Category Archives: Features

Dr.B.R.Ambedkar Lecture at University of Edinburgh

In this brilliant Dr.Ambedkar lecture delivered by Prof. David Mosse, Professor of Social Anthropology and Head of the Department of Anthropology and  Sociology, through two distinct cases one in India and the other in offshore explicates how debate and policy on caste is warped by issues of religion and nationalism. Prof. Mosse has more than thirty years of experience in south Asian studies and it was indeed a great privilege for the Centre for South Asian Studies to host him to deliver the Dr.B.R.Ambedkar lecture. is happy to podcast the Dr.Ambedkar Lecture.

Please click the file below to listen to Prof. Mosse’s Ambedkar lecture.

The abstract of the lecture is given below.

Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar provided a remarkably clear-thinking basis for social policy and law in India in relation to caste inequality and discrimination. However, the course he charted towards justice and common humanity in the age of equality and rationalism was frequently challenged by crosswinds of religion and nationalism. Opening with two distinct instances, this lecture shows how debate and policy on caste continues to be warped by issues of religion and nationalism.

The first case is that of the status of non-Hindu (Christian and Muslim Dalits) and the denial to them of state provisions and protections as Scheduled Castes (historical victims of oppression and untouchability). The second case is the resistance to the implementation of legislation outlawing caste-based discrimination in the UK by Hindu organisations. Here an interlinked perspective (in part Gandhian) regards caste within India as bound up with Hinduism and the nation, and public debate on caste outside India as a (missionary-colonialist) attack on Hindus and Indian national culture.

An elite internalising of caste to Hinduism or silencing caste in the name of religion and nation may illustrate a postcolonial predicament, but it also sets the freedoms of caste against the Dalit freedom from discrimination, and profoundly misconstrues the experience and perspective of Dalits themselves. The final part of the lecture will explore the latter with the case of Dalit Christians in south India whose overt struggle against the public humiliations of caste have limited success against caste when reworked as structural exclusion and blocked aspirations in the liberalised Indian economy; and among whom there is now a quite pervasive aspiration for casteless humanity — captured so eloquently in Dr Ambedkar’s vision of the recovery of common humanity and a society free from social barriers.

Towards ex-brahminization: The Everyday Life of The Brahmin Male



Gajendran Ayyathurai*

What happens to a human when she is called a broken person, an oppressed person, an ex-untouchable, a lower-caste person and so on has remained an under-examined, even un-examined, theme in psychological, sociological, anthropological, linguistic, literary, and historical studies. Given the entrenchment of privileged caste groups in Indian and Western academy (as well as in Indian public life), centering or re-centering the humanity of those oppressed by caste in universal categories and identities is safely far away in theory and practice. Be that as it may. The purpose of this article, however, is to reverse the gaze on brahmins. By doing so we, the anticaste people of the world, could help those who claim birth as brahmins to begin the process of becoming “ex-brahmins”.

But first, why should there be ex-brahminization of those people who think that they are naturally born with a brahmin identity in Indian society? Because, as a self-ordained minority (making up less than five percent of the population?), brahmins have lived and thrived through hegemony and violence against their fellow humans. Indeed, their spurious religio-cultural, economic, and historical claims in particular have only glorified their self-ghettoization.

Consider what a tuft on a brahmin male head, sacred thread on a brahmin male body, ash and vermillion lines and dots on a half-naked brahmin male body and typical brahmin dress do to a brahmin body. They give brahmins the power to assume a sense of religious power, and thereby to inferiorize others in order to secure a variety of benefits. For brahmin males, to speak of “human beings” refers only to brahmin males; brahmin women and girls are not their equals, neither in ritual nor in everyday life.[1] But the brahmins have paid so dearly for insulating themselves against nature. That is, they have lost humanism and love, since such values are incompatible with anyone who would self-identify himself as a brahmin male with all the aforesaid embellishments.

The sociological, cultural, political, and historical explanations clearly demonstrate that brahmins have remained possibly one of the most exclusionary groups in human history. Barrington Moore was right in comparing brahmins and Jews in his illuminating historical sociology of them, Moral purity and persecution in human history. But he was wrong in considering Jews as more orthodox and exclusionary than brahmins. For, while it is disputable that the roots of racism could be traced to Jews, it is evident that brahmins are the fountain head of casteism and inventors of gruesome violence, such as untouchability.[2] The irony is that after the arrival of Buddhism, Islamic and European empires, a republican constitution, and anticaste movements and policies in India, the brahmins have made the bodily exclusion of their own women, and of non-brahmins, as their virtue, instead of seeing it as a self-dehumanizing shame and tragedy. Unveiling the assumptions of brahminical virtuosity as antihuman will hopefully set off brahmin males to ex-brahminizing their community.

How does one identify him or herself as a brahmin? Brahminical religio-cultural inventions have been historically self-proclaimed, as the exclusive domain of brahmin, as naturally given, and so prohibiting the other. Today, for instance, this brahmin/othering process begins even from the mundane context of a brahmin introducing him or herself by their surname, be it Sharma, Trivedi, Chatterjee, Iyer or so on. Such surnames audaciously assume a putative historical and cultural superiority over non-brahmin, and guarantee the instant camaraderie with another brahmin which is brutally denied to a non-brahmin.[3] Needless to say, historicizing a brahmin name such as Iyer could suggest that we are in a murky field of brahmin male inventions, which are basically attempts to shut the doors on others, as Ambedkar’s metaphor vividly demonstrates in his work, Caste in India. Aside from the surname, many more bodily doors are shut against those who are excluded, the other.

When one begins to identify one’s body in caste terms, as a brahmin male does, what flows thereafter are the divisions, such as body and mind, not just within oneself but also between people. Self-ghettoization is therefore set in motion from one’s body to imaginations and practices of space and time leading to what Alain Badiou has called “collection of ghettoes” in another context.[4] Language, for instance, is an amazing human invention to communicate with and between one another, rather than to hold as the exclusive creation of one’s own god and to deny it to one’s own women and others. This is what brahmin males have done. From the sage Manu’s path-breaking insistence that brahmin males have to pour hot oil or molten lead in to brahmin women’s and lower castes’ ears if they listen to Sanskrit, to brahmin males’ exclusive power to be the priests in temples today, now across the world, the brahmin males have made a killing out of the sacred linguistic connections they make for themselves. That is, they have policed Sanskrit as sacred, but meant only for them, as the only source of other languages and human wisdom in India, as the only ancient language with modern ideas of genetics, and as the only language to be researched at IITs and IIMs. It does not matter whether the 2011 Indian


A sacred thread  wearing ceremony of brahmins taking place. Image Courtesy :

census found only around fourteen thousand Sanskrit speakers among India’s one and a quarter billion people. The brahmin male language needs local and global endorsement. Sadly, the global academy has sanctified such spurious claims of brahminical obscurantism through its own power to canonize what P J Marshal has called “caste segregation” in the last two hundred and fifty years.[5]

Self-denial of speaking to fellow humans, let alone inviting them for a dialogue, is ominous enough to spur other dangerous brahminical exclusions. No wonder then, the brahmins are also known for their politics of food. Consider the irony of brahmin male food categories such as vegetarian, pure-vegetarian, prasadam (sacred food) and so on in order to ridicule and reject the food humanity eats across the world as non-vegetarian. When a male identifies himself as a brahmin and sells food, it is automatically celebrated as the best, the most wholesome. Even if it is unpalatable, even if the brahmin who prepares and serves the food is nauseatingly dirty and lacks the basic culinary skills that thrive among those they have oppressed, such as untouchables. Arguably the vegetarian vigilantism of brahmins in modern times is intertwined with their ascendance through and collusion with colonialism since the late nineteenth century, particularly in two ways. Firstly, brahmins begin to displace caste-dormant or caste-free relations among urban people into caste-manifest relations with their migration to urban places, as they did in the villages they owned prior to colonialism; and secondly, in using their caste-based ritual power and colonialism-based material power, brahmins have begun to monopolize the hotel industry for instance, sidelining mixed and cosmopolitan cuisines and customers in urban centers such as Madras.[6] Ironically, the non-brahmin privileged caste males in the Tamil speaking regions who attempted to usurp the ritual and material power from the Sanskritic-brahmins in late colonialism also mimicked the brahmin males with their own pretentions of ritual and culinary purity, as is evident from the Tamil purist movement and its doyens such as Vedachalam Pillai (who was also known for his vanity as Maraimalai Adikal).[7]

Once basic human elements, such as language and food, are religiously rarified and ritually excluded in order to favor brahmin males, then sexual and “spatial segregation” are inevitable consequences.[8] Imagine a brahmin woman ever becoming a temple priestess. One cannot. This is not because brahminical gods, such as Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva denied brahmin women their right to religious, secular, and material parity with brahmin males. Rather, brahmin males have policed their own women, mutilated their bodies, and sanctified their power over them through their religious scriptures and interpretations, as did Manu, for instance. Pratiloma, that is, the prevention of a privileged caste woman from having sexual relations with or marrying anyone “below” her caste status is not her own decision. Rather, women’s deciding about their own desires is the privileged males’ paranoia. Nevertheless, brahmin women have always had sexual and marital partners from other caste groups, and vice versa, even when they were “widowed” and prevented from re-marriage by brahmin males’ violence. This is confirmed by Pudiyamaadu editor Swapneswari Ambal’s critical analysis of brahmin males widowing (their forced rules/restrictions) brahmin girls and women, who in any case became pregnant and indulged in infanticide in the early twentieth century.[9]

Have these caste-based sexual and spatial segregations changed today? Considering the spectacle of information technology, IITians soaring in Silicon Valley and to Mars, special economic zones, and the emergence of gated communities, a handy answer is that things have turned upside down. India: the casteless democracy has finally arrived. And so India is now free of brahmin power and violence against their other: i.e. their own women and other caste groups. However, a quick survey of temples mushrooming in India and among the Indian diaspora in the West (one count says there are now seven hundred temples in the US) confirm that brahminism is alive and well, and that mutations of brahmin-male conceptions are countering the traditional and modern challenges thrown against them. No wonder Obama carries a hanuman in his pocket as an amulet and celebrated Diwali in the White House with a brahmin male solemnizing the occasion.[10]

While this age-old temple-based casteism is reproduced through brahmin male ritual and material power, our understanding of sexual and marital relations between brahmin women and Dalit men, and vice versa, for instance, remains understudied. A pedestrian observation could, however, point out that such unions, which break down caste boundaries, are few and far between. Whereas the sexual and marital relations between brahmins and whites are on the rise, true to what Iyothee Thass observed a century ago, brahmin males more than welcome their daughters cohabitating with white-men (married or not), while they brutally prevent their daughters marrying from people they oppress as untouchables.[11] In other words, brahmin male power survives only because of the psychological damage they cause their daughters and sons through casteism and sexism early in life, thus preventing them from becoming humans.

When children are raised at home with symbols and practices of caste-based religiosity and exclusion, brahmin male owned or brahmin male employed educational institutions do nothing to reverse the antihuman self-destruction of their children. Instead, brahmin children are trained to be hate-mongering segregationists. Harvard anthropologist Ajantha Subramanian’s incisive exposure of Madras IIT, where the student festival is still called Shaastra—shamelessly echoing Manudharmashastra— confirms this.[12] Unequivocally stating that Madras IIT is a den of casteism, she clearly traces how brahmin children arriving at Madras IIT understand themselves as the engineers of the future India, having already been trained in social-Darwinism in the brahmin-owned and controlled middle and high schools in Chennai. Ironically, such brahminical enclaves have always thrived in Chennai city, despite the Dravidian parties’ decades’ long gimmicks against caste.

It is clear brahminization of merit and brahmins’ prosperity through casteism is complete, both locally and globally. In fact, one could say that globalization has become a euphemism for the predominance of brahmins. A sugar coated global brahminism shining and exclaimed as incredible is in-built in anti-democratic principles. It is even a threat to humanity, since the seeds of casteism have been sown across the world in a variety of ways. For instance, people like B K S Iyengar, flaunting his brahmin male surname, could spread his yoga in the US and Europe, conveniently connecting brahminical, mythical, and material aspects in which brahmin male power and its exclusionary interpretations of the human body and mind remain unchallenged, locally and globally. Never mind the multi-billion dollar industry that Iyengar has left behind by patronizing brahmins and recruiting white Americans and Europeans.

Therefore emancipation of those oppressed by casteism could only be possible at the death of the brahminism (re)created by brahmin males, and those who emulate them. This is what the Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle students in IIT Madras, through their successful agitation against brahmin-male dominated IIT administration banning of their organization, emphasized when they quoted Ambedkar in their pamphlet, saying “Hinduism is a veritable chamber of horrors and it must die for caste to vanish”.[13] Otherwise, the brahmin-Dalit bhai bhai bonhomie offered by brahmin males and their associations are meant to re-ghettoize the Dalits, just as brahmin males have ghettoized themselves.[14]

Considering the predominance of brahmins in India today, in the global economy and the academy, and the inevitability of casteism spreading across the world through the agency of brahmins, the question before us, anticaste people, remains: Is there a scope for brahmins becoming ex-brahmins? One cannot escape the depressing situation we now find ourselves in.


IIT Madras, a premier institute of higher education which is overwhelmingly dominated by brahmins.

However, there are some ways to end the exclusionary and oxymoronic brand of brahminical cosmopolitanism. Anticaste solidarities and movements among the oppressed—not just political parties—are naturally the time tested ways to resist casteism/brahminism. The deep anticaste politics and history of the subalternized in India are a testament to this observation—even though Western and local historians and comparatists have chosen not only not to heed, but have indeed silenced such a past, as G. Aloysius’ Nationalism without a Nation in India confirms.

Needless to say, for a collective transformation, the onus is also on the brahmins themselves to embrace self-emancipatory casteless sociality, and reject entrenched caste-based self-ghettoization. Brahmin women, considering the grave gender oppression inflicted by their own males, have the potential to breach caste by establishing anticaste solidarities with other oppressed people, such as those who have been discriminated as untouchables, for instance. Indeed, the religious, ritualistic, sexual, and material oppression achieved through brahminical governmentality of women’s and untouchable bodies could only be decimated through sexual and material transgressions between the oppressed. This is also actually not new. Iyothee Thass and Swapneswari Ambal appealed for such unions a century ago. Sadly, this has not happened to the extent one may have expected, with privileged caste women daring to break free from the casteism of their men has been met with even more violence, such as honor killing.[15] Nonetheless today the developments of new communication technologies and social media, as well as transportation, have enabled more anticaste unions and movements.

However, a predetermining requirement in such unions is the pledge against caste and the commitment to breach the segregation of bodies, space, and time among the privileged groups, because it is the predicament of the privileged to shed caste and self-emancipate, to become the ex-privileged. Once a brahmin woman breaches caste through living-in or marital relations with a male from a community which has been persecuted as untouchable, the emancipation is mutual. For neither the man nor the woman retains any purchase in their persecuted past. A privileged woman needs to be inspired by people like Padita Ramabai, even as she has to overcome the caste-based dilemmas which the pioneering feminist could not.[16]

The people who break free from brahminical untouchability also need to reinforce their movements and politics by rejecting invocations of sectarian categories, and rather embrace universalizing new identities in which they remain locally grounded and globally interconnected. Iyothee Thass’ total rejection of condescending and discriminating epithets such as Paraiyars/Pariah, Panchamas, Depressed Classes, and so on, and embracing the category The Tamilian (as he named the weekly journal he published from 1907 to 1914) confirms this. In fact, Thass and the anticate movement he built in the Tamil speaking regions are a testament to a history of universalization against marginalization by caste that the people who are prone to oppressions of various kinds in the present cannot afford to overlook.

A critical understanding of the social-Darwinist tendencies of brahmins’ everyday life is the first step in opening up the possibilities for brahmins to become ex-brahmins. For only by becoming ex-brahmins could they too embrace universal humanism and love, something they have denied themselves so long.


[1] By quoting Caroline Osella and Filippo Osella’s observation that “Brahmanhood is synonymous with maleness”, Ute Hüsken rightly takes a step further to conclude that “(f)or the Brahmanic Sanskrit texts it goes without saying that being human is identical with being male.” See Ute Hüsken, “Denial as silencing: On women’s ritual agency in a South Indian Brahmin tradition”, Journal of Ritual Studies, Volume 27, Number 1, 2013, pp. 21-34.

[2] Patrick Ollivelle’s detailed translation of the ancient Manudharmashastra confirms it is a violent text intending to establish brahmin male power over their own women, and those the male brahmins have deemed as untouchables. See Patrick Ollivelle, Manu’s Code of Law: A Critical Edition and Translation of the Manava-Dharmashastra, Oxford University Press, New York, 2005.

[3] This applies to all caste groups which self-capitalize on caste-based names.

[4] (last retrieved on 29 April 2016)

[5] P. J. Marshal, The British Discovery of Hinduism in the Eighteenth Century, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1970, p. 24.

[6] Caste in the hotel industry, particularly the sociological history of brahmins’ “pure-vegetarian” brand remains an underexamined theme.

[7] See Vaithees, N. Ravi, Religion, Caste, Nation in South India: Maraimalai Adikal, the Neo-Saivite Movement, and Tamil Nationalism, 1876-1950, Oxford University Press, New York, 2014.

[8] Fuller and Narasimhan, “The agraharam: The transformation of social space and Brahman status in Tamilnadu during the colonial and postcolonial periods”, in Ritual, Caste, and Religion in Colonial South India, (Eds) Michael Bergunder, Heiko Frese, and Ulrike Shr̹öder, Franckese Stiftungen zu Halle, Halle, 2010, pp. 219-237.

[9] Pandit Iyothee Thass, (Ed) The Tamilian, 14 August 1907.

[10] For details, see the racist website: . For Obama’s Diwali celebration at the White House with a brahmin male solemnizing see here: (last retrieved on 25 April 2016)

[11] Pandit Iyothee Thass, (Ed) The Tamilian, 16 December 1908.

[12] Ajantha Subramanian “Making merit: The Indian Institutes of Technology and the social life of caste”, Comparative Studies in Society and History 2015; 57 (2):291–322.

[13] See here: (last retrieved on 26 April 2016)

[14] Likewise, Dalit political parties surrendering their anticaste and de-brahminizing agenda in order to recruit brahmins as brahmins will only guarantee the continuity of untouchablilty.

[15] For similar views on non-brahmin privileged males’ honor killing women who have decided to break free from their privaliged caste see T. Dharmaraj: (last retrieved on 25 April 2016)

[16] See Pundita Ramabai Sarasvati, The High-Caste Hindu Woman, Hyperion Press, Westport, Connecticut, 1976 [1888]), pp. 60 and 63.

This article was written by Gajendran Ayyathurai.

*Dr.Gajendran Ayyathurai is Research Fellow at the Centre for Modern Indian Studies
Indian Religions at  Göttingen University, Germany. 




Like all Hindus, somewhere deep down inside me I had assumed that Harijans (Dalits), Gandhi’s supposed “children of God,” relegated to the fringes of society, were part of the Hindu community, part of “us.”

Urvashi Butalia, The Other Side of Silence [12]

The partition of British India in 1947 was accompanied by the mass murder of Hindus by Muslims, and Muslims by Hindus. It is estimated that up to a million people were killed (B. Metcalf and Metcalf 2006, 221), often by hand and at close quarters. While collecting oral histories of this vast human tragedy, historian Urvashi Butalia was astonished by evidence of Dalits who remained calm amid the violence around them. They knew no one would touch them, one Dalit woman recalls, because the conflict was between Hindus and Muslims and they belonged to neither group. Her father nevertheless urged her to stay indoors for fear that the Hindus might mistake his daughter for a Muslim (Butalia 2000, 235). Dalits displaced by the violence had no place to go, Butalia later reveals. For “in a war that was basically centered around Hindu and Muslim identities,” she explains, no one set up “camps to help [Dalits] tide over the difficult time. No recourse to government—all too preoccupied at the moment with looking after the interests of Muslims and Hindus, no help from political leaders whose priorities were different at the time” (2000, 238). Could untouchables not have gained admission to Hindu relief camps? At a time when Dalits were excluded from schools for Hindu children—because they were regarded as polluting—and were confined to separate quarters in government prisons for the same reason, this most likely would not have been possible. Even in 2004, in the wake of a devastating tsunami, Dalits were excluded from relief camps that sheltered caste Hindus (Human Rights Watch 2005, 25–29; Anand and Thangarasu 2006; Gill 2007).

Butalia is not the only late twentieth-century scholar surprised to discover that “Hindu” and “untouchable” are understood as contrasting categories by ordinary people, even in the present day. Mary Searle-Chatterjee recalls, “I could hardly believe the evidence of my ears” when she first noticed sweepers in Benares, among whom she was conducting ethnographic research in 1971, refer to “the Hindus” as other to themselves (2008, 189). These were not politicized Dalits who actively rejected the Hindu label in favor of Ambedkarite Buddhism, she explains. “This was the usage of ordinary, nonpoliticized sweepers” (2008, 189). They were not using the term in a segmentary sense, in which “the Hindus” means caste people in contrast to “Harijans,” and that encompasses both caste people and Dalits in contrast to Muslims. While “segmentary [terms] may be more or less inclusive,” Searle-Chatterjee explains, “in the case of the ‘low’ caste reference to Hindus as people other than themselves, something more is involved. Even when Muslims were present, sweepers did not shift to referring to themselves as ‘Hindus’ ” (2008, 189).

Butalia’s and Searle-Chatterjee’s sense of surprise is itself unsurprising. As historical anthropologist Joel Lee explains, it reflects the hegemony of the contemporary assumption

that “sweepers” and other Dalits, insofar as they are not formal converts to Buddhism, Islam or Christianity, belong in a taxonomical sense to the Hindu community and should therefore see themselves as Hindus. This assumption follows logically from the most basic lessons that students across the globe learn about Indian society; to be educated in the world today, whether in Tokyo or Chicago or Johannesburg or Delhi, is to know that Hindu society has or had a caste system that classed some people “untouchable,” that therefore “untouchables” belong to Hindu society, that therefore “untouchables” are Hindus . . . This constitutes commonsense among the educated in urban India and in the academy as well. (2015, 82)

Today this common sense is backed by the force of law. Dalits who do not specifically proclaim themselves Christian or Muslim are legally categorized as Hindu by default. Exceptions like those discovered by Searle-Chatterjee and Butalia were still common in the late twentieth century (e.g., Lynch 1969, 162–63).[13] But in many urban settings at least—including my own field site—Dalits now accept the government’s new, more inclusive definition of Hindu as including people like themselves (Roberts 2015a).

nate Roberts

Cover image of Nathaniel Roberts authored book, To Be Cared For : The Power of Conversion and Foreignness of Belonging brought out by University of California Press. Image Courtesy : UC Press.

It was not always so. Before the twentieth century Dalits were not regarded as Hindu by others, nor did they regard themselves as such. It is conceivable that exceptions may yet be found, but in the absence of clear documentary evidence it is an anachronism to label pre-twentieth-century Dalits Hindu (Searle-Chatterjee 2008, 187; Frykenberg 1997). The only significant context in which “untouchable” castes were treated as Hindu before the twentieth century was the decennial census of the colonial state, which categorized all Indians by caste and religion and which assigned those who did not proclaim themselves Muslim, Christian, or members of another recognized religion to the category “Hindu” by default. In so doing, the colonizer rejected native precedent. Census taking and other enumerative technologies were well established in India’s precolonial states and like later colonial censuses categorized subjects by caste and religion (Guha 2013; Roberts 2015b). But these precolonial censuses did not recognize untouchable castes as Hindu. As Norbert Peabody has shown in an important paper on precolonial census taking, even as late as 1835 the Hindu kingdom of Marwar conceived the primary division among its subjects as lying, not between Hindus and Muslims, but between the so-called “clean” castes, which included both Muslims and Hindus jātis, and the impure servile castes, namely Dalits, who were understood as distinct from both (2001, 834–36). Unpublished research by Divya Cherian on the same kingdom in the late eighteenth century paints a similar picture. Official guidelines on religious duties and prohibitions in that state “categorically divided its subjects into two types: Hindus (hinduvan) and untouchables (achhep). The latter category consisted of leatherworking castes, nomadic pastoral groups, Muslims (turak), and the sanitation labor castes (halalkhor). Not only were the sweepers not Hindu, they were the antipode of the Hindu: the order made clear that what actions the state required of its Hindu subjects were precisely those that it forbade its untouchable subjects” (quoted in Lee 2015, 120).

Cherian’s findings differ from Peabody’s only insofar as the records she unearthed categorize Muslims together with untouchables. Rupa Viswanath’s research in the Madras Presidency similarly finds that the term Hindu referred, until the early twentieth century, exclusively to those jātis eligible to live in the ūr and expressly excluded those confined to the cēri, the Dalit ghetto (2014c; see also Ebeling 2010). [14] Indeed, the association of Hindu with respectable caste status was so well established in nineteenth-century Madras that Christians and Muslims belonging to the so-called clean castes were sometimes referred to in native discourse as “Hindu Christians” and “Hindu Muhommedans,” to distinguish them from coreligionists of untouchable origin, known as “Pariah Christians” and “Pariah Mohammedans” (Rupa Viswanath, personal communication). And even as late as 1916, Gyan Pandey records that in Chhattisgarh, “to call a man a Hindu convey[ed] primarily that he [was] not a Chamar,” that is, not a Dalit (1993, 246).

British census officials departed from existing usage. Colonial observers had long stereotyped Indian subjects as divided into two distinct and antagonistic religious “communities,” Hindu and Muslim. The latter were portrayed as following the religion of “foreign” invaders who had ruled much of the Indian subcontinent since 1206, the former as followers of India’s original religion. By playing up alleged conflict between the two, colonizers justified their own rule as bringing peace to the land and as protecting India’s disenfranchised Hindu masses (T. Metcalf 2007, 132–48). Reversing precolonial precedent, the colonial census simply lumped untouchables together with Hindus. This policy met with frequent objections by native census takers, typically high-caste Hindus, who persistently refused to record Dalits as Hindu (Lee 2015, 110; Mendelsohn and Vicziany 2000, 27–28; Juergensmeyer 1988, 72, cited in Searle-Chatterjee 2008, 191).

Hindu census takers were not alone in rejecting untouchables. Dalits were also banned from Hindu temples; access to sacred Hindu texts was forbidden to them; Hindu priests refused them. A distinctly anthropological argument could nevertheless be made for classifying untouchables as objectively Hindu, irrespective of how they classified themselves or were classified by others, on the basis of three criteria: morphological similarities between their cults and those of popular (non-Brahminical) Hinduism, Dalits’ limited participation in village religious festivals, and the fact that Dalits serve Hindus by removing ritually impure substances for them. But it is unclear why forced ritual service to a cult implies membership in it, and by the criterion of participation many Indian Muslims and Christians are also “Hindu,” and vice versa (Roberts 2015a, 242–44). As for morphological similarities at the level of practice, these are common also between popular Hinduism and Islam in India, which is why Peter van der Veer, an anthropologist who has studied these extensively, argues that the only valid criteria for group membership are self-definition and acceptance by others. Morphological comparisons at the level of doctrine are reviewed by Viswanath (2012a), who argues they do not establish common religious identity. But the classification of Dalits as Hindu for census-taking purposes was never purported to rest on objective criteria. Dalits were recorded as Hindu by state fiat. It is thus not surprising that Hindu census takers would refuse to comply with this order, only to have their surveys later “corrected” by higher-ups.

Joel Lee’s ethnographic study of the 2011 Census describes a fascinating historical reversal: the Brahmin census taker he accompanied on rounds recorded untouchables as Hindu even when they themselves told him they were not (Lee 2015, 3–10). What had changed? Since the late nineteenth century Muslims and a Hindu missionary organization known as the Arya Samaj had been competing for converts in the United Provinces and the Punjab. The Aryas focused on converting Christians, Muslims, and wayward Hindus but at this time still regarded untouchables as beyond the pale, and the one or two attempts by renegade Samajists to convert untouchables were met with a strong backlash within the organization (Jones 1976; Adcock 2007). This began to change when the Morley-Minto reforms were announced in 1909. The franchise was extended, and representation of different communities became tied to demographics. What had been a struggle for cultural preeminence became a competition for sheer numbers (Tejani 2008, 141–43). The inclusion of untouchables within Hinduism merely for purposes of census taking suddenly had very real political implications, and Muslims began to argue that Hindus’ numbers were artificially inflated by the inclusion of untouchables (Mendelsohn and Vicziany 2000, 28; Rao 2009, 131; Sartori 2003). And all over India untouchables themselves demanded to be recognized as a separate element distinct from both groups (Sartori 2003, 272–73; D. Sen 2012; Irschick 1969, 71–72; Viswanath 2014b).

Fairness and accuracy required that the controversial policy of listing untouchables as Hindu be revisited. Census Commissioner E. A. Gait argued in 1910 that Hinduism should be conceived broadly and not be limited to those holding specific beliefs or practices. “A man may believe in the whole Hindu Pantheon, or for that matter, in no god at all—he may sacrifice or abstain from sacrifices—may eat fish and flesh, or abstain from doing so,” and still be legitimately called a Hindu, Gait argued (quoted in Mukerji 1911, v). But he observed that it was “absurd to enter without comment as Hindus persons . . . who are not regarded [as such] by others, and do not profess themselves to be Hindus,” as previous censuses had done (quoted in Mukerji 1911, v).

The possibility of losing a large portion of their official numbers sharpened the minds of high-caste Hindu leaders, who began at this point to vociferously claim Dalits as fellow Hindus and to accuse the colonial state of conspiring to undermine Hinduism by divide-and-rule tactics. It is true that the British would later seek to capitalize on the refusal by Dalits to recognize the leadership of the high-caste Hindu-led Congress Party (Prashad 1996). But “divide and rule” implies a prior unity, and in the case of Dalits and Hindus the evidence for any such unity is lacking. Interestingly, evidence for precisely the opposite—a lack of both common identity and regular social relations between caste Hindus and Dalits—can be found in the urtext of the argument that the British were subjecting Hindus to divide-and-rule by separating out untouchables. This was a pamphlet entitled A Dying Race, originally published in serial form by the Hindu strategist U. N. Mukerji in 1909. Even as the author accuses Gait’s memo of attempting to create a divi¬sion between Hindus and untouchables, he elsewhere notes,

It will puzzle most Hindus if they are asked as to the inner life of these “low castes.” Respectable people scarcely trouble themselves about such things. There is a sort of a “Ghetto” . . . attached to nearly every village, far away, of course, from where the respectable classes live. Nobody belonging to the “high castes” ever thinks of visiting these quarters. Everything about the . . . people of that class is pollution—their touch is pollution, their presence is pollution, water touched by them is polluted, their very shadow carries infection. These people do a certain sort of work and, when their services are needed, are tolerated to that extent, but they are the “itars”—“the oth-ers”—quite apart from respectable people. At other times there is hardly any contact. (Mukerji [1909] 1929, 43)

Mukerji’s admission that for Hindus untouchables were outsiders, and that Hindus wanted nothing to do with them, is not presented as an original observation. That Hindus regarded untouchables as beyond the pale was common knowledge; Mukerji’s express purpose was to persuade them to reverse course and enlist untouchables as fellow Hindus. Nationalist scholars have nevertheless treated as an established fact the accusation that Gait set out deliberately to create a division where none had existed. Historian Pradip Kumar Datta calls Gait’s memo a “blatant act of social engineering. . . . designed to encourage the detachment of low castes from the ‘Hindu’ category” and to provoke “low-caste resentment” (1999, 24, my emphasis). Datta offers no evidence for this startling claim, apart from a quote from Mukerji insisting that it is so, an instance of circular reasoning on Datta’s part that usefully illustrates the common ground between the secular liberal and Hindu nationalist on the untouchable question.

Mukerji’s pamphlet was reprinted countless times, and its arguments are repeated by Hindu nationalists to the present day (Bhatt 2001, 62–68). Its core message was that Hinduism was in a demographic struggle with Islam, a struggle in which Hindus were literally in danger of becoming biologically extinct. It also provided the strategic blueprint that would become a central feature of Hindu nationalism from that day onward—namely, that the very survival of Hinduism in the face of a putative Muslim threat (and later a Christian one) depended on its ability to incorporate Dalits and tribals within its fold. The necessity of integrating untouchables within Hinduism would become a key plank in the program of Hindu sangaṭhan (consolidation/organization).

By far the most important proponent of untouchable integration was Swami Shraddhanand, an Arya Samaj leader whose mission to the untouchables was inspired by a personal meeting with U. N. Mukerji in 1912 (Datta 1999, 22). Mukerji’s enduring influence is evident in the title of Shraddhanand’s 1924 tract, Hindu Sangathan: Saviour of the Dying Race, a text that reproduces and expands upon Mukerji’s core argument. A “constant refrain” of the swami’s writings and speeches on the untouchable question, as Joel Lee’s study of Shraddhanand’s corpus reveals, was the worrying prospect of Dalits emerging as an autonomous political force in the Indian landscape (Lee 2015, 141). Perhaps equally alarming to Shraddhanand was the threat of Dalits converting to Christianity or Islam. Thus the swami openly warns that Dalits who convert to Islam “will become equal to Hindus. . . . They will not depend on Hindus, but will be able to stand on their own legs”; those who convert to Christianity will “dream of entering its halls of governance” (quoted in Lee 2015, 140, 142). The key to preventing this, according to Shraddhanand, was eliminating the divisive practice of untouchability from the collective Hindu body. As Lee observes, “Shraddhanand insisted that the danger . . . of [Dalit] autonomy from the Hindus could only be defused if Hindus radically curtailed the regime of disabilities they imposed on untouchables. Further, he maintained that [checking] this autonomy, [by] bringing the untouchables to accept Hindu leadership, equated with the neutralization of the Muslim and Christian threat, and was an essential, sine qua non . . . for the manufacture of a Hindu nation” (Lee 2015, 143). For Shraddhanand the Hinduization of untouchables was not merely a Hindu communal cause but a national one. In his writings the good of the Hindu community was indistinguishable from India’s struggle for national independence: “The uplift of the untouchables and their assimilation in the Hindu polity is the very plinth on which alone the edifice of free India can be constructed” (quoted in Lee 2015, 143). As we will see, the mission of ending untouchability would play an identical role for Gandhi. For Gandhi, too, it was essential to the strength of both Hinduism and the nation—even to the extent that the good of the one was often presented as indistinguishable from the good of the other.

The imperative of Hinduizing the untouchable was eventually endorsed, in theory if not always in practice, by Hindu organizations across northern India and from Bengal to Bombay (Prashad 1996). The major bases of support for this movement were in towns and cities, among modernizing Hindu organizations like the Arya Samaj (Jones 1976; Adcock 2014), and among politically minded Hindu reformers keen on establishing India as a Hindu nation (Bayly 1998). But it was by no means universally accepted. Orthodox Hindus remained deeply opposed, wanting nothing to do with those they regarded as untouchable. Opposition was also widespread among rural Hindu elites (Jones 1976). And in South India, where Muslims were not perceived as a threat, programs for Hinduizing the Dalit found few takers.

Nate Roberts Navayana

The Indian edition of Nathaniel Roberts authored book, To Be Cared For : The Power of Conversion and Foreignness of Belonging, published by Navayana Publishing House.

The Congress Party passed its first resolution condemning the practice of ritual untouchability, seen by advocates of Hindu sangathan as the principal barrier to Dalits’ inclusion within the Hindu fold, only in 1917. But it took no concrete steps on this matter until the 1930s (Prashad 1996, 553). As early as 1920, M. K. Gandhi, the party’s paramount leader, proclaimed the eradication of untouchability as essential to swaraj, and in 1921 announced he had in fact opposed untouchability since childhood (Zelliot 2010, 153). Gandhi did not act on this conviction until the 1930s, however, despite urgings by Shraddhanand to join him (Lee 2015, 145), and despite multiple opportunities to lend support to autonomous Dalit struggles, including invitations from Dalit activists, which he repeatedly declined (Ambedkar 1946, 251–59). According to J. T. F. Jordens, Shraddhanand’s sole supporter of any note within Congress until the 1920s was G. D. Birla, one of India’s leading industrialists, whose vast wealth bankrolled Shraddhanand’s operation (1981, 165, cited in Lee 2015, 143–44; Renold 1994).

As for Dalits themselves, some reacted with enthusiasm to the prospect of Hinduization (shuddhi), which by the second decade of the century many embraced as an opportunity for social advancement. And just as it was Dalits who first approached Christian missionaries, and not the reverse, with demands to be converted (Viswanath 2014b; Webster 2009), so too did they begin to approach the Arya Samaj (Rawat 2011; Adcock 2014, 48–50; Lee 2015). But finding the promise of full inclusion as equals illusory, Dalits began to turn away from shuddhi by the 1920s (Lee 2015, esp. 150–53) and, simultaneously, to assert their independence from the Congress Party (Prashad 1996, 552).


The idea that religions divide naturally into converting and nonconverting, and that the latter are inherently tolerant and the former conflict prone, derives from a taxonomic distinction developed in nineteenth-century Europe (Adcock 2014, 61–70). . . .


[12] Butalia (2000, quoted in Lee 2015, 81). I thank Joel Lee for directing my attention to the writings of Butalia and Searle-Chatterjee and for providing the analysis of them (Lee 2015, 81–82) that the next three paragraphs repeat and expand upon.

[13] This contrastive usage remained commonplace in confidential Government of Tamil Nadu reports on anti-Dalit atrocities as late as the 1970s. Caste folk responsible for these attacks are referred to in these reports simply as “the Hindus” in contradistinction to their victims, who are distinguished as “the Harijans” (Rupa Viswanath, personal communication, September 2015).

[14] The idea that untouchables were always regarded as beyond the pale of Hinduism has been challenged by Arvind Sharma (2015). Sharma argues that the common understanding of untouchables as being outside the fourfold varna system is wrong. According to him untouchables should instead be thought of as a special subcategory within the shudra varna, a category he terms the excluded shudra. If untouchables were formerly included within the varna system, the argument seems to go, then by definition they must have been Hindu. But Sharma has previously argued that varna was a classificatory system that extended to the entire world, and therefore that all the world’s people were originally regarded as being within it (1992, 179). If consistently followed, the logic of Sharma’s argument would compel us to accept not only that untouchables were originally Hindus but that Chinese, Greeks, and Persians were too. Apart from this implausible implication, Sharma’s claim that untouchables were regarded as Hindus in ancient times rests on a faulty methodology. Rarified theoretical texts accessible to only a tiny cohort of Brahmin intellectuals provide no direct window into ancient social reality and tell us nothing about how ordinary people classified themselves and others.


Adcock, Catherine S. 2007. “Religious Freedom and Political Culture: The Arya Samaj in Colonial North India.” PhD diss., University of Chicago.

————— . 2014. The Limits of Tolerance: Indian Secularism and the Politics of Religious Freedom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ambedkar, B. R. 1946. What Congress and Gandhi Have Done to the Untouchables. 2nd ed. Bombay: Thacker.

Anand, S., and R. Thangarasu. 2006. “The Smell of Dead Bodies.” Outlook, January 9.

Bayly, Susan. 1998. “Hindu Modernisers and the ‘Public’ Arena: Indigenous Critiques of Caste in Colonial India.” In Swami Vivekananda and the Modernization of Hinduism, edited by William Radice, 93–137. Chennai: Oxford University Press.

Bhatt, Chetan. 2001. Hindu Nationalism: Origins, Ideologies and Modern Myths. Oxford: Berg.

Butalia, Urvasi. 2000. The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India. Durham: Duke University Press.

Datta, Pradip Kumar. 1999. Carving Blocs : Communal Ideology in Early Twentieth-Century Bengal. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Ebeling, Sascha. 2010. “Another Tomorrow for Nantaṉār: The Continuation and Re–invention of a Medieval South-Indian Untouchable Saint.” In Geschichten und Geschichte: Historiographie und Hagiographie in der Asiatischen Religionsge-schichte, edited by Peter Schalk, Max Deeg, Oliver Frieberger, and Christoph Kleine, 433–516. Uppsala: Uppsala University Press.

Frykenberg, Robert. 1997. “The Emergence of Modern ‘Hinduism’ as a Concept and as an Institution: A Reappraisal with Special Reference to South India.” In Hinduism Reconsidered, rev. ed., edited by Günther D. Sontheimer and Hermann Kulke, 82–107. New Delhi: Manohar.

Gill, Timothy. 2007. “Making Things Worse: How ‘Caste-Blindness’ in Indian Post-tsunami Recovery Has Exacerbated Vulnerability and Exclusion.” United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Guha, Sumit. 2013. Beyond Caste: Identity and Power in South Asia, Past and Present. Leiden: Brill.

Human Rights Watch. 2005. “After the Deluge: India’s Reconstruction Following the 2004 Tsunami” Human Rights Watch 17(3C): 1–49.

Irschick, Eugene F. 1969. Politics and Social Conflict in South India: The Non-Brahman Movement and Tamil Separatism, 1916–1929. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Jones, Kenneth. 1976. Arya Dharm: Hindu Consciousness in 19th–Century Punjab. Delhi: Manohar.

Jordens, J. T. F. 1981. Swāmī Shraddhānanda, His Life and Causes. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Lee, Joel. 2015. Recognition and Its Shadows: Dalits and the Politics of Religion in India. PhD diss., Columbia University.

Lynch, Owen M. 1969. The Politics of Untouchability. New York: Columbia University Press.

Mendelsohn, Oliver, and Marika Vicziany. 2000. The Untouchables. New Delhi: Cambridge University Press.

Metcalf, Barbara D., and Thomas R. Metcalf. 2006. A Concise History of Modern India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Metcalf, Thomas R. 2007. Ideologies of the Raj. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mukerji, Upendra Nath. [1909] 1929. A Dying Race. Calcutta: Bhaskar Mukerjee.

—————. 1911. Hinduism and the Coming Census : Christianity and Hinduism. Calcutta: Srikali Ghosh Cotton Press.

Pandey, Gyanendra. 1993. “Which of Us Are Hindus?” In Hindus and Others: The Question of Hindu Identity in India Today, edited by Gyanendra Pandey, 238–72. New Delhi: Viking.

Peabody, Norbert. 2001. “Cents, Sense, Census: Human Inventories in Late Precolonial and Early Colonial India.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 43 (3): 819–50.

Prashad, Vijay. 1996. “The Untouchable Question.” Economic and Political Weekly 39 (9): 551–69.

Rao, Anupama. 2009. The Caste Question: Dalits and the Politics of Modern India. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Rawat, Ramnarayan S. 2011. Reconsidering Untouchability: Chamars and Dalit His¬tory in North India. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Renold, Leah. 1994. “Gandhi: Patron Saint of the Industrialist.” Sagar: South Asia Graduate Research Journal 1 (1): 16–38.

Roberts, Nathaniel. 2015a. “From Village to City: Hinduism and the ‘Hindu Caste System.’ ” In Handbook of Religion in the Asian City, edited by Peter van der Veer, 237–53. Berkeley: University of California Press.

—————. 2015b. “Setting Caste Back on Its Feet.” Anthropology of This Century, no. 13, May.

Sartori, Andrew. 2003. “ ‘Culture’ in Bengal, 1870s to 1920s: The Historical Genesis of an Ambivalent Concept.” PhD diss., University of Chicago.

Searle-Chatterjee, Mary. 2008. “Attributing and Rejecting the Label ‘Hindu’ in North India.” In Religion, Language and Power, edited by Mary Searle-Chatterjee and Nile Green, 186–201. New York: Routledge.

Sen, Dwaipayan. 2012. “ ‘No Matter How, Jogendranath Had to Be Defeated’: The Scheduled Castes Federation and the Making of Partition in Bengal, 1945–1947.” Indian Economic and Social History Review 49 (3): 321–64.

Sharma, Arvind. 1992. “Ancient Hinduism as a Missionary Religion.” Numen 39 (2): 175.

——-. 2015.  Review of The Pariah Problem, by Rupa Viswanath. International Journal of Dharma Studies 3 (1): 8.

Tejani, Shabnum. 2008. Indian Secularism: A Social and Intellectual History, 1890–1950. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Viswanath, Rupa. 2012a. “Dalits/Ex-Untouchables.” In Brill Encyclopedia of Hinduism, vol. 4, edited by Knut A. Jacobsen, Angelika Malinar, Helene Basu, and Vasudha Narayanan, 779–87. Leiden: Brill.

—————. 2014b. The Pariah Problem: Caste, Religion and the Social in Modern India. New York: Columbia University Press.

—————. 2014c. “Rethinking Caste and Class: ‘Labour,’ the ‘Depressed Classes,’ and the Politics of Distinctions, Madras, 1918–1924.” International Review of Social History 59 (1): 1–37.

Webster, John C. B. 2009. The Dalit Christians: A History. 4th, rev. and enl. ed. New Delhi: ISPCK.

Zelliot, Eleanor. 2010. “Gandhi and Ambedkar: A Study in Leadership.” In From Untouchable to Dalit: Essays in the Ambedkar Movement, 3rd ed., 150–83. Delhi: Manohar.

This book excerpt was provided by Nathaniel Roberts, from his  book To Be Cared For : The Power of Conversion and Foreignness of Belonging published by University of California Press, Berkeley, 2016. pp. 124-31.

Nathaniel Roberts is Research Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, Germany. 

Oppression, “Progressive” Law and Labour in India: The 1918 Report on Agricultural Labourers by Madras Presidency’s Collector J. Gray




What follows is an excerpt from a book whose main argument is that the way Dalit oppression was first defined by the colonial state, as well as by caste people and missionaries, effectively made successful solutions to that problem impossible.[1] The way policies were formulated between about 1890 and 1925, it argues, still affects the lives and labour of Dalits in Tamil Nadu, and likely elsewhere where similar legislation was enacted. The colonial period records are also instructive because they illustrate the specific means used by state officials to deny of the gravity of the problem, which included attempts by both landlords and the state to obscure the fact that although slavery had long been legally abolished in Tamil Nadu, many Dalits were held in labour relationships which were permanent and unfree. The excerpt describes how a report on Panchamas (as Dalits were then known) that the government commissioned the missionary Adam Andrew to write in 1916 revealed disturbing facts of widespread, and at the time illegal, subjugation.

These results then prompted a more thorough official inquiry in 1918 conducted by the Collector J. Gray; it is the first government survey report based on comparatively extensive fieldwork in Dalit communities across four different districts. What the report reveals is that ubiquitous but unlawful means of dominating Dalits by caste elites were papered over by officials, both Indian and British, who were afraid of antagonizing them for fear of what this would do to their essential relationships with their highest taxpayers. Arguably the single most important means of accomplishing this was through the framing of “liberal” laws and regulations—for instance the abolition of slavery—followed by the systematic refusal to enforce them. Dalits were forced to live out their lives in what I call legal and regulatory “blackout zones;” the laws that existed simply were not applied when these laws would favour Dalit interests. Importantly, this was not a question of mistakes or accidents or oversight. It was carried out in full knowledge of the state. I call this collusion between the state and landed elites the caste-state nexus. It will no doubt be plain to students of contemporary India that the arguments that elites made against policies that could have lasting structural benefits are remarkably similar to those put forward today by dominant castes.

Rupa Pariah Problem

The cover image of the book The Pariah Problem : Caste, Religion, and the Social in Modern India, published by Columbia University Press. Image Courtesy : Columbia University Press.

Unfreedom after Legal Abolition

“…A detailed confidential document on Panchamas appeared in 1916 and was the first of its kind in several respects.[2] It was the first to provide ethnographic observations on those who where then called Panchamas, and on the conditions of their lives and labor, with specific studies conducted in sixteen villages. Also striking about this report is that it was written not by a state official, but by a missionary, the Rev. Adam Andrew of the Free Church of Scotland. This was in part because only missionaries possessed intimate knowledge about Dalits. Unlike state officials, who would receive information almost entirely from caste people who put themselves forward as representatives of a village, missionaries actually entered Madras’s ceris and spent considerable time—often decades—in them. Officials were well aware missionaries possessed an expertise no official could match.Andrew’s report described Panchamas in villages in the Chingleput District and included a descriptive overview and detailed statistical appendices based on his own empirical investigations, as well as data collected by a team of local people he had assembled for this purpose, and summations of lengthy interviews with Panchamas of all sixteen villages. Andrew began by noting that the condition of Panchamas had hardly progressed in the preceding quarter of a century (since the publication of the well-known Tremenheere report [3] ) and that on the basis of his personal experience, he was certain that the situation was likely to be the same across the Presidency.[4] He was political enough to describe the government as sympathetic to the issue, citing the concessions they had made in response to Tremenheere’s report regarding education and the provision of bought-in lands.[5] But he declared these measures to have had virtually no effect.

Caste Hindus continued to despise Panchamas, the report explained, adding that the wages paid to Panchamas were “in harmony with the spirit that relegates them to that position.”[6] Indeed, however bleak their condition in the 1880s and 1890s, the plight of the Panchamas was in some respects “even worse at the present time through the rise in prices.”[7] By comparing the prices of food grains in each village to the wages earned by laborers, Andrew revealed that the majority of Panchamas would not have been able to eat more than one meal per day. Andrew knew how the government would be likely to respond: they would say that slavery was illegal, and that therefore Panchamas could go wherever they wanted by emigrating. In fact of course many Dalits did do this, but it took extraordinary courage: Andrew pointed out the extreme difficulty of taking such a step into the unknown, which would require a destitute man to abandon everything he knew as well as his wife and children[8].

Andrew’s report vividly describes some of the tactics landlords used to keep Dalit labourers under their thumb. Among these perhaps the single most important was the threat of eviction, since landlords claimed to own Dalit housesites (although this was technically illegal, since all residential land in ceris was supposed to be owned by the state). Such threats had been a feature of the Panchama’s subordination throughout the period [of the book’s study] and also served as stark evidence of the nature of the state’s operation, in as much as laws claiming government ownership over house sites were most often and quite purposefully not followed, allowing landlords to assume ownership in practice. In other words, historians and social scientists need to pay attention to the systematic (and not just accidental) disregard for particular laws and regulations that characterise modern bureaucratic regime. Power is exercised not only by positively exerting authority over the population, but by carefully choosing when and how to leave society alone.

Andrew pointed out that the Land Act of 1908 had explicitly restated that ownership of village communal land, puramboke, by mirasidars and other categories of landlord was illegal. Yet despite this restatement, in a recent case with which Andrew was familiar, Panchamas who refused to work for a particular landlord were taken to court in order to effect an eviction. Although in this particular instance the case was thrown out, Andrew’s point was that the 1908 Act was hardly known in rural Madras, least of all by Panchamas, and the mere threat of eviction could be used to ensure the Panchama’s subjection. Andrew also reported that Panchama house sites were often sold, as they had been in this case, along with plots of agricultural land, a practice that was understood to mean the transfer of those Panchamas to the new landowner as well. This practice had been described by a collector named C. M. Mullaly some forty years earlier as a vestige of “slavery” and “a disgrace on the administration.”[9] Andrew, however, was more tactful, terming the arrangement “practical serfdom.”[10] The point, again, is that the existence of particular laws and regulations tells us little about how states and elites exert domination: rather we must be attentive to how and when regulations are selectively ignored.

The official notes on Andrew’s report were drawn up by a relatively low-ranking officer of the Revenue Department, the deputy registrar. The notes began with a historical overview of government responses to the conditions of Panchamas, itself heavily slanted to reports that provide an inaccurately rosy picture of Panchama servitude. The deputy registrar quoted at length, for example, from a deputy collector of Tanjore, a Brahmin by the name of Krishnaswami Ayyar, who in 1885 claimed that:

“in the good old times the panniyals (hired labourers) were actual slaves and the porakudies (tenants) more obedient to the mirasidars. But … the mirasidars are now-a-days more annoyed by porakudies and panniyals than the latter by the former…” [11]

Ayyar was invoking a favourite myth of elite landlords in colonial Madras, an alleged golden age when pannaiyals unquestioningly obeyed their masters. While Indian landowning elites at this time routinely described a better past when their workers are supposed to have been more obedient, and blamed “outside influences” for upsetting labour relations, there remains no historical evidence whatsoever of any time when this was indeed the case. What we find instead is that whenever Dalits had opportunities to escape their villages or their bondage, they took them with unwavering swiftness.

…When A. G. Cardew, a senior British official, reviewed these remarks, he vehemently disagreed with the deputy registrar, pointing to Andrew’s long experience, as well as to his own firsthand observations of caste employers’ treatment of Panchamas. Yet more commonly, official resistance to such messages remained strong. For the colonial state, however much it is renowned for its sympathy towards Dalits, especially in comparison to native elites, was in fact highly dependent on landlords for taxes, its main source of revenue, and therefore very reluctant to go against their wishes. So, H. A. Stuart, another board member, insisted, “I am not much impressed by the individual cases of hardship which Mr. Andrew has brought to light. . . . Evidence of this kind really proves too much, for if it were true, the labourer could not live.”[12] The very fact that Dalit labourers were alive proved, for this official, that they were given enough to eat!

“Panchamas Are Just the Poor”

Stuart did, however, suggest that an enquiry be made regarding the conditions of Panchama laborers, at which time wages could also be verified. Stuart confidently predicted that such a report would show that Andrew had grossly underestimated wages. Equally distrustful of Andrew’s conclusions, but not willing even to allow a follow-up inquiry, a member of the governor’s executive council, P. S. Sivaswami Ayyar expressed concern thus:

The relations between Pariah labourers and their employers are generally smooth and harmonious, and the appointment of a commission [of inquiry] is, I am afraid, only too likely to cause great friction between the classes by creating undue expectations in the minds of one class and undue apprehension in the minds of the other. . . . A low standard of living and . . . insanitary conditions of life are not confined to the Pariah labourer. . . . It would be a great mistake to treat the problem . . . as confined to the Pariah community alone [13].

Again, the elite landowning classes insisted relations between Dalit labourers and their employers were “harmonious” and would stay that way if left alone. It was Sivaswami Ayyar’s contention, furthermore, that the Pariah’s impoverishment was not connected to his status as Pariah; poverty, rather, was the lot of all the “labouring classes” of India. This was also a common and well-worn, but completely unsubstantiated argument. Dalits, this argument went, were indeed poor, but it was not because they were Dalits—it was just unfortunately the case that some were poor and others rich. So the government ought not studying only Dalits. (In short, this is an older variant of the common but spurious anti-reservations argument one hears from elites today, who will insist that because there can be poor Brahmins and Vellalas, reservation targets the wrong subpopulation). In this vein, Sivaswami Ayyar declared that he would support an enquiry into the condition of those he termed “laboring classes” but not into the Pariah’s condition alone. And in accordance with Sivaswami Ayyar’s arguments, an officer was assigned to collect information not only on Panchamas but on those labeled “poor persons” as well.

The officer appointed to conduct the new inquiry, J. Gray, had been described to the public only as an officer evaluating the method of collecting statistics of agricultural wages. Yet as revenue officials anxiously noted in their discussion, the idea that Gray was assigned to enquire into the economic conditions of Panchamas had already been leaked to the native presses and became the cause of some uproar among landed elites… Gray was required to report on laborers’ wages, but he was also asked to make enquiries regarding three issues that Andrew’s report had identified as critical in the assessment of Panchamas’ welfare: (1) the extent to which laborers’ freedom was curtailed by the system of debt bondage or “man-mortgages” (al-adaimanam); (2) whether landlords routinely used the threat of eviction from house sites to exact labor at low wages; and (3) the frequency with which laborers sought alternative employment in India or abroad. In addition, wage data on the poor as a whole was to be collected, in order to assuage the members of government who had insisted that there should not be a study solely addressing Panchamas.

Despite resistance to collecting information on the true conditions of Dalits, Gray managed to unearth some scathing facts. For instance, in evaluating the process by which the state had collected the wage data he was expected to analyze, Gray identified major flaws in official methodology—and all of these flaws happened to skew the data in the same direction, mistakenly suggesting wages were higher than they actually were. Gray’s corrections showed that the labour regime was far more exacting than what had widely been officially assumed. “Inexperienced Revenue Inspectors,” Gray explained, were ignorant “of the village customs which govern the relationship of landholders and their labourers and farm servants” and as a consequence, treated the laborer as an individual.[14] In fact, wages and payments were often shared by families. This meant, for example, that as many as eight persons might have to survive on one male laborer’s wages.[15] Gray therefore concluded that “the method or scheme of the census [of agricultural wages] is … so inadequate that the final statistics are of very little real value as an index of the economic condition of the labouring classes.”[16] More damning still was the fact that in some villages the measure used to pay laborers’ grain wages was “slightly less than the measure used for all other purposes.”[17] In other words, although the measure had the same name, the one used for disbursing wages in kind held less grain than that by which grain was traded, and thus Dalit labourers’ wages were significantly less than had been reported. Although “every ryot and labourer in those villages was well aware of this long-standing custom,” many “Revenue Inspectors . . . were quite ignorant of [it.]” [18][19].

Gray then moved from agricultural wages to the specific consideration of the lot of Panchama agricultural laborers in four districts known for very poor labor conditions, namely Chingleput, Tanjore, South Arcot, and Malabar. He first observed that “the majority of field labourers whether daily coolies or farm servants, are Panchamas,” straightaway casting doubt on elite Indian and British official opinion that Panchamas represented only one group of laborers among others.[20] (In fact, overwhelming archival evidence shows that the difference between Panchamas and others was not limited to the fact that the former represented the majority of laborers: non-Panchamas were treated differently by landlords, were not subject to the same forms of discipline, were not prevented from owning land, and so on.) In Chingleput District, Gray deemed the condition of paṭiyāḷs (permanently tied servants) particularly unfavorable. Indian landlords and officials had for a long time claimed they were better off than daily wage earners because they were supposed to be employed even in slack seasons. But in fact such employment was far from regular. What Gray found therefore showed that the assumption about the increased security and prosperity of tied labourers was a complete fabrication that was based entirely on hearsay and that had, until this point, remained entirely untested.

In Gray’s estimation, it was what he called “debt” that spelled the ruin of the paṭiyāḷ. But this was debt of a very peculiar kind. Although most employers stated that their paṭiyāḷs could leave them at the end of a year of service if they chose to, simply by repaying the “advance” in full, it was clear to Gray that paṭiyāḷs could almost never manage to amass the necessary amount. Furthermore, it is quite likely that those mirasidars interviewed by Gray only stated the possibility of ending the service contract because they were aware that bondage was illegal. At any rate, in a small but significant number of villages in which Gray conducted interviews (ten out of eighty-eight), mirasidars stated quite plainly that “the padiyals are bound for life and can never leave their [i.e., the mirasidars’] service without permission even if they repay all advances”![21] In other words, the term debt for this relation is highly misleading, because this was a form of “debt” for which the “lender” would never accept payment. Indeed, as Gray found, “In many villages the patiyal is still referred to as an ‘Adimaial’ [‘slave’], while the cloth given to him at Pongal [a harvest festival] is generally known as ‘Sirai Panam’ [‘slave money’].”[22] At the time of Gray’s writing, slavery was supposed to have been abolished in British India for close to three-quarters of a century!

Mirasidars Versus the South Indian Oppressed Classes Union

…The outcome of Gray’s report was a suggestion by the government that Dalits be granted ownership over their house sites, and that this would be implemented first in Tanjore. Mirasidars in that district protested vociferously, sending petition after petition to the government. But so too did a group of Dalit activists in Negapatam calling themselves the South Indian Oppressed Classes Union (SIOCU). The few issues of their magazine, Valikattuvone (The Leader) that have survived reveal that they were following the situation in Tanjore with close attention. We also know that following a mass meeting of the mirasidars of Tanjore to protest the government’s plans, the SIOCU organized its own meeting to counter the mirasidars’ claims. The speeches made at the meeting have not survived, and all that remains in the pages of Valikattuvone is brief but bracing commentary on both the specific issue of housesites, and an analysis of caste domination.

Routes Valikattuvone

Valikattuvone the magazine run by the South India Oppressed Classes Union. Image Courtesy : Rupa Viswanath.


For instance, in an explanation of how the Union acquired its name, the editor, S. A. S. Tangamuttu noted:

It may be remarked that this Union has been curiously named as “The Oppressed Classes Union.” The names suggested by the Originators, viz., “The South India Panchama Union” and “The South India Depressed Classes Mission” were not welcome to the members as they said that they were not depressed but oppressed by other people even in trifling matters such as the wearing of shoes and holding of umbrellas… The landlords . . . oppress them in exacting more work than is conscientiously fixed for coolies in factories and mills. . . . Hence the name . . . is given to suit the desire of the majority of the Depressed Classes.[23]

Tangamuttu impugned the description of Panchamas as depressed, which allowed others to depict Panchamas’ poverty as a natural fact, simply another instance of the universal existence of economic stratification. Tangamuttu well understood his audience, since mirasidar petitions at the time frequently sought the sympathy of the state for their practices of domination by asserting that there was a “certain class of people” everywhere with whom the “better sort” do not associate. In contrast, Tangamuttu described Panchamas’ condition as one of oppression, in which the active efforts of mirasidars produced and maintained a very particular form of degradation and even extended the realm of their tyranny to matters of shoes and umbrellas. In so doing he highlighted the irreducibly relational quality of caste oppression: oppressed classes can exist only by virtue of those who so oppress them. This analysis underlies Tangamuttu’s scathing and ironic depiction of the Tanjore mirasidars. Commenting on a heated debate about the house site issue in the Madras Legislative Council, Tangamuttu wrote,

The maxim, “Grow crops, and eat what you have ploughed” [uḻutuṇ payiṟcey] is only being followed properly in zillahs [districts] other than this one. . . . [Tanjore mirasidars] have taken up high posts [in government administration]. They appear to believe that the noble work of agriculture is something to be despised, and have entrusted their wet and dry lands, which could earn them thousands of rupees, to the ignorant, uncultured Panchaman. Then with the very meager income they receive from their lands they lie on their sofas, becoming even lazier than the Panchama![24]

While mirasidars claimed they were struggling against high revenue demands and bad agricultural seasons and were now afraid the house site scheme would increase laborers’ wages, Tangamuttu maintained that their lack of greater profit sprang from an insufficient industriousness. This was the very charge everyone, from missionaries to landholders, leveled against Panchamas—hence Tangamuttu’s arch reference to the “lazy Panchaman.” The accusation that mirasidars were thereby not showing the respect due to agriculture is a stinging one in Tamil country, where cultivation of the soil is widely exalted as the most virtuous profession and cultivators as the most ennobled class. While some “high” castes styled themselves cultivators and “breakers of the soil” par excellence (most famously, Tamil Vellalars), the lofty title was never granted to Panchamas. In depicting Panchamas as the true tillers of the soil, Tangamuttu exposed dominant caste ideology in Tamil country as a fraud and a sham. Tangamuttu argued that mirasidars were not producing their due for the state and that what they did glean from their lands was wholly the work of those he sarcastically dubbed, channeling the disparagement of landlords, “ignorant, uncultured Panchamas.” It was not Panchamas who were thriftless, that is, but mirasidars. And it was Panchamas who the state should value as revenue-producers…

Seventy-three years after slavery was officially abolished in British India, Dalit laborers continued to be held in de facto unfreedom by landed castes, with the explicit knowledge of the colonial state—which, it should be clarified, cannot be understood as composed only of British officials but in fact included Indian landed interests at every level. This becomes visible when we recognize the systematic discrepancy between laws and regulations on one hand, and the ways that they are implemented on the other. Dalits’| existence as the very backbone of the agrarian economy, in the Presidency which, for much of the colonial period, was the cash cow of India, was moreover, studiously ignored, despite the vocal opposition of Tangamuttu and others Dalit leaders like him.

While slavery was allowed to go on virtually unchanged, its legal abolition functioned as an alibi, and was widely touted as evidence of the progressivism of the state. We see many similar kinds of “protections” for Dalits today facing the same fate. Given the continued collusion between the state and high-caste elites from the earliest emergence of modern bureaucracy in the colonial period, it is hardly surprising that untouchability is rampant over half a century after its legal abolition in independent India in 1955. Dalit citizens are consigned to live in zones where the laws do not apply, in spaces of “blackout.” By the end of the 1910s such criticisms animated the fiery rhetoric of the earliest generation of Dalit politicians in Madras’ Legislative Council—before, that is, their autonomous struggles were dispersed, but never entirely swept away, by the overwhelming tides of Dravidianism.


[1] Excerpt taken from The Pariah Problem: Caste, Religion and the Social in Modern India, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), chs. 7 and 8, pp. 168-216.

[2] The report and copious notes on it are filed in GOR 875 Confidential, April 19, 1916, TNSA.

[3] For discussion and Tamil translation of J. H. A. Tremenheere’s “Note on the Pariahs of Chingleput Report, see V. Alex, ed. and trans, Panchami Land Rights: Note on the Pariahs of Chingleput, (Madurai, India: Ezhuthu, 2009.)

[4] This was likely, because missionaries such as Andrew were frequent participants in conferences at which notes were exchanged on the management of Panchamas. Andrew was also an active member of the South Indian Missionary Association, giving him access to firsthand accounts of work among Panchamas conducted by missionaries stationed in Madras, Mysore, and Travancore.

[5] Bought-in lands were those on which revenue payment had been defaulted and which then did not fetch even a minimal price at auction: these were therefore the least desirable lands, mostly unfit for cultivation. Chapter one of the book discusses the minimal response of the government to J. H. A. Tremenheere’s “Report on the Pariahs of Chingleput,” and Adam Andrew’s “The Madras Government and the Pariahs” (Harvest Field, July 1893–December 1894, 207–16, 241–54) presents a sharply critical take on the same.

[6] GOR 875 Confidential, April 19, 1916, p. 2.

[7] Ibid.

[8] The accuracy of Andrew’s assessment is supported by the official report on emigration by A. K. G. Ahmad Tambi Marakkayar and J. Marjoribanks, which describes in harrowing detail the high rates of severe illness, suicide driven by loneliness, and homesickness that awaited those brave enough to attempt emigration. See GOH 281 Mis., November 3, 1916.

[9] BPR 2258 Mis., April 11, 1889, TNSA.

[10] GOR 875 Confidential, April 19, 1916, p. 4.

[11] Notes to GOR 875 Confidential, April 19, 1916, p. 6, citing GOR 1195, October 29, 1885, p. 7.

[12] Notes to GOR 875 Confidential, April 19, 1916, TNSA, p. 19, para. 4.

[13] Notes to GOR 875 Confidential, April 19, 1916, TNSA, p. 20.

[14] BPS 106, May 29, 1918, cited in GOR 2941, August 12, 1918, TNSA, p. 21.

[15] GOR 875 Confidential, April 19, 1916, TNSA, pp. 3-4.

[16] BPS 106, May 29, 1918, cited in GOR 2941, August 12, 1918, TNSA, p. 15.

[17] Unfortunately, Gray does not tell us exactly the proportional difference. BPS 106, May 29, 1918, cited in GOR 2941, August 12, 1918, TNSA, p. 21.

[18] BPS 106, May 29, 1918, cited in GOR 2941, August 12, 1918, TNSA, p. 21.

[19] BPS 106, May 29, 1918, cited in GOR 2941, August 12, 1918, TNSA, p. 30.

[20] BPS 106, May 29, 1918, cited in GOR 2941, August 12, 1918, TNSA, p. 24.

[21] BPS 106, May 29, 1918, cited in GOR 2941, August 12, 1918, TNSA, p. 28; emphasis mine. Chapter one book discusses how to understand the “man-mortgage” and other forms of “debt” which were transacted between master and agrarian servant in colonial Madras.

[22] BPS 106, May 29, 1918, cited in GOR 2941, August 12, 1918, TNSA, p. 30.

[23] Valikattuvön, January 1918, pp. 2-3; emphasis mine.

[24] Valikättuvön, March 1918, p. 64.


This article was written by Rupa Viswanath.

Rupa Viswanath is Professor of Indian Religions at the Centre for Modern Indian Studies at the University of Göttingen, Germany. 

Ballads, Statues and Symbols : Microhistories of Anti-Caste Protests



Key feature of Dalit histories are the numerous struggles and sacrifices of martyrs who were either subsumed under larger identities or denied place in the annals of history. This is an attempt to recover those histories. 

This article begins by explaining three different incidents that happened at three different places at different temporal periods. However they all carry an analogous character as they speak about microhistories of caste protests. As these narratives are built more directly on the ‘little facts’ of the sources it can be termed as microhistory. In line with Siegfried Kracauer’s notion that microhistory gives a more real history (Kracauer 1971: 115), these following narratives carry minutiae on real life. The central element of these microhistories in context is the hero who emerges out of nowhere and as stated by Jacques Revel “the best works of microhistory describe the hero in a multiplicity of contexts,” (Revel 1995: 807). And the following narratives bring that hero in a multiplicity of contexts.

On August 11, 1928 a gang of armed men enter the cheri(Spatial location outside of proper village) of a village called Angambakkam near Kancheepuram district, Madras Presidency(now Tamil Nadu). The gang numbering around 70 men go on a rampage attacking the Dalits and their houses in the colony. Unanticipated of such attacks the Dalits run helter-skelter. After the attacks the gang torches the houses of Dalits and moves forward approaching towards the house of Kuppusamy. The gang tried to break the front door of his house, Kuppusamy who was returning to his village came to know about the attacks against the Dalits in the colony and also found out that his house is also under attack. He rushed towards his home to find out the fate of his family, when he entered his house the gang armed with weapons laid siege to his house. He locked from inside and to chase them away and protect his life, he took his gun and fired shots towards the roof. The gang then took haystack and tried to set his house on fire.

Unable to escape from the dangerous situation he started firing shots towards the gang and in total he fired 21 shots in which fifteen members were injured and nine members were heavily injured and five died. When all this rioting was over it was almost 6 a.m. in the morning. After sending telegrams to the Police Commissioner and District Collector of Madras Presidency, police came to the spot and Kuppusamy handed over his rifle to them. The police arrested him and seven Dalits in connection with the murders.The major reason behind the plan to attack Angambakkam Kuppusamy was nothing but caste-hatred. Kuppusamy, a Dalit joined the British Indian Army as a Havildar and came back to his native village and was involved in activities attempting to uplift the Dalits. People who return to their villages after serving in the army were involved in replicating the discipline that they learned from their military life among the villagers as a way of life based on the notions of self-respect. Immauel Sekaran was one such activist.

The oppressed classes who were working through various forms towards their emancipation utilized the spaces that modernity had carved out. In that sense Kuppusamy founded an educational society in the village and established learning centres for the uplift of the villagers. Kuppusamy who was influenced by Pandit Iyothee Thass’s Buddhism had already embraced it and through his connections with the Buddist Society was involved in collecting funds and had constructed buildings for schools bought educational tools and provided salaries to the teachers. He established contacts with the British civil servants and through Cooperative Societies got assistance for the agricultural wage labourers and also helped them acquire the wastelands to engage in agriculture. The Dalits who were caught in the quagmire of poverty and bonded labour due to debts and agricultural loans were trying to break their shackles through these efforts.

This economic independence and its subsequent result of self-respect in everyday lives became a challenge for the existing traditional caste norms. So the members of castes like Mudaliar and Vanniyar and others who were the traditional landholders in these areas came together planning to attack the Dalits and Kuppusamy who was instrumental in the uplift of the Dalits. The above said incident was what happened when they decided to carry out an attack. It was an incident of violence orchestrated by caste Hindu groups who had strength of 150 families against the 60 families of Dalits who were living in the colony.

Following the arrest of Kuppusamy, eighteen members from the dominant castes were arrested. The Court while sentencing others under various sections of the criminal law ruled life imprisonment for Kuppusamy for his involvement in five murders. The Dalits were unable to take the sentence, during this time Dalit politics was highly conscientised in and around Madras and this case was highly influential. Prominent Dalit personalities of the time and people got themselves involved in the legal proceedings of the case with great interest. The Kolar Gold Field based journal Tamilan provided the space for Kuppusamy’s arguments and published all the details of the case till the very end and took it among the readers. First a forum called ‘Angambakkam Grief Compensation Forum’ was established under the leadership of V.P.S.Mani with an idea to go for an appeal in the higher court. In relation to that, a lengthy appeal was made through the Tamilan journal on March 20 1929. Prominent members of the Depressed Classes, G.Appadurai, M.C.Rajah, Swami Sahajananda and V.I.Muniaswami Pillai evinced interest in this legal battle and also contributed funds.

The case was shifted from Saidapet Court to the Madras High Court and whenever the case came for hearing it saw a good turnout of people assemble at the court complex. Handbills were distributed at times carrying details of how the case is proceeding. Advocate V.L.Ethiraj argued efficiently for Kuppusamy and on May 29, 1923 following the final hearing Kuppusamy was acquitted from all charges in the case. His acquittal was hailed as a victory of the Dalits. A short book carrying the details of the funds collected and spent on behalf of the ‘Angambakkam Grief Compensation Forum’ for Kuppusamy’s case was released on July 12, 1929. Moreover in the same year, a ballad titled Angambakkam Sriman Ebaiyan Kuppusamiyarukku Jaathi Hindukalal Nerndha Aabathin Tharkappu Sindhu ( A Self-Defense Ballad protecting Angambakkam Sriman Ebaiyan Kuppusamy from the dangers posed by caste Hindus to his life) created by J.I. Paul Vannam was sung in Chennai and on the trains from Chennai to Bangalore to collect funds for the case.

Stalin Sindhu Paul

A ballad of self-defense sung in honour of local hero Kuppusamiyar who fought against caste atrocities.

The ballad printed in the name of Tuticorin Adi Dravida Union apart from a few handbills remains as a major source of evidence about this case. Stuart Blackburn in his study on the ballads of the Tamil-speaking people finds himself in an cultural domain where there exists an alternative hero, another type of hero, who he terms as “local hero,” who differs from the courtly model precisely because he represents a different social class and Kuppusamy can be hailed as a local hero who fits the cultural framework posited by Blackburn.


Vanjinagaram is a nondescript village situated on the Madurai to Tiruchi highway near Thumbaipatti the village of former Madras Presidency(now Tamil Nadu) home minister and Congress leader Kakkan. After you enter the Dalit section of the village and walk a few paces ahead a cement plinth of 3ft height carries a painted image of a man and below his image it is engraved Kandan (03.09.1959 – 08.10.1987). There exists a practice that all the auspicious events of the villagers in this area are marked by worship to the built structure and even festivals too. This practice reminds us of an extension of the ancient hero stone worship practiced among Tamils. Heroes who lay their lives fighting for the community to save them from enemies or fighting a beast were remembered through erection of hero stones where their images are also carved. If so then what was Kandan’s struggle and loss?

Caste oppression that is prevalent in the Melur region of Madurai is comparatively harsh and rigid than other parts of the region. The caste system practiced here is regional in nature, Ambedkar himself has written about the caste practices (Babasaheb Ambedkar Writings and Speeches (in Tamil) Volume-9). Seeing the level of caste discrimination prevalent Gandhi’s Harijan Seva Sangam also functioned from the region, in 1992 two Dalits Ammasi and Velu of Chennagarampatti and in 1997 Murugesan and 6 others of Melavalavu were hacked to death and these two villages also comes under this region. In most of the villages in this region there was a system called Kudikallar where the member of the intermediate caste Kallars can possess ownership to a Dalit family to work either in their house or their lands. The Kallar family then becomes the patron for the respective Dalit family and the latter’s everyday life revolves around them. If anyone in the village has a complaint over the Dalit member they would directly approach the Kudikallar and this form of social contract was in place. So the Dalits in the region were unable to unshackle themselves from this oppressive system and gain mobility or access towards education or remove themselves from doing menial jobs. Even basic civil rights were denied to them.

Kandan routes

Villagers posing in front of a concrete plinth carrying the mural of Kandan who was brutally murdered for defying caste norms.

Given these social realities in place, Kandan who had a basic education to the level of eighth standard joined his brother Subbaiah at a stone quarry in Kidaripatti village and was involved in stone cutting work. The Dalits who work, as daily wage labourers in these quarries never rose up to the stage of owning a quarry. Following the death of Kandan’s brother Murugan in an accident the family received an amount of Rs. 1.75 lakh(1,900 GBP) as compensation. Keeping their four year experience in the quarry and this amount of 1.75 lakh rupees the brothers gained sub-contract for a quarry. This was the first time a Dalit had got a sub-contract to a quarry in this region. When they started their quarry business they were able to hire Dalits for quarry work and also were able to procure tools and machines for stone quarrying on their own. This effort by the Dalit brothers threw up questions of caste restrictions in place and there is no need to explicate how much frustrated and angered was the caste Hindus about this initiative. Moreover Kandan was centrally involved in sending numerous petitions to the Government to intervene and prevent the various practices of untouchability, prominent among them were restrictions to have footwear on and to draw water from public wells. The persistent efforts of petitioning made the district administration to convene a peace committee to discuss these issues of untouchability.

During the peace committee meetings the Dalit youth not only claimed for equal civil rights but also rights over common property resources. However, the administration prioritized civil rights issues and efforts were taken to address the restrictions on wearing footwear. The Dalits continuously attempted to draw water from the public well; Kandan’s family spearheaded these efforts. After a few years a decision was made by the villagers to build a temple. Meanwhile the tender to re-auction a quarry went to a caste Hindu, he also demanded that the stones that were cut earlier prior to his re-auction should be given to him, however Kandan’s side refused to do so. During this time the Dalits through relentless struggles were questioning their oppression and were utilizing the various opportunities available to gain upward mobility and were moving towards a life of self-respect. This angered the caste Hindus further as their hold over the Dalits was losing grip.

Meanwhile funds were collected to murder Kandan, and he had just escaped a murder attempt during the Jallikattu (Bull baiting) event. Kandan who had gone out to a nearby village following his marriage engagement to send some message was brutally murdered with 27 cuts by sickles and machetes on his body and his body was found on a hillock. Most of his body parts were found to be mutilated, Dalit leaders L.Elayaperumal and Vai. Balasundaram helped Kandan’s family to their extent with legal measures. To remember the struggles carried out by Kandan for gaining civil rights for Dalits the villagers memorialized him by erecting a plinth carrying his image in his honour.


At the entrance of the bus stand in Cuddalore district’s Kattumannargudi there is a bust, one might not have encountered that bust anywhere in Tamil Nadu as it does not carry any traces of identity of a familiar figure from the state. The name board below the bust says that he is Reddiyur Pandian, beyond that not only his name but why he has been memorialized in the form of a bust is something even the politically conscious few could reason. Known as Pandian, he is a Dalit who fought against the prevailing practice of imposing menial jobs on Dalits and died during the protest on August, 15, 1985.

reddiyur Pandian routes

Bust of Reddiyur Pandian who died in police firing following a protest by Dalits who registered their dissent against the imposition of menial work to them.

Our caste system, which is based on birth, apportioned occupational categories and spatial locations for different castes and maintains the system. Denying occupational mobility for castes and their right to choose work, the system discriminates people by assigning jobs according to their particular location within the caste system thus maintaining a rigid hierarchy from top to bottom of the social ladder. The castes lower down the order were assigned to do menial jobs mostly unhygienic in nature and service oriented. So to move away against the assigned occupational order towards caste-neutral jobs or to gain education formed the basis of anti-caste efforts. As the possibility towards such mobility was found only in modernity, the Dalit stalwarts were practicing and propagating a modernist reformative discourse. In the case of Tamil Nadu, the struggles against the ‘imposition of menial work’ happened at different regions both on a small scale and large level. These protests, which have a century long history, were not archived and recorded properly. However, Kattumannargudi has recorded it by erecting a symbol in the form of a bust to recall and reimagine those struggles.

Today’s Cuddalore district included old South Arcot district provides us a lot of references on various forms of protests between 1946 and 2000 against the beating of parai drum which is made out of cow hide and is also used mostly during funeral processions. Likewise refusing to remove the carcass of dead cattle and to dig graves for the dead caste Hindus were resisted by Dalits through various forms of protests in the Northern districts of Tamil Nadu. Most of these protests happened at the regional level and it never gained emphasis as a state level protest or a slogan and it did not receive such attention also. These protests were also spontaneous and were not led by any prominent leader.

The veteran Congress leader L.Elayaperumal in the year 1962 passed a resolution in Kattumannargudi circle that no one from the region should engage in parai drumming and especially not for members of other castes. It is how Elayaperumal had created awareness about restraining from doing menial work in this area. And in the year 1985 August 15 there was a fire-walking ceremony in the local village temple. The local Dalits had refused to beat the parai drum for the festival so the caste Hindus had hired drummers from outside the district. However, the Dalits of the village refused to the beating of parai drums in total during the festival. So there was uneasy calm in the village and police force was deployed in the region. Dalits from 16 villages approached towards the temple, police prevented them and resorted to lathicharge and threw teargas shells. Finally the police opened firing in which ten Dalits were grievously injured and one Dalit youth Pandian was killed. There was no damage either to the police or to the caste Hindus. The death of Pandian intensified the struggles and this resulted in almost a complete abolishment of beating of the parai drum in the region.

People memorialized the sacrifice of Pandiyan in different ways; a flagpole was erected in honour of his martyrdom at Poovizhundhanallur, which is on the southern side of Northern River the same place where he was shot dead and a bust and flagpole was also erected at Kattumannargudi. A ballad lyric was penned imagining how Pandian’s mother Chinnaponnu would sing grieving the loss of his son, the lyric was penned by Veerananallur Murugandam and was sung on stages during village festivals, also sung as a dirge and also as a folk song during the transplanting at farms in villages. This is how the subaltern people keep Pandian’s memory alive. The bust was designed without the help of a photographic image, as they could not find one, talking about how it was done one of my interlocutors said, “ We see this image as our own visual depiction of Pandian’s struggles and sacrifice rather than an authentic portrayal of his real looks.”

Generally when we speak about Dalit struggles like most cases they become individual-centred based on either their ideologies or their actions. When we talk about ‘martyrs’ or ‘revolutionaries’ it is larger idioms that come to our minds. In many cases a small level of sacrifice and struggle too gets blown out of proportion with the idea to symbolize or create a leader out of the figure. Though there is no need to conceptualise these struggles avoiding the individuals and their contributions but we have to see that it is the traditional ‘hero in history’ figure which figments our imagination. People who are oppressed by caste somewhere in their lives are resisting either directly or indirectly the caste system or the disgrace it brings to them. Given this condition it leads to a position where an individual has to remain either as opposing caste and the disgrace it brings or to accept it and live. The person who opposes it could be someone who is not even prepared how to handle it or does not have even thought about it. But he has to face the problems that arise out of such system. The three cases explained above indicate us that the activists did not possess any strong ideological foundations or had a history of affiliation towards any movement. Vanjinagaram Kandan had no political background and was just an admirer of MG Ramachandran (the Matinee idol who later entered politics to become the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu). Reddiyur Pandian who had lost his father was working as a daily wage labourer and there were no records or evidences, which indicate his political activities. Though Elayaperumal’s intervention had created awareness among Dalits in Cuddalore to restrain from involving in menial work but there is no record to show what sort of influence it had on Pandian’s perceptions about caste. But his involvement in the struggles indicate that he carried a sense of indignation against caste, this provides us an idea that to be an anti-caste person there is no need for large ideological underpinnings but the fact that the lived experience as a member of oppressed caste was enough.

Starting from villages to towns to cities, caste discrimination is abounded and the experiences one gains out of these struggles are enormous. A lot of such struggles never gain the attention of media and many were hidden without attaching any news-value to such and remain as local histories. The political parties or the government also failed to recognize such struggles and experiences to promote social justice. Going beyond all this these struggles do not form part of “histories” in the broader categorical sense.

How caste functions in accordance to regional and local conditions the struggles to resist such existing conditions also get shaped accordingly. These histories of resistance in each region can be compiled based on its local significance. The three struggles discussed above happened during different time periods, at different places, carrying different experiences. These struggles are neglected not only by historians but also by political parties, but the people of the locality remember them in ways known to them and it is how we can see that these struggles were kept alive through ballads, statue and hero stone. We can also see that the support for these acts of memorialization from social movements is also provisional. In this essay struggles of a particular sect among the Dalits were only discussed, if an effort is undertaken to collect all the local and regional records of such histories of struggles we can compile a volume on local histories of anti-caste struggles.


Blackburn, Stuart. “The Folk Hero and Class Interests in Tamil Heroic Ballads.” Asian Folklore Studies, Vol. 37, No. 1 (1978), pp. 131-149.

Ponnoviyam, Anbu. 2009. Urimaikkaga Poaritta Uthamar Angambakkam Kuppusamiyar. Chennai: Siddartha Pathippagam.

Poovizhiyan. 2007. Reddiyur Pandian Parai Ethirppu Varalaru. Seerkazhi.

Prabhakaran, V, Pulavar. 2008. Iyothee Thassa Pandithar Idhazh Pani. Chennai: Thirivalluvar Aiyvu Noolagam.

Rajangam, Stalin. 2008. Vanjinagaram Kandan. Alanganallur, Madurai: Vanangamudi Pathippagam.

Szijártó István.2002. ‘Four Arguments for Microhistory’ Rethinking  History : the Journal of Theory and Practice. 6:2 , pp. 209–215.

This article was originally written in Tamil by Stalin Rajangam and translated by Karthikeyan Damodaran.

Stalin Rajangam is a Dalit intellectual and a Tamil writer  based in Madurai, Tamil Nadu. He is a prolific writer on Dalit issues, films and politics. He can be contacted at

Karthikeyan Damodaran is a PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh.

Images courtesy : Stalin Rajangam.

A Dalit Marxist Manifesto

Unlike many of my comrades, I have this peculiar problem of leftist trolls, rather than the rightist ones. Since I do not believe in the usefulness of discussing with fascists and their apologists or the deniers, I focus exclusively on those who are supposed to be fighting fascism or who I think belong to potential or real constituencies against fascism.To dramatize a bit, we Dalit Marxists say: you either smash fascists if you can or be finished by them or at least run for your life. You don’t waste time trying to convince them. Not even for the benefit of those overhearing the conversation. That would give a dangerous impression that fascists are worth talking to. Admittedly, we Dalit Marxists have it a bit easy in this regard. We are most unlikely to be born into or of a family or kin of fanatic Hindu fascists like most Hindu communists are.

However, being a Dalit Marxist is risking a double misunderstanding, and one constant humiliation: you will have to explain always that you’ve got nothing to do with that philistine Anand Teltumbde and other such Dalit agents or imitators of upper-caste leftists.The double misunderstanding in question needs some background. When a typical upper-caste leftist hears the word Dalit Marxism, s/he would wonder what this crazy thing is. Marxism is Marxism, what is Dalit or Muslim or Marathi about it? It doesn’t matter that upon approaching a leftist-sounding person in India, the typical upper-caste leftist tries to figure out if the comrade is China-type (Naxal) or Russia-type (CPM) or some updated version of the division. You can be assured that this ideal-type upper-caste comrade never asks herself why all Communist parties in India are ‘of India’, while they should be internationalist through and through.


Dalit Marxist scholar Chittibabu Padavala

Anyway, the typical comrade doesn’t express this irritation at the contamination of the word Marxism with, of all things, the word Dalit. Most of the upper-caste communists will have nothing to do with Dalit Marxism because the very first word puts them off doubly. In the second and engaging-Dalits-type, some of them being the indoctrinating enthusiasts, have already learnt that speaking to, even touching, a Dalit doesn’t actually harm them. In fact, it helps to acquire some ‘radicalism capital’– self-righteous edge over other rivals in the academia or in other fields – or to exude a more-multi-cultural-than-thou kind of airs if one can speak of a Dalit friend, preferably in the context of telling ‘others’ (not quite, because they are of same caste/class/color/accent cluster), how they together had beef in a Muslim slum.

There must be one small category of people among these, a theoretical possibility that cannot be ruled out though experience tells us the opposite, who really want to try their persuasion skills, a kind of training in radical argumentation and recruitment.There is a certain undeniable injustice in subjecting that small upper-caste leftist section which actually tries, for all the ills and ill will of Hindu Communism, to engage with Dalits and Dalit Marxism. Yet, this category of comrades is no less infuriating because of their over-confident stupidity and predictably manipulating behavior from the word go, and till the end. A sample of them, from a much bigger pool of examples we accumulated or put up with, seems to believe that Dalit Marxism is half-Dalit and half-Marxist.

One almost hears a fair-skinned smart sophomore who had already attended two campus or college processions and one wall-poster workshop and innumerable discussions with classmates in the college and hostels, shouting to a Dalit Marxist: ‘Good you have already crossed half-way mark, boy, you will get over with that Dalit bit if you try, no problem, we will only help you!’

My suppressed anger and muted cries to make the upper-caste comrade notice that my ‘full-timer’ experience alone is longer than his entire adult years would not shake an iota of his self-confidence. He would be, in a moment, stretches his hand to me, launching his mission of saving me from the caste and its narrow-mindedness, through Savarnasplaining (a la Solnit), expecting me to notice that what matters is class, state, and economics, above everything else. The upper-caste comrade would also patiently point to me why ‘identity politics’ is a bad thing, and why we must think about ‘larger’ and ‘broader’ issues.

The difficulty in accepting so stretched a hand towards me from our upper-caste comrade is that it is not to shake hands with me but to pat on my shoulder and to nudge me to ‘really real’ things than the ones I feel strongly about, owing to my ‘understandable’ experiences which I must as much unlearn as learn from. Grudge, you know, is not revolutionary. ‘Understandable’ here stands for ‘underdeveloped’ and ‘unacceptable’.

The trouble with such ‘me’ here is that the image is exclusively in the eyes of the beholder. The empirical me and real me don’t resemble the picture in the comrade’s imagination. Such attitude is part of growing up upper-caste in India, they just can’t imagine how to look at the world without them being at the center of it, they can’t look at a lower-caste person except from above. Being progressive, radical, revolutionary are not just products of only honest, idealist and painstaking study and analysis of the world but also a resurfacing of the old theme of Higher-hood now denied to them, or they live in denial of, adjusted on a new surface.

The trouble is that the Dalit Marxism is not half-Marxist and half- Dalit. It is fully Marxist and fully Dalit. We are in no way keen on meeting our upper-caste comrade halfway. We are in the business of bringing Marxism back to where it belongs: lowest in stature and biggest in numbers of the Hindu society, the lower castes. This also means releasing Marxism from the shackles of upper-castes. Marxism can and must do better than being monopolized by the upper-castes and be abused as a tool for their upward/forward obsession. Not that upper-caste Communists do not mean to improve the world from what it is now. Some of them surely do. Only that it is easy for them to imagine a communist world than to their marginality in society. It somehow cannot be put into their minds that such pathological self-importance is a direct product and clearest expression of upper-caste privilege and upbringing.

Therefore, for the benefit of such comrades, their thinking, their programs, let us clarify what Dalit Marxists stand for. Unlike you Hindus, we Marxists are committed to a politics of clearly stating what we want to do. In an Andersonian(Perry Anderson) spirit, we will make our point not merely as a statement of any abstract principle, but through an instructive case that gives the impression of an ideal meeting ground for both of us – Dalit Marxists and Hindu Leftists.


Indian Left during a rally. Image Courtesy :

Hindu communists start an all-India Dalit organizational network! If the shamelessly slavish performance of one of its constituent organizations is anything to go by, it might be one more of a series of cruel Communist jokes on Dalits, projected on a national scale, or even worse.It is tempting to assume that the initiative might be a good thing given the Hindu fascists being in power, and that it is better for the guttural and well-entrenched anti-fascism of Dalits and professionalized, iron-fisted discipline of the Communists to come together and even merge.

Aren’t we the ones castigating Hindu upper-caste Communists all these years for neglecting ‘caste problem’, and in their complicity with caste status quo, its continued perpetration in wider society and even charging the communist upper-castes with the crime of reproducing the same old caste hierarchies in their own ranks even more rigorously?

Isn’t it the oft-repeated Dalit Marxist line to say that there are many Hindu temples Dalits can enter in this country but no single politbureau of any communist party that lets Dalits in? Isn’t this all-India confederation of Dalit organizations something to be welcomed? Even if it is too late and too little, don’t we have to support it and strengthen it? Even if this is seen as hypocrisy, isn’t the hypocrisy a tribute paid by the evil to the virtue? Can’t we dare to imagine that the social processes so unleashed and its resultant new political sensibilities can have a life and momentum of their own? Isn’t it cynical to rule out any good coming out of this gesture, by precluding the potential of Dalits making the best of this?

One of the main sources of the vitality, humanity, resilience, responsiveness, endurance and effectiveness of Dalit organizations across India is that most of them are never organizationally affiliated to any political party, let alone to any – invariably Hindu and upper-caste – Communist party. This allows them to keep away the typical problems that come with rigid structures of organization and top-down approaches the Indian communist parties suffer from.

This happy situation doesn’t let any uniform policy, form of struggle or demand, grip the Dalit activism, as in the case with the most work of the most Communist-affliated front organizations that reduces them to become irrelevant and ideological in their local, specific situation.It is a major part of the explanation for Dalit activism’s superior creativity, humane organizational functioning, freedom from bureaucratization, decency in mostly avoiding and occasionally conducting in-fighting without any communist-style waste of energies in maligning similar and fellow organizations, brainwashing, isolating dissenters, boycotting the recalcitrant and obsessive indoctrination.Since caste-inspired, caste-inflected oppression and exclusion are always and everywhere very specific – with the activists having to each time, in every case, decide on who are opponents, who are friends or neutral parties, and so to what extent, how much of it can change and how – Dalit activism typically doesn’t easily fall for usual communist infirmities like stupid belief in policy or argumentative uniformities.

Before any postmodernist steps in seeing some potential here, let me clarify that Dalit activism’s basic target of struggle is neither Capitalism nor Indian state but Hinduism and non-Dalit society. In fact, sometimes we find the first two less antagonistic to our lives, goals and politics than the latter and, in some conditions, as useful for us against the first pair. Every Dalit activist in this country knows, unless she is fed excessively on the philistine Teltumbde’s work, or still to get out of the ideological slavery of Hindu communist parties, that our main oppressor is society around us more than the state or globalization.Communist-style uniform policies, centralized-command structure, half-feudal/half-militaristic hierarchies and abject cadre surrender and slavishness are neither possible nor useful for Dalit activism as we have to use our own minds and grasp of each empirical situation, agitation or mobilization without resorting to handed-down pre-fixes for all situations, and without any exclusive focus on uniform, impersonal, ‘hidden’ structures like class, capitalism, neo-liberalism etc.

Now the potentially pernicious effects of this Hindu communism’s incursions into Dalit activist field are not difficult to discern, it might be impossible later to fight back if we are not alert now. First attack will be on the temperamental autonomy of Dalit Organizations and their constitutive creativity and inbuilt immunity to dogmatism. Second one will take the form of a seduction: Hindu communists offer us unity on a national scale but will only bring in uniformity. This only means training Dalit activists in turning away from empirical realities and possibilities around and learning how to parrot centrally formulated slogans when prompted by higher-ups.

Another predictable danger in this attempted Hindu colonization of Dalit activism through communist bait is, turning our sphere of work from humanizing Hindu society to fighting faceless capitalism/globalization, forfeiting the Dalit-specific rights and concerns, in favor of building the so-called unity of people.Yet another menace in this stealthy and conspiratorial takeover of our slowly growing representational space in the media is, instrumentalization of our issues for communist blackmailing and embarrassing techniques against governments, used opportunistically.

The biggest and deadliest danger in communist patronage/leadership/usurping of Dalit concerns is the immediate abortion of something absolutely important, the upper-caste communists will surely achieve with disastrous effects, if not counteracted.When the ongoing genocide of Muslims created conditions and a demand for much-needed coming together of lower castes and Muslims, Upper-Caste communists with their innate incapacity to understand fascism, ineradicable unwillingness to fight it anywhere outside media and legal domains, will keep Muslims and lower-castes separate.

While all the time preaching to lower caste activists broader perspective and prescribing universalism as against our narrow ‘identity politics’, the Hindu communists are specialization-hungry professionalizers. Unlike the Dalit activists who participate in every single struggle for justice in their realms with a broader sense and grasp of social issues and all-round political education and experience, the Hindu communists severely impose specilization on the activists with one-sided expertise, a pathological inability to work without pre-existing structures or models and also without orders and permissions from above. For all their shouting at the top of their voices of the virtues of unity and universalism, their actual training of cadre follows the Taylorism of professionalization with its inevitable fragmentation of the cadres.

Then, isn’t it the time for us to come together, close the ranks and fight fascism? Dalits must reject this communist colonization precisely because of the fundamentally irreconcilable approaches to Hindutva fascism. Hindu Communists are not against Hinduism but only against Hindutva version of it. We reject both. We consider that Hindutva poses immediate and pressing deadly threat but Hinduism is more pernicious, though a deeper yet long-term problem. This tricky but deadly difference requires us to respond to Hindutva without delay but treat Hinduism as the main and ultimate enemy.

When Hindutva overreach will ultimately spell its doom and open up possibilities for a Post-Hindu India, Hindu communists with their fanatic belief in a good, non-violent, tolerant, even multicultural Hinduism will be our first enemy, something that surely comes in the way of moving towards a post-Hindu India.For Hindu Communists, Hindutva is a problem of Capitalism. For us, it is only one of the many avatars of Hinduism. Hindutva is, from our perspective, a Hinduism that takes its own religious core very seriously. For Hindu Communists, Hindutva is a perversion of Hinduism. For us, Hindutva is more honest and authentic version of Hinduism. It represents the extension of what old Hinduism does to Dalits round-the-clock in all walks of life to new victims: Christians and Muslims. While old Hinduism’s killings of Dalits are to set examples, Hindutva’s inexorable dynamic is to eliminate its new victims.

Hindu Communists believe that Hindutva is divisive. We point out that what they are doing is unification of a religion and a nation. We say that unifying, ‘uniforming’ drive of Hindutva can only be combated by inherently divisive, conflictive force of caste. The Hindu Communists reject both caste-based mobilizations and religion-based mobilizations. We charge that they not only fail to stop Hindutva (they helped them come to power in the first place, but that is a different story), they successfully discredit and preclude the only possible opposition, the Muslim and lower-caste combined mobilization against Hindutva, thus helping fascists.

This post was written by Chittibabu Padavala on November 25, 2014 for flyingfootage. and is reproduced here due to popular demand.  Chittibabu is a Dalit Marxist scholar based in Mumbai, India.  

Colombia: Students Tell Amazing Stories

This blog post was written by Gwen Burnyeat(i) and was commissioned and originally published by Latin America Bureau. You can read the original here

Students at the Nacional University in Bogotá give a fascinating insight into life in Colombia

20 December 2015. In my first term teaching a class in political anthropology to first year political science undergraduates at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia in Bogotá, I decided to give the students the chance to design their own essay topic, and to meet with them individually to help guide the process.

The results were astounding – not because of the quality of the work, though many students were very bright, but because of the things they wanted to write about, which revealed profound and moving dimensions of Colombia that are not often visible.One student, a young boy with indigenous features and a rapper’s dress sense who never said a word in class, told me he was from a village called Mitú in the department of Vaupés, one of the remote regions of the country covered in Amazon jungle.


Laguna de Chisacá, Páramo de Sumapaz, Colombia.Image Courtesy : Wikipedia

“I was four when the FARC [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia] took my town. My mother worked in the cafeteria at the police station. They were going to kill everyone in the station but someone warned my uncle, and we all fled to my aunt’s house, which was made of cement, and hid under the bed”. Most of the houses in the town were made of wood, he explained, which offer less protection against stray bullets.

“I remember being under the bed all day with my mother and hearing the guns. I remember being afraid. I don’t remember much else. My mum remembers a lot more, though. I want to write my essay about that. How do I do it?” I was stunned. I decided the only assistance I could give was to help him address the issue academically.

I told him the first step was to write down everything that he remembered, not thinking about analysing it but just getting his emotions and memories down on the page. Then he should ask his mum to tell him everything that she remembered. Then he should look at those two things as his field data, which he could take a step back from and analyse, from a perspective of anthropology of emotions and self-ethnography, and go and find historical data in the library about the role of this takeover of Mitú within the Colombian conflict as a whole.


Houses in the Amazon. Image : Gwen Burnyeat.

He handed in a wonderful essay, whose strong point was a moving testimony he had taken from a telephone interview with his mother, who was still in Vaupés, while he was living in Bogotá so he could study. Another student decided that he was interested in interrogating the informal economic sector of the recyclers. The recyclers in Bogotá are generally homeless or very low-income families who are semi-organised into informal cooperatives. Once or twice a week, people put their rubbish out on the streets and, before the rubbish truck passes, the recyclers open all the bags and take out the material that can be re-sold or re-used as scrap: metal, bottles, plastic, paper, and so on.

They collect it in wooden carts they pull themselves. Some recyclers work alone while others are in teams of entire families, wrapped up in layers of clothes against the cold night air and with dogs riding on top of the carts, which are piled high with their salvaged goods. My student interviewed a man called Don Luis who explained that he liked recycling, that he had got used to all the disgusting things he had to handle and see and smell, that he wouldn’t know how to do anything else now, and that he was happy because he was putting his daughter through university.

bogota recyclers

Recyclers at work in Bogota in Colombia. Image : Gwen Burnyeat

Sometimes he suffered because of the social prejudices he experienced, and he wanted my student to pass on the message that all bogotanos ought to appreciate better the environmental service recyclers are providing. One of the most striking things was the way my student described in his essay Don Luis’s response when he told him that he wanted to talk to him for a university project – the first thing Don Luis wanted to know was: which university? As soon as my student said it was the Nacional, he relaxed and agreed to talk, because he trusted people from public universities, but not from the private ones.

The other essays were just as varied in scope and topic. They ranged from studies inside the university of the economics of the informal sweets and coffee stands, the drug-dealing, and the drunken appropriation of space in a particular area in the campus to essays that compared the mechanisms of paramilitary and guerrilla control over civilian populations across different ethnographies of Colombia’s armed conflict.

I found out a lot about my students – I learned that some of them lived up to two hours away from the university and received travel subsidies and that others, who were from remote parts of the country, benefited from academic mobility schemes. One was an actor in his spare time, another was running in the elections for student representative, one was obsessed with comic books, and another worked with peasant farmer organisations.

One of the best essays was Mauricio’s. It was simple in what it set out to do, but it managed to condense one of the key aspects of social reality in Colombia that society as a whole will need to recognise if the peace process is to be successful: the importance of appreciating that different people have different feelings about peace and about politics, and that these feelings are deeply affected by their personal experiences.

Mauricio went to a small town outside Bogotá in the department of Cundinamarca and interviewed three people of different ages and genders about their views on the peace process. He described the town, let’s call it Taralá, as a place that was difficult to get to, out of the way, with no through road. The only way out was the way you came  in – and that was the road to Bogotá. The inhabitants were traditional, devout Catholics, and had not seen much of the armed conflict.

The guerrillas had not reached Taralá – it wasn’t a strategic location for them. The army passed through very occasionally, but there wasn’t a military base there. There was a police station in the town, but it was small and relatively inactive. Mauricio’s interviewees were all very sceptical about the peace process, which is common in many party of the country. They showed a clear preference for the army, which they saw as brave and honourable, while regarding the FARC as the bad guys. One of them said they never went to Bogotá because it was full of FARC – imposing his fear of the guerrilla onto his fear of the capital. Only one of them said he would be happy for the FARC to participate in politics after demobilisation – the other two were scandalised by the idea of seeing ex-guerrilla fighters in Congress.

All of them were sceptical about how the negotiations were going in Havana, and Mauricio picked up many of the common myths that circulate in different sectors of Colombian society: “it’s all going on behind the backs of the Colombian people, no one knows what’s happening”; “there will be no justice, only impunity”; “I think the FARC should all go to prison, alternative sentences won’t work”.

This last narrative resonates strongly in both the left and the right – the left think that the members of the armed forces who have been involved in human rights violations should get maximum jail time, while the right believe that no FARC member should be given anything less than life-time imprisonment. But the recent agreement on a Special Jurisdiction for Peace amazingly treats both sides equally, and gives both the chance of alternative sentences and sentence reductions, provided they contribute to the clarification of truth.

Mauricio cleverly related his interviewees’ opinions to the different geographical, historical and political characteristics of Taralá and its people, and argued that what was needed in order to build peace was a generous gaze that did not judge people for their opinions but understood that the multiplicity of responses to peace had to do with the multiplicity of experiences of the armed conflict, and of social experiences in general.

But perhaps the best bit of the essay was added on as an afterthought. Once he got back to Bogotá, he followed up the interviews with phone calls to all three interviewees. One of them, a middle-aged woman, told him over the phone, “You know what, after we talked that day, I changed my mind. I think I’ve been a bit harsh. Probably it is alright if they [the FARC] participate in politics. If they really do demobilise, that is. I suppose they are human beings after all.”

Perhaps this is what Colombia needs – for inquiring students with a generous approach to go and talk to people about what they think, taking them seriously, without judging their opinions and feelings, armed only with information and with challenging yet respectful questions.

(i)Gwen Burnyeat is a British anthropologist and writer doing postgraduate research and teaching in the Universidad Nacional de Colombia, as a Leverhulme Trust Study-Abroad Scholar. She has worked in Colombia on and off for six years, including with the International Centre for Transitional Justice and with Peace Brigades International in the Urabá region. As well as academic articles she also writes short fiction, and is currently producing a documentary called ‘Chocolate of Peace’.


Palestinian woman

( for Israa’ Abed)*

What did you say
to the guns they pointed
at your heart,
heart shaped like an olive tree
they stole from your memory?

Oh, Palestinian woman,
now lying gently tilted
a dark green hijab holding your bleeding brain
black sandals facing the ground,
upside down, as if looking for a way out,
to flee this frozen moment
where the tender touch of your heels turned sore,
a sore festering, deep in you, for decades
since the night they crept into your father’s silence,
while he was writing a poem,
he never could finish,
dead alphabets of occupied languages
lay all around his pages…

bloodied and burnt
did he visit you every night
in your teary dreams,
and stand in silence like a corpse
that you forgot to bury?
did you whisper to him
” Baba, please recite to me verses
from your last poem,
this silence is poetry I cannot bear,”?

he is waiting for you, now,
near the gates of mourning
with a charred sheet of paper in his hand
where his unfinished poem killed itself
but, why aren’t you leaving yet?
why does your image
still plunge into my pupils
rippling on my resting tears?

why does your posture, calm and tragic,
still haunt my heart
which has no place to escape?
are you waiting for your three children
for the touch of their tiny palms
for the look in their perplexed eyes
still too young to know death,
still full of hope
that they think you are teasing them,

” Mama, wake up.
wake up, Mama
you won ”
‘some games you can never win,”
you say.
but they can’t hear you,
the world won’t hear you
are you still waiting
for the birds that long flew your land
to return to the nests where they loved?

for the children
crushed while they crawled
burnt while they slept
bombed while they played
to come back and collect
the pieces of their childhood
they hid in a tiny box
buried in the bosoms
of their mothers, who waited
through the moonless nights
for that wall to crumble,
walls where they wrote,

” Martrys always return” ?
do they ever leave?
you still lie,
here, there,
the moon on my terrace
looks like your closed eye
the sky smelt like a tomb
the cosmos carved for you
the sound of that gun,
a second before it pierced your life,
rings in my.ear
like a prologue to.a tragic play
I çan’t bear to see.

oh, Palestinian woman,
what did you see in the eyes
of the ones that killed you?
Stolen land?
Murdered memories?
the eyes
of people who eat popcorn
while they bomb your homes
people who sleep on the graves
of your ancestors, who they kill
again and again,
in dreams
they once occupied
and never left

*On 9 October 2015, 29-year old Isra’ ‘Abed from Nazareth was killed by Israeli police at Al-Affoulah bus station in Israel.

Protest against Haryana Government

NEW DELHI, INDIA OCTOBER 25: Two Dalit children burned alive in Faridabad Dalit Shoshan Mukti Manch supporters during A protest against Haryana government at Jantar Manter in New Delhi.(Photo by Qamar Sibtain/India Today Group/Getty Images)

Burn-able bodies

burning in my eyes,
ashes falling down as tears,

tears of a history,
tears of a people,

crumbling under the burden of fire,
like sentences,
breaking in the middle
with words jumping, letter by letter,
into the abyss of silence
almost as if
they were never written
almost as if
they were never born

yet to learn a language,
that only spoke with limbs,
shuffle within the flesh of those flames
for a syllable that resembles kindness,

all it found,
guiltless gerunds
churned from vitriolic verbs,
they knew,
there was no dignity left
in the language of humanity,

wake up in coffins
that smell of burning wombs
those coffins
that don’t want to be buried
not before this nation douses itself
in disgust of its own reflection
in those half-open beady eyes
their mother can’t bear to close

once flaming with hope
now drenched in despair
that shouldn’t be touched
but only burnt
that shouldn’t be seen
but only slaughtered
some old
some young
some in the day
some in the night
some near the feet of temples
some near the mouths of sewers

a habit that never leaves,
but only creeps, deeper,
like death into the cemetery,
into the eyes of a Republic
that never regrets

*On October 20, Upper caste Rajputs set fire to the home of a Dalit family in Sunpedh, a village in Faridabad near Delhi, killing both the sleeping children inside aged 2 years and 9 months while their parents have suffered severe burn injuries.

Mob Kills Man, Injures Son Over Beef Rumours In Greater Noida

GREATER NOIDA, INDIA – SEPTEMBER 29: Family members of Mohammad Akhlaq (50-year-old man) mourn during his funeral at their village in Bisada on September 29, 2015 in Greater Noida, India. Akhlaq was beaten to death and his son critically injured by a mob over an allegation of storing and consuming beef at home, late night on Monday, in UPs Dadri. Police and PAC were immediately deployed in the village to maintain law and order. Six persons were arrested in connection with the killing of man. (Photo by Burhaan Kinu/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

None left

I bow
to the cow
munching my mother’s bones
near the windows of my burning house

” I am your mother”,
it moos, in maternal delight,
for her deserted sons

I hear,
in the silence of its hooves,
the final moan of my mother

” Fly away, Aslam,
before the tunes of these deaths
reach the graves of your ears

Fly away, child,
the warmth of my womb
is drenched in this doom

Fly away, darling,
these saffron skies
have no space for broken moons

before you fly,

forgive all the mothers
whose kids never returned

forgive all the silence
whose words never formed

forgive all the seas
whose shores wounded you”

last wishes,
they say,
are final verses
of a poem whose time to end
has come

I take the bloodied pen
from my mother’s cold fingers
tear a piece from her white saree,
a canvas to conclude this parting poem,
with holes that smell of stubbed cigarettes

a country smokes
in the shadows of its temples

the ash
sprinkled all across its twisted map
are leftovers from our lynchings’

I try to finish the tear
that started in my mothers eye

I realize
that I am already dead
the pen has left the ink
the eyes have left the tears
the birds have left the wings

there is no end
to this poem
there are no eulogies
to these funerals
there is none left
to weep or to write

*On October 1, 2015, Mohammad Akhlaq, a 50 year old muslim man, was lynched by a mob of 100 over the rumors of carrying beef. On October 10, 2015, Zahid Ahmed Bhat, a 20 yr old belonging to Kashmir, was lynched for the same.

Stories of a graveyard

Azaan stabs the dawn
with its absence

Aziz chacha kills himself
with poison he bought
by pawning his bronze-coated Quran

kids from the madrasa
tearing their skull caps
run across the streets
writing on the walls
with blood from their burning eyes
the Arabic word they learnt
the day before

(until we meet again)
-their tongues folded like waves
that vomit corpses onto the empty shores

the leaves with dew on their lips
wilt into parched shrouds for dead roses

the domes of the mosque
crumble into wounded sparrows
climbing up the stairs
that touch the skies
only to slip onto the cracked soils of cemeteries
as tombstones waiting for the corpses

Khaja mama who guards the graveyard
writes a rhyme he always forgot in the school
on one of the blank gravestones
then gently sleeps inside the grave,
asking his wife to cement the top with her tears

Wazira who died two days ago
walks out of her coffin
undressing the rags on her body

stretch marks on her womb
flayed skin on her fingers

At the door of the burial ground
she sits naked
with her legs wide apart
a frozen teardrop twinkled on her bosom
a flock of butterflies huddle on her shoulder blades

*On October 23, 2015, unknown youths dug out the body of a Muslim woman, buried two days before, from her grave and allegedly raped the corpse.

All the poems were penned by Abul Kalam Azad.

Abul Kalam Azad is a student at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, Chennai. He can be contacted at

A Murder by other means : Death of a Dalit Journalist

On April 12th, Nagaraju Koppula lost his battle with cancer, and casteism. A Dalit journalist working in India, Nagaraju faced caste discrimination his entire life—a discrimination that ultimately worked to hinder his treatment and recovery.

A Murder by other means

“He died of cancer, murdered by Manu*”, wrote, with seething anger,clouded by grief, Chittibabu Padavala, a close friend of Nagaraju Koppula,probably the only English journalist from the Madiga community, a Dalit sub-caste,who caved in after a protracted,courageous and consuming struggle with lung cancer on April 12.

4 days prior to that, “I wish he could live”, read an article by Allam Narayana, the chief editor of a well-known Telugu newspaper “Namaste Telangana”, on the life and condition of Nagaraju.
Wishes, sometimes, remain just that: wishes. Wistful whispers of weary voices.

Nagaraju was born in Sarapaka Village from Bhadrachalam mandal of Krishna District to a family struggling to survive in the margins of a casteist society, wading through the straits of severe socio-economic subjugation. A father, who went missing when he was 4 years old, and a mother striving as a daily wage labourer, along with his five siblings, to keep this wrecking boat afloat. He too had to walk on this beaten track of child labour, as many in this country do every second, each a silent storm in this broken, and ever breaking, cup, at a very young age for the sake of sustenance. A construction labourer, then an ice candy-seller, and eventually a respected artist, who painted sign boards etc.,in his village.

With the sheer strength of his relentless hard work and will power in an environment socially, financially and structurally hostile, he managed to complete his M.A in the School of Journalism from the University of Hyderabad, followed by a Diploma in the Indian Institute of Journalism and New Media in Bangalore, supported by scholarships, and trained in investigative journalism and creative writing at the Tehelka School of Journalism in Delhi.

Venturing into a field with an abysmal representation of Dalits, discriminated in myriad subtle and not-so-subtle manners, he began his attempts to eke out a living from the profession of journalism. After interning at and freelancing for publications like The Hindu that deemed beneath their ‘merit’ to hire him, he landed a much-needed job at The New Indian Express which for hardly unknown reasons paid him lesser than what they did his fellow reporters. A job,no, something more than it, a dream much dearer, to which he dedicated his heart and soul, latched onto it with a zeal that left one inspired and,even,a bit concerned, expending unmatched energies in pursuit of stories.Nagaraju swept with a stunning stroke of his sincere pen a broad range of reports from the dismal state of health care for mentally ill prisoners swallowing many lives through its numbing apathy to the wildlife species hanging from the edge of extinction in the then Andhra Pradesh. From Nehru Zoological Park hosting four cheetahs from Czech Republic to a mother waiting for three years to meet her children, Nagaraju churned scores of moving and amusing stories, serving ample proof of his journalistic mettle.Consequently, it didn’t take him long to make a mark of his own in the organization inviting well-deserved acclaim.

But as it happens, time has an unmistakable penchant for tragedies.His health declined. Weight loss and repeated bouts of coughing pulled him to consult doctors in GovtTB&Chest Hospital where he was faultily diagnosed for TB based on the meagre and clearly insufficient evidence of an X-Ray. As one of his friends notes, “They did not suspect Lung Cancer because Nagaraju was a non-smoker, largely ignoring the fact that about a third of lung cancer cases occur in non-smokers.” However, the treatment, which offered no solace whatsoever, continued for 5 months. When doctors kept ignoring the repeated protestations of Nagaraju that his medical condition is worsening, he visited a private clinic where he was diagnosed with lung cancer based through a lymph node biopsy.During this period of five months, the ruthless apathy and hideous discriminatory attitudes of The New Indian Express administration were starkly palpable, to Nagaraju and his friends. According to them, refusing to provide any sort of financial assistance/health cards, as was the case with his peers, to their employee, forcing him to go on a loss of pay leave for the five months by granting a casual leave only for 12 days, reinforced their belief in the casteist and debilitating labor-hostile environment of the publication, He was able to undergo treatment with the assistance of funds from his friends and colleagues, with a discernible absence of help from media houses or journalist unions, while Nagaraju’s name had been removed from the rolls of the newspaper without any intimation.Ill fate never stopped haunting him. More often than not, kind hearts bear the most bitter wounds.He was at the receiving end of an online fraud, a case of grave cyber robbery, which siphoned off approximately 1.23 lakh rupees from his SBI account, the amount collected for his treatment. A money that would now be smelling of blood and tears in the pockets of the robbers.

Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students Association of Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi organised a meeting to demand justice for Dalit journalist Nagaraju.

Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students Association of Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi organised a meeting to demand justice for Dalit journalist Nagaraju.

A very heart-warming campaign, initiated by his friends and well-wishers, “Justice For Nagaraju” had been afoot to bring to light the grievances of the then bedridden, with unstable consciousness, Nagaraju, to fight for the rightful justice he deserves, to indict The New Indian Express authorities for its casteist crimes, right from the unequal pay to the egregious negligence of his decaying health, demand for radical reforms in the functioning of the Media houses and Journalist Unions and, of course, to raise assistance, financial and moral, to improve the rapidly sinking condition of Nagaraju, a journalist this cursed land didn’t deserve.

The campaign had gained traction in social media circles’ and been successful in grabbing the attention of the government, which promised some financial aid, Civil rights activists’ such as famous balladeer Gaddar, intellectuals, artists, journalists, politicians etc. from the state, some of whom visited him personally, lend him their much-needed-support. Protests against the casteist administration of the Indian express were under way in places such as the University Of Hyderabad with encouraging involvement of the students, activists etc.

Before death decided to pull down the curtains on this disheartening tragedy, to force a full-stop into this sentence of maladies…before Manu snatched the final breath from the battered lungs of Nagaraju….a slow and deliberate murder…a murder by other means…a murder, scripted,in treacherous detail, in the holy books of hideous history…

A delegation comprising of The University of Hyderabad Contract Employees’ Union, the Democratic Teachers’ Network and the Telangana Students Association met the editor of The New Indian Express, G Vasu. The latter denied rejecting Nagaraju’s leave applications after Nagaraju fell sick and said he had granted him leave twice in 2013. He denied any unwillingness to provide him with medical assistance and reimbursement and said the administration was willing to provide medical help, but Nagaraju never applied for help or used his health card.Their statement also highlights, and reinforces, what many of those close to Nagaraju already knew,

“As a team we found that there were several violations of ethical conduct in how Nagaraju has been treated. Striking is the absence of a forum where he could take up the issues of caste discrimination which he said he had faced in the organization. Another key structural issue is that of contractualization of workforce, which was used by the New Indian Express administration to legitimize the taking off of Nagaraju from the pay rolls and the lack of proper medical benefits. Excuses such as Nagaraju not asking for or accepting medical help, can not be validated in today’s context, and also can not be used to justify the administration’s illegal act of not providing for medical benefits to their employee. “


In a press release, the Delhi Union of Journalists (DUJ) paid tribute to him and demanded that Dalit journalists, who are anyway so few in number, be protected against casteist behaviour of superiors in media organisations. “In the rare scenario that a Dalit journalist is able to enter the upper caste stranglehold of news organisations, let the managements be careful to not exploit or subject these journalists to any sort of discrimination at the work place”, the DUJ release said.

Delhi Union of Journalists organised a memorial meeting for Nagaraju.

Delhi Union of Journalists organised a memorial meeting for Nagaraju.

Some deaths, come flying from above, pushed by the storm of misfortunes, to pierce us below the eyes, where sighs and tears rest. While others nest, all our lives, in a muted corner of our hearts,waiting for the saddest moment to strike from within us. We weep. We write. Some to remember. Some to forget. We huddle in silent spaces, alone, together, with our memories: Of us before, with, and,now, after him.

Nagaraju, a rural poor dalit, a Madiga, who broke all the boundaries that didn’t want to be touched sullying the purity of many-a-agrahara, who strenuously climbed the ladders, laden with pieces of broken glass, of the system, held onto it with his remaining breath, while the long arms of an unjust milieu kept tugging, from below, at his legs, weary from fighting all through his life. Nagaraju, a heart wrenching reminder of the efficiency of walls, cemented with bricks of inherited wealth and status, to exclude, and to kill slowly those they couldn’t.

Nagaraju, a flowering smile on a wilting face.
Nagaraju, a bed ridden hope of faintly filled stomachs.
Nagaraju, a moon passing beneath the clouds as the night slowly closes its moist eyes…
Nagaraju, the immortal flame of unlit candles…
Farewell, Nagaraju.
To gentler lands with kinder beings.


This obituary was written by Abul Kalam Azad, he is a student at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, Chennai. (With inputs from Chittibabu Padavala,Swathi and Friends of Justice for Dalit Journalist Nagaraju Koppala Campaign)


*Manu is a Hindu Mythological figure who had scripted an extremely prominent text Manusmriti, which codifies the heinous and hideous rules, the Dharma, that should govern the workings of the caste system. Manu, hence, is a widely referenced casteist symbol/icon.

Practices of Visual Culture: Cutouts and its Materiality as a Plebeian Political Aesthetic

Politics in India has certain unique characteristics which can hardly be found elsewhere and one element which has drawn quite a formidable amount of attraction is its practices of visual culture, countless wall posters, graffiti, giant sized cutouts and billboards form the oeuvre and decorate the landscape. Each of these practices has a specific historical connection related to its landscape. The culture of having giant cutouts is one such unique practice of visual culture specific to a geographic location; something the academicians, journalists and political commentators relate with the southern state of Tamil Nadu in India. A similar form of aesthetic but in a more concrete form of structure that comes to mind is the gargantuan Soviet era-statues, which weighed more than 40 tons and stood 25 feet high and above.

Cutouts DMK

Cutout culture, which thrived on the cinema-politics nexus, facilitated the emergence of cult figures, mythical heroes, charismatic film stars and politicians. Cutout is a term that defined the distinctive political culture of Tamil Nadu in South India. This investment on the visual aesthetics of displaying flamboyantly coloured giant size cutouts adorning the cityscapes was a contribution of the Tamil film industry and the state’s major Dravidian [1] political parties who primarily used these cutouts. Cutouts are pieces of plywood board, which are hand-painted on canvas; aesthetically shaped and erected on main junctions in the cities, they became a powerful vehicle to promote iconicity in contemporary Tamil culture. This form of cutout culture fueled ideas of devotion and charisma.

Writing about West Bengal’s political culture, prominent political theorist Partha Chatterjee said,

“wall writing regardless of parties was the single most visible material sign of political activity in the state. The activity used and perfected for over more than half a century, became an essential aspect of West Bengal’s political culture, in the same way that giant cutouts characterize the public political culture of Tamil Nadu” [2].

Giant cutouts mostly 40 to 70 feet tall where famous movie heroes or political leaders in action or waving their hands or with folded hands could be seen erected at prominent spots in the city, these cutouts in a towering height also brings into play the idea of Darshan a ritualized aspect of Hindu culture where the devotee gazes at the deity and seeing his/her image the devotee in turn becomes object of the deity’s gaze, here the filmstar or political leader is seen as god like. This also defined both the popularity of the leader and their power, and most importantly like wall posters it also gave an opportunity for the cadres to showcase their loyalty but with a little more cost pinching their pockets. Preminda Jacob [3] who studied these cutout images found out that cutouts crafted a charismatic personality for the film star leaders of political parties and enabled the amplification of that charisma throughout the public sphere. She saw the rise of iconicity of Jayalalitha [4] in a series of carefully orchestrated cutout portraits during the 1990s, the already popular image of her as a film star combined with her political persona and gave her a demigod status and the visual cutout culture was significant in constructing this status.

The years after the ‘Talkie Era’ of 1930s was when the painted signboards came into prominence, and by 1940s cutouts largely put up by the film industry surfaced to decorate the landscape and with the emergence of Dravidian parties in the 1950s the cutouts became larger in size and shape. For instance during the release of actor Sivaji Ganesan’s film Vanangamudi in 1957, Mohan Arts handcrafted an impressive 80-foot cut-out at Chitra theatre in Chennai city. This was said to be the tallest standee ever made in Asia at the time claimed Harinath, son of Mohan who designed the cutout. This form of visual aesthetics was influential in Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK)’s plebeian forms of political culture and took them straightway to the masses. DMK’s close nexus with the film industry amplified these forms of larger than life structures on the public space. A political visual aesthetic primarily seen as a DMK culture infiltrated too fast and was replicated by AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) Congress and other smaller political parties in the state [5].

This visual extravaganza called the cutout culture was nothing but an extension of aesthetic display started and pioneered by the DMK in its annual conferences where smaller cutouts were used to decorate the stages and podium which were built embodying a sense of Tamil glory and golden past invoking historical figures or events from the past.  Another important facet of this visual culture are the fan clubs, a phenomenon much popular in Tamil Nadu, fan clubs also gave a fillip to these forms of visual culture during the 1960s till recent times where giant cutouts were put up during the release of films of top stars. These cutouts were erected largely in front of theatres and a few important spots, the most prominent during the 1980s and 90s was Gemini Flyover in Chennai. The cutout scenario in Tamil Public Space reached its peak during Jayalalitha’s maiden regime as Chief Minister from 1991 to 1996, it saw a proliferation of giant sized cutouts, Bernard Bate cites AIADMK as the most extravagant in its use of cutouts and says are, “unparalleled in their ostentatious semeiotic occupation of a city ” [6].

By the end of 1990s there was so much of outcry about this emergent cutout culture and was lamented by AIADMK’s political rivals, DMK being the prominent. This dissent along with the emergence of technological advancement to reproduce images digitally saw the slow demise of cutouts paving way for vinyl billboards. However during the recent past one could see its slow emergence courtesy the DMK, which has used cutouts in its recent state conference held in Tiruchi giving them a possible opportunity to distinguish them from the existing digital culture. Mohan a cutout artist in Chennai said that the cutout culture has invaded other cities, but in Tamil Nadu, the birthplace of cutout culture, it’s hard to see one. “It was only during Jayalalitha’s time that we had a field day” [7]. The last hand-painted Mohan Arts production was a cutout for the 2005 film Chandramukhi. It was raised on Anna Salai opposite the Buhari Hotel. The 2008 Supreme Court ban on all hoardings sounded the death-knell for an industry that once brought a degree of flamboyance to the city [8]. The globalizing nature of Indian cities with a specific interest to attract foreign investors and rid this form of plebeian visual culture which has been seen by the managerial and middle classes as a form of visual pollution has gained judicial investment and moral support from media. Of late, though there has been a re-emergence in terms of practicing that visual aesthetic, but not to an extent of what one saw in the 1990s, however as a visual export from Tamil Nadu it is thriving in other parts of India.

Notes and References

[1] Dravidian parties include a range of regional parties which originated in southern state of Tamil Nadu during the colonial era espousing on the idea of Dravidian ethnic identity as an oppositional binary against Aryan supremacy. Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (Dravidian Progressive Federation) and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (All India Anna Dravidian Progressive Federation are the most prominent among the Dravidian parties. Both the Dravidian parties had people from film world becoming top political leaders thus contributing much to the cinema-politics nexus.

[2] Chatterjee, Partha. 2006. Cleaning Up Democracy – Bengal’s zeal to sanitize its public political arena Telegraph March 16, 2006. Accessed on January 19, 2015.

[3] Jacob, Preminda. 2009. Celluloid Deities: The Visual Culture of Cinema and Politics in South India. NewDelhi: Orient Blackswan.

[4] Jayalalithaa is a film star turned politician who joined the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and rose to become the Chief Minister of the State three times since 1991.

[5] Rajadurai, S.V. and V. Geetha. 1996, ‘DMK HegemonyCultural Limits to Political Consensus’, in SathyamurthyT.V. (ed.), Region, Religion, Caste, Gender and Culture in Contemporary India Delhi: Oxford University Press. pp. 559-72.

[6] Bate, Bernard 2008. Tamil Oratory and the Dravidian Aesthetic, Oxford University Press, New Delhi. [Direct quote from Page 90]

[7] Subramanian, Nirupama. 1994. Larger Than Life, India Today November.

[8] Menon, Nithya. 2014. Chennai Once a City of Hoardings. The Hindu Accessed on January 19, 2015,


This post was written by Karthikeyan Damodaran.

Karthikeyan Damodaran is a doctoral candidate at the University of Edinburgh. His research focuses on caste processions and commemorations in Tamil Nadu, and his interests include, identity politics, social movements, caste and class, film studies and urban studies. He was previously working as a Correspondent for The Hindu Newspaper in India.

Image Source: special arrangement

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