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.

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.

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