Sudras and the Nation: Periyarist Explorations

The sudra question is a complicated one in Indian sociology, history and politics, but it had an impact on a significant period of the Dravidian movement. Periyar E.V. Ramasamy referred to the non-Brahmin castes of South India, who did not belong to the ‘untouchable’ communities, as sudras, the lowest varna in the Hindu social order. He used the inferiorized identity of ‘sudra’ not in assertion or pride, but as a social critique of brahminism. Acknowledging the existence of multiple jatis within the sudra varna, Periyar criticized their notions of hierarchy towards each other and especially towards the Dalits. He sought to consistently remind the sudras of their place within brahminism and the need to challenge caste as a system. This paper discusses how Periyar’s ‘sudra critique’ also contained within it an alternative approach to the nation-state.

When Kancha Ilaiah published his controversial book Why I am not a Hindu (1996), he subtitled it A Sudra Critique of Hindutva Philosophy, Culture and Political Economy. Ilaiah’s output in contributing to this “critique” has been quite prolific, the most recent being the co-edited volume The Shudras: Visions for a New Path (2021). But why use a Sudra critique when Ilaiah himself identifies that the concept of ‘Sudra’ is derogatory in the Brahminical vocabulary and that “it does not communicate a feeling of self-respect and political assertion” (Ilaiah 1996)? For political purposes, Ilaiah (1996: ix) prefers the term Dalit Bahujan, building on the concept introduced by Kanshi Ram, the founder of the Bahujan Samaj Party, and defines it as ‘people and castes who form the exploited and suppressed majority.’  The ‘Sudra’ concept is used as a critique of Brahminical ideals so as to arrive at a Dalit Bahujan politics. Ilaiah frequently cites Jotirao Phule and B R Ambedkar as being crucial to the development of his Sudra critique. He also refers to Periyar E V Ramasamy (Periyar hereafter) as an important Dalit Bahujan thinker. Indeed, as far as Tamil Nadu is concerned, it is Periyar who made a ‘Sudra critique’ of Brahminism popular and acceptable in the public sphere, cementing what is commonly known as Dravidian politics.


It is worth considering some empirical realities before we proceed further. It is now commonly understood in the academia that it is jati and not varna that is operating in practice in Indian society at large. This, however, does not make the varna model irrelevant. While there are thousands of jati groups and it is at this level that ‘caste injunctions on marriage, occupation and social relations are conducted’ these castes nevertheless ‘draw their ideological rationale of purity-pollution, endogamy, commensality, and so forth, from the varna model’ (Gupta 2000: 199). Many jatis claim affiliation to a particular varna. Also, jatis that are placed lower in the varna order lay claim to a higher varna status. For instance, Jats in Punjab and Reddys in Andhra Pradesh are supposed to be Sudras, but they lay claim to be the Kshatriya varna—Ilaiah calls them neo-Kshatriyas. This idea of Sudras as fallen warrior communities was proposed much earlier by Phule and Ambedkar. In Ambedkar’s hypothesis, the Sudras were an Aryan community who were fallen kshatriyas owing to a long conflict with the Brahmins (Ambedkar 1990: 11-12). His predecessor Phule saw the Sudras as persecuted kshatriyas. According to him, the Brahmins sustained their domination by dividing the oppressed castes and deepening the antagonisms between them and further as Phule wrote, “All the shudras belonged to the same fraternity” (Phule 2008: 19-20).


But as a sociological category and a political category, the term ‘Sudra’ can be extremely confusing. In the commonsensical understanding, Sudras are equated with the administrative category of Other Backward Classes ([OBCs] which includes categories like Most Backward Castes [MBCs]). This is still misleading as communities like the Saiva Vellalar Pillais of Tamil Nadu, who are technically Sudras, come under the general category. However, the OBCs form the bulk of the Sudras and ‘represent about half of the Indian population, but they have occupied a subaltern position so far’ (Jaffrelot 2000: 86). It is worth remembering that the administrative category of OBC was created after the consideration of several socio-economic factors of backwardness. Note that they are called ‘class’ while the ‘Scheduled Caste’ category has a clear mention of caste, and it covers castes that historically suffered and continue to suffer different forms of untouchability. The concreteness around the SC category facilitated the emergence of a pan-Indian Dalit identity and intellectual conversations, even if Dalit politics has been localised in practice and also hosts internal tensions. I have addressed some of the tensions within Dalit politics in Tamil Nadu in my earlier work (Manoharan 2019: 85). The vagueness and ambiguities around the Sudra-OBC-intermediate caste question results in not only their politics being localised, but also in the absence of pan-Indian intellectual debates on their identity/identities. One of the reasons for the paucity of such debates is the minimal representation of OBC academics in central universities in India, which is worse than the representation of academics from SC communities (Kumar 2018). Likewise, social scientist Yogendra Yadav claims that there is a reluctance to conduct a caste census as it may reveal  ‘the very large numbers of the OBCs’ and also that their plight is ‘worse off than the top layer of the SC communities’ (Yadav 2021). Further explorations in this line might be very insightful to both empirical and theoretical studies on how caste as a system is exclusionary and oppressive not just to the Dalits but the OBCs as well. 


In Tamil Nadu however, the situation for the OBCs has been better, to which Dravidian parties can take considerable credit. A recent work on Tamil Nadu’s political economy aptly titled The Dravidian Model: Interpreting the Political Economy of Tamil Nadu (Kalaiyarasan and Vijayabaskar 2021) explains that the populist policies pursued by the Dravidian parties that have been in power in the state brought about an inclusive model of development that led to significant socio-economic mobilities of the OBCs and SCs. The authors also argue that Periyar’s politics of self-respect played a crucial role in shaping the unique politics of the state. What I intend to convey in the course of my paper is that Periyar’s substantial understanding of casteism enabled him to develop a nuanced perspective that was well aware of local realities and the several internal contradictions between castes, while not losing sight of the critique of the Brahminical system. A mechanistic understanding of casteism looks at Dalits as the only victims of casteism, oppressed by all those above them, where physical violence and explicit acts of discrimination are the only criteria to categorise victim identities. On the other hand, a substantial understanding of casteism looks at Dalits as the most oppressed by it, but not the only oppressed. It takes into account the degraded social, political and economic status of both the Dalits and the intermediate castes to be an interlinked problem. In an earlier paper, I have addressed Periyar’s approach to the Dalit question (Manoharan 2020). Contrary to allegations by critics that Periyar saw the non-Brahmin category as an unproblematic whole, he was acutely sensitive to the deep fault lines within this category.  


It is common to see OBCs referred to as ‘caste Hindus’, especially in relation to Dalits. Ilaiah (1996: viii) claims that this is a trap for the OBCs as it denies the oppression they face while including them within the Hindu fold. For one, the terminology of ‘caste Hindus’ homogenises an extremely diverse conglomeration—Tamil Nadu, for instance, has 252 castes in the OBC category, inclusive of MBCs and denotified communities. Secondly, it assumes a commonality of social and/or political interests when nothing as such has existed historically. To give a few examples, in his remarkable study of the Nadars, Hardgrave Jr captures the intense conflict in south Tamil Nadu between the Nadars and the Maravars who considered the Nadars as a lower caste and sought to thwart their attempts at social mobility. In the Sivakasi riots of 1899, several Nadars were killed by a Maravar mob, but the Nadars also fought back and defended their locality and their right to assert themselves (Hardgrave Jr 2018: 109-120). In Erode in western Tamil Nadu, the powerful landowning Kongu Vellalars looked down on the ‘warrior merchant’ caste Kaikkolars and this led to conflicts in the early parts of the 20th century, especially when the latter laid claims to temples (Mines 1984: 39-40). The Vanniyars, who fashioned themselves as kshatriyas from the 1870s, claimed that they had been historically subjugated by the Vellalars (Gough 1981: 301). Periyar’s critique identified all of these communities as Sudras and, urging them to abandon ‘Sanskritisation’, encouraged them to build common cause with one another and with the Dalits to dismantle the caste system.


Sudras, Dravidians and Dalits


From the start of the Self-Respect Movement, Periyar (2011a: 22) uses the term ‘non-Brahmin’ to refer to not just those who were not Brahmins, but more specifically to those who, according to him, were oppressed and/or degraded by the Brahmins. To him, the several communities divided as castes, the untouchable and unseeable castes, Christians, Muslims, and Anglo-Indians were also non-Brahmins . Used loosely, ‘non-Brahmin’ might make no political sense, as a Brazilian, Ugandan, Japanese or German are all technically non-Brahmins. But the specific usage in Tamil Nadu that was popularised after the publication of the Non-Brahmin Manifesto in 1917 made this term have concrete political value in that it signalled an opposition to Brahmin hegemony and to dominant nationalist imaginations. However, Periyar openly acknowledged the divisions within and did not try to use the non-Brahmin identity as an easy suturing of conflicts. Likewise, while considering the Dalits as a crucial part of the non-Brahmin identity, he was alert to their specific interests and also argued that they needed proportional representation much more than the other non-Brahmin castes (Periyar 2011a: 25).


To Periyar, the Dalits were closer to the idea of Self-Respect since they were out of the varna order. He saw them as naturally inclined to Self-Respect thinking (Periyar 2011a: 111). Periyar was clear that the Sudras had to fight alongside with the Paraiyars and the other untouchable castes if at all they could free themselves from the caste ignominy (Periyar 2011a: 231). To counter caste, preaching alone would not be enough—a social revolution and progressive laws were also necessary (Periyar 2011a: 261). Periyar laments that “We do not bear the identity of Dravidians. We do not bear the identity of Tamils. We only have the identities of Sudras, untouchables, fourth caste, fifth caste” (Periyar 2011b: 95). He also says that as long untouchability exists against the Adidravidas, the Dravidians will continue to face discrimination from the Aryans (Periyar 2011b: 97). In an article titled “Dravidians are not Hindus” in the Viduthalai in 1941, Periyar says that the Dravidians were the natives of India, those who built great civilisations and cultures, before they were defeated by the Aryans and reduced culturally to the state of Sudras and untouchables and economically impoverished simultaneously (Periyar 2011b: 132-133).


Taking a leaf from Aristotle’s book, Periyar says that man is a social animal, but the Hindu religion divides society and legitimises social hierarchies (Periyar 2011b: 191). He accuses the Brahmin nationalists of sloganeering ‘down with imperialism’, while continuing to discriminate against the Sudras and maintaining caste distinctions (Periyar 2011b, 96-97). While the divisions in North India were on religious lines, Hindu–Muslim, in South India, the divisions between Brahmin and Sudra were crucial. Responding to Savarkar’s claim that Muslims were to be opposed because of their aggression, Periyar says that if that were the case, then there was more reason to oppose the Hindus because of their aggression as was evident in the inferiorisation of the Dravidians (Periyar 2011b; 194). Periyar calls for a unity of the non-Brahmins and Muslims to oppose Hindu aggression. He further claims that the only reason why the Tamils were categorised as Hindus was to differentiate from and pitch them against the Muslims, but within Hinduism, they were marked as Sudras and panchamas (Periyar 2011b; 227-228). 


However, Periyar did not believe that mere representation of non-Brahmins in places of power would end their social degradation. Referring to the powerful positions held by non-Brahmin notables, he remarks that despite their positions, they could do little for the improvement of the majority of the society, nor could they remove the ignominy of Sudrahood in society (Periyar 2011b: 197). He accuses these ‘Sudras’ in power of being unable to confront Brahminism and for their subscription of Brahminical culture and practises. He criticises the Tamils who attain a position of power for looking down on those below them as ‘lower castes’, for imitating the Brahmins, and for treating the poor as Sudras (Periyar 2011b; 236). More specifically, he says “The Dravidian Movement will fight against whoever oppresses the untouchable castes” (Periyar 2011c, 72).  He adds that irrespective of whether the untouchable castes join the Dravidar Kazhagam or not, they have the right to claim the benefits of the party’s efforts (Periyar 2011c, 75). Such explicit overtures by Periyar towards the Dalits contradicts the claims by academics like Narendra Subramaniam that Periyar’s conception of the Dravidian “contains at its centre the Tamil speaking Shudra of Tamil Nadu” while the Dalits found themselves in an outer layer (Subramaniam 1999; 105). As I have argued in an earlier paper (Manoharan 2020), while fighting for the political rights of the non-Brahmin bloc as a whole, Periyar was attentive to and vocally stood by the particular struggles of the Dalits, even if it offended the intermediate castes who comprised the overwhelming majority in Tamil Nadu. He believed that not only the Brahmins, but intermediate castes also behaved in a foul manner towards the Dalits and were complicit in their oppression – addressing the ‘non-Brahmin people who think of themselves as upper castes’, he said that they would not be able to get rid of the caste ignominy they faced unless and until they worked with the untouchable castes to help the latter get rid of theirs (Periyar 2006; 44-45).


Nation as Impossible Desire


To Periyar, even the elite non-Brahmin castes like the Mudaliars, Chettiyars and Nayakkars (the Telugu Nayakkars, not to be confused with the Vanniya Nayakkars who were predominantly a labouring caste) were Sudras. In another occasion, he says that the castes adopted names like Mudaliar, Gounder, Nayakkar, etc, so as to hide their Sudra status (Periyar 2011c, 243). This might appear as a blind spot in Periyar’s perspective in his attempt of mapping elite non-Brahmin castes like the Mudaliars and Chettiyars, who occupied powerful positions in the government and the bureaucracy, along with subaltern intermediate castes like the Vanniyars, Vannars, Nadars and Thevars, as Sudras. The point, however, was that despite their powerful positions, these elite communities were ritually Sudras, and worse, they did nothing to challenge their ritual status and/or ameliorate the conditions of the other communities that were lower to them (Periyar 2011c, 95-97). In another article, he criticises the elite Vellalar communities such as the Mudaliars for considering themselves as sat-sudras (clean Sudras) and placing themselves above the intermediate castes such as the Maravars, Kallars, Kammavars and Idaiyars, noting that this only strengthens the superior position of the Brahmins (Periyar 2011c, 224-226). He criticises these communities for consenting to be Sudras, and for not adopting egalitarian politics. He says “Instead of getting in power, or betraying our ideals and falling at the feet of our enemies for the sake of power, we should stand on the side of the common people and apply pressure on those in power” (Periyar 2011c; 97). Power within the ambit of the nation state, to Periyar, not only corrupted the Sudra, but also Brahminised them.


Periyar was not averse to criticising the intermediate castes for internalising the varna order. He wanted the caste associations of Brahmins and intermediate castes to be banned (while he defended Dalit associations). He lamented that the numerous caste associations of the intermediate castes prevented Dravidian unity (Periyar 2011c, 189). He calls out the Acharis for naming themselves as Vishwabrahmins, Komutti Chettiyars for naming themselves as Aryavaishyas, the Nagarathu, Vellan and Vaaniya Chettiyars for considering themselves Vaishyas, the Vanniyars, Nadars, Sengunthars and Naickers for fashioning themselves as kshatriyas. He says “all of this will only hold the Aryan-Brahmin as a high caste and accept that the rest are all low castes, other than that, will there be any benefit for your communities?” (Periyar 2011b; 176). He says that these communities have no problem in considering the Brahmin to be above them, but would like to establish their superiority over other communities. The identity of ‘Dravidian’ was meant to be an identity of dignity and self-respect to the people of South India, those derogatorily referred to as Sudras and panchamas (Periyar 2011c, 94).


Periyar believed that the bracketing of society into castes, where each imagined and desired superiority over the other, had made it impossible for the Tamils to consider themselves as a nation (2011b, 177). If at all Indians were to be a nation, they had to reject such ritual hierarchies and build a community on the premise of egalitarianism. It is in this light that Periyar’s so-called separatist statements have to be seen. It was not because a separate Dravida Nadu was a desirable end in itself – Periyar’s co-traveler and biographer S Karunanandam notes that Periyar supported the Indian war effort in the Indo-Pak and Indo-China wars in the 1960s and that he welcomed the Indian intervention in the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971. The ‘Dravida Nadu’ slogan is placed by Periyar, not as a programme for political action, but as a criticism of the dominant nationalist imagination and what it attempts to conceal, mainly, the problem of caste.


In a sense, Periyar was alluding to the impossibility of a nation as long as caste persisted (Pandian 1993). In his recent work, Mahmood Mamdani (2020: 36) argues that ‘Decolonizing the political is nothing less than reimagining the order of the nation-state’ and recommends a critical approach to the taken-for-granted nationalist imagination. Periyar’s de-Brahminical approach offers one possibility of thinking beyond the mainstream (mis)conceptions of the nation and reimagining an inclusive Indian state.


please make the same changes in all copies.

An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Chicago Tamil Forum workshop, University of Chicago held on 13-15 May 2021. The research for this paper received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement No 895514.
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