We maintain ‘self-respect is a man’s birthright'. We must realize that Swaraj [freedom] is possible
only where there is already a measure of self-respect
Though he had once been a Congressman himself, Periyar E.V. Ramasami, a stalwart of the
Dravidian Movement and founder of the Self—respect movement in Madras, was a bitter critic of,
Gandhi and the Congress's ideology of nationalism. He believed that in a caste—ridden society like
India's, poorna swaraj, or true freedom, could only be achieved if the dominations of religion and
accompanying superstitious beliefs, Brahminism, untouchability, restrictions on women and capitalism
were done away with. These are issues we are still grappling with seven decades after gaining
This selection of Periyar’s writings, most of them translated specially for this volume, includes his
critique of Gandhi’s Satyagraha and of Gandhi’s views on the removal of untouchability, his defence
of Bhagat Singh, besides his justification of the movement for Dravidastan. Together they reflect
Periyar's exceptional vision for a free India.
Erode Venkata Ramasami or EVR (1879-1973), popularly called Periyar, or the ‘great
man’ or ‘respected one’ in Tamil, was founder of the Dravidar Kazhagam and was one of the
greatest leaders and ideologues of the South.
Erode Venkata Ramasami or EVR (1879; 1973), one of the tallest leaders of the Dravidian
Movement, was the founder of the Self-respect Movement and the Dravidar Kazhagam, Popularly
called Periyar, or the ‘great man’ or “respected one’ in Tamil, he was born into a wealthy Naicker
family, a non—Brahmin caste, in Erode, now in Tamil-Nadu. A rebellious child and youth, who
dropped out of school, and had observed they discrimination existing in social and religious life, he
entered public life in 1914 and played an active role in the Congress Party from 1919.
Quitting his family business and public posts of honorary magistrate and the chairmanship of Erode,
municipality, he, ardently pursued Gandhi’s constructive programme: propagation of khadi, picketing
of toddy shops, boycotting foreign cloth, and eradiction of untouchability. During the
Non—cooperation Movement in 1920 and the Temperance Movement, he and wife Nagammai
courted arrest. In 1922, he was elected president of the Madras Presidency Congress Committee in
the Tirupur session. In the 1924—25 Vaikom Satyagraha, in Kerala, for the depressed classes’ right
to use the roads around the Hindu temple, he was again in the forefront and was arrested and
sentenced to rigorous imprisonment, a fact deliberately suppressed by Gandhi, though Periyar came
to be popularly called the ‘hero of Vaikom’.
Disillusioned with the rank Brahminism Fin the Congress and its unwillingness to accept (communal
representation’ for the socially and educationally backward sections of society, Periyar founded the
Self—respect Movement in 1925. He channeled his efforts for reform, organizing Self-respect
conferences from 1929. EVR would eventually become a strident critic of the nationalism of Gandhi
and Congress, to the point of issuing a call for observing- 15 August 1947 as a ‘day of mourning’.
Three years before then, he formed the Dravidar ‘Kazhagam, or Dravidian Association, transforming
the justice Party the leadership of which he assumed in 1938.’
EVR believed that with Independence British domination had been merely replaced by that of the
Brahmin and Bania or upper castes. The Congress’s ideology and Gandhi’s civil disobedience,
besides his acceptance of the varnashrama dharma, were responsible for this. Swaraj or true
freedom would only be achieved with the "emancipation of the non-Brahmins, especially the shudras
and panchamas or untouchables. Periyar would later extend support for Ambedkar’s proposal for
separate electorates for depressed classes. He would oppose and mobilize other parties against the
imposition of Hindi in schools by C. Rajagopalachari’s Congress ministry in 1938, step to strengthen
Brahmin forces and the North’s domination of the South.
An atheist and radical, Periyar’s ideology of Self-respect was ‘dedicated to the goal of giving
shudras and panchamas a sense of self, worth and self respect’. It taught equality between men and
women including marriage by choice and love, advocated Self—respect marriages, removal of
untouchability, annihilation of caste, abjuring Brahmins and, their sacred wisdom, as well as socialist
economics. To these was added the issue of Tamil identity and nationalism in 1940, which would
culminate in the demand for a separate Dravida Nadu. Rationality, mutuality and a common ethic
marked his vision.
These selections, typically ironic, rational and irreverent, have a resonance even seven decades later
as civil society and the State still seek to fully achieve the goals he had sought.
Back of the Book
To celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the Indian Republic, the Words of Freedom series showcases
the landmark speeches and writings of fourth visionary leaders whose thought animated the Indian
struggle for independence and whose revolutionary ideas and actions forged and Republic of India as
we know it today.
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