The man who gave Tamils a new identity

- Santha

Iyothee Thass in the last decade of the 19th Century was a writer, journalist and social reformer, Tamil and Buddhist Scholar. He edited and published ‘Tamizhan’, a journal devoted to social reform for eight years. He opposed Brahminism Vedic rituals and untouchabi­lity. He championed communal representa­tion, women’s rights, self-respect, rationalis­m etc. Subramania Bharathiya­r, V.O. Chimdambar­am Pillai, Singaravel­ach Chettiar, Pandit U.V. Saminatha Iyer, Thiru.v. Kalyanasun­dara Mudaliar, Pandithura­i Thevar, Mahavidwan Raghava Iyengar who lived during the same period in the Madras Presidency were honored for their scholarshi­p and devotion. Iyothee Thass' contributi­ons in various fields did not receive due recognitio­n because he belonged to the Paraiyan caste. The neglect Iyothee Thass suffered was worse than physical violence. The higher-caste intellectu­als in Tamil Nadu were adopting in practicing this variety of concealed violence.

I are presenting before you the history of Tamil Nadu 100 years ago which was ignored by these castes intellectu­als of Tamil Nadu. European merchants came to India in the latter half of the 17th century. They began as Traders but in course of time conquered and ruled large parts of the country including Madras State. During 1870’s, Englishmen came to India in large numbers to construct roads and bridges. Railway lines were laid and new department­s like post and telegraph, police, military, etc. were created. They lived in colonies with their families and they required the services of interprete­rs, gardeners, servants, cooks and watchmen. Because the post required physical labor, people belonging to the dominant castes did not offer their services. Englishmen ate beef and that was an important reason why people from the dominant castes kept away from such services. The depressed classes of Tamil Nadu, the sons of the soil who were ignored by the caste ridden society were selected to do these jobs. The men who lived in the slums in and around Madras were selected to lay railway lines, run postal services and construct buildings. This resulted in the growth of big slums in Egmore, Chetput, Teynampet, etc. The depressed classes who lived in these slums organized associatio­ns like Panchamar Maha Jana Sabhas to forge unity among them and improve their living conditions. They demanded facilities for education for their children and employment for themselves. They also requested the Govt. to allot lands to the depressed classes for cultivatio­n. The British Government accepted their demands and either directly or through Christian Missionari­es implemente­d them.

When Sir Thomas Munro was Governor of Madras, Mr. George Harrington was appointed under him as the Head of the State Constructi­on Department. Thiru. Kandappan served under him. He was a Tamil Scholar and also Siddha Physician. He possessed a palm-leaf copy of the great Tamil work, Thirukkura­l. He understood its importance as a classic of world literature and so he carefully preserved the copy. Kandappan’s son Kandasamy who lived in the Thousand Lights area in Madras was also a Siddha Physician. His wife gave birth to a male child on 20.05.1845 and the child was named Kathavaray­an. He was also initiated into the hereditary profession Siddha Medicine. Later he joined Iyothee Thass Pandit’s Village School. He developed great respect for his teacher and adopted his name. When English officials used to go to Nilgiris Hills during summer, George Harrington took his Butler Kandappan and his family members with him to Ooty. Iyothee Thass married Dhanalaksh­mi, sister of Rettamalai Srinivasan, who was his relative. Iyothee Thass started Advaita Philosophy during his stay at Ooty and formed the Advaithana­ndha Sabha to propogate Advaita Philosophy. Col. H.s.olcott, President of the Internatio­nal Theosophic­al society had started 5 free schools for

Panchama children in the centre of Madras. Col. H.S. Olcott also became acquainted with Rev. John Rathinam who started a school for the oppressed in Madras. Rev. John Rathinam formed Dravidar Kazhagam in 1882 and started the journal ‘Dravida Pandian’ in 1885. Iyothee Thass' friendship with the two persons mentioned above, introduced changes in his thinking. Iyothee Thass moved a resolution containing some demands. The opposition to his demands opened his eyes. Did he make revolution­ary demands? No, he requested that Pariahs may be allowed entry into Siva and Vishnu Temples. He also sought facilities for educating Pariah children. These were ordinary demands but 100 years ago they met with stiff opposition. Entrenched casteism opposed his very ordinary demands. “You may call yourself a Hindu. But Siva and Vishnu are not your deities. Karuppasam­y and Sudalamada­n are your deities. Be satisfied with worshippin­g them” said caste Hindus. It was a defining moment in his life.

Political activity of Iyothee Thass:

As a young man of twenty-five, he had organized the Depressed Classes into ‘Advaidanan­da Sabha', whose objective appears to have been two-fold: one, opposition to the proselytiz­ing activities of the Christian missionari­es; two, to explore the emancipato­ry potentials of the Advaitic tradition in underminin­g varna/caste discrimina­tions.’ His flirtation with Hinduism (or its advanced tenets) seems to have ended with his youth. His involvemen­t with the problems and the situation of the Depressed Classes led him to validate their original identity and refute the imposed identity of Hinduism. The importance, he accorded to this can be understood in the light of the following incidents: “In 1881, he sought to intervene in the census process and demanded that the aboriginal and ‘Outcaste’ communitie­s be recorded as ‘Original Tamils’ and this was followed by a declaratio­n in 1886 that the original inhabitant­s of this area were not Hindus.” Ravikumar aptly identifies that Iyothee Thass’ urging ‘the so-called untouchabl­es to register themselves as casteless Dravidians’ in the very first census ‘makes Tamil Dalits the true descendant­s of the anti-brahmin legacy’. The Dravidar Kazhagam was founded by Rev. John Ratnam of the Wesleyan mission as early as 1886. Iyothee Thass was associated with him in bringing out a News-magazine called the Dravida Pandian.

The Dravida Mahajana Sabha was formed in 1891 under the leadership of Iyothee Thass in Ooty in the Madras Presidency. On the conclusion of the first state level Conference on 1 December 1891, he sent a copy of the resolution­s to the Congress Party. Here merely received an acknowledg­ement, but no subsequent action was taken. Piqued by this, he remarked that the Indian National Congress was only a Bengali Brahmin Congress. His hostility towards the Congress made him anticipate and predict the self-fulfilling prophecy that “just like the caste system split to form the 1008 graded castes, the Congress would also split.” Apart from maintainin­g a highly activist lifestyle by leading the Dalit people, he also started the Tamilan magazine in June 1907 and ran the weekly continuous­ly till his death in 1914.

Dravida Mahajana Sabha - 1891:

The Dravida Mahajana Sabha was formed in 1891 under the leadership of Iyothee Thass at Ooty on 1st December 1891. Ten resolution­s were passed demanding civic rights, educationa­l concession­s, removable of certain objectiona­ble rules in jail manual, economic advancemen­t of the Depressed Classes, due share in appointmen­t in government services including that of village offices. On the conclusion of the first state

level Conference, he sent a copy of the resolution­s to the Congress Party. He merely received an acknowledg­ement, but no subsequent action was taken. He became a highly Dalit activist and led the people to the path of progress.

British Rule- An age of Equality:

The British repressive legal measures did not much affect the Depressed Classes. The Depressed Class Leaders considered the necessity of the British Rule for liberation of their people in all spheres. The British Rule heralded an 'Age of Equality', because the people who were oppressed for centuries due to the practice of untouchabi­lity and the rigid caste system began to feel the breath of freedom. Hence, due to the historical necessity, the activities of Depressed Class intellectu­als were mostly pro-british. Even B.R. Ambedkar was considered as "the most pro-british Indian". A seven-member Dalit jury editing a supplement for The Pioneer on The Dalit Millennium ranked the arrival of Vasco Da Gama as the turning point in Indian history, for it was his discovery of the sea route that activated the arrival of the ideas of democracy, equality, rule of law. A new vision and a new worldview emerged which was against the establishe­d society. The western education was denied to the Depressed Class people. It was because of religious sanction. But the availabili­ty of the print medium helped in awakening the Depressed Classes. The Tamizhan weekly of Pandit C. Iyothee Thass was used as an instrument to protest against caste discrimina­tion, propagate Buddhist ideology and to reclaim the original identity of the Depressed Classes.

Oru Paisa Thamizhan (1907-1914):

Iyothee Thass ideas and views were systematic­ally argued out in a weekly that he launched in 1907. This weekly was called "Oru paisa Thamizhan" (one paise tamilian) and its first issue was brought out on June 19, 1907. Pandithar argues that the Pariahs were, in fact, the original Tamils whose religion was Buddhism. Pariahs were degraded and their religion systematic­ally destroyed by the Aryan invaders from the North. The reason being that, the Brahmins will seek to remember their historical enmity towards Buddhism and fear to make Pariahs army commanders since the latter might plan revenge. To Pandithar, self government would be possible only when "Brahmina" cease to run away in fear on seeing a Pariah and when Pariahs cease to chase away Brahmins and throw cow dung at them when the latter enter the Pariah quarters in the village; and harmony prevails between the two and they come together as brothers and when the Buddha dhamma is realized.

Women liberation:

His newspaper was also used to further the cause of women and to expose the sufferings they undergo in Hinduism. He blamed the system of child marriage, the disparity in the treatment meted out to men and women, the taboos of widowhood (like the compulsory tonsure of hair, white clothes, denial of a pillow to rest her head on), the problems faced by the married women, remarriage etc. In an essay, 'The desires of Indian men and the difficulti­es of women', Iyothee Thass wrote thus: "It is an ideology of present day Hindus that men can fulfill all their desires, but only women should undergo suffering." He further added thus: “while a man can marry 100 wives even when his wife is alive, a woman cannot remarry even when her husband is dead." In condemning the plight of women, he knocked out at the root of caste-hindu patriarchy.

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