The Making Of A Nation

Tamil Nationalism

Solomon Victus

The concept of the ‘nation’ was propagated by E V Ramasamy (EVR), later affectionately called Periyar, a Tamil man who perennially carried the appellation of an ‘anti-national.’ Freed from the mainstream nationalist binary of nationalism vs. colonialism, anchored in history and nationalism as progress, and troubled all the time about citizenship, E V Ramasamy’s concept of the nation denied its origin in the classical Indian/Tamil past and envisaged it fully in the anticipatory. Further, it constantly violated any certitude about boundaries, identities or agents of change and went beyond the territoriality of the nation. In tracing the contours of E V Ramasamy’s ‘nation’, Aloysius’ attempt is not only to explore the relationship between the nation and the past, but also to recover one of the marginalised discourses on the nation, which has been fossilised in Indian nationalist historiography as belonging to the ‘other’ of the nation, that, is, ‘anti-national’. Such attempts at recovering alternate concepts of the nation seem pertinent and urgent as the official ‘nation’ has become one of the most important sources of legitimacy for the state in India as well as for a range of political formations varying from the Hindu communalists to the leftists.

E V Ramasamy’s sojourn in the Indian National Congress was brief, a mere five years in an active political career spanning over half a century. After a series of experiments within the Congress, which may be termed as experiments on the question of citizenship in the nation, he finally broke with the Congress in November 1925 when two of his resolutions favouring ‘communal representation’ were disallowed in the Kancheepuram Conference of the Tamil Nadu Congress. Therefore, he declared his political agenda to be: “no god; no religion; no Gandhi; no Congress; and no Brahmins.” Within the non-Brahmin movement of the South, the idea that nation and nationality meant comradeship based on equality of recognition and acceptance runs through as a steady undercurrent. The most crucial episode in EV Ramasamy’s early public life was the Gurukulam untouchability incident at Cheranmahadevi and the controversies surrounding it. The general position of the cultural nationalists–Congress and Gandhi–on the practice of untouchability in the ashram made Periyar turn away from them, and begin a long militant career of political nationalism.

The identity that E V Ramasamy established between god, religion, Gandhi, Congress and the Brahmins was based on his understanding that all of them stood in the way of different subordinate social groups such as the Shudras, the Dalits, and women, attaining free and equal citizenship in the nation-in-the-making. His political career then onwards was more or less an unwavering journey through the Self- Respect Movement (founded in 1925) and the Dravidar Kazhagam (founded in 1944) in search of substantive, as opposed to formal, citizenship as constitutive of the nation, and this is more than evident from the way he assessed and combated the nationalist concept of ‘Swaraj’ and the manner in which he responded to the British Raj. Such foregrounding of substantive citizenship of the subordinate social groups as the principal constitutive element of the nation place EVRamasamy outside of mainstream Indian nationalism as well as the incomplete modernity of the British in the colonial context. In other words, he was free from the need to set the nation in opposition to the coloniser.

During the course of the anti-Hindi agitation which contested the compulsory introduction of Hindi in schools by the Congress government in 1937, EV Ramasamy began airing his demand for a separate Tamil Nadu, which evolved over time into a demand for a separate Dravida Nadu. Till the end of his life, he, more or less steadfastly, denied legitimacy to India as one nation and kept his demand alive. In this context, he did differentiate the Tamil past as more equitable compared to the pan-Indian past. Basing his arguments on ancient Tamil literary texts, he claimed that both the caste system which degraded the non-Brahmins and the current marriage customs which emphasised women’s subordination were alien to the Tamil past. Beyond that, his position on the Tamil past was not different from that on the Indian past, that is, he ‘denationalised’ the Tamil past too. Interestingly, even in contexts where he favourably referred to the equitable Tamil past, he simultaneously discounted it and claimed that one would not benefit by harping back to the past.

In attacking Brahminism and Hinduism, he did not show any mercy and he popularised a ‘golden saying’ for the Dravidian Rationalist Movement:

There is no God.
There is no God.
There is no God at all.
The inventor of God is a fool.
The propagator of God is a scoundrel.
The worshipper of God is a barbarian.

Coming down heavily on the Congress brand of nationalism which sought to restore to dominance all forms of religious superstition, Periyar indicated in his inimitable popular style the kind of nationalism he had in mind: “If we consider, on what must depend the nationalism of a nation, minimally, the people of a nation, without having to sell or bargain their mind or conscience, should be able to eke out their livelihood. More than this there are several other nationalisms: knowledge should grow; education is needed; equality is needed; unity is needed; self-effort is needed; genuine feelings are needed; cheating one another for a livelihood should not be there; lazy people should not be there; slaves should not be there; untouchables and those who cannot walk on public streets should not be there; like these several more things should be done”. Periyar celebrated Independence in 1947 with a black flag demonstration.

Even after Independence the tension between Hindu nationalism and Tamil nationalism to some extent has existed in a nuanced way. Every year with the Navaratri coming to a close for the year, Hindus look forward to the culmination of the festivities, which is Ravan Dahan on Dussehra. Vijayadashmi is celebrated on the 10th day of Navaratri and marks the victory of good over evil. While the Ravan Dahan or the burning of Ravan’s effigy is seen all across India, this festivity is more popularly hosted up in the North with grand fervour. The effigies of Ravana are burnt on the day of Dussehra, which is the day after the end of Navaratri. This burning of the effigies of Ravana is always seen as offensive to the Dravidians. The followers of EV Periyar, i.e., Periyarists, have long felt that this is very humiliating, since long time.

Therefore, the Periyarists started protesting Ramayana’s ‘racist portrayal’ of ‘Dravidians as demons.’ As announced, about 40 members of the Thanthai Periyar Dravida Kazhagam (TPDK) landed at the Sanskrit College at Mylapore in Chennai on Wednesday to burn effigies of Ram, Sita and Lakshma-nan. Amidst tight security, and all efforts of the police to stall the event, the members of the fringe group did manage to burn a few effigies, including that of Lord Ram. S Kumaran, a member of the TPDK, said: “As per our plan we broke the police chain around us and burned the effigy. Eleven persons who were involved in burning effigies have been remanded by police”. Condemning Ramayana’s ‘racist portrayal’ of ‘Dravidians as demons’, the TPDK said that the Ravanan Leela was their way of protesting against Hindu cultural hegemony.

“It does not matter that ‘Ram Leela’ is not celebrated in Tamil Nadu. In Delhi, effigies of Ravanan and his two brothers are burnt; we believe they are Dravidians, and that burning their effigies is mocking us. So to stop that, we have decided to celebrate ‘Ravanan Leela’ in which we will be burning the effigies of Ram, Sita and Laksh-man”. S Kumaran also added that they had written a letter to the Prime Minister asking him to stop Ram Leela in Delhi, but they did not get any response from his office.

MT Saju writes that in the 1970s too Periyarists conducted Ravanan Leelas. He reminds people that after Periyar died, his wife Maniya-mmai burnt the effigy of Ram at Periyar Thidal in 1974. But since then it has not been a popular event. Emotional discussions on Ram Leela and Ravanan Leela have not yet died out in Tamil Nadu, and every year one can find the smoke from those events. Tamil nationalism is shooting up here and there, not just based on the Tamil language, but as a counter-culture of the Dravidians to the Aryan-Brahmin-Baniya supremacism.

The past thus was bereft of anything worth appropriating for the national agenda. The nation could arrive only after a break from it. In short, the past stood ‘denationalised’ in EV Ramasamy’s discourse on the nation. The nation, freed from the past, located in the anticipatory and framed by notions of ‘modernity from below’ was a metaphor: one which stood for ever-fluid, free, and equal citizenship. Its success can be assessed in terms of its continuing ability to inspire diverse subordinate social groups in present-day Tamil Nadu to question the Indian nation-state for its failings, and to imagine nations of equity and freedom lying in the future. The Hindutva nationalists have recently been involved in vandalising Periyar statues, busts, pictures, and in scripts, and have been attacking Periyarist group campaigns. This shows that Hindu nationalists find the Dravidian movement and its ideology a real threat to their growth in Tamil Nadu.

G Aloysius: Nationalism without a Nation in India. New Delhi: OUP, 2011(c. 1997).
EJ Hobsbawm: Nations and Nationalism since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality (Second edition). Cambridge: CUP, 1992.
Kancha Ilaiah: Buffalo Nationalism: A Critique of Spiritual Fascism. Kolkata: Samya, 2004.
MSS Pandian: ‘Denationalising’ the Past ‘Nation’ in E.V. Ramasamy’s Political Discourse in: Nationalist Movement: A Reader edited by Sekhar Bandyo-padhyay. New Delhi: OUP, 2009.
Arun Shourie: A Secular Agenda: For Saving our Country, for Welding it. New Delhi: ASA Publications, 1993.
[This is an extract from the book: “Cultural Nationalism: The Making of an Indian Nation” by Solomon Victus. Published by the Department of Research, South Asia Theological Research Institute (SATHRI), Senate of Serampore College, Serampore, 2021.]

Back to Home Page

Vol 55, No. 14-17, Oct 2 - 29, 2022