More than a criticism of religion, samadharma is a commitment to equality and to a secularism that can guarantee it.
Udhayanidhi Stalin’s comments on Sanatana Dharma, made at a public meeting on September 2 organised by the leftist platform Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers and Artists Association, have stirred considerable controversy. The Tamil Nadu Minister for Youth Welfare and Sports Development compared Sanatana Dharma to diseases that need to be eradicated. This triggered reactions across India, where BJP members and supporters of the Hindu Right strongly protested against his remarks, including by filing criminal cases, issuing death threats, and warning of other forms of physical violence.
Udhayanidhi has, however, been supported by leaders such as Priyank Kharge of the Congress, D. Raja of the CPI, and Thol. Thirumavalavan of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi. In Tamil Nadu, directors of popular anti-caste films like Mari Selvaraj, Pa. Ranjith, and Vetrimaaran have also come out in support of Udhayanidhi, and so have many Dravidian, Left, Dalit, and civil society organisations.
Section 295A of the IPC
Udhayanidhi’s comments have not created much of a flutter in Tamil Nadu since the State has seen much sharper comments made on religion by leaders of the Dravidian movement earlier as well and has been quite tolerant of them. One of the cases filed against Udhayanidhi is under Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). This section has an interesting history. It was enacted by the British colonial government in India in 1927 following reactions against a Hindu publisher over a book that was allegedly disrespectful of Prophet Muhammad. The publisher was eventually assassinated by a Muslim extremist. Independent India decided to retain the law, which has since then been used to curtail any criticism of religion.
In her recent book, Hurt Sentiments: Secularism and Belonging in South Asia, Neeti Nair writes that in the 1950s, Section 295A was deployed to protect Muslim hurt sentiments from Hindu Right polemics, but by the 1990s, Sections 295A and 153A were being regularly used against works of secular organisations and against opinions of those like B.R. Ambedkar (for Riddles in Hinduism) and A.K. Ramanujan (for “Three Hundred Ramayanas”), which were considered to offend Hindu sentiments. Thinkers of the Hindu Right, who call for the “decolonisation” of the Constitution and the law, have rarely ever protested against these sections drafted by the colonial powers.
Section 295A also has a history with the Dravidian movement. In 1953, one Veerabathiran Chettiyar filed a 295A case on Periyar E.V. Ramasamy and a few others affiliated with the Dravidar Kazhagam for breaking an idol of the Hindu god Ganesha in public that year. This was dismissed by the Additional District Magistrate in May 1953, and when the case was taken to the High Court, it was dismissed in October 1954.
Chettiyar pursued it in the Supreme Court, where Justice B.P. Sinha held that the lower courts were in error to dismiss the case by their interpretation of 295A and further that “any object however trivial or destitute of real value in itself, if regarded as sacred by any class of persons would come within the meaning of the penal section. Nor is it absolutely necessary that the object, in order to be held sacred, should have been actually worshipped. An object may be held sacred by a class of persons without being worshipped by them.” (Free speech advocates must take a look at this judgment for the legal and social implications it may have.) However, since the case was “stale”, Justice Sinha did not recommend any action against the accused but warned that if such acts were repeated the law should act against the offending persons.
Such acts were repeated by Periyar until the end of his life. Although he ran into trouble with the law throughout his public life, for Periyar the criticism of religion was a central component of his thoughts, his politics, and his understanding of social justice. Periyar gained controversy for his iconoclastic acts of breaking religious idols, burning religious texts, making provocative speeches about gods, and his valorisation of asuras and rakshasas (the antagonists of the gods in Hindu mythology), not to mention various offensive satires and cartoons published in the papers that his party, Dravidar Kazhagam, brought out. If considered in isolation, it is easy to see Periyar as an insouciant provocateur, a crude atheist who made criticising Hindu gods and religion alone his sole mission. But Periyar was also guided by a dharma.
- The criticism of religion, which he saw as the root and justification for social inequalities, was a central component of Periyar E.V. Ramasamy’s thoughts, his politics, and his understanding of social justice.
- Periyar, who often courted controversy for his iconoclastic acts such as breaking religious idols, burning religious texts, and making provocative speeches about gods, did so to demonstrate his samadharma, which was based on the principle of social equality in its most comprehensive sense.
- Periyar himself defined samadharma as a condition of equality, impartial justice, and the absence of social hierarchies. It is an idea that all of India can benefit from.
Principle of social equality
Samadharma was central to Periyar’s political imagination. A.R. Venkatachalapathy notes that this was a neologism coined by Periyar. The base words are samam, or equal, and dharmam, for which it is very hard to find an exact English equivalent since it can mean law, justice, ethics, conduct, order, and so on. Periyar uses samadharma to refer to a socialistic imagination premised on the equality of all, as opposed to Manu dharma, varnashrama dharma, stri dharma, and so on, which promote social hierarchies and embed inequalities between castes and the sexes. It also meant a way of life that centred self-respect, freedom, and equality as inalienable attributes of individuals.
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Periyar had considerable fascination for the Soviet Union, especially its promotion of atheism and women’s liberation. Between February and May 1932, he toured the USSR, where he met with Soviet leaders, labour unions, and atheist groups. Returning to India, he commissioned translations of atheist works from socialistic perspectives such as Bhagat Singh’s Why I am an Atheist and Lenin’s writings on religion. He had a good relationship with well-known Tamil socialists like M. Singaravelar and P. Jeevanandam. Following a crackdown on the socialists by the colonial powers, he temporarily gave up his advocacy of radical Left ideas, but throughout his life he was sympathetic to some form of socialism.
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Some of the defenders of Sanatana Dharma claim that it is eternal. Ambedkar rejected this by saying: “Nothing is permanent or sanatan. Everything is subject to change.” Periyar, too, subscribed to similar views. In a speech delivered in 1929 on the topic of dharma, Periyar said that the dharmapractised 300-400 years ago would be unsuitable for today. Further, ideology, law, dharma would change according to time and place. He argued that the excessive hold of religion and superstition on people’s minds was holding back India’s progress and made an appreciative comment on Kemalist Turkey for shaking free of Islamic fundamentalism (Periyar Kalanjiyam 27, pages 36-46).
In a similar vein, in a speech in 1930, he accused the old dharmaof being responsible for ills like caste, hierarchy, poverty, and landlordism and called for their removal (Kudiarasu September7, 1930). “Today’s dharma will be seen as adharma tomorrow,” he said, emphasising the importance of change in the history of nations and religions. Samadharma is meant to be that locomotive of change.
Periyar’s samadharma was not based on a strict programmatic theory but rather on the principle that social equality in the most comprehensive sense is paramount. And while he did focus quite a lot on religion as the root and justification for social inequalities, it was not that he was blind to other causes as well. In a speech in 1973, the last year of his life, he defined samadharma as a condition of equality, impartial justice, and the absence of social hierarchies (Periyar Kalanjiyam 31, pages 192-194). He called for the abolition of private property and for challenging values that celebrate the concentration of wealth at the expense of labour.
“Periyar uses samadharma to refer to a socialistic imagination premised on the equality of all, as opposed to Manu dharma and varnashrama dharma, which promote social hierarchies.”
But why did Periyar see an extreme and provocative criticism of religion at all necessary to promote samadharma? Could not religion be seen merely as a private affair? To Periyar, religion could not be seen as a private affair because it was never so in India. From the time of the anti-colonial struggle to post-Independent India, influential nationalist leaders used religion in and as politics.
Nehruvian India promised secularism, but secularism in its radical iteration would actively involve a challenge to tradition, so it was moderated. If a politics based on religious sentiment confronted and sought to undermine secularism, Periyar sought to cement secularism by making the criticism of religion an open public affair.
Secondly, a legion of anti-caste leaders in and before Periyar’s time identified varnashrama dharmaas an integral part of Hinduism. That liberal and conservative Hindus defended it only seemed to justify the anti-caste leaders’ criticism of Hinduism as a whole. We should remember that from the 19th century the term Sanatana Dharmawas not associated with the reformist faction but rather with orthodox sections of Hindus who firmly opposed reform and defended hierarchies like varnashrama as natural. Anti-caste leaders naturally responded to this.
For instance, Ambedkar’s Philosophy of Hinduism argues that social hierarchy is central to Hinduism. Periyar’s samadharma, as a law of equality, was opposed to religion not owing to any dogmatic commitment to atheism but owing to religion’s unwillingness to bring about equality. He criticised Hinduism the most because it was the religion of the majority in India and because he thought that caste received its validation from texts such as the Manu Smriti and ideas like varnashrama dharma. This, of course, did not prevent him from having amicable relationships with reformist Hindu saints like Kundrakudi Adigalar. Nor did he restrict his criticism to Hinduism alone. He also criticised Islam with respect to the treatment of women in Muslim societies.
Samadharma is equality, but it is not a liberal idea of tolerance. It starts from the premise that equality is universally desirable and proceeds to criticise all political systems or religious ideas that stand in the way of equality. In quite a few instances, Periyar said that if God stood for caste and gender equality, he would have no problem with religion. But given that God and religion are often invoked to defend inequalities, he had to criticise them.
Seen in the light of this Dravidian tradition, we can understand the support to Udhayanidhi Stalin in Tamil Nadu. Some well-wishers of the DMK have concerns that his comments might affect the INDIA alliance that has shaped up among the opposition parties. Political expediency often demands restraint and perhaps even self-censorship, and it is for this reason that Periyar did not want to enter politics. But Periyar’s idea of samadharma is more than a criticism of religion, it is a commitment to equality and to a secularism that can guarantee it. This is an idea that all of India can benefit from.
Karthick Ram Manoharan is Assistant Professor of Social Sciences at the National Law School of India University, Bengaluru. He is the author of Periyar: A Study in Political Atheism (Orient BlackSwan, 2022).