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The Future of ‘Dravidian Studies’
Karthick RM 1


Karthick R M

Karthick RM 1MSS Pandian was an exemplary Tamil scholar, but more importantly, he was a Dravidian scholar. What I mean by ‘Dravidian’ here does not denote an individual belonging to a region, ethnicity, nation or culture, but a way of socio-political thinking that lays emphasis on social justice, proportional representation, a form of regional autonomy that emphasizes a pluralism within the Indian union, secularism in a broader sense, and of course, anti-brahminism. In a sense, Dravidian thinking involves a denationalization of the political imagination. Pandian captures this in his essay ‘Denationalising the past’ where he argues that Periyar refused to idealize Indian or Tamil pasts and instead located his ideas of free and equal citizenship in the future. To Periyar “rationality and science, faith in human emancipation and progress through struggle, and history” were guides for such an inclusive future. One can say that ‘Dravidian Studies’ involves explorations, explications, critiques and criticisms of these concepts. Rethinking Social Justice is one such collective attempt to address themes and perspectives in Dravidian Studies. 


‘Dravidian Studies’ is markedly different from ‘Tamil Studies’ because the latter involves the study of the history, language, literature, culture, social formations, and political changes of the Tamil people over two millennia. Dravidian Studies, on the other hand, is more focused on developments in South India from the latter part of the 19th Century to the contemporary and has the modern non-Brahmin assertion, with its promises, possibilities, and problems, at the heart of its enquiry. It is a new and evolving academic programme, which is yet to formally establish itself as a school or a collective. The predecessor to this and perhaps an inspiration is the Subaltern Studies Collective, which made a paradigm shift in the reading of Indian history, historiography, politics and society. Pandian was a part of the Subaltern Studies Collective. His work is crucial to any Dravidian Studies of the future. An important thing to note about Pandian was that while he was a partisan intellectual, he was not a party intellectual – this allowed him to maintain a spirit of critical objectivity, avoiding dogma of any sort. A Dravidian Studies Collective, for it to be fruitful, diverse, and intellectually sound, must be above party positions and dogmatic approaches. 


When Pandian wrote Brahmin and Non-Brahmin in 2007, his was a rare voice in the Indian academia defending the Dravidian project. Over the years, the changing political climate in India evinced a greater scholarly interest in ‘The Strangeness of Tamil Nadu’, taking from the title of Pandian’s recently published book. Novel research on the different dimensions of Dravidianism is happening. There is a rich output of work in Tamil on the Dravidian movement, including critiques from Dalit standpoints, and also Arunthathiyar standpoints that critique the mainstream Dalit politics. Likewise, a significant aspect of the new research on the Dravidian politics in English is that they are making use of hitherto unutilized primary material from Tamil. These include magazines, newspapers, pamphlets, posters, films, personal correspondence, biographies and autobiographies. The independent publication house Critical Quest is doing a remarkable job of translating selected key works of Periyar into English.


A decade after the publication of Brahmin and Non-Brahmin, a significant conference on ‘Dravidianism, Nationalism, Federalism’ was held in Delhi, organized jointly by Ashoka and Ambedkar university, involving the participation of Indian and international academics. Papers presented at this conference covered diverse topics like political theory, history, political economy, populism, education, and religious and caste identity. They were published in a special volume of the journal Seminar titled ‘Dravidianism: A Symposium on the Legacy of the Non-Brahmin Movement in Tamil Nadu’, edited by Rajan Krishnan and Ravindran Sriramachandran. These two scholars are also working on the socio-political history of the DMK. S. Anandhi, is engaging with the Dravidian movement’s approach to education and Hindu marriage reform. M. Vijayabaskar and A. Kalaiyarasan have written on, and are further exploring, the positive impacts the Dravidian parties had in creating a more inclusive political economy. J. Jeyaranjan, who works on similar topics, has earned the sobriquet of ‘people’s economist’ for his hugely popular public lectures and interviews on economic processes and development. 


The renowned historian A.R. Venkatachalapathy will be publishing a much-anticipated biography of Periyar soon. Sundar Kaali and Matthew Baxter take a philosophically grounded approach to the Self-Respect movement’s response to modernity, identity and religion. An edited volume on Tamil cinema in the 21st Century will be brought out by Selvaraj Velayutham and Vijay Devadas, bringing together contributors discussing its narratives, ideology and impact. A few works have been written on hitherto undiscussed aspects of Dravidian political history. Critical work on Ayothee Thass is being done by G. Aloysius and Dickens Leonard. Ravi Vaithees’ chapter in Rethinking Social Justice historicizes and theorizes the politics of CN Annadurai, the founder of the DMK and arguably the most influential political figure of modern Tamil Nadu – perhaps the first academic work to deal with the primary works of this leader in great detail. Young scholars like Vignesh Karthik and Jeyannathan Karunanithi routinely publish articles on contemporary Dravidian politics in popular media. 


My PhD research at the University of Essex saw a comparative study of Frantz Fanon and Periyar. I have published a book on Fanon with Orient BlackSwan in 2019 based on my thesis and I am now working on the political thought of Periyar. I have been awarded the Marie-Sklodowska Curie Actions fellowship to work on this project and I will be commencing my research at the University of Wolverhampton from October 2020. This project, titled ‘Freedom From Caste: The Political Thought of Periyar E.V. Ramasamy’, will provide a systematic account of Periyarism, engaging with the thinker’s works on caste, identity, religion, nation and gender. It aims to bring the relevance of Periyar’s thoughts to global conversations on identity, social justice and feminism, reading him with radical thinkers from India and the West. 


I have mentioned above names of a few scholars whose current work I am familiar with, and the exclusion of any scholar is not intentional. This is not a comprehensive list but only seeks to briefly present the diverse research that is happening. Likewise, the research that I have mentioned is not accidental or the pursuits of individual researchers. I think that the demands of the contemporary have made such research both possible and necessary. The historical moment we are in has facilitated the emergence of interest in Dravidian Studies. It could make a historically significant intellectual impact, a paradigm shift of the kind that Subaltern Studies brought about if a more organized collective were to emerge. 


That Dravidian politics is secessionist, hateful, casteist and/or parochial has been said by a few on the mainstream liberal left much before these accusations were hurled by the Hindu Right. It was not uncommon to see such reductive narratives among elite academic circles as well. But the defeat of the Hindu nationalist BJP in Tamil Nadu in the 2014 general elections at the hands of the AIADMK under J. Jayalalithaa (who had taken a strong position of opposing the BJP and defending regional autonomy in the last years of her life, which her successors failed to imitate) and the BJP’s rout in 2019 to the Secular Progressive Alliance led by the DMK under M.K. Stalin, has influenced many to rethink their anti-Dravidian positions. 


The aggressive centralization pursued by the BJP has led many politicians of the ‘regions’ to look towards the Dravidian model for inspiration. In a recent article on The Wire, Partha Chatterjee argues that Hindu nationalism’s claim of cultural homogeneity can only be effectively challenged by a robust defense of a federal republic. In his words “The very working of the political process shows that the most pressing demands of the people are most effectively met today at the level of the state governments.” The Dravidian Model may possibly serve as an effective counter to the Gujarat model that Delhi is seeking to impose across India. A Dravidian Studies programme would be much useful in laying out its intellectual, theoretical and ethical foundations. 



Karthick RM is faculty at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta (CSSSC). 


This is the full text of the author’s presentation at ‘Rethinking Social Justice: An Event in Honour of MSS Pandian’ held at Jadunath Bhavan Museum and Resource Centre, Kolkata on 24 February 2020. 


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