On the Brahminism of the Brahmins at ‘The Wire’ against Periyar

ETA: In the time I wrote this, The Wire has published another piece by P. A. Krishnan responding to Damodaran and Anandhi. This makes it three pieces within the last month on a platform which was partly founded by a Tamil Brahmin, which are “questioning” Periyar’s politics. The politics of who questions what and when doesn’t seem to have struck this network of Tamil Brahmins yet. But to those of us who hold Periyar’s politics in some respect cannot help but see these patterns and call them out.

Of all the “facts” Kalyan Raman spouts in his distorted piece against Periyarite ideology in The Wire, posing the question of just how hegemonic Brahmins were is ludicrous. To prove his point, he quotes statistics about land ownership from Eugene F. Irschick’s 1969 book, which show Brahmins were not dominant landowners.

What he conveniently chooses to omit is in that same Irschick book (and another by Suntharalingam (1974)), are statistics of the overrepresentation of Brahmins in public education and public employment between 1870–1918 (Notes 16 and 17 below cite Irschick in Fuller & Narasimhan’s ‘Tamil Brahmans’).

The gist: In the University of Madras between 1870 and 1918, 67% of graduates were Brahmins; in government employment, 55% of deputy collectors, 83% of subjudges, and 73% of district munsifs were Brahmins.

Of course, Raman pre-empts my criticism by saying:

“Besides, equating the preponderance of Brahmins in government posts under the British for a limited period (1900–1920) to “a monopoly over the state apparatus” is plain fabrication. The “preponderance” was only temporary and a result of the unusually high rate of literacy among Tamil and Telugu Brahmin males of that period, an imbalance which was corrected in due course. Therefore, the concept of hegemony appears baseless.”

EH????? Suntharalingam’s statistics (note 16) are actually for the period (1852–1891), so combined with Irschick’s statistics (1870–1918) the data is actually spread over nearly 70 years. At least two-three generations of hegemonic Brahmins entering the state apparatuses before the non-Brahmins — is this mere literacy? And if so, who controlled this literacy in early to late 19th century in Tamil Nadu?

And then the highly selective reading of Ambedkar’s analysis — that Brahmins aren’t the originator of castes (because duh, point of origin cannot be traced) — while ignoring that a few paragraphs below, Ambedkar clearly states that even if the origins cannot be traced, the open-door nature of the caste system became closed, self-enclosed, ENDOGAMOUS, because of the Brahmins who likely practiced endogamy FIRST.

“Why did these sub-divisions or classes, if you please, industrial, religious or otherwise, become self-enclosed or endogamous? My answer is because the Brahmins were so”

(Para [41] of ‘Castes in India’).

Then that quote about Brahminism not being about Brahmins (conveniently not sourced in the Wire article) — it’s from a speech “Capitalism, Labour and Brahminism” (no online source, unfortunately) that Babasaheb gave to the GIP Railway Depressed Classes Workmen’s Conference in 1938. In this speech to Bahujan government workers, Babasaheb tells them (in a paragraph before the one that Raman cites):

“…we have too long neglected to lay the same emphasis on the economic problems with which we are faced as we do on social problems”.

Meaning, an economic analysis is the order of the day, and his outline of Brahminism that quickly follows is one whose ECONOMIC repercussions are outlined. The negation of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity are the ECONOMIC logic of Brahminism (and capitalism) .

And the complete quote beyond what Raman has cited goes on to say:

“… It denies a certain other classes even equality of opportunity. The effects of Brahminism are not confined to social rights such as inter-dining or inter-marriage… It extends to civic rights as distinguished from social rights.”

So Brahminism performs social exclusions as well as economic exclusions, and can be practiced by castes beyond Brahmins, particularly in the workplaces that in 1938 had opened themselves up to Depressed Classes. BUT, and this is a big BUT, if one were to read Ambedkar’s argument in ‘Castes in India’ that it is the Brahmins who first closed themselves off and became and endogamous class, what does it say about which group first began to negate liberty, equality and fraternity? Where did a workplace where all castes negate liberty, equality and fraternity come from?

So there is a selective reading of Ambedkar here, one intended to counter Periyar. But Ambedkar and Periyar had different agendas in mind — the former was about educating and organizing, the other was about agitating and organizing. Ambedkar’s methods are scholarly; Periyar’s are polemical. Both are perfectly legitimate forms of social activism, and can be found in social justice movements across the world. Ambedkar’s scholarliness thus should NOT be pitted against Periyar’s polemics; each served a different purpose and audience while STILL battling the same enemy — Brahminism.

In any case, Periyar’s support for Dalit emancipation is evident in his castigation of the non-Brahmin caste Hindus which is well-documented. As Damodaran and Anandhi state in their rebuttal piece to Krishnan’s article:

Contrary to the accusations of those who claim he was insensitive to Dalit particularities, Periyar was in fact very keen to address them, and in several cases sided with the Dalits over the intermediate castes. For instance, in the 1957 Mudukalathur riots between the Thevars, a numerically dominant intermediate caste in south Tamil Nadu, and the Pallars, a Dalit caste, he sided firmly with the Pallars and called for the arrest of Thevar leaders who were instigating caste violence. He further dubbed the popular Thevar leader. U. Muthuramalinga Thevar an “anti-social element” and pledged his support to the then K. Kamaraj-led Congress government in arresting him. This is particularly significant because Thevar was a not just a hugely-influential politician in South Tamil Nadu, he was also a god-like cult figure for members of his caste who wield considerable clout in those regions. Periyar knew that he risked losing his support among them but yet took a principled stand for the Pallars against the Thevars.

So all these butthurt Brahmins at The Wire really need to take a chill pill,stop twisting facts in their entirety and ask themselves some serious questions:

What does it look like for Brahmin men to “question” Periyar in these selective unoriginal readings of his work in the 21st century? And for a corporate-funded publication like The Wire whose chief editor is a Tamil Brahmin to publish them? Why this sustained attack on Periyar by Brahmins here and now?

If you consider yourself to stand against caste and Brahminism, I hope you can reach the same answers I’ve reached.

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Pallavi

Pallavi

Media. Literature. Art. Ideology. Gender. Caste. Class. Nation. This space is a writing experiment, feedback welcome.

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