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Caste & the TamilNation

Dalits, Brahmins & non Brahmins

by TamilNation, accessed mirror website May 8, 2012

".. although non Brahmins from the two main Dravidian language groups - Tamil and Telegu - joined the non-Brahmin movement the use of Dravidianism as a political weapon was mostly confined to the Tamil non-Brahmins... At the same time when Dravidian consciousness was taking shape not only the question who were Dravidians but also the question who were non-Brahmins came to be widely asked. The leaders of the Justice Party claimed that the term ` non-Brahmins' denoted all other than ` Brahmins'. But the leadership of the party came mostly from the ` advanced ' or ` forward ' non-Brahmin Hindu castes which according to one estimate formed about 19 per cent of the population."


"The Tamil nation is a political community, a grand solidarity. To maintain its solidarity, the Tamil nation has to remove all sorts of divisions that causes dissension and discord among its members. The Caste System is such a pernicious division that has plagued our society for thousands of years."

“Caste is not a division of labour, it is a division of labourers.” Dr.Ambedkar

1S.M.Lingam on Tamil Nationalism & the Caste System - Swami Vivekananda and Saint Kabir

"The Tamil nation is a political community, a grand solidarity. To maintain its solidarity, the Tamil nation has to remove all sorts of divisions that causes dissension and discord among its members. The Caste System is such a pernicious division that has plagued our society for thousands of years.

The Caste System still occupies an important place in the Hindu religion. The primary aim and ideal of all religions is the emancipation of all its followers, especially that of the weaker sections and the downtrodden. So it is strange that a religion like Hinduism goes against that ideal and purposefully condemn a section of its own followers as untouchable outcasts. The Hindu Brahmins have created theoretical explanations, Puranic stories and religious myths to support and justify their conduct. The sole aim of what is called "Brahminism" is to create and maintain a system which gives a supreme place of importance to Brahmanic priests and other Brahmins in general. Since all of these arguments are purported to be based on Hinduism, it is proper that we examine the ideals of real Hinduism and its basic tenets. .."  more

6Professor Hart in Forum on Brahminism & the Tamil Nation

"..Yes, of course Brahmins have had their own political agenda to push. They have been responsible for many things that I feel are entirely unconscionable. But is this any different from the other high castes? I have heard many many stories of high non-Brahmin castes killing and abusing Dalits. You can't blame the Brahmins for this. In fact, the most pernicious example of the caste system was in the Tamil areas of Sri Lanka, where there are virtually no Brahmins and never have been....Tamil culture has not suffered because of one group. It has suffered because of the caste system and because of its treatment of women... Let's promote inter caste marriage, let's get rid of dowry and give women independence and self-respect, and above all, let's avoid a victimization complex which only plays into the hands of those who have a vested interest in continuing the inequities that exist in Tamilnad. If every Brahmin were to disappear from Tamilnad, the Dalits and others who are exploited would benefited not one iota..." 

3Sanmugam Sabesan -  சாதி ..

 "‘சாதியம் என்பது மனித குலத்திற்கு எதிரானது. அடிப்படை மனித உரிமை மீறலாகும்.’ என்று ஐக்கிய நாடுகள் சபைக்கு பரிந்துரை செய்யப்பட்டுள்ளது. இதனை நாமும் முழுமையாக வரவேற்கின்றோம்

நான்கு வருண உருவாக்கம் குறித்துப் பேசுகின்ற ‘இருக்கு வேதத்தின்’ புருஷ சூக்தத்தில், புருஷன் என்கின்ற உடலை நான்காக வகுத்து நான்கு வருணங்கள் தோற்றுவிக்கப் பட்டதாகக் கதையாடல் அமைக்கப் பட்டுள்ளது. படைப்புக் கடவுள் பிரம்மாவின் வாயிலிருந்து பிராமணனும், நெஞ்சில் இருந்து சத்திரியனும், தொடையிலிருந்து வைசியனும், பாதத்திலிருந்து இவர்கள் மூவருக்கும் சேவை செய்யும் அடிமையாக சூத்திரன் என்பவனும் உருவாக்கப் பட்டார்கள். இந்த சூத்திர சாதியை சேர்ந்தவர்கள்தான் திராவிடர்கள் என்பது பின்னால் விளக்கப் படுகின்றது.

இந்த நான்கு வருணத்தையும் (நான்கு சாதி அமைப்புக்களையும்) தாண்டியவர்கள் மிகக் கேவலமாக சண்டாளர்கள்- தீண்டத் தகாதவர்கள் என அழைக்கப்பட்டு, ஒதுக்கப்பட்டு, ஒதுக்கப்படுகின்றார்கள். இவர்கள் ‘தலித்துக்கள்’ என்று இப்போது குறிக்கப் படுகின்றார்கள். ‘தலித்’ என்ற சொல் எப்படி வந்தது என்பதை முதலில் பார்ப்போம்..."  more

The Stink of Untouchability

4. 'In  the rainy season,' the  woman began, `it is really bad. Water mixes with the shit and when we carry it (on our heads) it drips from the baskets, on to our clothes, our bodies, our faces. When I return home I find it difficult to eat food sometimes. The smell never gets out of my clothes, my hair. But this is our fate. To feed my children I have no option but to do this work.'

Narayanamma began cleaning human excrement at 13. She is now 35. The stench is nauseating, overpowering. First, she sweeps the shit into piles. Then, using two flat pieces of tin, she scoops it up and drops it into a bamboo basket which she carries to a spot where a tractor will arrive to pick it up. No gloves. No water to wash with. She hitches up her sari tightly so that it does not trail on the ground or touch the shit. Still, it is almost impossible to go through a whole day's work without some of it inadvertently getting onto her clothes and person.

After 20-odd years of cleaning toilets. Narayanamma clings to a dignity which is markedly at variance with the work she does. She is dressed neatly, immaculately clean. Jasmine adorns her oiled and well groomed hair.

Narayanamma and 800,000 other toilet cleaners are on the lowest rung of the caste system in India. They are despised by everyone. They experience absolute exclusion from the cradle to the grave.

They are the other face of India; the one that nobody likes to see. It is in sharp contrast to the progressive, technological, we-have-the-bomb-and-are-no longer-the-Third-World face.

Chennai railway, station says it all. It has a hot spot for laptops to download mail, mobile phone chargers, international food counters offering burgers, chocolate mousse and chow mein next to hot dosas and chicken tikka. Yet, a few metres away, sweeper women clean shit in the most primitive manner possible, lifting it out of the railway track with a stick, broom and pieces of tin. Why does this unacceptable, utterly obscene dichotomy exist. Because hardly anyone wants it to change.

Caste permeates every pore of Indian society in hidden, insidious ways. It is so complex, few Indians begin to understand it completely, although it is present in our lives in subtle and not-so subtle ways. Even though the caste hierarchy is a Hindu construct, conversion does not always help: Buddhists, Christians, Sikhs and Muslims often still cling to their caste identities when searching for marriage partners...

When the British ruled India they left caste well alone to avoid unrest. In some ways they even reinforced it, finding Brahmins useful as an army of clerks and administrators who served the British Empire faithfully.

Today, in India, the Untouchables call themselves `Dalits', which means `Broken People'. There are almost 180 million Dalits in India alone and at least another 60 million around the world who face caste discrimination of various kinds.

On a daily basis, Dalits have to deal with the fact that they will not be served food in many eateries. They must sit outside and drink their tea at a distance from the other customers. Special `Untouchable' cups are placed on the shelf outside. The Dalit customer has to take his or her cup, place it on a counter carefully without touching the waiter. The tea will then be poured from a safe, non polluting distance and the Dalit must pick up the cup, drink the tea, wash the cup and place it back on the secluded Dalit shelf outside. This is known as the 'two-glass' system.

In one recent survey of 22 villages in Tamil Nadu, 16 practised the `two glass system'; 14 villages had the `chappal' system where Dalits have to remove their footwear when they enter the caste part of the village; and in 17 villages Dalits were forbidden to enter the village temples. In four villages Dalits had come together to combat these practices and they have largely been abolished....

... Academics talk of lack of political will to describe successive governments' failure to protect Dalits. Translated, this means police officers stand in the background and watch upper-caste mobs burn Dalits alive, because the village considers they are getting too big for their boots. Feudal landlords are aided by corrupt civil servants and government officials in maintaining the status quo. So they approve and abet in the exploitation of Dalits, turn a blind eye to bonded labour, and the terrorizing, killing, rape of Dalits who protest. Meanwhile everyone mouths the rhetoric of the Constitution and government documents hypocritically pay lip-service to it...

Caste discrimination also remains alive and well wherever the Indian Diaspora has migrated.. ...Perversely caste discrimination in Diaspora communities in the West has become worse in the last few years; as communities have grown larger, caste distinctions become more pronounced...

Discrimination in Detail

  • In India, Brahmins, who are 3.5 per cent of the population, hold 78 per cent of the judicial positions and approximately 50 per cent of parliamentary seats.

  • Mass rapes often form part of the tactics of intimidation used by upper-caste gangs against lower castes. The Home Ministry reported that, between 2000 and 2001, there was a 16.5 per cent increase in reported rape cases.

  • Each year, inter-caste violence claims hundreds of lives; in 2001 it was especially pronounced in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and Andhra Pradesh.

  • In India, among the millions of bonded labourers (estimates range widely between 20 to 65 million for 2001), the Government found 85 per cent to be Dalits or from lower castes. These included a large number of children.

  • Dalits and adivasis (indigenous peoples) form the largest proportion of those who drop out of school. In rural areas, between the ages of five and nine, 36.1 per cent of Dalit boys and 48.4 per cent of Dalit girls dropped out.

  • About 75 per cent of Dalit communities live below the poverty line.

  • Two-thirds of the Dalit population is illiterate.

  • Half are landless agricultural labourers.

  • Only seven per cent have access to safe drinking water, electricity and toilets.

from Mari Marcel Thekaekara on the Stink of Untouchability in the New Internationalist, July 2005

5. Untouchability & Caste Relations in Rural India - the Case of Southern Tamil Villages - A. Ramaiah

"Justice and equality are the two subjects often talked about by most of the nationalists and leaders of various political and ideological streams across the world including India....everyday social life is still governed substantially by the hierarchical attitude and sentiments carried over from the past. The awe for those who are superior by birth or social position (higher caste) and the contempt towards social inferiors (lower castes) are equally wide spread in the rural and urban areas and among the educated and the uneducated... What is most important of all is reconsidering the suggestion of Dr. Ambedkar that a socially distinct community should be allowed to settle in separate villages so that within such villages there is no scope for any one to label another as untouchable or lower caste. Only in such separate villages can the so-called lower caste people also experience freedom which India got five decades before. Besides, a fire spewing urge to fight for their rights, self-respect and dignity and a strive for coming together across their religious, regional, linguistic, sub-caste and ideological differences have to be consciously nurtured. Unless this is achieved, the empowerment and the emancipation of enslaved Indians would continue to remain a distant dream.”  more

6Pfaffenberger, Bryan - Caste in Tamil Culture: The Religious Foundations of Sudra Domination in Tamil Sri Lanka

"...The caste system of South India, epitomized (as are most things South Indian) by the social formation of the Tamil-speaking lands is if anything even more rigid and redolent of the hierarchical ethos than that of North India. And yet - here, of course, is the uniquitous paradox with which South Indian presents us - the Tamil caste system comprises features which are not only unknown in North India but are also without any clear foundation in the Sastric lore. So divergent is the southern system that one is tempted to say, with Raghavan (n.d.:117), that the Sastras have "little application" to the Tamil caste system, which should be analyzed in purely Dravidian terms...But to do so is to forget the fundamental challenge with which Dravidian culture presents us, namely, to see it as a regional variant of the Gangetic tradition of Hinduism. We are obliged to observe, for instance, that the highest and lowest ranks of the Tamil caste hierarchy - that of the Brahman and of the scavenging Paraiyar Untouchables -are perfectly explicable in Sastric terms. .."  more

7..K.Nambi Arooran in The Origin of the Non-Brahmin Movement, 1905-1920

".. although non Brahmins from the two main Dravidian language groups - Tamil and Telegu - joined the non-Brahmin movement the use of Dravidianism as a political weapon was mostly confined to the Tamil non-Brahmins... At the same time when Dravidian consciousness was taking shape not only the question who were Dravidians but also the question who were non-Brahmins came to be widely asked. The leaders of the Justice Party claimed that the term ` non-Brahmins' denoted all other than ` Brahmins'. But the leadership of the party came mostly from the ` advanced ' or ` forward ' non-Brahmin Hindu castes which according to one estimate formed about 19 per cent of the population."

8Nadesan Satyendra in  the Tamil Heritage

 " the end, Periyar E.V.Ramasamy, the undoubted father of the Dravidian movement failed to deliver on the promise of Dravida Nadu. E.V.R. failed where Mohamed Ali Jinnah succeeded. It is true that the strategic considerations of the ruling colonial power were different in each case - and this had something to do with Jinnah’s success. But, nevertheless, if ideology is concerned with moving a people to action, the question may well be asked: why did E.V.R’s ideology fail to deliver Dravida Nadu?... Support for the positive contributions that E.V.R. made in the area of social reform and to rational thought, should not prevent an examination of where it was that he went wrong. Again, it may well be that E.V.R. represented a necessary phase in the struggle of the Tamil people and given the objective conditions of the 1920s and 1930s, E.V.R was right to focus sharply on the immediate contradiction posed by 'upper' caste dominance and mooda nambikai. But in the 21st century, there may be a need to learn from E.V.R. - and not simply repeat that which he said or did..." 

9திராவிடக் கட்சிகளின் தமிழ்த் தேசியம் -  Sanmugam Sabesan, 2005

“திராவிடன் என்ற மரபு இனத்தை தி.மு.க முன் வைத்தது, தமிழ்த் தேசியக் கோட்பாட்டிற்குப் புறம்பான நிலைப்பாடு. தமிழன் என்ற தேசிய இனத்தை மட்டும் முன் வைத்திருக்க வேண்டும். அது மட்டுமல்ல பிற்காலத்தில் இக்கழகம் நாட்டால் இந்தியன்,  இனத்தால் திராவிடன், மொழியால் தமிழன் என்று கூறிக் கொள்ளத் தொடங்கியது. இது தேசிய இனவரையறைக்குப் புறம்பான உளறல் மட்டுமல்ல, தமிழ்த் தேசியத்தை ஊனப்படுத்தும் போக்கும் ஆகும்.”  more

10.Dravidian Movement & Dalits - Gail Omvedt  ...

"In Tamil Nadu there was a movement in the name of anti-Brahmanism under the leadership of Periyar. It attracted Dalits, but after 30 years of power, the Dalits understand that they are as badly-off - or worse-off - as they were under the Brahmans. Under Dravidian rule, they have been attacked and killed, their due share in government service is not given, they are not allowed to rise.'' So says Dr. Krishnasami, leader of the militant movement of the Dalit community known as ``Devendra Kula Vellalas'' of southern Tamil Nadu and founder of a new political party, Puthiya Tamilakam. This sense of disillusionment with the Dravidian parties is pervasive among not only the Dalits but also many militant non-Brahmans as well. The anti-caste movements of the past, in Dr. Krishnasami's words, have failed to achieve their main goals. Mr. Thirumavalavan of the Liberation Panthers speaks of discrimination and atrocities against those who fight against the evil and adds: ``Castes keep their identity just as before, they don't intermarry, there are no longer any self-respect marriages.'' Like Dr. Krishnasami, he does not reject the goals of the movement, arguing ``the Dalit struggle has to be for the liberation of a nationality,'' and Hindutva should be opposed through Tamil nationalism. He feels that the existing Dravidian parties have betrayed the Dalits."

11.On Hinduism, Caste, & Indian 'Democracy' - Dr.Iniyan Elango, 1999

 "..Hinduism espouses the division of people into hierarchically placed groups called “castes”. These castes are placed in a stepladder of ascending superiority and descending inferiority. People who are born into these castes should follow the ordained caste professions and marry only within their caste through arranged marriages. The beneficiaries of this system were the various Brahman castes who by virtue of their birth were free to follow intellectual pursuits at the advent of British colonial education making them modern India’s intellectual, scientific, and bureaucratic class. The various “Vysya” (trading) castes, placed below the Brahman castes and the Royal (“Kshatriya”) castes, have enjoyed the monopoly in trading activities for centuries, by virtue of their birth, thus becoming modern India’s corporate and business class. The “Shudras” are the various lower castes in the hierarchy who are considered as Hindus and members of caste Hindu society...Rape is the most common risk faced by a Dalit woman in the Hindu society. The English language dictionary even now carries the word "Pariah" (which is the Tamil name for the large population of Dalits living in Tamil Nadu in India) to convey the meaning of "outcast". "

12. Racial Origin of Caste -Senthil Veliappa

"...The Vedic system of apartheid is one of the most dehumanizing on record. Some Vaishnava apologists refuse to believe that caste is racial in origin, and claim that it is due to profession. Such people also claim that `conversion' to Hinduism is allowed and that a person of one caste can become a person of another caste. This arises due to their deliberate confusion of two distinct terms, `varna' or race, and `jati' or professional guild. The fact is that `varna' in Sanskrit denotes skin color, and implies race, while `jati' is the professional guild which a person belongs to.."

 13Towards a Non Brahmin Millenium - V.Geeta, S.V..Rajadurai

"..In a context when Brahmins claimed that birth was no more a badge of status and then went ahead to act and speak as if it was, non-Brahmins, comprising a range of castes and communities, including both those who owned land and those who laboured on it, claimed the contrary. They called attention to practices of discrimination, humiliation and negation suffered on account of their always already lowly birth, and came to articulate a philosophy and practice of rights which would help them combat inequality and humiliation..."

14. Adheedhan Ravikumar on Iyothee Thass & The Politics of Naming, August 2005

On 3 September, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is all set to inaugurate National Center for Siddha Research in Chennai. The research centre was originally to be named after Pandit C. Iyothee Thass (1845-1914), a renowned practitioner of the Siddha form of native Tamil medicine, and also a pioneer of the Tamil Dalit movement. However, the name of Iyothee Thass has been dropped. The foundation for the project was laid on March 27, 1999 by the then Tamil Nadu chief minister M. Karunanidhi in the presence of then Union Health Minister, Dalit Ezhilmalai, of the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK). It was at the behest of Dalit Ezhilmalai that the institute was named after Iyothee Thass.

After seven years, Iyothee Thass's name does not figure anywhere. Dalit organizations are protesting. Se. Ku. Tamilarasan of the Republican Party of India (RPI), a sitting MLA, has announced a black flag demonstration against the prime minister and union health minister Anbumani Ramadoss if they refuse to name the institute after the Dalit leader.

The last decade of 20th century marks a significant chapter in the history of Tamil Nadu as the Dalits waged a fearless war against the shudra repression in the sociopolitical realm. The caste war which started in the southern districts slowly spread to the northern districts. The Vanniars designated a Most Backward Class were the main perpetrators of atrocities against dalits in the northern districts. To take the sting off allegations of being casteist and anti-Dalit, the PMK, a party of Vanniars, made Dalit Ezhilmalai a Union minister in the BJP-led government. Within a year, Ezhilmalai demonstrated that he had a mind of his own and started functioning independent of his political masters. It was during Ezhilmalai's ministership and with his patronage that a section of Tamil Dalits rediscovered Iyothee Thass.

The Dalit thinker's writings were reprinted in five volumes through a publishing house called Dalit Sahitya Academy owned by Ezhilmalai. Thass emerged as an icon of Dalit assertion in the ideological sphere. Though the medical knowledge of Iyothee Thass was recognized by many of his contemporaries, including Colonel Henry Steel Olcott of the Theosophical Society and Thiru. Vi. Kalyasasundaram, a famous Tamil scholar, the attempt made by Dalit Ezhilmalai to name the Siddha research institute after him must be understood in the context of the political assertion of dalits in the 1990s.

Iyothee Thass is perhaps one among the several Dalit icons whose names have been blacked out by mainstream history... more

 15Early Evidence of Caste in South India - George L.Hart

"At first glance, caste seems a phenomenon which, if not simple, is at least amenable to explanation and description; yet, as the vast number of writings on the subject and their many different points of view indicate, this is not the case...The modern form of the caste system seems to have been the result of changes introduced by the Brahmins and by kings who fostered the Hindu system...As important as the Brahmins and the Brahmanical religion were, they were not the creators of the caste system in South India. They influenced the system profoundly, no doubt, but caste is found in most of its manifestations before the Brahmins became prominent. Its origins must be seen in the belief system that developed with the agricultural civilization of South India: that sacred power in its natural state is dangerous and demands groups outside of society proper to control it. .."

16..Rise of Caste in Dravida Land 

"...the DMK did keep the plank of cultural nationalism alive until the killing of Rajiv Gandhi in Sriperumbudur. Ever since, the spectre of Tamil nationalism evokes the ghosts of Sivarasan and Dhanu, the suicide bombers of the LTTE.  The cracking up of the anti-Brahmin umbrella happened alongside the decline of cultural nationalism as an emotional issue in Tamil Nadu. Improved literacy and decline in the number of poor brought to the fore new political and economic aspirations. The success of Vanniyar Sanghom, and later its political outfit, the Pattali Makkal Katchi, was an eye opener to others on power play. 

The emergence of an educated class among Dalits - Pallars in the south and Parayars in central Tamil Nadu - has led to caste consolidation in these areas. The riots during the mid-90s have polarised Dalits and dominant OBC groups including the Thevars leading to the emergence of vote blocks. Various elections since 1996 have demonstrated that these vote blocks can decide poll outcomes. The DMK and the AIADMK had no option but to agree to accommodate the new interests if they were serious about winning elections... Alliterative oratory punctuated with gems from classical texts will not be able to match the arithmetic of castes..."

17The Legend of Nandan: Nandan Kathai - Indira Parthasarathy , 2003  

"Accounting for over 80 per cent of the landless agricultural workers and doing menial jobs for the rest of society, Dalits have been victims of class-related economic exploitation by upper-caste landholders. Contrary to the expectations generated among people during the freedom struggle, Independence has not brought any significant change in their lives. Dalits' attempts at upward mobility are often scorned and there has been no let-up in the violence against them. In a gruesome incident that took place at East Venmani in Tamil Nadu's Thanjavur district on December 25, 1968, 44 Dalit agricultural workers, including women and children, were burnt alive by the land-owners of the village because they demanded higher wages.."

 18Dalits at the Indian Institutes of Technology 

"Nandanar, a dalit rebel-activist of the bhakti period, sought access to the Shivaloganadar temple in Tiruppungur and the Nataraja temple in Chidambaram, to which the 'untouchable' Pulaiyars provided hereditary services (supplying leather for percussion instruments). For this, the Brahman clergy derided him. The Tamil saivite tradition went on to appropriate the political resistance of Nandanar in the great Hindu habit of 'assimilation'. In Sekkizhar's Peiryapuranam, a 12th century saivite hagiography, the dalit martyr is made to undergo a 'conversion' - he gains access to worship only after his caste-oppressed pulaiya body is 'purified' by the sacrificial fire, and lo! he emerges as a Brahman sage - tuft, caste thread, and all. Siva is shown to accept the dalit after he undergoes a trial-by-fire. In reality, Nandanar was burnt to death. Incinerated.  Today, many dalit students at the Indian Institutes of Technology have to survive a 'Preparatory Course' fire and come out unscathed if they have to do B. Tech. Not much has changed. The dalits fought for temple-entry; today they fight for entry into IITs - temples of technology..."



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