Center for South Asian Studies | University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa

Pandian Excerpt

Pandian, M.S.S. Brahmin & Non-Brahmin: Genealogies of the Tamil Political Present. New Delhi: Permanent Black, 2003. Pages 1-7.

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‘Names set up a field of power.’— Michel-Rolph Trouillot1

In 1916 a group of prominent nationalists from the Madras Presidency, led by T.M. Nair and Pitti Theagaraya Chetti, broke ranks with the Indian National Congress and issued a controversial document called the ‘Non-Brahmin Manifesto’. Their Manifesto argued that Indians were not yet ready for self-rule, and if the British granted self-rule to Indians it would result in the tyranny of Brahmins over others. Though Brahmins constituted about 3 per cent of the population of the Madras Presidency, their presence in the colonial bureaucracy, in modern professions such as law, and in the leadership of the Indian National Congress was preponderant and highly visible.

Provocative in its claims, the Manifesto stirred a variety of moods in the public, within Madras and elsewhere. Dismay and anger were the dominant moods in the nationalist camp. In the understanding of nationalists, such talk of ‘the non-Brahmin’ was a result of the British strategy of ‘divide and rule’, a deliberate move to fragment the putative unity of the Indian national community. The Manifesto also evoked surprise in many quarters, and those who expressed surprise directed it at the invocation of a hitherto unavailable political identity— the non-Brahmin. For, while it was true that the term non-Brahmin had been used occasionally since the late nineteenth century in the Madras Presidency, a manifesto— a declarative modern form of announcing a political intent— in the name of the non-Brahmin symbolized desires of a different order altogether. The intention was clearly to mobilize non-Brahmin identity as the basis of a new form of politics. After all, a manifesto represents a group to itself and invites similarly placed others to partake in its identity.2

The Manifesto invoked the term ‘non-Brahmin’ a full thirty times, as though repeating a self-evident truth.3 Yet it could not produce the truth of the non-Brahmin unambiguously. There were sceptic who doubted its validity, and they had their reasons. For instance, the Times of India commented on the Manifesto thus:

To begin with, there is no such community as the non-Brahman of which Mr. [Pitti Theagaraya] Chettiar or any other individual may be regarded as an accredited representative. The very word non-Brahman shows that the only common ground among the communities which are meant to be included in it, is that they are not Brahmana. No one who knows the bitter feuds between the right hand and left hand non-Brahman castes of Madras will accept the implication underlying Mr. Chettiar’s manifesto that the non-Brahmans are a single, homogeneous group, capable of common or united action, even as against the social and religious supremacy of the Brahmanical caste.4

Clearly, non-Brahmin identity was not yet in the realm of the acceptable and could be represented as an illegitimate fabrication, a political fiction. In fact the Manifesto itself carried strong traces of an awareness of the relative novelty of a non-Brahmin identity. As much as it spoke of non-Brahmins, it also referred to non-Brahmin communities in the plural, and, in one instance, it had to name some of them— ‘The Chetty, the Komati, the Mudaliar, the Naidu, and the Nayar…’5 In other words, non-Brahmin was not yet an accomplished identity. It was in the process of becoming.

Others, in particular Brahmin nationalist, tried to prevent the materialization of non-Brahmin identity by excluding it from public discourse. Commenting on the Manifesto, the Brahmin-owned nationalist newspaper The Hindu claimed: ‘It can serve no good but it is bound to create bad blood between persons belonging to the same great Indian Community…’ It further declared: ‘We do not wish to open our correspondence column to a discussion on this subject, as it cannot but lead to acrimonious controversy and as it would indirectly promote the invidious object of some of those who are engineering the movement.’6 The Non-Brahmin, one of the newspapers published by the Justice Party— a party founded on the basis of the Manifesto— retorted: ‘Let the scoffers come to scoff… When the Pacific Ocean community… is moving, it moves with a force that is irresistible.’7 The Non-Brahmin was proved right. Soon The Hindu had to open its columns to discuss and criticize claims made on the basis of non-Brahmin identity.

If The Hindu’s resolve to shut out the non-Brahmin from its pages was short-lived, the Times of India’s scepticism towards the validity of non-Brahmin identity was dissipated over time. The business of politics proved to be a way of doing things with what was not yet. In 1931 the Census Commissioner for Madras, M.W.M. Yeatts, proposed that since the ‘Political tendency [in the Madras Presidency] is to deal only in broad classifications, Brahmans, depressed classes, other Hindus… some such classification should be considered at future censuses… Instructions could easily be given to enumerators to enter only the categories Brahman and non-Brahman. If it was desired to retain separate figures for depressed classes, they could be added and also primitive tribes…’8 Yeatts’s suggestion signals the materialization of non-Brahmin identity within official political taxonomy. Yet it took several more decades of intense conflict and negotiation for non-Brahmin identity to normalize itself in Tamil-speaking South India.

The phase of uncertainty about non-Brahmin identity has now indubitably passed. Anyone acquainted with the politics of contemporary Tamil Nadu, this post-Independence Indian state carved out of the Madras Presidency in 1957, will know that the categories Brahmin and non-Brahmin possess a normal presence in the region and have in fact reconfigured the landscape of political possibilities and constraints. The account of Balakumaran, a Tamil fiction writer, about his friend’s first encounter with communists within a study group in Madras is instructive in this context:

He was asked, ‘There are two classes in the world. Let us see if you can identify them.’
‘What is class?’, he wondered.
‘There are two castes in the world. Can you tell what they are?’
‘One is Brahmin; the other non-Brahmin.’
Laughter [in the room] shook the tin-roof.9

The categories Brahmin and non-Brahmin thus carry a seemingly self-evident validity, framing the way one thinks, feels, and does things in Tamil Nadu. It is equally significant that they make sense only within a framework of mutual opposition and antagonism. In his Preface to The Brahmin in the Tamil Country, N. Subramanian notes: ‘I know I run some risk in writing this book. There will be people willing to call me “a renegade writing an anti-brahminical work” and others… “a communalist issuing a brahmanical pamphlet”.’10 The risk envisaged by Subramanian involves his making any statement about the imagined or real non-availability of political ground outside the opposition between Brahmin and non-Brahmin in contemporary Tamil Nadu.

The consequences of conducting politics around the polar identities of Brahmin and non-Brahmin over the past eight decades are, in the Tamil region, equally significant and substantial. Let me briefly give a few pointers from the post-Independence period to illustrate this: (1) The first amendment to the Indian constitution, introducing Article 15(4) in 1951, which ensured the reservation of seats for non-Brahmins in educational institutions and government jobs, was a result of agitations in Madras state against a Supreme Court judgment; (2) The first ever Indian state not to have a Brahmin in its ministry was Madras state under the chiefminister-ship of K. Kamaraj in 1954. Interestingly Kamaraj, who belonged to a formerly Untouchable caste, was heading a Congress Party ministry. By the 1950s even the leadership of the nationalist Congress Party, which was dominated by Brahmins during the colonial period, had passed to the hands of non-Brahmins; (3) By the 1970s both ruling and opposition spaces in Tamil Nadu politics came to be occupied by parties claiming allegiance to non-Brahmin interests. This is a feature which continues to mark the state’s politics till today and shows no sign of changing in the new future; (4) In August 1990, when V.P. Singh as Prime Minister of India announced 27 per cent reservations for the Backward Castes in government jobs, North India witnessed large-scale agitations by the upper-castes. But the Tamil Nadu state assembly passed a resolution on 21 August 1990 welcoming the announcement. The resolution was printed by the state government for public circulation; (5) Right-wing Hindu organizations that oppose reservations for non-Brahmin castes in education and government jobs at the all-India level support such reservations in Tamil Nadu. To oppose reservations in the state would be to risk their already miniscule hold in the state by going against the broad political consensus.

Against this background, my attempt in this book is to plot the geneaologies of the opposition between Brahmin and non-Brahmin, of how this opposition has become taken for granted, self-evident, and naturalized in the Tamil region. In unravelling the facticity and political efficacy that this opposition has acquired over time, I concentrate primarily on the complex processes involved in the long-term normalization of non-Brahmin identity as a category of politics, and how these processes depended on and resulted in rearticulations of Brahmin identity under colonialism. Thus, the Tamil Brahmin is the central figure around whom this book revolves. The very term ‘non-Brahmin’, in its lexicalization, makes the Brahmin central.

Terming the arrival of new identities ‘the politics of becoming’, William Connolly has characterized the process of imagining, asserting, and affirming such identities thus: ‘The politics of becoming is that conflictual process by which new identities are propelled into being by moving the pre-existing shape of diversity, justice and legitimacy.’11 Further, ‘To the extent it succeeds in placing a new identity on the cultural field, the politics of becoming changes the shape and contour of already entrenched identities as well.’12 Taking analytic cues from Connolly, I attempt to concretely plot and unravel how the two identities Brahmin and non-Brahmin were mutually constituted in the Tamil region during the colonial period. In other words, I engage with how the normalization of the category non-Brahmin— i.e., the process of making it a transparent, naturalized, and sedimented category— simultaneously reconfigured the pre-existing Brahmin identity. And, as we will see, the process of this coproduction of non-Brahmin and Brahmin under colonialism unsettled pre-existing socio-political arrangements and consensus, and ushered in fundamentally new notions of ‘diversity, justice and legitimacy’ in Tamil-speaking South India.

More specifically, this book maps the historical and political conjunctures that led to the formation of Brahmin and non-Brahmin as objects of discourse: the enunciative modalities which delimited the ways in which Brahmin and non-Brahmin were talked about, and how these figures acquired over time their reified meanings. The book thus attempts to trace the historical specificities involved in the making of the categories Brahmin and non-Brahmin so as to unsettle their present-day ontological naturalness. Mine is in this sense an attempt at historical ontology for one linguistic region. Noting historical ontology as a form of criticism, Michel Foucault spells out its contours thus: ‘that criticism is no longer going to be practiced in the search for formal structures with universal value, but rather as a historical investigation into the events have led us to constitute ourselves and to recognize ourselves as subjects of what we are doing, thinking, saying.’13 Colonialism was a major event that constituted Brahmin and non-Brahmin identities by enabling new forms of ‘speakability’ about caste in a modern ‘secularized’ public sphere. This at once facilitated and constrained a ‘politics of becoming’ for the emergent identity of non-Brahmin in colonial South India.

1 Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995), p. 115.
2 Janet Lyon, Manifestoes: Provocations of the Modern (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1999). p. 19.
3 The ‘Non-Brahmin Manifesto’ (hereafter, The Manifesto) is reprinted in Eugene F. Irschick, Politics and Social Conflict in South India: The Non-Brahman Movement and Tamil Separatism 1916-1929 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969), pp. 358-67.
4 Reprinted in New India, 2 January 1917.
5 The Manifesto, p. 363.
6 The Hindu, 20 December 1916, quoted in S. Saraswathi, Minorities in Madras State: Group Interest in Modern Politics (Delhi: Impex India, 1974), p. 42.
7 Non-Brahmin, 28 January 1917, in Saraswathi, Minorities in Madras State, p. 42.
8 M.W.M. Yeatts, Census of India 1931, Madras— Part I (Calcutta: Government Press, 1932), p. 333.
9 Balakumaran, Munkathai Surukkam (1989; rpnt. Chennai: Visa Publications, 1993), p. 49.
10 N. Subramanian, The Brahmin in the Tamil Country (Madurai: Ennes Publications, 1989), p. i.
11 William Connolly, Why I Am Not a Secularist (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), p. 10.
12 Ibid., p. 57.
13 Michel Foucault, ‘What is Enlightenment?’, in Paul Rabinow, ed., The Foucault Reader: An Introduction to Foucault’s Thought (London: Penguin Books, 1991), pp. 45-6.

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