To those looking for “Hindu” symbols of religiosity, Tamil Nadu would appear to be deeply religious: people wear vibhuti or kumkum on foreheads, deities and temples are everywhere from street corners to government offices, vehicles are decorated with colourful gods and offerings, even the lives of the minority communities are splattered with the colours of religious ritual. Why is an iconoclast, rationalist social reformer who died 45 years ago so dear to the people of such a state?
E V Ramasamy ‘Periyar’
Born in 1879, Periyar is remembered for the Self Respect Movement to redeem the identity and self-respect of Tamils. He envisaged a Dravida homeland of Dravida Nadu, and launched a political party, Dravidar Kazhagam (DK).
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 in Cheranmahadevi near Tirunelveli. At the request of parents, Iyer had provided separate dining for Brahmin students, which Periyar opposed. Gandhi proposed a compromise, arguing that while it may not be a sin for a person not to dine with another, he would rather respect their scruples. After failing to bend the Congress to his view, Periyar resigned from the party in 1925, and associated himself with the Justice Party and the Self Respect Movement, which opposed the dominance of Brahmins in social life, especially the bureaucracy. The Justice Party had a decade earlier advocated reservation for non-Brahmins in the bureaucracy and, after coming to power in the Madras Presidency, issued an order to implement 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. Periyar took part in the agitation with his wife, and was arrested twice. He would later be referred to as Vaikom Veerar (Hero of Vaikom).
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. He argued that caste was imported to the Tamil region by Aryan Brahmins, who spoke Sanskrit and came from Northern India. 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. The Dravidian linguistic family was the foundation on which he based his idea of a Dravida national identity. 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.
Periyar died in 1973 at the age of 94.
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.”
Fallout of the attack on Periyar
The universal condemnation of BJP leader H Raja’s social media remarks — he has since removed the post and apologised — underlines the iconic status Periyar enjoys in Tamil Nadu. DK now has limited political influence in Tamil Nadu, but Periyar has grown beyond the DK and even Tamil Nadu. While caste discrimination continues to be prevalent in the state, every political party pays at least lip service to Periyar’s ideals of social and political justice.
In a way, Raja was right to compare Lenin and Periyar — Periyar is to the Dravidian Movement as Lenin is to Communism. Raja’s rejection of Periyar was construed as a rejection of his ideals. The BJP, which is trying to wear down the image of a Hindi-Hindutva outfit in Tamil Nadu, could find it difficult to live down Raja’s comments.
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.