrahmins and Adi Dravidas in education, the services and governance,and social reform that addressed the horrors of untouchability and
female sexual subordination. Political Non-brahminism was also the mainstay of the Justice party, the premier Non-brahmin party in the Madras Presidency, but in this case, it was as much a strategically held idea as a serious political notion.

The essays and addresses in this section reflect the uneasy and contentious co-existence of Nationalism and Anti-caste radicalism in colonial Madras. The first section comprises essays on the Congress:

including brilliant analyses of that party’s political pragmatism that was guided, as these writers demonstrate, neither by idealism nor by spontaneous and heartfelt action, but by stratagems that both expressed and constituted a will to power. The arguments that make up these analyses address the Calcutta Congress session of 1928, and its many
meanings – as we argue in the introduction to this book, this Congress session was significant in that it achieved an important stage in Gandhi’s passive revolution.

There are also to be found here vivid and indignantly described vignettes of the Brahmin Congressman in Madras and his unabashed assertion of caste vanity. There are articles that challenge the political and social conservatism of Pandit Malaviya and Patel. The
various essays on Malaviya are interesting in that they give expression to a consistent anger and bewilderment at how the former could hold the views that he did with respect to untouchability and the status of women. The anger is all the more acute, since he dared voice them in the south, in Madras and Kerala where anti-brahmin and anti-caste
militancy was articulate and bold.

There were perhaps other reasons too that compelled this show of ideological resistance to and refutation of Malaviya. Arguing that untouchability was a caste Hindu problem for which the latter had to suffer and repent, Gandhi often pointed to the example of men like
Malaviya who condemned untouchability, even while remaining orthodox and firm in their adherence to varnadharma. Gandhi’s reasoning was: it is not religious scruple that is responsible for the persistence of untouchability, but ignorance and blind faith in what
was believed to be time-worn custom. Gandhi also noted that in this sense untouchability was an excrescence and not integral to varnadharma, which is why Malaviya, who upheld the latter, would yet oppose the former.

To prove the worth of his arguments, Gandhiwas wont to pay obeisance to Malaviya’s conservative and even regressive views and note with wonder that if his satyagraha could move this man, then its practice was indeed efficacious (Vol 45: 144). Gandhi was also openly admiring of Malaviya’s piety and exhibited an exaggerated reverence towards him, which no doubt annoyed those who were impatient with Malaviya’s unbending orthodoxy (Malaviya’s untouchability removal efforts comprised ‘cleansing’ them and initiating them into Hinduism, in short, the practice of shuddhi and sanghatan,made popular by the Arya Samaj).

The Self-respecters, who at this point in time, were uneasy with Gandhi and yet did not openly condemn him in all instances, did not mind training their critical anger at this man, who Gandhi assumed to be his moral measure.

The section on Nationalism ends with a critique of khadi, which is both empirical and ideological.

The second section comprises articles on the Self-respect movement,and its anti-caste radicalism. Here are to be found rich descriptions of its ideology by both Self-respecters as well as respectable Non-Brahmin leaders such as R. K. Shanmugam and A. Ramasamy Mudaliar. The latter though spiritually inclined yet found much to praise in the
movement’s wonderfully argued atheism. The fact that men such as these who were political liberals yet felt impelled to respond to the philosophy of Self-respect indicate how the movement had achieved a radicalization of Non-brahmin politics in the state.

In this section are also articles on socialist politics – a declaration of support for striking railway workers, a tribute to the Congress radical,Jatin Das, a critique of capitalism, reproduced from an American rationalist paper, which argues that obscurantist belief wins the day for Capital and a note on the ertswhile Soviet Union.
The Self-respecters would acknowledge their socialist sympathies even more boldly a few
years hence in the 1930s, but even here we find a political empathy with the idea of socialism and the ostensible achievements of the first Socialist State.

Section three is about the politics of Non-brahminism. The success of the first Self-respect conference (1929) was registered most fitfully by the ideologues and publicists of the Justice party who defended it from nationalist and Brahmin criticisms. However, and this is evident in the manner Non-brahmins (of the Justice party) and Self-respecters
defined their own sense of what they were, there were differences between Justicites and Self-respecters.

This is best captured in the presidential address of N. Sivaraj – a leading Adi Dravida intellectual and a prominent Justicite – at a Non Brahmin youth conference in which he marks the limits of what has been achieved and what is yet to be done.

We also see how strategic Non–brahminism goes into crisis, from articles that address the Justice party’s Nellore conference. Periyar Ramasami in fact was keenly aware of the dangers of the former, as is evident from his criticism of the Justicite Ramasamy Mudaliar’s wavering on the issue of proportional representation. More generally too Selfrespecters were watchful of strategic political reasoning – as is clear from Revolt’s reporting of Non-brahmin politics in the Bombay province.

The third section is devoted to articles that demonstrate the making of anti-caste radicalism, which conservative Justicites and radical Congressmen feared alike – it comprises responses to Revolt and its brand of journalism.




As a congress leader 1919-1925

The basic philosophy of Periyar E.V.Ramasamy he was all men and women should live with dignity and have equal opportunities to develop their physical, mental and moral faculties. To achieve this, he wanted to put an end to all kinds of unjust discriminations and to promote Social Justice and rational outlook.

To put his principle into practice, Periyar associated himself with the Madras Presidency Association (MPA) in 1917. He was one of its vice-presidents. The Association advocated communal representation and demanded reservation for the Non-Brahmins and minority communities, as a 'sine qua non' of removing the injustices.

When Mahatma Gandhi (M.K.Gandhi: 1869 -1948) took the lead in the Indian National Congress, Periyar joined the organisation in 1919. He resigned 29 public posts he held at that time, including the municipal chairmanship of Erode town. He gave up his very lucrative wholesale dealership in grocery and agricultural products, and closed his newly begun spinning mill. Periyar wholeheartedly undertook the constructive programme - spreading the use of Khadi, picketing toddy shops, boycotting the shops selling foreign cloth and eradication of untouchability. He courted imprisonment for picketing toddy shops in Erode in 1921. When his wife as well as his sister joined the agitation, it gained momentum, and the administration was forced to come to a compromise.

In 1922, Periyar moved a resolution in the Tamil Nadu Congress Committee when it met at Tiruppur. The resolution required people of all castes to be allowed to enter and worship in all the temples, as a measure to end birth-based discrimination. Citing the authority of Vedas and other Hindu scriptures, the Brahmin members of the Committee opposed the resolution and stalled its passage. This reactionary stand of the members of upper Varna provoked Periyar to declare that he would burn Manu dharma Sastra, Ramayana etc. to show his disapproval to accept such scriptures to govern the social, religious and cultural aspects of the people.

Periyar's determination to bring about socio-cultural revolution impelled him to support even his opponents when they implemented his progressive scheme. Though a Congress leader, he supported in 1923, the Justice Party's measure to form Hindu Religious Endowment Board with a view to put an end to the age-old monopoly and exploitation of the upper castes in the managements of Hindu temples and religious endowments.

Periyar's vigorous and spirited role in the Vaikom Satyagraha (1924-25) contributed in no mean measure for the triumph of that first historic social struggle in the history of modern India. This paved the way for the "untouchables" to use public roads without any inhibition and for other prospective egalitarian social measures.
At Cheranmaadhevi near Tirunelveli in Southern Tamil Nadu, they started a National training school as an alternative to those run under the control of the British Government. That school, known as Gurukulam, was funded by the Tamil Nadu Congress Committee and by other non-Brahmin philanthropists. It was managed by V.V.S.lyer, a Brahmin. Under his management, they showed discrimination between the Brahmin and Non-Brahmin students. Brahmin boys were treated in a better way than the others with regard to food, shelter and the cirriculum. Along with his companions Periyar stoutly opposed the discriminatory practice and put an end to it.

It was Periyar's firm conviction that universal enjoyment of human rights will become a reality only when the Varna-Jaathi (caste) system was eradicated. Until the social reconstruction took place, he wanted communal representation as a measure of affirmative action to, uphold social justice. So he tried, every year from 1919, to make the Tamil Nadu Congress Committee to accept the policy of reservation to different social groups and communities. But his efforts bore no fruit in this regard. Finally he left Congress in November 1925 at the Kancheepuram Conference. He had to part company with Mahatma Gandhil because the later was not prepared to put an end to the Brahmin domination and to fight against caste system.


Self - respect Movement 1925- 39

Periyar's philosophy is that different sections of a society should have equal rights to enjoy the fruits of the resources and the development of the country; they should all be represented, in proportion to their numerical strength, in the governance and the administration of the state. This principle had been enunicated earlier by those who stood for social justice, particularly by the South Indian Liberal Federation, popularly known as Justice Party.

Periyar's unique contribution was his insistence on rational outlook to bring about intellectual emancipation and a healthy world-view. He also stressed the need to abolish the hierarchal, graded, birth-based caste structure as a prelude to build a new egalitarian social order. In other words, he wanted to lay a sound socio-cultural base, before raising a strong structure of free polity and prosperous economy.

It was in this context, the Self-Respect Movement, founded in 1925, carried on' a vigorous and ceaseless propaganda, against ridiculous and harmful superstitions, traditions, customs and habits. He wanted to dispel the ignorance of the people and make them enlightened.

He exhorted them to take steps to change the institutions and values that led to meaningless divisions and unjust discrimination. He advised them to change according to the requirements of the changing times and keep pace with the modern conditions.

Self-respecters performed marriages without Brahmin priests (prohits) and without religious rites. They insisted on equality between men and women in all walks of life. They encouraged inter-caste and widow marriages. Periyar propagated the need for birth control even from late 1920s. He gathered support for lawful abolition of Devadasi (temple prostitute) system and the practice of child marriage.

It was mainly due to his consistent and energetic propaganda, the policy of reservations in job opportunities in government administration was put into practice in the then Madras Province (which included Tamilnadu) in 1928.
Conferences

Though the Self-Respect movement was started in 1925, the first provincial conference was organised by Periyar at Chengalpet (near Chennai and Kanchipuram) only in February 1929. It was presided over by W.P. Soundarapandian. M.R Jeyakar was the president of the second conference conducted at Erode in 1930. Sir RK. Shanmugam occupied the chair in the third provincial conference that met at Viruthunagar. Apart from enthusing the people, these conferences passed resolutions meant to promote Caste eradication, Social integration and equal rights to women.

Since the British rulers in India had no vested interest in perpetuating the inequitable Varna-Jaathi social structure based on Vedic Sanathana Dharma, Periyar and his followers found that they could influence or pressurise the alien government to take measures to remove social inequality. So they adopted a moderate policy in the struggle for political independence.

From the beginning of 1930s, Periyar added the programme of fighting for economic equality to his original programme of working for social equality and Cultural Revolution. Along with the veteran communist leader Com. M.Singaravel, he organised industrial and agricultural labourers to stand against the exploitation of big capitalists and landlords. In mid -1930's, the central and provincial governments took steps to ban the Communist Party and the organisations purported to have similar programmes.

They started to stop the activities of the Self-Respect Movement. Periyar had to take a crucial decision. He had known by experience that there were supporters for the work to carry on the freedom struggle and to organise the labourers. But only a few came forth to expose the religion based traditional evils, and struggle against the exploitation of the powerful Brahminical upper castes. Under this circumstance, he toned down his socialist activities in order to be free to carry on the task of the socio-cultural emancipation of the disadvantaged and the downtrodden sections.

In 1934, there was an unsuccessful move through C.Rajagopalachari, known as Rajaji, to bring Periyar back into the fold of the Congress Party. Periyar prepared a programme of action consisting of measures to promote Social Justice, through reservations, to implement socialisation of vital and large-scale commercial and industrial activities, and to remove the hardships of the debt-ridden peasants.

He sent the programme to the ruling Justisce Party and the Congress Party that was growing popular. The Congress Party did not accept it, as the policy of reservation was not agreeable to it. As Justice Party agreed to most of the measures including communal representation to uphold Social Justice, Periyar continued to support it.

In 1937, Justice Party that was in power in the then Madras Province from 1921, except for a brief period, lost the elections to the Congress Party. Rajagopalachari who introduced compulsory study of Hindi language in the high schools headed the Congress Government.
Those who opposed this effort to make non-Hindi speaking people second-class citizens organised a vigorous agitation under the dynamic leadership of Periyar. More than 1200 persons including women with children were imprisoned in 1938, of which two, Thalamuthu and Natarasan, lost their lives due to the rigours in prison.

When the agitation gained momentum Periyar was sentenced to undergo rigorous imprisonment for two years, though released in six months (Periyar was in gaol five times in 1920s and four times in 1930s).

In November 1938, a women's conference in Madras (now Chennai) passed a resolution to refer to E.V.Ramasamy always as Periyar (the great man.).
While undergoing imprisonment, the Justice Party elected him as its President on 29th December 1938.

Periyar who opposed compulsory study of Hindi in the then Madras Province was sentenced to undergo rigorous imprisonment for two years. But he was released after about six months of confinement from 26th November 1938 to 22nd May 1939. After his release, he announced that he would continue his agitation against the imposition of Hindi.



Justice Party

We have seen that Periyar was elected while he was in prison, as the leader of the South Indian Liberal Federation, popularly known as Justice Party, in its Provincial Conference held in Madras (Chennai) on 29, 30 December 1938.

He was basically a fighter for human rights for all from the beginning to the end of his public life. Now he added a new dimension to his movement, viz., and demand for an independent Dravida Naadu. He was driven to make this demand in 1938-39, because he found the Brahminical upper castes, whom he opposed for their social oppression, were in league with the North Indian Bania community (comprador capitalists) in imposing Hindi and in exploiting economically the people of South India.

Periyar's concept of Dravidians was not based on the purity of blood related to a race, but on values and ways of life. The Brahminical upper castes who followed the discriminatory socio-cultural principles, practices and traditions of Varna-Jaathi (caste system) originally enunicated in the Sanskrit scriptures like Vedas, Ithihaasas, Puraanas, Dharma Sastras etc. are Aryans.

Those who subscribe to the egalitarian Tamil tradition and values of humanism are Dravidians. It may be recalled here that while addressing the conference of Backward Classes and Scheduled.Castes in Kanpoor in Uttar Pradesh in December 1944, he appealed to the Non-Brahmins of North- India to give up the religious appellation of Hindu and call themselves as Dravidians.

The Second World War broke out in September 1939. As a protest against the British rulers involving India in the war without consulting the High Command of their party, the Congress ministries in Madras and seven other Provinces resigned on 29th October of the same year. As Periyar was the leader of the opposition Justice Party, he was asked by the Governor and Governor general twice in 1940 and 1942 to form the ministry.

Though a Congress leader, his friend C.Rajagopalachari personally requested Periyar to accept the offer, assuring his outside support to the Justice Party ministry. He explained that he wanted to put an end to the rule of the Governor and his advisers. But Periyar refused to head the Provincial Government on both the occasions.

His refusal was on two grounds: First, he felt it improper to form the ministry without a popular mandate. Secondly, he firmly believed that his main task of annihilating caste system and spreading rational humanist principles would receive a set back, if he assumed power.

Periyar left for Mumbai (Bombay) on 5th January 1940. Dr. B.R.Ambedkar gave dinner- parties twice in his honour. They' met the Muslim League leader M.A.Jinnah at his residence in Mumbai on 8th January 1940. Periyar explained then his decision to work for an independent State known as Dravida Naadu.

On 21st January 1940, the Madras provincial Government ruled by the Governor and his advisers abolished the compulsory study of Hindi in schools. M.A.Jinnah sent a telegram to Periyar congratulating him on the success of his endeavour to ward off the imposition of Hindi.

When the Justice Party was defeated in the 1937 general elections after being in power for a very long spell from 1921, most of its leaders were disheartened and became inactive. It was at this moment of crisis, Periyar accepted the leadership of the party because he always felt the need for the existence of a vigorous political party essentially oriented to work for the upliftment of the socially deprived sections of the people. At this critical movement, two of the old guards staunchly stood by him.

They were Sir R.K.Shanmugam and Sir A.T. Panneerselvam. At the time, the former was the Dewan of the Princely State of Kochi (now a part of Kerala) and then became Independent India's first finance minister in 1947. The latter was a member of the Governor's council and then a minister in Madras province in 1930s. On 1st March 1940, he lost his life in a plane crash while flying over Oman Sea on his way to London where he was to assume office as an adviser to the Secretary of State for India in the British Government. Periyar lamented that the sudden and tragic demise of Panneerselvam was an irreparable loss to the people of Tamil Nadu.

The 15th State Conference of the Justice Party was held in Tiruvarur in August 1940. It was on this occasion, Chinnakancheepuram Natarajan Annadurai (C.N.A.), respectfully mentioned later as Arignar Anna, became the Joint Secretary of the Party. He fascinated the youth by his unique style of writing and oratory. He played a great role in popularising the principles, policies and programmes of Periyar through his essays, short stories, novels and plays.

In February 1941, the founder-leader of Radical Democratic Party, M.N.Roy, came to Chennai and stayed as Periyar's guest. He sought Periyar's cooperation to form a grand All India alliance against the Congress Party. Both of them supported the war efforts of Great Britain as they considered British Imperialism a lesser evil than the Fascism of Mussolini, Nazism of Hitler and the Militarism of Tojo.

As a result of Periyar's persistent demand, the degrading practice of serving separately the Brahmins and the 'others' in the restaurants in railway stations was abolished in March 1941.

The conservative section in the Justice Party disliked Periyar's radical social reform programme, his critical view of religious literature and the propagation of rationalist ideas. Unmindful of their opposition, he continued his onward march and gathered around him the youth and the common people.



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Great Indian Leader Periyar E. V. Ramasamy (1879-1973) - Nationalism and Anti-Caste Radicalism (Countries of the World - Politics)    -    Author : segaran - India


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