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Home > Tamil Nation Library > Caste & the Tamil Nation > Towards a Non Brahmin Millenium - From Iyothee Thass to Periyar - Geetha, V and Rajadurai, S.V.
TAMIL NATION LIBRARY: Caste & Tamil Nation
From the Introduction -
This book grew out of our desire to understand the complexities of the Non-Brahmin-Dravidian movement in Tamil Nadu which, in varying degrees, has come to inform and sustain political commonsense in the Tamil country.
We were provoked to address this question seriously and at some length by those anxieties of history which marked the late eighties and early nineties and crystallized into the Mandal-Masjid conjuncture. Electoral politics in Tamil Nadu has worked to mitigate the radical social content of Non-Brahminism, and brought to the fore those latent class and caste tensions and antagonisms which divide the non-Brahmin community of castes.
For a while now, Dalit leaders and intellectuals have been questioning the very relevance of the Non-Brahmin movement. Some have even wondered if Periyar had been a leader of all the oppressed castes or if he had been partial to his 'shudra' (rather than 'panchama') constituency. In this context, it seemed urgent to us that we know the 'past' of the Non-Brahmin movement-its successes, trials, limitations, dilemmas, and, most of all, its moments of doubt and apprehension.
It seemed to us that such a history had not been written. Studies, in English and in Tamil, comprise works by historians and sociologists, popular narratives produced by those sympathetic to its aims and intentions, and critical writings from the Left. Popular writing on the movement is varied, both in content and purpose, but generally it may be said that these texts seek to spread the message of Non-Brahminism, narrate its history and mythicize its leaders.
Writings from the Left, while as much rooted in a popular and partisan tradition of communication, have not been particularly sensitive or attentive to the details and nuances of the movement. Most of these writings, including those in Tamil, are poorly or carelessly researched and seem eager to pronounce judgements on events and ideas on the basis of often very thin evidence. For instance, P. Ramamurthy's book, The Freedom Struggle and the Dravidian Movement, betrays an appalling ignorance of facts and makes up for its non-existent scholarship by stating reductive and thoroughly misplaced opinions which rather rhetorically insist on own authenticity. Even N. Ram's early article on Non-Brahminism surrenders its interesting arguments to the discursive imperatives of a doctrinaire Marxism and faults the Non-Brahmin movement for being insufficiently attentive to questions of class.
Historical and sociological investigations of the movement, until recently, have been carried out by Anglo-American scholars. David Washbrook and Christopher Baker, whose works are considered seminal and critical to any understanding of non-Brahmin politics, situate the emergence of Non-Brahminism in a historical context, shaped by structural changes in the economy and transformations in the administrative complex of the colonial state.
Both men view non-Brahmin dissent and anger over Brahminical exclusivity and arrogance as convenient fictions, invoked to mask the competitive jealousy and mistrust of Brahmins which elite non-Brahmins entertained. Neither of them care to record the historical, political and social progress of Non-Brahminism and thus fail to account for the decisive break caused by the Self-Respect movement in Tamil consciousness and social practice.
By identifying Non-Brahminism and the Non-Brahmin movement with their chief protagonists and their immediate material interests, Baker and Washbrook posit a simple and causal relationship between private interests and public acts. They thus display a curious inability to relate ideology and material interest except in the most obvious sort of way.
Eugene Irschick's account of the Non-Brahmin movement tries to grant non-Brahmin publicists and politicians their due, albeit grudgingly. Yet his rather pedantic scholarship and unimaginative narrative do not help to produce a history or a theory of Non-Brahminism. It seems to us that the chief limitation of Anglo-American (and much of the Left) scholarship on the Non-Brahmin movement is its unwillingness, in fact, refusal to make the non-Brahmin speak.
It must be pointed out, however, that even writings by Tamils themselves have not been particularly adequate in this regard. There have been three major studies of the movement in its various phases. Nambi Arooran has attempted a narrative of the Tamil Renaissance and the role of the Non-Brahmin movement in effecting this. This text is well researched and ably written, but it does not account for the historical uniqueness of the Non-Brahmin movement.
E. Sa. Viswanathan's work on E. V. Ramasamy Periyar and his politics, one of the first full-length studies in English on Periyar, is written from a clearly nationalist perspective and, besides, suffers from inept theorizing. P. Rajaraman's study of the Justice party is a mere record of facts. Two recent studies of the Self-Respect movement by B. S. Chandrababu and S. Saraswati, however, have redressed to an extent the lacuna in the scholarship in English on Periyar and his movement. In contrast to earlier attempts, we have attempted to return to these men and women of another time, to listen to their voices. We have recalled them into a different historical narrative, so that they may offer testimony, bear witness to their history of felt deprivation and hurt.
When we began working on this book, we assumed the category 'non-Brahmin' to be a stable, given term of reference, for this word is so rooted in the political commonsense of the Tamils that its significance seemed self-evident.
Contemporary debates, however, on whether Dalits were ever included within the great non Brahmin fraternity by the movement's leaders and ideologues, and our own research convinced us that 'non-Brahmin' was a consciously constructed political category, whose referents were shifting and various.
Sociologically speaking, 'non-Brahmin' is a genus that includes all castes, high or low in the varna-jati complex, which defer to the Brahmin in sacral matters. Politically, though, a non-Brahmin was identifiable, not only by the fact of his or her birth, but also by his and her interest in and commitment to a politics that valued equality, mutuality and self-respect. Non-Brahminism in this sense was a phenomenon which straddled several realms: from the existential to the ontological and from the political to the epistemological. Our work then attempts to tell the story of the non-Brahmin, how and why and in what circumstances did this identity emerge from within its sociological matrix to assume a political meaning and significance.
We have attempted to recoup Non-Brahminism as an experience which created and developed its own semantic, discursive and affective modes of articulation. We were convinced that the power and appeal of this political and cultural ideology may be best grasped in and through the structure of feeling it embodied -in contrast to and in opposition to Brahminism. A structure of feeling is, of course, never merely an ideological grid. It is entwined with material life, with context and conjuncture. Yet it can never be reduced to either the material interests of a class or the consciousness of particular hegemonic social segments. A structure of feeling, occupies a fundamentally unstable and fluid cultural space: that which lies between experience and the articulation of that experience; between feeling and expression; pain and language. Non-Brahminism in this sense is an 'experienced' truth as well as an imaginative response to the historical 'truth' of one's condition of being.
Our representation of Non-Brahminism as a
historically evolved structure of feeling follows a particular
narrative path. In our first chapter, we have attempted a
description of Brahmin subjectivity, as it existed in the Madras
Presidency, during the early decades of our century. We work with
the notion that this subjectivity was mediated through well marked
rhetorical tropes and discursive concerns. It seems to us that it
was in and through their power of language-English, in this
instance-and their felicity for expression that Tamil Brahmins
secured for themselves a hegemonic presence in colonial civil
It is clear from figures available for the period we are concerned with, that Tamil Brahmins were powerful in their corporate-caste status as well as in the control they wielded in the public sphere. (In parts of the Tamil country, in the wet plains of Thanjavur, Tiruchinopoly and Tirunelveli, they held sizeable tracts of land and amongst the Brahmins of Tirunelveli were many bankers and moneylenders.)
Yet, our objective in the first chapter is not to argue, as many have done, that it was the aura associated with colonial officialdom that made this social group-a mere 3 percent of the population-powerful. We argue that it was the brahmin's assumption of the status of a spokesperson for society, his appropriation of the voice of the people and his substitution of his own resonant voice for that of the commonweal that rendered him a distant and alien figure in Tamil society.
In our second and third chapters, we 'account' for the emergence of Non-Brahminism in the Tamil country. We refute, at the outset, the argument that non-Brahmins were envious of Brahmins and goaded by the British to assert their rights. Nor do we trace the advent of Non-Brahminism to a renaissance in Tamil letters, as some have done. Instead, we have attempted to map the various trajectories of non-Brahmin assertion beginning with the articulation of Dalit voices as these emerged from about the last decades of the nineteenth century.
Chapters 4, 5 and 6 comprise an account of the political progress of Non-Brahminism. They narrate the story of the Justice Party, contain descriptions of its ideological struggles and an evaluation of its political success. Here, we have attempted to indicate the significance of political Non-Brahminism which posed a challenge to Congress nationalism in Madras and which, in turn, was limited in its practices by the twists and turns of Congress policy. We also narrate details of the complex interaction between the political Non-Brahminism of the Justice party and the radical anti-caste politics of the Self-Respect movement.
The remaining chapters offer a discussion on the Self-Respect movement. We point out that the Self-Respect movement represented not only a radical phase of the Non-Brahmin movement but also that it emerged as a response to the politics of piety as espoused by Gandhi. In these chapters, we address the Self-Respect movement in and through its practices. We show how the Self-Respecters were, at all times, opposed to the holy alliance of caste, religion and nationalism.
In our section on religion we delineate five aspects to the Self-Respect critique of religion and argue that Periyar's famed atheism represented a ludic deflection of an irreligious rage. We follow this up with an examination of the Self-Respect movement's analysis of the caste order: their responses to the problem of untouchability, to the political, social and cultural liberation of adi dravidas; their creative invocation and use of a 'shudra' identity; their critical understanding of gender roles in a caste-bound patriarchy and their efforts at challenging the culture of masculinity; their articulation of a creed of Samadharma as a counter to Manudharma and their re-inscription of socialism as an important adjunct of the philosophy of Self-Respect.
Finally, we deal with the Self-Respecters' rejection of Indian nationalism. We recount here the conditions in which they came to imagine a Dravidian-Tamil community and nation and narrate the details of the anti-Hindi struggle that convulsed the Tamil country in 1937-39. We then summarize the importance of the Self-Respect movement.
Our concluding chapter sums up the main arguments of the book and draws attention to Periyar's last struggle-against a polity underwritten by caste norms. In all these chapters we have tried to capture the 'presence' of the past. We have attempted to trace the contours of an experience of deprivation which was transformed to represent a politics of dignified and defiant assertion. We have tried to record as faithfully as possible the complex and uneven relationship that obtains between consciously held ideologies and the experience and practice which are fundamental to the emergence and articulation of these ideologies.
No book can afford to merely narrate. Our narrative is neither innocent nor arbitrary in its choice of plot and story. But we have no grand, syncretic theory to offer. What we have done is to argue and demonstrate that men like Iyothee Thass and Periyar, like Phule and Ambedkar, were men of remarkable insight, keen sympathy and endowed with a great and original imagination. They were profoundly sensitive to the nature of ignorance, suffering and injustice in their societies and brought to their understanding a robust critical vision which helped them evolve universal categories of understanding, analysis and action.
Through a creative deployment of these categories they were able to identify the extent of hurt, oppression and injustice in caste society as well as challenge its existence. Thus they shook the Hindu social order to its very roots and, to use Periyar's favourite figure of speech, stood it on its head. They accomplished a feat which, as the Self-Respecters often reminded their audience, had not been attempted since the days of the Buddha: for had they not beckoned in a veritable Non-Brahmin millennium?
From the Conclusion -
Non-Brahminism -as ideology, faith and structure of feeling - emerged out of a time and a place, when differences of birth, status and privileges were defined and interpreted in terms of a logic of inequality, oppression and subordination. This logic emerged into history during the moment of colonialism, and was characterized by violence, disruption, impoverishment on the one hand and by intimations of utopia, promises of infinite freedom and equality on the other.
In a context when Brahmins claimed that birth was no more a badge of status and then went ahead to act and speak as if it was, non-Brahmins, comprising a range of castes and communities, including both those who owned land and those who laboured on it, claimed the contrary. They called attention to practices of discrimination, humiliation and negation suffered on account of their always already lowly birth, and came to articulate a philosophy and practice of rights which would help them combat inequality and humiliation.
The question of rights soon assumed political significance and non-Brahmins, who had assumed a constituency and community derived from birth, as their own, realized the importance of transforming their communal agenda into a hegemonic political programme. The Justice party was thus forced to work through the enormously difficult problem of constructing a political bloc out of its disparate caste and community segments.
They were not lacking in signs and portents to guide them in their work. Iyothee Thass had indicated at the beginning of this century that the task awaiting all those opposed to Brahmin prowess and authority required the making of a grand fraternity of peoples which would be animated by ethical and philosophical ideals , that guaranteed freedom, mutuality, equality and self-worth. The Justice party brought to the task it had set for itself considerable political acumen. But it could not and, at times, would not work creating the necessary social and cultural conditions which enable them realize their vision of rule and community.
It was Periyar and his Self-Respecters, young men and of unbounded energy and imagination who realized- in idea and practice- the historic responsibility that non-Brahmins had decided to assume. The Justice party had defined the non - Brahmin agenda in chiefly political terms, that is, in terms of governance and rule. Justicites wanted non-Brahmins to educate themselves , in vast numbers, populate state services, and claim what was due to them by virtue of their being the producing and labouring communities. But Justicites did not, at all times, seem averse to the sacral Brahmin, as they were to the political Brahmin.Even when they did identify the Brahmin's sacrality and the knowledge which underwrote his political and social dominance they seldom called into question the phenomenon of the sacred itself. Nor did they seek to unravel those moral and spiritual sophistries that lay at the heart of the sacred in caste society and which replicated the logic of the sacred realm in all other spheres – from the civil to the political.
The Self-Respect movement then had very few precedents in Indian history; Mahatma Phule was a forebear, no doubt, but he lived at a time when the nation had not been sufficiently and passionately imagined. Living in the heyday of nationalism and having to work within a conjuncture defined by nationalist politics, Self-Respecters found themselves face to face with a hegemony that exacted from them the most difficult and consistent challenges. Yet they not only countered Gandhi but also proposed a theory of rights, power and justice and a definition of community which brought forth a new subject of history: rational, committed to reciprocity, equal, yet desirous of fraternity and above all free, bound only by the ideal of self-respect.
This 'subject' was fashioned in the tumult of struggle and resistance. The social and economic forces (which propelled the subject of Self-Respect discourses and activism to claim her/his rights) derived their strength from old injustices-caste, the tyranny of the household and family and the power of religion. The Self-Respecter, more often than not, was a woman, an adi dravida, a rickshaw puller, a weaver, a peasant, a factory worker. As we have shown they comprised the very 'dregs' of society, men and women of no consequence whatsoever. The movement constituted them into knowing, desiring subjects. Self-Respect platforms were turned into schools and publicists became pedagogues as meetings turned into lectures, explications, remonstrances.
From contraception to Hindu law, from atheism to Russian history - a range of concerns was discussed, debated and made known to vast assemblies of people. Homely metaphors and analogies, rivetting descriptions, ironic and satiric observations - the Self-Respecters managed to communicate their weighty ideas through an ingenious and creative use of language.
Periyar's addresses were remarkable in this respect: not only did they breathe a sincerity and transparency of intent, but they revealed a ludic imagination at work. This imagination revelled in standing the world on its head, laughing, sometimes bitterly and angrily, at ignorance, folly and the naked play of power and greed in public life. Periyar's addresses and writings also possessed an oracular power of utterance: he cajoled, persuaded, threatened and warned his listeners all at once, resorted to sexual and scatological metaphors to endow his irreverence with vigour. Yet, at all times he was eager to be understood and not merely accepted. His public addresses often ended on a note of entreaty: he would request his audience to think, analyse and judge the truth of what they had heard. But he could also be a raging prophet, especially when he was roused by a particularly vicious instance of Brahminism or roused into anger by an injustice whose grossness shocked and baffled him.
There were other communicators in the movement besides Periyar, of course: men and women of immense learning who could argue their points of view with skill. They could write and discuss a range of subjects: from Boccaciao's Decameron to the writings of Lenin; from religious history to the travails faced by weavers and sanitary workers; from the suffragette debate to the sociology of cooking.
There were songsters, poets, theatre person: the movement yielded to modern Tamil culture one of its most prolific and talented poets, Bharathidasan, whose youth was spent in Pondicherry. Bharathidasan's verse was part oratory, part lyric and at all times suffused by a passion for the cause of, first, Self-Respect, and later, Tamil nationalism. There were others who wrote as felicitously. Jeevanandham was himself a song writer, as was Gurusamy.
These publicists and writers enunciated a new structure of feeling and one that would help the Self-Respecters define their concerns as different from those habitually espoused as being of national pertinence by the Congress. Though Periyar was himself into his middle years when the Self-Respect movement was launched, it remained, in its constitutive years, a movement of the young. For the young were easily attracted to the movement’s impatience with custom and tradition and its celebration of defiance. The new structure of feeling that grew out of the philosophy of Self-Respect was most evident in the speeches, writings and public actions of these young women and men, who were curious, cosmopolitan and entirely free in their concourse with each other and their elders. They were ready for any and every from of subversion, provided it served the cause of the radical objectives they held dear: whether it was the burning of the Manusmriti, leading adi dravidas to enter a temple, calling old and renowned Tamil scholars to order, or taking on well-known Congressmen in public debates, the Self-Respecters were enthusiastic and eager to demonstrate their newly acquired subjectivity.
Many of them took on pseudonyms such as 'Wanderer', 'Madman', 'One Who Could Be Anyone', 'Comrade', when they wrote for Self-Respect journals. By wilfully claiming a marginal identity they made it clear that knowledge in modern times was available as commonsense, a complex of ideas and opinions that Everyman and Everywoman could avail and use at will. Many a Self Respecter, as we have noted, was willing to forego personal fortunes, community goodwill, professional careers and throw themselves into propaganda work. Self-Respecters often worked with the barest of resources and Self-Respect clubs that sprang up at several places in the Tamil country were organizations emerged spontaneously, as it were. (At one time, there were nearly 118 Self-Respect Clubs functioning in the province.) These clubs could comprise Justicites, Congressmen, Hindus, Muslims, that is, any and every non-Brahmin who felt moved by the injustices of the caste order and who was determined to oppose religious orthodoxy and priesthood.
Even when the Self-Respect-Samadharma party was formed in 1933 and a formal work programme was adopted for purposes of propaganda, the Self-Respecters did not seek out a formal organizational structure. True, there were men like Gurusamy who argued that the work of the Self-Respecters ought to be regulated and located in a defined institutional space.
Thus, Gurusamy once requested Periyar to work out the modalities for registering the Self-Respect movement and discover means to support young publicists through the payment of a modest honorarium, since many sacrificed lucrative careers to undertake propaganda work (Velu 1991: 310-11). Gurusamy's point was that without an organizational matrix, Self-Respect work would always be improvised. Gurusamy's biographer recounts how in Madras, the Self-Respecters would often hold meetings on the beach.
A rickety old table, a borrowed lantern, an impromptu drum which would be struck periodically to attract public attention-all the elements of drama and carnival were present in these efforts to woo people to listen to their views on God, temples, Brahmins, caste, and so forth (Velu: 245-46). Though the moments of activity proved exhilarating, they obviously drained a great deal of their energy and Gurusamy's plea for an organization was not without reasons. However, nothing came of this.
The question, of course, is whether the Self-Respecters' multivalent and diverse concerns could have been accommodated within an organizational scheme. For instance, Self-Respect activities in nearby Pondicherry were undertaken on an almost wholly autonomous basis and did not really await instructions from Madras or Erode. Likewise, Self-Respect propaganda amongst overseas Tamils proceeded along its own trajectory and was almost entirely determined by local conditions. This does not of course mean there were no links between the various Self-Respect forums or that things were random and inchoate. Self-Respecters were, everywhere, bound in fealty to Periyar, and he defined in very broad terms what sort of propaganda work needed to be undertaken in a particular conjuncture.
Of course, Self-Respecters were free to disagree and debate matters, and as we have shown, such debates occurred often in the pages of journals such as Kudi Arasu, Pagutharivu, Puratchi and Samadharmam. Periyar was civil and decorous to his opponents and was not given to using his age and experience to advantage to score points against his younger colleagues. Thus, in spite of his youth, Gurusamy was asked to assist S. Ramanathan in editing Revolt, while others such as Ponnambalam and Azhagirisamy and Jeevanandham were recognized as foremost and talented publicists.
We have to keep in mind that the Self-Respect movement's oganizational needs, to an extent at least, were met by the Justice, party. However, tense and uneven the relationship between the two, the agitational energy of the Self-Respecters assumed form and coherence in the legislative efforts of the Justice party. Besides, Justicites helped Self-Respecters conduct their conferences and were generous patrons. But this did not mean they were indispensable or could dictate terms on account of their support. Periyar could be ruthless in his criticisms of even trusted friends.. He once observed sardonically that as long as Self-Respecters stayed clear from criticizing Christianity, A. T. Paneerselvam was willing to go along with them (KA 19.5.35; Anaimuthu: 942).
In the final analysis, it must be acknowledged, though, that the Self-Respect movement derived its energy, strength and resilience from Periyar, and it is in this context that we need to look a little more closely at Periyar’s perceptions of himself, his role and vocation.
Periyar was clearly moved by a millennarian vision of the future, a vision inspired, in part, by his own anger over varna dharma and a profound sense of justice. But he also partook of and trusted to an ideology of progress which marked rationalist thought during this time and which was voiced with great conviction by the publications of the Rationalist Press Association (whose pamphlets and books were eagerly bought and read by the Self-Respecters).
However, Periyar's millennial dream was sustained not by a totalizing vision of truth but by an existential foreboding about the powers and possibilities of human thought and action. Even as he sounded like an angry prophet, Periyar did not consider his work and movement exceptional or prophetic. He did not believe that he had disentangled the mysteries of human thought and endeavour nor did he imagine the Self-Respect movement had completed the process of revolution.
He held that change, decay, and revolution inhered in the very nature of human institutions and observed on several occasions that this moment in history too would pass and other novelties and developments take over. The important thing for him was to attempt what the moment required and demanded. He saw himself as having no real, material stake in progress as such. As he said of himself, both in his middle age and after, he was a barren tree, a Thuravi (one who had renounced the world). In his re-tellings of his life-he would do this in the course of his public addresses, locating his actions in time and delineating their different contexts-he did not dwell on his crises of conviction or on his moments of doubt; nor did he share the agonies of his soul, as for instance, Gandhi would. He re-lived his moments of action and struggle, detailed the travails and victories of the Self-Respecters and emerged as a raconteur who wished to revivify public memory so that the challenges to an unjust social order may continue.
Since Periyar did not feel impelled to claim the voice of Truth, he did not also wish people to suffer and die for it. This was one of the reasons why he abjured violence. Violence to him represented gratuitous disorder, a waste of energy and a betrayal of reason. He was a committed pacifist and it was this aspect of his politics that made him keep company with the Justice party. Justicites, as we have shown, were liberal constitutionalists and their vision of social change, though it stood in dire contrast to the radicalism of the Self-Respecters, appealed to Periyar's sense of decorum and his antipathy to violence.
While Periyar refused to be bound by a singular Truth, this does not mean he was a relativist. His sense of the wrong wrought by unjust human institutions was too strong and powerful for him to reconcile to relativism, whether in politics or in ethics. But his ethical sensibility was not grounded in imperatives; it drew its strength from his love and respect for his fellow beings.
Periyar and Gandhi, it must be clear, were held together in a relationship of alterity. Both were great transitional figures, straddling several times and places, both were convinced of the need to transform and revolutionize consciousness, either was convinced of the need to address questions of caste, rights and faith and equally moved to reinscribe politics within quotidian acts.
The matter of gender relations and the related question of the body and sexuality were central to the task they felt awaited them, as they dreamed of utopia. They were both aware of the universal dimension to the work they had assumed as their life time vocation and the thought of each was resonant with multiple and criss-crossing influences from, literally, all over the world. Both were, of course, consistent practitioners of an ethics of the self, whose actions were inspired by a deep sense of personal responsibility and conviction. And then, for either of them the world was a capacious and large space and they were concerned with all of its variegated ways of being - from food to sex to death to everyday details.
What divided them was their differing conceptions of society and the positions they chose to occupy in the body politic. Gandhi spoke the language of and practised a lone faith that relied on highly experiential and convoluted notions of truth and piety; whereas, Periyar expressed himself in a language that was essentially dialogic, open-ended, critical and which demanded mutuality constructed on reason and desire, rather than belief and suffering. Varnadharma, Satyagraha and Tapas were key words in Gandhi's lexicon; Samadharma, Reason and Self-Respect in Periyar's.
Determined to carve out a community that would be resolutely anti-Brahmin in all its aspects and in all realms- from the political to the epistemological, from the social to the ontological the Self -Respecters transformed the original non-Brahmin project it to a project for Utopia. Their problem, as we have demonstrated in any number of instances, was that their visionary dream had to contend with the realities and anxieties posed by history and their genius, especially, Periyar's, lay in advancing a practice of politics that would be adequate to the moment at hand, but whose significance clearly transcended the 'normal', the here and the now. The anti-Hindi agitations exemplified this simultaneity - in vision and practice and marked a rare moment in contemporary Tamil history, when it seemed as if a world turned upside for a while would, actually, stay that way!
In the decades that followed, the energies of the Self-Respect movement were absorbed by political imperatives. The era of prophecy and action soon gave way to times of consolidation and growth. Non-Brahminism moved away from being a millennarian dream to representing the concrete needs and aspirations of those subordinate communities who were eager to render productive their engagement with power and authority.
However, that indomitable will to bear witness to the new century, to Utopia, so characteristic of Periyar's thought and action at all times, resurfaced, as he refused to assent to the fact of India. His argument was an old one, but after 1947 it acquired a certain poignancy. 'Bharath that is India' seemed to Periyar to have been conceived in the spirit of the Karachi resolutions of 1931. He held that the Indian Constitution, guaranteeing as it did, the free practice of religion and the neutrality of the Indian state with respect to different religions, was but a revamped dharmashastra for modern times. It is not surprising, then, that he resorted to symbolic acts, such as the burning of the Constitution, of the map of India and the garlanding of the portrait of Rama with slippers, as the Indian nation gradually consolidated its powers.
It is entirely logical that his last struggle should have been provoked by what he characterized as the Brahminic logic of the modern Indian nation. In 1970, the Government of Tamil Nadu, then under the rule of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) with M. Karunanidhi as Chief Minister, passed amendments to the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act-Tamil Nadu Act 2 of 1971-to do away with the practice of appointing archakas (temple priests) on a hereditary basis in over 10,000 temples, permitting persons from all castes to be eligible for the posts of priests. For Periyar, this seemed a matter of urgent import, for he had all his life held that it was the Brahmin's time-honoured relationship to sacrality that granted him his exclusive identity and prowess. This act that was passed by the Tamil Nadu Legislature was, however, challenged in the Supreme Court.
The five-judge bench of the Supreme Court upheld the DMK government's reasoning in respect of the appointment of non-hereditary priests: it accepted that the matter of appointing priests had evolved out of secular imperatives and there was nothing sacred about this practice. But the Bench refused to accept the consequent argument that priests could henceforth be appointed from all castes.
It was argued that such a practice, if instituted, would be a clear violation of agamic injunctions which were very severe with respect to the conduct demanded of a prospective priest. Further, if such injunctions were to be wilfully ignored, this would mean a direct interference with the Hindu worshipper's practice of his faith. The Bench observed that for the Hindu, the idol was a sacred object of immense significance. The devout Hindu would not countenance anyone but a traditional priest to touch the idol, for his faith was clear on this matter. Further, 'any State action which permits the defilement or pollution of the image by the touch of an Archaka not authorised by Agamas would violently interfere with the religious faith and practices of the Hindu worshipper in a vital respect and would therefore be prima facie invalid under Act 25(1) of the Constitution' (AIR 1972: 1592-93).
Needless to say, such sentiments angered Periyar and confirmed him in his opinion that the Indian nation was not interested in all those who were condemned by the Hindu religion to, be less than human simply because they were not Brahmins. The circularity of this kind of reasoning proved particularly bothersome to Periyar, who sensed there was really no way out of it. The learned judges of the Supreme Court had, after all, quoted without demur P. V. Kane's reference to Brahma Purana:
Under these circumstances, damned to eternal
shudrahood, by both law, custom, precedent and practice, Periyar
could not but dream of Utopia again. Thus, in 1972, he revived with
vigour the demand for a separate Tamil Nadu, for a state of being
and community where touch may not defile and where angst and
despair would not torment those unlucky millions who had been born
as shudras and panchamas. Perhaps he cursed and laughed bitterly all
the way to his grave, fuming at an injustice that seems to have been
mandated by the 'Gods' themselves. But, then this is the laughter of
prophecy, which dares to dream again, and yet again, and which
points to the necessity of struggle, even as it anticipates utopia.