“So many movements have failed. In Tamil Nadu there was a movement in the name of anti-Brahmanism under the leadership of Periyar. It attracted Dalits, but after 30 years of power, the Dalits understand that they are as badly-off – or worse-off – as they were under the Brahmans. Under Dravidian rule, they have been attacked and killed, their due share in government service is not given, they are not allowed to rise.”
So says Dr. Krishnasami, leader of the militant movement of the Dalit community known as “Devendra Kula Vellalas” of southern Tamil Nadu and founder of a new political party, Puthiya Tamilakam. This sense of disillusionment with the Dravidian parties is pervasive among not only the Dalits but also many militant non-Brahmans as well. The anti-caste movements of the past, in Dr. Krishnasami’s words, have failed to achieve their main goals. Mr. Thirumavalavan of the Liberation Panthers speaks of discrimination and atrocities against those who fight against the evil and adds: “Castes keep their identity just as before, they don’t intermarry, there are no longer any self-respect marriages.”
Like Dr. Krishnasami, he does not reject the goals of the movement, arguing “the Dalit struggle has to be for the liberation of a nationality”, and Hindutva should be opposed through Tamil nationalism. He feels that the existing Dravidian parties have betrayed the Dalits.
In Maharashtra also, militant non-Brahmans feel that “Phule has failed.” Militant Dalits discuss the reasons for the stagnation of their movement. There is widespread malaise. The spirit of the movement still exists, there are still activists committed to the cause but the public and political life of society, whether at a local level, where so many villages still maintain separate wells and separate drinking cups for the Dalits, or at the State or all-India level has not been transformed in the areas where the non-Brahman movements were the strongest.
In Tamil Nadu, the heights of corruption have been reached with a party calling itself “Dravidian”, while the major Dravidian parties are forming an alliance with the BJP. In Maharashtra, for all its progressive traditions, one of the most ferocious forms of Hindutva has been a ruling power for so many years. Police firing at Ramabai Nagar in Mumbai and the caste conflicts in southern Tamil Nadu show the persistence of the casteist attitude among even poor OBCs. It is not that there have been no gains but they have been so incomplete. In spite of the formal openness and some social mobility, caste continues to be highly correlated to both occupation and political power.
In spite of a powerful cultural challenge, the “Vedic Sanskritic” culture remains hegemonic in the very centres which mounted a challenge to it. There is a widespread assertion by the hitherto downtrodden and excluded communities throughout the country but the annihilation of caste remains a distant dream.
In Tamil Nadu, this failure contrasts with the apparent strength of the Dravidian parties. In Maharashtra, by the 1930s, the non-Brahman movement as a whole was absorbed into the Congress, with only Ambedkar leading an independent Dalit movement which saw itself as carrying on the heritage of Phule but was limited organisationally to the Dalits (and, among them, to the Mahars). In Tamil Nadu, on the other hand, Periyar’s movement took on full force in the 1930s and 1940s, gathered people of all castes around it, made the commitment to women’s liberation more of a mass force than Phule could, organised powerful mass campaigns against religious superstition and rather than vanishing into the “mainstream”, went on to found its own parties.
Why did the ideals fail in spite of an apparently powerful movement? Some will say the non-Brahman and Dravidian movements could not succeed because they were, in the end, “bourgeois democratic”. Some will point to the lack of a full economic and political vision – the movements focussed on “identity” issues but had no economic programme different from the Nehru Congress. Some will say the whole idea of a ‘non-Brahman movement” is an illusion since non-Brahmans are the immediate oppressors of the Dalits, their greatest enemy.
None of these explanations is sufficient. Let us begin with three assertions: that a strong movement would have achieved and developed its own political-economic vision, that traditional Marxism is insufficient because it has never confronted caste, never understood that “Brahmanism” (or the Brahmanic Social Order, as some put it) was a fundamental social structure and not simply an ideological effervescence, and that the Dalit and other non-Brahman unity is difficult but necessary and possible because the non-Brahmans also are oppressed by caste. On this basis some comparisons of the contributions and inadequacies of the non-Brahman movements in Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, where they were historically the strongest, might help make a critical examination.
In many ways, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra had complementary strengths and weaknesses. Phule, in the 19th century, could give a founding thrust and powerful vision to a new movement but the conditions of the time prevented mass mobilisation. Ambedkar was, in the end, limited to being a “Dalit leader” – he could not galvanise the whole movement. This situation was remedied, in a sense, in Tamil Nadu with the emergence of Periyar, who had an all-encompassing vision for and commitment to the Dalits and women as well as a mass base among the majority non-Brahman castes. Yet, the strength of the Tamil movement was also its weakness. As no leader like Ambedkar emerged, the Dalit part of the overall movement remained weak; it seems there was no mass awakening or autonomous organising in the Dalit communities in the pre-independence period comparable to what happened in Maharashtra.
During the 1930s and 1940s, under Ambedkar’s leadership, the Dalits in Maharashtra organised themselves. Their fight – and the militant activist youth growing up then were conscious of this – was against Brahmanism and the caste system but it was often the lower class non-Brahmans they confronted directly and physically. All the years, Ambedkar called upon the Maharashtrian non-Brahman leadership to unite in a strong alliance against “capitalism and Brahmanism”. His weekly Janata was giving details of atrocities carried out in fact by non-Brahman castes. In the “Hindu-Mahar riots” in Nagpur in the 1940s, the Dalits defended themselves with sticks, stones and daggers against the OBC “Hindus” provoked by nationalist propaganda to see the Ambedkarites as traitors. The Dalits not only defended themselves, they drove Gandhi himself off a stage in 1941 when some self-designated “Harijans” tried to organise his rally. In other words, the kind of battle for dignity being waged today against Thevars in southern Tamil Nadu was fought by the Mahars in the 1930s and 1940s in Maharashtra – but under a banner proclaiming that the main fight was for the transformation of all of India.
In this sense, it may be said the main problem is not whether the Dalit-other non-Brahman unity is possible; rather, that the Dalits in Tamil Nadu as in most other parts of India (including the non-Mahar Dalits in Maharasthra) are still fighting to achieve its preconditions, their own organisation and a recognition from other communities of their dignity.
The question still remains: once autonomy, self-respect and some empowerment are achieved for the most downtrodden, how will the movement go forward to seek a wider unity and the annihilation of caste? Here it is necessary to consider and reconsider the answer given by Periyar and the Tamil non-Brahman movement generally: that the way forward is through a kind of national liberation, a recognition of a positive alternative community which was taken to be a “Dravidian” identity or a “Tamil” national identity.
The Non-Brahman movements of western and southern India during the colonial period were the most powerful expressions of a pan-Indian upsurge that sought to confront and destroy the millennial-old caste hierarchy. Brahmanism had been given shape as the ideology of the ruling class in the middle of the first millennium BC, with an exclusive intelligentsia claiming cultural purity and sacredness. This ideology and the caste hierarchy it was linked to gained hegemony over its greatest rival, Buddhism, about a thousand years later. It succeeded in maintaining its dominance under vastly changed material conditions even during the colonial period and the 50 years of Independence, with the Congress representing the “moderate” and the Jan Sangh (now BJP) the “extremist” form of the Brahmanic ideology.
One aspect of its success was the ability of the elite to define the “Indian” identity in its own terms, claiming that the core of Indian culture lay in Sanskrit, the Vedic tradition and the Vedanta. Since the 19th century this has been projected as “Hinduism”. This was the “Great Tradition”, the national tradition. All other challenging cultural traditions, whether based on the masses of the Bahujans and the Dalits, or among the Adivasis or in linguistic-national identities, were relegated to regional or local “Little Traditions”. Devatas like Murugan or Vithoba were proclaimed as forms of Vishnu or Shiva; Adivasi religions today are similarly appropriated. The choice placed before the masses was and is “Sanskritisation” versus “westernisation”; no force has existed projecting a “Dalit” or “Bahujan” or “Dravidian” all-India identity.
The non-Brahman movements all sought, in their own way, to challenge the claim that Brahmanism provided a national culture. Phule, for example, fiercely criticising the elite claims to form an “Indian National Congress”, wrote, “According to the mischievous selfish religion of the Aryas, the cunning Aryabhat Brahmans take the ignorant shudras and Mahars as low; the ignorant Shudras take the ignorant Mahars as low and the ignorant Mahars take the ignorant Mangs as low. Since they all stopped inter-marriage and eating together, various customs of thinking and behaving, eating and drinking, rituals exist and they don’t mix with each other. How can the empty unity of such an agglomeration lead to a ‘Nation’ as an integrated people?”
The basic issue posed by Phule was that a nation could not even come into being without overcoming the major force separating and handicapping its citizens, caste; what was held up by the Brahmanised elite as the core of the national culture, in fact, destroyed national unity. Phule also realised that an alternative Indian culture had to be created as a mass culture. His efforts included projecting an alternative universalistic religion, creating alternative progressive marriage rituals and eulogising an original, equalitarian peasant community of “non-Aryans”, symbolised by the ‘rakshasa’ king Bali. Yet his voice remained a regional one, limited to Marathi, its influence hardly spreading beyond Pune district in his own time, while the Indian National Congress of the Brahmanic elite established its organisation throughout India. “Non-Aryan” as an identity was too negative and vague to capture the imagination of the people, even in Maharashtra. Phule failed. The non-Brahman movement could not move beyond gaining a share of power for some of the non-Brahman elite.
Ambedkar, in turn, wrote in English and sought to build an all-India movement, focussing its fight on what he called in 1938 “Brahmanism and capitalism”. He tried to establish an alliance with non-Brahmans in Maharashtra; outside, he tried to unite with leaders such as Periyar and Swami Sahajanand of Bihar for a progressive, broad non-Congress alliance. His choice of Buddhism was linked to an analysis of millennial-old historical conflicts described in terms of “revolution and counter-revolution in ancient India”. Buddhism was seen as a choice not only for the Mahars but for the cultural regeneration of all of India, as indicated in changing the new name of his weekly Prabuddha Bharat. His Republican Party, in turn, was projected as a party of all oppressed masses. Neither could transcend the social limits of the Mahar community of Maharashtra and a section of north Indian Chamars. Ambedkar also failed.
And the Dravidan movement? Periyar brilliantly made “self-respect” a mass movement, building up a powerful force involving activists drawn from all castes and from both men and women. And, in projecting a “Dravidian” identity and rooting it in what was perceived of as the culture of the Tamil people, he succeeded in giving a powerful political thrust to this mass-based social alternative.
Yet the Dravidian movement also failed in establishing itself as an alternative to the “Vedic Aryan-Brahmanic” force it despised. Not only did it lose its radical social thrust, which would have included the liberation of women and full human rights to the Dalits; it remained confined to Tamil Nadu. In focussing on Tamil national identity, the concept of a “Dravidian” civilisational identity was lost. Even the people of the other southern States were not ready to accept their identity as Dravidians, let alone the vast majority of people in Maharasthra, Orissa, Gujarat or elsewhere. In spite of the fact that the Dravidian (or “Tamil”)-speaking Indus civilisation was based in northwest India, in spite of evidence everywhere of the “non-Aryan” (usually Dravidian, sometimes Austro-Asiatic or other) origin of popular religious cults and cultural practices throughout India and in spite of the fact that languages like Marathi are said by linguists to have a “Dravidian substratum”, the majority of Indians will think of themselves as having primarily a Vedic-Aryan heritage.
The consequences for the popular Indian culture are stark. African-Americans had a “black is beautiful” movement; but television and the cinema throughout India testify to the fact that for Indians still “light is right”. Dark-skinned girls feel they are not beautiful, and every religious serial on Doordarshan continues to show the “gods” as light-skinned and “rakshasas” as dark, without protest. It is not surprising that a large section of the Indian masses fail to recognise Mrs. Sonia Gandhi as “foreign”; she looks like what they have been taught as the ideal of beauty.
At least part of the fault for this dismal situation should lie with the acceptance of racist themes even by the opponents of the “Aryan” racism. In turning the Aryan theory of race upside down and taking non-Aryans as superior, Phule did not confront its racial limitations. When Periyar attacked “Aryan Brahmans” as the enemy, it was as if all Brahmans were pure descendents of Aryans, as if no non-Brahman had any Aryan blood, leave aside the question of accepting the “Aryan” caste culture. He identified these with the north, expressing the conflict as one of “north” versus “south”.
Ambedkar was much more farsighted on these issues, rejecting the “Aryan-non-Aryan theory” as a historical explanation and asserting that caste was vastly different from race. He carefully characterised the enemy not as “Brahmans” but as “Brahmanism”, which he harshly attacked but defined not in terms of a specific group and simply as “the negation of the values of liberty, equality and fraternity”. But Ambedkar is not heeded by many of his followers on this issue today. By falling victim to racist/chauvinist attitudes towards “north Indians” as a group and “Brahmans’ as a whole, the Dravidian movement in Tamil Nadu condemned itself to remaining a sectoral force, powerful in its homeland but warped even there and severely handicapped in contributing to an all-India liberatory movement.