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Politicisation of identity

Suresh Nambath


UPROOT HINDUTVA — The Fiery Voice of the Liberation Panthers: Thirumaavalavan in Tamil; Meena Kandasamy — Tr. in English; Samya, an imprint of Bhatkal and Sen, 16, Southern Avenue, Kolkata-700026. Rs. 200.

A collection of extempore speeches rarely, if ever, takes the form of a book with an abiding theme. Without additions and deletions to the text, and context enlargement devices, speeches made from purely local platforms for specific occasions cannot in the normal course provide the content that could ensure shelf life for the book. However, this book, which is a compilation of speeches made by the leader of the Dalit Panthers, Thol. Thirumaavalavan, seeks to be an exception.

Thirumavalavan is a skilled orator attempting to mobilise Dalits against caste oppression and the politics of Hindutva; but the task of presenting a coherent whole from speeches separated by place and time in the end proves overwhelming. Despite the elaborate notes at the end of each chapter (or speech), the book is interesting not for the political themes that he brings up, but for the feel of public meetings it conveys.

Indeed, the apparent weakness of the book sets it apart, and actually serves as a unique selling point. The translation by Meena Kandasamy makes no attempt to save the speeches from their particular context, thus giving the book a peculiar charm.

Of course, the choice of speeches is not without a rationale. Thirumaavalavan through the speeches was organising the Dalits and fight caste oppression in opposition to Hindutva.

However, as the immediate caste oppressors of the Dalits in Tamil Nadu owe no allegiance to Hindutva, he invokes Tamil nationalism as a rallying point.

Although his attempt to relate Dr. B.R. Ambedkar to Tamil nationalism comes through as a feeble effort, Tamil nationalism is for Thirumaavalavan an attempt to grow beyond Dalit identity politics.

In the years before he actively advocated Tamil nationalism, he was but a marginal player in the electoral scene. Even now, he is yet to emerge as a state level player, but the Tamil nationalism platform allows him to form alliances across caste identities. His political positions thus results in some facile explanations.

Actually, in the foreword to the book, Ram Puniyani of EKTA, Committee for Communal Amity, concedes as much, "While ethnic nationalism like the Tamil nationalism can be a powerful symbol of opposition to the domination of Hindutva politics, alone it may not be adequate to overcome the problem."

Tamil nationalism

But for Thirumaavalavan, Hindutva is the essence of the Indian state and Tamil nationalism is the antidote. Caste oppression would miraculously disappear the moment a "Tamil government" is formed in Tamil Nadu. Not surprisingly, there are whole chapters in support of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Even while arguing against subsuming the anti-Hindutva campaign in the anti-Brahmin movement, he seeks to construct a Tamil identity in terms of religion and culture. Caste oppression, instead of being seen as an exploitative socio-economic condition, is often described in terms of religious persecution.

Some of the confusion is a direct result of his shifting political position, but the problem arises when he seeks to theorise the compromises. Also, like many other Dalit leaders, he too practises myth-creations in seeking to establish a politically useful Dalit identity.

Thirumaavalavan, however, will be known for his real-life interventions against caste oppression, in Melvalavu, Pappapatti and Keeripatti, and not for his attempts to theorise on Tamil nationalism in a manner that addresses concerns of caste oppression within Tamil society.

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