Debate: Rejecting Commonalities Between Ambedkar and Periyar Is Equivalent to Denying Facts

Ambedkar’s position on Brahmins and on post-independent India was quite similar to Periyar’s.

B.R. Ambedkar (left), Periyar. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

I am puzzled by P.A. Krishnan’s response to my piece in The Wire. To reiterate, I wrote that piece to essentially show that both anti-caste crusaders Babasaheb Ambedkar and Periyar had a lot in common, worked in tandem on several issues and believed that Brahamanical Hinduism was fundamental to the perpetuation of the caste system. I also tried to show that by talking about Brahmins, both Ambedkar and Periyar referred to a governing class that wielded power along multiple realms, their power emanating from caste ideology sanctioned by Brahmanical Hinduism. I wanted to point out that Ambedkar’s position on Brahmins, and on post-independent India, was quite similar to Periyar’s, contrary to what Krishnan wants us to believe.

If Periyar can be read as a Brahmin-hater, so can Ambedkar. If Periyar can be read as an anti-national, so can Ambedkar. What I therefore tried to show was that both of them read the Brahmins as a governing class and the nationalist movement as one dominated by a Brahmin-Baniya elite seeking to reinforce their power in the guise of nationalism. Merely upholding Nehru and Gandhi as one’s teachers does not constitute a response to the critique of the nationalist movement put forward by Ambedkar and Periyar.

Krishnan has nothing to say in his response to any of my statements. On the contrary, he chooses to find fault in my piece for not citing Periyar’s works, as if it would change his or my positions. I shall come to that. Krishnan writes that he takes no offence to my statements on M.S. Golwalkar and the late Kanchi Shankaracharya and that he is not a Hindutva ideologue. Though he has little to say by way of condemning the statements of  these ‘gurus‘, he is however aghast at the quotations from Ambedkar on the role of Brahmins. It is worth asking at this moment: as a proponent of an anti-Hindutva ideology, is it more important to undermine Periyar’s role as an anti-caste leader than to counter such intellectual positions that uphold caste and gender hierarchies? Most responses in support of the arguments of Krishnan-N. Kalyan Raman duo appear to have come from RSS and Sangh parivar circles. How do we understand the fact that neither of them bother to distance themselves from such voices? Where does this misplaced emphasis come from? It surprises me that he also chooses to reveal his Brahminical caste status at this juncture.

Also read: It Makes No Sense to Celebrate Ambedkar and Vilify Periyar

Krishnan quotes a report prepared under Thomas Munro to refute Ambedkar’s arguments proving the monopoly of Brahmins in education. But the post-Macaulay facts speak otherwise:

Composition of graduates

Communal group No. of graduates Percentage of total graduates Percentage of total population in 1891
Brahmins 2393 68.8 3.1
Non-Brahmin Hindus 660 19.0 86.6
Indian Christians 287 8.2 2.3
Europeans and Eurasians 115 3.3 0.1
Muslims 26 0.7 6.3
Others 2 0 1.6
Total 3483 100 100

Source: University of Madras, Calendar for 1893-94, Census, XIII (1891).

Krishnan says that ‘education was the only asset the Brahmins possessed’, as if they never had any other material possessions. He also goes on to say that the “Brahmins never had political power and they did not have the ‘barrel of the gun’ with them to make anything a monopoly of their own”. Ambedkar would certainly agree with him, for he pointed out that:

The Brahmin has always had other classes as his allies to whom he was ready to accord the status of a governing class provided they were prepared to work with him in subordinate co-operation. In ancient and medieval times he made such alliance with the Kshatriyas and the warrior class and the two ruled the masses, indeed ground them down, the Brahmin with his pen and the Kshatriya with the sword. At present, the Brahmin has made an alliance with the Vaisya class called Banias. In these days of commerce money is more important than sword. This is one reason for this change in party alignment. The second reason is the need for money to run the political machine.

Ambedkar’s understanding of Brahminical power was much more nuanced. For Ambedkar, mere presence in the parliament did not mean democratisation in any sense as long as social relationships continue to be governed by the caste system. In her lengthy introductory essay to Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste, published by Navayana in 2014, Arundhati Roy illustrates the continued significance of such power.

In a 1990 piece called “Brahmin Power”, the writer Khushwant Singh said: Brahmins form no more than 3.5 per cent of the population of our country … today they hold as much as 70 per cent of government jobs. I presume the figure refers only to gazetted posts. In the senior echelons of the civil service from the rank of deputy secretaries upward, out of 500 there are 310 Brahmins, i.e. 63 per cent; of the 26 state chief secretaries, 19 are Brahmins; of the 27 Governors and Lt Governors, 13 are Brahmins; of the 16 Supreme Court Judges, 9 are Brahmins; of the 330 judges of High Courts, 166 are Brahmins; of 140 ambassadors, 58 are Brahmins; of the total 3,300 IAS officers, 2,376 are Brahmins. They do equally well in electoral posts; of the 508 Lok Sabha members, 190 were Brahmins; of 244 in the Rajya Sabha, 89 are Brahmins. These statistics clearly prove that this 3.5 per cent of Brahmin community of India holds between 36 per cent to 63 per cent of all the plum jobs available in the country. How this has come about I do not know. But I can scarcely believe that it is entirely due to the Brahmin’s higher IQ.

She goes on to cite more recent evidence on the dominance of Brahmins in the judiciary and in the media. With regard to other public sector employment, recent information on employment by caste reveals the continued dominance of upper castes in higher posts. Both Ambedkar and Periyar consistently drew attention to the cultural power wielded by Brahmins that made any use of violence redundant.

Also read: Periyar’s Followers Are Endowing Him With Attributes He Never Had

There are 17 volumes of Periyar’s writings and speeches devoted solely to the issue of caste and untouchability, running to close to 5,500 pages –Periyar Kalanjiam published by Dravida Kazhagam. In almost all these pages, Periyar had something or the other to say on untouchability and the caste system. I wonder how one can contextualise and problematise any thinker without taking on board such material. Instead, Krishnan makes a weak attempt to prove that Periyar’s concern about untouchability was ‘dubious’. He stakes this claim on the basis of his ‘reading’ of the so-called Erode Programme, which at one place he attributes to Periyar completely but at another place partly to ‘communists’ P. Jeevanandam and Singaravelu. Krishnan deliberately confuses the so called Erode Programme with that  of the Plan of Action for the Justice Party suggested by Periyar as a condition for his electoral support to that party. It is true that the party was willing to accept only the ‘watered down’ version of his original plan, but was it Periyar’s fault? Even here, Krishnan cannot help resorting to one more distortion: “As regards concessions – which Periyar did not want – the document said, ‘all posts in Government must be made available to people of all groups on the basis of their proportion in the population and keeping in mind the requirements of the Government,’” implying Periyar was opposed to reservation for Brahmins. While Periyar was never opposed to giving reservations to Brahmins proportionate to their number, Krishnan is silent on the fact that the Brahmin-led Nationalist Congress was not even willing to consider these concessions.

Even more interesting is what Periyar had to say on the relationship between the Dravidian movement and the Dalits. Kudi Arasu, in 1947, published a speech made by Periyar a couple of days earlier. He was speaking at a meeting marked by handing over of funds collected by Dalit leaders for the Dravidian movement. The Dalit leader who presided over the meeting  had pointed to the contribution made by the Dravidian movement to the cause of the Dalits. Periyar’s response was as follows:

We don’t accept the distinction between Dravida and Adi Dravida. In our plan of action, all of us are Dravidas. It is not to deny that there are caste arrogant high caste members among the Dravidas. I know how to deal with them… A key principle of the Dravidian movement is this: to destroy the categories of the Pariah and the Brahman, the high caste and the low caste, the shudra and the panchama in our country, to implement in practice the principle that all of us belong to one race and to one community.

In the same speech, he goes on to say that while the Aryan-dominated Congress may feel compelled to indulge in acts of patronising the untouchables and to claim that they have done good specifically for the untouchables to sustain their power, the Dravidian movement need not stoop to such tactics as its aim is to abolish the ideological basis of such divisions.

Moving to a new terrain unrelated to my argument, Krishnan approvingly quotes Ilangovan Rajasekaran of the Frontline:

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…’

To begin with, readers must note that the article by Rajasekaran titled ‘On the Same Page’ essentially spoke about the commonalities between the two leaders and how Hindutva groups are seeking to create a divide between the two thinkers. Krishnan refrains from alluding to the theme of the article but quotes out of context. If one were to believe that Krishnan does not subscribe to Hindutva ideology, one would expect him to at least concede this. By concealing it, he makes his ideological position once again highly circumspect. More importantly, both Rajasekaran and Krishnan are ignorant of the context or of the facts of this episode. Ambedkar made these critical observations on the performance of the conservative rump of the old Justice party, who left Periyar after he took the rank and file of the party into his Dravidar Kazhagam, in a meeting organised by the old Justicites at Connemara Hotel, Chennai after visiting Periyar a few hours earlier. This event has been extensively covered in Kudi Arasu, 1944, and the summary of Ambedkar’s speech and the details of the organisers of the meeting are to be seen in Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, Writings and Speeches.

Also read: Periyar’s Detractors Are Misrepresenting His Words

It is also surprising to see Krishnan who has all along upheld Ambedkar’s scholarship on Indian politics and society, suddenly debunks and reduce Ambedkar’s intellectual status to that of  a ‘theologist’ when he finds Ambedkar’s observations on Brahmins inconvenient to him.

Periyar with Jinnah and Ambedkar. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Changing his tracks as often as he does, Krishnan, irrelevantly brings in the Jinnah affair by eliding the fact that Ambedkar, Periyar and Jinnah met together at Ambedkar’s residence at Bombay and issued a joint statement against the Congress claiming the monopoly right to represent all the Indians. He also forgets to mention that Jinnah later chose to discard Periyar as he found a more powerful ally in C. Rajagopalachari who was instrumental in getting Gandhi to accept the partition. When one talks of Dravida Nadu demand, she/he must also talk of C.P. Ramasamy Iyer’s effort to keep Travancore princedom independent of the Indian Union and also Sarat Chandra Bose’s demand for United Bengal.

Krishnan, like the ‘Nationalist historian’ S. Viswanathan distorts the whole question of the temple entry bill moved in the Madras Legislative Council by C. Rajagopalachari. The fact was that after shooting down the Temple Entry bill moved by M.C. Raja, one of the most respected Dalit leaders of the time, Rajagopalachari introduced a bill with a provisio that the consensus of the devotees in the temples in Malabar region would be taken for allowing the Dalits  to enter the temples before the bill was passed. Rajagopalachari’s argument was roundly condemned by Raja on the floor of the house. Periyar’s journals published a vehement criticism of Rajagoplachari’s move and condemned the Justice Party leader M.A. Muthiah Chettiar for having voted along with the treasury bench, which can be found in Viduthalai on August 19, 1938 and Kudi Arasu on August 21, 1938. Krishnan  says that the Temple Entry Bill was passed in 1947, but without mentioning that it occurred under the regime of a non-Brahmin Premier Omandur Ramasamy Reddiyar whose social reform measures were strongly  supported by Periyar.

Also read: Questioning Periyar Is Necessary for Forging a Progressive Anti-Caste Politics

Probably the best response to Krishnan’s unsubstantiated diatribe against Periyar was a full-page interview published in the Tamil Hindu daily with Thol Thirumavalavan, leader of  Viduthalai Chiruthaikal Katchi on November 3, 2017. As if to rebut Krishnan’s claim that ‘Periyar’s Followers Are Endowing Him With Attributes He Never Had’, the Dalit leader said :

Though the Justice Party’s central concern was resistance to Brahmin domination, it did not prioritise annihilation of caste. However, its demand for social justice through reservation did deliver a powerful blow to the caste system… It was Periyar who moved  forward in the direction of annihilation of caste.

Arguing that Periyar’s atheism, his ideas of  women’s liberation and annihilation of caste were interlinked, the Dalit leader said Periyar was very close to Ambedkarite politics in that he opposed the dominant discourse of Hindu-Hindi-Hindustan and imagined an alternate politics based on castelessness, gender equality and linguistic and ethnic rights.

In another interview posted in the same daily on November 7, 2017, the noted Kannada Dalit poet Siddalingayya said:

As the  one who was immersed in the thought of Ambedkar the Revolutionary, I was inspired by the atheist and anti-caste ideas of his friend Periyar. While Maharashtra gave me the consciousness of Dalit liberation, it was Tamil Nadu that gave me consciousness of the protection of mother tongue.

One may add another statement made by Pinarayi Vijayan, chief minister of Kerala, in his valedictory address at the second national convention of Dalit Shosan Mukti Manch at Madurai on November 6:

Kerala Government’s recent move to appoint Scheduled Castes and other Socially-backward communities in government-managed temples was a realisation of social reformer Periyar E. V. Ramasamy’s dream.

I therefore see very little merit in Krishnan’s response. It is at best yet another weak effort to divide the servile classes based once again on misreading of facts at a time when there is a growing recognition of Periyar’s contribution to a politics of social justice.

Punitha Pandiyan is a leading journalist and writer, and editor of Dalit Murasu.

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