Who was Thanthai Periyar?

Two days after BJP’s Lotus bloomed in the north-eastern state of Tripura, a statue of Lenin was taken down allegedly by the BJP workers. A day after the incident, a similar act was reported from Tamil Nadu. This time the statue of Periyar was vandalised.

For Tamil Nadu, Periyar is more than just a social reformer; he is a Thanthai Periyar(Respected Father). Periyar has widespread influence on the state of Tamil Nadu- a state where the Dravidian movement was started and strengthened by Periyar. Periyar’s ideology runs so deep in the veins of Tamilians that even after 45 years of his death, he continues to dominate not only social, cultural but also the political sphere of Tamil Nadu. One of the reasons for this is the self-respect and Tamil Nationalist movement started by Periyar which touched people from all walks of life invoking Tamilian Pride in them.

Who was Periyar?

Erode Venkata Ramasamy also known as Thanthai Periyar (Father Periyar) even today continues to inspire the rationalists across the country. In the Tamil heartland, Periyar is considered no less than a God, criticizing whom would be inviting a lot of wrath upon oneself.

Periyar’s hatred towards Hinduism and Brahminism, in particular, was too radical but his rationale and logic found some admirers, even when they rejected his radical Anti-Hindu propositions. He took pride in his Dravidian ancestry and rejected the dominance of Northern Aryans on Southern Dravidians in its entirety. He considered Brahminism, Vedas and Caste system laid down by Manu a tool of oppression by the Aryans. Therefore, for his entire life, he batted for the abolition of castes and equality among genders, classes and self-respect amongst Dravidians.

The seeds of even prevalent Anti-Hindi notion in south India were sown during Periyar’s 1938 Anti-Hindi agitation when Chakravarthi Rajagopalachari became the Chief Minister of Madras Presidency and introduced Hindi as a compulsory language of study in schools.

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Early years of Periyar:

Born into a rich and wealthy family, Periyar was inquisitive from childhood. He questioned the mythologies, pointed out contradictions and countered ideologies. In 1929, he even deleted his surname which he thought indicates towards his caste at the First Provincial Self-Respect Conference.

Growing up Periyar developed abhorrence towards religion as a concept to deceive people from the truth and considered it is his duty to make people aware of it. Though he also fought for allowing Harijans to enter the temple during Vaikom Satyagraha, he himself remained an atheist.

Periyar during his lifetime gained a huge number of followers. They consistently campaigned to pressurize the government to abolish social inequality and thereby removing untouchability the manual scavenging system, etc. The Self-Respect Movement was described from the beginning as “dedicated to the goal of giving non-Brahmins a sense of pride based on their Dravidian past”.

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Periyar and politics:

He was a member of Indian National Congress in his early years. However, the dominance of upper caste brahminical leaders in the party led to his decision of quitting the party. He joined the justice Party later on. However, it was until only 1944 he served in Justice Party. At a rally in 1944, he in his capacity as the leader of the Justice Party declared that the party would henceforth be known as the Dravidar Kazhagam. A party that took social reform not as a political motive but as a social motive to root out the inequality prevalent in the society.

Periyar mostly stayed away from parliamentary politics as he felt the only way to achieve his aim of social equality was through masses and not parliament. However, many leaders who didn’t agree with his stance split from Dravidar Kazhagam and formed their own party Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) under the leadership of C N Annadurai in 1949. Even though the split was due to the method adopted to achieve social equality, the main aim of both the party remained same.

In post-independence era, DMK rose to new heights following the mass mobilization for the Dravidian cause. Even the most powerful leaders like Karunanidhi, MGR and J Jayalalitha and now the new entrant like Kamal Haasan swear by his ideology.

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Periyar on Women Empowerment:

Remarkably, Periyar advocated liberation of women from the chains of customs and superstitions that he felt were the reasons of degenerating Dravidian community. The Dravidar Kazhagam vehemently fought for the abolition of untouchability amongst the Dalits. It also focused its attention on the liberation of women, women’s education, willing marriage, widow marriage, orphanages and mercy homes.

BJP National Secretary H. Raja’s comment against Periyar, calling for breaking his statue after similar was done to Lenin, was the biggest mistake the BJP hoped not to commit. At a time when allies are on the verge of abandoning BJP ahead of 2019 Lok Sabha elections, BJP is seeking to make a stronger alternative to these allies in the south. Periyar’s ideology runs deep in the blood of Tamilian and he is one of the sources of Tamizhan pride. At such a crucial time, H. raja’s act is nothing less than suicidal for the party.



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