Why Periyar would have led today’s ‘anti-nationals’

(My column in Mint Lounge, December 24 2016)

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“There is no god. There is no god at all. He who created god is a fool. He who propagates god is a scoundrel. He who worships god is a barbarian.” I was reminded of this refreshingly blunt mantra of Periyar’s last weekend at a discussion on “contrarian views” at the Bangalore Literature Festival, not because the idea of god was under investigation, but because we live in times when scrutiny of even powerful mortals is deemed “contrarian” when really it is just an application of common sense. As an apoplectic member of the audience told one of the panellists off for daring to present a dissenting opinion “while soldiers are dying on the border” etc., I wondered what Periyar, born E.V. Ramasamy Naicker in 1879, would have said if someone asked him to swallow his voice because it was the fashion of the day to obey like good children and to think inside the box.

Today is the anniversary of Periyar’s death in 1973, and one can’t help but imagine him leading the ranks of raging “anti-nationals”. He had come close enough already in the age of the Mahatma, against whom he maintained a catalogue of disagreements, declaring that Independence Day was really “a day of mourning”. On another occasion, he thought the Constitution deserved all the honour that came from being burnt.

Anti-national was not the favourite term for those who refused to follow the herd in Periyar’s time, but he was something perhaps even more unusual: He was the anti-Gandhi. Those who were privileged could stomach Gandhi, while Periyar gave them a severe case of indigestion. And yet many Indians of his day embraced him and millions celebrated his rationality instead of falling in line with what venerable elders chastely decided was “proper”.

Where Gandhi was the embodiment of saintly piety, Periyar exemplified rebellion. Where Gandhi romanticized rural contentment, Periyar envisioned an ambitious age of aircrafts and heavy machinery. While Gandhi renounced sex in his 30s, Periyar married a 30-year-old in his 70s. When Gandhi’s satyagrahis in white stood up to British tyrants, Periyar excoriated the very Indian tyranny of caste by leading his Self-Respect Movement in black. Where the Mahatma’s nationalism was immersed in Hindu morality, Periyar was an atheist who wrote op-eds titled “Honeymoon In The Hindu Zoo”. Gandhi spent a lifetime seeking to tame the flesh while Periyar flaunted it (and had himself photographed) among like-minded nudists abroad. And where Gandhi was cremated like a good Hindu, Periyar was buried, flouting every dictum issued by his forefathers, who were not beyond reproach.

Gandhi celebrated Sita as the embodiment of Indian womanhood with all her purity and self-sacrifice, while Periyar declared the Ramayan to be full of “absurdities”, with quite a different sequence of superlatives for its heroine. Gandhi painted visions of ideal women, while Periyar warned ordinary women to beware of deification. “Have cats ever freed rats? Have foxes ever liberated goats or chickens?” he asked. “Have whites ever enriched Indians? Have Brahmins ever given non-Brahmins justice? We can be confident that women will never be emancipated by men.” Gandhi thought motherhood was divine and spiritual; Periyar saw pregnancy and childbirth as “impediments to liberty and independence”, promoting birth control even if it came at the expense of womanly salvation. Against Gandhi’s sage-like pronouncements, Periyar was branded immoral. “Morality,” he wryly remarked, “cannot be one-way traffic.”

So too with nationalism—now available in your nearest movie theatre—was Periyar irreverent. He viewed it as finely woven, brilliantly designed deception, diverting masses of people from the real state of affairs, sometimes through emotional blackmail and sometimes through the intoxications of pride, and keeping them from checking the book of democratic accounts. He was suspicious of saints, arguing that Gandhi, with his “religious guise, god-related discourse, constant mention of truth, non-violence, satyagraha, purifying of the heart, the power of the spirit, sacrifice and penance on the one hand, and the propaganda of his followers…who in the name of politics and the nation consider him to be a rishi, a sage, Christ, the Prophet, a Mahatma…and an avatar of Vishnu”, had become “a political dictator”.

Gandhi, to him, sought freedom from the British but feared social upheaval at home even if it offered greater justice—he preferred order over equality. “A bhangi does for society what a mother does for a baby,” claimed Gandhi patronizingly, seeking “the beauty of compromise” in social dynamics between the low, who had answers to seek, and the high, who had much to lose. Periyar ached for radical action, once recommending that “if you have to choose between killing a Brahmin or a snake, spare the snake”. Gandhi thought “life without religion is a life without principle” and that education must never lose sight of its moral responsibilities. Periyar believed that the “worship of god, practice of religion, propitiation of rulers, which are all calculated to keep men in mental slavery, should never (even) enter the portals of education”.

Periyar was the enfant terrible of his time, puncturing with unafraid focus holy narratives of India’s destiny at a time when the Mahatma was convinced of this destiny. He was a contrarian, and was branded worse, but Indians of his time absorbed his thought just as they embraced Gandhi’s vision. He was handicapped, perhaps, by language and, besides, political incorrectness hardly makes for a great career. But sitting in Bengaluru listening to even the most elementary expressions of common sense provoke admonishments, I wished we had a Periyar here again, not to set the cat among the mice but to hold up a mirror and to remind us that there is always another way, and that we must sometimes stop following and start thinking.

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