Periyar is no Ambedkar

Dr Sandeep Pandey, Magsaysay Awardee and CNS Columnist 
The Human Resources Development Minister Smriti Irani coerced the IIT Madras Dean into banning the Ambedkar Pariyar Students Circle, which has now been lifted after a nationwide outcry from progressive organizations and individuals. The group was charged with spreading hatred against Narendra Modi and Hindus as it had criticised the decisions by some state governments to ban beef, make use of Hindi compulsory and the 'ghar wapsi' programme of RSS affiliated organisations.

This was a clear violation of Article 19 which guarantees citizens of India freedom of speech and expression, to form association and unions and to assemble peaceably and without arms. How can the criticism of government's policies or some programmes of Hindutva organisations be construed as spreading hatred against the PM or Hindus? It is not necessary that all Hindus agree with the view of Hindutva organisations. For example, there are a number of devout Hindus who cannot speak Hindi because their mother tongue is some different language. Making use of Hindi compulsory for them will be grave injustice to such people. Similarly, all adults have freedom to choose their life partners irrespective of their caste and religion. How can there be a policing of relationships? A relationship between two individuals is their private matter and nobody else should interfere in this. Similarly, the habits of some individuals or communities may include non-vegetarian food. This is also a personal choice. Recently in Bangladesh Narendra Modi exercised his personal choice to have vegetarian food on public occasions when everybody around was having non-vegetarian food. This choice of individuals or communities must be respected.

The most hypocritical aspect about beef from the point of view of Hindutva organisations is that while some BJP state governments want to place ban on beef and some self styled sadhus want people to be hanged for cow slaughter, during PM Narendra Modi's visit to China the Government of India was seeking greater market access for its products, important among which was bovine meat! China has banned Indian meat in the past due to complaints of disease carried by it. India desperately wanted this ban to be lifted so that it can achieve its export target of $1 billion of bovine meat to China. 

The Hindutva groups this year on Ambedkar Jayanti, probably for the first time in the life of these organisations, observed the event. There is a clear attempt by BJP to woo the dalit voters. But Ambedkar was not happy with Hindu religion and therefore changed his religion to Budhhism. He also convinced a number of his followers too to convert to Buddhism. Ambedkar had said that even though he was born as a Hindu he would not die a Hindu. It is amazing that RSS has taken a decision to recognize Ambedkar as a social reformer.

Ambedkar is still easy to handle for Hindutva groups. Periyar became an atheist after his visit to the Hindu holy city of Kashi as a result of facing caste based discrimination there. Periyar had burned copies of Hindu scriptures containing anti-dalit writings. Hindutva groups would never be able digest the fact that Periyar once also burned the picture of Lord Ram in 1956 at Chennai. Mayawati during her initial days when  she was a strong critic of Manuwad or Brahminism used to have Periyar as a dalit icon among Ambedkar, Kanshiram, Narayan Guru, Chatrapti Sahu ji Maharaj, Jyotirao Phule, Savitri Phule, Gautam Buddha, Kabir, etc. However, when BSP had to align with Brahmins as part of a political compulsion, Periyar was surreptitiously removed from the dalit pantheon. Since then Mayawati has also stopped criticing Manuwad or Brahminism. How important a position was held by Periyar among the dalit icons is clear from the change in stance that Mayawati had to undertake. Presence or absence of Peiryar determined whether Mayawati would or would not crticise Brahminism. Mayawati has not built the statue of Periyar among the various dalit icons which stand tall at different dalit monuments in Lucknow today.

Periyar E.V. Ramaswamy stood for self-respect, especially of non-Brahmin Dravidian people. He was the founder of Dravidar Kazhagam, parent of both the parties today in Tamil Nadu between whom political power alternates. He was strong critic of the caste system because there was no logic in simply one's birth, over which one had no control, determining one's position in the hierarchical system. Periyar fought against untouchability practised against the dalits. He was opposed to child marriage but supported the idea of widow marriage. He advocated gender equality and supported the idea of choosing life-partner for oneself from any caste or religion. He also cared for the destitute and abandoned in society. He stood for the philosophy of Humanism.

Periyar opposed the imposition of Hindi language over non-Hindi speaking people as he thought that Hindi would be used as a tool by north Indians for exploitation of others.

RSS in its attempt to coopt Ambedkar were taken aback by the name of Periyar associated with the student group in Madras. It didn't know how to deal with Periyar. Hence they advised the MHRD to first ban it but then under public pressure had to yield to the demand of lifting the ban.

It would be interesting to see how the Sangh pariwar deals with Ambedkar now? Will they continue with their decision to try to include him among the national heroes they revere or will they try to maintain a distance as they'll necessarily have to do with Periyar? RSS will have to resolve this dalit dilemma.

But placing a ban has provoked a strong reaction in all parts of country. At some places new units of Ambedkar Pariyar Student Circle have come into existence while at other places different dalit groups have become assertive.

A government which cannot handle very basic criticism cannot last very long. Narendra Modi has an autocratic style of functioning and cannot tolerate any dissent. Democracy cannot afford to have a leader like him because he would stifle the spirit of free debate at various levels in society. Either he'll have to change or people will replace him with a saner leader.

Dr Sandeep Pandey, Magsaysay Awardee and CNS Columnist 
18 June 2015
(Author is a Ramon Magsaysay Awardee and Vice President of Socialist Party (India). Follow him on Twitter: @sandeep4justice )