November 26, 2020
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Interview

'Uma, Kalyan Beneficiaries Of Periyar Legacy'

On the eve of 125 years of Periyar E.V. Ramasamy, K. Veeramani, president, Dravidar Kazhagam discusses caste politics, and explains why the DK does not believe in having dalits as puppets in its apex decision-making body.

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'Uma, Kalyan Beneficiaries Of Periyar Legacy'
'Uma, Kalyan Beneficiaries Of Periyar Legacy'
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-0001-11-30T00:00:00+05:53

What is Periyar’s legacy today and who are the legatees?

After disbanding Justice Party, Periyar founded the Dravidar Kazhagam in 1944 and this forum is today carrying forward the true legacy of Periyar.

But there are other Dravidian outfits who benefit from his legacy.

Kamaraj was used by the Janata Party though they seceded from the Congress. Similarly, Gandhi is used people who hardly follow his ideals. They have a symbolic use for these leaders. But here, the atmosphere is such, and the soil is so congenial for all these Dravidian parties, that they cannot conduct their politics without using a Periyar picture. Till date, an attempt to forge a front without the two main Dravidian outfits, DMK and AIADMK, has not succeeded.

Even Mani Shankar Aiyar had admitted in a recent interview that it is not possible to do politics in TN without any alliance with either Dravidian party.

There lies the secret of Periyar’s success. The impact of Periyar’s was such that it has crossed the boundaries of the state. It has reached UP. It has gone to Bihar, Delhi, even to Madhya Pradesh. You take Uma Bharti. She may be with the BJP. But basically she belongs to backward caste and is a woman…

So does this mean the DK owns up Uma Bharti?

No, no. I am only giving an example. When Kalyan Singh came out of the BJP, what was his identity? That he was a backward class man… a Lodha. Whether he believes in caste or not, he wants to exploit it. What is the spark for all this? The spark is from Tamil Nadu. It is from Periyar. So the legacy of Periyar was not only intact here, it was also being exported and imported. It was imported by them; we have not yet exported it. Without our permission they are importing it.

Within the non-Brahmin bloc in Tamil Nadu, initially it was only the upper layer of non-Brahmins who benefited from this movement. In terms of empowerment in concrete material terms, Mudaliars, Pillais, Reddiars, Naickers, Gounders and later Nadars and others benefited. But when you use the term non-Brahmin, it is as if there are no differences within this spectrum of castes. If Brahmins are just 3 percent, then the rest of the 97 percent non-Brahmin are not a singular monolithic bloc. The Thevars and Vanniars hardly benefited by the non-Brahmin empowerment. The Vanniars have struck out on their own and have their own party today [PMK]. The Dalits feel totally left out and are staking their claim independent of the Dravidian tag.

No, it is not so. What does the Tamil Nadu GO which ordered 69 percent say? In the whole of India, only TN enjoys 69 per cent reservation both in employment and in admissions. This is thanks to Periyar. Of this, almost 50 percent is for backward castes. Of this 50 percent, 30 percent is for backward BCs; 20 percent for MBCs. For Dalits, it is 18 percent, and one percent is for tribals. In open competition there is 31 per cent.

I am not talking about reservation here…

No, no… in education and other facilities, the benefits were not lopsided. As pointed out by Dr Ambedkar, this is a society with graded inequality—this inequality is of a very special nature. There are subcastes and region-specific differences, but because of the non-Brahmin movement, everybody is conscious of their rights. And they are staking their claim. Fifty years ago people were content with their birth-ordained caste occupations. A cobbler simply thought: It is my fate to be a cobbler. I am satisfied with that. A washerman thought: I am ordained to be a washerman and am happy to be that. It is written on my head, it’s my fate, and if at all I can change, it will be in my next birth. Now, this movement was able to bring about an attitudinal change—social and political. Take the Scheduled Caste youth now; they want to assert their rights, whereas that was not the case with their grandfathers. Now the grandson and granddaughter have got education and they want to assert themselves.

This is precisely the contradiction I am referring to. When this assertion is happening, within the non-Brahmin bloc, when Dalit assertion happens, their immediate oppressors are MBCs/ OBCs. In a recent article in The Hindu (Social justice and reservation scheme) you have blamed the Brahminical legacy for elections not taking place in the reserved panchyats of Keeriappti, Paappapatti, Nattamamgalam. But the ground reality is the strong Thevar opposition to Dalits seeking panchayat president posts. In Melavalavu, when a Dalit defiantly became panchayat president, he and his six friends were beheaded by the Thevars. These contradictions that are emerging…

It is from these contradictions that the solution will arise. In the context of graded inequality, the Brahmins are cleverly deflecting the issue. In this social ladder, who is at the top? Who has created this mindset (of low and high)? Who created varnashrama dharma? Who designated them as Panchamas? In a system of graded inequality, only the fourth and fifth rung of castes will have altercations. These clashes have a region-specific equation. In the northern districts, vanniars and SCs will clash; in Coimbatore, Gounders and Arundhatiyars [chamars] will clash; in southern districts, Pallars and Thevars will clash. Saiva Pillais and Brahmins will be less in number in the population… but who created this mindset? This ingraining in the mind of superior and inferior births, this is Brahminical thinking.

But in Brahminical thinking the division is not simply Brahmin–non-Brahmin. Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, Shudra is the division ordained by the Brahminical system…

The category non-Brahmin was created to unite under a common identity all those who are oppressed by Brahmins; if we use Dravidian, then there are categories such as Adi Dravidar (as Dalits are designated in TN) and Meedi Dravidar (other Dravidars)… hence Periyar preferred to use Dravidar as a social category. You see, Brahmins have their association—Tambras—Tamil Nadu Brahmins Association. Non-Brahmins do not have such an association. Though Iyer, Iyengar, Shastri etc are distinct identities, they do not have separate associations. Under a Brahmin association they are all willing to come together, because Brahmins are a homogenous group; and non-Brahmins are a heterogenous group. In comparison to 5,000 years of Brahminical mindset, the non-Brahmin movement is just 75 years old. Today we are in a transitional stage, a transitional phase. In this phase, there is assertion. And despite reservation, there’s been no proportional sharing of opportunities. If there had been correct proportional sharing, such differences and conflicts would not arise. There could even be some MBC communities which have been not covered by reservation.

For the sake of the ‘backward’ tag some well-off, landed communities have even agitated. For instance, Gounders, more so Kongu Vellala Gounders, many of whom own some 500 to 1000 acres, claimed ‘backwardness’ with the Tamil Nadu Backward Classes Commission under the chairmanship of A.N.Sattanathan and attained it. Also, doesn’t the claim to backwardness contradict the fundamental premise of self-respect?

Definitely not. Even if a Gounder owns a thousand acres, a Brahmin would address him disrespectfully as ‘Aye Gounda’ or ‘Ennada Gounda’. And the Gounder would respond with ‘Saami’.

But this is not the case; in fact Gounders have contempt for Dalits. The Gounder were always autonomous of Brahmin influence. Even in their marriages and other rituals, it is not the Brahmin who acts as the priest, but a barber.

Today, Gounders and Nadars are Brahminising. They are inviting Brahmins to conduct their marriages! Look at a wedding of Pollachi Mahaligam (a leading industrialist, a Gounder) family…

Let us now turn to your own organisation. This was in fact a question that my friend Kancha Ilaiah, himself a non-Dalit, once asked of me about the Dravidar Kazhagam. How many Dalits are there in DK’s executive committee or your decision-making body?

(Angrily) This is a very mischievous question. In DK we do not consider anybody’s caste. It is belief in Periyarite philosophy which is paramount. Anybody who works hard in the organization and is committed to the self-respect philosophy can rise in the hierarchy. It depends on their work and commitment. Caste is not a criteria… Such a caste mentality (jaathi paarvai), of assessing somebody on the basis of caste, and accommodating somebody on the basis of their birth into our apex body is antithetical to our very worldview.

But is this not precisely what Brahminical establishments today are saying? Is this not what the private sector is saying when asked to yield space for Dalits in their midst?

No. No. Private institutions are different. How can you compare us with them? DK is a social movement, and one of our premises is to not ask anybody’s caste. (Pointing to a DK colleague sitting in the interview room) Do you think I know his caste? Or do the cadres of DK think about my caste? How many ordinary people know about Veeramani’s caste for that matter? One does not rise in DK on the basis of caste.

But this is a question also directed at the communists. The same question has been asked Ilaiah of the CPI(M) politburo as well. The communists too can then say they are a social movement, and that a person’s rise in the party hierarchy depends on work, talent etc. In other words, you are using the same language of meritocracy that the DK rightly accuses others of!

That is a wrong way of seeing things. You see, everybody’s a worker here. Anybody who believes in our philosophy can work with us. It is belief in the ideology that is important. If such symbolic representation is all that matters, what would we do? We should handpick a few Dalit faces and seat them here! Like BJP did with Bangaru Laxman. There should be and will be no casteist way of assessing people in DK. For the Dravidar Kazhagam worker, caste ideology does not apply at all. So there’s no question… there’s a difference between how others deal with this question and how the DK does. The self-respect marriages, inter-caste marriages that a DK worker participates in… that is a true anti-caste statement. When we start saying we have such and such Dalit member, it means we are viewing a person through the optic of caste.

You see there are indeed some of these people [referring to Dalits] in the district level in leadership positions. If Ilaiah wishes, let him come and stay with us for a few days and we’ll take him around. We will take him to the lower echelons (keezh-mattam) of DK. Let him go and see at the lower rungs. You should not ask for these things in the higher echelons (mel-mattam). In the apex level of the organisation, we could just keep them [Dalits] as decorative toys. Among the lower-level workers is where you will get the true picture. You do one thing. Look at why in southern Thanjavur there are no caste clashes? Wherever the DK movement is strong, you won’t have caste clashes. In some places our movement is of course weak. In places where we are strong, caste clashes will not occur.

In the last few years, some Dalit intellectuals have been re-reading Periyar and subjecting him to a critique. They, in fact, quote Periyar, with page number, from the authentic three-volume compilation by V. Anaimuthu. For instance, in defining Tamils, Periyar is once quoted as saying Tamils are those who are not Brahmins, not Telugus, not Kannadigas, not Malayalis, not Dalit, not Muslims and not Christians. This is a negative, exclusionist definition of the non-Brahmin Dravidian core as the only authentic Tamils. In another instance, Periyar wondered: if so much reservation benefits are given to Dalits, what will we Shudras get? Periyar defines ‘us’ in this address as clearly non-Brahmin, non-Dalit.

Let me tell you why. You must look at the context [in which such statements were made]. It is only by quoting Periyar out of context that these critics try to attack Periyar. In the framework of proportional representation, the Schedules Castes are at the bottom-most level. (I am using the term Scheduled Castes, and not Dalits, for clarity. Even Ambedkar did not use the term. And Dalit technically means all the oppressed and even Shudras can come under that.)

Scheduled Castes were given 18 percent and Scheduled Tribes were given 1 percent in proportion to their share in the population. When it comes to backward communities, they had only 25 percent. This [quota] needed to be expanded to accommodate the sizable number of backward castes. It was in the context of the Supreme Court ceiling on reservation that Periyar talked like that. Backward communities did not have proportional representation then. He wanted a greater share for them under the same law. If every community got its due proportionate share, there won’t be any problems in society. This would have been the context.

Second, the reason he refused to use the term Tamil is: everyone who speaks Tamil cannot claim to be Tamil. Brahmins too then come under the category Tamil!

But to exclude Dalits, Muslims, Christians…

Periyar said no such thing ever. Tell me one thing: can Panchamas claim the identity of Shudras? Give me an answer…

No they can’t.

Agreed. Suppose Periyar says: ‘let’s destroy Shudra-ness’, should this be interpreted as his having had no concern for Panchamas? What’s your answer? … These critics of Periyar have neither read Ambedkar properly, nor have they read Periyar rightly. They just read a few pages and come to conclusions. They have yet another shortcut: the Brahminical press, which gives publicity for these anti-Periyar forces and highlights their writings. Second, these critics know that once they attack Periyar they’ll easily generate a lot of quick publicity.

But think: without Periyar would these people have had this basic awareness and consciousness? To say that Periyar did not care about our interests in foolishness. I’ll give you one more example. All Scheduled Caste IAS officers decided to give a party to Periyar in 1971-72. They said then: ‘You have done everything for us. If we are something today, it is you who are responsible. It is all thanks to your efforts.’

Ambedkar was of a different stature. He belonged to the high level to which Periyar belonged. Now these small leaders at the lower level are not that strong. These people talk of Ambedkar, but would have never read Ambedkar’s philosophy. Ambedkar refers to only two categories: the servile classes and Brahmins. What is Ambedkar’s definition for Brahminism? He has given six points and defined Brahminism. He has said that Dravidians are there in the whole of India and he included the ancient Nagas under Dravidians. I don’t know how many of these Periyar critics have read this.

To come back to the point I was making: What did Periyar say at that meeting with the IAS officers: ‘You are all praising me. But think of how many of you have made it to the judiciary; you are there in the executive and legislature, but not in the judiciary. No SC person has become a judge in the Madras High Court. Why are you not bothered?’ Then Periyar immediately took it up with the Karunanidhi-led DMK government, reasoning: if this government does not act on this who will.

At that time, unlike the present collegium system, the executive had more say in judicial appointments. That very evening, he told me to report his speech in Vidudhalai (DK’s mouthpiece), and asked me to write a strong editorial, and also asked me to speak to Kalaignar (Karunanidhi) about this. Fortunately, Justice Veerasamy was the chief justice in Madras then. The chief minister acted within a week to 10 days, and the grievance was redressed. At that time Justice Varadarajan, an Scheduled Caste judge from Jolarpet, was somewhere in the 11th, 12th or 13th position. Immediately, he was appointed to the High Court, out of turn! Only after he came here did he go to Supreme Court as judge. The norm is only a chief justice of a High Court can go to the Supreme Court. But with Justice Varadarjan, an exception was made. For the first time, the apex court thus had a Scheduled Caste judge.

So those who say Periyar did nothing for us are bluffing… You talk of Periyar’s legacy! After Periyar died, a similar situation arose and the High Court had no SC judge. It was DK that led an agitation. I led a delegation and met the then governor P.C. Alexander. Then two Scheduled Caste judges were appointed. We have done a lot like this. As far as DK is concerned I have already announced in public:

Suppose there’s a single vacancy available, who should get it? It must got to a Scheduled Caste. Between a Scheduled Caste and backward class non-Brahmins, the SC must be preferred. Between the backward class and forward class non-Brahmins, it must go to the backward class candidate; between an MBC and BC, the slot must go to the MBC; between a forward class non-Brahmin and a Brahmin, it must go to forward non-Brahmin. If it is within Brahmins, we can do nothing… this is our stated policy.

But look at what these (Dalit) leaders are doing? They talk of fighting varnshrama dharma and then seek the blessings of Shankaracharya all this for votes. In Chidambaram one such leader took off his shirt to enter the temple.

But it is being asked by these leaders: since Periyar had admittedly remained a dharmakartha [an administrative post] for several temples in Erode till the end of his life, what is wrong if Dalits enter some temples?

He was not dharmakartha all his life. He held these positions before initiating the self-respect movement (in 1925). Even then he was an atheist.

But being an atheist why hold on to an administrative post in a temple?

What’s wrong with an administrative post? And he did not remain in such posts all his life. This is wrong information you have. Of the man who broke Pillaiyar (Ganesha) idols, some say he kept a Pillaiyar idol in his house!

Seems there’s someone else waiting for an audience with you. This dialogue won’t end. So shall we end this here for now?

Yes, then.

Thank you very much.


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