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Raobahadur Rettaimalai Srinivasan

Raobahadur Rettaimalai Srinivasan

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A portrait of an old man with curly hair and thick moustache is an essential part of wall posters and other propaganda materials when Dalit outfits in Tamil Nadu organise meetings and rallies. Along with that of B. R. Ambedkar, his name is frequently dropped at public meetings of Dalit parties. Thatha (Grandfather) Rettaimalai Srinivasan (1859-1945) has an iconic presence, and many Dalit leaders imitate his pose when they stand before the camera.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century colonial India, at a time when the high caste nationalists created a political imagery of Indians, as equals striving for a free India, there arose an anti-caste narrative that brought forth experiences of caste discrimination, throwing light on an Indian socio-polity that was unequal for the caste-oppressed. One such important voice, that emerged despite the marginalising conditions of those times, was that of the lesser-known, yet a powerful one—Rettaimalai Srinivasan (1860–1945) from the colonial Madras province (present Tamil Nadu). His autobiography Jeeviya Charittira Surukkam is a seminal work in describing his role as a political leader and civil rights legislator in representing the demands of the caste- oppressed. By viewing the untouchability/caste question from the political perspective, Srinivasan used the platform of political representation to debate on and frame legislations affecting civil liberties for the caste-oppressed, therein envisioning a Tamil public space that was free of oppressive caste practices. The efforts of Rettaimalai Srinivasan bear testimony to the power of education, law and political representation in bringing forth anti-caste articulations into the public arena, pointing to a scenario where the caste-oppressed leaders were makers of their own history and of how their assertions were crucial in equalising the Tamil public space. In representing the cause of the caste-oppressed, Srinivasan draws attention to their non-caste/casteless culture history and politicises it to demand a humane society for the caste-oppressed. This article is thus an attempt to survey the anti-caste endeavours of Rettaimalai Srinivasan in the colonial Tamil region.


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