A day after Communist icon Lenin’s statue was vandalized by BJP supporters in Tripura, members of BJP targeted and stoned the statue of anti-caste crusader E V Ramasamy, populalry known as Periyar, in Tamil Nadu’s Vellore.
The stoning incident took place hours after Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) national secretary H Raja, in a now-deleted social media post, hinted that after Lenin’s statue it was Ramasamy’s statue that would be targeted.
“Who is Lenin? How is he connected to India? How is communism linked to India? Lenin’s statue destroyed in Tripura. Today Lenin’s statue, tomorrow Tamil Nadu’s EVR Ramaswami’s statue,” Raja had written in the post.
A report in the Newsminute said two persons, including a BJP member, were arrested after the vandalism incident.
But why attack Periyar?
The immediate reason for the downing of Lenin’s statue in Tripura was BJP’s resounding victory in Tripura assembly polls – a Communist bastion since last 25 years. For BJP and its ideological fountainhead RSS, Communism represents a “foreign” ideology which poses a challenge to its Hindutva project.
Since the unification of all Hindus is essential for the RSS’s majoritarian Hindutva project, any attempt to highlight the fault-lines and the caste divisions in the Hindu society is loathed by the right-wing forces.
That’s what explains BJP’s apathy towards Periyar. Periyar is to anti-caste movement what Lenin is to Communism.
Born on 17 September 1879 to an orthodox business family in Erode, Periyar was inclined to the ideas of social reform since his young age. He didn’t have much schooling and went on to join his father’s business.
According to philosophy professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Louis Antony, Periyar felt his ideas were closer to the Indian National Congress. Since he thought Congress was serious about abolishing caste, untouchability and other social evils, he joined the party in 1919.
“He soon began to adopt Gandhiji’s principles punctiliously. He cast away all expensive mill clothes and foreign garments and took to hand-spun khadi. He persuaded all the members of his family to only wear simple khadi clothes,” Antony writes in her book ‘Political Philosophy of Periyar.’
But his Congress affiliation wouldn’t last long. Even though Periyar was actively involved in the Non Cooperation Movement in 1920-21 and the growth of Congress in Tamil Nadu, he fiercely tried to put the “principle of communal representation in education and employment” on Congress’s agenda. Periyar also fought for the temple entry for Shudras and tried to end the segregation of Brahmin and non-Brahmin students in schools.
“Periyar realized that some men within the party were the main obstacle for the failure of his effort in getting the resolution passed. He was then convinced that in order to get justice to the underprivileged and depressed, he must disassociate himself with Congress and work from outside,” Antony writes.
A staunch rationalist and critic of Brahmanism, it was not only caste which Periyar fought against. His rationalism and belief in emancipation of women eventually culminated in the birth of Dravidian politics in Tamil Nadu.
Decades before the independence, Periyar’s vision envisaged a secular society with the stress on rationalism and emancipation of women. A firm believer in modern science, Periyar was a vocal critic of idol-worship and religion.
“Foreigners are sending messages to the planets. We are sending rice and cereals to our dead fore-father through the Brahmins. It is a wise deed?” Periyar once famously said.
With the philosophy of “no God, no Gandhi, no brahmin, no religion” Periyar started ‘Self Respect Movement’ in 1925, to champion the cause of socially oppressed or non-Brahmins.
According to professor Ashwini Deshpande of Delhi School of Economics, the objective behind SRM was to “advance the rationalist critique of caste, religion, and mainstream nationalism.”
“The primary audience of the SRM comprised of the non-Brahmins and the SRM deliberately propagated rationalism (or opposition to god and religion) as a means that non-Brahmins could employ to gain control over their lives,” Deshpande writes in her book ‘The Grammar of Caste: Economic Discrimination in Contemporary India.’
Demand for separate state
In 1937, Congress’s C. Rajagopalachari-led Madras government introduced Hindi as a compulsory subject in schools. This proved to be a trigger for Periyar to rise at the national level politics.
“Periyar saw the imposition of Hindi as a subjugation of Tamil people, which could only be avoided through the creation of a Dravidian state.
…The object of the Dravida Kazhagam was proclaimed to be the achievement of a Sovereign Independent Dravidian republic, which would be federal in nature with four units corresponding to the linguistic divisions each having residuary power and autonomy of integral administration. It would be a ‘casteless society’ an egalitarian ‘Dravida Nadu’ to which the depressed and downtrodden could get allegiance,” Robert Hardgrave, Professor Emeritus in the Humanities at the University of Texas at Austin, writes in his book ‘The Dravidian Movement.’
Geographically, the Dravidian movement was centered around Tamil Nadu and Periyar, even though he travelled extensively, remained constantly in touch with the people of south India. His influence of Tamil Nadu politics is still dominant. In fact, the two major political parties in Tamil Nadu – Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) – borrow their ideology from Periyar.
Propagating socialism and egalitarian ideas, Periyar wrote extensively on the issues of language, caste, atheistic beliefs and untouchability. Sometimes, his writings landed him in jail, but Periyar never stopped.
While it may seem tough to summarize his dynamic and radical life, perhaps, the best description of Periyar’s personality came from UNESCO in 1970 for his contribution in reforming a caste-ridden society.
“Periyar the Prophet of New Age, Socrates of South East Asia, Father of the Social Reform Movement, and arch enemy of ignorance, superstitions, meaningless customs, and baseless manners,” the UNESCO citation read.
One wonders what is it about Periyar and his ideology that seems so abhorrent to some people that they resort to destroying his bust.