Never mind the bullshit, here comes Periyar!
Iconic punk band the Sex Pistols are perhaps best known for their debut single, Anarchy in the UK (1976) – a song which the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame says changed the future of rock music . This fiercely rebellious song, later released on the band’s only studio album, Never mind the bollocks, here’s the Sex Pistols, began with unforgettable lyrics:
“I am an antichrist/And I am an anarchist”.
The mixture of anti-religious and anti-state sentiments, while surprisingly radical, has – surprisingly – not been entirely uncommon in modern Indian political thought and practice. This, despite the dominance of both nationalist ideology and vocal religious conservatism. There are elements of anarchism and/or atheism in Bhagat Singh, Har Dayal and even Gandhi. But the apotheosis of anarchic and atheistic thought was surely the Tamil activist and intellectual Periyar (EV Ramasamy).
Periyar called himself a “complete rationalist” and sought to cultivate complete rationalism in others. It involved the constant and fearless use of human reason, a commitment to the empirical and the demonstrable rather than the ideological. The logical result of all this, according to Periyar, was atheism. But atheism as a rational appreciation of the religious sphere was supplemented by an analogous perspective on the political sphere. In other words, Periyar was a “political atheist”.
Political atheism implies not only skepticism towards the dogmas of theology, but also towards the dogmas of the State. Political atheism is therefore not only atheistic in the religious sense, but naturally leads to an anti-state anarchist position. The atheism and anarchism embraced unabashedly by Periyar, complemented by his prodigious intellect, self-taught learning, and tireless public speaking, always free from haughty language and targeted at ordinary people, all combined to making Periyar a force to be reckoned with.
In a new book, Periyar: A Study in Political Atheism, talented young Tamil – or rather rooted cosmopolitan – author Karthick Ram Manoharan makes such a calculation. It eloquently presents the main thrusts of Periyar’s life and work, then seeks to bring Periyar into the kind of conversations – about secularism, about the resurgence of religious orthodoxy, about authoritarianism, about the identity in politics – that so many of us have today. . Manoharan’s key view of Periyar is that his political atheism was emancipatory, critiquing, demystifying and dismantling the political theology of Brahmanism.
This expression – “the political theology of Brahmanism” – must be unpacked. It refers to the usurpation of sovereign power, both sacred power (such as the mandated rituals, religious and social customs that bind us), as well as political power by expansive Brahmanical ideology. The political theology of Brahmanism effectively inserts the Brahmanic hierarchy (inequality of castes) into the very structure of the state and its institutions.
If the political theology of Brahmanism imbues India’s political system with the same social hierarchies, inequalities, and denials of personal liberty that characterize its orthodox varna-based theology, then Periyar’s political atheism functions as a hammer to smash those idols and fetishes. .
In short, as Manoharan puts it, “Periyar’s political atheism was a critique of all forms of established power.”
If this depicts Periyar accurately, it would certainly help explain the complete inability of contemporary right-wing Indian political parties to assimilate Periyar into their political discourse. Although Ambedkar was organically radical, anti-Brahmanic and egalitarian, the right nonetheless managed to appropriate a fictionalized version of a Babasaheb consistent with their ideology. But with Periyar, no such advance seems even to have been attempted – he is treated only with irrepressible contempt.
But there is a constructive aspect of Periyar’s anarchism that should not be missed. In the quest for freedom and dignity, in our efforts to achieve all that we can as individuals and as a society, what really is the role of the state? Philosophers have wondered about it for a long time. The Greek philosopher Aristotle, the German philosopher Hegel, and our own Ambedkar seem to have believed that true human freedom and fulfillment could only be achieved by and through a rational state. But many others, including Marx and Periyar, instead argued that the realization of true human potential and its fulfillment would only be possible beyond and outside the state. For political philosophers, this remains an open question.
If you don’t mind bullshit and think about Periyar thoughtfully, it’s clear that his vision was that of a heroic social emancipator. It is fascinating that the right, however, can only view him as a threat. Like a dangerous and destructive punk rebellion:
‘And I want to be anarchy/
And I want to be anarchy/
And I want to be anarchy/