Manimmai’s original name was Gandhimathi. Born around 1920, she was the daughter of Kanagasabai Mudaliyar, a member of the Justice Party, which was renamed the Dravidar Kazhagam in 1944. At a conference immediately after Periyar’s death in 1973, she described her childhood as a time when she refused to act like the demure girl she was expected to be. “She said that instead of playing indoor games with other girls, she would more often be found playing sadugudu with boys,” said Kolathoor Mani, a Periyarist and the founder of Dravidar Viduthalai Kazhagam. Sadugudu is a rough game similar to kabaddi.
She had been a student of the Self-Respect movement since her childhood, and a great admirer of Periyar. In her early 20s, Maniammai joined the Dravidar Kazhagam. Over the next few years, Maniammai grew to be one of Periyar’s most trusted followers. Maniammai was, essentially, Periyar’s caretaker. She ensured that he followed a strict diet (difficult, as Periyar was very fond of food!), and that he took his medicines on time. She accompanied him on all his tours. She was looking after his well-being, collecting his speeches in the form of booklets and distributing pamphlets at all Dravidar Kazhagam meetings. Maniammai usually stayed in the background of the movement, and was habitually seen selling books outside the venue where Periyar was addressing a meeting. This strong trust in her commitment to the organisation led to Periyar’s decision to make Maniammai his legal heir.
When Periyar was seventy-two, he announced the intention of naming a political heir since his ill-health prevented him from travelling for the movement. In the midst of speculation (C N Annadurai was a popular candidate to lead the party next), Periyar dropped a bomb. In 1949, he announced the Maniammai (not yet his wife) would be his political heir. He said that he planned to make her the trustee of the party funds too. By 1949, she had been his personal assistant for around five years. This announcement created much controversy and shock, both in the party and among others. At the same time, Periyar and Maniammai had a registered marriage. Many members of the party were repulsed by this marriage, probably due to the age difference. Periyar explained that the sole reason for the marriage was to ensure that Maniammai would be his legal heir and no more. “Periyar thought she was selfless enough to maintain all the property acquired by his Trust,” said Arulmozhi, an advocate and a promoter of Periyar’s ideals. “Even though it was against his ideals, he had to marry her to confer the rights to his property.”
“No woman has taken as much criticism and abuses as she has,” Arulmozhi said. “Society treats women who take a controversial stand harshly. But she had full knowledge of her decision and continued to be Periyar’s caretaker till he passed away.”
Periyar has himself written in Viduthalai, the party’s daily, about Maniammai’s travails. “Arrangements, a lot I have made, much against the hatred and unhappiness of many persons. I felt miserable whether you would leave me off without fulfilling those tasks. If my life still agile even at this age, it is because of this woman. Who is not unaware of this? It is that woman who provides suitable food, and dresses to the occasion. Those who are not dare enough to oppose me directly finds fault and decry that woman.”
Reason to marry Maniammai, Periyar was living his last days and had an confusion to whom he can transfer or handle his family assest and who can lead the party C.N.Annadurai was Periyar’s foremost decision but later due to some misunderstanding he decided not to give him the successor position nor his assets. According to those days law, assests can only be transferred if they have thier own bloodline or by adopting someone only Male and there is no space for the law on female adoption. Though Periyar had an daughter from his first wife Nagammai, the child could not hold her breath for so long sadly she died within five months of her birth after that Periyar didn’t had any children. Now Periyar has only one option left marrying a woman who can be trusted and Maniammai was his choice and she was also very active in the same party working towards social justice with Periyar, now he decided to marry Maniammai so that he now can transfer the assets and successor position to her in a safely and responsible manner.
After Periyar’s death, Maniammai became the leader of the Dravidar Kazhagam for five years until her own death in 1978. Many regard her as Tamil Nadu’s first woman political leader. She began to tour around the state and consolidate the party at a time when many members were looking to shift to the Congress or the DMK. In 1958, DK cadres went on agitation on caste abolition and were arrested. Two people died in prison on March 8th and 10th. The Jailor of the Prison refused to hand over the dead bodies. E.V. R. Maniammai agitated in front of then Chief Minister Thiru. K. Kamarajar and brought the dead bodies and led the funeral march. On 19th January 1958, for an article written in “Viduthalai” (Liberator) published by Dravidar Kazhagam, as the Editor and Publisher, E.V.R.Maniammai was arrested and kept in prison for one month. After the demise of Periyar, E.V.R.Maniammai headed the Dravidar Kazhagam, the largest atheist movement of the world. On 3rd April 1974, she led the agitation before the Post Office in Chennai for appointment of Archakas in Temples from all castes. On 26th May 1974, then Union Minister Mr.Y.B.Chavan was shown black flag for not considering the demand. On 25th December 1974, she conducted the “Ravan Leela” and burnt the effigy of Rama, in retaliation to the “Ram Leela” conducted in Delhi, depicting Ravan as the Asura. She was ordered imprisonment for six months. On 30th October 1977 shown black flag to then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and was arrested.
“As a person, she was very simple,” said Viduthalai Rajendran, a Periyarist who worked alongside Maniammai. “She didn’t wear silk saris or jewellery at all. She was dedicated to the liberation of women.”
Maniammai also played a big role in carrying out Periyar’s welfare measures. Periyar had started homes of destitute women and orphanages for girls, which he handed over to Maniammai to look after. Until today, the trust he started runs over 40 institutions in the state , mostly dedicated to women. “She was known to be very strict, and not too friendly,” said Arulmozhi. “But she was very concerned about the safety of the women and girls. She allowed them to study till whatever level they wanted to.” Prior to her death, she created a Trust on Education activities and transferred all her personal wealth into the Trust. This trust created in 1974 has today running nearly 40 educational institutions mostly for women.
Arulmozhi said that since Periyar was the philosopher and the founding leader of the movement, Maniammai’s considerable contribution was often overshadowed. But she has received recognition and praise from many of her contemporaries, including the Tamil poet Bharathidasan, who was a prominent figure in the Dravidian movement. Even though he was over 20 years her senior, he referred to her as Annai, which means “mother” in Tamil.
In his writings, Bharathidasan praised her for dedicating her entire youth to the movement. He asked: “For such a lady who had carried on the movement, if I don’t consider her my annai, then who will I?”
Burning of “Manu smirudhi ” the sanadhana dharma agitation exclusively by D K Women wing to be held all over tamil nadu at 10 places on march 10th the birth day of Maniyammai, the only women who lead the rationalistic D K party.
E.V.R.Maniammai was born on 10th March 1920. It is a coincidence that on 10th March 1897 great Savitribai Phule died. Let the country know E.V.R.Maniammai, a brave woman who faced the Emergency, conducted agitations for caste abolition, created a trust for educational institutions and above all, headed the world largest atheist movement. Maniammai passed away in 16th March, 1978. She was succeeded by K Veeramani.
I think great people’s works are more important than their personal lives.
Tata Sivaiah President, Mahatma Jyotirao Phule and Krantijyoti Savitribai Phule Educational Circle