An Indian social activist and politician, Thanthai Periyar, also known as Erode Venkatappa Ramasamy, revolutionized the sociopolitical climate in Tamil Nadu. His views have been widely examined across various cultures and incorporated into social policy. One illustration of this was the Tamil Nadu government's decision to observe Periyar's birthday, September 17, as "Social Justice Day."
Born on September 17, 1879, to a family of Kannada Balija merchants in Erode, which at the time was a part of the Madras Presidency's Coimbatore region, Erode Venkatappa Ramasamy was the son of Venkatappa Nayakar (or Venkata) and Chinnathyee Muthammal, his mother.
Ramasamy got married when he was 19, and his first daughter lived for only five months. Nagammai, his first spouse, died in 1933. Ramasamy married for the second time in July 1948. After his death in 1973, his second wife, Maniammai, continued his social activities, supported by Dravidar Kazhagam, which endorsed his views.
Periyar co-founded several movements during his life and publicly challenged several historical figures, including Mahatma Gandhi. He is still revered as the "Father of the Dravidian Movement" and the inspiring leader of the well-known "Self-Respect Movement."
Periyar's enduring legacy in Indian history stems from various reasons, ranging from his notable efforts to advance the cause of gender equality in the country to his foray into politics by joining the Indian National Congress (INC).
Periyar's political career began when he joined the Indian National Congress (INC) in 1919, influenced by his close friend C. Rajagopalachari (Rajaji). He rose to become the chairman of the Madras Presidency Congress Committee but resigned soon after his request for racial representation in the party was denied during the Tirupur session.
Periyar remained active in the Congress and was involved in several initiatives such as khadi, alcohol prohibition, and untouchability abolition. He was even imprisoned for participating in the non-cooperation movement. During his early political career, he held various positions in the Erode municipality.
Periyar's departure from the INC had a negligible effect on his capacity to promote his political aspirations. He subsequently became a key player in the nonviolent protest at Vaikom, formed the Justice Party, which eventually evolved into the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, championed the liberation of Dravida Nadu (the Dravidian homeland), and resolutely advocated for women's rights and the eradication of the caste system.
Periyar decided to drop the caste name "Nayakar" from his name because he felt that a person's tail name should not determine how much respect they receive as humans. He declared that if one lacks scientific knowledge or self-respect, obtaining titles or accumulating fortune is useless.
Periyar was someone who raised concerns about Hinduism's many apparent inconsistencies even as a young child. Periyar had strong sentiments against theism and capitalism while being raised in a typical trader's family that guarded its religious beliefs.
The most respected person in the state, however, was utterly transformed into an atheist as a result of an incident in Kashi. He was told that he was not a Brahmin and hence was not eligible for the free meals provided at the Kashi site of worship.
Periyar attempted to enter the eatery but was turned away and forced to wander the streets because he was too hungry. The discrimination he experienced, which forced him to eat scraps from the street, dealt a severe blow to his respect for Hinduism.
From that point on, this elderly man worked relentlessly to provide opportunities for many people who were denied their human rights, holding various prestigious positions in the process whether it was as the president of the Madras Presidency Congress Committee, the chairman of the Erode Municipality, or the "Father of the Dravidian Movement." Periyar made sure that chances crossed the Brahmanical ceiling and reached people in need.
Periyar started the self-respect movement. It was an active social movement with the goal of completely overturning the modern Hindu social structure and founding a new, logical society devoid of caste, religion, and deities.
In Tamil Nadu, where the movement had a significant impact, S. Ramanathan invited E.V. Ramaswamy to launch this movement in 1925. The Self-Respect Movement, also known as the Dravidian Movement, promoted women's rights while fighting for equal rights for the lower castes.
The movement's organizers emphasized that its main goal was to promote "self-respect" among members of the lower castes in society. It was an active social movement that sought to construct a new, logical society.
Ramanathan and Periyar Ramaswamy wanted to spread the idea that cultivating self-respect in people will destroy caste systems. They were inspired by the emphasis on self-respect in Tamil literature, known as 'tan-maanam' or 'suya mariyadai'.
Periyar held that self-freedom is where true freedom is found. India was fighting for political independence, but that freedom did not allow widows to remarry or for anyone to marry the partner of their choice without penalties. For these rights, the Self-Respect Movement fought.
The movement's main goals were equality for men and women, economic parity in society, guaranteeing all Indians' friendship, and widespread unanimity regardless of caste, religion, or varna. Chastity was fiercely opposed because, according to the movement's own women, "chastity is the way women are confined within the systems of chattel servitude."
A manifesto of this kind in 1925 was much ahead of its time. The streets were filled with men and women yelling slogans and demanding what they had always been due.
The simple act of the lower caste regaining their identity in public, loud and shameless, was a step in the right direction towards gaining self-respect. The campaign also served as a turning point for feminism in India.
Veeramal and Annai Meenanmbal were two of the movement's female leaders. They kept pestering Periyar to discover more about the rights of Dalit women. A significant portion of the movement worked to end societal discrimination against women and seek rights for them.
Periyar had firsthand experience with child marriage in his culture and opposed the practice. He once coordinated his niece's remarriage after she had become a child widow.
One of the few political figures, Periyar urged women to participate in politics and take to the streets. Because of him, many women were at the forefront of the popular movement in 1921 against the toddy shops (Kallukadai Mariyal) and the anti-Hindi agitation in 1937.
At a women's conclave in Chennai in 1938, Meenabal, a Dalit lady, was the one to call Ramasamy for the first time "Periyar." Periyar was a fervent supporter of gender equality and women's education. He argued that women should have the freedom to pick their spouses and to end an unhappy union. In the end, he claimed, having children is a decision made by the woman.
"In the name of god, religion, and shastras, you have duped us…Give room for rationalism and humanism" - Periyar
Periyar also firmly believed that the lack of wisdom and reasonable thought was to blame for the differences, hostility, enmity, depravity, poverty, and wickedness that pervaded society. While many leaders attributed the current inequity to God or the ruthlessness of time, Periyar laid the blame at the feet of the governmental apparatus and social stratifications.
He even asserted that self-government, which fostered casteism and inequality, was preferable to British control. In support of this claim, he noted that while Tamil society still sent rice and other foods to deceased ancestors through the Brahmins, the West continued to advance scientifically and send signals to distant planets. Periyar relentlessly worked against cast discrimination and superstition.
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
– E.V. Ramasamy Periyar
Periyar made the decision to travel to the Soviet Union after being engrossed in the Bolshevik Revolution. He wrote extensively about the socialist republic in Kudi Arasu after his tour in 1932. Later, he also wrote a series under the pen name "Unmai," which was modeled after the "Pravda" of the Bolshevik party and meant "truth." Moreover, he was the first Tamil speaker to translate the Communist Manifesto.
"There is no God, no religion, and no Shastra belief in the socialist nation. There is no such thing as a high or low human being, he claimed in an essay.
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