There is no need for a revised EV Ramasamy Periyar for this era

EVR was a man of his times with biases and prejudices. That would not make him a lesser man or leader, for millions would continue to owe their sense of self-respect and social mobility to his work

EV Ramasamy (EVR) or Periyar’s followers consider the founder of the Dravidar Kazhagam (DK) a Rubicon for nationalist parties in Tamil Nadu. Statue or otherwise. Of course, there is no Caesar yet in sight who can cross this mighty Rubicon. Some could mistakenly believe Prime Minister Modi to be Caesar, as the BJP continues to make electoral history in India thanks to him – its recent feat being the felling of the Leftists from power in Tripura, not to mention the statue of Lenin.

In the Tripura aftermath, a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) functionary in Tamil Nadu prophesied in a Facebook post that it would be Periyar next. The post was, however, taken down following a slew of protests. Some even threatened violent retribution. The BJP official, for his part, said it had been posted without his permission.

Periyar himself would be chuckling at all this. In the forties, when his student followers at Annamalai University fought a pitched battle to keep a DK flag flying aloft, he said the fight for something akin to a “loin cloth” was not worth it. Today, the iconoclast might have exulted that it had taken his opponents this long to pay him in his own coin.

We can be certain of one thing: He would have loved all the fuss. Throughout his life EVR courted controversies with a zeal rare among leaders of that generation. But he was not any ordinary man or leader. He shunned political power to speak his mind unreservedly, perhaps recklessly, often times to drive home his point. He remained coarse till the end, not having the need to sugarcoat his words. All this is available and quite a bit of comes off as ill-considered and indefensible. In his defense one should say that the man and his work should be seen in context and in its totality and that he will always stand tall.

Periyar and his critics

Unlike his contemporaries EVR did not have the benefit of a formal education. Self-taught, he learnt lessons from life that schools could never impart. He became a rebel shaking the very foundations of the age-old faith of Brahminical Hinduism – that of inequality at birth.

Today forty-five years after he is no more his words and actions are carefully chosen to portray him as a bigot, Brahmin-hater and a stooge of the British and a sexist by both the political right, which sees his legacy as standing between its electoral ambitions and Tamil Nadu, and a newer and younger class of writers, who say that his followers have clothed EVR with attributes that he never possessed.

If he were alive, the iconoclast might have exulted that it had taken his opponents this long to pay him in his own coin

It raises questions about the purpose of their writing. Is it to ‘correct’ the image of EVR dished out by his followers and to show him as human, biased and fallible – despite his stupendous work? But if all this scrutiny is aimed at denying his work and his place as a social reformer its due then it is worrisome.

EVR himself would have welcomed this new-found zeal in scrutinizing him and would have faced up to his critics. Throughout his life he stirred controversies, did the unthinkable and was always ahead of his times. Even the very people he wished to serve did not understand him. Frequently, he was welcomed by wall markings/writings that asked him to go back, by garlands of slippers and with on-and-off violence. He spoke his mind fearlessly and his sincerity began to win him a following. He fulminated against those who opposed him. He spoke in intemperate language against those he felt had corrupted the Tamil social and cultural landscape. He was consistently inconsistent. Incriminating him is easy as he spoke and wrote almost every day till his death. And no attempt has been made by his followers to sanitise or “hide” all that is incompatible with the image they had perpetuated.

A figure not easily categorized

EVR believed that the Brahmins advocated and perpetuated their sense of the “chosen” and therefore saw them as the sole villains. With apologies to poet Bharathi and his Panchali Sabatham where Duryodhana admonishes Vidhura thus: “You have your heart with the five [Pandavas] while your stomach is with our palace”, EVR did feel that the Brahmins identified with Sanskrit and its superior Aryan culture even as they made a living from the Tamil land. How else could one explain the impossibility of making qualified non-Brahmins priests in agama temples, or the singing of the Tamil devotional hymns of Thevaram, or the argument that only Sanskrit has divinity or the dominance of non-Tamil compositions at Carnatic music performances? The list is not exhaustive.

“The very word caste, jathi is from Sanskrit. In Tamil there is no word to describe caste” EVR had argued. In 1929 he called to drop caste from names and give up sporting religious symbols. Some heeded EVR’s call and his mouthpiece Viduthalai published the names of those who gave up their “sacred thread” which denoted their twice born status. Neither senior politician and statesman C Rajagopalachari (Rajaji) nor SS Vasan, the founder of the popular Tamil magazine Ananda Vikatan, found EVR a Brahmin-hater despite the vitriol from him against Brahmins. Rajaji stayed a friend till the end. Vasan put EVR on the cover of Ananda Vikatan on his death as tribute to his work – a weekly whose base was the average Brahmin middle class. The journalist and theatre artist Cho Ramasamy, who was diametrically opposed to EVR’s principles, was gracious to acknowledge his revolutionary work. A more recent example is the late writer Gnani Sankaran who said he viewed with wonderment the man who traveled on a wheelchair with a urine sac stitched to his body to spread his message till his very end. These individuals were able to see beyond the angry man and all his “unprintable” remarks and hurtful agitprop methods.

But then EVR never craved for any approval.

Like sage Viswamitra, EVR wished to create a new universe – he did not want his followers to conquer the Brahmin world and become Brahmins. There was no place for Sanskrit and its purported attendant benefits in this and the other world. His world was where birth would not confer any special rights. Therefore, he was partial to Islam because of its denunciation of idol worship and perhaps seeing its apparent egalitarianism at the prayers – a huge contrast to Hindu temples and their prohibitions. Yet, today he would have decried Islamic radicalism.

Even as EVR’s detractors seem to multiply, engage in revisionism and show him as anything but a selfless revolutionary there is renewed interest in his works as the sales of his books at book fairs demonstrate. It is high time that the entire corpus of his works is translated into English so that the non-Tamil readers could make up their own mind

Was he a Brahmin hater? There is much in his talk and writing that could be cited to argue so. But this anger against a community should be placed against the canvas of time and not reviewed in the luxury of hindsight. Even religious texts and divine personalities would fail to meet the bar if we were to take such an approach. Did he work for the non-Brahmin elites and put down the Dalits? Both his ambivalent remarks on Dalits and his advocacy for them is in print. Equally he put off many a “non-Brahmin elite.” Was he narrow minded? Yes. His interest was simply the Tamils after his Dravida Nadu fizzled away. Was he anti-nationalist? Yes. He believed that in an Independent and united India the Tamils would not be able to realize their fullest potential or be given a fair deal. Even his last speech spoke longingly about “Won’t our country [Tamil Nadu] become ours?” He would wear the anti-nationalist moniker with pride. But this was also the man who felled hundreds of his coconut trees from which toddy could be tapped heeding the call for temperance from Gandhi; campaigned for prohibition and sold home spun on the streets. As the Congress man and Tamil savant Thiru Vi Ka has recorded the Congress in Tamil Nadu was “fattened” by his work. Was he sexist? At 19 he was. In 1938 when he was 59 women leaders led by the Dalit woman leader Meenambal Sivaraj had convened while he was still in jail for the anti-Hindi agitation to honour him for his record on women’s emancipation with the sobriquet ‘Periyar’ or the revered one.

If EVR could not demolish a higher caste consciousness he equally failed in forging a non-Brahmin constituency. The differences between the intermediary castes and the Dalits continue to exist and there are exclusive Dalit political parties – a post Periyar phenomenon. An inclusive non-Brahmin consciousness has never congealed. If it had then VP Singh of “Mandal” would not have lost power.

But then even the Buddha and Ramanuja of the Tamil land could barely upend caste or caste consciousness. Even as EVR’s detractors seem to multiply, engage in revisionism and show him as anything but a selfless revolutionary there is renewed interest in his works as the sales of his books at book fairs demonstrate. It is high time that the entire corpus of his works is translated into English so that the non-Tamil readers could make up their own mind.

EVR was a complicated man until his death. He has become more controversial with the passage of time. But there is no need to remake EVR’s image or his legacy. His methods and words were unpolished. And that would be an understatement. He was a man of his times with biases and prejudices. Yet that would not make him a lesser man or leader for millions would continue to owe their sense of self-respect and social mobility to him and his work.

(R Kannan is the deputy head of the HirShabelle State office of the UN Mission in Somalia. He is the biographer of Annadurai and MGR. He can be contacted at unkannan@gmail.com)

This article has been corrected to reflect that BJP leader H Raja’s comments were posted on Facebook and not Twitter

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