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Issue #5: Iyothee Thass and Dalit History Month

India Ink
Issue #5: Iyothee Thass and Dalit History Month
By India Ink Team • Issue #5 • View online
Hello all,
April is Dalit History Month so this week, we have an article on relatively lesser known Dalit intellectual, Iyothee Thass.
When we talk about it, the colonial period is often seen as simply “bad” - a time of oppression of Indians by the British. But Dalit intellectuals like Iyothee Thass argued that for dalits, the colonial period actually brought some freedom from the tyranny of upper castes.
Iyothee Thass is one of the earliest anti-caste leaders that we know. He was also one of the first Dalit leaders to ever convert to Buddhism. In this way, he predated Ambedkar - and his politics influenced Periyar’s Non-Brahmin Movement as well. Hopefully this article based on V Geetha and SV Rajadurai’s work shines some light on him.
(We’re still figuring out our posting schedule for the articles and this newsletter so please bear with us!)
Yours sincerely,
India Ink Team

Why Dalits saw Colonialism and Buddhism as Antidotes to Brahminism
  1. Towards the end of the 19th century, decades before Periyar would lead the non-Brahmin movement to prominence, the Madras presidency of British India witnessed the emergence of a number of Dalit intellectuals.
  2. One of the most important of these intellectuals was Iyothee Thass Pandithar, a Tamil Dalit who converted to Buddhism and vowed to revive the religion in India. He passionately believed that Buddhism was the original and true religion of the Dalit community.
  3. The Dravida Mahajana Sangam, an organisation he founded, articulated a revolutionary charter of demands which included jobs and education for Dalits as well as a law to “to severely punish those who refer to the depressed classes as ‘pariahs’ in order to degrade and insult them”. He sent these demands to the Congress and Muslim League but never heard back.
  4. Iyothee Thass was very suspicious of the Brahmin-dominated Congress and its claim of representing the whole country. He preferred the British as rulers as at least under them, Dalits were treated like human beings.
  5. He believed that Buddhism was once the basis of an ancient Indian society that was fair and equitable. In his view, Brahmins had taken power for themselves and had pushed those who refused to give up their Buddhist ways into the category of ‘untouchables’ – the lowest of the low in the caste order.
  6. To Iyothee Thass, conversion to religions like Christianity and Islam would not benefit Dalits. It would only ensure that they remained on the sidelines of Hindu society. But through Buddhism, Brahminism could be dismantled.
  7. Maduriar, a Dalit intellectual who followed in the footsteps of Iyothee Thass, wrote an essay in the 1930s describing Brahminical Hinduism as requiring “a constant servility of the faithful before a conspiring, deceiving clergy”. He credited the British for enabling Dalits to rediscover their lost intellectual glory.
(This is just a summary. For the full article, please click through to the our website.)
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India Ink Team

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