A revolutionary who shook Tamil society (Book Review)
No one did what E.V. Ramasamy (Naicker), popularly known as "Periyar" (respected one or elder), did to Tamil society. The father of the Dravidian movement was a rationalist, a social reformer, a political activist and, above all, an unabashed atheist, the only one in modern India of his stature to publicly defy Hindu gods. But he did not remain a mass leader forever. When he was, he had the guts to denounce Mahatma Gandhi, and he played a key role in destroying the Congress party in what is now known as Tamil Nadu.
Ironically, for one who was passionately anti-God and anti-Brahmin, he was named after an avatar of Lord Vishnu because his parents visited many temples and prayed to many deities praying for a child. What makes Jeyaraman's book a good read is it neither sees Periyar as a superman his admirers make him out to be nor as a hateful demagogue his critics say he was.
After a difficult young life during which time he fled his home and once scavenged for leftovers in the garbage, Periyar developed leadership traits as he returned to take care of the family business. In no time he became a member of the Erode Municipal Council, becoming its chairman in 1918. He was "unafraid and scrupulously honest".
He joined the Congress, partly because of his (earlier) high regards for Gandhi. But the Brahmin dominance of the party stifled him. Once he walked out, he made it clear that his mission was to destroy God, religion, Gandhi, Congress and the Brahmin, whom he loathed.
Thus began the Self-Respect Movement that made him an outspoken critic of Hindu religious rituals and Hindu gods. He campaigned for equal rights for women, widow remarriage and untouchability - no easy task in that era. He organized weddings without Brahmin priests or Sanskrit hymns, at times holding them during the supposedly inauspicious "Rahu Kalam"! He even advocated test tube babies! When his wife died, he had her body put in a coffin, carried in a hearse and cremated - "to combine the funeral customs of Muslims, Christians and Hindus".
When a Rajaji ministry tried to impose Hindi on the Tamils during the British era, Periyar called for a separate "Dravida Nadu" - a la Jinnah's Pakistan. He did not accept government office but came to form the Dravida Kazhagam or DK (from which were born the DMK and, later, the AIADMK). It was Periyar's second marriage, to one far younger to him, that partly led to a split in the DK and the birth of the DMK. The latter's growth clipped Periyar's wings over time.
His opposition to Hindi and Hindu gods, however, raged on. But his post-independence call for boycott of Brahmins went nowhere. Periyar also sought a ban in government offices of all religious holidays and display of pictures of Hindu gods.
Periyar was no armchair revolutionary. "Probably there is no other personality in Tamil Nadu whose legacy has been debated and fought over as much as that of Periyar's." He remained a fighter till the very end, at times getting wheeled to public meetings with a urine bucket in tow. One of his legacies is the near complete absence of caste-based surnames in Tamil Nadu. But his atheist plank has almost been abandoned by the Dravidian parties of today. It is impossible to understand today's Tamil Nadu politics without knowing Periyar.
(M.R. Narayan Swamy can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org)
(Posted on 04-02-2014)