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Erode Venkatappa Ramasamy (Periyar)


Erode Venkatappa Ramasamy (17 September 1879 – 24 December 1973), commonly known as Periyar, also referred to as Thanthai Periyar, was an Indian social activist, and politician who started the Self-Respect Movement and Dravidar Kazhagam. He is known as the 'Father of the Dravidian Movement'. He has done exemplary work against Brahminical dominance, caste prevalence and women oppression in Tamil Nadu.

Early Years

Erode Venkata Ramasamy was born on 17 September 1879 to a Balija merchant family in Erode. E.V. Ramasamy's father is a, Venkatappa Nayakar (or Venkata), and his mother was Chinnathyee, Muthammal. He later came to be known as "Periyar" meaning 'respected one' or 'elder' in the Tamil. Periyar continued social work and after his death in 1973, and his ideas then were advocated by Dravidar Kazhagam. In 1929, E.V. Ramasamy announced the deletion of his caste title Naicker from his name at the First Provincial Self-Respect Conference of Chengalpattu. He could speak three Dravidian languages: Kannada, Telugu and Tamil. 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. 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. E.V. Ramasamy's father arranged for his wedding when he was nineteen.

Periyar Political Philosophy

E.V. Ramasamy joined the Indian National Congress in 1919, but resigned in 1925 when he felt that the party was only serving the interests of Brahmins. He questioned the subjugation of non-Brahmin Dravidians as Brahmins enjoyed gifts and donations from non-Brahmins but opposed and discriminated against non-Brahmins in cultural and religious matters. From 1929 to 1932 Ramasamy made a tour of British Malaya, Europe, and Russia which influenced him.
In 1939, E.V. Ramasamy became the head of the Justice Party, and in 1944, he changed its name to Dravidar Kazhagam. The party later split with one group led by C. N. Annadurai forming the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in 1949. While continuing the Self-Respect Movement, he advocated for an independent Dravida Nadu (land of the Dravidians). E.V. Ramasamy promoted the principles of rationalism, self-respect, women’s rights and eradication of caste. He opposed the exploitation and marginalisation of the non-Brahmin Dravidian people of South India and the imposition of what he considered Indo-Aryan India.E.V. Ramasamy participated in non-violent agitation (satyagraha) in Vaikom, Kerala.

Periyar Religious View

Periyar was generally regarded as a pragmatic propagandist who attacked the evils of religious influence on society, mainly what he regarded as Brahmin domination and regarded it as his life's mission to warn people against superstitions and priests. According to Periyar God... that makes all people equal and free, the god that does not stop free thinking and research, the god that does not ask for money, flattery and temples can certainly be an object of worship. EVR Periyar, a born Hindu, vehemently opposed Hinduism and Christianity. He did not criticize Islam. Periyar saw faith as compatible with social equality and did not oppose religion itself. Periyar stated: "be of help to people. Do not use treachery or deceit. Speak the truth and do not cheat. That indeed is service to God."
On Hinduism, Periyar believed that faith preaching the "superiority" of the Brahmins, the inferiority of the Shudras, and the untouchability of the Dalits (Panchamas). In 1955 Periyar was arrested for his public action of burning pictures of Rama in public places as a symbolic protest against the Indo-Aryan domination and degradation of the Dravidian leadership. Periyar also commended Islam for its belief in one invisible and formless God; for proclaiming equal rights for men and women; and for advocating social unity. Periyar viewed Christianity as similar to the monotheistic faith of Islam. He explained that the Christian faith says that there can be only one God which has no name or shape. Periyar took an interest in Martin Luther - both he and his followers wanted to liken him and his role to that of the European reformer.
Apart from Islam and Christianity, Periyar also found in Buddhism a basis for his philosophy, though he did not accept that religion. It was again an alternative in the search for self-respect and the object was to get liberation from the discrimination of Hinduism. Through Periyar's movement, Temple Entry Acts of 1924, 1931, and up to 1950 were created for non-Brahmins. Another accomplishment took place during the 1970s when Tamil replaced Sanskrit as the temple language in Tamil Nadu, while Dalits finally became eligible for priesthood.

Periyar on Women Rights

  • Women should be given their legitimate position in society as the equals of men.
  • Women should be given good education and have the right to property.
  • He was against the orthodox traditions of marriage as suppression of women in Tamil Nadu and throughout the Indian sub-continent.
  • He was against Child marriage and believed that it would be a sin to marry after puberty.
  • He regard dowry system where the bride's family is supposed to give the husband a huge payment for the bride.
  • Women in India also did not have rights to their families' or husbands' property and Periyar was also against this discrimination based on gender.
  • He also vocal about birth control, he advocated for it not only for the health of women and population control, but for the liberation of women.
  • Periyar advocated getting rid of the Devadasi system. In his view it was an example of temple prostitutes.
  • Periyar pushed for women right to have an education and to join the armed services and the police force.

Periyar's Rationalism

The bedrock of E.V. Ramasamy’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. If majority (exploited people) 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.
On caste, he stated that no other living being harms or degrades its own class. But man, said to be a rational living being, does these evils (on caste discrimination). 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. E.V. Ramasamy had written in his books and magazines dozens of times of various occasions that the British rule is better than self-rule. E.V. Ramasamy also blamed the capitalists for their control of machineries, creating difficulties for the workers. He stated that there is no use of simply acquiring titles or amassing wealth if one has no self-respect or scientific knowledge.

Opposition of 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. During the same year, the slogan "Tamil Nadu for Tamilians" was first used by E.V. Ramasamy in protest against the introduction of Hindi in schools. He claimed that the introduction of Hindi was a dangerous mechanism used by the Aryans to infiltrate Dravidian culture. He reasoned that the adoption of Hindi would make Tamils subordinate to the Hindi-speaking North Indians.E.V. Ramasamy claimed that Hindi would not only halt the progress of Tamil people, but would also completely destroy their culture and nullify the progressive ideas that had been successfully inculcated through Tamil in the recent decades.

Self Respect Movement

The Self-Respect Movement is a South Asian movement with the aim of achieving a society where backward castes have equal human rights, and encouraging backward castes to have self-respect in the context of a caste-based society that considered them to be a lower end of the hierarchy. It was founded in 1925 by S. Ramanathan who invited E. V. Ramasamy (also called as Periyar by his devoted followers) to head the movement in Tamil Nadu, India against Brahminism. The movement was extremely influential not just in Tamil Nadu, but also overseas in countries with large Tamil populations, such as Malaysia and Singapore.
Among Singapore Indians, groups like the Tamil Reform Association, and leaders such as Thamizhavel G. Sarangapani were prominent in promoting the principles of the Self-Respect Movement among the local Tamil population through schools and publications. A number of political parties in Tamil Nadu, such as Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) owe their origins to the Self-respect movement, the latter a 1972 breakaway from the DMK. Both parties are populist with a generally social democratic orientation.