In November 2017, Congress spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala described Congress chief Rahul Gandhi as a “janeu-dhaari Hindu”. Janeu is the sacred white thread worn by Brahmins and in the run-up to the Gujarat elections, this was seen as an attempt by the Congress to claim the Hindu space, occupied by the BJP. The emphasis on being ‘janeu dhaari’was panned because it was seen as reinforcing a certain hierarchical superiority within the Hindu fraternity.
The exact opposite happened on 1 July, 2018 when Kamal Haasan was asked a question in Tamil on Twitter on which book had inspired him the most. The book is called ‘nool’ in Tamil and the same word with more or less the same pronunciation also denotes the thread. Kamal said: “There is only only ‘nool’ (book/thread) that I avoided. The poonal that I missed.”
‘Poonal’ is the Tamil word for janeu. Kamal Haasan, who is a Brahmin, was pointing to the fact that he had forsaken the poonal. Sources close to him say his father respected his decision to do so. Haasan who calls himself a rationalist and not an atheist, also revealed that he did not fill in the caste and religion column in his admission forms of his daughters.
Haasan’s tweet came under a lot of criticism from the Brahmin community which saw it as pandering to the anti-Brahmin Dravidian-Periyar-esque ideology which has a wider following in Tamil Nadu. The two main Dravidian parties and various smaller offshoots believe in the Periyar school of thought. A Brahmin in Tamil Nadu is likely to have less political equity and therefore Haasan’s comment is seen as distancing himself from his roots.
The reason why Haasan is getting the stick over social media from Brahmins is because of the socio-political environment of Tamil Nadu. This is a land where attacks on Brahmin priests while celebrating Periyar’s ideology have been witnessed. Periyar was a social activist who started the self-respect movement and Dravida Kazhagam and opposed the marginalisation of the non-Brahmin Dravidian people of South India. The famous quote, “If you see a snake and a Brahmin, kill the Brahmin first’.” is attributed to Periyar, as proof of his anti-Brahmin sentiment.
Even though the OBCs in Tamil Nadu like the Thevars and the Gounders who keep the Dalits at arm’s length are the new ‘Brahmins’ in the caste order, Brahminical hegemony has been a useful political card to employ. When DMK’s A Raja was embroiled in the 2G case, Karunanidhi described it as a “Brahminical conspiracy” against Raja, who is a Dalit.
In July 2017, on the occasion of ‘Avani Avittam’, the day Brahmins in Tamil Nadu change their sacred thread once in a year, a fringe Dravidian outfit made a pig wear the holy thread in Chennai in a deliberate attempt to insult. More recently, this March, threads of ten bare-bodied Brahmins were cut in Chennai in retaliation to BJP leader H Raja’s call to bring down Periyar’s statues. Which is why the community feels Haasan by mocking the thread as something he found worthy of avoiding, has only provided ammunition to the Dravidian sentiment that insults Brahmins.