Periyar on the Constitution

As a follow up to the earlier piece, here is a translation of excerpts from Periyar’s speech on the constitution soon after it was framed.

Here there is a need for a note on how we can read these historic documents. This is not a call to burn the constitution (Figuratively maybe a little bit but not literally. That would be a waste of paper. We’d rather recycle it en masse as a symbolic gesture! ). The purpose is to break down into details, this ‘nation’ that we often use as a default construct. We know it has a history and a not so long one. We also know that it has been contested by many from its very inception. Independence day should also be observed as ‘partition into india and pakistan day’ for starters. There have always been challenges ranging from debates over secession of regional kings when independence was declared, to demands for a separate nation that always existed and continue to do so.

Further, Periyar writes with a particular purpose, in tamil and in a particular speaking and writing style/language evolved by the Self- Respect movement. That style has it’s own repercussions and relevance in the context of discourses of social change in this country. But let’s leave that for another time and another post.  Here, the context is of the anti-hindi struggle and the demand for a separate tamil country. It is also grounded in the anti-brahmin ideology as is most of his work. Some of these contexts may not remain relevant to all of us in the same way today. However the conceptual critique is beyond the temporal context. We can read it today and take from it that which is relevant to us.

We can revisit these histories in two ways; one, to continue to speak within the framework of territories and nationhood and thus about struggles for secession; or two, we can argue for a re-articulation of how we view the ‘nation’ itself. Needless to say these two approaches need not be, and often are not, mutually exclusive. This particular post is intended with the latter approach and it takes us back to the need to articulate irreverence of national symbols and the nation on the whole. This is an attempt to do precisely that.

The charm of history always lays in how it can unpack seemingly strong constructs and show us its humble and chaotic origins and growth. A practice that is often very constructive as it maintains our view of the world around us as one that is critical. It forces us to question the aggrandizing of any concept, person or entity; in this case, the indian nation.

We will burn the constitution- why?

Ladies and Gentlemen!

Can anybody say that India was one united nation before the British came? Was the Dravidian land ruled by anyone who was not a Dravidian? The British, for their own convenience tied together the various places he had won in his conquests together. He used the name that the Muslims gave him. One way or another this nation maybe a reality today, but how is it fair for you to exploit and rule this nation in a way that is worse than the Mughals and the British? You are imposing your language on us just like they imposed theirs.

You’ve made yourself this constitution. It is much like the Manu sashtra, a book of law that denies intervention or change by one and all. In the name of this book you have begun to control and oppress us. As per the constitution, one cannot oppose exploitation; we cannot ask for an independent nation, we cannot ask for reservations. You have made all of these efforts ‘punishable by law’.

Today, I would like to declare that we will not accept this constitution. This constitution affects us adversely. It has not been framed by our representatives. We will burn it.

With whose consent and with whom did you frame this constitution? You held elections maintaining the suffrage system as established by the British; for the rich and the educated alone. Those who won that election then made the constitution. Remember, you yourself boycotted all the laws that the British brought in using this suffragette system!

The two and a three fourth Brahmins, five rich people and their servants are to be the representatives of this nation? Was this constitution made with the participation of the poor of this country; the majority of the population? In 1946 you declared that the constitution will be made by the representatives elected after all people above the age of 21 can vote in this country. Did you do that?

Do you actually believe that you can get away with anything just because the British flung the country into your hands as they left in a hurry? You’ve established a constitution that will permanently oppress us and make it easy for you to exploit us. You then go ahead and impose this constitution on all of us? Did you tell the British you were going to do this when you asked for ‘independence’?

So, we will burn the constitution just like we burnt the Ramayana, Mahabharatham, Geethai, Prabandam etc. Just like how we declared and burnt all of those texts as being impractical and harmful for our everyday lives, we will do the same with this constitution that has been put in place to make it easy for those in power to enslave and exploit the people of this country. We will burn it. Yes, we will!


(Speech at Chennai beach, Triplicane, 03.08.1952. Viduthalai, 07.08.1952)


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