The idea was to celebrate love, in the most expansive sense of the word, a love that is unfettered and crosses the boundaries of caste, class, race, religion, language – a love that was founded on fellow feeling and fraternity.

That was the aim of a cultural event in Chennai on the weekend organised by the Viduthalai Siruthaigal Katchi to honour writers, artists and filmmakers whose work spoke to the values of equality and justice.

In a context where the imagination appears tethered to what it criticises, Thol Thirumavalavan founder of the party that seeks to combat caste-based discrimination, emphasised the immense power of words and the centrality of love to an anti-caste and anti-Hindutva politics.

Refusing to heed the terms set by Hindutva supporters, Thirumavalavan, in his moving, layered disquisition opened a door to rethinking both the present and the shape of a future politics for these dark times

Reading as an art

Thirumavalavan, the Lok Sabha member from Chidambaram started off with a confession: he was not a reader of literature, as such. He had read poetry as a student, and even written poems and wanted them published (which did not come to pass). But he had not quite taken to fiction. He preferred critical prose, especially political essays.

When in college in Chennai, he would read into the evening at the local public library nearby. The librarian would hand him the keys and ask him to lock up after he was done.

The first serious political tract he read was Idealism and Materialism by trade union leader ASK Iyengar, who later wrote a sharply argued book on Ambedkar. Thirumavalavan went on to read other socialist tracts and only subsequently did he come to the writings of Ambedkar and social activist and politician EV Ramasamy, better known as Periyar.

Reading, Thirumavalavan noted, was an art: like an artist or writer, a reader had to get good at it. Different genres required one to cultivate particular interpretative skills. The printed word was magical and rich in that sense, and carried heft.

He referred to the slogans that his party had made famous in the early 1990s that exhorted Dalits not to give into authority, stand up to violence, and hit back when hit. Thirumavalavan noted that had these words not been printed as posters, they would not have circulated as widely as they did.

Thirumavalavan had personally designed the first set of posters that featured these words. This was in the context of extended police violence against protesting Dalits in Madurai.

At that time, the printing press that did work for the Dalit Panthers of India (Tamil Nadu) – why is what the Viduthalai Siruthaigal Katchi had first been called – was reluctant to take this on. Thirumavalavan and his comrades had to seek out a screen-printer that would print them, and at short notice. An artist was also called into service. The posters were printed overnight and early next morning he had gone around the city putting them up.

As an aside, he added that while the call to resist and strike back was made in the context of state repression, subsequently it was understood as an exhortation to fight caste violence and discrimination.

The poster by the Dalit Panthers of India.

Designing posters is an art, he said, for a poster had to be just so, not too wordy and not tightly set. It had to catch the bystander’s eye, and cause them to pause and take heed. Even a pencil scribble by him on the wall in the law college hostel that spoke of the gathering of the oppressed had attracted attention because it was well written.

That said, he explained, words that were set against injustice and spoke of equality and fraternity have power, the potential to charge the imagination: a slow burning that would not let a person rest, or eat or sleep, until and unless they acted on what had inspired them. That was also when a person learned to focus, to concentrate on the idea and emotion that had taken hold of him.

Ambedkar’s words have come to matter, he said, because he wrote them down. They acquired a solidity that could not be easily put away or craftily misinterpreted. For that had been the fate of dissenters in the past. After all, the Buddha had been rendered an avatar of Vishnu: an avatar, was one who literally descended from above, from the skies, and to make the Buddha a sky-born persona was a clever ruse.

It convinced people that such a man could not be mortal, like they were. He could not have reasoned and argued and held the Brahmins to account if he were not already a supernatural person. This denial of mortality to the Buddha had been accomplished in lore and legend. Ambedkar battled this tendency to distract criticism and argument into distortions, and his writings took on sanatana dharma, Brahmanical thought and hegemony.

Ambedkar, Thirumavalavan noted, was at once a destroyer of myths and a builder of reason and critique. He sought to replace the laws of Manu with the principles of democracy, and did so pithily and powerfully in the preamble to the Constitution. The preamble was a distillate of years of reading, thought and reflection, and here we see how reading and writing, both the products of patient and attentive labour, came together. This is why the Constitution must be upheld: it represents civilisation in the face of barbarism.

A photograph of an interview with a young Thirumavalavan.

But those who shout hoarse in favour of Hindutva, Thirumavalavan said, have no use for thought or argument, or indeed for books and thinkers. It is not accidental that Tamil Nadu governor RN Ravi in February remarked that philosopher Karl Marx had brought about social disruption – only the custodians of capital and Brahmanism could say this casually, Thirumavalavan said. It is also the case that they fear opposition and critique and so seek to silence those who think and read. Marx, Ambedkar and Periyar make them anxious, and they therefore seek to discredit them, said Thirumavalavan.

It is not only Hindutva adherents who are thus bigoted. Those who swear by Tamil nationalism can be just as problematic. Here, Thirumavalavan sharply argued that one cannot answer Hindu nationalism with Tamil nationalism.

Nor does the word “Dravidian”, used to challenge Hindutva, signify a nation. Dravidian is another word for social justice that resists Brahminism and should not be confused with territory or race. Neither Periyar nor Ambedkar expounded their ideas within the narrow framework of local or national geographies. They laid claims to universal thought, and took measure of the whole world.

He also refuted the claims of those Tamil nationalists who viewed North Indian labourers as “alien” and “intruders”. Men and women who work for wages that Tamil workers are loath to accept, and, besides, are forced to live within demarcated shacks, are our comrades, said Thirumavalavan, and the real culprits are the purveyors of capital and their sanatan supporters.

Since the end of February, misinformation alleging deadly violence against Hindi-speaking North Indian migrant workers in Tamil Nadu has prompted many to leave the state and head back home.

To build a culture of resistance against these forces of exploitation, one needs to be resolutely socialist in one’s politics. However, Thirumavalavan made clear his understanding of socialism owed as much to Ambedkar’s democratic socialist vision, as it did to the communists’ vision of revolution.

Further Ambedkar’s vision of fraternity and equality was equally necessary in a context where intolerance and hatred had come to define politics and social relations – in the name of religion, in defense of caste and to uphold language and nation. Ultimately, it was fraternity that the caste order forbade and feared, but this was a virtue that had to be cultivated: for when the world turns fraternal, it cannot but be equal.

Thirumavalavan ended with a poetic exhortation to love: love, he noted, was a generous emotion. Romantic love, at once beautiful and painful, was one expression of a wider experience of affection. To celebrate love, one ought to celebrate its vastness, its capacity to build bonds, to shatter prejudices, and to hold all of us together in a spirit of cherishing affection.

Liberation in words

Ramalingam receives the award. Courtesy V Geetha.

One of the young award winners, Ramalingam, an art director for cinema, in his acceptance speech recalled the usefulness of words. He remembered how in his school days in a north Tamil Nadu village, a classmate would scribble across his notebook the acronym “DPI”.

When he asked him what that meant, he recalled what he had heard about the Panthers and the words their leader Thirumavalavan had made famous: Don’t be cowed down, cross limits set by the world, stand up for yourself and hit back, when hit.

He took it upon himself to write them out on the walls of his neighbourhood and elsewhere.

For a people who had been schooled into accepting, involuntarily – as it were – he remarked, ideas that normalised inequality, since these were built into everyday language, and affirmed through idioms, phrases, and proverbs, these new and defiant words proved liberating.

In a context where the ruling dispensation is given over to untruth and a language that is brutal in its banality, Thirumavalavan’s call to reimagine words and the world deserves wide attention.

V Geetha is a writer, translator and publisher from Chennai.