Periyar and India’s Dravidian Movement: A Strident Atheist in the Land of Religion

Ryan Shaffer

There is no God.
There is no God.
There is no God at all.
He who invented God is a fool.
He who propagates God is a knave.
He who worships God is a primitive.
Periyar

For the past five decades, a strident and vocal atheist has been the main inspiration for the ruling parties in one of the most populous states in India. Periyar, whose name means “the great elder,” was a social activist who campaigned for Indian independence, equality, and rationalism throughout his life. Known for challenging authority, including its stance on caste discrimination and the compulsory teaching of Hindi in schools, Periyar was arrested nearly twenty times and charged with crimes that include publishing atheistic material and encouraging people to make their own clothing. Most famously, in 1953, he was charged with violating a law against blasphemy for breaking idols of the god Ganesh to demonstrate that they had no powers. Though revered by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (Dravidian Progress Federation) and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the two parties that have ruled Tamil Nadu since 1967, Periyar has been viewed as a villain by Hindu nationalists and segments of the upper-caste population in South India.

India is ostensibly a secular state, but Hinduism is pervasive throughout the country, even though there are sizable minority populations of Christians, Muslims, and Sikhs. From large, seasonal religious festivals to public displays of gods, Hinduism is an unavoidable part of Indian life. Yet in regional politics, atheism has found no conflict with deeply religious people and even political parties led by the religious. Tamil Nadu, a state in South India with nearly seventy-three million people, celebrates its ancient roots and language. With this cultural pride, the state government has constantly fought “alien” influences and inequality, which for some social leaders is personified by Hinduism and the caste system. Periyar bluntly wrote: “We find fault with religion and scriptures because they ruin not only intellectual faculty, but also character, honest behavior, love, compassion, unity, equality.”

Periyar was born E. V. Ramasamy in September 1879 to a wealthy trader family in present-day Tamil Nadu. As a member of a lower caste, he first encountered discrimination at a young age when he was not allowed to touch people of other castes or drink water at the homes of his upper-caste classmates. His formal education came to an end during elementary school, and he later left the area to visit Kashi, a holy city in the north on the banks of the Ganges River. Ramasamy was not an upper-caste Brahmin and so he had to beg for food during the journey because the choultries, or resting places, did not allow lower-caste people inside. That experience left a lasting impression on him. Upon returning home, his father turned the trading business over to him. Periyar joined relief efforts when the plague broke out in South India in 1904. Ramasamy soon involved himself in politics, first in local government. He then joined the Indian National Congress’s fight against British imperial rule. In 1919, Congress recruited him when the party was seeking non-Brahmin members in order to stave off challenges from other groups. Ramasamy’s membership quickly earned him two arrests; they would be followed by many more in the coming decades.

After resigning from his posts in local government, he joined the Congress’s Non-Cooperation Movement, led by Mahatma Gandhi, which boycotted British-made goods. Ramasamy was arrested for wearing and promoting khadi, homespun cloth that hurt the sale of British clothing exports. Next, he was arrested for protesting toddy shops (liquor stores). Ramasamy gained more fame and earned the nickname “hero of Vaikom” for his successful agitation for the untouchables’ right to walk on roads near a temple devoted to Shiva. He was arrested twice during that protest, but in 1925 a compromise was accepted that allowed the untouchables to use some roadways near the temple. Ramasamy was celebrated as a hero, and this episode propelled his involvement with a new movement devoted to equality.

In 1926, Ramasamy established the Self-Respect Movement for equal rights among the castes. He left the Indian National Congress because he was disappointed that the party did not do enough to address caste discrimination. In contrast to the Congress, the Self-Respect Movement was a social, not political, organization that opposed child marriages, allowed widow remarriage, demanded equal rights for women, and called for an end to ancestry shaping a person’s occupation and social status. An example of how the Self-Respect Movement combined rationalism and social activism was its 1930 campaign against Devadasi, a practice where a girl is not allowed to marry and instead devotes her time to worshiping a Hindu god at a temple. The Self-Respect leaders, including women who practiced Devadasi, argued for legislation to ban the practice. Attempts at passing legislation were defeated, but the movement continued to spread its message to the public through songs, theatrical performances, and literature that argued for equality.

Mourners pay final respects to Periyar

Mourners pay final respects to Periyar following his death on December 24, 1973, at age ninety-four.

Ramasamy also campaigned for communal representation and opposed the upper-caste’s dominations of politics, professions, and education over the majority of the population. Moreover, he campaigned for a system that would ensure that lower-caste people had the same access to education and government services that Brahmins did. At this time, he became more outspoken against Hinduism and publicly burned the Manusmriti, a book of Hindu laws. He promoted weddings without Brahmin priests and Sanskrit mantras, which he said the public did not understand anyway. He proposed a new type of ceremony that became popular; eight thousand were performed between 1928 and 1932. These marriages reflected a relationship model in which women and men were equals, and Ramasamy encouraged women to become leaders in his movement. Indeed, he explained that the “self-respect” marriages “emphasize that men and women are equal, husband and wife are equal partners in domestic life.”

By the 1930s, Madras Province was given autonomy, and the Indian National Congress won the ensuing election. According to Ramachandra Guha’s anthology about significant Indian leaders, it was during this time that Ramasamy “was increasingly known as ‘Periyar.’” In asserting its nationalist goals of unification against the British, the new government required schools to teach Hindi as the national language. It naïvely underestimated the opposition. Periyar helped lead protests that sought the restoration of the indigenous Tamil language in schools, and in this effort he was joined by groups previously opposed to the Self-Respect Movement because of its atheism. Ultimately, the law was rescinded. During this period, Periyar’s politics began shifting. He had become a member of the Justice Party, and he was briefly attracted to socialism. He even visited the Soviet Union during a tour of Europe but was expelled by the suspicious Soviet government. Once back in India, Periyar was arrested for republishing Why I Am an Atheist by Bhagat Singh, a popular Indian revolutionary executed for the revenge killing of a British officer.

As Indian independence approached, Periyar grew apprehensive about the treatment of Dravidian people, a linguistic group including the Tamils, and he founded the Dravidar Kazhagam (Dravidian Organization)
in 1944. He had turned down offers for leadership roles in other parties. Periyar’s Dravidar Kazhagam sought the establishment of a separate nation from India to ensure that Dravidian rights would not be subjected to the “foreign” rule of the north. The party boycotted the first national elections after independence, but Periyar continued to be outspoken and press his goals for social change. After his 1953 arrest for violating the blasphemy law, he remarked that “an atheist is not rejecting the sayings or commandments of God, but the sayings and commandments that men made in the name of God.”

In his old age and declining health, Periyar saw his influence develop into actual political change. In 1949, his anointed successor, C. N. Annadurai, founded the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK, Dravidian Progress Federation), which split from Periyar’s Dravidar Kazhagam. Tension had existed for several years but finally erupted when Periyar remarried and his new wife gained influence in the movement and was perceived as becoming his successor. Despite the split, Annadurai pledged that the new party would remain true to Periyar’s goals. In fact, writer Bala Jeyaraman noted that Annadurai’s party did not elect a president out of respect for Periyar.

In 1967, Annadurai became the first non-Indian National Congress leader of present-day Tamil Nadu, due to his skillful political leadership. Periyar became an advisor to the government and pressed for it to pass rationalist legislation, including banning government holidays for religious festivals. Increasingly, he became frustrated when the government took a moderate route and merely banned images of Hindu gods from government buildings. Two years later, Annadurai died, and M. Karunanidhi, an outspoken atheist in his own right, became head of the party and government. Under Karunanidhi’s leadership, the party faced another split in 1972 when actor M. G. Ramachandran parlayed his popularity with the public to start the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) party, which drew its naming influences from Periyar and Annadurai.

Since 1967, either the DMK or the AIADMK parties have ruled Tamil Nadu, a state with more people than the United Kingdom. They have preserved Periyar’s version of secular humanism. The Dravidar Kazhagam ceased contesting elections and has focused on social activism to influence society. In 1973, Periyar received a state funeral and his grave site attracts supporters and politicians who praise his work. Karunanidhi, now ninety years old, remains the leader of the DMK; as head of the state, he has publicly questioned the existence of the Hindu god Rama and asked: “Who is this Rama? From which engineering college did he graduate? Is there any proof for this?”

Periyar continues to affect the lives of many South Indians. After his death, his wife became leader of the Dravidar Kazhagam. Since her death, it has been led by Krishnasamy Veeramani, still an active rationalist, writer, and lawyer now in his eighties. In a 2014 visit to Dravidar Kazhagam’s headquarters in Tamil Nadu, I spoke with Veeramani at length and toured the facilities, including the rationalist library, printing facilities, wedding hall, museum, and memorial with Periyar’s final resting place. The Periyar Trust continues Periyar’s social, rationalist, and educational work by operating several colleges and free hospitals and offering free legal assistance, but it faces many challenges. Veeramani continues to publish Periyar’s Viduthalai (Freedom), a daily rationalist newspaper in Tamil, and he also edits the Modern Rationalist, a monthly English rationalist magazine, as well as publications for children. More recently, the group has been translating atheist works such as Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion and Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian into Tamil.

Despite political support for Periyar’s work, religion and superstition are pervasive in Tamil Nadu. The group still receives threats and has suffered attacks from Hindu nationalists; Veeramani has been assaulted numerous times. Nevertheless, Periyar continues to influence Indian culture, including through an eponymous Tamil-language film starring Sathyaraj, a well-known Tamil actor who is also a rationalist.

To his supporters, E. V. Ramasamy is Periyar, the “great elder” who promoted social equality and rationalism. To his critics, his anti-Brahmin and anti-Hindu efforts stoked the flames of hostility. Nevertheless, Periyar’s strident atheism and social work continues to be celebrated, and his politics have been the main influence on the parties that have ruled Tamil Nadu for the past five decades. With such a legacy, the social and political leaders of a state where Hinduism is pervasive still publicly praise the life of an atheist who denounced religion as nonsense.

Further Reading

For more information on Periyar in English, visit www.modernrationalist.com.

Sources

Author interview with Krishnasamy Veeramani, February 2014.

Bala, Jeyaraman. 2013. Periyar: A Political Biography of E.V. Ramasamy. New Delhi: Rupa Publications.

Guha, Ramachandra. 2011. Makers of Modern India. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Periyar E. V. Ramasamy: A Biographical Sketch. 2007. Chennai: The Periyar Self-Respect Propaganda Institution.

Veeramani, Krishnasamy. 2013. Contributions of Periyar to the Rationalist Movements in India. Chennai: Dravidar Kazhagam.

———. 1979. Periyar and his Ideologies. Chennai: The Periyar Self-Respect Propaganda Institution.

———, ed. 2010. Periyar Feminism. Thanjavur: Periyar Maniammai University.

———, ed. 2011. Thoughts of Periyar. Chennai: Dravidar Kazhagam.

Periyar. 2007. Collected Works of Periyar E.V.R. Chennai: The Periyar Self-Respect Propaganda Institution.

Natarajan, Prabha. “Tamil Nadu Elections: The Incumbent, DMK’s Karunanidhi,” Wall Street Journal, April 1, 2011. Online at http://blogs.wsj.com/indiarealtime/2011/04/01/tamil-nadu-elections-the-incumbent-dmk%E2%80%99s-karunanidhi/.

Swami, Praveen. “India’s god laws fail the test of reason,” The Hindu, May 7, 2012. Online at http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/indias-god-laws-fail-the-test-of-reason/article3391109.ece.

Supreme Court of India. “S. Veerabadran Chettiar vs E. V. Ramaswami Naicker & Others.” August 25, 1958. Online at http://indiankanoon.org/doc/165707/.

Ryan Shaffer

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.


Though he is now dead, the rationalist activist known as Periyar still influences social change in India.

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