Tuesday, February 7, 2012


Existential dilemmas


Ravikumar's approach to human issues, as seen in his writing, befits his many-sided personality.

Ravi asks: 'Why is that the cultural sphere gains more significance than the killing of a human being? How are we to understand the meaning of the word 'culture' here?

Venomous Touch: Notes on Caste, Culture and Politics; Ravikumar, Translated from the Tamil by R. Azhagarasan, published by Samya, Kolkata, Rs. 650

The 1980s witnessed a gradual ascendance of the young brigade of Dalit intellectuals in Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry, among whom were artists, writers, journalists, academicians and human rights crusaders. They were largely instrumental in bringing to focus the subaltern literature in the Tamil region in the context of the Dalit movement, which had earlier failed to catch the attention of the mainstream history.

Ravikumar, who had earlier started as a Marxist-Leninist, was one of the earliest members of this intellectually alert group. Self-made and well-read, and defying classification in any one of the conventional moulds of academic scholarship, he announced his arrival by publishing in Tamil in-depth articles in little Dalit journals. These pieces are now eminently translated into English by R. Azhagarasan and brought out as a book with the title Venomous Touch: Notes on Caste, Culture and Politics.


In the 1990s, Ravikumar was largely responsible for the publication of the still-then unknown Siddha doctor Pandit C. Ayodhya Dasa's (1845-1914) collected works. It came as a revelation to many that such a person had existed much earlier than Mahatma Phule, Dr. Ambedkar and E.V. Ramaswamy. Dasa, in the true classical line of philosophical dissenters that distinguished the Indian intellectual tradition from the days of Carvaka and Buddha, repudiated the Manu Dharma that created the caste hierarchy and aggressively canvassed for the total emancipation of the Dalits.

Ravi says in the appendix of this book, "Iyothee Thass (Ayodhya Dasa) is, perhaps, one among the several Dalit icons whose names have been blacked out by mainstream history." The biographical sketch of this eminent Dalit, given by Ravi, tells us that he knew English, Sanskrit and Pali. He strongly believed that Buddhism flourished in Tamil Nadu before the advent of the later Cholas and a conspiracy of circumstances, resulted in the decline of this non-Vedic religion. Eventually, according to Dasa, the Buddhists were deprived of their religion and they descended to the status of untouchables. It reads like a speculative theory but does not seem improbable.

Ravikumar's approach to human issues befits his many-sided personality, as is evident from the incident he narrates in this anthology. As a Dalit intellectual and also as a as a human rights activist, he raises this question why a metaphorical humiliation of a Dalit icon should anger people more than the calculated murder of a poor Dalit individual.

He instances a case where a young Dalit was killed in police custody. It was cold-blooded murder and the Dalit organisations reacted to this by formally organising roadblocks and rallies. All attempts by civil liberty activists to get a post-mortem report to file a case properly were of no avail and it lacked sufficient backing by the other Dalit groups. '

Cultural crime

A few days later, a statue of Ambedkar was desecrated by some miscreants in Tindivanam provoking violent riots all over the region. In the police firing, one person died and several seriously injured. Both pertain to a Dalit as well as a human issue. In one, a young man met his tortuous death inpolice custody and, in the other, an abstract or a 'cultural' crime in the form garlanding the statue of an icon with chappals.

Ravi asks: 'Why is that the cultural sphere gains more significance than the killing of a human being? How are we to understand the meaning of the word 'culture' here? Are the tools and methods currently available to define and understand the term, sufficient in the context of Dalit oppression?'

Such questions pertaining to a situation of existential dilemma can never be satisfactorily answered.

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