A rationalist Dravidian social reformer of the twentieth century, E V Ramasamy, popularly addressed as ‘Periyar’ or ‘the Great One’, was born on September 17, 1879. Even over a century after he argued in favour of equal rights for lower-caste communities and women, issues of ‘caste identities’ and its politics continue to be as relevant. This is especially true in the case of his home state, Tamil Nadu, which beckons us to study the popular yet complex legacy he has left behind.
All the major political and social organisations in Tamil Nadu have either roots in the socio-political movement Periyar led from the early decades of the twentieth century or engaged with his thought at different points in their existence. It would be safe to say that he laid the ideological foundations of modern Tamil politics and social life. Periyar formed the Self-Respect Movement in 1925, after a brief stint with the Indian National Congress and Mahatma Gandhi, in particular. This movement went on to become the cornerstone of the vibrant anti-caste, non-Brahmin social movement the region was to witness in the decades to follow.
In an obituary in the Economic and Political Weekly for Periyar, right after his death in December 1973, his contributions have been identified manifold. He carried out the most vigorous attack against traditionalism of all kinds, prevalent in society, and along the axes of caste and religion in particular. This attack was based on the inherent irrationality of these age-old systems and Periyar never let one opportunity pass, whereby he could expose the inconsistencies and blind spots in the material and ideological structures of caste and religion.
Periyar and the ‘Women’s Question’
Apart from the well-known aspects of his political movement, an emphasis on his radical and visionary approach to the ‘women’s question’—as it was termed during the later years of anti-colonial movement—is important. Periyar consistently argued for the 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, without any religious or community customs and without a priest that came to be known as ‘self-respect marriages’. Feminist scholars have argued how this reconfiguration of the marriage ceremony led to the ‘desacralisation of marriages’ making them into modern contracts that individuals enter into with knowledge and consent. Even more radically, he contended that ‘no odium should be placed on a married woman who desires men other than her husband’. In short, he pushed the socio-cultural potential of modernity to secure freedom, rights and dignity, not just for the lower-caste communities, but also women.
His major contribution to the modern social thought of India is possibly the emphasis on the idea of dialogue. He insisted that each individual must think for herself, enter into dialogues with each other and rationally carry out the process of decision-making. Ancient Greek philosopher Socrates was his ideal in this regard, and Periyar stressed on the importance of forming and maintaining public platforms for such discussions. The Dravidar Kazhagam (DK) — the political outfit he founded in 1944 (it was known as the Justice Party until then) — worked for the ‘Adi-Dravida people’, whom he thought was oppressed by the pro-Hindi nationalists, politically, and by the Brahmins, socio-culturally. DK underwent several splinters in the later years and major political parties, including the DMK and AIDMK, claim legacy of the movement.
Periyar and Gandhi
Periyar was a prolific writer and orator, who could communicate with all sections of society effectively. Even when there were numerous ideological differences between Periyar and Gandhi, the way both of them communicated to ordinary masses made them great leaders. In the beginning, Periyar was attracted to the Gandhian ideals of non-cooperation and constructive work, though later he differed deeply with Gandhi on both political and intellectual levels. His differences with Gandhi and mainstream nationalist movement represented by Indian National Congress grew sharper along the lines of the method to be adopted the freedom struggle and conceptualisation of freedom itself. He has argued that nationalism will make sense only when ‘a nation’s citizens could realise their ideal, without having to forgo or compromise on their dignity’. His complex idea of the free nation included ideals such as ‘an all-round growth of knowledge, spread of education, the cultivation of rational thought, work, industry, equality, unity, initiative and honesty and the abolition of poverty, injustice and untouchability,’ writes V. Geetha. In that sense, it is safe to assume that Periyar’s anti-colonial political imagination was more substantive than rhetorical when it came to questions of caste, gender and region.
On his 140th birth anniversary, mapping his political and social legacy inspires us not only to revisit the diverse strands of history available to us as a people but also to defend the free and rational stream in our political and social consciousness. His words and the self-respect movement have much to offer us in the current scenario of narrowing spaces of dissent and debate, as well as shrinking avenues of free thought.
This article is a part of Saha Sutra on http://www.sahapedia.org, an open online resource on the arts, cultures and heritage of India. Ardra NG studied political science at Lady Shri Ram College, University of Delhi, and Jawaharlal Nehru University, and has a PhD from the Centre for Political Studies, JNU.