Prof M.S.S. Pandian: A Critical Historian of Non-Brahmin Movement, Culture, Nation

November 17, 2014

by Abhay Kumar

It was around five o’clock on Monday evening my mobile phone suddenly rang. A close friend asked me over phone if Prof. M.S.S. Pandian, my supervisor, had been rushed to hospital. As I had no information about this I came out of JNU library and called up another friend whose reply put me in a state of complete shock and disbelief. ‘Prof. Pandian has passed away’.

Prof. Pandian, a critical historian of Dravidian movement, popular culture, agrarian economy, caste, nation and politics etc., breathed his last at AIIMS, New Delhi on November 10. He died of cardiac arrest.

He joined JNU as a professor of contemporary history at Centre of Historical Studies. Earlier he had worked at numerous prestigious universities and research institutes including Madras Institute of Development Studies. He held a Ph.D degree from Madras University on agrarian economy and left his deep imprints on other disciples such as history, politics and popular culture.

A Brilliant Teacher

My association with Pandian has been since 2010 when I attended his immensely popular classes on nation, caste, language and subaltern intellectual history. He was a brilliant teacher who worked whole week to prepare for his two-hour weekly lecture. His lectures were absolutely coherent and lucid. He also encouraged us to ask questions. We eagerly waited for his sharp comments, which often made us to rethink our project.

Exclusion of “the Concrete” in Agrarian Debate

He began his journey of research from economics, writing a Ph.D thesis on agrarian economy of Nanchilnadu, a region in Tamil Nadu. His work was placed in the context of the famous “mode of production debate”, ensuing after the green revolution. Broadly speaking, there were at least two schools to explain the reasons why the foodgrain production, during the green revolution, fell short of expectations. Expressing broadly the government’s position, the “techno-economic school” blamed the failure in planning of agricultural inputs. On the contrary, Marxist scholars, belonging to “mode of production school”, argued that the existing semi-feudal production relation in the countryside was to account for the failure of the green revolution. The surplus, according to Marxist scholars, was used by the landlords in non-productive activities such as money-lending and trades.

Against this background, Pandian (The Political Economy of Agrarian Change: Nanchilnadu 1880-1939, 1990) joined the debate. While he preferred the “mode of production school” to the “techno-economic” approach, he also criticised the mode of production school for glossing over “the concrete reality” of Indian agriculture and mechanically implementing the theories of Marx, Lenin. In the words of Pandian: ‘Thus, in the mode of production debate, there was a one-sided over-emphasis on theory per se to the almost exclusion of the concrete.’(p. 12.)

In this study, he drew on the works of Mao. Thus, he differed with the scholars of the mode of production school for their failure to give primacy to the internal conditions as the prime-movers of change. In sum, the work of Pandian showed the limitation of Marxist categories for the neglect of the concrete and failure to give primacy to internal contradiction.

Relation between Cinema and Politics

After his Ph.D work in economics, he entered the domain of politics and popular culture to understand “MGR phenomenon”. M.G. Ramachandran (MGR), a film star, began his career in Tamil cinema in 1936. He was a member of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) from 1953 to 1972. His popularity as a film actor yielded a great haul of votes for the DMK as the party used cinema for political communication. As Pandian (The Image Trap: M.G. Ramachandran in Film and Politics, 1992) noted, the DMK used cinema and the cinematic image of Ramachandran was transferred to politics and it gave his image “a certain life-like authenticity”. Put differently, the cinematic image of Ramachandran as a hero helping the poor was exploited to draw huge masses to electoral gains.

Riding on his popularity, he rose to become the chief minister of Tamil Nadu and dominated the regional politics till his death in 1987. For Pandian, the rule of Ramachandran (1977-1987) as chief minister was one of “darkest” period of contemporary Tamil history. Besides, Ramachandran came in for his sharp criticism for dilution of subaltern culture, snuffing out dissents and promoting corruption.

In my view, the major contribution of Pandian in “Image Trap” is to underline the need to study how the ruling classes produce the structure of consents from the subaltern classes. Pandian expanded this further, ‘In my view, the MGR phenomenon could be worthwhile instance, from the contemporary political history of Tamilnadu, to be studied in order to explain this relatively unexplored area of how the elites produce consent for their kind of politics from those whom they dominate. This essay on the MGR phenomenon is, thus, situated in a specific academic context as well.’ (p. 13.) 

Non-Brahmin Movement   

Pandian’s deep involvement in non-Brahmin politics perhaps pushed him to write a history of Dravidian Movement so as to reach out non-Tamil readers. Thus, he authored a well-researched history of Dravidian Movement. Working through the categories of “Brahmin” and “Non-Brahmin”, he ably showed how the non-Brahmin was constructed in opposition to Indian nationalism for overlooking the question of caste and social reforms in the early twentieth century.

In 1916 a group of “prominent” nationalists such as T.M. Nair and Pitti Theagaraya Chetti broke ranks with the Indian National Congress in Madras Presidency. Afterwards, they issued a “non-Brahmin” manifesto, arguing that if the British granted self-rule to Indians it would “result in the tyranny of Brahmins over others” as they, constituting just 3 per cent of population, dominated colonial professions and bureaucracy.

Further, Pandian made a searing criticism on both Cambridge School, which denied non-Brahmin identity as a “flabby fatuous”, and on the supporters of non-Brahmin identity, who took this category as fixed. Instead, he asserted that an identity is constructed in a particular historical period and it is constantly being challenged by ever emerging new identities.

For example, the way non-Brahmin category posed a challenge to the unity of Indians, much in the same way the rise of Dalit politics in the 1990s in Tamil Nadu destabilised the category of non-Brahmins. Pandian, therefore, pointed out that ‘Dalit Voice had thus fissured the homogenized and singular non-Brahmin identity by bringing to life the other possible identities submerged by it.’ (p. 237.)  In other words, his work does not take any identity as eternally fixed and his notion of politics, thus, is the perennial contestations of different forms of power.

“Denationalising” the Past and Nation is “Impossible”

This method of resisting any categories as fixed, led him to critique Indian nationalism. In his creative reading of E.V. Ramasamy, who was the leader of Self-Respect Movement and opposed the Congress, Pandian (‘Denationalising the Past’, EPW, 1993) argued that Ramasamy, better known as Periyar, critiqued the “nationalisation” of the past, disengaging it from the past. In other words, the Brahminical intellectuals, in Periyar’s view, propagated the myth of classical Indian past to maintain its hegemony over the rest of society. It is to be noted that Periyar, in Pandian’s reading, not only demolished the myth of Indian nationalism but also questioned the construction of ancient Tamil past.

The same line of argument  is later developed in his famous essay (‘Nation Impossible’, EPW, 2009) in which he vehemently attacked the processes of nation-making that involve “uniformity”, “homogeneity” “exclusion”, “violence” and “contradiction”. His critique of nation-form is informed by huge violence and ethnic cleansing unleashed by the Indian and Sri Lankan states. Finally, Pandian argued for going beyond two-hundred-year old nation-form, supporting “de-territorialised imagination”.


So far I have discussed some of the key concerns of Pandian.  Let me admit that this essay is in no way an adequate treatment to his complex writings. The best tribute to him will be paid when we engage with his works and carry forward his legacy of critical thinking.

Abhay Kumar ( is pursuing Ph.D at Centre for Historical Studies, JNU.