The history of the anti-caste movement in India has similarities with the racial struggles witnessed in Africa and elsewhere. Though the political outcomes have been vastly different, the underlying social resistance of the two movements can be linked to the colour of the skin. So when Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks of black magic and derides the black attire worn by cadres of the Indian National Congress or other political opponents, he comes across as oblivious to the emancipatory discourse of the oppressed classes across the world. The politics of resistance has always spoken through the voice of the underprivileged, using the colours of their choice.
It is now well established that the emergence of the post-colonial political narratives of dark-skinned people has, in turn, broken down the established notions of white superiority. However, the use of the colour black has a larger connotation in the movements against Brahminical hegemony. The theory of purity propounded by Brahminism, most notably within the sphere of temple worship, has been a focal point for the Dravidian Movement. As far back as 1925, the Self-Respect League led by Periyar E V Ramaswamy had campaigned against discriminatory practices prohibiting the entry of backward classes into temples. Over the years, with the enactment of progressive legislation, such as the Temple Entry Proclamation and the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowment Acts, the movement sought to establish equality in all aspects of religious worship.
In Tamil Nadu, then Madras Presidency, the tone of the Dravidian Movement sharpened to create a more equal society that had been rid of caste evils and to enable the political freedoms of the backward classes. The Dravidar Kazhagam, established by Periyar and other leaders including C N Annadurai (Anna), resolved to set up a Dravidian Freedom Force during their 17th State Conference in Tiruchirappalli on September 29, 1945. Writing in the Tamil newspaper Kudiarasu on October 20, 1945, Periyar explains that the objective of the Dravidian Freedom Force is to work towards the empowerment of the Dravidian People and promote self-respect among the masses. He directs those who are willing to be part of the movement to wear black attire and calls them the Blackshirts Wing.
In response to the criticism around the creation of the Blackshirts Wing, Periyar writes an explanation in Kudiarasu on November 17, 1945, to clarify that the primary goal of this cohort situated within the larger Dravidar Kazhagam outfit is to help people realise the dehumanising nature of caste practices and to create awareness of the self-respect movement. He further clarifies that women are also welcome to join the Blackshirts Wing and went on to hold the Blackshirts Conference in 1946 on May 11 and 12 in Madurai.
Around the same time, the Dravidian Movement also sought to challenge and critique the standards set by various Hindu epics and puranas. The Ramayana was the subject of various interpretative discourses across Tamil Nadu. In his book titled Periyar: A Study in Political Atheism (2022), Karthick Ram Manoharan explains how the other readings of the Ramayana disrupted the mainstream version of the mythology. Karthick talks about the narratives that eulogise Ravana and cites the example of the Gond tribe who view Ravana as their king. He refers to the work by Sakthidharan A V in Antigod’s Own Country (2019), which interprets the word rakshasa (demon) as a variant of rakshak (protector). He also cites Robert L Hardgrave Jr’s The Nadars of Tamilnad (2018) to show how a backward caste community in the state of Tamil Nadu believe Mahodara, a key official of Ravana, to be of their own community.
Among modern popular works of fiction, Mani Ratnam’s 2010 movie Raavanan reversed the conventional discourse to portray the protagonist as a subaltern leader of a tribal community in contrast to the power of the privileged class. In the 2018 Pa Ranjith movie Kaala, Rajinikanth, who plays the role of a leader of the downtrodden in the slums of Dharavi in Mumbai, is pitted against the Hindu nationalist Hari Dada (played by Nana Patekar). The movie is replete with references and tributes to the Ramayana but in a complete role reversal, deems the asura to be the protagonist. In this movie too, the Prime Minister would have noticed that Rajinikanth almost always wears black and is referred to as “otha thala Ravanan” (one-headed Ravana).
For a long time now, black has been associated with the downtrodden and naturally, the politics of resistance. Even today, many of the self-respect ideologues and followers of the Periyarist movement continue the practice of wearing black shirts. The relevance of the Dravidian movement is seen to be greater than ever before with a Union government that is anti-federal in nature, hegemonic in its cultural outlook and exhibiting authoritarian political tendencies. But the expression of resistance to fascism and cultural jingoism need not be through the colour of one’s attire alone. In 2019, a number of Members of Parliament from Tamil Nadu took oath in the Lok Sabha in Tamil and hailed Periyar, Karl Marx and Kalaignar M Karunanidhi. This may have been in response to the Hindi and Hindutva sloganeering led by the Bharatiya Janata Party members earlier but it was a signal of intent that said the politics of resistance is part of our discourse. With less than two years until the next general elections, leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party may ignore these voices at their own peril.
The writer is an advocate practising at the Madras High Court and media spokesperson, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam