Erode Venkata Ramasamy (17 September 1879 – 24 December 1973), affectionately called by his followers as Periyar, Thanthai Periyar or E. V. R., was a social activist, politician and businessman, who started the Self-Respect Movement or the Dravidian Movement and proposed the creation of an independent state called Dravida Nadu, comprising the states of South India. He is also the founder of political party, Dravidar Kazhagam.
Periyar was born in Erode, Madras Presidency to a wealthy family ofBalijas. At a young age, he witnessed numerous incidents of racial, caste and gender discrimination
Periyar joined the Indian National Congress in 1919, but resigned in 1925 when he felt that the party was only serving the interests of the Brahmins. In 1924, Periyar led a non-violent agitation (satyagraha) in Vaikom, Kerala. From 1929 to 1932 toured Malaysia, Europe, and Russia, which had an influence on him. 1939, Periyar became the head of the Justice Party, and in 1944, he changed its name to Dravidar Kazhagam. The party later split and one group led by C. N. Annadurai formed the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in 1949. While continuing the Self-Respect Movement, he advocated for an independent Dravida Nadu (Dravidistan).
Periyar propagated the principles of rationalism, self-respect, women’s rightsand eradication of caste. He opposed the exploitation and marginalisation of the non-Brahmin indigenous Dravidian peoples of South India and the imposition of, what he considered, Indo-Aryan India. His work has greatly revolutionised Tamil society and has significantly removed caste-based discrimination. He is also responsible for bringing new changes to the Tamil alphabet. The citation awarded by the UNESCOdescribed Periyar as "the prophet of the new age, the Socrates of South East Asia, father of social reform movement and arch enemy of ignorance, superstitions, meaningless customs and base manners.
Kasi Pilgrimage Incident
In 1904, Periyar went on a pilgrimage to Kasi to worship in the revered Siva temple of Kashi Vishwanath. Though regarded as one of the holiest sites of Hinduism, he witnessed immoral activities, begging, and floating dead bodies. His frustrations extended to functional Hinduism in general when he experienced what he called Brahmanic exploitation.
However, one particular incident in Kasi had a profound impact on Periyar's ideology and future work. At the worship site there were free meals offered to guests. To Periyar's shock, he was refused meals at choultries, which exclusively fed Brahmins. Due to extreme hunger, Periyar felt compelled to enter one of the choultries disguised as a Brahmin with a sacred thread on his bare chest, but was betrayed by his moustache. The gatekeeper at the temple concluded that Periyar was not a Brahmin, as Brahmins were not permitted by the Hindu shastras to have moustaches. He not only prevented Periyar's entry but also pushed him rudely into the street.
As his hunger became intolerable, Periyar was forced to feed on leftovers from the streets. Around this time, he realised that the choultry which had refused him entry was built by a wealthy non-Brahmin from South India. This discriminatory attitude dealt a blow to Periyar's regard for Hinduism, for the events he had witnessed at Kasi were completely different from the picture of Kasi he had in mind, as a holy place which welcomed all. Ramasami was a theist till his visit to Kasi, after which his views changed and he became an atheist.
Vaikom Satyagraha (1924–1925)
In Vaikom, a small town in Kerala state, then Travancore, there were strict laws of untouchability in and around the temple area. Dalits, also known as Harijans were not allowed into the close streets around and leading to the temple, let alone inside it. Anti-caste feelings were growing and in 1924 Vaikom was chosen as a suitable place for an organised Satyagraha, passive resistance campaign as practised by Gandhi. Under his guidance a movement had already begun with the aim of giving all castes the right to enter the temples. Thus, agitations and demonstrations took place. On 14 April, Periyar and his wife Nagamma arrived in Vaikom. They were arrested and imprisoned for participation. In spite of Gandhi's objection to non-Keralites and non-Hindus taking part, Periyar and his followers continued to give support to the movement till it was withdrawn. He received the title Vikkom Veeran, mostly given by his Tamil followers who participated in the Satyagraha. However, a considerable section of intellectuals feel that Periyar's participation in the Indian independence movement and his contributions in the Vaikom Satyagraha have been highly exaggerated.
The way in which the Vaikom Satyagraha events have been recorded provides a clue to the image of the respective organisers. In an article entitle Gandhi and Ambedkar, A Study in Leadership, Eleanor Zelliot relates the 'Vaikom Satyagraha' including Gandhi's negotiations with the temple authorities in relation to the event. Furthermore, the editor of Periyar's Thoughts states that Brahmins purposely suppressed news about Periyar's participation. A leading Congress magazine Young India in its extensive reports on Vaikom never mentions Periyar.
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
In 1952, the Periyar Self-Respect Movement Institution was registered with a list of objectives of the institution from which may be quoted as
for the diffusion of useful knowledge of political education; to allow people to live a life of freedom from slavery to anything against reason and self respect; to do away with needless customs, meaningless ceremonies, and blindsuperstitious beliefs in society; to put an end to the present social system in which caste, religion, community and traditional occupations based on the accident of birth, have chained the mass of the people and created "superior" and "inferior" classes... and to give people equal rights; to completely eradicate untouchability and to establish a united society based onbrother/sisterhood; to give equal rights to women; to prevent child marriagesand marriages based on law favourable to one sect, to conduct and encourage love marriages, widow marriages, inter caste and inter-religious marriages and to have the marriages registered under the Civil Law; and to establish and maintain homes for orphans and widows and to run educational institutions.
Propagation of the philosophy of self respect became the full-time activity of Periyar since 1925. A Tamil weekly Kudi Arasustarted in 1925, while the English journal Revolt started in 1928 carried on the propaganda among the English educated people. The Self-Respect Movement began to grow fast and received the sympathy of the heads of the Justice Party from the beginning. In May 1929, a conference of Self-Respect Volunteers was held at Pattukkotai under the presidency of S. Guruswami. K.V. Alagiriswami took charge as the head of the volunteer band. Conferences followed in succession throughout the Tamil districts of the former Madras Presidency. A training school in Self-Respect was opened at Erode, the home town of Periyar. The object was not just to introduce social reform but to bring about a social revolution to foster a new spirit and build a new society
Opposition to Hindi
In 1937, when Chakravarthi Rajagopalachari became the Chief Minister of Madras Presidency, he introduced Hindi as a compulsory language of study in schools, thereby igniting a series of anti-Hindi agitations. Tamil nationalists, the Justice Party under Sir A. T. Panneerselvam, and Periyar organised anti-Hindi protests in 1938 which ended with numerous arrests by the Rajaji government.
During the same year, the slogan "Tamil Nadu for Tamilians" was first raised by Periyar in protest against the introduction of Hindi in schools. He explained that the introduction of Hindi was a dangerous mechanism used by the Ayrans to infiltrate Dravidian culture. He reasoned that the adoption of Hindi would make Tamils subordinate to Hindi-speaking North Indians. Periyar explained that Hindi would not only halt the progress of Tamilians, but would completely destroy their culture and nullify the progressive ideas that had been successfully inculcated through Tamil in the recent decades.
Cutting across party lines, South Indian politicians rallied together in their opposition to Hindi. There were recurrent anti-Hindi agitations in 1948, 1952 and 1965.
The bedrock of Periyar’s principles and the movements that he started was rationalism. He thought that an insignificant minority in society was exploiting the majority and trying to keep it in a subordinate position forever. He wanted the exploited to sit up and think about their position, and use their reason to realise that they were being exploited by a handful of people. If they started thinking, they would realise that they were human beings like the rest, that birth did not and should not endow superiority over others and that they must awaken themselves and do everything possible to improve their own lot.
Likewise, Periyar explained that wisdom lies in thinking and that the spear-head of thinking is rationalism. On caste, he stated that no other living being harms or degrades its own class. But man, said to be a rationalliving being, does these evils. The differences, hatred, enmity, degradation, poverty, and wickedness, now prevalent in the society are due to lack of wisdom and rationalism and not due to God or the cruelty of time. EVR Periyar had written in his books and magazines dozens of times of various occasions that the British rule is better than self-rule
Periyar also blamed the capitalists for their control of machineries, creating difficulties to the workers. According to his philosophy, rationalism, which has to lead the way for peaceful life to all, had resulted in causing poverty and worries to the people because of dominating forces. He stated that there is no use of simply acquiring titles or amassing wealth if one has no self-respect and scientific knowledge. An example he gave was the West sending messages to the planets, while theTamil society in India were sending rice and cereals to their dead forefathers through the Brahmins.
In a message to the Brahmin community, Periyar stated, "in the name of god, religion, and sastras you have duped us. We were the ruling people. Stop this life of cheating us from this year. Give room for rationalism and humanism". He added that "any opposition not based on rationalism, science, or experience will one day or another, reveal the fraud, selfishness, lies and conspiracies
He also said “"Our Dravidian movement does not exist against the Brahmins or the Banias (a North Indian merchant caste). If anyone thinks so, I would only pity him. But we will not tolerate the ways in which Brahminism and the Bandiaism is degrading Dravidans. Whatever support they may have from the government, neither myself nor my movement will be of cowardice.
E.V. Ramasamy alias Thanthai Periyar’s achievements can’t be written in one or two page.
Those who are interested may read the life history which is available in internet on various sites
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