Statue Politics: Periyar Isn't Lenin and Tirupattur Isn't Tripura

Puja Menon
The act of vandalism in the Tirupattur corporation office in Vellore district, where a statue of Periyar was disfigured, comes a day after BJP leader H Raja allegedly posted a message on Facebook. In his post, deleted after sharp criticism, the BJP leader had allegedly written

That a statue of Erode Venkata Ramasamy aka Periyar can be defaced in the heart of Dravidian political landscape, where even an objective criticism of him or his ideology is unacceptable, sends shockwaves.

The act of vandalism in the Tirupattur corporation office in Vellore district, where a statue of Periyar was disfigured, comes a day after BJP leader H Raja allegedly posted a message on Facebook. In his post, deleted after sharp criticism, the BJP leader had allegedly written

“Today it is Lenin’s statue in Tripura, tomorrow it will be the statue of caste fanatic EVR Ramasamy”.

While the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has distanced itself from the act and Mr Raja even reportedly claimed that he did not post such a message, both cannot deny their deep discomfort and hatred for Periyar and Dravidian ideology.

Periyar was a rationalist, known for his fierce questioning of idol worship and other religious beliefs. Present day Dravidian leaders may not be committed rationalists like the father of Dravidian ideology was and the essence of Dravidian ideology has been severely diluted, but they cannot depart from the core of the secular values that Dravidian ideology represents.

In many ways, ideologically, Periyar represents that core ideology that Hindutva despises. Periyar himself refused to enter electoral politics and it was the late C N Annadurai who broke away from Periyar’s Dravida Kazhagam, a social reformist movement, to launch the political party Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in 1949. It captured power in 1967 and since then Tamil Nadu has been ruled only by the DMK and the AIADMK, which was formed by MGR in 1972 after he broke away from the DMK.

While all later Dravidian leaders hold Anna (C N Annadurai) as their founder and leader, they see Periyar as the father (Thanthai Periyar – Thanthai stands for father). He is perhaps the only rationalist activist to be revered as the father of such powerful regional electoral forces that remain firmly in control of a large Indian state.

Historically, Periyar demanded a separate Dravidian nation, as late as 1962 C N Annadurai made a pitch for separation in the Rajya Sabha, and Dravidian politics has revolved around a fierce sense of Tamil pride. Hindutva as an ideology is seen as alien to the land and an import from Aryan culture.

For instance, core Dravidian beliefs would mean worship Ravan and not Ram! This is not based on scientific genetic or race studies, but a larger and powerful political narrative.

Periyar’s Dravidian movement was also an OBC consolidation against the Brahmin caste and to date, the two Dravidian parties are built on large OBC bases. Tamil Nadu is also unique in the sense that it has a very small population of forward castes and is seen as a three-tier caste structure. Hindutva cannot break through the caste barriers here.

Since the departure of Jayalalithaa, the primary electoral force in the state is the DMK which is the custodian of Dravidian ideology. In this backdrop, the BJP would hope to build a narrative of an ideological alternative to the grand old Dravidian party. But the party and Sangh parivar outfits have negligible presence in the state. In the absence of a strong electoral base, ideological assertions have little impact and this has only left right wing groups frustrated.

Actors Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth are yet to prove their electoral abilities, but even between them Haasan is seen to be closer to the Dravidian Leftist ideology and Rajnikanth, though seen as closer to the Right, will have to fiercely defend Periyar if he has to stay politically relevant in the state.

Across the country, the BJP’s rise to power in 2014 was built on the anti-corruption and better administration as a plank. But this was further additions on its core base that it slowly built post 1991. At the micro level it has wooed caste blocks in several parts. In Tamil Nadu, despite severe cases of corruption, no national force can dislodge or find a base primarily because the roots of Dravidian ideology and organisational structure of the parties are powerful.

In every way, what Periyar represents and what he has left behind is an enormous fundamental barrier to Hindutva’s march towards Kanyakumari. His legacy remains in strong control over the state’s polity and this is why Periyar isn’t Lenin and Triupattur isn’t Tripura.