M S S Pandian and His Critical Pen - Janaki Nair

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historian of lower caste movements and identities and popular culture




M S S Pandian
and His Critical Pen
Janaki Nair


ow does one speak about a figure who has in equal measure
been lionised, vilified, celebrated, denigrated, by all those whom he
wished to influence, convert, contest,
teach or quite simply annoy? How, except by admitting that he succeeded in
doing all of the above. He was an agent
provocateur, the high priest of iconoclasm, a scholar who inconveniently
turned up at quite a different place from
where you expected him: now a Marxist,
then a critic of Marxism; a diehard Tamil
nationalist, but taking a principled stand
against Indian nationalism; an avowed
rationalist, yet an advocate of nuanced
readings of religion.
There were few people – writing in
particular on Tamil Nadu or on caste –
who escaped his acerbic comment or his
savage pen. It was far too rare a kind of
intellection, a passionate attachment to
certain political goals without lapsing
into sloganeering. At a time when many
are moving, as if mesmerised, towards
the strong man who is offering us a
solution to all our problems, and public
intellectuals are increasingly revealing
what Edward Said called a “fawning
elasticity with regard to one’s own side”,
M S S Pandian’s death has been an
irreparable loss for the Indian academy
in particular and public intellection
more generally.


There was ample testimony on the
walls of Jawaharlal Nehru University
(JNU), following his sudden death, to his
short but pervasively influential life as a
teacher, mentor and participant in the
life of the university. His courses were
immensely popular, and his role as mentor was well acknowledged. Many students spoke of how he had introduced
them to important texts, opened their
eyes as it were. I would like to look back
on his other pasts, other institutional
spaces where we were together, to
reflect on his trajectory as an intellectual
and the important milestones of his
scholarly career.
First Work
Although he proudly announced, at
many meetings at the Centre for Historical
Studies (CHS), JNU that he had never
entered the archives and that he was
therefore not a historian, his first work,
The Political Economy of Agrarian Change:
Nanchilnadu 1880-1939 was economic
history of the recognisable kind: in it he
adopted and challenged Marxist understandings of capitalism with reference to
a period of increasing wet rice cultivation in southern Travancore; he not only
critiqued political economy frameworks
by introducing the idea of environmental
factors and social structure (the first, a
relatively unexplored framework at the
NOVEMBER 29, 2014

time), but mounted a challenge to those
organising peasant movements in the
area for not adequately understanding
“local conditions”.
From Marxism and the mode of production debate, Pandian marked a radical
shift in his interests when he joined the
Centre for Studies in Social Sciences in
Calcutta/Kolkata as a fellow, and began
work on his new provocation, The Image
Trap. It was an analysis of the phenomenal success of M G Ramachandran (MGR)
not just as an actor but as a chief minister. Pandian’s interest as an ardent fan of
the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK)
section of the Dravidian movement was
to expose the spurious politics of the
upstart Ramachandran in “using” the
DMK film to advance his career. This
foray into the links between cinema and
politics was the start of a lifelong interest in reading Tamil films, from his
legendary and important critique of
Parashakti to his analysis of Mani Ratnam’s Roja, from an explicitly political
perspective. It was a reading that was
largely uninformed by film theory, but
nevertheless opened up new and refreshing questions about politics and
culture. His Marxism was still an active
part of his analytical frame, though not
for nothing did Nasir Tyabji term him a
“DMK Marxist”.
It is of course for his long and continuous
engagement with the history of the challenge to brahminism in colonial and
postcolonial Tamil Nadu that Pandian is
most well known. His critiques of many
different kinds of historians, ranging
from those of the Cambridge school to
vol xlIX no 48


Economic & Political Weekly


K N Panikkar (the latter for his instrumental reading of religion and rationality) led to his gradual development of a
larger argument in the shape of a genealogy of the brahmin/non-brahmin dyad.
This work came together eventually as
a book in 2008. For someone who was
a practised polemicist, brahmin/nonbrahmin revealed that Pandian had
learned a great deal from the intervening decades, in his acknowledgement of
what had been a huge lacuna in his
earlier work, the neglect in short of that
large community of dalits from the way
in which non-brahmin histories and
futures had been conceived, even by
Periyar E V Ramaswamy Naicker.
In part this was the reflection of the
late development of the dalit movement
in Tamil Nadu compared with the neighbouring Karnataka and Maharashtra
(although I am sure Pandian would not
like to admit that Tamil Nadu was behind Karnataka on any question!) and in
part his own blindness to the far more
complex patterns of caste that such a
binary could not capture: by the 1990s,
southern Tamil Nadu (as indeed parts of
Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh) was
riven by conflicts between newly assertive, educated and socially mobile dalit
castes, and asset-owning Other Backward Classes (OBCs). A series of articles
Pandian authored in EPW in 2013
acknowledged some of these intra-caste
dilemmas within a radically altered
political scenario.
Pandian chose to end his 2008 book
with a chapter on one of the most influential dalit writers of Tamil Nadu, Raj
Gowthaman. His detailed new history of
Tamil Nadu politics thus indirectly acknowledged the limits of political nonbrahminism. It is striking that Pandian
(like the other historians of the movement, S V Rajadurai and V Geetha) did
not displace this English term which
arose from the negation of brahminism
(and indeed there is no real Tamil equivalent for non-brahmin) and no neologism
was coined to take its place. Although he
acknowledged the problems with the
figure of the “virtuous woman” which
pervaded Tamil popular culture and
politics, feminism and its interpretative
frames did not feature centrally in his
Economic & Political Weekly


NOVEMBER 29, 2014

work, despite the fact that his partner,
S Anandhi, is an established feminist historian and thinker. His book was acclaimed
and critiqued, but everywhere acknowledged as a significant intervention.
Much can also be said about his writings on the language question and the
anti-Hindi agitation in particular. I will
simply here recall his virulent opposition to Hindi when we were both at the
Calcutta Centre in 1987: when the librarian began jabbering away in Bangla
which I then did not understand, I asked
her to speak in Hindi. A furious Pandian
emerged suddenly from the stacks and
to her rescue, admonishing me for making such an unreasonable demand. He
saw no irony in speaking only English to
the librarian himself, but he had saved
her from north Indian imperialism perpetrated by a perplexed south Indian!
Despite moving to Delhi, and warming
up slightly to Hindi speakers/the language, and indeed Hindi films, he
remained firmly against the imposition
of Hindi as a national language. So I
would like to read the small act of insurgency by which the Hindi nameplates in
CHS were covered in black on the day
after he died as a loving tribute of the
students he had trained in scepticism
and argument.
The late 1980s and the 1990s were a
time when reading, and especially writing for, the EPW were a hallmark of ones
arrival as a serious Indian scholar; Pandian too shuttled between the first half
of the journal, which consists of reports
and comments, to the more scholarly
second half, and he continued to inhabit
both worlds until he passed away.
Public Intellectual
It is his life as a public intellectual, as a
member of the non-public sphere left,
that was on full display when I joined
Madras Institute of Development Studies
in 1994: in his spacious corner room in
that lovely building, Pandian held an
interesting court of sorts. Scholars from
all over the world flocked to hear him
explain the intricate politics of Tamil
Nadu or perhaps India to them; at other
times, scholars and writers and dramatists from all over Tamil Nadu flocked to
the man who opened their window to
vol xlIX no 48

the world. These bilingual transactions
continued on all working days, and
spilled over into the weekends. He was a
unique quilting point, bringing two
worlds together in his room.
It was against this broad intellectual
engagement that the idea of a journal
called South Indian Studies came up,
published by DC books of Thiruvananthapuram. Pandian brought out several
issues before the publisher found it difficult to continue; in fact sadly, it was the
issue that I had put together that was
never to see the light of day. Still, that
brief experiment forced Pandian to
think more broadly than Tamil Nadu,
and to be more willing to listen to other
perspectives. This also led him to join
the Subaltern Studies collective, and led
to his election as a member of the Advisory Board of the Dutch SEPHIS programme which brought together scholars of the south in productive dialogue.
For some years he was an independent
travelling scholar, beginning a career in
teaching in the United States, and finding a new vocation. In the democratic
space of the US university, adulation of
Pandian gave way to appreciation, and
engagement. This was the spirit that
was echoed in the corridors of CHS of
JNU that Pandian joined in 2009. In the
programmatic statement on “The Postnational Condition” Pandian joined several other scholars and intellectuals who
recognised that nationalism no longer
had an emancipatory potential, and that
the loss of that ethico-moral horizon was
as much an epistemological loss which
required urgent theorisation. It was an
agenda he took seriously in the structuration of his courses, and in his interventions and interactions with students,
despite considerable opposition from
those committed to nationalist frameworks for understanding Indian history.
Challenging Friendship
We had a challenging friendship, but he
was a worthy foe. It was impossible to be
indifferent to Pandian. It was even more
difficult to tell a compliment from an
insult, as in his repeated insistence that
I displayed what he described as “Nair
energy”. His powers of exaggeration
were legendary, so a minor altercation


bet­ween myself and a policeman in
­Madras over a Karnataka nameplate on a
scooter, when Pandian was riding pillion,
was richly embroidered in its retelling.
Our antagonisms were many and varied, and Pandian did not hesitate to draw
generously on the long tap roots of history
in remarkably ahistorical ways. For Pandian, social origins were irreducibly formative of identity: thus our early 21st century
exchanges could not shake off the deeprooted antagonisms between landowning
Nairs and aspiring Nadars from early 19th
century Travancore. At other times, our
quarrels were emplaced in the riverine
disputes of the late 19th century between
the upper and lower riparian states of
Mysore/Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, as
during the ­Cauvery agitations of the
1990s. To foreground the women’s question was arguable, while the reverse (i e,
foregrounding caste/class) was tactically
necessary: we spent at least one long
evening ­quarrelling about how to interpret the warm hug between Sushma
Swaraj and Brinda Karat over the passage
of the women’s reservation bill in the
Rajya Sabha in 2010. He refused to place
this on the same plane as the billboards
with which Chennai was once awash,
showing Karunanidhi and Vajpayee in a
more pernicious electoral embrace.

More recently, he enthusiastically and
gleefully pathologised the corruption of
Jayalalithaa, while remaining somewhat
silent (and thereby rationalising) A Raja,
Kanimozhi, and Dayanidhi Maran’s disproportionate assets. His optimism about
a DMK win in this 2014 elections under
the son and heir of Karunanidhi, Stalin
(“I am happy that DMK has finally got a
new leader”, he said with shining eyes
the day Stalin was anointed) was, we
now know, radically misplaced optimism
of the will. In fact, I wonder how he
would feel about his posthumous appropriation by Thalapathy Stalin, as the most
important intellectual to endorse the
DMK as the true heirs of Periyar!
Despite this, when the protests by a
range of Nadar associations and Tamil
Nadu political parties against the chapter I
wrote for the National Council for Educational Research and Training textbooks
on the breast cloth disturbances broke out
in October 2012, Pandian deployed his
formidable skills in my defence, writing a
timely and well-researched piece which
revealed the long past of Nadar censorship
of history. By this time, I had discovered an
old and very interesting article that he
himself had written on the breast cloth
disturbances, that largely supported what
I had said/not said in the chapter.

We were both “Ex-Centrics” (the name
I give to all those who passed through
that fertile intellectual space of the
­Centre for Studies in Social Sciences Calcutta). We warmly shared a love for seafood, Grisham novels, and a cordial dislike for Bengali bhadraloquaciousness.
His extraordinary generosity was quite
well known, and sometimes exploited;
his com­passion, equally appreciated. Of
late, he revealed not just the customary
scepticism about national politics, but
actual pessimism: perhaps he too, like
U R Ananthamurthy, did not wish to live
under the new regime.
It is entirely fitting that the admission
forms at AIIMS where he spent his last
hours entered his gender as “uncertain”:
in his last hours, everything he had stood
for, argued against for decades, suddenly
dawned with a great clarity. Some north
Indian admission clerk clearly could not
make sense of M S S Pandian: was it a
woman with a stammer, or …? I would
have liked to embellish that little joke for
Pandian’s pleasure; wherever he is now, I
raise a toast to the unexpected last laugh
he enabled.
Janaki Nair ([email protected]) is with
the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal
Nehru University, New Delhi.

The Adivasi Question
Edited By
Indra Munshi
Depletion and destruction of forests have eroded the already fragile survival base of adivasis across the country, displacing an
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Oliver Springate-Baginski • Indra Munshi • Jyothis Sathyapalan • Mahesh Rangarajan • Madhav Gadgil • Dev Nathan,
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NOVEMBER 29, 2014  vol xlIX no 48  EPW   Economic & Political Weekly

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