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Interview with Gowthama Sannah, Propaganda Secretary of the VCK

Interview with Gowthama Sannah, Propaganda Secretary of the VCK

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Interview with Gowthama Sannah, Propaganda Secretary of the VCK – Chennai, 26th September 2012

[This is the first part of the interview first published in Vol 2, No 1 (2013) issue of ‘The South Asianist’]

Hugo Gorringe

The compromised and ‘failing’ position of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Republican Party of India, led one eminent commentator to urge Dalit activists and scholars to “look south because Tamil Nadu may offer some important lessons” for Dalit politics (Omvedt 2003: xvii-xviii). Tamil Nadu is indeed an interesting case study because it is one of the more developed states within India and has a long history of anti-caste politics and legislation. Despite this, it remains one of the more caste-divided regions as well.

Autonomous mobilisation by Dalit groups coincided with an increase in casteist violence designed to keep the Dalits in a subordinate position (Gorringe 2006). It is only in the past decade, therefore, that Dalit parties have achieved sufficient credibility to forge alliances with established parties (Wyatt 2009). No Dalit party has been able to emulate the success of the BSP in electoral terms, but the political context here is very different (Omvedt 2003). The primary aim of Dalit parties in Tamil Nadu, rather, has been to strip ‘Dalit voters away from Dravidian parties’ (Roberts 2010: 18). Omvedt’s opinion comes in a book of speeches by the Tamil Dalit leader Thirumavalavan and she argues that the passion and vibrancy that characterised initial BSP mobilisation are captured in the fiery speeches and grass-roots mobilisation of Thirumavalavan and the Viduthalai Ciruthaigal Katchi (VCK – Liberation Panther Party) – the largest Dalit movement in Tamil Nadu. Roberts (2010) concurs with Omvedt’s assessment and argues that the Tamil Dalit movement has a wider social and political significance that extends beyond the state.


In the past few years the VCK have cemented their alliance with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham (Dravidian Progressive Federation – DMK), one of the two main political parties in the state, and have gained entry to the political mainstream. On one hand, commentators suggest that the VCK offer a different, Dalit, way of doing politics rather than mimicking the established parties and point to welfare concessions that they have secured since allying with the DMK. Conversely, there is a widespread sense that the VCK are in danger of emulating other institutionalised movements by losing their radicalism and alienating their supporters. There are widespread allegations of corruption and profiteering, including numerous stories of VCK activists acting as brokers or middlemen in caste disputes for monetary gain. This interview was conducted as part of a research project, focused primarily on Dalit voters and activists in and around Madurai in order to understand how political subjectivities, ideas of citizenship, and perceptions of social exclusion have been reshaped by the entry of autonomous Dalit parties into the political mainstream. It is trying to understand whether and/or how the demands and critiques of Dalit movements have been integrated into the political behaviour of Dalit citizens and also the extent to which such ideas have informed the wider political sphere. Whilst interviews with Thirumavalavan frequently feature in Tamil magazines, it is much less common for those in secondary leadership positions to be able to articulate their positions. This interview with one of the leading Dalit intellectuals in the party offers a frank and reflexive account of the trials and tribulations of Dalit politics in Tamil Nadu.

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Hugo: What is the current situation of Dalits? Not just that. As discussed before, this is Dravidian Land. Politicians here have spoken about caste eradication since Periyar. Are Dalit movements really necessary in this land?

Sannah: Not just in this state, across India there is a pressing need for Dalit movements. If you ask why, even though there is one viewpoint that casts this as the land of Periyar EVR– like you said – as far as Dalits are concerned their mobilisational history stretches back more than 150 years. In 1777 in Chennai there was a major protest which Rettaimalar Srinivasan has written about in his autobiography. There was an inquiry held in Chennai’s St George Fort concerning a Dalit murder, and there was a serious riot at that point. Linked to that conflict there was a rise in Dalit consciousness and mobilisation. Since then there has been continuous struggle, but there was a lack of organisation at that time that hindered the opportunity for greater change. If you ask when that happened, in 1840 the term Adi-Dravidar was introduced as a sociopolitical name meaning ‘original’ or ‘indigenous’ Dravidian. Subsequently, in 1880 the Adi-Dravidar Mahajana Sabhai (Adi-Dravidar People’s Organisation) was formed as a structured movement, followed by the Paraiyar Mahajana Sabhai (People’s Organisation of Paraiyars) in 1890, and the Dravida Mahajana Sabhai (People’s Organisation of Dravidians) in 1891. That means three very significant movements started operating between 1880 and 1891. All Dalit movements today may be seen as offspring of these organisations. The ideals they articulated and the demands they lay down are precisely the ones that are being followed today. The leaders like Periyar EVR and others who you mentioned are merely leaders who have come and gone in the interim. Apart from Periyar EVR we need to mention many names:

Between 1845 and 1880 there was a galaxy of leaders who laboured for the Dalit people. Figures like V. Ayothidas Pandithar (who was K. Ayothidas Pandit’s teacher), the poet Vairakkan Velayudham, Venkitasamy Pandithaar, Arankayyadass Pandithar, Mylia Chinna Thambi, Poet P.A.A. Rajendram Pillai (who was also a noted novelist), and Saangu Siddha Sivalinga Nayanar. These leaders paved the path to future Dalit politics by socializing the Dalit masses. Some efforts to mobilise the people also occurred in this period including the Subhichara Sangam (Welfare Association), Poorva Tamil Abimaana Sanga (Original Tamil’s Welfare Association), Panchamar Kalvi Sangam (Untouchable’s Educational Association), and Adhular Abiviruthi Sangam (Dalit Welfare Association).

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The work of these luminaries prepared the ground for the emergence of subsequent leaders who carried their wishes and aims forward in the socio political arena. Key figures here include K. Ayothidass Pandithar (or Ayothidasar as he is known in Tamil) – who was the first social reformer in south India who started the Casteless Dravidian People’s Movement – and his friend D. John Ratnam who founded the Dravidar Kazhagam and Dravidar Pandian Magazine in 1887, well before EV Ramasamy Naicker launched his Dravida Kazhagam.

Other leaders of this period were B.M. Madhura Pillai, B. Venkatachala Subramanyam, Mylai Chinnathambi, Swamy Arankaiyya Dassar (Editor of the 3rd Dalit magazine – Sugirtha Vasani (Good Words)) O. Palanisamy, OmPrakasa Swamy, V.C.Vasudeva Pillai, Swamy Desikanantha, M.C.Madhura Pillai, V.Darmalingam Pillai, all represented the Adi Dravidar Mahajana Sabha and L.C. Gurusamy and H.M. Jeganathan represented Arunthathiyars in said movement. In early period of 1910s K. Appadurai, Poet Periyasamy, R. Veeryan were prominent, and from 1920s M.C. Raja emerged as the first national Dalit leader of All India Depressed Class Federation. Subsequently, from the 1930s Swamy Sagajanandar, P.M. Velayudhapani, V.I. Munusamy Pillai, N. Sivaraj, Annai Meenambal (the first Dalit Women Leader in India), Jothi Venkita Chellam, and B. Parameswaran also campaigned for Dalits political rights influenced by Dr. Ambekar. There is, thus, a very long and rich history of Dalit mobilisation in Tamil Nadu.

Over and above all these Pandit Ayothidasar had an ideological basis in his attempts to mobilise people. He saw only those without caste as Tamils, and only those without caste as Dravidians. Those who accepted caste were not Tamils or Dravidians, only those who rejected caste were identified as Tamils or Dravidians. He split society into two camps; not just Dalits and non-Dalits since those non-Dalits who rejected caste could also claim to be Tamil or Dravidian. He founded a mass movement around this central concept. This was the forerunner of the Self-Respect Movement in South India. So, not just in Tamil Nadu, what Dalit movements require is to focus on people’s rights. The demands rose in the 1880s – Ayothidasar led a petition in 1891 – the demands raised there have not yet been realised for Dalit people and remain as important today as they were then. Consequently, Dalit movements are absolutely essential for Dalit people today.

Hugo: Now, have the movements that came in-between, the Periyarist movements, obscured the history of these early movements? We tend not to talk about Ayothidasar or other leaders but focus on Periyar. Wherever you look there are Periyar/EVR statues and pictures and only rarely do you encounter Pandit Ayothidasar and Rettaimalar Srinivasan.

Sannah: Yes.

Hugo: Have we forgotten the earlier leaders due to the emergence of the Dravidian Federation?

Sannah: We can split this into what the benefits and disadvantages of the Dravidian Movements have been. This is something that we have to address in some detail. If you ask why, then everyone says that the Dravidian movements started in 1917. In 1912, all the high caste traders and landlords in Chennai joined hands to form a movement which they called the South India Traders’ Association which soon became the South India Welfare Association in 1916. This then became the Justice Party. This is the background to the emergence of the party. If you ask what their motives at the outset were, then it was clearly not their objective to attain liberation for the Dalit people, nor did they ever sign up to that goal. Even in the first Justice Party manifesto there is nothing more than a statement to the effect that basic needs of the downtrodden should be addressed, there is nothing about rights here at all.

So if you ask what their main objective was; Brahmins had allied with the whites (British Indian Government Authorities) to gain a share of official authority. It was to claim a share of that power that this movement was formed: The Non-Brahmin Movement. They wanted a share of power and to claim that share they needed some basis for their claim. They argued that they had been denied a share of power that was due to them and used arguments of social justice to demand power for them. It is because they mobilised on this basis that the identity of the Justice Party was created. We cannot, however, expect them to raise up the Dalit people below them given the basis on which they operated. Had they had any interest in social justice more generally they would not have defeated the temple entry bill brought forward in 1921, but they are the ones who defeated it. They stood together in opposition to that bill and ensured that it lost. It was only later under sustained pressure from Rettaimalai Srinivasan, M.C. Raja and others that they finally enacted the legislation.

Important work that they did after did involve the Labour Commission which pressed for the creation of a fund for the education of the downtrodden. As soon as this lot came to power this was one of the first funds that they cut. They kept depleting it and depleting it until the opportunities for the downtrodden to study were dramatically diminished. We can see that they split society into three categories: Brahmin, non-Brahmin and Dalit. Those who suffered most from this division at the time and who continue to suffer are the downtrodden. The notion that the Periyarist movement achieved anything significant for the downtrodden is simply an illusion. Beyond that, after Periyar entered the Dravidian movement he created the Self-Respect Movement and he sought to unite the downtrodden people. Even though he succeeded in rallying them to some extent he remained true to the old model of society. He could not go beyond it because there were many downtrodden leaders at the time which was a major obstacle to them accepting him as a leader. Since the Dravidian movement was mainly made up of non-Dalits, there was a social obstacle to the inclusion of the downtrodden as well. No matter what they may have desired, there was this social bar to overcoming the gap between the downtrodden and others.

Then, the Dravidian movement emerged as a potent political force: in 1939 you have the Dravidian Federation and in 1949 youhave the foundation of the DMK. In those 10 years when they were heading into politics and establishing themselves, they felt that they would be able to gain power only if they mobilised on the basis of a Dravidian identity and they began, even at this stage, to mask aspects of downtrodden identity. They did not need them. The downtrodden needed to turn their identity into a vote-bank or there was no need to unite with them. So the whole direction of the non-Brahmin movement clashed headlong with and suppressed Dalit identity; nowhere did they significantly endorse or support the downtrodden at all in any of the organs of the Justice Party or the Dravidian Parties or even the Republican Party. More specifically I have read a piece about Ambedkar in a magazine called Kaandibam that argued that he was a northern leader and asking why we were bringing him down South that is how they began to speak. In this manner they even started to obscure Ambedkar at this point in time. Although Periyar may not have had this aim, the Dravidian movement has been unable to escape the shackles of caste. So the Dravidian movement knowingly or unknowingly has a huge role in suppressing the history of Dalit politics and the other aspects of social history.

Hugo: Two questions arise out of this. You mentioned two issues: firstly, at the very outset, Ayothidasar campaigned for Tamil rights and liberty without foregrounding caste.

Sannah: Not Tamil rights, he used Tamil identity to protest for the rights of the oppressed people and sought to gain their liberation in this manner.

Hugo: Okay. At the same time Rattaimalar Srinivasan mobilised on the basis of caste. Given these strands, has the Dalit concept taken root in Tamil Nadu? Alternatively, is caste still to the fore in Dalit politics?

Sannah: Are you talking about Dalit subcaste debates here?

Hugo: Yes, that’s right.

Sannah: What you are saying is true enough. The Dalit concept spread widely after 1972 when the Dalit Panthers of India first used that word to describe themselves. Though it gained recognition in Maharashtra in 1972, it was not until 1990 that it gained acceptance in Tamil Nadu. After 1990 we cannot say that this one word alone led to an uprising amongst the people. Awareness only increased to the extent that organisations were built around this term. This word was used in politics to bring various Paraiyans, Pallans, Chakkiliyans/Arundathiyans together on a common platform in Tamil Nadu and also in India. We cannot say that it had the same effect on a social level. Socially speaking it has still not been realised, and there is little scope to create a common Dalit identity in Tamil Nadu at the moment. We cannot say that the people have fully embraced the Dalit label; they are using it for political purposes. At the same time the sub-caste feelings you are talking about – the identity as Pallar, Paraiyar and Chakkiliyar – was not so prominent some 6-7 years back. Now, due to being stirred up by the Dravidian parties, these sub-caste issues are being articulated and campaigned around on the premise of social justice. The Dravidian parties have had a huge hand in stirring up these feelings.

Hugo: Not just the Dravidian Parties, the Communist parties too?

Sannah: Yes, yes we can include the Communists in that too. Though they say that they have worked on this historically, they have failed to understand that history in their work. Specifically they are still unaware of the history of the downtrodden. They are still in the situation where they cannot grasp the division of the people into oor [main village] and cheri [Dalit settlements]. Only once they grasp that can they begin to think about a solution. If you ignore history and campaign on the basis of issues and problems, where do those problems come from? Arunthathiyars have one set of problems; Pallars have distinct issues and Paraiyars have a distinct set of problems. Each existing sub-caste faces specific problems. When you take up one of those issues for political purposes then you end up excluding the next sub-caste. Then caste norms are reinforced; the norms they thought to destroy are being strengthened in this process. This has been a real bonus for the intermediate castes. The main reason for this is the lack of knowledge about Dalit history.

Hugo: Now you mentioned one other issue: The demands raised by Ayothidas Pandithar are still pending.

Sannah: Yes, they are still pending.

Hugo: So, does this mean that there is still untouchability in Tamil Nadu? Do atrocities still occur? Are such issues still continuing?

Sannah: Untouchability? That is; each village is split into oor and cheri. Why do they keep the downtrodden in the cheris? It’s because they are untouchable people – that is why. Now across the world there have been ghettos, there is no country on earth without ghettos. On some basis or other whether that be physical pollution or spiritual pollution, citing pollution of some kind ghettos have been created. As societies have developed, however, and as they have progressed, those ghettoes have ceased to exist. Today there are ghettos for Black Americans, ghettos for Aborigines in Australia but the systematic separation into oor and cheri cannot be found. So long as you have the oor and cheri, it means that untouchability continues to exist. It is clearly visible; no other country has such blatant and openly visible segregation like this. While the situation remains like this in Tamil Nadu, or anywhere across India, how can we say that untouchability has been eradicated? Untouchability persists 100% in all its manifestations today. That is the truth.

Hugo: Now in 1990 people celebrated Ambedkar’s centenary. At that point both Ambedkar’s ideals and the term Dalit spread widely across Tamil Nadu. Can you say a bit about the movements that have been operating since that point. That was when DPI – the Dalit Panther Iyyakkam (Movement) came into the limelight, Puthiya Tamilagam (New Tamil Nadu Party) emerged around that time too. Similarly many other movements were mobilising significantly around that time.

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Sannah: Now you know, since the outset I have had a very different opinion on this that I have made clear. Many former writers, intellectuals and thinkers say that it was only after the Ambedkar centenary that Dalit mobilisation occurred in Tamil Nadu.

Hugo: That was when it became widely visible.

Sannah: Maybe, but I disagree with that position. Dalit movements have always been protesting. A movement can only – at best – campaign forcefully for about thirty years. After thirty years, the key players in that movement will grow old – the age-factor plays a role – their boldness will diminish and the next generation will start afresh. This is the trend for social movements around the world. Just look at Tamil history. The movement that emerged in the 1880s stuttered a bit after 1914 when Ayothidasar died. After him, the movement gains strength again after 1919. It continues to be reasonably strong through the 1920s, till the Dravidian movement emerges and dilutes it. Then again in Ambedkar’s time from about 1932 or 1935 even till 1956 the Dalit movement is strong in Tamil Nadu. Again, after Ambedkar’s death it loses ground a bit before local Dalit leaders emerge. After this, between 1960 and 1980 or so, there are lots of little, little leaders in the state. There were also leaders who were spoken about, but who accepts them? They need to be accepted don’t they? No matter how many protests you hold, if you look at major clashes; there have been major clashes before 1990. You will have heard of the Meenakshipuram riot, but the opportunity to record those clashes was absent at that time.

Hugo: Now who are these leaders who emerged in the interim? Vai.Ba [Y. Balasundaram of the Ambedkar People’s Movement] …

Sannah: Y. Balasundaram, Chepen, Elayaperumal, then Sakthidasan like that there is a long list. But no one recognised them at the time. They remained as movements and were not able to enter politics. Then, there is another issue in the pre-1990 period. Before 1990, the Dalit intellectuals of today and the non-Dalit intellectuals who work within the Dalit concept and consciousness – none of them regarded the pre-1990 Dalit movement as ideologically based. They saw even Ambedkar as a caste leader – that is what they thought. In their minds the key theorists were Lenin, Marx, Mao, Stalin and people like that. From this standpoint they perceived the Dalit movements as struggles over land and materialist concerns that is all. They saw Ambedkar as a democrat or a liberal capitalist. That is how they defined him. Consequently they gave no consideration at all to the background, ideology and mobilisation of these movements.

If you ask when their opinions begin to alter, then between 1988 and 1991 there is a massive change in Russia. Gorbachev introduces Perestroika to Russia, but it is a failure. Once that fails the Soviet Union collapses and the countries in the Soviet Bloc adopt a democratic and capitalist system. For communist inspired thinkers their minds had been focused on the USSR as the archetypal movement until that point and they did not study movements closer to home. It is only after Perestroika and the change to capitalism in Soviet Russia that there begins to be a change in their analysis. Having seen this they decide that there is no longer any use in talking about what is going on over there. If they look to China, then state capitalism has been introduced there too. It is in the midst of these changes and re-evaluations in their thinking that the Ambedkar Centenary occurs. What happens then is that this lot only start to read Ambedkar at that juncture. Once they start to read him then they start to accept him as a leading ideological thinker and endorse him as such. So what happened was that they have written about their change of mind as though that was a change in wider society. Following this they write that it was after the Ambedkar centenary that Dalit mobilisation took off in Tamil Nadu. Who takes the earlier protests and movements into account?

Hugo: You are right, we should not forget them.

Sannah: No, we cannot forget them, but they are [forgotten]. In that period before 1990 countless Dalit journals were published, but this lot did not even have the heart to read them. What do this lot do? After 1990 when they start to read these journals and Ambedkar’s works, they portray their intervention as significant in the rise of Dalit ideology. Then the myth or the falsehood is that it is only the non-Dalit ideologists who have ideological insight that the Dalits lacked beforehand. By and large, wherever you are, new movements will emerge after about thirty years. Similarly around Ambedkar’s Anniversary Dalit movements regenerated, the Dalit Panther Movement flourished, but it did not begin in 1990 it started earlier, but after Thirumavalavan assumes leadership some of these non-Dalit ideologists offer support to him and go along with him. This was not the only movement at the time. Puthiya Tamizhagam was there, there were some Arunthathiyar movements, and lots of smaller movements and several caste eradication organisations and fronts were established at this time. In understanding the reason for this uprising, the Ambedkar Centenary is one cause for this lot – it is not a reason for the Dalit movement itself because who else has kept the ideas of Ambedkar alive over all these years?

Hugo: But isn’t it true that it was only in 1987/88/89 that they translated Ambedkar into Tamil?

Sannah: They translated him, yes – but before that many small publications spread his word. Let me ask you one question: Leave aside Ambedkar’s ideas, were there no Ambedkar statues anywhere in Tamil Nadu before that point?

Hugo: There were, but not to the same extent.

Sannah: As far as Ambedkar is concerned people did not read his ideas and then engage in protest. Ambedkar for most is an identity; he worked for us and fought for us and is our Messiah – that is what they think. Due to that they raised Ambedkar statues in village after village and nurtured the protest spirit through that. There is no need for ideology or philosophy to protest with ordinary people. What the non-Dalit thinkers assumed was that you needed an ideological grounding in order to protest, and thus they totally misunderstood this intervening period. So we can say that the 1990 Ambedkar Centenary was an awakening point for non-Dalits, for Dalits it was merely a great opportunity. I think that this position is one that has been totally obscured.

Hugo: Good point, few people talk about this. Academics sitting in libraries will talk about Ayothidasar and the continuities in the Dalit movement. It is also clear that movements do not and cannot emerge overnight. The seeds of revolt need to be planted first and we need to dig deep to uncover the pre-history of the movement. You have articulated this more clearly than anyone else I have spoken to. But even now, hardly anyone has worked on the Dalit leaders who existed between 1957 and 1990.

Sannah: They have paid no attention to them at all.

Hugo: They have ignored them and not written about them either.

Sannah: Yes, Sivaraj [Also Shivaraj – President of the Scheduled Caste Federation and, later, President of the Republican Party]was a major leader. He was second only to Ambedkar and constantly by his side but who paid any attention to him? He was one year older than Ambedkar, but no one speaks about him. N. Sivaraj, after Ambedkar’s death, founded the Republican Party that Ambedkar had wanted to found. Ambedkar wanted to form the Indian Republic Party and wrote all the rules and policies for it, but he died before his dream could be realised. N. Sivaraj had a huge role in founding the party and taking it to an all India level. Also at that time there were well known political leaders in Tamil Nadu. Ambedkar died in 1956, this party was founded in 57, in the 1962 election the DMK was allied to the Republican Party. At the time of the alliance the major Dalit leader in Tamil Nadu was Ayra Sankarnan, after him there were Pallikonda. M. Krishnasamy, G. Moorthy, Sakthidasan, Chepen, L.Elayaperumal, Y.Balasundaram and other similar leaders who paved the way for subsequent movements. No one recognised any of these leaders. The Republican Party was established enough for the DMK at that point to need to ally with it. That need was there, for example, in 1962 there was an election and the RPI was in alliance with the DMK. [Sivaraj contested from Vellore in 1962 and came second. He won from Chengalpattu LS constituency in 1957]. Sivaraj contested for the Vellore MP Constituency, but DMK candidates stood for the 6 MLA constituencies that fall within its boundaries.

Now, both of them are in alliance and competing together and so both of them should win. If they gain victory then the DMK should win in the 6 MLA seats and the RPI should win the MP constituency. But if you ask what happened there, the big shock was that the 6 DMK candidates all won, but the RPI candidate Sivaraj was made to lose. Whose fault is this? The DMK lot should have voted for him, shouldn’t they? How can the DMK which massively betrayed its ally then claim to uphold the rights and identities of the downtrodden? This is the nature of Dravidian parties and the Dravidian movement. Just because these leaders were prevented from speaking does not mean that we can conclude that there was no movement. In sum, in the thirty years between Ambedkar’s death and 1990 there were significant movements working in Tamil Nadu and indeed across India. It is because there was no will to accept and recognise them that this issue arises. It was only after 1990 with the rise of new movements that Dalit activity appeared to their eyes. More specifically, after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Please read the second part of the interview here.



Dr. Hugo Gorringe, Sociology Department, Edinburgh University (UK), conducted research on Dalit Movements in 1999 when the Dalit Panthers of India (now renamed Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi – or Party – VCK) was the largest and most vibrant movement in the state of Tamil Nadu, South India.

[Courtesy: The South Asianist]

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