EV Ramasamy: A controversial legacy and why he continues to shape Tamil Nadu politics | AnalysisUpdated: Jan 22, 2020 10:48 IST
How is a man, who died in 1973, suddenly in the middle of a fresh political controversy involving actor-cum-aspiring-politician Rajinikanth?
For that, it is necessary to understand the legacy of E V Ramasamy whose ideas and ideology continues to shape the politics and the larger Dravidan movement in southern India and particularly Tamil Nadu.
Supporters and admirers fondly call him ‘Periyar’ (Elder) on ‘Thantai’ (Father) for his ‘rationalist’ self-respect movement, which they say was aimed at eliminating caste system, fighting imposition of Hindi language and strengthening women’s rights. All the Dravidan political offshoots which exist today including AIADMK, DMK, DK, PMK, MDMK and numerous others owe their ideological existence to the ‘anti-Brahmin’ and ‘anti-Hindi’ politics which he pioneered in the early part of the 20th century. Critics have called him ‘anti-Hindu’ and somebody who displayed a virulent hatred for Brahmins.
First the context. Actor Rajinikanth, speaking on January 14 at the 50th anniversary of Thuglak magazine, said Cho Ramaswamy, the founder of the publication, was the only one to cover an event of Ramasamy’s Dravidar Kazhagam at Salem in 1971 where “Ram and Sita’s idols were paraded without clothes and garlanded with footwear”. The magazine is now edited by RSS ideologue S Gurumurthy.
Cho, said Rajini, condemned the incident in his magazine. However, the then ruling DMK which saw Ramasamy as its ideological mentor attacked Thuglak inadvertently boosting visibility of the publication.
This remark of Rajini at the event was condemned by Dravidar Vidhuthalai Kazhagam (DVK) which claimed the actor had spread mis-information on Ramasamy, with an intent to malign his reputation and filed a police complaint under various sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). Rajinikanth stood by his statement saying on Tuesday that he would not apologise as there was evidence to what transpired then, including various published and oral accounts. This is why a man who has been dead for 46 years is again in the limelight.
While Ramasamy is revered today by a large section of Dravidan movement, he was an extremely controversial figure even when he was alive. Ramasamy quit Congress party in 1925 accusing it of being dominated by Brahmins and started Justice Party which was later renamed Dravidar Kazhagam. However, following the death of his first wife, 70-year-old Ramasamy decided to marry a 32-year-old woman Maniammai, who was declared his successor forcing some of his closest associates including CN Annadurai to start the DMK.
Later, when differences developed between DMK leader M Karunanidhi and the then popular movie star mascot of the party M G Ramachandran, the latter chose to break away and started the current ruling AIADMK. Ironically, the AIADMK saw some of its most stunning electoral success under J Jayalalithaa, a Brahmin. However, even today, almost all the Kazhagam’s (associations, as the parties call themselves) see Ramasamy as their ideological fountainhead.
Ramasamy led several agitations to abolish caste, tell people to take pride in Tamil language and fought against imposition of Hindi. Incidentally, Ramasamy himself belonged to a Kannada speaking Naicker family from Erode, but he chose to drop his surname which he felt was a marker of his caste. He was even jailed a couple of times for leading processions where portraits of Hindu gods including Rama would be garlanded with slippers.
With Rajinikanth on the cusp of converting his fan association Rajini Makkal Mandaram (RMM) into a political party ahead of the assembly polls due in the first quarter of next year, DMK which sees itself as the key inheritor of Ramasamy’s legacy feels threatened.
Rajinikanth has also made no bones about his own overtly personal religiosity and with BJP making overtures to him, DMK and the Dravidan movement feel this is an issue on which they could take him on. With AIADMK not having a charismatic leader to lead into the assembly polls next year, DMK sees Rajinikanth as a threat, as he is electorally an untested wild card for now.
However, unlike in the past, several of the issues which drove the Dravidan movement do not have electoral resonance. The anti-Hindi agitation has petered out except for an occasional outburst. Brahmins at 2-3 per cent of the state’s population are electorally insignificant to be built up as threat. While the issue of caste still has a strong cachet, the fight is now between a section of the prosperous middle castes like Gounders, Vanniyars, Mukkalthors and Mudaliars on one side and Dalits on the other, for opportunities and political space.
The controversy is thus actually a political fight between those who claim to be ideological legatees of Ramasamy and with an politically unknown Rajinikanth, the AIADMK and BJP alliance on the other side. This is why in the runup to the assembly polls, Ramasamy and the overall Dravidan legacy is likely to be contested even more strongly.