"If a larger country oppresses a smaller country, I'll stand with the smaller country. If the smaller country has majoritarian religion that oppresses minority religions, I'll stand with minority religions. If the minority religion has caste and one caste oppresses another caste, I'll stand with the caste being oppressed. In the oppressed caste, if an employer oppresses his employee, I'll stand with the employee If the employee goes home and oppresses his wife , I'll stand with that woman. Overall, Oppression is my enemy" - Periyar E. V. Ramasamy
He was an atheist, he was a feminist, he was against religious establishments, he wore black, he was a radical thinker, he is still an iconoclast to many who respected and studied his universal thought. Thanthai Periyar exists as a monument of neglected social philosophy in the Indian intellectual arena. The month of September marked the 142nd birth anniversary of E.V Ramasamy, popularly known as Periyar. The quantum leap of time never changed his position in front of the elite intellectual student community; he is knowing among them as a Dravidian leader who escalated a separatist movement in southern India and moreover as an anti Hindi idol! The educational system undervalued his rational thought and social philosophy and portrayed him only as a non conformist leader when there are multitudes of equally emphasizing values to debate about him. Characterizing and fitting Periyar into a time frame is not worth; he was ahead of his time, his philosophy and values have to be studied in a universal context and should be remembered in these unprecedented times.
Periyar and parallels with Socrates
The acts of Socrates and how he advocated youth in classical Athens and how Periyar questioned the brahmanical order and internalized caste system among non-brahmins in Tamil Nadu share symbolic similarities. Despite not receiving any formal education, Socrates was able to build a dialectic approach to rationalism and thereby challenged the idea of supremacy of Athens over Sparta and the whole world.
During this process, he dismantled Athenian pride over the vague idea of supremacy, exposed the weakness of the system, and enabled youth to question their parents and those who hold power. Correspondingly, Periyar chose the path of a missionary campaign to vanquish the roots of the caste system, by spreading impersonal rational thought to the masses. To him, rationalism was freedom and the elimination of God was rudimentary.
Periyar recognized the need to develop scientific temper among people and furnished economic explanation of women’s subjugation. Colonial subjugation was secondary for those who belonged to the lower strata of the so-called ‘hierarchical caste system.' Periyar led the self-respect movement for breaking the shackles of this social hegemony, and attached values of self-empowerment, human dignity and encouraged “self-respect marriages” without brahmin priests. Through this movement, he promoted employment and educational opportunities for women. Just like Socrates' philosophy got institutionalised by Aristotle, Periyar too had many followers. His anti-religious values, social philosophy and feminism garnered a wide social base at that point of time in Tamil Nadu, but deteriorated over a period of time. Failure to institutionalize his practices acted as a broken bridge and hence, did not fulfil the intended outcome.
Tamil Nadu became the first state to grant reservation for backward castes in government jobs, which later entailed all over India through the First Amendment in the Indian constitution. Periyar’s success is at par with Socrates’ in eradicating social evils and evoking rational thought among people. However, as mentioned earlier, his thought deteriorated with the changing political culture.
Exigency to revive Periyar's values in contemporary India
During the anti-CAA movement, the student community along with well-informed masses promulgated ideas of Gandhi, Ambedkar, Nehru, Azad and even of Bhagat Singh, as a sign of social revolution. Calls for Dalit empowerment and religious tolerance were made. At the same time, equally universal ideas of Periyar remained at the margins. This clearly signifies 'dryness of the Indian intellectual system.' Dirty politics and competition for power have become common phenomena. In these circumstances, remembering how E.V. Ramsamy acted is important! He criticized the elite structures and caste prejudices in the Congress party. His bill for communal representation was disallowed in an open session of Kanchipuram Congress, and he had the courage to leave Congress for this act of Brahminical imperialism. He denounced Indian political parties for the under-representation of Dalits and women in prominent positions.
The incredible increase in violence against minorities, Dalits and the idea of restriction of speech and expression today clearly indicates why the social philosophy of Periyar should be revived and discussed. We need his ideas and values to prevent establishment of brahmanical theocracy in the form of majoritarian nationalism. The attempt to ridicule his ideology is only a matter of refusing gains made by OBCs around India. Dravida Kazhagam, the political party founded by Periyar says, "If Tamil Nadu happens to be the only state where 69 per cent reservation is allowed, it is thanks to Periyar. OBC leaders like Uma Bharati and Kalyan Singh are the products of the Periyarite legacy, even if they do not realise that.”
Read the quote mentioned in the beginning again.
By Adithya M
Adithya is a second year student of Political Sciences at Hindu College and is a member at The Symposium Society, Hindu College.