Periyar: A social justice champion and beyond
Periyar was one of the most underrated social revolutionaries and political philosophers of twentieth century. Indian political system and its north centric obsession placed him at the periphery more as a dissent than as an untiring crusader for social justice. This prejudice is due to the nature of political discourse revolving around the great divide based on Aryan-Dravidian identity, language, socio-religious and cultural ethos. Periyar challenged the foundations of Indian philosophy with its roots in the Brahmanical Hindu worldview of caste and karma.
Periyar remains hugely influential and relevant to the politics in Tamil Nadu because of his stance on caste, social justice and rationalist worldview of religion. One need not be an atheist to understand and appreciate Periyar. He continues to be the chief patriarch of Dravidian movement and parties committed to social justice.
It is important to cite here “Article (15) (4) : Nothing in this Article or in clause (2) of Article 29 shall prevent the State from making any special provision for the advancement of any socially and educationally backward classes of citizens or for the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe”. It is this amendment which enabled the appointment of the Mandal Commission whose recommendations mark a watershed in the social history of India. First Amendment to the Constitution of India was made on the appeal and initiatives undertaken by Periyar to defend reservations. It is therefore necessary to acknowledge that his birthday being declared as the “Social Justice Day”, by the Government of Tamil Nadu recently is a message in the right direction.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) underestimates the social impact and political influence of Periyar. He remains the chief patriarch of the Dravidian movement in the twentieth century and continues to inspire the youth in Tamil Nadu. The dynamics of Dravidian movement is still tractable and remains a livewire despite the decline in ideological commitment among major Dravidian parties like the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). Given the massive erosion and capitulation of AIADMK to the manuvres of BJP, DMK appears like the main rival of BJP. Periyarism continues to be the real challenger for its entry and growth in the state. It is the social ideology of the Dravidian movement and struggle spearheaded by Periyar stands as the great barrier between the BJP and its claim to power in a state like Tamil Nadu.
It is important to observe that DMK has been on a steady decline since 2009 surrounded by mega corruption cases, political scams and succession dilemmas. DMK has virtually been revived by the challenges thrown up by the BJP because of the social and ideological foundations of the Dravidian movement. This has been demonstrated by the 2019 general elections as well as state assembly elections in May 2021. Today, Periyar remains the heart of battle between forces of Dravidian social ideology and Hindutva of the BJP more than ever before. DMK understands this reality more than ever before and therefore wants to consolidate the course and direction of politics in Tamil Nadu. In choosing to attack, humiliate and damage Periyar, BJP is hugely underestimating the social consolidation and political mobilisation that has been taking place in Tamil political society for over centuries in relation to caste, religion, language and identity.
Periyar deserves to be placed beyond the north – south divide due to his lifelong struggle against the caste system in India and even dared to challenge Gandhi over his compromises. His leaving the Congress in 1927 was a momentous decision based on his political and ideological convictions rather than quest for power and personal glory. His heroic leadership and battle at Vaikom temple entry movement in 1924 and the lifelong resistance against caste based social order are distinct metaphors of his specific action and integral philosophy of his life. His departure from the Congress marked the beginning of the self-respect movement both as an inward journey and the course of politics in the Madras Presidency and later in Tamil Nadu.
Periyar’s reasoning and rationalism sprinkled with brutal arguments were based on scientific knowledge and lifelong quest for justice. Though Periyar’s political journey and personal life was subject to a public scrutiny due to his marriage to a much younger woman known as Maniyammai many years after the passing away of his first wife, he remained an ardent defender and advocate of women’s rights over education, marriage, childbirth and property rights. He was first among those who wanted the women to join police and military services. His materialistic understanding of history, socialistic orientation and his attempts to integrate co-operative movement within the self respect movement has not received sufficient attention even among his followers.
Periyar’s discourse on non-party politics and his debate with his chief disciple C.N.Annadurai (Anna) are among the finest revelations of the contradictions and dilemmas of power politics. He was stunned by the dynamics of power politics when Anna and others chose to move away to form DMK in 1949 and again overwhelmed at the success of DMK in 1967. During this period of nearly two decades neither Periyar lost his influence nor DMK failed to pay its emotional tributes to the chief patriarch of the movement. DMK has since then both lost its way and made an impressive comeback because Periyar remains as the touchstone of politics in Tamil Nadu.
Prof.Ramu Manivannan is a scholar-social activist in areas of education, human rights and sustainable development through an initiative “Multiversity.”