Erode Venkata Ramasamy was born on 17 September 1879 in Erode, Madras Presidency, British India & died on 24 December 1973 in Vellore, Tamil Nadu, India, affectionately called by his followers as Periyar, Thanthai Periyar or E. V. R., was a businessman, politician, Indian independence and social activist, who started the Self-Respect Movement or the Dravidian Movement and proposed the creation of an independent state called Dravida Nadu comprising South India. He is also the founder of the socio-cultural organisation, Dravidar Kazhagam.
Periyar was born to a wealthy family of Kannada speaking Balijas. At a young age, he witnessed numerous incidents of racial, caste and gender discrimination. Periyar married when he was 19, and had a daughter who lived for only 5 months. His first wife, Nagammai, died in 1933. Periyar married for a second time in July 1948. His second wife, Maniammai, continued Periyar’s social work after his death in 1973, but still his thoughts and ideas were being spread by Dravidar Kazhagam.
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. In 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 rights and 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. However, at the same time, Periyar is also held responsible for making controversial statements on the Tamil language, Dalits and Brahmins and for endorsing violence against Brahmins. The citation awarded by the UNESCO described 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”.
Periyar’s father, a rich businessman, was Venkatappa Naicker (or Venkata), and his mother was Chinna Thayammal, alias Muthammal. He had one elder brother named Krishnaswamy and two sisters named Kannamma and Ponnuthoy. He later came to be known as “Periyar” meaning ‘respected one’ or ‘elder’ in Tamil.
In 1929, Periyar announced the deletion of his caste surname Naicker from his name at the First Provincial Self-Respect Conference of Chenggalpattu. He could speak three Dravidian languages: Kannada, Tamil and Telugu. His mother tongue was Kannada. Periyar attended school for five years after which he joined his father’s trade at the age of 12. He used to listen to Tamil Vaishnavite gurus who gave discourses in his house enjoying his father’s hospitality. At a young age, he began questioning the apparent contradictions in the Hindu mythological stories which he opined to be lies spread by the Indo-Aryan race. As Periyar grew, he felt that people used religion only as a mask to deceive innocent people and therefore took it as one of his duties in life to warn people against superstitions and priests.
Periyar’s father arranged for his wedding when he was nineteen. The bride, Nagammai, was only thirteen. It was not, altogether, an arranged marriage because Periyar and Nagammai had known each other and were already in love with each other. Nagammai actively supported her husband in his later public activities and agitations. Two years after their marriage, a girl child was born to them. However, this child lived only for five months. The couple had no more children.
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.
Periyar Ramaswamy joined the Indian National Congress in 1919 after quitting his business and resigning from public posts. 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 him leaving the party in 1925.
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”.
Between 1929 and 1935, under the strain of World Depression, political thinking worldwide received a jolt from the spread of international communism. Indian political parties, movements and considerable sections of leadership were also affected by inter-continental ideologies. The Self-Respect Movement also came under the influence of the leftist philosophies and institutions. Periyar, after establishing the Self-Respect Movement as an independent institution, began to look for ways to strengthen it politically and socially. To accomplish this, he studied the history and politics of different countries, and personally observed these systems at work.
Periyar toured Malaysia for a month, from December 1929 to January 1930, to propagate the self-respect philosophy. Embarking on his journey from Nagapattinam with his wife Nagammal and his followers, Periyar was received by 50,000 Tamil Malaysians in Penang. During the same month, he inaugurated the Tamils Conference, convened by the Tamils Reformatory Sangam in Ipoh, and then went to Singapore. In December 1931 he undertook a tour of Europe, accompanied by S. Ramanathan and Erode Ramu, to personally acquaint himself with their political systems, social movements, way of life, economic and social progress and administration of public bodies. He visited Egypt, Greece, Turkey, Russia, Germany, England, Spain, France and Portugal, staying in Russia for three months. On his return journey he halted at Ceylon and returned to India in November 1932.
The tour shaped the political ideology of Periyar 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. Immediately after his return, Periyar, in alliance with the enthusiastic communist M. Singaravelu Chettiar, began to work out a socio-political scheme incorporating socialist and self-respect ideals. This marked a crucial stage of development in the Self-Respect Movement which got politicised and found its compatibility in Tamil Nadu.
In 1937, when Chakravarthi Rajagopalachari became the Chief Minister of Madras state, 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.
In 1956, despite warnings from P. Kakkan, the President of the Tamil Nadu Congress Committee, Periyar organised a procession to the Marina in order to burn pictures of the Hindu God Rama. Periyar was subsequently arrested and confined to prison.
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’s political ideal was to nullify the effect of perceived Brahmin power in favour of a Shudra power. The basis of this strategy was the assumed truth of the Aryan Invasion Theory, which viewed the Indian demography along racial dimensions—the Aryan North and the Dravidian South. Thus, the political ideal was a mix of casteism and racism.
Periyar’s opponents accused him of attacking Hinduism and the Brahmin community. But his was targeted against Brahminism and not Brahmins, and the manipulation of Hinduism and not Hinduism as a faith. But, there are no statements attributed to Periyar on any manipulations by other religions such as Buddhism, Christianity, or Islam.
Periyar was listed amongst the top 100 most influential people amongst Tamil society of the 20th century.
After the death of Periyar in 1973, conferences were held throughout Tamil Nadu for a week in January 1974. The same year Periyar’s wife, Maniyammai, the new head of the Dravidar Kazhagam, set fire to the effigies of ‘Rama’, ‘Sita’ and ‘Lakshmana’ at Periyar Thidal, Madras. This was a retaliation to the Ramaleela celebrations where effigies of ‘Ravana’, ‘Kumbakarna’ and ‘Indrajit’ were burnt in New Delhi. For this act she was imprisoned. During the 1974 May Day meetings held at different places in Tamil Nadu, a resolution urging the Government to preserve 80 percent of jobs for Tamils was passed. Soon after this, a camp was held at Periyar Mansion in Tiruchirapalli to train young men and women to spread the ideals of the Dravidar Kazhagam in rural areas.
On Periyar’s Birthday of 17 September 1974, Periyar’s Rationalist Library and Research Library and Research Institute was opened by Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi. This library contained Periyar’s rationalist works, the manuscripts of Periyar and his recorded speeches. Also during the same year Periyar’s ancestral home in Erode, was dedicated as a commemoration building. On February 20, 1977, the opening function of Periyar Building in Madras was held. At the meeting which the Managing Committee of the Dravidar Kazhagam held, there on that day, it was decided to support the candidates belonging to the Janata Party, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), and the Marxist Party during the General Elections.
On 16 March 1978, Maniyammai died. The Managing Committee of the Dravidar Kazhagam elected K. Veeramani as General Secretary of the Dravidar Kazhagam on March 17, 1978. From then on, the Periyar-Maniyammai Educational and Charitable Society started the Periyar Centenary Women’s Polytechnic at Thanjavur on September 21, 1980. On May 8, 1982, the College for Correspondence Education was started under the auspices of the Periyar Rationalist Propaganda Organization.
Over the years, Periyar’s influence had an impact on Tamil Nadus political party heads such as C.N. Annadurai and M. Karunanidhi of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’ (DMK), V. Gopalswamy founder of the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), S. Ramadoss founder of the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), Thol. Thirumavalavan, founder of the Dalit Panthers of India (DPI), and Dravidar Kazhagam’s K. Veeramani. Other political figures influenced by Periyar were former Congress minister K. Kamaraj, former Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh Mayawati. Periyar’s life and teachings have also influenced writers and poets such as Kavignar Inkulab, and Bharathidasan including actors such as Kamal Hassan and Sathyaraj. Noted Tamil Comedian N. S. Krishnan was a close friend and follower of Periyar. W. P. A. Soundarapandian Nadar was a close confidant of Periyar and encouraged Nadars to be a part of the Self-Respect Movement.