COULD a relatively innocuous episode in an educational institution trigger a national-level debate, bring to the fore the sociopolitical fault lines of a country and lead to the polarisation of opinion? That is what the controversy over the derecognition of a study circle at the Indian Institute of Technology Madras did (“Derecognising dissent”, Frontline, June 26, 2015).
In fact, the name of the group, Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle (APSC), itself contained, in the perception of a few, the seeds of a controversy. Named as it was after two icons of India’s movement for social reform and awakening, Dr B.R. Ambedkar and E.V. Ramasamy Periyar, the study circle’s derecognition by the IIT Madras management was seen by the adherents of the social philosophies of the two leaders and Marxists as one more manifestation of the intolerance of the forces of Hindutva, which are strongly entrenched in power at the Centre now.
Ambedkar and Periyar were at the forefront of social movements that challenged the deeply entrenched caste system, traced its origins to Hinduism which laid the theoretical foundations of the system, and saw the emancipation of the socially oppressed in abolishing the religion itself. The protests, online and on-field, against the lifting of the ban on the APSC triggered debates over the theories and the legacies of Ambedkar and Periyar on sites ranging from the streets to television studios.
The debates took place primarily between the followers of Ambedkar and Periyar on one side and Hindutva “theoreticians” on the other. Interestingly, Hindutva theoreticians, who are out to appropriate a sanitised legacy of Ambedkar, found strange bedfellows in a section of Dalit intellectuals, who, of late, have been questioning Periyar’s credentials as a crusader for the socially oppressed, accusing him of having a bias in favour of Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and against Dalits.
Hindutva theoreticians argue that Ambedkar and Periyar can not be considered equals and put on the same footing as far as social reform is concerned. And they have for company a section of Dalit leaders and writers. They invoke the name of Dr Ambedkar freely but fail to realise that he had no issues with the social reform movement in Tamil Nadu extending the struggle to Dalits as well.
Hindutva elements, which have been on a relentless mission to appropriate the legacy of Ambedkar, resurrected some clichéd arguments against Periyar, saying that he was a pro-OBC leader who worked against the interests of Dalits. The idea was to win over Dalits to their side by driving a wedge between them and the OBCs. Unfortunately, some neo-Dalit intellectuals and fringe Tamil nationalist groups, which have been critical of Periyar and his reforms and view with suspicion any activism other than their own, seem to be playing into the hands of these elements.
Periyar and Ambedkar undoubtedly had many commonalities on the social front, and a few differences which were not big enough to cast them as polar opposites as some Hindutva “ideologues” seek to do. A discerning reader who sifts through their writings and speeches cannot miss the similarities between their approaches. Both campaigned stridently against Hinduism, which, according to them, sanctioned and ideologically justified the pernicious caste system. Ambedkar, a Mahar from Indore, embraced Buddhism, exasperated over his community’s continued exclusion from the social structure; Periyar, an OBC, remained in the Hindu fold “to exercise my moral right to criticise it”, in his words.
“No force on earth can appropriate Periyar,” said K. Veeramani, leader of the Dravidar Kazhagam (D.K.), founded by Periyar. “Their [Hindutva forces] ulterior motive is to divide and rule; to set OBCs against the Scheduled Castes [S.Cs]. They divide people according to Manu Dharma,” he said. They seek to portray Ambedkar and Periyar as ideological rivals by picking up a few stray statements uttered on different occasions by the two great leaders and interpreting them in such a way as to suit their rabid casteist view of Indian society.
Academics point out that any attempt to portray them as rivals will only help the Hindutva agenda, which seeks to homogenise culture and deny India’s plurality. “In Tamil Nadu, these reactionary forces occupied the anti-APSC platform to launch a smear campaign against Periyar,” said Veeramani. “And a few Tamil Dalit writers have inadvertently fallen prey to it, which does not augur well for any reformist movement.” These writers have developed a kind of contempt for Periyar because of a misplaced understanding of the social reform movement that arose in this part of the country, he said.
The Sangh Parivar has all along projected Ambedkar as a nationalist and, contrary to historical facts, as a Hindu. It claims that Buddhism, which he embraced just before his demise, is a sect within Hinduism. It could not make a similar claim about Periyar because he headed an apolitical movement, the Dravidar Kazhagam. “Periyarism can never be appropriated by any force that is inimical to social equality,” reiterated Veeramani. The Parivar, he said, is manipulating a few malleable Dalit groups to sully the social reformer’s image.
Anand Teltumbde, a noted writer and activist, said: “Having tasted the meat of political power, it [the Sangh Parivar] realised it could not ignore Ambedkar. It planned to saffronise him, picking up some of his stray statements sans context and mixing them with its Goebbelsian lies.”
A commonality of purpose, in terms of their ideologies, evolved between Periyar and Ambedkar in 1929 when the middle and the oppressed classes were apprehensive about the benefits of freedom from British rule. V. Arasu, scholar and former professor in the Department of Tamil Language and Literature, University of Madras, said: “They thought that freedom might benefit only a few powerful caste Hindus.” The two leaders, in fact, viewed India’s political freedom from an anti-caste perspective. Both Periyar and Ambedkar were convincingly united in their battle against caste oppression. Ambedkar raised the issue of casteism in the Round Table Conferences, both in 1930 and in 1931, which resulted in separate constituencies for the Depressed Classes. “Today’s Hindutva groups attempt to camouflage this. It was Ambedkar who categorically underscored that Hinduism promoted casteism, which Periyar endorsed spontaneously,” Arasu pointed out.
Theory and propaganda
If Ambedkar was the quintessential social theorist, Periyar was a revolutionary propagandist. Ambedkar was a London-educated barrister-at-law, a powerful speaker, parliamentarian, constitutional expert and, above all, the best-known mass leader of the downtrodden after the great social thinker and worker Jyotirao Phule. His scholarship evoked awe. His speeches and interventions on the floor of the Constituent Assembly were manifestations of his extraordinary scholarship. Professor Valerian Rodrigues, editor of The Essential Writings of B.R. Ambedkar, said that Ambedkar’s writings reflected “the depth and the range of his life’s work, intellectual incisiveness and his realistic assessment of the social and political issues that he sought to address”.
Narendra Jadhave points out in Ambedkar Speaks that Ambedkar’s speeches not only reflected his keen intellect and wide-ranging scholarship but were also indicative of the strategic stance he adopted from time to time. Dr Ambedkar, writes Jadhave, was not simply a Dalit leader or only a leader of the oppressed people of India. “Dr Ambedkar’s nationalism was not confined to the transfer of political power to Indians. It was focussed on the much broader notion of sustainable national reconstruction, that is, building a Democratic Republic through the creation of social equality and cultural integration in the age-old caste-ridden, inherently unjust and discriminating society,” he writes.
Though he was deeply committed to the cause of emancipation of Untouchables, he never compromised on the national interest. In comparison, Periyar’s works and interpretations were forthright and down to earth. Arasu said that Periyar did not function within a system. “But Ambedkar sometimes operated within it. Though Periyar criticised him for acts such as the signing of the Pune Pact on the insistence of Gandhi, they remained friends, bounded by ideologies and principles,” writes Jadhave.
The Periyar scholar V. Anaimuthu, in his article “Periyar and Ambedkar”, states that Periyar hotly contested Gandhi’s claim at the Second Round Table Conference held in England in September 1931 that he represented the Congress, which demanded “Purna Swaraj”, as well as Harijans. “He [Periyar] even silenced Gandhi who opposed separate representation and separate electorates for the Scheduled Castes,” writes Anaimuthu.
Many Dalit activists are of the view that Gandhi indulged in deceit to prevent Ambedkar from emerging as the only Dalit leader in the country. In fact, from his writings, one could discern the uneasy equation that Ambedkar had with Gandhi. The writer and activist Pieter Friedrich, who is also Adviser to the Organisation for Minorities of India, while addressing a meeting organised by the Begampura Educational and Cultural Society of Sacramento, United States, recently, drew attention to Ambedkar’s assessment of Gandhi: Ambedkar had, in 1955, said that he knew Gandhi better than anyone, because he “opened his real fangs to me”.
But Ambedkar still chose to remain humane. The journalist Janak Singh, in his book Dr. B.R. Ambedkar: The Messiah of the Downtrodden, records: “He [Ambedkar] had to make a choice between two different alternatives. There was before him the duty, which he owed as a part of common humanity, to save Gandhi from sure death. There was before him the problem of saving for the Untouchables the political rights, which the [British] Prime Minister had given then. He responded to the call of humanity, saved the life of Gandhi by agreeing to alter the Communal Award in a manner satisfactory to Gandhi.”
But Periyar was firmly set in the limited space he created through the Self-Respect Movement for his struggle against Hinduism. He was a Congressman who sold khadi products, carrying them on his head, and, at the same time, urged the party to shun caste-based discrimination. But, the Cheranmadevi incident highly disturbed him. (At Cheranmadevi near Tirunelveli in Tamil Nadu, the Congress ran a national training school as an alternative to British-controlled schools, known as Gurukulam, which was managed by V.V.S. Iyer, a Brahmin. The school practised discrimination against non-Brahmin students. Periyar and his supporters in the Congress vehemently opposed this practice.)
When Periyar met Gandhi in Bangalore in November 1925, he wanted the Congress to fight for the eradication of the caste system and stressed the need for communal reservation. But neither the Congress nor Gandhi took his demands seriously. When Periyar found Gandhi to be unrelenting in his support for Hinduism and the caste structure, and his concept of Swaraj, he distanced himself from both Gandhi and the Congress.
Well aware of the constraints he faced politically as a regional leader, Periyar never equated himself with Ambedkar and openly declared, at the Depressed Classes Conference held in Mayavaram (now Mayiladuthurai), that he accepted Ambedkar as his leader and as the national leader of the oppressed (reported in Viduthalai (July 10, 1947), the mouthpiece of Periyar’s Self-Respect Movement). “I strongly believe that Ambedkar alone can eradicate atrocities against the Panchamars. Ambedkar should be your leader,” he told the Dalits at the conference.
Periyar did not nurse any political ambition and his involvement in politics was half-hearted. He preferred “a friendly government” that would implement his social reform measures with legal sanction. Both Ambedkar and Periyar were Congressmen and nationalists. Both were anti-Hindu but were born Hindu. Both strove for a classless society but were well aware that that would remain a dream. But that did not deter them from pursuing their objective of making the socially disadvantaged realise the evils of the structures that divided society on the basis of caste.
Leaders in their contexts
Periyar and Ambedkar need to be critically studied in the context of the period they lived in and the then prevailing socio-economic-cultural-political environment. Both were prolific writers and good orators. Periyar’s writings and speeches in Tamil over his five-decade-long social reform efforts and Ambedkar’s scholarly contributions on the annihilation of caste stand testimony to their commitment to social emancipation. “They are to be studied and researched not in isolated pockets of time to suit one’s convenience,” said A. Marx, activist-cum-writer.
But the central theme of their movements for what Jadhave calls a “civilised society” of “liberty, equality, fraternity” cannot be missed. Ambedkar burnt “Manusmriti” on December 25, 1927, at Mahad (Maharashtra), which Periyar followed immediately in the south. However, when Ambedkar asked him to renounce Hinduism and convert to Buddhism when the two leaders met in Rangoon (Yangon) on December 5, 1954, Periyar politely refused, saying that by converting to another faith he would lose his moral right to criticise Hinduism. “Being a Hindu, I gain the right to criticise Hinduism,” was his considered view.
Ambedkar insisted on the need for leadership to emerge from among the oppressed. “Inequality is deeply entrenched in Hinduism. Social structure alone in a democracy would decide governance. The powerful seize power. It has been a well-established structure. Unless the Hindu religion is destroyed, equality will never be possible in India. [Until then] any elections will never ensure a government of the people and for the people,” he says in one of his articles.
Periyar never hesitated to endorse Ambedkar’s views. He said in an editorial in Viduthalai, on March 27, 1969, that the Gandhian concept of democracy was being used to preserve the caste structure and the pride intact. The majority of the people, he said, would suffer under such a democracy. “Can the freedom of a country ensure human emancipation?” he asked. Both advocated social freedom preceding political freedom, which both the Congress and Gandhi were fighting for.
“To be precise, both Ambedkar and Periyar are the two eyes and the two arms of the B.Cs, S.Cs and S.Ts [Scheduled Tribes] in India as far as reservation in education and employment is concerned. Hence, let us uphold Ambedkarism and Periyarism in the right perspective,” says Anaimuthu, in one of his writings on Periyar. “They are the two sides of a coin,” said K. Veeramani.
While denouncing Hinduism, Periyar said that the Self-Respect Movement, which was started with the “five principles of anti-religion, anti-God, anti-Gandhi, anti-Congress and anti-Brahminism”, had sought to ensure education to non-Brahmins. Here, he did not distinguish between non-Brahmin Hindus and Dalits. “We are languishing in a pit. We have to come up. We remain divided as fourth and fifth and Untouchables. This should change. For good governance, a Constitution is required and not a Shudhra or a Brahmin. We need a human being [to rule],” he said.
The supposed ideological and political differences between Ambedkar and Periyar, as claimed by a few, were flimsy. Periyar resolutely opposed the very concept of religion, whereas Ambedkar did not repudiate it, though he decried Hinduism’s caste structure. “In this context Periyar was much more pragmatic than Ambedkar,” Arasu said.
In his undelivered speech “Annihilation of Caste”, Ambedkar points out: “I am so convinced of the necessity of religion. But what I suggested is a religion based on the tenets of liberty, equality and fraternity.” He suggested a cardinal reform for Hinduism, a religion of rules: “There should be one and only one standard book of Hindu religion, acceptable to all Hindus and recognised by all Hindus.” He was attempting to humanise a religion that is based on the “sacred and authoritative” texts of the Vedas, the Shastras and the Puranas. He wanted that it “must by law cease to be so, and preaching any doctrine, religion or social… contained in them should be penalised”. He took Periyar’s views here, wanting to abolish the priesthood, or at least ensuring that it ceased to be a hereditary one. “Every person who professes to be a Hindu must be eligible for being a priest,” he said.
He was highly critical of the prevalence of the priest system in Hinduism. “The priestly class among Hindus is subject neither to law nor to morality. It is a pest divinity seems to have let loose on the masses for their mental and moral degradation. The priestly class must be brought under control by some such legislation as I have outlined.” He said that it would certainly help kill Brahminism and “will also help to kill caste, which is nothing but Brahminism incarnate”.
“The non-Brahmins and Untouchables have till now feared this intellectually corrupt and arrogant mentality of Brahmins and have meekly behaved according to their wishes. If both these communities [non-Brahmins and Untouchables] join hands and strive for self-progress then they would soon get independence from the slavery of upper caste people,” said Ambedkar in one of his speeches in Marathi at a Mahar Conference in May 1926. Periyar advocated the same.
Periyar’s constant target was temples, where, he unwaveringly believed, Brahminism strove to retain Varnashrama Dharma. In his journal Kudiarasu, dated October 27, 1929, he wrote: “I insist that those who are called Untouchables should enter temples not for seeking atonement, but to eradicate the caste differences. Temples are being used to keep the caste structure intact.” Here, he was desperate to make Dalits understand that temple entry was not for worshipping but to break the shackles of the slavery they had suffered for generations.
True, he did make a few sharp remarks against Dalits, as he also did against other caste groups, which prompted some to call him anti-Dalit. But it was out of sheer frustration that Dalits were not willing to shed their inhibitions to join the mainstream. While throwing open a well meant exclusively for “Adi Dravidars”, at Siravayal village near Karaikkudi in Tamil Nadu on April 6, 1926, under the “Gandhiji Plan”, he told the Adi Dravidars that he would never endorse the practice of a separate well for them.
“Having a separate well for Adi Dravidars is the most spiteful act,” he told the gathering and called on them (Dalits) to change the way they had been conditioned to think that they were untouchables. He pointed out that those who did not have self-respect could never be brought up in the social ladder. “All are human beings,” he said. “As you are eating beef, it is being exploited to keep you as untouchables. Those who eat beef are rulers of the world. I will never ask you to discard beef-eating,” he said.
But both Ambedkar and Periyar were united in criticising the Hindutva ideology. At the National Backward Classes People’s Conference held in Kanpur on December 29, 1944, Periyar, who was one of the speakers, claimed that as long as one believed in Hinduism, the Shastras and the Vedas, people would remain oppressed and backward. “We cannot have equal rights,” he declared.
Many find fault with the concept of Dravidianism that Periyar espoused. His basic argument was that when one denounced Hinduism, one was rendered casteless and hence became an irreligious and casteless person, or Dravidian. “We declared ourselves as Dravidians and not Hindus in our Dravidar Kazhagam Conference at Tiruvarur in 1940,” he noted in one of his writings.
Periyar reacted thus in Viduthalai (July 8, 1947) to accusations that the D.K. did not work for the uplift of the downtrodden: “The main objective of the Dravidian movement is to erase the differences between the upper castes and the lower castes and Shudras and Panchamars and to usher in social equality. I oppose the division within ourselves as Dravidans and Adi Dravidans. We are Dravidans.” Veeramani said Periyar openly declared himself a Shudra and a Dravidan.
He even asked the S.Cs to abandon Hinduism and embrace Islam, which, he claimed, professes social equality. Ambedkar, too, in his earlier speeches, asked the Panchamars, Dalits, to embrace Islam. His conversion to Buddhism was a later development born of his social and theological evolution and has to be studied in a different perspective.
Unity of Shudras and Untouchables
Ambedkar followed Periyar’s line of realising a major non-Brahmin bloc comprising caste Hindus, Dalits and women. In one of his writings, he expressed the wish that Shudras unite with the Depressed Classes to fight against Brahminism. “Why the movements of Untouchables were not victorious? Did they not have friendly parties?” he asked. Questions that are pertinent even today for leaders of Dalits and OBCs to debate and discuss.
Manu’s Hindu Law, Ambedkar pointed out, prescribed that Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas should not live in a country where Shudras ruled. Hence, he said, there was a justifiable reason for Shudras, Denotified Classes and Depressed Classes to remain united. “In fact, attempts were made to unite the three groups to break the Brahmin hegemony. Even the communists tried, but failed. Brahmins use them [Shudras] as soldiers to attack Untouchables. They have been isolated. This is another impediment in eradicating Untouchability. The Varna system has the fullest social sanction for the Hindu society,” he said in his essay “Who were the Shudras?” (Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar’s Writings and Speeches (BAWS), 15 Volumes, published by the Department of Education, Government of Maharashtra).
Ambedkar further said: “There is a class of Hindus who are known as orthodox and who will not admit that there is anything wrong with the Hindu social system. To talk of reforming it is to them rank blasphemy.” In “Origin of Untouchability”, he said that a strange social phenomenon was “concealed” by quoting the 1910 Census, in which the Census Commissioner separated the different classes of Hindus into: 1) those who are 100 per cent Hindus and 2) those who are not. Among those who were not 100 per cent Hindus, he continued, were castes and tribes which denied the supremacy of Brahmins, the Vedas, Mantras, Hindu gods, and ate beef and caused pollution by touch. They divided the Untouchables from the Hindus. The Census Commissioner’s enquiries further showed that “Brahmins shunned Untouchables”. “They did not bring to light the fact that the Untouchables also shunned Brahmins,” claimed Ambedkar.
He quoted extensively from Abbe Dubois’ book Hindu Manners and Customs, 1928, which said: “Even to this day, a Pariah is not allowed to pass Brahmins’ street in a village though nobody can prevent his approaching or passing by a Brahmin’s house in towns. The Paraiahs on their part will under no circumstances allow a Brahmin to pass through their Paracherries (collection of Paraiah huts) as they firmly believe it will lead to their ruin.”
To strengthen this “reverse untouchability” theory, Ambedkar quoted the Tanjore Gazette of 1906. “Mr Hemingway, the editor of the Gazette of Tanjore District, Madras, says: ‘Three castes (Parayan and Pallan and Chakkiliyan of Tanjore District) strongly object to the entrance of a Brahmin into their quarters believing that harm will result to them therefrom.’”
Ambedkar gives an explanation for this strange phenomenon. “The explanation, of course, will fit in with the situation as it stood at the start, i.e., when the Untouchables were not untouchables, but were only ‘Broken Men’. What is the basis of this antipathy? It can be explained on one hypothesis. It is that Broken Men were Buddhists, Brahmins hate. They became Untouchables when the majority of Hindus were Buddhists,” he surmised.
At a meeting in Madras on September 23, 1944, Ambedkar explained the reasons for the failure of the non-Brahmin movement. “The major reason is that they [non-Brahmins] never bothered about the poor in villages, who are 90 per cent non-Brahmins. The non-Brahmin party [in Tamil Nadu] did not worry about the agricultural labourers. Hence Congress easily came to power. This change had deeply pained me,” he said.
“Caste has a divine basis. You must therefore destroy the sacredness and divinity with which caste has become invested,” he said in “Annihilation of Caste”. “Without the annihilation of the caste system, there is no real freedom,” said the sociologist Gail Omvedt. It was for this that both Periyar and Ambedkar fought all their life.
Ties with Communists
Periyar’s primary grouse against the communists of his time was that they never thought of taking up issues of caste-based discrimination and Brahminism. “They should have taken up the issues of caste structure and Brahminical capitalism,” he said while addressing workers at the inaugural function of the Southern Railway Workers Union at Ponmalai (Golden Rock) in Tiruchi on September 10, 1952.
His observations have come true today. The Left has to rework its class strategy to that of caste to keep the working-class cadres, the majority of them from the socially disadvantaged groups, from getting poached by Dalit outfits. “I have spread communist ideology. I am not an enemy of communism, which is a good philosophy,” Periyar said and dispelled the doubts of those who viewed him as anti-communist.
He had a close friendship with the communist leader M. Singaravelar, who introduced him to Marxian principles. He became a staunch socialist after his visit to the Soviet Union and even propagated the need for communism, which he thought was the panacea for all the social evils in Hindu society. The veteran leader P. Jeevanandam was with him.
But later, at a particular historical juncture when he came under attack from the British government and when he saw the rise of the Congress as the rise of Brahmins, he changed his radical tack to a reformist mode. He was critical of “today’s communists”, for compromising on their ideology. But when communists were hunted down during the Congress regime, he boldly resisted and criticised the act in a series of articles and editorials. In the first general elections, held in 1952, the D.K., in fact, supported Communist Party of India candidates.
Ambedkar dealt with communists in a refined manner and made pointed references to the class struggles in which communists played a crucial reforming role. In his speech at the Mahar Conference in Bombay on May 31, 1936, on the question of class conflict, Ambedkar said: “This is a question of excesses committed by one class on the other; of injustice done by one class to the other. This class conflict is a conflict concerning social status.”
Independence and the Muslim question
For holding such views and working for the uplift of the lower classes, Periyar was even labelled anti-Indian. His meeting with Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Ambedkar prior to Independence (on January 8, 1940) would explain how immature and unfounded the charge was.
Both Periyar and Ambedkar believed that real freedom could be achieved only when social emancipation was realised. Both wanted a free and casteless Indian state and not one based on the Gandhian principle of Swaraj, which they thought was meant only for the elite and upper-class people. Jinnah, Ambedkar and Periyar worked for a non-Congress and non-Hindu government and separate statehoods for Muslims, Mahars and Dravidians, once the British left Indian shores.
Speaking in January 2001 on the topic “The Historic Meeting of Ambedkar, Jinnah and Periyar” at the 21st session of the South Indian History Congress held in Madurai, Tamil Nadu, the academic K.V. Ramakrishna Rao claimed that Jinnah had asked Muslims to observe December 22 (Friday), 1939, as a “Day of Deliverance” to mark the cessation of Congress governments even as the Congress was popularising the idea of Swaraj. (The British government allowed provincial elections in India in 1936-37 under the Government of India Act, 1935. The Indian National Congress gained power in eight of the 11 provinces for which elections were held. The Congress Ministries resigned subsequently in protest against Viceroy Lord Linlithgow’s declaration that India would take part in the Second World War. Jinnah was pleased with the resignations and called for Indian Muslims to celebrate December 22, 1939, as a “Day of Deliverance” from the Congress: “I wish the Musalmans all over India to observe Friday 22 December as the ‘Day of Deliverance’ and thanksgiving as a mark of relief that the Congress regime has at last ceased to function.”)
Ramakrishna Rao pointed out that Periyar extended his support to Jinnah by calling upon all Dravidians to celebrate the occasion “on a grand scale… to rid the country of the menace of the Congress”. But Jinnah alone succeeded in his agenda with the birth of Pakistan. Ambedkar and Periyar were disappointed. Ambedkar even sounded disillusioned. He, writing in Marathi, pointed out that “the benefits of the Muslim fraternity [are] confined to those within that corporation [and] for those outside there is nothing but contempt and enmity”.
In his book Pakistan and Partition of India, published in 1940, Ambedkar elaborated on Jinnah and the subsequent creation of Pakistan. The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh’s (RSS) claim that Ambedkar was anti-Muslim is a gross misrepresentation and far from the truth, which Ambedkarites feel is “a perverted” attempt to distort history. Ambedkar did criticise Muslims, not out of religious bigotry but out of sheer frustration that a leader of the stature of Jinnah did not support his cause for a separate statehood for the oppressed.
Periyar’s ambition for a separate “Dravidasthan” also remained unfulfilled. But Jinnah wrote to Periyar in 1944, saying that “if the people of your province really desire ‘Dravidasthan’, then it is for them to assert themselves…. I can only speak for Muslim India.” Subsequently, Periyar chose to restrict his role to that of a social reformer, while Ambedkar continued in politics in the belief that political power would empower the Mahars.
Periyar’s friendship with Ambedkar never faltered at any time. Through his writings in Viduthalai and his speeches on public platforms, he warned Ambedkar about Gandhi’s intentions and even sent him a telegram before the signing of the Poona Pact, saying that Gandhi did not want to see his dream of a Hindu “Ram Raj” disintegrate because of caste issues. “The rights of crores of the oppressed are more vital than the life of one person, Gandhi,” he said in his telegram (Viduthalai, April 21, 1985).
Chroniclers have recorded that both social reformers were critical of Gandhi and the Congress for keeping the Untouchables as untouchables. Ambedkar found the Congress to be a big middle-class Hindu party where disadvantaged groups such as the Mahars had no place. Periyar found the Congress to be a Brahminical dispensation that rarely allowed space for non-Brahmins.
Teltumbde, in his article “Deconstructing Ambedkar” in Economic & Political Weekly, points out that at one point, in sheer frustration, Ambedkar disowned the Constitution saying that “he was used as a ‘hack’” [by the Congress] and that the Constitution was of no use to anyone and that he would be the first person to burn it. In fact, on September 2, 1953, Ambedkar said: “I was holding the pen but it was moved by Brahmins.”
His election to the Constituent Assembly was at the behest of Gandhi, who also was instrumental in making him the chairperson of the drafting committee, which had four upper-caste members. “What could Ambedkar do?” asked Veeramani. But Ambedkar saw in it an opportunity to end the exclusion of disadvantaged groups and women from mainstream society.
He attempted to safeguard their rights in the Constitution and in the Hindu Code Bill. But he had to resign when the Nehru government, under pressure from majoritarian forces, diluted the Bill by splitting it into too many fragmented pieces of law and excluding the provisions that Ambedkar had included which could have made sweeping social renaissance possible in the “religion-soaked country”, as Veeramani called it, thus defeating its very purpose.
Dalit intellectuals’ charge
A few of today’s Dalit activists allege that what the RSS is doing to Ambedkar is what Periyar did to Dalits some five decades ago—appropriating their struggles to erase Dalit identity and establish a Dravidian distinctiveness in Tamil Nadu. Though they reluctantly acknowledge Periyar’s role as a social reformer, they consciously confine him to Brahmin-baiting.
In the Tamil book Saathi Indru (Caste Today), a group of writers argue that the non-Brahmin movement which Periyar led strengthened the powerful intermediary non-Brahmin bloc, thus excluding Dalits and religious minorities, and had the sole aim of snatching power from Brahmins. They note further that these non-Brahmin groups, posing as the oppressed by blaming the Brahmins for untouchability, however, themselves practised untouchability, thus clearly demarcating what Ambedkar called “the line between the Touchables and Untouchables”.
A few also refer to both Periyar and Ambedkar as “two icons with totally opposite views” when both shared common views on many important social, cultural and religious issues. The indisputable fact is that they remained supporters of each other’s movements which unfolded in regions that were geographically and culturally different.
Ambedkar had a very high opinion of Periyar. His biographer Dhananjay Keer, in his book Dr Ambedkar: Life and Mission, published in 1962, quotes Ambedkar as saying:
“The most outstanding event of the year concerning the struggle of the Depressed Classes was the satyagraha, or passive resistance, sponsored by Ramaswami Naicker, a non-Brahmin, at Vaikom in the Travancore state for vindicating the rights of Untouchables to use a certain road to which they were forbidden entry. Its moral pressure and the spirit of righteous assertion had a tremendous effect, and the orthodox Hindus, for a while, regained their civic sense and sanity and the road was thrown open to Untouchables.
“Another incident that took place at around the time of the Vaikom Satyagraha shook both sensible upper-class people and self-respecting Untouchables. In March 1926, an Untouchable by name Murugesan entered a Hindu temple in Madras despite a ban on Untouchables. He was discovered, arrested and convicted on the charge of defiling the Hindu temple.” Dhananjay Keer says that Ambedkar was watching these developments closely. He referred to the Vaikom struggle a few months later very touchingly in one of his writings on the eve of the Mahad satyagraha.
Ambedkar referred to Periyar and to other reformists indirectly as the “fifth class of Hindus”. The fifth class, he said, “are those who are rationalists and who regard social reform as of primary importance”, even more important than the Gandhian concept of “Swaraj”. In “Annihilation of Caste”, he says: “Political tyranny is nothing when compared to social tyranny and a reformer who defies society is a much more courageous man than a politician who defies government.”
Some Dalit intellectuals argue that Periyar was not the only one who took up the fight against discrimination and point out that many Dalit leaders and intellectuals fought for the rights of Untouchables well before Periyar did. One of the earliest such dissenting voices is D. Ravikumar, a leader of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK, earlier called Dalit Panthers) and a Dalit writer.
His argument that Periyar supported OBC majoritarinism sparked an intense debate sometime back. The IITM’s APSC issue reopened such arguments. Ravikumar claimed that even before the arrival of Periyar, many Tamil Dalit leaders had mobilised the disadvantaged politically. Among them were Iyothee Thassa Pandithar (1845-1914), who fought for the economic and spiritual emancipation of Dalits through advocating Buddhism; Rettamalai Srinivasan (1860-1945), who attended the Round Table Conferences with Ambedkar; and M.C. Rajah (1883-1947) (the last two being Periyar’s contemporaries); and a few more.
Ravikumar, however, clarified that he did not talk against Periyar’s social engineering. “I raised certain issues concerning religious majoritarinism in Dravidian politics, especially after the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam [DMK] aligned itself with the Bharatiya Janata Party in the 1999 elections. The relevance of Periyar’s Dravidian ideology in this context needed to be assessed,” he said. The moot question, he said, was how a Dravidian party that had its moorings in anti-Brahminical rhetoric could align itself with a Hindu majoritarian force. “It also cannot be denied that Periyar supported OBC majoritarinism, excluding Dalits and minorities, which Ambedkar terms as ‘communal majoritarinism’,” Ravikumar pointed out.
A. Marx believes that such diversions are unnecessary and will only weaken the Dalit movement, which in turn would embolden the “fascist forces” that have almost succeeded in their attempts to “saffronise” Ambedkar. Many Dalit leaders, including M.C. Rajah, were members of the Justice Party, though they, like many others including those from the OBCs, later left the Periyar movement for various reasons. Periyar did not force anyone to stay or pass any critical comments against those who left the D.K. Periyar was open to criticism. He wrote in Pagutharivu (a Tamil weekly published by the D.K.) in 1935: “You have every right to refute my view. But I have the right to put out my view.” He further clarified his position on the issue: “The Dravidar Kazhagam, I assure you, till its last breath will strive hard to destroy the degraded castes such as Pallan and Parayan and uplift them. I have never said that the Untouchables should not join the [Depressed Classes] Federation. You can have the good tidings that come with it. Whether the oppressed join Dravidar Kazhagam or not, the comrades of the Depressed Classes can have the right to enjoy the fruits of its [D.K.’s] labour” (Viduthalai, July 8, 1947).
Periyar also never claimed in his writings and speeches that he would support one particular social group or caste. For him there was just one block of caste groups, all Shudras, positioned below the Brahmins in the caste hierarchy. “The problem with today’s Dalit intellectuals is that they attempt to see Periyar through the prism of their preconceived notions. We need to be aware that only clones of the D.K. enjoy political power in the State today. They have moved far away from Periyar’s professed philosophy of social equality and hence should not be confused with the D.K. of Periyar. Their failure to uplift the oppressed and eradicate caste discrimination should not be attributed to Periyar,” said A. Marx.
“Periyar does not have a significant vote bank while Ambedkar has. Hence the fascist elements falsely propagate that both Ambedkar and Periyar are two different identities. This will never succeed in Tamil Nadu. Rather, it will strengthen the bonds among their followers,” said Arasu. But both Ambedkar and Periyar will continue to have relevance as long as caste contradictions exist within Hinduism.