“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.”