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Explained: Who Was Periyar And Why Is He Important To Tamil Nadu?

Posted by Sourodipto Sanyal in Politics
March 10, 2018

A Periyar statue was vandalised by two men on March 6 in Vellore. This was a few hours after the controversial post by the verified Facebook account of H Raja. It was posted, “Who is Lenin and what is the connection between Lenin and India? What connection has India with communists? Lenin’s statue has been removed in Tripura. Today it is Lenin’s statue in Tripura, tomorrow it will be the statue of caste fanatic EVR Ramasamy.”

The actions were condemned from various quarters and H Raja faced a major online backlash and had to take down the Facebook post, claiming that it was the handiwork of one of his administrators.

Why did people of Tamil Nadu get so offended when Periyar was disrespected and his statue vandalised?

To answer this particular question we must dwell into the last 90 years of Tamil history and the mammoth role Periyar plays in the socio-cultural and political life of the people of Tamil Nadu even today.

His Role In Making What Tamil Nadu Is Today

A lot of the credit for the fact that Tamil Nadu has continued to be a state which has successfully fought and resisted the imposition of Hindi actually goes to the leadership of Periyar.

The ‘anti-Hindi’ and ‘pro-Tamil’ sentiments which many people in Tamil Nadu today have and which are aggressively supported by both AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) and DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) today have their roots in a movement which was led by Periyar.

In 1937, the Madras Presidency government under the leadership of C Rajagopalachari made it compulsory to learn Hindi. However, the movement led by the Justice Party organised protests in almost each and every part of the Presidency and eventually the policy had to be discontinued from 1940 onwards. He was associated with the Justice Party and became the leader of the political outfit in 1938, when the agitations were still going on.

Ending The Dominance Of Brahminism In Tamil Nadu

He focused on one Tamil identity. It was a challenge to the Indian identity which was being propagated by the Indian National Congress at that time. He tried to dismiss the caste system both theoretically and through his politics. He would argue that caste was not a Tamil phenomenon and that it had been brought from outside by Sanskrit-speaking Aryan Brahmins from North India.

The anti-caste movement went hand in hand with the ‘Self-Respect Movement’ whose attempt was to create unique identity for all Tamils. He envisioned a Dravida homeland called Dravida Nadu. He espoused the Dravida Nadu in the 1940s which would comprise of Kannada, Malayalam, Telugu and Tamil speaking-people.

His influence In The Electoral Politics Of Tamil Nadu Today

Political parties such as the AIADMK and the DMK, the two largest parties in Tamil Nadu today would never perhaps have existed if EV Ramasamy also known as Periyar would not have been an active leader in politics.

He was associated with the Justice Party after he left the Indian National Congress in 1925. The Justice Party would go on to be renamed as the Dravidar Kazagham. His close aide CN Annadurai would go on to split the DK and form the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. In the 1970s, the DMK would further split into the AIADMK and DMK. They continue to be the largest parties in Tamil Nadu today. Leaders from both political parties pay homage to Periyar.

His legacy continues to influence Tamil society today. The trajectory of the development of the state of Tamil Nadu would have taken a very different turn had Periyar not joined politics.

He also propagated many progressive ideas which questioned the existence of God, argued for women emancipation and questioned the rigid caste system which held on to Tamil society with a firm grip. Due to such reasons and the massive role Periyar has had to play in the development of the state, it is only natural that one will receive huge backlash for disrespecting someone like Periyar.


Image source: Wikimedia commons