Opinion
When the dust has settled on this controversy, the burden of resolving the issues raised by Ranjith cannot remain his alone.

At a recently held meeting at Thiruppanandal in the Cauvery delta region of Tamil Nadu, Pa Ranjith, film director and firebrand spokesperson for the Dalit cause, made a short speech that has various political entities in the state in uproar ever since. What did he actually say?

The positions taken by Ranjith in his controversial speech were primarily focused on asserting the autonomy of the struggle for Dalit rights from the dominant political forces in the state. His first salvo was fired against the Dravidian parties, which he castigated for nominating candidates on the basis of caste calculations to win the elections and not admitting that they represented interests of the dominant castes. If you have such affinity for the dominant castes, Ranjith asked, how can you understand or care for Dalits?

This perception of the Dravidian parties is neither new nor original. However, with their powerful propaganda apparatus, the Dravidian parties have always succeeded in representing themselves as the true warriors for ‘social justice’, side-lining or subsuming dissenting voices raised by or on behalf of Dalit communities. In this context, Ranjith has called them out for pursuing and protecting the interests of dominant caste groups while claiming to be enemies of Brahminism at the same time.

In his speech, Ranjith has also bluntly asserted a truth that has been glossed over by the Dravidian movement: that the land-owning caste groups in the state, especially in the delta region, have profited for a long time from practising caste oppression and untouchability against Dalits. Using caste, the landowners have exploited the labour of Dalits in their lands while keeping them landless for over a thousand years.

Ranjith has pointed out the vast landholdings of the Saivite mutts in the state, founded and fostered exclusively by the landowning Vellalar castes. Such stark disparities in the fortunes of the two communities couldn’t have come about without the inhuman oppression facilitated by the caste system. In a society that has addressed caste only in terms of the inferiorization propounded by the Brahmins in their scriptures, Ranjith has pointed out that material exploitation and deprivation have been the primary consequences of the oppression faced by Dalits in the delta region.

Ranjith has also asserted that landlessness is the problem of Dalit communities not just in the delta, but across India, and that this needs resolution. In his emphasis on the material basis of caste exploitation, Ranjith appears to echo Jignesh Mevani, the young Dalit leader from Gujarat, who has also demanded land allotment for Dalits as a possible way out of their condition.

On another front, Ranjith has refused to become part of the Tamil identity, advanced by parties like Naam Tamizhar Katchi against what they see as dominance by non-Tamil communities under the Dravidian dispensation. Recognising that such an identity would make no difference to the discrimination suffered by Dalits, Ranjith has pointed out that Dalits are already isolated, and distancing themselves from Tamil chauvinists would make no difference to their condition.

Interestingly, Ranjith claims that his intellectual existence transcends the limits set by Tamil and that it is Dr Ambedkar, who hailed from the 'north' and worked in a language very different from Tamil, who gave him the strength to fight for Dalit rights. Combining these viewpoints, Ranjith says that he has no need to identify with Raja Raja Chozhan, the Chozha king who is venerated for his achievements as a symbol of Tamil glory, because land was taken away from Dalits under his reign (984-1014 CE) and they have remained landless to this day. He also points out that the Devadasi tradition, a system that has been degrading and exploitative of women, was inaugurated in the Tamil country by Raja Raja Chozhan.

Reactions to Ranjith’s speech have been diverse. The DMK, torchbearer of the Dravidian ideology, has always side-lined and ignored dissenting voices from or on behalf of Dalit communities, and its response in this instance has been no different. A crude rebuttal, based entirely on caste supremacy, has been issued by the Vellalar caste association of the delta region.

But the most virulent response has come, predictably, from the supporters of BJP/Hindutva in the state who never fail to see political opportunity in defending God and Hinduism against detractors. Ranjith’s identification of land-rich Saivite mutts as instruments of casteism and exploitation of Dalit labour has been misinterpreted as an attack on the ‘Hindu’ pantheon. The counter-attack has come largely from Brahmins in the state, including the likes of H Raja, the BJP leader. This is somewhat amusing because Tamil Saivism as founded and fostered by the Vellalars from the 8th century onwards has had little to do with Brahmanical Hinduism. It is often held that Tamil Saivism was the Vellalars’ own claim on the province of divinity in their attempt to be on par with the Brahmins, with whom they lived in an uneasy truce made up of collusion and competition for nearly a millennium until the advent of the British.

Similarly, to construe Ranjith’s privileging of Dalit rights over religious piety in the manner of Raja Raja Chozhan as anti-Hindu is an act of gross political insensitivity so characteristic of the Hindutva project.

When the dust has settled on this controversy, the burden of resolving the issues raised by Ranjith cannot remain his alone. With a bravery that is uncommon in the Indian public sphere, he has made several important interventions. First, to show up the transformation of the non-Brahmin coalition into a vehicle for the promotion of dominant caste interests rather than a political force against casteism. Second, the recognition, hitherto weak or non-existent, that land ownership has been a virulent enabler and beneficiary of exploitation of Dalits. Third, identities based on religion or languages are irrelevant in the fight for Dalit rights. Fourth, the exploited and the powerless must unite across caste lines and state boundaries in the fight to redeem their rights and eliminate oppression.

Anyone who believes that these are important interventions that can make a crucial difference to political discourse and action in the years to come cannot but #StandWithRanjith.

(Views expressed author's own)

N Kalyan Raman is a writer and literary translator based in Chennai.