The destruction of a Vladimir Lenin statue in Tripura, allegedly by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) workers following the party's landslide victory in the state, didn't evoke much outrage in other parts of the country, except from the CPM and Left circles, but carrying the same misplaced triumphalism to Tamil Nadu to target Dravidian icon EV Ramasamy, commonly known as 'Periyar', is like playing with fire.
Lenin is not an Indian national or an icon of a native ideology, but the face of a imported political system that has miserably failed across the world. Bringing down his statues has been symptomatic of a global anti-communist sentiment triggered by the fall of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Block. In comparison, Periyar is an eternal socio-political sentiment of Tamilians that symbolises their self-respect and resistance to any form of suzerainty; the embodiment of Dravidian ideology that inspires people from not only Tamil Nadu, but across all the southern states. Particularly when it comes to resisting the "hegemony of north India".
File image of H Raja. Image courtesy: Facebook
Although his iconoclastic political ideology, rebellious nature, and pathbreaking ideas on vital issues ranging from religious faith to women's rights " which appear radical even by today's standards " have been diluted by his followers in their pursuit of parliamentary democracy, as an icon, he is owned by everyone. In Tamil Nadu, it's impossible to dabble in politics without evoking his memories " be it Jayalalithaa, Karunanidhi or the latest entrant Kamal Haasan " because Periyar was the quintessential rebel who taught them self-respect and sowed the seeds of a new political thought that made national parties irrelevant in the state.
The fall of the Lenin statue in Tripura may be construed as a result of reckless mob-frenzy aimed at intimidating the CPM, but following it up with a threat to the statues of Periyar smacks of a design, however premature it may be, because both icons had their rejection of fascist ideologies in common.
If the European fascists considered the communists their principal enemy, their Indian counterparts may have similar reasons to dislike Periyar, because he believed that faith and faith-based discrimination was fundamental to all forms of inequality. He was against Hinduism because he believed that it inherently fostered social discrimination. He asked people to reject God, respect themselves and believe only in humanity. He also asked them to be rational and believe in science. And more importantly, he burned the Manusmriti and Periyapuranam (a sacred text of Saivites), broke Hindu idols and stood up for women's rights that incidentally also conflicted with faith-based social norms.
So, the annoyance of H Raja, the BJP leader from Tamil Nadu who wanted to bring down Periyar's statues, is not without motive, but going public with it betrays the BJP's proclivity to electoral triumphalism manifesting as socio-political immaturity.
As a Tamilian, if he had any idea of the depth of Periyar's ideology and the influence it has on Tamil Nadu's regional nationalism, he wouldn't even have brooked the thought " because it's suicidal to do so. The BJP's near-impossible task of finding traction with the people of Tamil Nadu could only be done within the framework of Dravidian politics.
The "spiritual politics" of Rajinikanth, which he later clarified as "honest and secular", or proxy ideas to promote Hindutva, will not work in Tamil Nadu because its regional nationalism is stronger than the Hindu nationalism. And Periyar was the founding father of this nationalism. Thanks to him, for most Tamilians, their socio-cultural identity and self-respect come first.
Therefore, it was not surprising that all Tamil political leaders spoke in one voice against Raja's statement, with MK Stalin even demanding his incarceration under the 'Goonda Act'. Probably, the BJP or Raja may have been testing the waters for a different type of polarisation (people with religious beliefs versus those without; Arun Shourie had once made a feeble attempt at pitting Periyar against Kerala reformer Narayana Guru in his Worshipping False Gods on the grounds of belief), but clearly it failed and it will continue to fail because Periyar was also a man who rationally contested Gandhi's thoughts on Hinduism, rejected Ambedkar's call for conversion to escape the perils of caste, and even shunned his initial fascination for Communism because in India, caste was more important than class.
Probably, Raja's ill-informed enthusiasm is a blessing in disguise because Periyar's thoughts and methodology cannot be more relevant than they are today. While his socio-political thought emerged from uncompromisable ideas of equality and self-respect, his style of propagating it was unequivocal and untiring. An average of 250 blunt, provocative, and sometimes even raw, speeches in a year and prolific writing that were aimed simultaneously to educate, emancipate and mobilise people is unavoidable as a political practice if one is looking for breakthroughs. His careerist political followers may have compromised on the essence of his rational eradication of caste-based discrimination, but whenever they are in trouble, they fall back on his philosophy, even as a short-cut to regain their ideological legitimacy.
As political historian K Kannan notes in Anna, his biography of CN Annadurai, the first chief minister of Tami Nadu and the most famous disciple of Periyar, "his work covered almost the entire gamut of human asymmetry".
For instance, his clarity on women's equality a century ago is an astonishing testimony to his fundamental belief in equality. As Kannan summarises in his book, "EVR said the concept of chastity applied to bother sexes: Women needed to be independent and not to bear children. They should hold 50 percent of the jobs. As early as 1926, his self respect marriages without priests or ceremony, sanctioned divorce and property rights for women. He married off his young widow niece in 1909 against much opposition. He saw nuptials as interim and sought to end the institution of marriage for the true liberalism of women."
The razing down of the Lenin's statue might soon fade from public memory as an instance of political vandalism, but using it as an opportunity to revile Periyar will backfire and resurrect his legend.