Periyar: Rationalist Bahujan Socialist Revolutionary And The Crusader Against Casteism


Erode Venkata Ramasamy Naickar(17 September 1879 – 24 December 1973), commonly known as Periyar also referred as E. V. R. or Thanthai Periyar, was an Indian social activist, freedom fighter and politician who started the Self-Respect Movement and Dravidar Kazhagam.

  1. Biography

Born in 1879 into a rich family of Balijas (traders) in Tamil Nadu’s Erode district, Periyar was a pious young man, greatly influenced by his father’s inclination towards Vaishnavism. E.V. Ramasamy married when he was 19, and had a daughter who lived for only 5 months. However, during a trip to Varanasi in 1904, the crude discrimination against non-Brahmins he experienced personally turned him into an atheist and a fierce critic of the Hindu caste system and what he called the subjugation of the so-called shudras by the Brahmins.

Despite this, his growing popularity as a social reformer in Erode led the Congress stalwart C. Rajagopalachari, a Brahmin, to befriend him and invite him to join the Congress in 1919. Periyar joined the party and became an ardent Gandhian, making numerous personal sacrifices during the non-cooperation, anti-liquor and swadeshi movements. He held the chairmanship of Erode Municipality and wholeheartedly undertook constructive programs spreading the use of Khadi, picketing toddy shops, boycotting shops selling foreign cloth, and eradicating untouchability. In 1921, Periyar courted imprisonment for picketing toddy shops in Erode. When his wife as well as his sister joined the agitation, it gained momentum, and the administration was forced to come to a compromise. He was again arrested during the Non-Cooperation movement and the Temperance movement. In 1922, Periyar was elected the President of the Madras Presidency Congress Committee during the Tirupur session, where he advocated strongly for reservation in government jobs and education. His attempts were defeated in the Congress party due to a strong presence of discrimination and indifference, which led to his leaving the party in 1925. When he failed to get his own party’s support on issues such as the right of non-Brahmins to enter temples or for the creation of trusts to manage religious institutions, he started getting disillusioned. In 1925, he finally quit the party in disgust after failing repeatedly to get its support for a policy of reservation for non-Brahmins in government jobs and educational institutions.

Periyar then joined the Justice Party, a political formation that was championing the cause of the backward castes, and challenged the overwhelming Brahmin domination of everything from politics and administration to education and culture in Tamil Nadu. In 1944, the Justice Party was renamed the Dravida Kazhagam (DK).

Periyar and his followers campaigned constantly to influence and pressure the government to take measures to remove social inequality, even while other nationalist forerunners focused on the struggle for political independence. The Self-Respect Movement was described from the beginning as “dedicated to the goal of giving non-Brahmins a sense of pride based on their Dravidian past”.

From 1929 to 1932, he extensively toured Malaysia, Singapore and then Europe, visiting Egypt, Greece, Turkey, Russia, Germany, England, Spain, France and Portugal, staying in Russia for three months. The tour shaped the political ideology of E.V. Ramasamy to achieve the social concept of Self-Respect. The communist system obtained in Russia appealed to him as appropriately suited to deal with the social ills of the country. Thus, on socio-economic issues Periyar was Marxist, but he did not advocate for abolishing private ownership.

He renamed Justice Party as the Dravidar Kazhagam, or “Dravidian Association”. The Dravidar Kazhagam came to be well known among the urban communities and students. Villages were influenced by its message. Hindi, and ceremonies that had become associated with Brahmanical priesthood, were identified as alien symbols that should be eliminated from Tamil culture. Brahmins, who were regarded as the guardians of such symbols, came under verbal attack. From 1949 onwards, the Dravidar Kazhagam intensified social reformist work and put forward the fact that superstitions were the cause for the degeneration of Dravidians. The Dravidar Kazhagam vehemently fought for the abolition of untouchability amongst the Dalits. It also focused its attention on the liberation of women, women’s education, willing marriage, widow marriage, orphanages and mercy homes.

In 1949, E.V. Ramasamy’s chief lieutenant, Conjeevaram Natarajan Annadurai, established a separate association called the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), or Dravidian Advancement Association. This was due to differences between the two, while Periyar advocated a separate independent Dravidian or Tamil state, Annadurai compromised with the Delhi government, at the same time claiming increased state independence. E.V. Ramasamy was convinced that individuals and movements that undertake the task of eradicating the social evils in the Indian sub-continent have to pursue the goal with devotion and dedication without deviating from the path and with uncompromising zeal. Thus, if they contest elections aiming to assume political power, they would lose vigour and sense of purpose. But among his followers, there were those who had a different view, wanting to enter into politics and have a share in running the government. They were looking for an opportunity to part with E.V. Ramasamy. Thus, when E.V. Ramasamy married Maniammai on 9 July 1948, they quit the Dravidar Kazhagam, stating that E.V. Ramasamy married Maniammayar who was daughter of Kanagasabhai when he was 70 and she 30. Those who parted company with E.V. Ramasamy joined the DMK.

The activities of Periyar continued when he went to Bangalore in 1958 to participate in the All India Official Language Conference. There he stressed the need to retain English as the Union Official Language instead of Hindi. Five years later, Periyar travelled to North India to advocate the eradication of the caste system. Nearing Periyar’s last years, an award was given to him by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and it was presented to him by the Union Education Minister, Triguna Sen in Madras (Chennai), on 27 June 1970. In his last meeting at Thiagaraya Nagar, Chennai on 19 December 1973, Periyar declared a call for action to gain social equality and a dignified way of life. On 24 December 1973, Periyar died at the age of 94.

Periyar breathed his last on 24 December 1973 at the ripe old age of 94. A few years earlier, in 1970, he was honoured by UNESCO with an award, the citation of which said: “Periyar, the Prophet of a New Age, Socrates of South Asia, Father of the Social Reform Movement, Arch Enemy of ignorance, superstitions, meaningless customs and base manners.”

  1. Periyar’s Revolutionary Legacy

“One should respect others in a way in which one expects to be respected by others. This is a revolutionary principle for the Hindus. It can materialise not by reform but by revolution only. There are certain things that cannot be mended, but only ended. Brahmanic Hinduism is one such thing,” Periyar said.

Periyar opposed blind faith in religion and superstitious practices by promoting rationalist thinking based on the study and understanding of modern science. In particular, he attacked the phenomenal waste of hard-earned money and resources of ordinary people on meaningless rituals and donations to temples that ended up enriching only the Hindu privileged classes.

On the social front, to reduce the role of Brahmins in the daily life of ordinary people, Periyar promoted what he called “self-respect marriages”, which enabled couples from any religion to get married in a secular manner through just a simple exchange of garlands and without the services of any priest. These marriages were legalized through a special act brought in by the Tamil Nadu government in 1967.

  1. Periyar on Scientific Outlook

The great thinker Periyar wrote in his journal Kudi Arasu in detail about the importance of scientific outlook among the students and the public.

Periyar was always a staunch supporter of science and believed that science only can eliminate superstitions. In his journal Kudi Arasu (People’s Rule) and Vidhthalai(Liberation/Freedom), he wrote a number of essays frequently about the necessity of science and its uses

  1. Periyar the Radical Feminist

Periyar was way above his time in his perception of women and their position in the contemporary society. He said “Man treats woman as his own property and not as being capable of feelings, like himself. The way man treats women is much worse than the way landlords treat servants and the high-caste treat the low-caste. These treat them so demeaningly only in situations mutually affecting them; but men treat cruelly and as slaves, from their birth till death.”

Periyar’s most revolutionary insights were perhaps in his espousal of radical feminism, which he theorized well before the term itself was invented anywhere in the world. Periyar, for example, attacked the oppressive notion of female “chastity” thus: “To insist that chastity is only for women and should not be insisted upon for men, is a philosophy based on individual ownership; the view that women are the property of the male determines the current status of a wife.”

Periyar’s championing of the right of women to get educated, work and live and love as they please was too bold for many of his own ardent followers in the DK movement, which has failed to elaborate or even uphold his thoughts on this issue. jinnah-periyar-and-ambedkarAs the feminist and Periyar scholar V. Geetha pointed out in a recent talk in memory of the 19th-century social reformer Savitribai Phule, “Periyar has been de-radicalized and made an exponent of the reservation policy, crude atheism and a strident anti-Brahmin rhetoric, and so his views on caste, hierarchy, the gender and sexuality question have all been relegated to a forgotten archive.”

  1. Periyar and Self-Respect Marriages (SRM)

Periyar’s conception and articulation of the Self-Respect Marriage (SRM) in 1929 was an ingenious master stroke. It projected marriage as a contract between equals irrespective of caste, class or religious considerations, without priests or even parental approval. It shifted “marriage” from the realm of the sacred to that of a contract between equals, from one that was “forever” to one that could be terminated by either party, from one that was divinely ordained to one that was self-contracted. He shifted the onus and jurisdiction of the SRMs from the family and community to the individuals concerned. The crux of the SRMs was gender equality and individual agency. This was nothing short of a revolution in the realm of thoughts and ideas and a leap in self-consciousness and self-awareness. In short, Periyar created the new man and woman.

Five decades before Periyar was born, the Phules had articulated a radical concept – the Satyashodhak Marriage Rites in Pune, Maharashtra – where the bride and groom recited their own secular, gender-equal mantras in place of the Hindu religious mantras. Periyar took this radical strand of self-determination to its logical end even though he might have had never heard of Phule.

The SRMs presided over by Periyar himself gave him a public platform to propagate his feminist ideas. There was no aspect of the man-woman relationship that he left unexplored. He wanted women to have complete control over their sexuality, fertility and labour. He believed in women having unlimited and unconditional freedom. In fact, he said and did everything to sabotage patriarchy. He specialized in scandalizing society and shaking it out of its complacency by making provocative statements like “women should cease having children if it comes in the way of their personal freedom”. He bluntly stated that women would never be free as long as “patriarchal masculinity” enjoyed currency. He wanted chastity and “character” to be applicable to both man and woman or neither.

He insisted that parents bring up their daughters in the same manner as their sons, even in matters of names and attire, and train their daughters in sports such as boxing and wrestling.

He also had radical views on contraception for women. All these and many more of his radical views are articulated in his booklet titled “Why the Woman was Enslaved”.

He spoke the language of radical feminism decades before the second-wave feminists in the Western world coined the term.

Apart from Self-Respect Marriages, the Self-Respect Conferences, women’s conferences and youth conferences provided yet another avenue to Periyar to articulate his gender concerns. The resolutions passed at these get-togethers were pro-women and gender-just

Another important aspect of the movement was that women not only attended the women’s conferences but played an important role in the general Self-Respect Conferences as well – from organizing them, presiding over them to moving resolutions. The women activists of the movement clearly understood the link between caste and patriarchy. They drew parallels between caste oppression by the Brahmins and gender oppression by men. They saw the dominant religio-cultural complex of the day as legitimising and justifying both caste and gender inequality. All this was articulated by them in the various papers and journals of the movement. In fact, the title “Periyar” or “the Great One” was conferred on E.V. Ramaswami by the Tamil Nadu Women’s Conference held in Madras in 1938.

Periyar did not believe in ghettoizing women either in the public domain or the private one. He practised, in his own life, what he preached to women. He persuaded his newly wedded 13-year-old wife, Nagammal, to discard the “thali” or mangalsutra. He encouraged her to address him as comrade and took her along with him to every meeting and conference. Ditto, with his sister Kannamal. So much so that when Gandhi gave the call for picketing toddy shops to uphold prohibition in 1921, it was Nagammal and Kannamal who led the agitation in Erode. Even so, on the death of his wife in 1933, he expressed profound regret that he had not put into practice even a fraction of his feminist beliefs, in his marriage.

Another significant event in Periyar’s life was his remarriage at the age of 70 to Maniammai, his loyal secretary of six years, some forty years younger than him, in 1949, amid raging criticism and censure. He defended his move by declaring that it was not for sexual pleasure that he had married but to entrust his life’s work, organization and property to her as he trusted her to carry on the work after him. He thus chose a young woman as an heir to his rich legacy of nearly a century of relentless battle against age-old obscurantism in Tamil society.

This was the ultimate testimony to his feminist praxis.

  1. Periyar and the Dravidian Movement

The non-Brahmin Dravidian movement of 20th-century Tamil Nadu has a long, chequered history. Its origins can be traced to the Non-Brahmin Manifesto released in 1916. Reforms during this period chiefly centred on women and caste, though in a limited way. The Justice Party came into existence in 1917 to promote the political and educational advancement of the non-Brahmins. It came to power in the 1920 provincial elections, ushering in the first ever non-Brahmin government ministry. E. V. Ramasamy, better known as Periyar, was part of this slice of history.

Periyar, however, came into his own with his Self-Respect Movement in 1925. Its goal was to unite the non-Brahmin castes by instilling in them a sense of pride based on their Dravidian roots. The movement outlined its basic principles: no God, no religion, no rituals, no caste. To these, Periyar added his own sensibility – no patriarchy! The Self-Respect Movement’s long-term vision was to usher in a caste-free society. To this end, they had to confront all institutions that propped up caste, such as the brahmanical Hindu religion and brahmanical patriarchy. The beauty of Periyar’s struggle was that his personal growth brought him face to face with each of these institutions separately. Each became a fight in itself, for itself. Thus, he led the struggle against brahmanical Hinduism using rationality as the tool. Likewise, he opposed patriarchal practices with his own conviction that women were free beings in their own right and subservient to none.

  1. Periyar and the History of Affirmative Action

The politics, administration and education system of Tamil Nadu at the beginning of the 20th century, like many other parts of India, was overwhelmingly dominated by Brahmins. For instance, although the Brahmins were only 3.2 per cent of the population, 70 per cent of the university graduates between 1870 and 1900 were Brahmins. In 1912, Brahmins formed 55 per cent of the deputy collectors, 82.3 percent of sub-judges and 72.6 percent of munsifs. In contrast, the respective shares of non-Brahmins, despite their much larger numbers, were 2.5, 16.7 and 19.5 per cent only. Such domination was possible because, apart from their traditional social advantages in the pre-British period, Brahmins in Tamil Nadu took to English education in larger numbers and with greater ease and motivation than other castes. Periyar joined hands with other political groups challenging Brahmin hegemony to demand proportional reservation for non-Brahmins in all government jobs and educational institutions. Despite strong opposition from the Brahmin lobby, Madras state, the precursor to Tamil Nadu, was the first state to implement such reservations in 1928.

Later on, in 1950, when the Supreme Court held that such reservations were unconstitutional, the resulting agitation in Tamil Nadu forced Jawaharlal Nehru’s government at the Centre to bring in the first constitutional amendment to uphold the right of the government to enact laws that provide for “special consideration” for weaker sections of society, such as the reservation policy.

  1. Periyar and Religious Practices

Along with levelling the playing field for non-Brahmins in employment and education, Periyar sought to deconstruct the theoretical basis of the caste system, which claimed legitimacy from the Vedas and Hindu scriptures like the Puranas or epics such as Ramayana and Mahabharata. Periyar and other scholars of the Dravidar Kazhagam (DK), which he founded, laid bare the contradictions, biases and immorality of some these so called religious texts in great detail and showed how they provided religious sanction to the caste system.

For example, which, according to Periyar and the exponents of the the Dravidian movement, Ramayana was essentially a tale of conquest of the indigenous people of India – broadly categorized as Dravidians – by migrant Aryans, coming from central Asia. They contened that the Brahmins of Tamil Nadu had used the Nazi concept of the culturally “superior Aryan” to legitimize their authority and the Dravidian movement opposed this concept as the point of departure in its politics.

Periyar opposed blind faith in religion and superstitious practices by promoting rationalist thinking based on the study and understanding of modern science. In particular, he attacked the phenomenal waste of hard-earned money and resources of ordinary people on meaningless rituals and donations to temples that ended up enriching only the Hindu upper caste.

Despite his opposition to religion in general, Periyar asserted the right of non-Brahmins to enter the sanctum sanctorum of Hindu temples, arguing that stopping them from doing so was to deny them status of human beings. In 1970, Tamil Nadu again became the first state in India to have a legislation brought in – by the newly elected Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) government of C.N. Annadurai – to ensure that people from all castes could become temple priests.

  1. Periyar on Language and Culture

One of the key reasons for the success of the Dravidian movement was its brilliant, legendary use of language and culture to awaken people, with many of its leaders being not just skilled orators but also good poets, musicians, actors and writers. Opposing the imposition of Hindi on southern states by the Indian government was a natural corollary to the Dravidian movement’s arousal of pride in the Tamil language and culture, with Periyar even threatening to fight for a separate “Dravidanadu” in response.

It was the mobilization of support around this issue that propelled the DMK, a breakaway group from Periyar’s own Dravidar Kazhagam (DK), to power in Tamil Nadu in the 1967 elections. The spectre of separatism, along with the fierce anti-Hindi agitation, compelled the Indian government to take the demands of the Dravidian movement seriously enough to offer many concessions to the state on the economic and political fronts.

On the social front, to reduce the role of Brahmins in the daily life of ordinary people, Periyar promoted what he called “self-respect marriages”, which enabled couples from any religion to get married in a secular manner through just a simple exchange of garlands and without the services of any priest. These marriages were legalized through a special act brought in by the Tamil Nadu government in 1967.

  1. Periyar on Ramayana and other Epics

For pious Hindus, Ram is not only an ideal human being but also a highly revered deity. The vast corpus of literature on Ram and his life in Hindi, Sanskrit and other Indian languages projects him as a great man and a repository of exemplary qualities. If one wants to see what a brave and noble hero is about, one just needs to go through any epic on Ram. That is why treatises and poetry on him are not only read and heard with great devotion but theatrical presentations of his life also evoke great interest and enthusiasm. But there are people – and their numbers are not negligible – who do not agree with this glorification of Ram and challenge the belief that he was an epitome of great human qualities. They say that the insistence on putting Ram on a high pedestal has not only served to demean other characters of the story but has also led to his opponents being painted in the darkest hues and becoming objects of hatred. Whenever such people try to present their point of view in newspapers, magazines or books, they are branded as atheists, apostates and descendants of Ravan – the symbol of all evils. Their voice is muzzled and they are charged with hurting the sentiments of the Hindus. But against all odds, such people have not stopped voicing their opinions. If there are hundreds of books eulogizing Ram, there are quite a few which interpret Ramayana differently and give expression to the anguish of the characters that have been portrayed as weak or evil and reduced to pygmies before the grand personality of Ram. They expose the flaws in the character of Ram and bring to the fore the injustices and atrocities he had perpetrated. One such book is Sachhi Ramayana, which was banned temporarily by the Allahabad High Court on 14 December 1999.

Periyar E.V. Ramasamy wrote this book in question. His contention was that the epic gave undue importance to the Indian Aryan castes and humiliated the south Indian Dravidians by portraying them as cruel and violent oppressors. He also objected to the epic depicting Ram’s victory over Ravan as the victory of the divine over devil, good over evil and truth over falsehood.

Periyar’s Sacchi Ramayana is not the only Ramayana that challenges the popular mythological stories, exposes the injustice done to the Dravidians in the name of Ravan and demands a just and humane consideration of their case. Another Ramayana was published in south India in August 2015. It analyzes the contents of Valmiki’s Ramayana from a sociological perspective and tries to assert that Ram was no different from other kings. Like other kings, it says, Ram too harboured expansionist ambitions, exploited his subjects and was ready to do anything that served his interests.

According to Periyar, Many things in the Ramayana defy logic. For instance, it says that despite having lived for 60,000 years, Dasharath could not free himself from sexual desires. It also hints that Dasharath had more than three wives. Periyar uses these quotations to contend that Dasharath was an amorous person and also that at that time, women were just objects of carnal pleasure. Dasharath did not love any of his wives – for, if he did, he would not have felt the need for other women. Kaikeyi had married him on the condition that her son would be made heir to the throne. Clearly, it was wrong on his part to hand the throne to Ram in violation of this condition. Periyar further goes on to say that Ram also knew that Bharat, not him, was the true heir to the throne but despite that, he agreed to be anointed. This, Periyar argues, proves that Ram was power-hungry. And so on and on, he goes on to assert that the revered characters od ramayana fall short of moral authority.

Whenever educated Tamilians talk of Ramayana, they are generally referring to Kamban’s Ramayana, which is the Tamil translation of Valmiki’s Ramayana. Periyar believes that in his translation, Kamban has tried to hide the true nature of Ramayana and has twisted the tale to misguide Tamilians. Therefore, he recommends reading the translations of Anand Chariar, Natesh Shayiar, C.R. Srinivas Iyengar and Narsingh Chariar.

Whether or not we subscribe to the radical views of Periyar on Ramayana and other epics, we cannot deny that his work played a role in initiating discussion on some of the matters that were taken for granted until then.

  1. Periyar’s Legacy

Indeed, much water has flowed in the Kaveri since the heyday of Periyar, and the political parties born of the Dravidian movement have decayed to a point where they have compromised on many of other issues too. Today, Tamil Nadu’s ruling politicians have become notorious for rampant corruption, casteism, patriarchal attitudes and, in more recent times, even forming alliances with the Sangha Parivar, once the hated promoter of “Aryan supremacy” and Hindi chauvinism.

The state has also courted infamy in recent years for attacks on Dalits by the middle castes who, while benefiting from the anti-Brahmin movement, do not want those below them to assert their own rights. This was something Periyar had warned about when he said that as long as there was a hierarchy of castes in Hindu society there could always be conflict between those on different rungs of the ladder.

Despite the subsequent distortion of Periyar’s legacy in all these different ways, it can be said that the Dravidian movement effected the most successful social transformation in modern Indian history on the issues of caste, education, assertion of language and gender rights. Tamil Nadu, thanks to Periyar, is one state where the Brahmins no longer dominate politics and society or set the standard for cultural “superiority” in any way.

The assertion of pride in the Tamil language has resulted in widespread literacy in the mother tongue while the socialist leanings of the Dravidian movement have helped the state develop the best primary healthcare infrastructure in the country today. Tamil Nadu also has the lowest occurrence of communal disturbances, with the Hindutva forces finding it extremely hard to grow here, despite many desperate attempts to do so.

All these achievements were made through a largely non-violent movement drawing strength from well-researched arguments, creative communication techniques and popular mobilization. The Dravidian movement offers an excellent model to the rest of India to combat the barbarism of the caste system and establish a society where reason and democracy prevail over the dictatorial urges of a tiny minority of upper-caste Hindus.

Devoted communitsts would add that one area, where the Dravidian movement’s legacy needs to be complemented is class issues. They would say that, while Periyar became a great fan of the Soviet Union after a visit there in the 1930s and was a proponent of socialist principles he did focus a bit too much on caste at the expense of differences in wealth and income in society.

At this juncture, when an unholy alliance of global and domestic capitalists and communal fanatics is leading the country towards majoritarian fascism, a united front of caste and class assertion might prove helpful in offering a fitting response.

We conclude by referring to a joke that circulates around Sounth Indian states about the image that Periyar has in Tamil Nadu. If one was asked, ‘Who invented the test tube baby?’ it is likely that a western scientist will be credited. But a Tamilian would contradict you, claiming that it was actually Periyar who was responsible for this scientific miracle. In the same vein if you asked him who introduced modernity to Tamil culture, he would once again name Periyar. There are many such appelations attached to him, the main one being the saviour of the Untouchables. This may explain the widespread culture of Periyar worship in Tamilnadu, notwithstanding the fact that he himself protested against all forms of idol worship. But instead of debating whether we should accept ‘their god’ as ‘our god’, the question is whether Periyar deserves to be regarded as the saviour of the untouchables?

We on behalf of Mahatma Jyotirao Phule And Krantijyoti Savitribai Phule Educational Circle pay our glowing tributes to Periyar, the Rationalist Bahujan Socialist Revolutionary and the crusader against casteism and vow to take forward his legacy.

Periyar Was The Most Illustrious Social Revolutionary Of The Millennium

Periyar Spread The Principles Of Human Dignity, Rationalism, Gender Equality And Social Justice
Tata Sivaiah,President, Mahatma Jyotirao Phule & Krantijyoti Savitribai Phule Educational Circle. MSc Mathematics student in Hyderabad Central University

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