When Dravidianism and Hindutva met

Political parties in Tamil Nadu today must heed Periyar’s message in rejecting Hindutva overtures
In 1944, an unusual meeting took place between the pre-eminent leader of the non-Brahmin movement, Periyar E.V. Ramasamy, and a major leader of the Hindu Mahasabha, Balkrishna Shivram Moonje.
Periyar and Naidu’s friendship
On September 19 that year, Periyar received a letter from an old friend, P. Varadarajulu Naidu, saying he wanted to arrange a meeting between Periyar and Hindu Mahasabha leaders Moonje and Syama Prasad Mookerjee. Periyar’s friendship with Naidu went back to the late 1910s when both of them were active in the Congress. With the rise of the Justice Party and its challenge to the Brahmin-dominated Congress, the two had played a stellar role in articulating non-Brahmin interests within the nationalist movement. The campaign against separate dining arrangements for Brahmin and non-Brahmin pupils in the nationalist gurukulam at Cheranmadevi, run by V.V.S. Aiyar, in 1924-25 had further brought them together. After Periyar launched the Self-Respect Movement with its radical criticism of the Hindu caste system and religion, the two drifted apart. Like Periyar, Naidu too had distanced himself from the Congress from 1930. During World War II, he joined the Hindu Mahasabha and presided over its Tamil Nadu unit for five years. At the time of the meeting between Periyar and Moonje, he was all-India vice president of the Hindu Mahasabha. That Naidu’s brief dalliance with Hindu communalism — notwithstanding his principled resignation from the Sabha in 1945 — destroyed his political career and deprived Tamil Nadu of a resourceful leader is another story.
In 1944, independence was imminent. The Pakistan question loomed large, and Periyar was in close touch with Muhammad Ali Jinnah and B.R. Ambedkar. It is not surprising that Naidu tried at this juncture to weaken the Muslim League by accommodating Periyar. He also wanted the Hindu Mahasabha to address the non-Brahmin question. In any case, the two organisations were united by an anti-Congress predisposition.
As an early associate of Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Moonje was not an unknown figure in Tamil Nadu — in fact, the celebrated nationalist, V.O. Chidambaram Pillai, counted him among his friends despite his own critical distance from Hindu communalism. Moonje, who was a doctor, was a key figure in the revival of the Hindu Mahasabha in the wake of the Khilafat movement, and had represented Hindu interests in the Round Table Conference in London in 1930. He also met the fascist leader Benito Mussolini to draw lessons on how to organise Hindus. Though he had given way, in 1938, to V.D. Savarkar as president of the Hindi Mahasabha, he was still active in the organisation.
Never one to shy away from engaging with ideological foes, Periyar agreed to Naidu’s invitation, and indicated that he was happy to meet the Hindu Mahasabha leaders on September 29, either in Erode or in Trichy. The meeting took place in Trichy at the home of T.P. Vedachalam, a well-known advocate and a close friend of Periyar. Only Moonje, who was then touring the south, came to meet Periyar, not Mookerjee. The meeting lasted for about two hours. Apart from Naidu, C.N. Annadurai, Periyar’s star lieutenant who would later become Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, and C.D. Nayagam were present. The preliminary report in Kudi Arasu , Periyar’s weekly, indicated that the two discussed matters in a “friendly manner” and that they “agreed to cooperate without compromising on their fundamental convictions”. It further said that Moonje was personally convinced by Periyar’s Self-Respect ideals, and promised “to endeavour to propagate Self-Respect ideals in north India in his individual capacity”. The apparent success of the meeting was too unrealistic to be true, as was soon borne out by a subsequent report in Kudi Arasu. With the BJP today looking for allies to gain a foothold in Tamil Nadu, notwithstanding M.K. Stalin’s strident speech on the occasion of his election as president of the DMK, speculation of an alliance between the DMK and the BJP, legatees of Periyar and Moonje, respectively, has not been put to rest. The questions discussed nearly 75 years ago in Trichy still animate contemporary politics. One can only hope that the ideological firmness of Periyar and Anna will prevail over transient considerations.

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