Dravidian-Hindutva axis in Tamil Nadu: The slow death of the Periyar atheist

Political outfits have a standard line for incidents of intimidation and violence: ‘These acts are condemnable.’ But when such events make their own socio-political position untenable, they add the following: ‘These are stray incidents carried out by fringe groups.’ In other words, these are just stray dots scattered over large geographical spaces and time that we should ignore. This begs the question: when does the surface density of these dots make them important? At what point does one need to worry that an underlying conflict is tearing apart our social fabric? Are we going to wait for many dots to appear at shorter time and space intervals? Are we all headed for a large Black Hole?

These thoughts have lingered in my mind over the past few months as I watch numerous dots of violence appear in various parts of Tamil Nadu, some darker than others, but all indicative of a polarisation of people. For all of us whose attention and knowledge is based on what the media finds significant, a major point of inflection was the hounding of the author Perumal Murugan in the small town of Nammakkal. All of us know the story and are quite aware that the underbelly of Hindu society, namely casteism and its perceived sanctity, had a hand in the way the ‘episode’ panned out. The state government was an active participant and allowed local vested interests to take control. After a few months, in another obscure town, Karur, another Tamil writer ‘Puliyur’ Murugesan was assaulted by members of a caste group who claimed that a short story in his book had hurt their feelings.

Then the intolerance arrived in the state capital itself. A Tamil TV channel office in Chennai was attacked, a cameraman assaulted and crude bombs hurled at their premises by another set of ‘fringe elements.’ All this to protest and condemn its proposed TV debate on the relevance of the tali, the equivalent of North India’s mangalsutra. But things did not stop there. Soon, the Dravida Kazhagam, a party known as ‘DK’ that was founded by EV Ramasamy Naicker (Periyar), who gave birth to Tamil Nadu’s rationalist, self-respect and anti-caste movements, held a public event where 21 women members of their party removed their tali. And just when we thought the circle was complete, some alleged members of a group called the Dravidar Viduthalai Kazhagam assaulted a few Brahmins in Chennai, forcibly taking off their sacred thread (poonal). For every one of these incidents, there were protests and counter protests with the chatter on TV channels and social media further polarising the dialogue. While the attack on Brahmins brought back memories of the 50s and 60s when similar violence had occurred in Madras, the overall sense this time was of disbelief.

Though caste battles have remained a part of Tamil social life with parties such as the PMK being self-avowedly caste based, it is unusual today for Tamil Nadu to be a theatre of aggressive acts over religion with such high visibility and frequency. Many of us, over the last three decades or more, have come to believe that the people of this state are less religious than hardcore Hindus in, say, Maharashtra or UP’s hinterland, and hence have held the view that matters of religion cannot stir trouble here. To an extent, we have also attributed the BJP’s failure in Tamil Nadu to its overtly ‘upper-caste’ orientation.

A brief historical rewind would be in order here. In Tamil Nadu, whenever the word ‘Hindu’ or ‘caste’ is used, the larger- than-life figure of one person appears at once in our mind’s eye: Periyar EV Ramasamy. So deeply etched is that bespectacled, bearded nonagenarian personality in the Tamil mind that his caste-surname ‘Naicker’ is irrelevant; all that matters is that he is the one and only ‘Periyar’ (the Elder). Within that image are subsumed all discussions on religion and caste. He is the preceptor of all Dravidian parties. Even political parties that are not direct offshoots of his movement and politicians who are not his protégés accept that they owe their place in the Tamil political spotlight to Periyar. His Dravidian Movement is the foundation on which Tamil political identity has been constructed.

The complete control of Periyar-invoking Dravidian parties over Tamil Nadu’s socio-political scene over the last three decades and more had led many to believe that ‘Dravidian rationality’ had pushed religion to the periphery of the Tamil psyche.

I have heard some pious ‘upper-caste’ Tamilians say with great regret ‘we Tamils don’t have any bhakti’. But nothing can be further from the truth! Despite Periyar and the Kazhagams, Tamil Nadu has always been driven by religiosity and ritualism (by the term ‘religiosity’, I refer only to Hinduism here, since it was the chief target of Periyar’s reformist movement).

The self-respect movement had a significant impact in changing the demography of public life and creating spaces for many caste groups. But what it was unable to achieve was a ‘revolution towards rationalism’. Faith is an intriguing creature; it hides, disappears momentarily, even retreats temporarily, allowing rationalism to lead the way, but very rarely does it completely vanish. Periyar, as much as he tried, was unable to erase religious faith from the hearts of the Tamil people. He was vicious in his attack on superstition and chided believers for their ‘blind beliefs’. Yet his and the DK’s inability to understand and respect the intensity of religious emotion within an individual and in the Tamil Collective was revealed by the way the adroit Tamil mind has used astonishing selectivity to embrace yet reject Periyar. Like Gandhi’s approach to untouchability, in some ways, caste became an internal Hindu problem that needed redressal. Therefore the elimination of a caste hierarchy was essential, but the demolition of Hinduism as sought by Periyar, even as a notion, was probably never in the majority’s mind. Faith took a backseat, it remained camouflaged, unseen, but did it die? No, it did not. It continued to thrive in silence. Periyar, by default, had enabled the political empowerment of everyone, but within the religious belief system itself. Why discard belief? One could hold on to that crucial axle, an emotional anchor, and yet rise in the social hierarchy.

The DMK, which has remained ideologically closer to the DK, has been unable to untangle the web of religiosity that holds its party members and followers. The DMK’s unquestioned leader and former Chief Minister M Karunanidhi may continue to espouse atheism, but the actions of many within his party reveal a stubborn sense of religious habituation. Even some of his own public actions have, on occasion, come to be critiqued by atheists. Casting a vote for the DMK today (the DK has ceased to be a party of electoral value) is in no way a sign of atheism, rationalism or anti-casteism in an individual. Many DMK supporters will routinely head for a temple and pray for a DMK victory!

The other dominant Dravidian party, AIADMK, has encouraged religiosity and moved far away from Periyar, though it will not openly concede this. In Tamil Nadu, the AIADMK is what the BJP is in North India. Whenever there is a direct contest between the two parties, Hindu-minded voters are hard put to make a choice. Most choose the latter, not only because the BJP has virtually no organisation in the state, but also because they are drawn to the allure of its Dravidian-Tamil genealogy combined with the charisma of Jayalalithaa, who is often worshipped as a goddess. The fact is that except for the Periyar faithful, atheism and rationalism are now passé in Tamil Nadu.


What explains this sudden Hindu awakening? There is no doubt that the emergence of Narendra Modi as a national leader and his pronounced Hindu stance has had its impact on Hindu Tamilians. Let us also not forget that Tamil Nadu is presently under AIADMK rule. This is what we call a ‘double whammy’. Many of this party’s voters also support Modi, which makes the recent incidents even more significant.


Beyond party politics, a long dormant sense of being Hindu appears to be surfacing across caste groups, bringing back ideas of antiquity and purity to the fore. In a modern reinvention of the late 18th and early 19th century Hindu revivalist movement, Tamil Hindus have begun creating, probably for the first time, a distinct Dravidian-Hindutva identity. And here, caste identities both appear and disappear in ingenious ways. They seem to appear if a caste-based attack offends Hindu-caste purity and disappear the moment the enemy is identified as an ‘outsider’: that is, Muslim, Christian or a secular liberal generally seen as ‘anti-Hindu’.

The debate on the tali was perceived as an insult to a symbol of purity, fidelity, honesty, antiquity, sanctity and faithfulness. Every one of these words is wedded, literally, in a tight knot to what is seen as the Hindu identity. Symbols are exactly that— they go beyond their contextual use, becoming emotional definers of the larger identity that we occupy. Questioning the tali amounts to questioning the purity of the religion itself.

A respected religious symbol can be problematic. The tali, beautiful as it can be as an ornament, is also a patriarchal and oppressive symbol of man’s control over women. It is, after all, the man who ties it around his wife’s neck. Some reformist women have even gone to the extent of comparing it to a dog’s leash. It would be irrational to ignore the fact that there is not one such Hindu symbol that visibly marks out a married man; even a wedding ring is optional. There is a Tamil saying, ‘Kallanalum kanavan, pullanalum purushan’, which means, ‘A husband is a husband, be his heart as hard as stone or as pliant as a blade of grass.’ Its spirit is threaded into the tali. We cannot erase the record of cruel ceremonies—some of them still in practice—where a woman is forced to break her bangles and take off her bindi andtali at the death of her husband. Tamil cinema has been party to eulogising the tali-wearing woman. The ways in which it has been portrayed as a symbol of femininity and womanhood are quite bizarre.

The wedding ritual, kanya daanam, where the bride is ‘donated’ to the husband, is sexist and offensive to some even while it is considered ‘rather sweet’ by many. Such practices must be debated. Women who believe in thetali as a symbol of womanhood and feel the need to wear it have the right to freely do so. But surely, those who find it offensive must have the same freedom. When we speak of hurting religious sentiments, we seem to forget that one could also hurt non-religious sentiments.

A counter question that frequently features on social media is: ‘Why doesn’t the media discuss the burkha or hijab?’ Indeed, that too should be debated. Just as there are women who see in the tali an important symbol of love, there are Muslim women who feel they wear the burkha or hijab of their own free will. Can the finger-pointing Hindu mind accept that? Or, will it be viewed as delusional free will? If that is the case, then is the need of the talialso a conditioned delusion? As in the case of Hindu women and the tali, I am certain that many women of the Islamic faith feel obliged to veil themselves. This has to be taken up by the women themselves and every one of us must enable this dialogue.


During the Tali-related attacks and counter-attacks, very few from any Dravidian political party, barring the DK, were willing to openly support the telecast of the debate. They only offered superficial statements in condemnation of the violence. No one was willing to take the provocations head-on. The ruling AIADMK clearly did not want a debate on this issue, and, as state officials say, wanted ‘the law to take its own course’, which usually means do nothing. This only corroborates the fact that inherent in Tamil politics is a Dravidian-Hindutva sentiment that is finding expression today.

In such an environment, the truly atheistic Periyar follower is scrambling for relevance. He knows deep within that ‘evangelical atheism’ has failed and he cannot break faith through rational discourse. It is partly in this state of desperation that the DK conducted its tali removal show. Did they have a right to do it? Of course they did, even if many have questioned its timing. Look at it from their point of view, however. This was the first time in many years that the DK and its leader Veeramani have had an opportunity to claim attention, and so they did. I do not see any problem in this, since it is a strategy used by all social, religious or political bodies. But the irony was the way the event was held. Every ‘wife’ who took off her taliwas asked to hand it over to her husband. But one thing must be said about the DK, which is that it is the only Dravidian party that has stayed true to the ideals of Periyar, the father of the Dravidian movement. Whether this is the right thing to do, though, is a completely different question.

To the extreme elements in the DK, a simple way to counter the growing Dravidian- Hindutva axis was to attack Brahmins. I am critical of many Brahminical practices and the influence of Brahminism on society, but assaulting people only because they believe in a way of life that you disagree with is unpardonable. This cannot be allowed. And as expected, in an inversion of reason for inaction, most Dravidian parties once again remained silent. They could not be seen supporting Brahmins, even if on the tali issue through their muted response they were implicitly backing a Brahminical notion.

As much as the religious Right is unable to revisit religious and ritualistic practices handed down by tradition, Dravidian parties face a serious crisis of ideology. They seem to lack the maturity and insight to revisit their philosophy within the current social context. Their embrace of religion is not a conscious ideological position, and so they are unable to articulate its role in their own lives. They seem philosophically empty and ideologically lost, and hence may find it difficult to survive beyond the lifespans of their present party leaders. Holding on to their leadership for dear life, they are nervous of a future where the most unlikely contender, the BJP, may just find a foothold in Dravidaland.

Tamil Nadu’s politicians find themselves in a conundrum. The Hindutva of Tamilians is now out in the open and every Dravidian party wants a piece of the electoral pie. Hence, they will play their cards carefully if the issue is about ‘hurting Hindu sentiments’. But Periyar cannot be swept away and therefore he will make his perfunctory appearance whenever there is an ‘upper-caste’ battle.

The BJP finds itself performing a different circus act, bringing all Tamil Hindus together and hiding its own casteism behind the banner of Hindutva—a political possibility that is a reality only because of Periyar. Yet, they will have to be critical of him in order to retain their religious identity and ‘upper-caste’ vote bank.

For the common man, things may only get worse. Inciting religious and caste related anger would be the modus operandi of all. Meanwhile, such actions will remain the ‘condemnable acts of fringe elements’. This will allow parties to hop, skip and jump between various ideological positions: pro- Hindu, anti-‘upper caste’ or pro-Tamil. The dots will increase in number and may occur more in places of high visibility, which means they will overlap and perhaps envelop us. We can be certain that this will be the trend at least until the next state polls due in 2016.

Originally written for Open, The Magazine

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