Dr Raees Mohammed
(The story of a dalit couple, from different dalit castes, in the academic space of Tamil Nadu)
On 25th July 2023 Mr. Bharathidasan committed suicide after consuming rat poison mixed with alcohol. Bharathidasan was born in an Arundhathiyar community in the village Mangapatti, Uppliyapuram Taluk, Tiruchi District. He completed his B.A and MA in St. Joseph’s college, Tiruchirappalli and MPhil in Pondicherry University with a Gold Medal for his work that focused on the atrocity that happened in Thachur, Villupuram District. Later he joined MIDS for his PhD in the year 2012 and couldn’t complete his research. He has left behind his wife and two children, aged 5 and 10. One of his papers ‘The Forgotten Feminist: L.C. Guruswamy and Women’s Question in the early Twentieth Century Tamil Nadu” was awarded the best paper in the History Congress of Tamil Nadu held at Manonmaniam Sundaranar University, Tirunelveli. He also wrote several papers in English dailies and weekly magazines. His focus was always on the neglected subject of Arundhathiyars. Most importantly, he also wrote a small book that focused on H.M. Jaganathan (1894- 1966), a forgotten Arundhathiyar leader who joined Periyar’s Neethi Katchi and later formed an Arundhathiyar organization. He also focused on another forgotten leader, L.C.Gurusamy. He shone in academics. The life in MIDS and dalit politics took his life. Sadly after his death, the educated Arunthathiyars went silent.
As many of you know I am engaged in septic tank cleaning services in Kotagiri, the Nilgiri District of Tamil Nadu. Sadly, I was not informed about his death or that people were asking about my absence at his funeral. I need to remind them that at least among educated Arundhathiyars everyone knows that Bharathidasan and I are contemporaries but still none of them informed me. As many often tell me that I am doing septic tank cleaning work so none keeps in touch. Not only that, educated Arundhathiyars forwarded information about his death and moved on. Bharathidasan’s sacrifice should not get wasted hence it is important that the educated should reflect upon his life.
Bharathidasan was important to Arunthathiyar intellectual politics and his absence will never be filled by anyone in the present generation. His focus was to study Arundhathiyar history and the forgotten leaders. I would like to focus on this particular aspect of Arundhathiyar politics along with some information I have on MIDS. Most of us first generation dalits enter premier institutes with a lot of hopes. Our families make many sacrifices for this. Sadly, this premier institutional space itself becomes a graveyard. The politics in these spaces, be it in the classroom or outside the classroom cause so much pressure that most of us feel isolated. One of the reasons being that dalit organizations and members in these spaces do not feel a sense of belonging with each other. In Tamil Nadu we are separated as Paraiyars, Arundhathiyars and Devendars. Apart from this, the financial situation of students becomes an issue to tackle.
In the year 2018 he wrote an email to me that said he is working on “Recovering Outcaste History: A Case Study of Arundhathiyars in Tamil Nadu (1850-1947)” at the Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS), Chennai. He was in his 6th year and started writing his thesis chapters. He received ICSSR fellowship for the first three years and in the next three years, he along with his partner spent their savings for survival in Chennai. His partner was also doing her PhD at MIDS. MIDS doesn’t provide hostel facilities so the couple had to live in a rented house in Chennai. He asked for financial support and my good friend Shiva Shankar came forward to help. Later the same year, he joined as a cleaner in a lorry to meet his expenditure. After that he worked as a painter. There was no regular income. The administration brought new rules which automatically canceled Bharathidasan’s enrolment. Now again they have changed rules, and this might might have allowed Bharathidasan to complete his thesis.
As I myself was a PhD scholar at the English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad, I could relate to Bharathidasan. Only because of my supervisor Dr. Hany Babu I could complete my thesis. He was not only a faculty to me, he rather walked with me holding hands until I completed my PhD. What shocks me the most is that a social science scholar with a supervisor who speaks about the society can’t even understand a student, and that is the failure that happened with Bharathidasan. If not for Dr. Hany Babu I might not be writing this.
Faculties in these premier institutes are very self-centred; they write books with revolutionary thoughts but in their own spaces they are the oppressors. This is spread across the universities in India. Especially, dalit faculties choose students based on caste. Sadly there are dalit faculties who hardly take dalits as their students but they speak and write on and about dalits in public spaces.
Though Bharathidasan was from the Arundhathiyar caste and his research focused on Arundhathiyars. He was married to an Adi Dravida woman who was also a student in MIDS. Both of them were a happy couple and were very, specially his partner, outspoken. While Bharathidasan was outspoken on atrocities on Arundhathiyars, even by Adi dravidas, and his partner was outspoken in the institute space and stood by Bharathidasan’s politics. While she was doing her PhD, she got married and had their first child. As her child did not like the creche, hence she brought her child to MIDS and laid it down in a makeshift cradle by joining two tables. Let’s not forget Sharmila Rege in her institute had a creche for children of those PhD scholars. While MIDS intellectuals have high regards for Sharmila Rege but still they couldn’t change the institute’s structure. On the other hand, MIDS administration said this is not an institute to have a creche. Sadly, his wife’s supervisor in MIDS did not give her an extension and her PhD was rejected. Although, her chapters were completed and she had to only submit her thesis, but the supervisor did not allow that to happen.
On the other hand Bharathidasan’s research period was coming to an end and he went to get an extension. He believed the Covid period would get him an extension. MIDS comes under the supervision of University of Madras and Bharathidasan went to get an extension at the University of Madras. All of a sudden the University of Madras brought a new rule and did not allow him to get an extension. Neither did MIDS send a delegation to look into the issue.
Both of them had to suffer emotionally that they lost 10 long years in their life doing PhD at MIDS. The second breakdown happened in Arunthathiyar politics and its approach to the anti-caste movement. Though there are many educated Arunthathiayars but only very few are outspoken. A few Arundhathiyars always see Adi dravidas as the enemy of Arundhathiyars. There is a reason to believe this because across Tamil Nadu nowhere do the Adi dravidas accept Arundhathiyars as equal. I argue that one should see Adi dravidas like any other caste Hindus when they discriminate and move on rather than to take it personally. But these educated Arundhathiyars took it very personally and started seeing Adi dravidas as enemies to Arundhathiyar developments. Santhaiyur became a breaking point and it added fuel to the fire.
In Santhaiyur, the Adi dravida community built a caste wall on a public land to restrict Arunthathiyars movement. The Arunthathiayrs in the village decided to boycott the village and went to nearby waste land and built a tent to protest. This issue created a ripple effect within Arunthathiyar youngsters. The educated Arunthathiyars who were active in articulating anti Adi Dravida couldn’t see the difference or isolate the incident> They started generalizing that Adi dravidas are anti Arunthathiyars. Sadly, one of the MIDS professors manipulated a fact finding that was sent to Santhaiyur arguing that Adi dravidas’s did not discriminate against Arunthathiyars. VCK was also openly supporting Adi dravidas building the wall. However, there were a few Adi dravidas who were opposing the wall, which could have provided some checks and balances in Arundhathiyar politics. But the educated Arunthathiyars did not want to notice these important voices within Adi dravidas. Bharathidasan was closely observing this and he couldn’t digest the prof’s stand or the VCK’s. He borrowed money and spent it on the Santhaiyur issue while in his family there was no money. He was also one of the main reasons for bringing out a documentary on Santhaiyur caste wall. Neither dalit movement changed nor the wall fell but Bharathidasan who was fighting to break the wall died.
The institutional spaces and the dalit politics excluded Bharathidasan’s intellectuality. The Arundhathiyars, individuals and the community, too left him alone to deal with his isolation. This is the danger of dalit politics especially when you are from the Arundhathiyar or any dalit caste lower than the dominant dalit caste.
Through this article I want to tell my dalit activists to forget about the institutional spaces, which will never change with the present dalit faculties in them. Rather it is best we change our approach to dalit politics and build a sense of belonging between different dalit castes. YES, it is true that there are serious problems between different dalit castes but there are people in those castes and histories that we need to cherish. Those good memories would be smaller than a grain of salt but still for our survival we need to cherish those and move forward. Remember, more than the community each one of our family needs us and nothing is bigger than them.
Image acknowledgement: Facebook profile of PhD scholar late Mr Bharathidasan
Dr Raees Mohammed is a founder member of Dalit Camera.