Massive rallies unite Periyarists and Ambedkarites against the BJP in Tamil Nadu

On 9 February the Neelachattai Perani or blue-shirt march in Coimbatore united more than 60 Periyarist and Ambedkarite groups in their opposition to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Sujatha Sivagnanam
13 March, 2020


“What does the RSS tell you?” Thol Thirumavalavan, a member of parliament from Tamil Nadu and president of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi—Liberation Panthers Party— asked rhetorically. The Dalit leader was on a stage festooned in the blue and red flags of the regional party in a rally at Tiruchirappalli, on 22 February. “They tell you this is the kali kaalam”—the end of days. “It is their end of days. Because this Thirumavalavan who should have been grazing cows, this Thirumavalavan who should have been carrying cow dung on his head, this Thirumavalavan who should have been wearing nothing but a loin cloth and suffering this pain, this same Thirumavalavan can stand on a stage.” He continued, “This same Thirumavalavan can proudly twirl his moustache, he can hold his head high and question the sanathanam”—the Tamil term for Brahminism—“that is taking over this country. This is their kali kalam because there are lakhs of panthers standing behind this common man.”

Thirumavalavan was referring to the VCK’s belief that the goal of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is the removal of the Constitution and the retrenchment of Brahminical supremacy over Dalits in India. Since 2017, small Periyarist and Ambedkarite outfits in towns and cities across Tamil Nadu have consistently mobilised in large numbers against the Bharatiya Janata Party. This groundswell of dissent crescendoed in two major rallies in Coimbatore and Tiruchirappalli in February this year. On 9 February, twelve thousand people representing more than sixty Periyarist outfits organised a march in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu. The event, called the “Neelachattai Perani” or blue-shirt march—emblematic of the chosen colour of the Ambedkarite movement—ended with the creation of a manifesto of Dalit demands for the state. The second major march was the “Desakaapom Maanaadu,” or Save the Nation rally, which saw more than eighty thousand Ambedkarites attend in Tiruchirappalli, on 22 February. The two rallies show a closing of ranks between small Ambedkarite and Periyarist outfits, which have differing ideologies, to deal with what they perceive as a larger threat—the rise of Hindu nationalism in India, and Tamil Nadu in particular.

The Neelachattai Perani was organised by the Periyariya Unarvalargal Kootamaippu, which loosely translates to federation of Periyarists. It is an umbrella organisation of several Periyarist outfits scattered in the tier-two cities and towns of Tamil Nadu. A range of youth groups which define themselves ideologically as Ambedkarite and Periyarist proliferated across the state following the death of former chief minister J Jayalalithaa and the pro-Jallikattu protests in 2017. The protests against the Supreme Court ban on a popular rural sport galvanised youth against both the state and central government.

The May 17 Movement, a rights-based activist group, took up the role of organising these smaller political outfits. The organisation has previously worked towards galvanising support for an international inquiry into the war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide at the end of the fourth Eelam war. In 2009, the Sri Lankan army conducted a genocide of Tamil civilians at the end of the 30 year-war between the Sri Lankan state and the de-facto state of Tamil Eelam. “Periyar has been a powerful force behind Tamil Nadu’s politics and the Dravidian culture,” Praveen Kumar, the coordinator of the May 17 Movement said. “The Hindutva forces could not fight with a force like Periyar and started attacking his ideology vehemently, even going to the length of breaking his statues. The need for a unified force against the fascists was imminent and that gave birth to this federation.”

The rise of Periyarist groups was further exacerbated by the recent alliance of the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam with the BJP following the power vacuum created by Jayalalithaa’s death. The perceived influence of Hindutva policies due to this, in a state that had previously stayed away from the national mainstream, led to these smaller Periyarist groups seeing the need to work in tandem.

The first large-scale mobilisation by the Periyariya Unarvalargal Kootamaippu was the Karunchattai Perani, or black-shirt march, on 23 December 2018, evoking the chosen colour of the Dravidian self-respect movement. The day coincided with the forty-fifth death anniversary of EV Ramasamy Naicker, commonly known as Periyar, whose self-respect movement fought against caste, religion and linguistic imperialism in the country. Twenty-five thousand Periyarists took part in the Karunchettai Perani in Tiruchirappali. They ended by creating a manifesto of Periyarist demands to end the rise of Hindu nationalism in Tamil Nadu. At the end of the Karunchattai Perani, Thirumurugan Gandhi, the founder of the May 17 Movement said, “The enemy we face is large. It is not just Periyarists who must unite. We shall also organise a Neelachattai Perani and a Sevappuchettai Perani”—a red-shirt rally, referring to communists. “We need to stand united for this.”

People from all walks of life were visible in the Neelachattai Perani in Coimbatore. Muthulakshmi a frail woman from Tirupur, the neighbouring district, had brought along her month-old grandson. His father who emerged from the crowd smiled at us. He was a volunteer with the Dravidar Viduthalai Kazhagam or Dravidian Liberation Federation. Talking about why he came to the rally he said, “It is for the next generation, it is for him,” pointing to his son. “We came here as a family.” Muthulakshmi added, “Is it not our responsibility to create a better future for the coming generations? At least my grandson should live in a society which does not talk about caste.”

Nagarajan had arrived just that morning from nearby Mettupalayam along with his two daughters. He said he had come out of his love for Ambedkar. “I am not associated with any movement.” He continued, “I want my girls to get exposed to Ambedkar and Periyar. This is the ideal place for them to learn.” The mood at the rally was enthusiastic and jubilant. Youth groups played the parai—a percussion instrument associated with the Dalit community—between speeches at the podium. At other times, silambaatam artists—a traditional martial art form using canes—took to the stage, to be greeted by roars of applause from the crowd.

The Periyariya Unarvalargal Kootamaippu faced indirect political pressure while organising the Neelachattai Perani. The rally was originally scheduled to start at the VKK Menon Road and terminate at the VOC Grounds, one of the nerve centres of the pro-Jallikattu protests. On 7 February, the location of the event was changed because the Coimbatore Corporation denied permission, citing various reasons including a no-objection certificate from the police department that the organisers were unable to procure.

“Right from the moment Periyarist groups decided to conduct a blue-shirt rally and a caste eradication meeting, it was decided that the event be organised in Coimbatore,” said Praveen. “In the entire Kongu belt there is no Ambedkar statue.” The Kongu belt refers to the western region of Tamil Nadu which comprises Coimbatore, Erode, Tirupur and Salem, among others. He continued, “In spite of several requests over the years, the government has not granted permission to erect a statue for Dr Ambedkar.” He added that casteism is deep rooted in the Kongu region which has traditionally been dominated by the Vellala Gounder caste group. Chief minister Edapadi Palanisamy of the AIADMK also belongs to the Vellala Gounders.

Caste related atrocities are frequently reported from the Kongu region. On 2 December 2019 in Nadur village in Coimbatore district where a wall collapse killed 13 Dalit residents. The wall was built by caste Hindus to separate them from the predominantly Dalit section of the village. There are several such stories of discrimination—Dalits were denied marriage halls in Dharapuram and Kangeyam near Tirupur, and saloons denying them haircuts are frequently reported. In pockets of Coimbatore, there are separate burial grounds for Dalits. At Vilankurichi, in the Coimbatore corporation limits, the burial ground did not even have a proper road and the Arunthathiyar Dalit community had to cross a drainage canal with the bodies of their dead. The local MLA pitched in to build a bridge to reach the burial ground only after the story was covered by the media.

The severity of caste discrimination in the region has led to the rise of outspoken Dalit outfits such as the Tamil Puligal Katchi—Tamil Tigers Party—who all stood united at the Neelachattai Perani. Alongside them was a bevy of Ambedkarite, Periyarist and Tamil Nationalist groups such as the Dravidar Kazhagam, the Kongu Ilaignar Peravai, the Thanthai Periyar Dravidar Kazhagam, the Tamizhaga Makkal Munnani, the Dravida Viduthalai Kazhagam, the Marxist-Periyarist Communist Party, and the Viduthalai Tamil Puligal Katchi. Praveen Kumar said, another reason why Coimbatore was chosen was because it is where the BJP and RSS have their strongest foothold in Tamil Nadu.

The Desakaapom Maanaadu in Tiruchirapalli was mammoth in proportion when compared to the Neelachattai Perani. The rally looked like an ocean of human heads stretching for more than five kilometres. This was despite the fact that the rally had been called only three days before, through a Facebook video by Thirumavalavan. The location the police had assigned, too, was far from the centre of the city. Yet nearly eighty thousand cadres had arrived, many clad in blue t-shirts with the words “No CAA, No NPR, No NRC” printed on them. “This is a rally by a party which has never been in power,” Ilakiyan, a VCK supporter from Coimbatore, told me. “No ruling or opposition party had organised a rally of this magnitude in record time.” Gunasekaran, a local of Tiruchirapalli, continued, “It is an uprising of young chiruthais”—panthers—“against CAA, NRC and NPR. Many discounted us but for the love of our country and our leader, we have gathered here. We will stand with our Muslim brothers and sisters.”

The backbone of the event was the mass cadre base of the VCK. The people I spoke to had come from places as far away as Munnar in Kerala, Puducherry and Andhra Pradesh. In the past decade, the party has been able to make deep inroads into the rural heartland of Tamil Nadu primarily due to its organisational ability. They emerged as a political heavy-weight in the state due to their ability to quickly react whenever atrocities are committed against Dalits or Adivasis in rural Tamil Nadu. The growing political presence of the VCK was also evidenced by the demands during their rally. Unlike the Neelachattai Perani, which was organised to address the systemic caste-inequalities and caste atrocities in the state, the Desakaapom Maanaadu demanded the immediate roll back of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, the National Registry of Citizens and the National Population Register. The manifesto at the end of the rally also demanded that the clauses pertaining to educational and occupational reservation for the Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe and Other Backward Classes be put in the Ninth Schedule of the constitution, barring it from judicial review. This was after a Supreme Court ruling in February, which stated, “It is settled law that the State Government cannot be directed to provide reservations for appointment in public posts. Similarly, the State is not bound to make reservations for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in matters of promotions.” The ruling was related to a case against the Uttarakhand government which had failed to hire SC, ST and OBC candidates in the percentages that were required by law.

V Geetha, a historian based in Chennai, said, “In Tamil Nadu, there are citizen movements where individuals can be Periyarists or Ambedkarists but they stand together for a common cause. On the other hand, you have non-political and political Dravidian movements who hail Ambedkar.” She continued, “You have Periyar and Ambedkar circles in academic institutions, who reach the youngsters directly. Periyarist movements have always hailed Ambedkar and Periyar has travelled beyond Tamil Nadu because both stood for equality.” Periyarist and Ambedkarite groups have drawn enough grassroots support to begin making major national demands though they were scattered and small less than a decade ago.

With Periyarist and Ambedkarite groups attempting to address larger national issues they have also begun to build a close relationship with Muslim political outfits in the state. Geetha, however, pointed to a longer history of this. “Muslim communities here have always respected Periyar. Even though he was an atheist by ideology, he respected believers and had shared the stage with many Muslim leaders.” She continued, “Even while talking about the atrocities against Dalits, he advised them to give up Hinduism and embrace Islam because Islam considers everybody equal.” Similarly, BR Ambedkar’s association with Muslims dates back to the late 1920s when he considered Islam as the religion of choice for those fleeing casteism under the Hindu fold. In the 12 March 1929 edition of Bahishkrit Bharat—Untouchable India, a paper edited by Ambedkar—he wrote, “If you have to convert, become Musalman.” This quote of Ambedkar is particularly relevant in Tamil Nadu as a majority of Dalit conversions after atrocities in the state have been to Islam and not to Buddhism as in other parts of the country. This sense of historic solidarity Geetha said is what has led to the Periyarist and Ambedkarite upsurge against discriminatory laws such as the CAA. 

Arulmozhi, an advocate of the DK who was at the rally, echoed this argument. She said, “Equality and the right to practice one’s faith are the fundamentals on which Periyar and Ambedkar based their ideologies. As far as Tamil Nadu is considered, religious identity has never been part of the culture of the people.” She continued, “It is in only in our state that people of other communities are addressed as maappillai or machaan, normally used only for family. We have gone to the extent of naming a Hindu goddess as Thulukka Nachiar. No fundamentalist force can find a foot-hold in the state that easily.” In local legends, Thulukka Nachiar, literally translating to Tughlaq goddess, was the daughter of a Tughlaq monarch who became one of the principle deities of the Hindu temple in Srirangam.

The mobilisation of smaller Ambedkarite and Periyarist outfits has been large enough to irk the ruling AIADMK. The public pressure of Periyarist and Ambedkarite mobilisation has pushed even AIADMK legislators to voice their support for these rallies against the stand of their party. Thinayarasu A, the sitting AIADMK legislator from Kangeyam too attended the Neelachattai Perani. Speaking at the meeting, he said, “Blue and black are the only colours that are fighting against saffron. Blue is the colour of social justice; it is a colour against oppression.”