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Colonialism and Competing Identities

Colonialism and Competing Identities Brahmin and Non-Brahmin: Genealogies of the Tamil Political Present by M S S Pandian; Permanent Black, Delhi, 2007; pp xii+274, Rs 650.


Colonialism and Competing Identities

Brahmin and Non-Brahmin: Genealogies of the Tamil Political Present

by M S S Pandian; Permanent Black, Delhi, 2007; pp xii+274, Rs 650.


he book travels into the past to unravel how the two identities of brahmin and non-brahmin, were shaped in the Tamil region during British rule. It probes how these two social categories mutually constituted each other and how this process was intricately linked with colonialism. Further, it argues that colonialism provided a nascent modern discourse of justice and rights and also a “secularised” public sphere where previously unarticulated conceptions of oneself and the other found expressions in unprecedented ways. The refigurations of the brahmin identity through the intellectual and material resources provided by colonialism in turn affected the formation of the non-brahmin political identity.

Arguing thus, Pandian departs from historians of the Cambridge school who tend to look upon the making of the nonbrahmin identity with a “certain incomprehension”. Pandian shows that for these historians it is “a moment of surprise” that a community constituting 98 per cent of the population and possessing the bulk of wealth and political power should denounce the brahmins constituting less than 2 per centof the population and in no way coming close to the former in economic and political resources. In other words, this kind of contestation between the brahmin and the non-brahmin remains a puzzle to them. According to Pandian, this perception of the region’s politics comes in the way of understanding the “facticity and efficacy” of the emergence of the non-brahmin identity.

Pandian also contests the tendency on the part of some to see the emergence of the non-brahmin identity as pre-given. He says that some, like N Ram of The Hindu, see the emergence of the non-brahmin identity and politics as inevitable or “as no surprise at all”. This kind of understanding, according to Pandian, obstructs the possibility of unsettling the set understanding of the brahmin and the nonbrahmin as opposed to each other in contemporary politics. In other words, this “taken-for-granted” opposition between the brahmin and the non-brahmin, does not give scope for much exploration on the question of formation of identities.

Pandian’s own attempt in the book is to map the genealogies of the two categories so as to move out of the understanding of the “ontological naturalness” that is attributed to them. In his own words, his is an attempt at “historical ontology for one linguistic region” where colonialism “at once facilitated and constrained a politics of becoming for the emergent identity of non-brahmin”.

This book is a part of that intellectual trend which questions the nationalist historiographical framework that positioned the colonial state in opposition to the colonised nationalists. These two oppositional forces were placed in historical narratives as undifferentiated sociopolitical categories – the imperialist and coercive colonial state on the one hand, and the exploited, oppressed, freedom aspiring nationalist on the other. This, argued the nationalist historians, was the primary equation defining colonial reality. This understanding of historical forces and socio-political categories came under challenge by historiographies that rejected the primacy of this colonial-nationalist divide by highlighting the power structures and social hierarchies within the category of the nationalist. The Marxists, with their class analysis, also highlighted these divisions within the nationalist category but still accepted the primacy of the colonial contradiction. Building on that and following Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) many historians and social scientists working on India developed a new methodology as well as theoretical position which came to be called “subaltern” after the volumes published by that name.

The greatest contribution of subaltern scholars was to bring out rich histories of those – the tribal, the untouchable, the small-town dweller, the non-brahmin – whose voice had been muted in the nationalist, or even Marxist, rendering of colonial history. Pandian’s present work is located firmly within this intellectual tradition in its exploration of Tamil political history. In a tone that is familiar, Pandian talks of the colonial “civilising” and ‘“modernising” missions that made the colonised visualise and refashion themselves in unprecedented ways that changed the way they related to the world. Also familiar is his moving away from a sequential placing of historical events and disclaiming linearity in preference for multiple time frames to explain the historical problem. The concept of “hybridity” is another feature of discourse analysis employed by the author. Within this well known framework, he looks at the colonial Tamil-speaking region and engages with the various strands of the rise of the non-brahmin identity.

Brahmin Hybridity

The book, at first recounts the creation of brahmin hybridity. How the brahmins in response to their encounter with colonialism reinvented themselves as both culturally authentic and modern – the first to ensure European admiration for their religion and the second to secure education and jobs and to expand their social circle. These claims of representing the national culture and being a “modern” social group were based on the exclusion and inferiorisation of lower castes and religious minorities. At the same time, exclusionary caste practices were projected as having a basis in modern rationality. Untouchability thus was shown to be a social practice based on hygiene and sanitation, and the larger caste system as being part of a general division of labour. The attempt in all this was to consolidate brahminical sociopolitical power in the Tamil region.

The brahmin authority in the cultural and material spheres was linked to his bilingualism – his knowledge of Sanskrit and English. What is interesting is that this

Economic and Political Weekly January 27, 2007 bilingualism coexisted with his contempt for Tamil – the language spoken by the mass of the population. The bilingualism and the simultaneous contempt for Tamil, consolidated his authority while raising the anxieties of the non-brahmin. Caste exclusiveness became a feature of a number of public institutions in the Madras Presidency, something which spilled over to the Indian National Congress. These public institutions could not escape being labelled by the non-brahmins as ‘agraharams’ or exclusive residential enclaves of the brahmins because of their caste attitudes.

The book thereafter discusses the critique of the brahmin as developed by nonbrahmins like Iyothee Thoss and Maraimalai Adigal in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This was primarily a religio-cultural critique, which contrasted the existing brahmin of colonial Tamil country with a notional idealised brahmin whom these critics claimed was originally Buddhist. This kind of critique valorised the brahmin and had the implication, argues Pandian, of actually degrading Dravidian practices. This religio-cultural critique was soon followed by a critique provided by the Justice Party. The latter saw the brahmin power as founded on a firm material base. Pursuit of the worldly goods – education, jobs, wealth – made for the entrenched brahmin in spiritual and material worlds. The Justice Party’s secular critique tried to show that these two worlds were inherently linked and that one could not expect a disinterested rule from the brahmin.

Non-Brahmin Challenge

The book then moves on to a discussion of the non-brahmin Self-Respect Movement of E V Ramasamy. His critique of the brahmin hinged upon the notion of the brahmin as containing elements which could simultaneously be alluded to and critiqued. In other words, critiquing the brahmin also meant critiquing Hinduism and the Indian nation at the same moment. This critique also tried to demonstrate how brahminical Hinduism was a source of the inferiorised identity on the non-brahmins. Towards the end, the book talks of the “inertia of shared vocabularies” and gives a glimpse into some of the contestations within the “normalised” non-brahmins. It looks at the questions being raised from within the non-brahmins by the newly emergent identities trying to carve out their own distinctness in the socio-political space provided by democratic culture. In other words, the emergence of a political constituency of dalits and their critique of the non-brahmin identity.

Pandian’s discussion of the emergence of identities is woven together with the different threads of the non-brahmins’ political self-assertion that subsequently replace brahmin hegemony.

Explorations of a few fundamental questions would have further added to this well-written and interesting work. First, what accounted for the changing nature of the non-brahmin critique of the brahmin in the colonial Tamil region? Why does this critique change from religio-cultural to a secular one? Did it have something to do with the changing material basis of the non-brahmin leadership articulating the different perspectives? Pandian gives an account of the discursive fields and the changes within but does not address the question as to why this discursive field is shifting? An exploration of these questions might give us a clearer picture about why the non-brahmin critique of the brahmin changes and in turn the self perception of the non-brahmin.

While Pandian discusses the social support base of the early leadership of the nonbrahmins as represented by Iyothee Thoss and Maraimalai Adigal and the audience their discourse appealed to, he is silent about the kind of non-brahmin support base the Justice Party and the Self-Respect movement leaned on. What sort of a relation did they have with the non-brahmin mass? Further, who were these non-brahmins? A disaggregation of this category in terms of the ownership of resources, economic power, rural-urban setting, jati divisions, minorities and the so-called untouchable castes, linguistic divisions, would have explained some questions. Main among them being the changing nature of identity; the ups and downs in the non-brahmin movement; the entrenchment of the non-brahmin political power and the “normalisation” of the non-brahmin identity; and also, the later emergence of a dalit critique of the non-brahmin. A look at these might also give us an explanation into the rise of the demand of a separate Andhra state in Madras presidency among the Telugu speaking non-brahmins in the 1930s and 1940s.

Another question which would have added in clarifying the issue of identities is: What sort of an equation existed between the non-brahmin leadership, Congress nationalism and the colonial state? The move from the Justice Party to the Self-Respect movement to the formation of the Dravidar Kazhagam in colonial times, and then to the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), does reflect the strengthening roots of the non-brahmin movement. But what distinguishes the various stages from one another, how does one stage overcome the weaknesses of the earlier one and comes to have a wider spread are some points that would have made the analysis of the present work richer. It would have told us more about the way the non-brahmin identity got crystallised. The Indian National Congress, with overwhelming brahmin support, had a political presence in the Madras presidency. It won the 1934 and 1937 elections defeating the Justice Party, which had won elections in the 1920s. There are obvious reasons for the INC victories – the INC riding on a wave of the country wide anticolonial stir and Gandhian influence. But it would be interesting to glance at the less obvious factors to these victories – were there some kind of social fissures within the non-brahmin constituency of the Justice Party. What sort of non-brahmin support did the INC come to have? Despite these fissures how does the non-brahmin presence establish itself politically as represented in the DK, then the DMK and so on, reducing the Congress Party from a formidable political force to a non-entity in the decades following independence? A discussion on some of these questions would have rounded up the study of identity formation well.

The timing of the book could not have been more apt as its release coincides with a time when many of the overarching questions of the book form the core agenda of today’s political debates across the country. Here I do not only mean the question of the violent approaches of the upper castes towards the non-privileged castes – an issue that has a persistent presence, but also questions like: Within those deserving affirmative action (quotas) are there those who deserve it more? What kind of caste affiliations would move towards empoweringtheweak and further loosen the hold of the oppressive social hierarchies? Why is a selfperceived and self-endorsed singularity of a marginalised social group being contested by those from within at this particular juncture in time? What kind of new critiques are emerging to the larger issue of caste oppression? These questions arebeing increasingly asked and debated in both the political and the non-political terrains. In this context, it is quite a learning experience to go through the book.



Economic and Political Weekly January 27, 2007

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