Current Affairs

Caste Wars in Tamil Nadu: a Sanghathan Perspective

Aravindan Neelakandan

Nov 20, 2012, 06:49 PM | Updated Apr 29, 2016, 02:03 PM IST

The film was a typical mediocre one even by the standards of 1980s. The screen play smacked of inability to free from the stranglehold of the stage drama influences. As if that is not enough, it was a film on the miraculous powers of the Goddess worshipped widely by villagers in Tamil Nadu. Despite all the shortcomings the film had a very touching socio-spiritual message, which in hind sight of present day conditions also strikes one as very bold.

Sadasiva Brahmendra, a realized soul, promises a Brahmin landlord that Goddess would personally visit the house of the landlord. The Goddess not only visits but feeds with Her own hands, the offerings kept for Her to the pregnant Dalit woman who works there as servant maid. Initially shocked and their caste delusions utterly destroyed by the grace of Sadasiva Brahmendra, the Brahmin landlord and his wife adapt the Dalit maid as their own daughter and declare her husband their son-in-law. In the traditional hagiographies of Sadasiva Brahmendra one does not find this incident though he was involved in the installation of a famous Goddess form worshipped by country folks of Tamil Nadu – Punnai Nallur Mariamman. This incident could have really occurred or perhaps it was merely a figment of pious imagination. What is important though is the message of socio-spiritual harmony that the film carried despite all its shortcomings.

Revival of Caste Fury in Dravidian Land

And that brings us to the present era of popular culture in Tamil Nadu. Today the movies have technical expertise matching almost Hollywood movies, with scenes of violence so realistic that one can feel the screen blood in one’s own mouth. In addition there are excellent acting skills and professional directors. However starting in the 1990s, there has been a trend of glorifying aggressive caste stands of non-Brahmin upper castes in the name of community honour. Movies were titled openly with caste names –land owning non-Brahmin castes.

A recent film, Sundara Pandian, had scenes almost glorifying an honour execution of a boy who happened to fall in love with a girl of Devar caste. In fact some of the worst violent caste-conflicts in South Tamil Nadu correlate with the release of one specific such caste-centric movie, curiously acted by Kamal Hassan known for his Dravidianist pseudo-rationalism. Thevar Makan went on to become a blockbuster. Coupled with this there has been a steep increase in caste-rhetoric in public space. Each community has started claiming that they were the original rulers of Tamil Nadu – specifically the builders of imperial Chozha Empire. Interestingly enough each community can build up some seemingly credible evidence to support its claim.

Meanwhile caste based identity formation started remoulding the memories of national leaders into casteist straightjackets. Pasumpon Muthuramalinga Devar, a nationalist who fought for the removal of Criminal Tribes Act in Tamil Nadu, also happens to have a streak of pro-caste feeling which led to a violent clash with a local Dalit community. Today his memory is promoted more for casteist feelings and caste vote banks and each year the day of remembrance releases the caste libido of the community leading to violence. The local Dalit community leader who opposed him and got killed was one Immanuel Sekaran – a Christian Dalit who reconverted to Hinduism at the behest of then Chief Minister Kamaraj. Kamaraj was a staunch nationalist – who had even suggested bringing a law to curb the obscene attack on Ramayana by Dravidian movement. It was during his tenure that Dalit leader Kakkan, known for his extreme honesty, was made minister of public works and also agriculture. Yet now even Kamaraj is not spared by caste satraps who project him as their caste icon. Last year during the annual Guru Puja (that is how the annual remembrance is called in Tamil Nadu), of Immanuel Sekaran, six Dalits were shot dead by the police. This year Devar Guru puja saw the death of six Devar youths in inter-caste violence.

A pre-modern mythical legacy coupled with quest for modern political power led to the inevitable – constructing an enemy. That enemy is inter-caste marriage, particularly the marriage of the so-called upper caste girls with Dalit youths. Caste leaders started warning the parents of the girls to be wary of Dalit boys. A gigantic conspiracy was imagined. Digital social networks like Facebook pulsated with cartoons and photoshopped pictures mocking and attacking inter-caste marriages. Anti-inter-caste marriage conventions started happening. Dalit leaders retaliated with equally vehement rhetoric: “Yes we shall marry the so-called upper caste girls.”

Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) – a party which was part of the ruling coalition of UPA-I as well as NDA and which essentially belonged to Vanniars, in a mammoth rally gave the slogan “Let Vanniars rule and let other castes live”. In the public meeting that followed a prominent leader, with Dr.Anbumani Ramadas the former central minister in dais, thundered, “If someone belonging to another caste marries our girl simply cut him into pieces. I shall take care of the consequences.” Interestingly the PMK party mascots included EVR and Karl Marx.

Even as the anti-inter-caste mania spread, a Dalit boy and Vanniar girl married against the wishes of the girl’s parents. After some days the father of the girl committed suicide and in a well planned attack 300 Dalit houses were charred and all their valuables were looted. Justice eludes the victims of caste violence and for Dalits it is doubly denied. Sri Rama Gopalan pointed out acidly, ‘Why is it that the parties in Tamil Nadu which always speak of communal harmony never speak of societal harmony?’

Yet in a strange irony, Dravidian politics found itself selectively targeting Brahmins –an absolutely soft target. A restaurant was attacked by Dravidianist hooligans because it had the word ‘Brahmin’ in its name though men of all castes were served in the café. A popular female singer of Brahmin caste was harassed by cyber-warriors of Dravidian variety and had to file a police complaint. However not to be let behind other caste chauvinists, Brahmins also have started asserting their own caste-based apartheid, which also has a religious dimension.

Advertisements for ‘Brahmins-only’ apartments, CBSE schools with preferential treatment for Brahmin male boys studying Vedas etc. have started appearing in magazines and newspapers making Brahmins easy targets for Dravidian racists who conveniently ignore other upper castes who are more violently surcharged with caste spirit. More worrying phenomenon is that Hindu cultural discourse is becoming ghettoized within Brahminical walls instead of getting democratized. The caste based fragmentation of Tamil Nadu has all potentialities to convert not only the rural Tamil Nadu but also the cyber-Tamil Nadu into killing war fields of caste violence.

Annihilation of caste is pre-condition for Hindu Sanghathan

Only people who ought to be worried about this fragmentation should be the Hindutva forces – as they have a long legacy of anti-caste movement in Tamil Nadu, a legacy of which they themselves have only a dormant memory. Sri M.C.Raja a great champion of Dalit rights was one of the earliest leaders to cite Hindu Maha Sabha resolutions fighting caste inequalities to enthuse Dalits with confidence.

Ayyan Kali the South Indian Dalit fighter had appreciated Hindu Maha Sabha for its anti-caste stand supporting the Dalits. Veer Savarkar had named prohibition of inter-caste marriage or caste-rejection marriage as one of the seven shackles of Hindu society which needed to be broken. He had stated in his ‘Essentials of Hindutva’:

…Pull down the barriers that have survived their utility, of castes and customs, of sects and sections: What of interdining? — but intermarriages between provinces and provinces, castes and castes, be encouraged where they do not exist. But where they already exist as between the Sikhs and Sanatanies, Jains and Vaishnayas, Lingayats and Non-Lingayats.Suicidal be the hand that tries to cut the nuptial tie.

Later Guruji Golwalkar of RSS, who has often been perceived as a conservative and a person with soft approach towards orthodoxy, stated:

As the older dried branches fall off a growing tree, to give place to the new ones, the society would shed Varna Vyavastha the existing social structure at one time and give place a new necessary one. This is a natural process of the development of the society.

Later he stated:

I have told you once that for the sake of construction of a new house, old house requires to be destroyed. Similarly perturbed social system must be put to an end here and now and should be destroyed root and branch. Going further we should proceed to establish a pure and harmonious society on the basis of pure Nationalism.

The change of imagery is striking. From being a natural process of transformation, Guruji envisions an active intervention – a forceful demolition of the old house rather than the passive falling of a dried branch. His successor Bala Saheb Deoras also saw caste as a dying institution. The only problem was how to do the mercy killing of caste in an intelligent way:

Castes no doubt exist, but they have nothing to do with the preservation of the social fabric. Caste is now confined only to marriage alliances. It exists only in the form, the spirit having disappeared long ago. What exists now is not (Varna) Vyavastha but only Avyavastha! Hence we should all put our heads together and think out how to guide it—a system which has to die and is already dying a natural death—along the correct path to its termination.

The Vampire strikes back

However today we live in a time when caste has proved itself to be undead and like the Count from Transylvania in Bram Stoker’s novel, is sucking the life blood of Hindu unity. In such a changed circumstance, Hindu nationalists have the non-envious task of using all their might to annihilate caste, drive the stake unhesitatingly right into its undead heart fed by the sucked blood of millions of Dalit Hindus for generations. How do the leaders of Hindu movement meet the new challenge?

Dr.Suraj Bhan another RSS ideologue and who was the chair-person of SC-ST commission had stated that the sharing of natural resources of the villages is a very important factor in Dalit empowerment. Not surprisingly one of the charges made by the so-called upper castes in Tamil Nadu against the inter-caste marriages is that the girls who marry Dalits ask for their share of inheritance which mainly includes the land resources. Through inter-caste marriages Dalits become owners of land resources and that is the main source of anger and vengeance. The ‘upper’-castes also make the charge that the love marriages are a sham because they often break up.

The inter-caste marriages are not easy in Indian condition. The young couples, who commit themselves to caste-rejection marriages, actually are under extreme stress and fear of uncertainty. They need protection, legal and social, economic assistance and psychological counseling so that they can successfully tide over this crucial period in their lives. This means institutional support.

Of course government intervention will only complicate the situation. Recently all India RSS leader Sri Mohan Bhagwat stated that a survey had shown that it was the RSS cadres, who have as an institution highest number of inter-caste marriages. If so then Sangh is the right organization to have access to data as to what problems such couple might face. By pooling together this data and creating institutional networks that can make inter-caste marriages a success and subsequently deal a death blow to caste.

The opponents of inter-caste marriages have been quick to point out that Hindu nationalists are against love jihad and that the inter-caste marriages –particularly when done by Dalit boys- is similar to ‘love Jihad’. Here it should be pointed out that Hindu nationalists themselves have had changes in their perception and have got them the hard way. In 1952 a young Muslim politician married a Hindu girl in New Delhi.

The Hindu nationalist magazine ‘Organiser’ spewed venom at that politician in a language that would have made a third-rate Dravidianist orator blush in shame. Bharathiya Jan Sangh even conducted agitations some of which were not exactly non-violent. One should also remember that those were the emotionally surcharged times of post-partition trauma when anti-Muslim feelings were at their highest.

However, the same Muslim politician would later raise in BJP – the new avatar of Bharathiya Jan Sangh. He would become the leader of opposition in the upper house of the Parliament in that crucial year of Sri Rama Janma Bhumi movement in 1992. In the NDA government he would become the minister of Industries. He was Sikandar Bhakat and his wife was Raj Sharma Bhakat. The moral of the story is that the Hindu nationalist movement has realized that they should oppose only conversion through marriage but not inter-religious marriages per se. In fact Dr.Subramanian Swamy, now an emerging star in Hindu rightwing circles, himself is a father-in-law of a Muslim boy. So the opposition to ‘Love Jihad’ is the use of marriage to wean away members of this society from the fundamental culture of this nation. And the acceptance of inter-caste or rather caste-rejection marriages by a Hindu Sanghathanist, is because they integrate the society based on the cultural principles of the highest spirituality.

Annihilation of Scripture-based religion that supports Caste

Hindu Sanghathan movement that envisions the transformation of Hindu society from being a mere communal majority into a political majority necessitates the annihilation of caste. Inter-caste marriages, despite the fact that they are an important and a very vital part of the project to annihilate caste, do not however address the core issue.

It is in this context that Dr.Suraj Bhan rightly suggested a small amendment to Article 17 of the Constitution. According to Dr. Bhan

All it needs is an addition of one word. Instead of the Article stating ‘Untouchability is abolished and its practice in any form is forbidden’, it should read: ‘Caste system and untouchability stand abolished’.

This was part of a special report on the status of the scheduled castes which the National Commission of SC/ST submitted to the Central Government in 2005. Historically Dr.Bhan’s recommendation was a continuation of Dr.Ambedkar’s insight on the termination of this evil. In his book ‘Annihilation of Caste’ the good doctor states:

Caste is a notion. It is a state of the mind. The destruction of Caste does not therefore mean the destruction of a physical barrier. It means a notional change. People are not wrong in observing Caste. In my view, what is wrong is their religion, which has inculcated this notion of Caste. If this is correct, then obviously the enemy, you must grapple with, is not the people who observe Caste, but the Shastras which teach them this religion of Caste. Criticising and ridiculing people for not inter-dining or inter-marrying or occasionally holding inter-caste dinners and celebrating inter-caste marriages, is a futile method of achieving the desired end. The real remedy is to destroy the belief in the sanctity of the Shastras. How do you expect to succeed, if you allow the Shastras to continue to mould the beliefs and opinions of the people?

It is interesting to note that the only other leader to come to similar conclusion was Veer Savarkar:

Scripture-based caste division is a mental illness. It gets cured instantly when the mind refuses to accept it.

Sri Ashok Singhal the president of Viswa Hindu Parishad International, has taken the very right step when he identified Smrithis to be the mischief makers. Viswa Hindu Parishad under his guidance has officially rejected the Smrithi-based religion. Its statement reads:

The Manu Smriti or the Yaagyavalkya Smriti has no connection with Adi Manu or the Sage Yaagyavalkya. The Smritis were written during the reign of Pushyamitra about 2200 years ago. There is no reference of such Smritis in the Mahabharata. … There are more than three hundred Smritis. They have little to do with the eternal values of Dharma. These have been responsible for gross discrimination that is alien to our concept of Ekaatmataa (Ekaatm Bhaava/Integralism) that is expounded in our ancient scriptures, the Shrutis (the four Vedas the eternal revealed scriptures) and the Upanishads.

Ashok Singhal was unambiguous in his exposition, “There is no place for Manu Smrithi in a civilized society.”

Let us take the message to every Hindu that ‘Caste is anti-Hindu and suicidal’

Thus Hindutva has both ideological as well as institutional capacity to battle the forces of casteism which have been unleashed by the Smrithi-based psyche that centuries of social stagnation has produced. In Tamil Nadu context, this psyche has been reinforced by perverted racism of Dravidian politics which has only added anti-Brahminical hatred to the Dalit hatred in the name of social reform movement. To reach out to the Dalits who have been singled out by Dravidian casteists and who have been denied justice for centuries by Hindu society, Hindu Sanghathanists can take a cue from that film of 1980s.

It is time to create a popular spiritual culture that is based on the Vedantic ideal of Integral Humanism – all humanity is part of the same Divinity. Scriptural barriers become meaningless before the vision of compassion of the Mother. If Hindutva movement can take this message forcefully through all possible media to all sections of the society and liberate caste-Hindus from the shackles of their casteism and Dalit Hindus from the injustice they are suffering from the mindset of the caste Hindus that shall be the day Hindu Sanghathan has arrived in this ancient land of Tamils.

Aravindan is a contributing editor at Swarajya.

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