Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Nationalist, Rationalist and Humanist

COLLECTED WORKS OF PERIYAR E.V.R. — Compiler: K. Veeramani
Advocate of human dignity; A tireless propagandist imbued with an extraordinary zeal for social transformation R. VIJAYASANKAR The Hindu Book ReviewTuesday, Sep 20, 2005
He was a nationalist who carried khaddar from village to village for sale and cut down hundreds of coconut trees in his farm as part of Mahatma Gandhi's temperance campaign. He was a separatist, who called upon his followers to observe August 15 as a day of mourning. He was ushered into the Congress by a Brahmin (C. Rajagopalachari) and rose to become the president of its unit in the Madras Presidency. He saw salvation for the country in the destruction of Brahmins, Hinduism and the Congress. He was a socialist who carried the message of Marxism to every nook and corner of the Presidency. He chose to be on the side of feudal lords and the urban elite of the Justice Party at a crucial juncture in history. From nationalism to social reform to socialism and back to social reform, it was a political trajectory that abounded in contradictions. Yet, it is impossible to dismiss E.V. Ramasamy Periyar as a rebel without a cause. It was his constant search for a vision that would liberate Shudras and `untouchables' from the shackles of casteism and blind religious beliefs that took him through various political shades.
The search began in early 20th Century when various political streams and philosophies that were to dominate the rest of the century were emerging, with all their conservative worldviews and infantile shortcomings. What was lacking was a comprehensive political vision that would help people defy a political order that was headed by the most powerful and exploitative colonial power in the world, change an economic condition that saw the deadly sweep of famines crush lakhs of lives and challenge a socio-cultural tradition that degrades human beings on the basis of their birth. Many leading nationalists of the Tamil country who fought the British rule chose to be rank conservatives in the social realm, encouraging child marriage and the Devadasi system, perpetuating caste-based discrimination in public places and opposing widow remarriage, and so on.
Those advocating social reform reduced it to anti-Brahminism, refusing to countenance the harsh realities of caste and class oppression in the backyards of their own colleagues. And socialism was only a nascent radical idea that had gripped the minds of sections of the Indian middle class in the wake of the Bolshevik revolution and which was only waiting to be implemented and experimented by Lenin and his comrades in an extremely hostile international environment. Periyar came under the influence of all these ideals and their upholders and went through several rounds of enlightenment and disillusionment. However, even the worst critic of Periyar's shifting political stances and soul-shocking agitational methods would not doubt the values of self-respect, rationalism and humanism that underscored his style.
The Collected Works of Periyar gives more than a glimpse of the kaleidoscopic trajectory that Periyar traversed in the 94 years he has lived (thanks to science and despite his atheism, he said a few days before his death on December 24, 1973). In these pages he comes across as a tireless propagandist imbued with an extraordinary zeal for social transformation. His theories and interpretations of the world are not those of a trained scholar with logical precision and intellectual rigour but the expressions of an irrepressible activist's anger against a system that enslaves man and woman in the name of caste and religion, and suppresses their ability to explore their human potentials. The words are thus simple and eloquent when he explains his worldview to the masses; and defiant, irreverent and sacrilegious (even obscene when he describes mythical characters and narrates Puranic tales) when he attacks the ideological foundations of the exploitative feudal order.
It was the image created by his iconoclastic words and deeds that lasted till the end of his life making Periyar a much misunderstood and despised personality and mostly hid from public view the modernist and humanist in him. His views on women ("our males and females should wear `lungi' and `jibba' uniformly"; "ladies should crop their hairs as gents"; "girl herself should be permitted to choose her life partner"; "pregnancy is the enemy of women for leading an independent life") science and technology, education, rural development, family planning were far-sighted and revolutionary, considering the social milieu from which he expressed them. The book under review throws light on the lesser-known side of Periyar.
Periyar's refusal to see religion as "the sigh of the oppressed" living in a socially and economically unequal system alienated large sections of people from his reformist movement — a reality that made even his staunch followers like C.N. Annadurai distance themselves from his atheism and embracing monotheism. His unwillingness to continue with his Erode programme (socialist in nature), take his struggle to the political and economic realms, and attack the material base of casteist and religious ideas made his revolution incomplete. British oppression and the fear of losing the gains made by his reformist movement owing to the political ascendancy of the Congress (read Brahmins) in the Madras Presidency made Periyar prefer the company of the non-Brahmin elite and desert his socialist comrades like P. Jeevanandam and Singaravelar.
It is the same unwillingness to enter the political realm that made him overlook the reality of imperialism, the fountainhead of international exploitation and inequality, which was eulogised by the Justice Party's Non-Brahmin Manifesto as a power capable of holding the scales even between castes and classes. Such ideological limitations and the compromises and deviations of his successors who have been alternately ruling Tamil Nadu for nearly four decades now have severely limited the transformatory potential of Periyar's ideas — a reason for the road he chose remaining half-travelled even about 100 years after he set out on it. Pub. by The Periyar Self-Respect Propaganda Institution (This review is based on research under the Appan Menon Memorial Award.)

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