Can We Revive Periyarism?


Looking at the strengthening negative attitude of people towards positive ideologies, cultivation of which has given the opportunity to India to stand tall among other civilisations, anti-Periyarism not only throughout the country but also in the land of Periyar itself is quite natural and that is quite visible now. At the moment, Periyarism is surviving among very few Periyarists and young educated middle class students and intelligentsia drawn, primarily, from dalits, BCs and OBCs, took shape over a long period of time, roughly some 40 years.

Periyarism had its zenith. In fact, it provided a required political energy for the emergence of new regional political force that got divided into various factions. Some are hanging to the basics, if not the entire ideology and some are totally divorced from it looking to move to the right-wing ideology. With this, one has to come to the conclusion that in a majority Hindu society anti-Hindu (not followers) ideology that targets basic illogical foundations which are created to ignore human as human (Untouchables and other sudras) and to question or challenge the monopoly of upper caste and class people on the socio, religious, cultural, economic and political would not survive for long.

Periyarism posed serious challenges to Hindusim in 90s. But it lost is significance. What we see, now, a very minimal Periyarism in the political sphere, now and then, in and around the concept of ‘Tamila Nadu’. I am not sure if Periyar envisioned this as a political category. Periyarism is a complete ideological package that would be required for the transformation of unjust societies in to the just, irrational into rational and exclusive into inclusive. But this is, quite often used as a political category instead.

What explains such selective application and even selective continuation of Periyarism is that in Tamil Society and South India as well, after the death Periyar, unleashed a counter to Periyarism as they found that such as a social radicalism would be disaster for the ‘moral and ethics’ of the large scale society.

Controlling and containing Periyarism   began with the legacy bearers supposedly realising the impossibility of continuing it as a social and cultural project. Therefore, one can argue that it never had a congenial environment to grow into a full scale social and cultural ideology. In fact, not only Periyarism, Ambedkarism and all such Subaltern liberating ideologies would face opposition from the general society. It is inbuilt in it.  Such an opposition has to be dealt by re-strengthening the Subaltern ideologies. But that depends upon on not only the entire Subaltern constituency subscribing to the ideology but also contributing to it both at the individual and at the group level. To do that, Subalterns themselves had to start a serious internal reform. They, first have to deal with not only with the inbuilt anti-subaltern attitude among the caste Hindus but also among the so called Hindu subalterns and as well as Hindu dalits.

This brings me to the next question as to why sudras who are oppressed by the Hindus above them ( i. e. Brahmana, Khsatriya and Vaishya), are submissive to the oppressors? Similarly, why dalits who are worst victims of caste system and the orthodox socio-religious traditions and customers but still are, comfortably in conformity with it? It is because both the sudras (this it not be confused with the entire sudras. Here only the landless and working class BCs and OBCs forms part) and Hindu dalits are part of Hinduism as a religious and cultural category. Since from the time, the alternatives were proposed by their reformers, expect very few educated sudras and dalits, most of the sudras and Hindu dalits have been oscillating between Hinduism as religious, social and cultural category and the Subaltern anti-caste or religious ideology as a political category. To choose the latter over the earlier, both the subalterns and dalits needed to be educated enough to understand what it is or they must also be informed, through an intensive propaganda, on how beneficial it is to them as a political, cultural and social category too. For these people, unfortunately, as they are less fortunate, religion and culture, built in and around as a mechanisms of communicating with the invisible God, becomes essential than believing in an ideology proposed by Periyar and subalterns.

This means, the political ideology for subalterns is bound to face an undetectable opposition from shudras and Hindu dalits as well. They themselves do not know what they are opposing to. As strict followers of religion and God and as consumers of culture, they don’t feel that they are doing anything against themselves. They believe that they are just in conformity with the religion and culture in which they are born and would, perhaps, die. To counter this attitude or belief, the present day dalit-subalterns has to propose a new package of composite culture drawn from pan Indian subaltern and dalit ideologies. To instil confidence among the subaltern dalit masses, educated and intellectual from these communities have to shoulder the responsibility of not only building it but also practicing and propagating the same.

Earlier anti-caste and anti-religion movements led by Jyothiba Phule, Savitri Phule, Ambedkar, Ayothee Thass, Sahu Maharaj, Narayana Guru, Ayyan Kali and others  have laid the foundations for new culture. It is the responsibility of the later generations to build the new culture according to the changing time and context that not only gives a new identity but also it transform Subalterns into an appreciable society. This means we may not be attempting to revive Periyarism as it was. We are taking foundational ideologies of Periyarism to build a culture with the contribution of our own inputs. It is longical to do so, as the today’s dalit reformers and intelligentsia are representatives of the present. They can only assess the essentiality of the past in building the future.  In a context where an old enemy is coming with new strength and power, its counter ideologies too should re-strengthen with equal enthusiasm.

Once, subaltern composite culture gains confidence from its demographic constituency, such a culture would automatically transform into a political capital that is required to capture political power. If subalterns are lacking political power today, it is because of the lack of the common culture among them that connects them together. One might ask is it possible to build such common culture, in the first place. For me, it is quite possible. A common composite culture drawn across the castes and communities falls within the larger subalterns and dalit categories is possible given that all these were/are went/going through domination, discrimination and humiliation. This commonality does not demand the submission of cultural and social particularities of any community or caste. If among these would like to retain cultural and social particularities, they can. However, it necessitates them to evolve secular and rational common culture that provides larger identity to transform them into a powerful political force. The recent success of Hindus in capturing the political power is more to do with Hindus as a cultural/social category. Political capital is inbuilt in the cultural and social commonality. It can be invoked at any point in time. This is what explains the success of right-wing parties in India. It might be difficult to build a subaltern cultural counter to the established majoritarian Hindu culture given that many subalterns and dalits are part of the Hinduism. But it is not impossible.

So what  am I suggesting here? Am I suggesting that there should have been a sort of religion in Periyarism to which sudras and dalits easily shifted to? No. Periyar knew that such ideological alternatives must be mindful to the culture too. Yet, he was not suggesting one religion in place of another. He stuck to his ground and proposed a culture or a way of life based on rationalism and secularism. Though he could not elaborate much on it, there is the no doubt the he was thinking about a culture for subalterns that would be much more social rather than ritualistic. In his life time, he could not provide a structure to such a culture. But the onus is on the shoulders of his followers who are carrying forward his legacy into the present and future.

Building a way of life that is non-religious and non-ritulistic (this is what Periyar wanted) or, at least, less of the both, as a first step towards realizing the Periyar’s model, should be the priority. In the process, dalits, BCs, OBCs and women who have visible ideological commonality and common concerns, must come together to build the model. The success of this model is not big deal. But it has to be built first. Not the entire culture created and consumed even deeply religious particular communities or the general society is religious and ritualistic after all. Secular and rational cultural forms (modern and post modern culture) are all around us. Moreover, the caste Hindus, who gives the impression that they are in conformity with the religious and social orthodoxy, are the first to benefit from the modern/post modern culture. They, very cleverly, on one hand, stick to religious orthodoxy for social, cultural and political identity and on the hand they make most out modern/post-modern culture. They are managing with the both forms with very minimal conflict. They are also modernizing the religious and ritualistic forms of culture as such culture is needed as their historical identity. Be is it may be with the caste Hindus. But subalterns need to dispose the religion and rituals to a culture that is socially progressive and culturally liberal. It should not be burdensome too. Both the Hindu culture and capitalist consumerism are burdensome to dalits and subalterns. Periyar opposition to Hindu religious rituals was not just because they are irrational/illogical alone, they were economically burdensome and also it is imposed. Therefore, the new way of life for subaltern neither be burdensome nor be an imposed. Basing it on rationalism, humanism and secularism, building such a way of life is possible through social and cultural inventions and through the purification of the existing Subaltern culture provided social groups are agreeing to such a process. It could be de-religionised and de-ritualised. Such a way of life offers great opportunity to promote subaltern social solidarity that would further be useful as a potential political tool. Thus, if required common culture is build for subalterns, revival of Periyarism is possible.


Dr. Y. Srinivasa Rao  is Assistant Professor, Department of History, Bharathidasan University, Thiruchirapalli, Tamilnadu

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