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Periyar: A Man Little Understood

Nalini Rajan

By S.V. Rajadurai and V. Geetha
Bharathidasan University, Thiruchirapalli, 2007, pp. 320, Rs. 105.00


Roughly 2500 years ago, there lived a man called Socrates, who maintained that a life not examined was a life not worth living. Tragically, for that very reason, he was put to death by being forced by the Athenian state to drink hemlock. Closer home, in the first seventy-odd years of the twentieth century, lived a Socratic figure, called Periyar E.V. Ramaswami, who suffered a fate worse than state-sponsored murder. For nearly two decades after his death in 1973, his ideas were abandoned and, if at all his name was invoked in the state of Tamil Nadu, where he lived most of his life, it was either a symbolic gesture or a political gimmick. Periyar, unsuspecting of a parallel denouement to the story of his own life, often quoted the Greek wisdom with fervour in his writings and speeches.   The book under review is to be commended for resurrecting Periyar’s most radical and thought-provoking ideas and publicizing them for a wide English-speaking audience. In a sense, this collection of essays is a sequel to the authors’ Towards a Non-Brahmin Millennium: from Iyothee Thass to Periyar, which was published in 1998. V. Geetha and S.V. Rajadurai offer these books as a tribute to the memory of Periyar, whom they describe as a ‘great Tamil iconoclast and subversive genius’.   Periyar—like M.K. Gandhi—lived through turbulent times, between 1879 and 1973. Like Gandhi, Periyar had a clear preference for the workings of civil society over the state. However, unlike Gandhi, Periyar turned to Reason and maintained that the ‘truths’ Gandhi claimed as his personal truth were not universal, and therefore not of much use. If the immediate was of paramount importance to Gandhi, the future was full of promise for Periyar. Gandhi searched within himself for the female and the untouchable; Periyar looked outwards for these categories, towards the socio-political collective. All in all, Gandhi’s satyagraha principle was too remote and abstract for the man of reason, Periyar. In 1927, Periyar parted ways with Gandhi, because of the latter’s unshakeable faith in varnashrama dharma.   As founder of the Self-Respect movement of the non-brahmins in Tamil Nadu, and the Dravida Kazhagam Party, Periyar had novel insights into the caste question and these may be summed up in the following terms: There can be no liberation of the non-brahmins—particularly shudras—without the liberation of the Panchamas (the fifth caste, also known as dalits ...

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