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“Periyar Ramasamy, the name bigger than the man himself”



Bala Jeyaraman, PERIYAR: A political biography of E.V. Ramasamy, New Delhi, Rupa Publications, 2014, 124 pages

The above book on Periyar or Erode Venkata Naicker Ramasamy is an excellent but condensed account of one of the greatest social reformers that India had.

Periyar’s reform activities reached their peak in the first half of the 20th century in the present state of Tamil Nadu.


He was born to middle-class parents in the South Indian city of Erode in the lat 19th century. He was a rebellious kid so much so that he was sent to the care of his great aunt.

Periyar might not have been a good student but he was rebellious at home and school. He questioned things that he did not understand and ridiculed customs and traditions that made no sense.

Later he became the administrator of the Erode Municipal Council and even took charge of Hindu temple management, even though he was against Hinduism as practised by Brahmins.

His short stint at Kasi or the present day Varnasi convinced him about the evils of the Brahminical caste system that crippled the upward mobility of millions of the untouchables in India.

Through his life, he campaigned against the Brahmins, against the evil entrapment of the lower castes, for the emancipation of women.

To achieve these inter-related goals, he relentlessly worked against the Congress Party, except when Kamaraj was the chief minister of Tamil Nadu.

Politically, he called for the creation of a separate state for Tamils, Telegus, Keralites and others.

Dravida Nadu was predicated to unite the different communal groups in South India having common history.

He joined the Congress Party but left as result of serious differences with its leader, Rajaji on the question of Brahminical domination and the imposition of Hindi in schools.

Although he had major and irreconcilable differences with Rajaji, both remained friends for long time. Both shared the same prison cell once, but for different reasons.

Periyar moved away from the Congress Party to embrace the Justice Party that took the stand to oppose Brahminical domination, the need to have communal quota for non-Brahmins or scheduled castes and others.

He had differences with some of the leaders in the Justice Party on the breaking of idols, the burning of the national flag or the constitution of India.

Periyar was happy that a fellow Tamil, Kamaraj became the Chief Minister of Madras State in 1954.

He hated the Congress Party but welcomed the leader of Kamaraj as he promised reforms for Tamils such as the introduction of the communal quota for the lower castes, the repeal of the compulsory learning of Hindi and ensuring that Tamil Nadu was kept for Tamils or Dravidians.

There were serious differences between Periyar and others in the Justice Party. They found that Periyar was too much of an iconoclast for them.

They were not comfortable with the harsh tactics used by Periyar especially in breaking idols to demonstrate his ant-Brahminism and later the move to burn the India’s national flag and the constitution of the country.

Periyar seeing opposition in his own party decided to form the Dravida Kazhagam (DK) meaning, the movement of Dravidians, the forerunner of the present day Dravidian political parties in Tamil Nadu.

It was a self-respect movement for the Dravidians. While Periyar actions against the Brahmins, the expulsion of Hindi from Tamil Nadu and the introduction of communal representation, he had to contend with fissures within the movement as well as outside.

Periyar was no stranger to police arrests and periodic imprisonments. Prison became his second home so to speak.

He never feared incarceration, but on the contrary enjoyed as it popularised the movement and his objectives. He respected Gandhi but felt that he was not ready to remove the caste system.

Periyar’s harsh methods in calling for change did not please some of the second echelon leaders like Annadurai and Karunanidhi.The split with Periyar occurred at the time Periyar married a young woman by the name of Maniammai.

Annadurai used the episode to revolt against Periyar to form the Dravida Munnetra Kazaham, the Dravidian Forward Movement Party (DMK).

Periyar’s marriage to Maniammai, twice younger to his age, was an excuse that Annadurai needed to form the DMK party to contest elections in the state.

Periyar was dead against the idea of forming political parties to contest elections.

He thought acquiring political power was an evil itself. He believed that the social movements like the DK had the power and capacity to bring about far reaching reforms than those who believed in acquiring political power first.

Periyar must be right in what he said long after his death.
The ideas of Periyar are used by the present day Dravidian political parties in Tamil Nadu to ingratiate themselves to seek power but at the same time sweeping under carpet the need for change and reforms.

In this sense, the Dravidian political parties have miserably failed Periyar. Erection of statues in his name like the one in Madurai is hardly in keeping with his iconoclastic ways. But Annadurai thought otherwise.

With the growing popularity of DK, it was thought that the fame could be galvanised in the form of votes to form a government.
Periyar was never approved the idea and took the opportunity to condemn Annadurai and others for the treachery and betrayal.
But despite the attacks launched by Periyar in his publications, Annadurai remained faithful to the ideas of Periyar.

In fact, when he won the elections to be become the chief minister of Tamil Nadu, he received the first blessings from none other than Periyar himself.

Periyar is gone.

But his ideas for the emancipation of the poor, the untouchables and women are erasable. They are powerfully etched in the minds of progressive Tamils and others around the world.

In Tamil Nadu the ideas of Periyar against Brahmins and North Indians have made it impenetrable for non-Tamil parties such as the Congress Party and lately the BJP to make a grand entrance to Tamil Nadu.

As long as Tamils remember Periyar, it would be near impossible for the parties in the north especially national parties to make their impact on Tamils in the south.

Tamils are known for their individualism and emotionalism, but when it comes to the questions of removing an alien ideology, they can come together miraculously.

Periyar fought a powerful war against the Brahmins. He has left it to others to continue his journey.

The caste system needs to be uprooted and destroyed especially for those who believe in human dignity and freedom.