Krishnasamy Veeramani is a lawyer turned social activist who fights for humanism in South India. He currently leads the Dravidar Kazhagam (Dravidian Organization), which promotes freedom and challenges superstition as well as caste and gender inequality. He continues in the tradition of its former head, Periyar (1879–1973). Periyar’s ideas and organization have shaped contemporary Tamil Nadu, a state of nearly seventy-three million people in South India, to the point where the two parties that have ruled the state since 1967 both cite Periyar as their social and political inspiration. After he died in 1973, Periyar’s wife led the organization and upon her death Veeramani became its leader.
Currently, Veeramani is the chancellor of Periyar Maniammai University and leader of a movement that operates nearly fifty institutions, including several schools, colleges, rural empowerment centers, and six hospitals. He is the author or editor of several books, including The Necessity of Scientific Temper, in which he argues the “future depends on upholding scientific temper.” Born in 1933, he became active in the organization at the age of ten. He later became editor in chief of Dravidar Kazhagam’s daily Tamil rationalist newspaper, which has been published for eighty years. He continues to serve as editor of that publication as well as a youth periodical and a monthly English magazine titled the Modern Rationalist. Neither his age (he is over eighty) nor the violent, physical attacks of his opponents have slowed his efforts.
In February 2014, at a sprawling complex with a research library, museum, bookstore, editorial offices, printing presses, wedding venue, and Periyar’s grave site, Veeramani discussed the origins of the movement and its current mission. He describes Periyar as “a great social revolutionary. He is the father of modern Tamil Nadu and is the mentor for almost all the political parties here.”
Veeramani has continued the rationalist struggle, and he criticizes Hinduism for the caste system’s creation of social inequality. Decades ago, those born into lower castes could not even walk on the streets where a sacred Hindu temple was located. He explained that “caste is the very bane on our society” because “a person’s status and privileges are decided by birth. It is worse than apartheid. With apartheid, the educational rights were not denied for the black people. They were given separate schools. But here the worst aspect of the caste system is that once you are born in a caste you live in that caste, you die in that caste so the caste system decides everything.” Caste has shaped “whether you are entitled to get educated. If you belong to the lower caste you are not entitled to education.” Veeramani discussed how society changed because of Periyar’s contributions, noting that now “it is very difficult to imagine the era when Periyar started” and that “basically the Hindu religion alone perpetuates the caste system.” Veeramani concluded: “We want scientific temper in people,” specifically “rationalists and humanists.”
Veeramani described the movement’s humanist vision as demanding that people “must have liberty, equality and fraternity.” As a lawyer and chancellor of a university, he has gratitude to the movement because as a member of the lower caste he previously would not have had access to education. He said that “only because of this movement” are his leadership abilities respected.
Over the last many decades, he said, “there has been a sea of change in the social side.” Among them is the shift from Hindu marriages with Sanskrit mantras to secular weddings (he called the mantras “great bunkum” because people “don’t know the meaning of them”). He has promoted secular unions and personally presided over “thousands” of secular “self-respect” marriages.
Contrasting the nature of his organization with politics, he noted that “any government may come, any government may go” with each person getting one vote. However in society, everyone is not the same. Dravidar Kazhagam seeks social equality and empowerment where political parties do not get involved. Veeramani said that “this organization is for abolishing and the eradication of caste and the empowerment of women.” He noted that in the Christian religion, a man who wants to be a priest or pastor can get the qualifying education to be ordained. Likewise, a Muslim who wants to be a mullah can study and become one. Yet, “in the Hindu religion that is not possible,” because it is “heredity, upper caste people” who get the training and learn Sanskrit, the language of the religion.
Describing the uniqueness of Dravidar Kazhagam, Veeramani notes that Periyar put his wealth into a public charitable trust in order to carry out a rationalist and social justice agenda. From schools to hospitals to orphanages, the organization has a humanist agenda and is internationally known. It even welcomed a visit from former Maryland Governor Parris Glendening in early 2014. Funding has allowed the group to continue in the face of opposition from religious opponents. Veeramani said that attacks on his life have been attempted four times, including once when Hindu nationalists from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh “posed as if they wanted to garland me and so my driver stopped the car.” Pointing to a disfigured part of his nose, Veeramani said that someone came running up and hit him with a flag mast, causing a deviated septum.
Despite these attacks and threats, he optimistically and proudly speaks about traveling in his eighties to promote rationalism and humanism and carrying on the mission of promoting equality and justice without the trappings of magical thinking.
For more on Dravidar Kazhagam and the Modern Rationalist, visit www.modernrationalist.com.
Ryan Shaffer is a writer and historian. He has a PhD in history and is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Global Studies at Stony Brook University in New York.