Remember Periyar with a pledge to embrace dissent

With majoritarianism on the rise, the iconoclast’s ideas on debate and rationality of thought are more relevant than ever

Updated - September 17, 2022 06:55 pm IST

Published - September 17, 2022 12:08 am IST

Periyar E. V. Ramasamy at the Garrison Theatre in Madras on February 2, 1968 at a special function arranged by the Tamil Nadu Secretariat Association

Periyar E. V. Ramasamy at the Garrison Theatre in Madras on February 2, 1968 at a special function arranged by the Tamil Nadu Secretariat Association | Photo Credit: The Hindu Photo Archives

We celebrate Periyar E.V. Ramasamy’s birth anniversary (September 17) as Social Justice Day. At a fundamental level, I consider this a day for recalibrating our vision for a world where social justice and rationality define “the best possible version of the truth” for a large majority of people. Even Periyar would have wanted us to question every concept and framework in the world, and not accept anything because someone told us so. He converted interested crowds into keen listeners, listeners into avid thinkers, and thinkers into principled politicians and die-hard activists. Even those who did not enter the political fray tried to understand why he was steadfast about what he stood for.

Vision for the future

When he presented his thoughts, there was nuance, honesty, and an explicitness, which prompted even people practising different faiths to discuss and debate his ideas on rationality and religion. Periyar himself said, “Everyone has the right to refute any opinion. But no one has the right to prevent its expression.”

Periyar is often referred to as an iconoclast, for the rebellious nature of his ideas and the vigour with which he acted. His vision for the future was a part of all his actions. He did not merely aim at the eradication of social evils; he also wanted to put an end to activities that do not collectively raise standards of society. The radical nature of his ideas drew constant opposition.

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Here, I would also want to debate some of the concepts propounded by Periyar. It is good that we refer to Periyar as an iconoclast and not an icon, because he would have dismantled that notion of an all-powerful icon himself.

He was one of the pioneering voices against the Kula Kalvi Thittam introduced by the then Chief Minister C. Rajagopalachari. It was not just a political statement; Periyar felt that it would encourage divisions based on caste that might cause irreparable damage to the social fabric. Kula Kalvi Thittam proposed to impose on schoolchildren a method of education, wherein students would learn their family’s profession as part of the school curriculum. The proposal led to an uproar in the State led by voices such as Periyar and C.N. Annadurai. It was withdrawn and a message was sent to the wider world that Tamil Nadu stood united when it comes to caste oppression-related issues.

Foundation of rationalism

Periyar’s vision was about inclusive growth and freedom of individuals. He was an important ideologue of his day because of the clarity in his political stand. More importantly, he understood the evolution of political thought and was able to glide through time with this. He presented rationalism as a solid foundation for thinking along these lines. He said, “Wisdom lies in thinking. The spearhead of thinking is rationalism.”

Periyar was way ahead of his time. All the reforms he shared with people could not be implemented at the time because of the searing discussions they led to. It took years for the ideas to take shape in a way that could be implemented.

One such reform measure he felt was needed to change the caste dynamic in society was ‘Priesthood for all castes’. Has the opposition to such ideas been reduced in a way? Not really. But we shall continue to maintain a civil debate for the overall betterment of society, as Periyar said.

The struggle against the eradication of social evils takes several decades and Periyar with his idea of meaningful rebellion has guided me to play a part in this movement. It will be a guiding force for every student reading Periyar too. “Whomsoever I love and hate, my principle is the same. That is, the educated, the rich and the administrators should not suck the blood of the poor.”

Periyar said, “Any opposition not based on rationalism or science or experience, will one day or other, reveal the fraud, selfishness, lies, and conspiracies.” We can posit this with regard to the extreme-right activities we see happening across the country and sometimes abroad too.

Violence against minorities

On one level, a few people are benefiting greatly from the rampant rise of acts of violence against minorities. These people have such an external defence mechanism that it becomes easy for them to use incendiary rhetoric and get away with it. The discussion that Periyar initiated continues to-date, and is the antithesis to this manner of societal regression. Periyar proclaimed that he would always stand with the oppressed in the fight against oppressors and that his enemy was oppression.

There have been several social reformers in Tamil Nadu who shared their revolutionary thoughts with the people in the past century. In that spectrum, Periyar occupies a unique place because he made interactions of multiple worlds possible. The world of social reform movements interacted with the world of people’s politics when Periyar took over a stage or when he wrote. He focused on the progress of Tamil Nadu and was clear that it would be a never-ending journey.

Spaces for debate are shrinking all over the world. Majoritarianism and populism are not enabling sensible conversations in any public sphere. At such a time, Periyar stands as a stellar precedent, reminding us of a time when people with opposing ideas were invited to the stage for a debate. As a part of creating a society with social justice at its core, let us pledge to create open spaces for discussions in our communities. If need be, let us spearhead such activities on whatever scale. Only these spaces have the potential of creating a positive change at an ideological level.

K. Kanimozhi is a Member of Parliament (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam)

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