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BJP’s ‘insult’ to Periyar: Why the iconoclast social reformer matters in Tamil Nadu

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).

By: Explained Desk | Chennai | Published: December 25, 2019 6:35:52 pm
CN Annadurai with Periyar. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The distasteful tweet — now deleted — on Periyar by the Tamil Nadu BJP on his 46th death anniversary has triggered a firestorm of protests in the state. Similar reactions were triggered in March 2018 after state BJP leader H Raja had posted on Facebook that soon, “statues of caste fanatic E V Ramaswamy Periyar will be brought down”.

Why is an iconoclast, rationalist social reformer so dear to the people of a state where Hindu religiosity is in open and constant evidence?

Who was 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.

What legacy did Periyar leave behind?

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 an equal share in employment.

The Self Respect Movement that 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.

The condemnation of the BJP’s derogatory references underlines the iconic status Periyar enjoys in 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.

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