Dalit Activism in Colonial South India: Pandit Iyothee Thass

I have finally written a paper on Pandit Iyothee Thass that is the precursor of Dalit activist B. R. Ambedkar. The legacy of these two men is also commemorated in my blog title--"Educate, Agitate, Organize." Footnotes have been simplified for the readability of this post. I will include a link formally cited version once I have converted the document into a pdf.

Political thinkers of the South Asian subcontinent who attempt to envision a better society in the nineteenth and twentieth century had to address, if not reconcile, the issue of caste. While most of the exploitation of the lower castes fell under the category of socioeconomic oppression, culture and values also played a role in their subjugation. Like darker skinned populations of post-slavery societies, Dalits and lower castes also faced the issue of social stigma and hegemonic values regarding their status. Some early scholars of the subcontinent, such as the European members of the Asiatic Society, have located utmost importance to these texts to their understanding caste, even though not all social practices originate from texts. These scholars have been accused of Orientalism and essentialism for using these ideas and addressing them to a diverse population and changing the way Indians think of themselves. Yet it is important to acknowledge that the ideas documented in texts wee also important for Indian intellectuals at that time to reconceptualize their society and religion. Rather than just listening to the European interpretation, Indian intellectuals also used the texts to their goals and politics.
In reaction to subjugation through history and narratives, many activists created their own foundation myths in attempts to rectify their status. One of the myths of Dalit and other lower caste activists have tried to address includes the Purusha Sukta’s corresponding each body part to each varna origin, with Brahmins coming from the man’s mouth and Shudras coming from the man’s feet. Notably, Dalits are not even included in the Sukta’s description and their oppression is also justified in many other religious and folkloric texts. These texts gained more prominence in the age of colonial censuses when officers used Puranic justifications for differentiating Shudras and Dalits from other castes. Many Dalits historicize their descent into untouchability because it indicates they are not “inherently menial, since their condition is historical and can therefore be overcome.”
While some of these myths have premodern origins, such as the Chuhras of Punjab, these myths received more attention once they were used to contest caste assignations after the advent of the ethnographic colonial state. Not all of these myths are emancipatory and some may have their own conservatism. Yet many non-Brahmin movements successfully utilized myths to challenge predominant myths, such as Jyotirao Phule’s eulogy of the Maratha king. Neo-Buddhist of Tamil Nadu argued that Arya-Brahmins entered the South, dominated after the decline of egalitarian Buddhism, created the four-fold varna system, and treated women in a different manner as well. Areas of new settlements of lower castes ordered by the colonial regime often became the hotbeds of anti-Brahminical and egalitarian movements and ideologies. For example, massive numbers from the notable Dalit groups in North India, the Chamars, converted to Islam in the 1920s. This paper will focus on the South Indian reinventions of myths regarding their land and society and the intellectual critiques of Dalit oppression and efforts of creating a Buddhist revival centered around Pandit Iyothee Thass.
In face of discussions regarding liberal values on equality in the second half of the eighteenth century, Brahmins felt obligated to defend the caste system. Some argued that caste was interlinked with fundamental tenets of Hinduism, while others argued that the caste system provided a good division of labor. To elite thinkers ranging from conservatives to reformers, the caste order could not and should not be instantly destroyed. They preferred to reform the order out of religious sentiments. They could not “step out” of the social order and regard it as a “historically evolved” one. Other reformers argued for varna as moral categories and that everyone can live the Brahminical way of life through cultivating a good character, devoting oneself to God and avoiding meats and liquor. These reformers included Mahatma Gandhi, who argued for including Dalits into an ideal varna system rather than throwing it away. Yet most of these reformers held back from critiquing the monopoly of certain spiritual acts by the Brahmins who have in turn exploited those who have been excluded from these qualities. Even some intellectuals who denounced caste-by-birth still wished to preserve the supposedly intellectually superior Brahmin caste and endogamous marriage practices to some extent as long as it was “humane.” As scholars Geeta and Rajadurai have argued, while some Brahmins were asserting their traditional rights while others responded positively to historical change, they were involved in imagining a society which would preserve the caste system and their own interests. It is understandable because from a religious perspective, Brahmins as well as other caste Hindus claimed a lot of ritual and spiritual privileges that were denied from Dalits. Brahmins were defined against the category of Dalits, which some regarded as having no "self" and would have been threatened if Dalits could also practice Brahmin rituals and attain spiritual advancement. Many caste Hindus as well as Dalits did not consider Dalits to be Hindus until politicians started scrambling tallies for more “Hindu” votes under representational democracy.
Aside from the notion Brahminism that affected most parts of South Asian society, South Indians also faced an additional challenge that worked against equality of all people: the theory of Aryan superiority. One of the theories that fused nationalism was that Indians enjoyed a high blood status from the northern Aryans. These Aryans were not the original inhabitants within the scope of the Indus river yet brought civilization to the region. While many historians such as Romila Thapar argue that the category of Aryan is most accurately a language group, many people to this day regard Aryans as a superior racial group often associated with Brahminical rituals. Dravidians, on the other hand, were portrayed as a more primitive race by Orientalists and later many northern nationalists. In the late nineteenth and twentieth century, intellectuals fought against these pro-Aryan narratives and stereotypes by arguing that adi dravidas were the "original Dravidians" before the arrival of the Aryan immigrant forces (mlechcha) and also established a rich civilization. These activists highlighted the advanced architecture, metal work and sculptures before Aryans. Symbols like the lingam and temple inscriptions preexisted Aryans as well but were incorporated into Brahminical orthodoxy. M. Masilamani, a neo-Buddhist intellectual, noted the subordination of the upper-caste woman to stringent norms consolidated the Brahmin males’ power and argued that arranging marriages were introduced by Aryans. Textual and scriptural evidence indeed support that caste norms were not solidified until the eleventh century in Tamil Nadu. Activists urged to reject Brahminical elements in Tamil culture. Another issue of divergence between the North and South regards language. Many non-Brahmins who joined the non-Brahmin movement spoke two main Dravidian language groups: Tamil and Telegu. Before the agitations against Hindi in the 1930s, South Indian Justice Party members already noted that Sanskrit was a badge of privilege and the disregard for local “vernaculars” such as Tamil and Telugu, allowed for elitist attitudes to flourish. For many activists, being Dravidian meant reviving an autonomous history before the Aryans and dominance of caste ideology. 

One of most original yet comparatively unknown South Indian intellectuals who championed these views was Pandit Iyothee Thass. Unlike the non-Brahmins, Paraiahs of the farm servant caste, like Thass, were considered lowest on the purity ranks. Their interests were not represented as much as non-Brahmins in later Dravidian movements of the twentieth century. Thass consciously chose the term "Poorva Tamizha," the original Tamil, to distinguish and highlight his community’s status even among the “original Dravidians.” Still, Thass imagined a future where all castes could show solidarity with Dalits and renounce caste order. Thus Thass should command even more attention for not only the similarities with non-Bramin and pro-Dravidian movements but also for his debates against untouchable stigma. Even among the Dravidians, they were not always included in the fraternity. His publication The Tamizhan produced rich content and galvanized Tamil circles and beyond, for reasons which this paper will explore.

Pariahs from Madras," from 'Naturgeschichte und Abbildungen
Like most places in colonial India, socioeconomic changes in Tamil Nadu helped the Dalits and lower castes. But the policy effects were not felt equally and many they still faced oppression and envy from privileged upper castes. The British efforts to commercialize property and land grants in the early twentieth century facilitated lower castes to acquire land. A British district collector in the Cumbum Valley insisted that granting land was the only solution to elevate the position of Kallars from “criminality.” Yet this intention does not corroborate with successful land reform results, since the British also relied on old institutions like mirasdars for agricultural revenue extraction. Even among places that achieved marginal land redistribution, discrimination from upper castes was still rampant and violent. Newly propertied castes were still vulnerable to upper caste neighbors’ attacks. For example, upper castes destroyed huts and crops raised in adi dravidas kitchen gardens, denied Paraiahs to occupational rights in subtenancies, and cut off water flow to Paraiah-owned fields. The Tamizhan’s initial audience were Thass’ own Pariah community in Madras, nowadays known as Chennai, and North and South Arcot who have have improved their economic conditions through recruitment in the army, migration to mining and urban centers, and employment with British in menial jobs.
Many publications and journals sprung up in South India at the time for these populations that ridiculed Brahminical exclusivity, such as Periyar E. V. Ramasamy’s English journal Revolt. The diaspora of Tamils added to a large audience of Thass’ Tamil-language publication The Tamizhan, such as converts to Catholicism abroad. It was circulated wherever lower caste Tamil people migrated for jobs, including South Africa, Burma, Sri Lanka, Fiji, Mauritius, Singapore, Malaysia, and Tanzania. The Tamizhan’s readership abroad demonstrates the salience of the issues tackled by Iyothee Thass and other contributors. The origins of Tamil migrant workers presence abroad was inseparable from oppressive caste regulations. The British colonizers promoted migration of labor for their own ends, such as ensuring a supply of labor to increase revenue from its colonies. Tamil oversea migration increased in nineteenth century; by the 1820s there were approximately a million and a half Tamils working overseas. Lower castes and Dalits literally escaped from the oppressive caste system and ideology through migration. Large scale migration consisted mostly of lower castes laborers, “from areas of settled agriculture to urban and mining centers, arid areas and to overseas colonies.” Dalits often emigrated to search for work that came with dignity. Workers in plantations received the same wages, lived in labor lines rather than segregated areas according to hierarchy. Also, there were no special ritual concessions for higher castes and all experienced same level of hardship. Main motivations behind these lower caste migrations included anonymity within a larger society and a chance of self-determination. In this context, Thass criticized the nationalists who opposed forced out-migration. Since caste norms prevented a Paraiah from owning land, protesting the migration of these workers who were formerly working in slave conditions seemed to Thass an instance of “misplaced charity.” The contributors used vernacular languages to express opposition to Brahminism, casteism, and Sanskritic culture. One of the Buddhist contributors, Sri Siddhartha Puthagasalai, published in the Tamizhan many tracts on the condition of Paraiahs, their lost Buddhist faith and ancient Tamil texts that appear Hindu but once had Buddhist origins. Along with South Indian neo-Buddhists of his time, Thass argued for the idea of a respected Tamizhan (or Tamil) regardless of his caste for the present and envisioned an adi dravidas community that had an egalitarian Buddhist past. Buddhists were the real Brahmins yet they were subjugated by the fake (vesha) Brahmin Aryans and stigmatized for non-conformity. Similar to Puthagasalai’s argument, Thass thought that the fake Brahmins Hinduized Buddhist scriptures. Thass demonstrated in through studies of Tamil sacred and literary texts how the victory of Brahminism in South Asia occurred in step with the demise of Buddhism and perhaps caused the latter. For example, In The Significance of Meditating on Abigai Amman in the Month of Aadi, Thass argued that the Aadi celebration commemorated the Ambigai of Puna Nadu, formerly a Princess, for her healing powers as a Buddhist female monk (bhikkuni). Yet later her legacy was co-opted into Hindu tradition as an angry goddess. Thass also argued that the Thirikural, highly regarded as the document of Tamil propriety, originated from the three Buddhist pitakas. The Brahmins falsely attributed the authorship to a man with a Brahmin father and a Paraiah mother, Thass argued, or else they would not be able to explain the author’s “extraordinary” intelligence. Later scholars also argued that Thirikural shows strong similarities with Jainist and Buddhist moral teachings. The Tamizhan also included many writings by Thass and neo-Buddhists on the life of the Buddha, his teachings, and Buddhist dharma. Thass converted to Buddhism and also inspired many other Paraiahs’ conversions. The Pariahs in Madras were only one of many instances of Dalit group conversions in India. Later B. R. Ambedkar also argued a similar thesis to Thass, that the Brahmins imposed untouchability on Dalits (“Broken Men” in Marathi) because they refused to convert from Buddhism. Thass considered Christianity and Islam helpful for uplifting Dalits, but Buddhism was more capable of Brahminical oppression than the other traditions because it has combated Brahminism for a long duration, before the arrival of Christianity or Islam, and thus had more philosophical resources to confront Brahminism. Even after Thass’ death, The Tamizhan continued to uphold his legacy: it was among the South Indian publications that publicized the large non-Brahmin movement’s aims and message in 1916. The Non-Brahmin Manifesto listed the absence of non-Brahmins many government institutions and also posed demands, “Progressive Political Development wanted and not unauthorised Constitution-Making; No Caste Rule and Self Government on Equal Distribution of Power.” There were broader similarities among these lower caste movements, such as wide horizontal mobilization, spread education for emancipation, demand to share political power with upper castes, and diversify occupations, and they all posed a challenge to the nationalists.
Many nationalists and anti-imperialists had opinions regarding caste and most were very outspoken, both before and after Thass' times. Annie Besant, once the leader of the Theosophical Society and a fervent Irish participant in the Indian nationalist Home Rule movement, was one of the Brahminical admirers who had paternalistic attitudes towards Dalits. For example, she argued that Dalits should work their karma to break free from their abject position of untouchability. Annie Besant also edited New India, which constantly published columns against the Non-Brahmin Manifesto, including her own. The Justice attacked New India and taunted Besant as an “Irish Brahmani.” After being challenged, she eventually refused to publish any articles related to this subject.
While these spates happened after Thass’ death, it highlights the tensions between caste self-respect movements and nationalism that continued to haunt India even after its independence. One of Thass’ most controversial stances was his skepticism of the national movement. First of all, he saw Brahminical authority dominating nationalist movements such as swaraj. He criticized the nationalists who blamed British imperialists for the starvation without taking into account their own complicity. For example, many of these Brahmin nationalists in Madras owned land that owned land tilled by workers that lacked adequate wages. Some also planted cash crops over food crops that led to many famines in Madras. Instead of focusing on the British, Thass criticized the greed of the landlord and the merchant and the Brahmin’s indifference who were complicit since they would not give any portion of his earnings towards famine relief.
Both Iyothee Thass and members of the non-Brahmin Justice Party questioned the legitimacy of the Indian National Congress to represent all Indians, stemming from two questions: caste as an identity issue and as a labor issue. The Madras Congress was predominantly Brahmin twenty years after its existence. Only swadeshi protests sent out their message more effectively across society to non-Brahmin. Thass held that Brahmin usually protected his own caste interests and historically expended unnecessary energy on tasks defining "rules of touchability, seeability and approachability" and these rules still influenced everyday actions. Thass also listed cases of discrimination exhibited by the largely Brahmin-owned press who constructed public opinion. Swaraj and Swadeshi seemed insincere to Thass where the social norms were governed by untouchability. Thass regarded social reform of caste should be prior to political reform and that swaraj should be not just Indians’ self-government, but also a “state of social and economic well-being.” He questioned whether or not the slums occupied by Paraiahs, called paracheris, could also be included under the grand scheme nationalists had for their ideal “Motherland.” In this context of criticizing nationalism for upholding the abstract notion of sovereign land, Thass even defended Lord Curzon's decision to partition Bengal as an administrative move and that the nationalists despised Curzon because he sought to improve the conditions of all castes. His skepticism was not unfounded, for non-Brahmin leaders of swadeshi like M. K. Gandhi did not break rules of inter-caste dining. In 1946, even as Gandhi showed solidarity, he tactically refused to take food from a Dalit group Balmikis when he attempted to show solidarity. Many anti-imperialists considered British benevolence for Dalits as well as Muslims to be part of a “divide and rule” agenda. Nationalist leaders and supporters of Home Rule, such as Annie Besant, did not put the status of Dalits at the forefront of its initiatives partly due to Brahmin dominance in the Congress Party.
Second of all, for Thass, swadeshi nationalism could not link its politics with transforming labor systems that exploited Dalits. Yet he did not highlight the the British rule’s tolerance of the existing labor arrangements. The adi dravida intellectuals at the time generally did not associate colonial rule presence with local matters. For example, Thass had argued that the British presence had use for it led to roads and railways, which facilitated the delivery of grain to famine-struck places. Many non-Brahmins feared that once the British left, there would be no arbiter left for caste relations and Brahmins might return to the old way of governance. The raja of Panagal once said that Home Rule might "push back the non-Brahmin communities to their original state of dependence and enslavement and re-install in the place of our British rulers the very priestly class who were responsible for unenviable state in which the non-Brahmin communities were stagnating before the advent of the British rule." Many South Indian non-Brahmin intellectuals and social figures considered the British colonial presence effectively polices Brahminical dominance.
But the British could not directly feel the negative impacts themselves and they did not share the similar urgency for abolishing caste rules as the victimized Dalits. As the ruling authority, a British official did not have to comply with rules of ritual purity--he could eat beef and still socialize with all classes without being stigmatized from locals. Furthermore, the British rulers were self-interested even as they promoted varying degrees of equality on the surface. Authors have argued that the British also circumscribed the politically active Brahmin through accommodating rival interests such as lower castes through social reform policies. This move also added to their perception among non-Brahmins as benevolent rulers.

The Kalaram Temple of Nashik city in Maharashtra, India
The non-Brahmin intellectuals and Thass’ view of the British intentions was overly optimistic, especially in regards to the issue of caste. Even though the British rulers knew that there was slavery practiced in Madras ryotwaris, they did not abolish it because they retained revenue from these farms. the government should not meddle with the ideal of private property. A ruling in 1819 expressed that the raiyats possess their slaves as private property. Consistent with the British attitudes towards caste, the court wrote that "it must be dangerous to disturb the long established relations subsisting between these two orders." After an official and some missionaries raised the Paraiah question in London, the Tamil Nadu Revenue Board still refused to acknowledge the existence of slavery and even allowed for bondage to continue in an intransigent statement. Yet the notion that all members of society can access public property and the expansion of what should be defined as “public” rather than community-based had to be continuously fought through several Dalit leaders’ agitations in the twentieth century, such as B. R. Ambedkar’s Kalaram Temple movement in 1930. The Congress Party also supported instances, such as the 1924 Vaikom Satyagraha in Travancore, Kerala, spearheaded by the lower-caste Ezhavas. The British officials of the Madras region were obviously not in the front lines for redefining or defending the ideal of public property as much as private. While criticizing caste rules and norms, the British also worked to solidify them when it worked in their political and economic interest.
In conclusion, Iyothee Thass produced a lot of significant works and opinions that carved an intellectual space for Dalits in Madras to reflect on their religious identity and social existence. His publication joined many others that aided the Dravidian movement call to eradicate Brahminical and Aryan dominationwhile also saving a distance from pan-South Indian Dravidianism for Dalit-focused activities through theorizing and practicing Buddhism. while also remaining a distance for Dalit-focused activities through theorizing and practicing Buddhism. His ideas on pre-Hindu culture, such as the origins of Thirikural, were surprisingly original and many of his theories of "Hinduization" were corroborated with later scholarship as well. Thass resisted the predominant tendency to glorify the anti-imperialist movement, critically examined Home Rule, and engaged with leaders of the other movements. While he overestimated how much the British colonial rulers were committed to the uplifting of Depressed Classes such as Dalits, along with members of the Justice Party he was an extremely important voice of dissent in turbulent times.

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