The Dravidian identity crisis – S. Aravindan Neelakandan

S. Aravindan NeelakandanToday, the 100-year-old Dravidian movement is struggling to remain relevant. It has become socially, culturally, historically and spiritually a failed movement. Like all failed movements it lives in desperation. And like all desperate entities it seeks violence and hatred to justify its existence.” – S. Aravindan Neelakandan

M. KarunanidhiOur enemies, the Brahmins, should tremble in fear.” When DMK supremo M. Karunanidhi made this public statement early this year as part of the centenary of celebrations of the Dravidian movement, Bishop Robert Caldwell of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG) would have had rolled over in ecstasy in his grave. After all, it was Bishop Caldwell who gave the fundamentals of the racial framework for the interpretation of south Indian history.

Like the term ‘Arya’, the term ‘Dravida’ also has a long history. Traditional Indian psyche with its diverse streams, including the Vedic, Buddhist and Jain, never interpreted these terms in racial terms. While the term ‘Arya’ relates to a person of culture, ‘Dravida’ refers to a specific geographical region well within the cultural matrix of India. However, after Max Muller read racial meaning in the term ‘Arya’ and Europeanised it as ‘Aryan’, colonial-missionary binary constructs of Aryan-aboriginal started fast percolating into the psyche of educated classes of Indians — both Brahmins and non-Brahmins. Bishop Caldwell, whom DMK supremo praised limitless, added a conspiracy theory to this racial framework. No, Aryans did not conquer the Dravidians, he said, but they sent their stooges the cunning Brahmins who through their religion enslaved the Dravidian kings. According to Caldwell, Tamil kings were gullible enough to accept the title ‘Shudra’ when Brahmins told them that it was a title of honour. ‘Cunning Aryans’ also invented what is now known as Hinduism as a means to enslave Dravidians!

Bishop Robert CaldwellToday, the Aryan-Dravidian binary stands rejected by archaeology and dismissed repeatedly by genetic studies. However, the apologists of the Dravidian movement claim that it was nevertheless a tool for social emancipation and had to be understood in that context. How much truth is contained in such a claim?

The racial theory enunciated by Caldwell had three components: The Aryans, the Dravidians and the Dalits. The Dalits were of little consequence in the narrative constructed by Caldwell. His main aim was projecting the Aryan-Dravidian divide. And this became an integral part of Dravidian political ideology. Herein lies the main spiritual weakness of the Dravidian movement: It could never speak whole-heartedly for the Dalit rights. Throughout the history of the Dravidian movement one sees this deficiency. Rettaimalai Srinivasan, one of the pioneers of the Dalit movement in Tamil Nadu, which was then part of the Madras presidency, though then he had no reason to question the Aryan-Dravidian theory, realised that even if one accepts the binary, the so-called Brahminical and non-Brahminical religious traditions were organically linked. In fact, he along with Baba Saheb Ambedkar at the Round Table Conference in London had petitioned the British to label the depressed classes as “non-conformist Hindus or reformist Hindus or protestant Hindus”.

Rettamalai SrinivasanAnother great Dalit leader of Tamil Nadu was M.C. Rajah. He parted ways with the Justice Party, which was the political expression of non-Brahmin politics. He, too, was appreciative of the reform agenda then taken up by the Hindu Mahasabha. Ayyankali, the first Dalit freedom fighter of Kerala, who successfully won the educational rights of Dalits in Kerala through a bitter battle, had no use for the Aryan-Dravidian racial construct. Incidentally, he had his initial inspirations from monks who had their roots in Arya Samaj. Nor did Sri Narayana Guru ever use the racial framework of Caldwell for his social emancipation fight. Rather, he used Advaita Vedanta for the liberation of the oppressed.

The decisive blow against the Dravidian ideology as a tool for social emancipation was dealt by none other than Ambedkar. Bodhisattva of our times, Ambedkar rejected the racial interpretation of Indian social reality decisively. Discarding the Western theory that the so-called untouchables and Brahmins belonged to different races, Ambedkar stated that if anthropometry was to be considered a science then based on exhaustive data, Brahmin and the Dalit did not belong to separate races but one. “The Brahmin and the untouchable belong to the same race,” he said. This was a basic fundamental truth which the south Indian non-Brahmin movement, which labelled itself ‘rationalist’, never grasped.

M.C. RajaE.V. Ramasami (EVR), the primal patriarch of Dravidian racism, who was also donning the cap of “the sun of rationalism” never understood the fallacy of his demand for Dravidstan. In July 1947, he attacked Ambedkar of betrayal and as having gone to side of “dry North Indian philosophy” and standing for a “United India”.

The Dravidian race theory also contained in it a denial of Dalits as part of the same race. This contempt for Dalits as part of the Dravidian movement has often manifested itself in abusive and violent forms. EVR himself often spoke in venomous contempt against the Dalits. Dalit leaders of his time protested vehemently against his disparaging remarks attributing the rise in the price of cloth to Dalit women wearing jacket. It was only after decades, that too during an election period, that EVR came up with a lame explanation for his alleged statement which did not cut much ice across the Dalit leaders.

The unkindest cut of all came in the form of a Dalit massacre in 1969. In a village in Tamil Nadu (the notorious Keezhvenmani massacre) non-Brahmin upper caste landlords torched alive landless Dalit workers, who were non-violently agitating for an increase in the wages. EVR came up with a condemnation of the incident. He started with the condemnation of the concept of Satyagraha, which according to him had made common people rebels. Then he ended up condemning those who ‘instigated’ the Dalits to fight for higher wages. There was not a single word of condemnation against the non-Brahmin landlords.

Dr. B.R. AmbedkarAmbedkar was bitter about Hindu society for its suicidal maintenance of the oppressive caste system. But he never let that bitterness become hatred. He never compromised on the safety and integrity of the nation. He always saw him as part of the great process of renaissance and social emancipation movement that started with the wisdom of the Upanishads and manifested in the compassion of Buddha. He and his movement were staunchly rooted in the principles of democracy and Ambedkar traced the spiritual basis of Indian democracy to the ‘Mahavakyas’ of the Upanishads. One finds such deeper and holistic understanding of Indian social history conspicuous by its absence in the Dravidian movement.

On the contrary, the Dravidian movement rooted itself in the false racial doctrine of Aryan-Dravidian theory. It was based on a racial hatred for Brahmins as the other. Though in later days, democratic compulsions forced C.N. Annadurai to overcome this hatred, he too was not above lamenting that the social reality of Tamil society prevented him from implementing Hitler’s methods in eliminating the Brahmins. However, the people of Tamil Nadu were cautious in the sense that they repeatedly rejected the hardcore pseudo-rationalist, racist DMK and preferred the ADMK which during the charismatic M.G. Ramachandran’s time was more inclusive of the Dalits, more sensitive to Hindu religious sentiments and had a better democratic and humanitarian face.

E.V. RamaswamyToday, the 100-year-old Dravidian movement is struggling to remain relevant. It has become socially, culturally, historically and spiritually a failed movement. Like all failed movements it lives in desperation. And like all desperate entities it seeks violence and hatred to justify its existence. The term ‘social justice’ has become synonymous in the Dravidian movement for a racial hatred for Brahmins and a passionate hatred against Indic spiritual traditions. Thankfully, people have realised its ideological bankruptcy. – The Pioneer, New Delhi, 18 August 2012

» With inputs from M. Venakatesan, author and an emerging Dalit historian.  S. Aravindan Neelakandan is the co-author of a path-breaking book on Dravidian and Dalit faultlines, Breaking India: Western Interventions in Dravidian and Dalit Faultlines.