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Justice K M Joseph asked, “do you know who is Periyar?” we could respond: “yes, we do!”

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During a hearing in the Supreme Court recently, in a case for enquiry into hate speech directed towards minority communities, Justice K M Joseph asked Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, “Do you know who is Periyar?”

The judge was referring to the late E V Ramasamy of Tamil Nadu, affectionately called by his small number of followers as “Periyar” (meaning, ‘respectable elder’) and considered by them as a ‘rationalist’.  The judge seemed to imply that Periyar was some great social reformer and that what he said or did about religion or caste, especially Hindu religion, and its castes, was to be viewed with approbation – and so even a court may mention his name, to remember him as a guide for a good way of life. That is why the judge should have asked that question – otherwise he would not have suddenly mentioned the name of Periyar who was not a subject matter of the case.

Did the judge know that Periyar, or EVR, spoke with utmost derision and wild contempt for the Hindu religion and its practices, not once but on numerous occasions? That EVR himself was widely viewed as dishing out hate speeches and hate acts against Hindus? 

The 2011 Census of India says that Hindus make up 79.8% of India’s population. Anyone knows that a vastly overwhelming majority of Hindus follow their religion and religious practices. Tamil has an adage that means: “Don’t live in a town that has no temples” (கோயில் இல்லா ஊரில் குடியிருக்க வேண்டாம்). The wise old Tamil poetess Avvaiyar said, “Worshipping at a temple is immensely good” (ஆலயம் தொழுவது சாலவும் நன்று). 

With devotion Hindus visit temples and pray before idols of Gods. But Periyar was known as an idol-breaker, especially a Ganesh idol, and that is how every believing Hindu remembers him. It was that Periyar whom Justice K M Joseph named to commend in open court.

Nobody who denounces Hindu religion and ridicules it constantly, like EVR did, can hope to become a leader of any section of Hindus. EVR himself was not a leader of any sizeable segment of the public, Hindus or others. He was only accepted as a sort of ideological mentor for a handful of people– maybe a hundred of them – some of whom became active in politics and some rose as political leaders.  

Those political leaders, beginning with the late C N Annadurai and including late M Karunanidhi, would hail EVR but were not so openly and virulently anti-Hindu like EVR. They took pride in being “rationalists” and they made fun of Hindu religion or its practices somewhat gently in comparison– that’s all.

There is another thing.  Someone may be a political leader, even a mass political leader, and win elections. That does not give a right to that political leader to vilify and ridicule the widely accepted religious beliefs of the people who voted for him or others he is elected to govern. People, especially the poor and the downtrodden, vote in favour of a party or a leader for many reasons, or even fears.

That is no indication they endorse all the views of their representatives, especially on religion. If a Muslim becomes a chief minister of a state, does it mean all the Hindus of the state endorse Islam, or the other way round? Without any political following of his own, EVR openly and crudely bashed Hindu religion and its beliefs. That is even more indefensible. 

EVR was a Hindu-vilifier, and a known brahmin-hater. He was not seen or accepted as a reformer by any mentionable section of the Hindu population.

What does a social or religious reformer do, and how is one known as such? He must create such an impact on a good section of the people that they should give up or change some entrenched beliefs or practices associated with a community or religion for a better way of life as they feel in their hearts.  EVR did nothing of that sort.

His atheism and derision of belief in God was hailed by a handful of people, for whatever reason, and those people who became political leaders would keep a picture of EVR in their rooms and offices and in all their newspaper advertisements. That is like keeping a mascot, nothing more.

By general practice, Congressmen keep a picture of Mahatma Gandhi, Dravidian parties in Tamil Nadu keep a picture of EVR – and court rooms in some countries may keep a picture of a Lady of Justice. But we need to assess each of the performers on what they do, and how correct they are in their utterances – not by looking at whom they adore or what picture they keep.

M K Stalin, the current DMK chief minister of Tamil Nadu, would hail EVR, as part of the political posture of the DMK.  But his wife devoutly visits many temples in Tamil Nadu and offers pujas and prayers, as it appeals to her. 

Outside some Hindu temples, including the famed Srirangam temple, and across Tamil Nadu the DMK government in the past had put up statues of EVR with his well-known words inscribed on the pedestal, viz: “There is no God, no God. God does not exist. One who created God is a fool. One who has propagated God is a scoundrel. One who prays to God is a barbarian.” These statues are still there.  Hindus just pass by these statutes, visit temples, and pray, like Mrs M K Stalin would do.

The heart of the matter in the judge’s question, is really this: The Hindu population of Tamil Nadu, like in most parts of India, are a tolerant community. Of course Hindus did not, and have not, assembled on the streets in huge numbers and vociferously demanded the removal of those Periyar statues put up by the DMK state government, or at least the removal of the viciously offending words of EVR inscribed on their pedestals.

Does it mean Hindus look upon EVR as a great savant or reformer to be revered? No. Hindus, including Mrs M K Stalin, just ignore EVR and the abusive inscriptions on the pedestals of his statues and go about their religious beliefs and practices quietly and firmly.  Leaders who need a mascot for their political parties and campaigns may eulogise EVR and keep his picture, but Hindus ignore EVR and keep going their ways in temple visits and worship.

Now, something on the side lines. We all know that Justice K M Joseph is a Christian. We must certainly trust his neutrality and his judicial intent to render proper justice. In his honest impression, EVR or Periyar, though he derided Hindu Gods and Hindu religion openly and repeatedly, was someone who could be approvingly referred to in a court room when discussing a social conflict.  

In a like context, what if a Hindu judge were to approvingly name in a court room an Indian Christian, if there were one, who had been publicly ridiculing Christ and Christian beliefs? How would the leaders of our minorities, and our vigilant media too, view that event if it were to occur? They better keep in mind that niceties matter at both ends.

So, when men in authority ask, “Do you know who is Periyar?”, how would you react as a believing Hindu, as one among the majority in India? Mostly you would want to do what the Tamil Nadu Hindus have been doing with Periyar. Smile and pray for your good. If even a Ram temple Babar pulled down could be re-established over time, EVR and his political disciples would wane. Keep patience and keep hope. Our democracy is feeble, yet resilient.

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