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Dog whistle for caste mobilisation

In Tamil Nadu’s backward-caste electoral politics, Sanatan Dharma is a phrase to abuse Brahmins

Dog whistle for caste mobilisation

Hypocrisy: It was only last month that the Tamil Nadu CM’s wife Durga Stalin (right) offered a gold crown to the deity of the famous Guruvayoor Krishna temple in Kerala. Photo courtesy of Malayala Manorama



Rajesh Ramachandran

SANATAN Dharma means eternal values. Then, why should the DMK leadership have any quarrel with everlasting virtues, leave alone abuse it in the vilest possible terms by equating them with deadly diseases? Herein lies the dog whistle of the so-called Dravidian politics. In Tamil Nadu’s backward-caste electoral politics — otherwise known as Dravidian ideology, which has no currency in other South Indian states — Sanatan Dharma is a code word or phrase to abuse and demean Brahmins.

If Periyar used the attack against Sanatan Dharma to delegitimise Congress, the tactic is being used by the Stalins to paint the BJP as a Brahminical enterprise out to disempower TN’s backward castes.

For the backward-caste politicians of Tamil Nadu and their voters, Sanatan Dharma symbolises Brahminical hegemony, ritualism, superstition and feudal overlordship of the Brahmins. Just as a Hindutva politician may use the dog whistle of the Muslim ‘other’, the backward-caste politicians of Tamil Nadu use Sanatan Dharma to whip up anti-Brahmin sentiments and mobilise their own caste brethren. In fact, EV Ramasamy Naicker — famous as Periyar — had packaged hatred for Brahmins into an ideology, terming the platform Dravidar Kazhagam.

Intriguingly, both RSS and Dravidar Kazhagam were formed in the same year, 1925, and both have been accused by their detractors of being British stooges. Periyar, when he was the Madras Presidency Congress Committee chief, had an epiphany to fight the Brahmins instead of the British and joined hands with the pro-British Justice Party, led interestingly by a Nair (for Periyar, all non-Brahmins were oppressed, however big landlords they were). Then, Dravidian politicians are mostly from the middle castes, though technically categorised as backward or most backward castes. Most of those who claim Chola and Pandya lineage are now beneficiaries of backward-caste quotas in Tamil Nadu.

So, Periyar’s politics suited the upsurge of backward-caste pride and empowerment, as it turned electorally insignificant Brahmins into a racial ‘other’. The Congress had a considerable number of Brahmin leaders, and in all probability, it was to attack the Congress and Mahatma Gandhi that Periyar turned Sanatan Dharma into a catchphrase of abuse. His pro-British leanings were evident in his opposition to the freedom movement and his refusal to accept freedom in 1947. It was this pro-British, anti-Brahmin politics that laid the intellectual framework for Tamil secessionism, which has cost the nation the lives of many, including that of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi — the LTTE leadership of Sri Lanka always relied on the extremist Dravidar Kazhagam cadre for intellectual succour on the mainland.

All this would have been fine had it not been for the inherent hypocrisy. Now, the Brahmins are a defeated, minuscule minority in Tamil Nadu, fleeing their homeland in search of prosperity. The old Brahmin hegemony over temples and the community at large is a thing of the past. And the sweetest irony is that the Dravidian cadres are great believers and temple-goers. Since Sanatan Dharma is for them only a term of racial abuse against Brahmins, the DMK voters do not see a dichotomy in their contempt for Brahminism and their belief in Hinduism or temples.

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin’s son Udhayanidhi Stalin, thus, can afford to read out a written speech seeking the ‘eradication’ of Sanatan Dharma because it is now being equated with the politics of Hindutva and the Sangh Parivar, thereby very significantly drawing a parallel between Brahminism and the BJP, delegitimising the Hindutva party as an organisation that perpetuates Brahminical hierarchy in society. If Periyar used the attack against Sanatan Dharma to delegitimise the Congress, the tactic is being used by the Stalins to paint the BJP as a Brahminical enterprise out to disempower the backward castes of Tamil Nadu.

This is politics of caste hatred nuanced as electoral messaging which the speaker and the listener understand. And it doesn’t mean anything more than that. For, it was only last month that Durga Stalin, Udhayanidhi’s mother, offered a gold crown to the deity of the famous Guruvayoor Krishna temple in Kerala, where daily prayers are done according to Vedic rituals. Only the most devout make the trip to Guruvayoor or an astrologer ought to prescribe it as a remedy for some dosha. Either way, Durga wouldn’t have made this expensive gift had it not been to seek Lord Krishna’s blessings for her husband and son.

Worse hypocrisy is to explain Sanatan Dharma in terms of casteism and untouchability. For, terrible caste discrimination exists in established TN Christian churches and even in village tea shops, where the two-tumbler system prevailed for long — one for forward/backward castes and the other for the Dalits. Why, even Periyar is accused of not having visited the site of the massacre of 44 Dalits at Keezhvenmani in 1968.

A Dalit activist-writer has quoted Periyar’s magazine Viduthalai, in which he is alleged to have spoken thus about Keezhvenmani: “The Communists are pretending to help you. They give promises of a pay hike and a better life. But a wage hike is not possible through political agitations. It is only possible from the market value of the commodities. Instead of teaching you (Dalits) how to live peacefully with the wages you get, they want to create riots in the state and they want to get the DMK government disturbed.”

The landlord of Keezhvenmani, prime accused Gopalakrishna Naidu, belonged to Periyar’s caste. Not surprisingly, the DMK government till today is in the dock for having made the police mute spectators to the massacre and then later letting Naidu get acquitted after an appeal. So, the DMK’s anti-caste talk should be tempered with the understanding of anti-Dalit atrocities, just as all talk of Dravidian rationalism should be counterpoised with the donation of a gold crown to Lord Krishna by the first family.

At the national level, the Stalins’ attack on Sanatan Dharma has embarrassed the INDIA coalition no end. And therein lies the irony of Indian politics — what is a dog whistle for caste mobilisation in one state can turn into a communal own-goal alarm in another. When all is said and done, here is a request to these great progressive leaders — please don’t stigmatise diseases like HIV and leprosy by turning them into metaphors of hatred.

#Sanatan Dharma #Tamil Nadu


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