E.V. Ramasamy, popularly addressed as Periyar or ‘The Great One’, laid the ideological foundations of modern Tamil politics and social life.
His Political Ideology:
Periyar started his political career as a Congress worker in his hometown Erode.
He quarrelled with Gandhi over the question of separate dining for Brahmin and non-Brahmin students at Gurukkulam, a Congress-sponsored school owned by nationalist leader V V S Iyer near Tirunelveli.
After failing to bend Congress to his views, Periyar resigned from the party in 1925 and associated himself with the Justice Party.
The Justice Party had earlier advocated reservation for non-Brahmins in the bureaucracy and after coming to power in the Madras Presidency, issued an order to implement it.
During the 1920s and 30s, Periyar combined social and political reform, and challenged the conservatism of the Congress and the mainstream national movement in the Tamil region.
He reconstructed the Tamil identity as an egalitarian ideal that was originally unpolluted by the caste system, and counterposed it against the Indian identity championed by the Congress.
Political organisations and newspapers started by him:
Though EVR’s participation in the politics of Tamil Nadu till 1920 was minimal, he maintained political contact with important nationalist leaders from 1917 onwards.
The non-Brahmin members of the Tamil Nadu Branch of the Congress organisation formed the Madras Presidency Association in 1917 to represent and safeguard the non-Brahmin interests in the national organisation.
The immediate aim of the Association at that time was to place before Montague, the Secretary of State for India, a scheme of reforms that would give non-Brahmins full communal representation in the legislature.
He served as one of its Vice-Presidents, participated in all its deliberations and helped to conduct its second annual conference at Erode in October 1919.
As an active member of the MPA, Naicker became familiar with the programmes and policies of the Indian National Congress.
It’s efforts to raise the condition of the masses and do away with untouchability and prohibition impressed him.
As the Congress held views similar to his on social reform, he joined the Congress in 1920.
In 1920 he was elected President of the Congress (Madras Provincial Congress committee MPCC).
He fully endorsed Gandhiji’s calls for boycott of not only of legislatures but local taluk board elections as well.
The first Provincial Self-Respect Conference was convened at Chingleput on February 17, 1929.
He toured the Soviet Union as the leader of the Rationalistic Association of South India, a new name given to the Self-Respect Movement.
He was inspired by the “Phenomenal progress” the Russians had made in agriculture and industry and attributed this to Russian systems.
Soon after his return, he sought the assistance of Singaravelu Chetti who was a prominent communist in South India to start a new programme.
The new programme envisaged the formation of two wings within the body of Self-Respect League Samadharma (Communist) Party of South India.
These aims of the two wings of the movement were termed as the Erode Programme.
Both aimed at achieving political independence for the country through constitutional methods, distribution and public transport, amelioration of the condition of the industrial and agricultural labourers.
In the 1930s, when the Congress Ministry imposed Hindi, he drew a parallel with the Aryanisation process, and claimed it was an attack on Tamil identity and self-respect.
Under him, the Dravidian Movement became a struggle against caste and an assertion of Tamil national identity.
In the 1940s, Periyar launched Dravidar Kazhagam, which espoused an independent Dravida Nadu comprising Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu, and Kannada speakers.
These ideas had a seminal influence on the shaping of the political identity and culture of the Tamil speaking areas of Madras Presidency and continue to resonate in present-day Tamil Nadu.
In May, 1925, Periyar published a Tamil Weekly under the title “Kudi Arasu” edited by himself to spread the principles of Self-Respect.
Periyar published an English magazine under the title “Revolt” in 1928.
In 1930 he published his book on “Family Planning” (Birth Control) and propagated restriction of number of children.
In 1933 another magazine ‘Puratchi’ (Revolution) was published.
He brought out the Tamil weekly ‘Pagutharivu’ (Rationalism) in 1934.
Justice Party started the Tamil weekly paper “Viduthalai” in 1935 which was then entrusted to Periyar who published ‘Viduthalai’ as Tamil Daily Newspaper from 1937.
In 1950 he was sentenced to undergo imprisonment for the publication of his book ‘Ponmozhigal’ (Golden sayings).
The Tamil Bi-monthly, the “Unmai” (Truth) was first started at Tiruchirapalli by him in 1970.
His Social Reform Measures:
Periyar consistently argued for equal rights of women in marriage, inheritance of property and civic life in general. He vehemently argued for accessible contraceptive methods for women, as early as in the 1930s.
He redesigned marriage ceremonies, which came to be known as ‘self-respect marriages’, without any religious or community customs and without a priest. He suggested communal representation to non-Brahmins who were denied access to economic and political power and remained low in social hierarchy.
EVR held very strong views against four-fold division of caste hierarchy in the Indian society. He stoutly rejected the notion of higher and low status attached to the system of Varnashrama dharma and suggested that neither the ban on intermarriage or that on interdining was an integral part of it.
Periyar’s fame spread beyond the Tamil region during the Vaikom Satyagraha of 1924, a mass movement to demand that lower caste persons be given the right to use a public path in front of the famous Vaikom temple. He would later be referred to as Vaikom Veerar (Hero of Vaikom).
Self – respect movement:
He gave a concrete shape to his ideas on social reform by founding the Suyamariyathai iyakkam, also known as the Self-Respect Movement. It was a reform movement dedicated to the goal of giving non-Brahmins a sense of pride based on their Dravidianist past.
The movement sought to turn the present social system topsy-turvy and establish a living bond of union among all the people irrespective of caste or creed. One of the essential points was a denial of the mythology of Hinduism. It covered primarily the groups low in the social hierarchy like the Vanniya Kula Kshatriyas and the untouchables.
Kudi Arasu (People’s Government) founded in May 1924 became the organ of the Self-Respect Movement. On a number of occasions, the manusmriti was burned.
Certain characters in the puranas were changed. E.g. Ravana in Valmiki’s Ramayana was held up as the hero and be an ideal of good Dravidian conduct. Rama was seen as a wicked and unjust Aryan.
He appealed to people to give up the caste suffix in their names. He instituted inter-dining with food cooked by Dalits in public conferences in the 1930s.
His opposition to Indian National Congress(INC):
He was a stout follower of Gandhian methods of struggle against the colonial power. But on the question of communal representation and varnashrama dharma, he differed from the Congress and Gandhi and even left the Congress.
Naicker expressed his confirmed belief in the Kudi Arasu that true freedom for India would be achieved only with the destruction of Indian National Congress, Hinduism and Brahminism. This extreme step pushed him to support even the statutory Simon Commission which was boycotted by the Congress.
In 1934, EVR was asked to come back to the Congress fold by C. Rajagopalachari. EVR accepted the suggestion provided a common programme was agreed upon as a basis for supporting the Congress. Accordingly, they jointly formulated a programme which was sent to Gandhiji for approval.
The most important aspect of this programme was that the INCC should agree to implement the principle of communal representation in all the representative bodies, in the civil and the liberal professions. As this was totally unacceptable to Gandhiji, Rajaji’s efforts to bring Naicker back into the Congress fold failed.
Sometimes he sought alliance with any one opposed to the Congress with the sole purpose of making that party unpopular. One example was his stand on the Temple Entry Bill which made it possible for Harijans in the Malabar Districts to enter and worship in the temples.
In the Legislative Council elections, the Congress won and C. Rajagopalachari became premier of the Madras Presidency. In accordance with the Congress policy, the decision to introduce Hindi in the Madras Presidency ignored the linguistic differences between the North and the South.
The leaders of the Self-Respect Movement organised a march from Trichinapally to Madras in order to strengthen public opinion in favour of the anti-Hindi movement. It was sent off by EVR and other leaders at Trichinapally.
EVR also participated in the women’s conference on 13th November 1938 and asked the women participants to fight against “Hindi Imperialism”. Hindi was withdrawn from the schools only in 1940.
He criticised the civil disobedience campaign in 1939. But soon seeing the public reaction against himself, he changed his own opinion and accepted the Indian National Congress as the sole organisation fighting for freedom.
He joined the Muslim League and supported its demand for partition. Jinnah’s two nation theory was conceded and upheld by EVR as the only solution for the Muslims to live harmoniously in a nation dominated by the Aryan Brahmins.
After 1949, EVR’s role in the Tamil Nadu politics was less considerable. He came to support the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Kamaraj as “pure Tamilian”, since he hailed from, the backward community of Nadars.
Legacy left behind by him:
EVR Naicker represented the new emerging forces in Tamil Society. The Self-Respect Movement attracted the masses who were hitherto untouched and claimed to fight against social evils like untouchability.
Some of the caste rigidities were removed and representation of non-Brahmin communities for which EVR fought consistently in liberal services was secured. He stands for a politics that foregrounded social equality, self-respect, and linguistic pride.
As a social reformer, he focused on social, cultural and gender inequalities, and his reform agenda questioned matters of faith, gender and tradition. He asked people to be rational in their life choices. He argued that women needed to be independent and insisted that they be allowed an equal share in employment.
Over the years, Periyar has transcended the political divide as well as the faultlines of religion and caste. He is revered as Thanthai Periyar, the father figure of modern Tamil Nadu.
On 27th June 1970 by the UNESCO organization honored Periyar as “The Socrates of South Asia”. It described Periyar as “The prophet of the new age”
His work and his legacy
For the average Tamil, Periyar today is an ideology. He stands for a politics that foregrounded social equality, self-respect, and linguistic pride. As a social reformer, he focused on social, cultural and gender inequalities, and his reform agenda questioned matters of faith, gender and tradition. He asked people to be rational in their life choices. He argued that women needed to be independent, not mere child-bearers, and insisted that they be allowed a equal share in employment. The Self Respect Movement he led promoted weddings without rituals, and sanctioned property as well as divorce rights for women. He appealed to people to give up the caste suffix in their names, and to not mention caste. He instituted inter-dining with food cooked by Dalits in public conferences in the 1930s.
Over the years, Periyar has transcended the political divide as well as the faultlines of religion and caste, and come to be revered as Thanthai Periyar, the father figure of modern Tamil Nadu.
C N Annadurai, who was Periyar’s dearest pupil at one time, broke with him, split the DK, and formed the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in 1949. Anna, a man of the masses, recognised the value of electoral democracy and accepted that Tamil separatism had no future. He used the new medium of cinema to spread the ideals of the Dravidian Movement and established himself as the successor to Periyar. In 1967, the DMK won office in Tamil Nadu. Since then, Tamil Nadu has been ruled by parties who trace their origin to the Dravidian Movement and swear by its ideals. They may have diluted Periyar’s ideals in office, but both the DMK and the AIADMK proudly claim to be inheritors of Periyar’s social and political vision.
If Periyar was an iconoclast, Anna was a moderate reformist. On the pedestal of one of Periyar’s many statues in Tamil Nadu is the inscription: “There is no god, and no god at all. He who created god was a fool, he who propagates god is a scoundrel and he who worships god is a barbarian.” His successors moderated this radicalism — R Kannan recounts in Anna: The Life and Times of C N Annadurai, that Anna, who under the influence of his atheist mentor once broke Ganesha figures, would later say, “I would neither break the Ganesha idol nor the coconut (the offering).”
During the Emergency, a petition against “offensive” inscriptions on the pedestals of Periyar’s statues came before the Madras High Court. The court dismissed the petition, saying Periyar believed in what he said, and there was nothing wrong in having his words as inscriptions on his statues. In a judgment passed in another case on June 2012, retired Madras High Court Justice K Chandru said: “The installation of the Periyar statue in the school premises will not automatically covert the children into an atheist outlook… Ultimately the understanding of the philosophy of such a personality will only help them from having scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform as enshrined under Article 51-A(h) of the Constitution.”
Periyar is seen as an icon of OBC political assertion. Any attempt to deride him will be seen as an attempt to undermine the gains made by OBCs even beyond Tamil Nadu.
It is a mass movement to demand that lower caste persons be given the right to use a public path in front of the famous Vaikom temple.
Though this struggle did not succeed in lifting the bar to avarnas, or lower castes, entering the Mahadeva Temple in the town, it managed to open the roads around the temple for their use. The temple entry movement gained momentum after this.
It is the first agitation for the cause of human rights in the country,
Progressive minded Savarnas and Avarnas came together with Christians, Muslims and even Sikhs.
Above all, the Vaikom Satyagraha was a testing ground for the Gandhian principles of Satyagraha. It was tested and proved as the most effective means for the first time.
It was a great opportunity for the Indian National Congress party to grow in Kerala.
Before this agitation, the Congress in Kerala was only a limited number of Upper Caste and Upper class people of Malabar(which was under British Rule).
But when the party undertook to lead the agitation at Vaikom the Congress swelled from being a class party to a mass party
Self respect movement :-
The Self-Respect Movement was dedicated to the goal of giving non-Brahmins a sense of pride based on their Dravidian past which also meant denial of the superiority of the Brahmins whom he described as representative of the Aryans.
Its aim as to achieve a society where backward castes have equal human rights, and encouraging backward castes to have self-respectin the context of a caste-based society that considered them to be a lower end of the hierarchy.
Unlike the Justice Party, the Self-Respect Movement was popular in its appeal. Though it began as a social reform movement its effects were felt in the political field also
Anti-Brahminism and Self-respect Marriages were two important aspects of Self-respect Movement.
The movement encouraged inter-caste and inter-religious marriages, along with that it also encouraged marriage ceremonies without Brahmin priest.
Post independence, Tamilnadu passed a law and become the first state to legalize Hindu marriage without Brahmin priest.
The monopoly of power and influence enjoyed by the Brahmins was slowly lost due to E.V.R.’s unceasing propaganda against orthodoxy. It filled with the sense of self-respect and above all selfconfidence, to fight against social injustice perpetrated by the Brahmins of the day.
The practice of having separate dining places for Brahmins in every hotel or earmarking separate eating places in public feasts was slowly given up owing to the agitation of the volunteers of the movement.
Owing to its influence, several people gave up their titles and took pride in publishing their names in Kudi Arasu.
It was largely responsible for making an effective change in the social life of the vast majority of people through its ceaseless propaganda against superstitious beliefs, based upon religious traditions.
It was instrumental in non-Brahmin communities of Tamil Nadu to create awareness amongst themselves, as one community. The Self-Respect movement brought the message of the Tamil Nationalism to the masses.
Gender relationships were actively divorced from Brahminical patriarchy and women’s rights over their physical, sexual and reproductive choices were celebrated.
Self-Respect Movement was not a mere social reformist movement. It aimed at destroying the existing Hindu social order in its totality and creating a new, rational society without caste, religion and God.
The movement was extremely influential not just in Tamil Nadu, but also overseas in countries with large Tamilpopulations, such as Malaysia and Singapore.
The root of the Dravidian movement lies in Brahmin-non-Brahmin conflict. The non-Brahmans started demanding their right and questioned the dominance of Brahmins in each and every sphere. In 1916, Zamindars and Maharajas in order to counter growing clout of Brahmins in society and politics, established South India Welfare Association in Madras Presidency. The organization had eminent non-Brahman leaders as Dr TM Nair, Theagaroya Chetty, Dr C Natesa Mudaliar, Panagal’s Raja and Sir A Ramaswamy Mudaliar. It started publishing English newspaper ‘Justice’, with growing popularity the society came to be known as Justice Party. This Justice party contested the election and for the first time in 1921 Indian cabinet was formed in Madras Presidency.
V. Ramaswamy Naicker who was popularly known as Periyar was not happy with the Brahminical dominance in society as well as in Congress Party that he believed was controlled by Brahmins. To assert the rights of non-Brahmins, he established Self-Respect Movement in 1925. The aim was to have a society with equal human rights for backward castes. Anti-Brahminism and Self-respect Marriages were two important aspects of Self-respect Movement. The movement encouraged inter-caste and inter-religious marriages, along with that it also encouraged marriage ceremonies without Brahmin priest. Post independence, Tamilnadu passed a law and become the first state to legalize Hindu marriage without Brahmin priest.
The justice party could not continue its popularity and in 1936 no party candidate was elected to state legislature. After the defeat, justice party approached Periyar and Justice party came under Periyar who decided to withdraw from politics and transformed Justice party into a social organization Dravidar Kazhagam(Dravidian Organization).
Anti-North Orientation and Dravida Nadu
Dravidian Movement which initiated as a movement against Brahmins, after independence added one more dimension of Anti north orientation. At the time of Independence Periyar boycotted the independence celebration. According to him now the British dominance will be replaced by the dominance of North India and Congress which was led by Brahmins. Therefore he started the demand for Independent south Indian nation/ Dravida Nadu or Dravidsthan. However, this view was not supported by various other party leaders including CN Annadurai. The movement for Dravida Nadu reached its height during the period of anti-Hindi protests. However, after the 16th Amendment (popularly known as the Anti-Secessionist Amendment), successionist tendency was declared illegal and the demand for politically independent nation faded away.