Remembering the precursor of Dravidian movement

Pandit C. Iyothee Thass (1845–1914) was born on 20 May 1845 in Coimbatore, his original name was Kaathavarayan, and he grew up in Nilgiris. He adopted his teacher's name Iyothee Thass, a Siddha doctor by profession; he possessed a good knowledge of classical literary Tamil, and mastered the English language. In fact recent research tells us that he was a great expert in reading palm leaf manuscripts, philosophy, Siddha and one who possessed good knowledge of English, Sanskrit and Pali.

Iyothee Thass's grandfather had served as a butler to Lord Arlington and as a youngster; he was exposed to British culture. Thass launched a magazine called Dravida Pandian along with Rev. John Rathinam in 1885. He issued a statement in 1886 announcing that the so-called ‘untouchables' are not Hindus. During the 1881 Census he urged the ‘untouchables' to register themselves as casteless Dravidians and established the Dravida Mahajana Sabha in 1891.

Iyothee Thass, hailed as the precursor of Non-Brahmin movement in Madras Presidency was instrumental in articulating the idea that the lower castes were not only Buddhists formerly but were the original inhabitants of India which later paved way for many social movements. Thass even maintained that in the past India was called Indirar Desam, Indirar being the Buddha.

After coming back from Sri Lanka where he converted to Buddhism, he established the Sakya Buddhist Society in 1898, for which a building was rented at Royapettah. Interestingly the rent, Rs.10 was contributed by Henry Steele Olcott of Theosophical Society, another pioneer who established free schools for the oppressed along with free meals. The society conducted regular meetings where important scholars of that time like P. Lakshmi Narasu, professor, Madras Christian College, M. Singaravelu Chettiar (later hailed as the first Communist from Tamil Nadu) and A. S. Mudaliar delivered lectures. Iyothee Thass established the journal Oru Paisa Tamilan in 1907 and edited it till his death in 1914.

Role of Tamilan Journal

Iyothee Thass's work is of great significance as the period in which he worked was crucial, as questions of nationalism were being projected on one side, a separate Tamil identity was being espoused by Saivite scholars and it is here as a representative of the subaltern, Thass a firm believer in colonial modernity uses print capitalism to counter those projections and reclaim the identity of the oppressed.

According to sociologist G. Aloysius who has extensively worked on Iyothee Thass's life and contributions, “The imprint of the multifaceted and versatile genius of its editor with an unrelenting rage against all societal injustices and a passion for an egalitarian reconstruction of the society with equal and dignified status in it for the subalternised classes is unmistakable in every page and issue of Tamilan.” (G.Aloysius, Dalit Subaltern Self Identifications Iyothee Thassar and Tamizhan, Critical Inquest, 2010)

He in his another work Religion as Emancipatory Identity: A Buddhist Movement Among the Tamils Under Colonialism, Chennai: New Age International, 1998 , says that the period between 1907, the inaugural year of Oru Paisa Tamilan (later renamed as Tamilan) and 1914, the year of Iyothee Thass's sudden demise is of crucial importance.

This phase saw several hundred pages of highly original, interpretive research and writing on Tamil history, culture and religion to his credit, his ideas spread far and wide provoking the Tamil society both in and out of the country. Within the general contemporary process of rediscovery of the Tamil past, his contribution unfortunately is still to be recognized by modern Tamil historiography.

“The ideas and activities of Iyothee Thass from 1880 until his death in 1914 were far ahead of his time and appear strikingly modern even today. Iyothee Thass's concern was the new political identity of Tamils in general and to this end he succeeded in bringing together individuals and groups from whole range of the Tamil social hierarchy. The journal Tamilan and scores of pamphlets published by him and people associated to him carried the message of social emancipation, Buddhism, rationalism, anti-brahminism and the emergence of the new egalitarian Tamil-Dravidian identity.” (G.Aloysius Nationalism without a Nation in India, Oxford University Press, 1997 ).

An Intellectual-Activist

T. Dharmarajan in a review for M. S. S. Pandian's Brahmin and Non Brahmin Genealogies of the Tamil Political Present , states that Iyothee Thassar did not endorse Non-Brahmin as an identity, he once was found mocking the Non-Brahmin category, remarking, “So there's a community of Non-Brahmins? Are they a caste or something else?” He further says that Thass's establishment of Buddhist meeting houses (Buddha viharas) in many parts of South India became the cornerstone of the Dravidian movement. In fact, he claims that it was Thass's Buddhist activism that later fuelled the appeal of Dravidianism in northern Tamil Nadu.

Though engaged with the rediscovery of the original Tamil-Buddhist identity as an intellectual, Thass was also working as an activist highlighting the problems of the untouchables, migrants who went to South Africa, caste among the Catholic Christians, civic issues and education among the oppressed in the Madras Presidency, appointment of magistrates and district collectors, and the absence of representatives in the Legislative Assembly to redress the grievances of the poor and so on.

At a time when we celebrate his 167{+t}{+h}birth anniversary, Iyothee Thass's contributions is being slowly recognized and the academic circles see him as the pioneer of non-Brahmin discourse and claim that the non-Brahmin millennium starts from him.