Tag Archives: Dalit History Month

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.

http://www.routesblog.com 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.

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

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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

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

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.

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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.

Notes

[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] http://www.versobooks.com/blogs/1557-alain-badiou-people-cling-onto-identities-it-is-a-world-opposed-to-the-encounter (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: http://endoftheamericandream.com/archives/obamas-lucky-charms-a-hindu-god-in-his-pocket-a-masonic-emblem-and-a-ring-that-says-there-is-no-god-except-allah . For Obama’s Diwali celebration at the White House with a brahmin male solemnizing see here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X94Z5SUsUzU (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: https://www.quora.com/What-is-your-opinion-on-the-Ambedkar-Periyar-study-group-derecognition-issue-in-IIT-Madras (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: http://tdharumaraj.blogspot.de/2016/03/blog-post.html?spref=fb (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. 

The Life and Times of Rettamalai Srinivasan

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Hailing from a political and intellectual tradition that precedes the Dravidian movement, Rettamalai Srinivasan is a social justice icon who carried a indomitable spirit fighting for equality and civil rights for the Dalits rubbing shoulders with another great icon of modern India, B.R.Ambedkar. Fondly referred as “Thatha” (Grandpa), Rettamalai Srinivasan was born on July 7, 1860 in a poor Dalit (Paraiyar) family in Kancheepuram in the erstwhile Madras Presidency. He was the brother-in-law of the famous Dalit ideologue Pandit Iyothee Thass. During the early days of his political career in Nilgiris, he closely worked with the Theosophical society and Henry Steele Olcott. He also served as the president of Scheduled Castes Federation, Madras and Madras Provincial Depressed Classes Federation.

Early Life

Srinivasan had his education in Coimbatore and later worked as an accountant in Nilgiris, it was during this time he became much concerned about the evils of untouchability that he faced as a student. After coming to Chennai in 1890 for almost three years he did a lot of research on how to uplift the Depressed Classes in the presidency. He went around all the northern districts and delta areas and found how this class of people was denied equal rights like access to common property resources, public spaces etc and if demanded they were attacked violently.

After coming to Chennai, Rettamalai Srinivasan established and led the Paraiyar Mahajana Sabha in 1891 which later became Adi-Dravida Mahajana Sabha in 1893. In October 1893 he founded a Tamil newspaper at the age of 32, called ‘Paraiyan’, which highlighted the sufferings of the Depressed Classes (later classified as Scheduled Castes). Over a period of time it emerged as the mouthpiece of the DCs and other marginalized communities in Madras Presidency. Within two days four hundred copies were sold in Chennai, after three months the daily was made into a weekly and after two years they had their own printing press. The magazine came out for 7 years and when he left India for South Africa it had a slow death.

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Diwan Bahadur Rettamalai Srinivasan. Courtesy : Digital painting by Rajesh.

Dalit intellectual and author of Theendapadatha Noolkal (Untouched Books) Stalin Rajangam, informs us that during this time he frequently had discussions with Congress leaders and Justice Party on the measures to be taken to uplift the DCs. He organized a meeting on Dec 23, 1893 at Wesleyan Missionary Hall in Madras against the Congress petition demanding that Indian Civil Services Examination should be conducted in India, he opposed the move and said that if caste Hindus become civil servants they will suppress the poor depressed classes and gave a counter petition signed by 3412 people and submitted it to General Sir George Chesney at a massive meeting which actually made the Depressed Classes assert themselves and fight for their rights at that point of time. On October 21, 1898 he submitted a petition how the children of the Depressed Classes were denied admission in many schools, responding to his petition the government issued an order that the Chennai Municipality should establish schools.

Friendship with Gandhi

From 1900 to 1921 he left India and went to East Africa and then to South Africa, Srinivasan had the opportunity to listen to Gandhi’s talk in Zanzibar in East Africa in 1902 but met him at Phoenix in South Africa during 1906 and the friendship that developed between the two continued for long. He met Gandhi thrice at Yeravada Jail on the Poona Pact issue, though critical of his stand on issues of untouchability, religion based reforms and separate electorates, he in his autobiography, Jeeviya Sarithira Surukkam ( A Brief Autobiography) published in 1939 states that “Gandhiji a great soul, on behalf of depressed classes, collected lakhs of rupees and had spend them on the education of their children, fought so many years to eradicate untouchability but was not able to change the heart of the caste Hindus.”

In 1921 he returned to India, in 1923, he was nominated for the Madras Legislative Council, Srinivasan was instrumental in bringing legislations that allowed the DCs to use the public streets, buildings, wells and market. People who prevent them from using these common properties were warned that a fine of Rs.100 would be imposed on them. He also published booklets highlighting those legislations among the Depressed Classes, says writer V.Alex, author of Dalit History Series in Tamil. He was also instrumental in formation of a Labour Welfare Department in 1919 by the British government to ameliorate the sufferings of the Depressed Classes.The Adi Dravida Mahajana Sabha pleaded with the government for reserving posts in public services proportionate to their numerical strength. They also opposed to the Harijan Seva Sangh’s claims about the uplift of the DCs. R.Srinivasan also opined that the legislations could not eliminate the injustices and humiliations faced by the DCs in the name of religion; he argued that despite legislations like the Removal of Civil Disabilities Act, the absence of penalty clauses provoked the upper castes to exploit those occupying the lowest rungs.

He was given Rao Sahib title on January 1, 1926 at Saidapet, Madras. Rao Bahadur title on June 3, 1930 and Diwan Bahadur on January 1, 1936, recognizing his tireless efforts fighting for the rights of the Depressed Classes community. The then Chingelpet Collector, P.Sitarama Bandulu in a meeting at Saidapet said that Mr. Srinivasan was largely seen as an mentor, intellectual and comrade got the goodwill of the Depressed Classes in South India and South Africa through his untiring efforts to emancipate them.

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Rettamalai Srinivasan (sixth from right) is seen here at the First Round Table Conference, held at London in 1930. He is seated next to Dr. B.R.Ambedkar.

Association with Dr.Ambedkar

Srinivasan, who died at the age of 85, worked closely with Babasaheb Ambedkar, Rettaimalai Srinivasan in his autobiography, states that, “Both me and Dr.Ambedkar worked as nail and flesh, we both went as representatives of the DCs at the Second Round Table Conference in London and fought for their political rights.” In August 1930, R.Srinivasan, president of Madras Provincial Depressed Classes Federation disapproved the idea of reservation in joint electorates and categorically preferred separate electorates and insisted that representation should be on the basis of their numerical strength and the disabilities faced by them in the region.

In November 1930, Rettamalai Srinivasan along with Dr.Ambedkar got an opportunity to represent the interests of the DCs, both favoured the extension of minority status to the DCs and felt that such a measure alone could ensure their proper political representation.At the Windsor castle, Srinivasan brought significant publicity to the state of affairs for Dalits when he refused to shake King George V’s hand, publicly proclaiming, “I am an untouchable.”In a memorandum entitled “A Scheme of Political Safeguards for the Protection of Depressed Classes in the Future Constitution of Self Governing India, they specified the terms and conditions under which the DCs would accept the rule of majority in a self-governing India.

Following Ambedkar’s decision to convert, Srinivasan issued a statement demanding him to reconsider his decision, he said,

It is a well-known fact that strictly speaking the Depressed Classes do not belong to the Hindu fold. They are like Muslims and Indian Christians. Dr. Ambedkar is a gentleman of culture and a conscientious man. The voiceless millions of India expect in him a friend and a philosopher to guide their destiny and all communities sincerely hope he will change his mind (Statement released by Rettamalai Srinivasan on October 20. 1935 in Madras Presidency).

Srinivasan as an M.L.C., in the Provincial government of Madras Presidency and President of Madras Provincial Scheduled Castes Federation maintained consistently that only a Constitution that was planned under the auspices of Parliament in England could serve justice to the Depressed Classes. Talking from his experience as an activist where he had spent more than half a century working for the Depressed Classes that,

Our experience of the last 50 years does not permit us to believe in the Congress demand for the constitution framed through a constituent assembly. Though the congress has now emphasized the protection of minority interests, as a signatory to the Poona Pact, I may say that we do not attach any value to such assertions. We are convinced that there is the widest divergence between the professions and practices of Congress. The Depressed Classes today are emphatically of the view that only separate electorates will really safeguard their interests(Times of India, May 11, 1937).

Historian Raj Sekhar Basu in his latest work, Nandanar’s Children: The Paraiyans’ Tryst with Destiny, Tamil Nadu 1850 – 1956 says that R.Srinivasan along with another Depressed Class leader N.Sivaraj supported the separate electorates; he like Dr.Ambedkar believed that Gandhi’s religious approach would not lead to the material improvement of the DCs, but felt that legislations favouring temple entry would definitely improve the social status of the DCs.In 1932, Ambedkar, M. C. Rajah and R. Srinivasan joined the board of the Servants of Untouchables Society established by Mahatma Gandhi. However, shortly afterwards, the three of them withdrew from the Board, which was later renamed as Harijan Seva Sangh.

Keeping his Memory Alive

There had been efforts to keep the memory of Rettamalai Srinivasan alive. The central government issued commemorative stamps in memory of Rettamalai Srinivasan. The Liberation Panthers Party constructed a memorial in Otteri near Madras and named it Urimai Kalam (‘Field of Rights,’ signifying his role in fighting for civil rights). On 6 July, 2011, the Tamil Nadu state government recognized his birth anniversary to be observed as a government function. Still there has been no adequate efforts to compile his contributions and particularly on his journalistic efforts.

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.