Why Periyar E.V. Ramaswamy Was Ahead Of His Time

Image: Periyar,Fareedi and Bhadat Anand Kaushlya, 1968 at Lucknow (Image: Prakash Moolbharathi/ Creative Commons)
Periyar E.V. Ramaswamy fought for Dalit rights, women's empowerment and linguistic freedom for South India.

September 17 marked the birthday of two powerful figures in India – Narendra Modi and Erode Venkatappa Ramasamy. The latter is better known as Periyar – an honorific similar to Mahatma, meaning ‘Great Man’.

Periyar is a legend in the realm of Tamil politics and Dalit-Feminist identity in the south. His statements would land him in trouble even today (considering the recent attacks on rationalists) – never mind that he made them in the 1900s!

There is no God.

There is no God.

There is no God at all.

He who invented God is a fool.

He who propagates God is a scoundrel.

He who worships God is a barbarian. (Source)

or:

If you see a snake and a Brahmin, beat the Brahmin first! (Source).

Periyar during the Self respect movement (Image: Public Domain)

Periyar may seem harsh – even intolerant – but to understand him, one must understand the times he lived in. Pre-independence Madras was a place where caste-based segregation was blatantly visible. Even coffee shops would have a separate section serving Brahmins, and signs barring Shudras, Panchamas, lepers and dogs from entering. A growing movement, identifying as Dravida, was emerging. They saw themselves as the original inhabitants of India, chased out on the basis of caste by foreign Aryans (i.e Brahmins).

In national politics, a sense of opposition had been growing against the Indian National Congress, seen as a party of Brahmins and Banias. The tendency for India’s fortunes to be dictated from the North – as evident in the slogan ‘Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan‘ – spelt a looming chasm with the distinct emerging identities in the rest of India, that was neither Hindi-speaking nor Hindu.

Against this backdrop of Dravidian identity and lower-caste emancipation, Periyar emerged.

Born to a ‘middle-caste’ background in Erode, Periyar refused to be indoctrinated in sacred ways. When his father sent him for religious schooling, he rejected the priests. As a young boy, he left his home seeking god in Benares. But instead of god, he found caste. On the verge of starvation, he was sent away from hotels and feeding-houses because of his caste and was forced to eat discarded food. His oppressors were visibly Brahmin.

He returned with a lifelong aversion to the idea of Brahminism. At some point, he became an atheist; he would later say, “I have no personal problem with God, – I’ve never even met him, not once.”

***

In the 1920s, a raging debate broke out over the Vaikom temple in Kerala. There, lower castes were barred from both entering the temple or using the roads leading to or around it. A popular movement developed against it – and Periyar emerged as one of its strongest voices. Even Gandhi got involved. However, his stance was less anti-establishment than the protestors. Gandhi called for opening the roads to the lower-castes, but not the temple gates itself.

Periyar joined the protests and was arrested in 1924. He proved a powerful and brave orator – earning his name through his resistance. The next year, Periyar started the Self-Respect Movement, calling for equal rights for all sections of society.

The Self-Respect Movement was revolutionary for its time; encompassing both Dalit and women’s rights. Periyar was an early feminist, promoting birth control and bitterly opposing the oppression of women. He knew the feminist movement could not be led by men, stating:

Have cats ever freed rats? Have foxes ever liberated goats or chickens? Have whites ever enriched Indians? Have Brahmins ever given non-Brahmins justice? We can be confident that women will never be emancipated by men.

His movement promoted self-respect above all and opposed defunct customs, ceremonies, superstitions, discriminatory social systems and child marriages. In 1936, temple entry was permitted at Vaikom – a milestone in the fight for social rights.

He formed the Justice Party – an early meeting point for reformers. Soon, Periyar began to travel the world, growing particularly fond of the Soviet Union.

In 1937, the Justice Party was thoroughly defeated by the INC. That year, the Congress announced that Hindi would be made compulsory in all secondary schools in the country. Periyar, now 59, launched the anti-Hindi agitations. By the next year, the Hindi imposition was retracted. Periyar helped form the Dravida Kazhagam (DK) political party in 1944 – which completely replaced the Congress in Tamil Nadu.

He earned a reputation as a rebel. He promoted birth control and in stark contrast to Gandhi, was unabashed about his sexuality (even being photographed with nudists while abroad). He was as politically incorrect as it got. It got him in trouble – even arrested – many, many times. But he was irrepressible, for his cause was strong.

The political parties that bear his legacy, the word ‘Dravida’, are no more reflections of his cause. A research centre founded to study Periyar’s life and thought wants for lack of funds, attention and initiative. Perhaps, there is time for the bitter tone of his ‘anti-Brahmin‘ campaign to heal – one writer has called to reintegrate Brahmins into the fold of the Dravidian movement.

Casteism persists in Tamil Nadu today, on horrific terms. Periyar promoted inter-caste marriage, as did Ambedkar. But it remains a dangerous move to make. Honour killings killed up to 81 people in Tamil Nadu between 2013-16.

Tamil Nadu may be performing well as a state in terms of its economy and some Human Development Index (HDI) indicators. But on the issues of caste and women’s equality, it still preserves age-old biases.

Periyar’s movement was unabashedly bold for its times and is so even today. As a powerful rational voice, it was needed. The struggle for self-respect, women’s rights and the equality of mankind is an ongoing one – and it owes a deep debt to the work of the irreverent rationalist.

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