When people in Tamil Nadu were ashamed to even say the word Dalit, R Ezhilmalai, a retired military officer, went and prefixed it to his name and launched the ‘Dalit Makkal Munnani’ (Dalit People’s Front). That was 1980.
After building a force to reckon with over the years, Ezhilmalai passed away on May 6, 2020, a day after the 106th death anniversary of K Iyothee Thass Pandithar, a pioneer Dalit activist in Tamil Nadu.
His organisation through its activities popularised Dr Ambedkar’s works in the villages of Vellore district, made people realise that the word ‘Dalit’ was not a shameful one but instead one that should give pride.
During his lifetime, Ezhilmalai donned many hats as military officer, activist, publisher and politician. Born on June 24, 1945 in a village called Irumbedu in Chengalpattu district, Ezhilmalai served in the Department of Posts between 1963 and 1987. In between, he was sent to Army under deputation and served there till 1974. He took part in the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war and was awarded the Sainik Sewa Medal.
Through his organisation, he fought for Dalits to get pattas (land deeds), solve drinking water problems in Dalit residential areas and against the two-tumbler (the use of a different tumbler for Dalits) system.
Ezhilmalai wanted Dalit activists to be strong not only in their field of work but also intellectually like Ambedkar, according to writer Stalin Rajangam.
In 1982, Ezhilmalai, along with journalist VT Rajasekar of Bengaluru-based ‘Dalit Voice’, founded ‘Dalit Sahitya Akademi’, a publishing house, through which he brought out the works of Iyothee Thass Pandithar with the help of D Ravikumar, general secretary, Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), in four volumes under the title ‘K. Iyothee Thassa Pandithar Sinthanaigal’ (Thoughts of Iyothee Thass) and ‘Buddharathu Aadhivedham’.
One of his major contributions was the translation of Ambedkar’s 1948 book ‘The Untouchables: Who were they and why they became untouchables’ into Tamil as ‘ Mannin Maindhargalin Maraikkappatta Varalaru’. It was translated by P Manickam, VM Murugan and J Anand Raj in 1985. The publisher has also brought out other works of Ambedkar such as ‘The Riddle of Rama and Krishna’ and ‘Annihilation of Castes’.
A great orator, Ezhilmalai was able to speak in nine languages. His time in army at Delhi helped him maintain a good relationship with high profile ministers at the Centre. “He was such a personality that even Phoolan Devi came to Chennai to attend the wedding of two of his daughters held at Anna Arivalayam, presided by Dr S Ramadoss (founder-president of PMK),” says Pasarai Selvaraj, Kanchipuram district coordinator, Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK).
After his retirement in 1987, he gradually moved from activism to politics, and joined with Ramadoss in launching Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) in 1989. Ezhilmalai was the general secretary of the party then.
In 1998, Ezhilmalai won from Chidambaram defeating DMK candidate Ganesan and went on to become Union Minister of State, Health and Family Welfare (independent charge) between 1998 and 1999 in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government.
He is credited with initiating the process for setting up of the National Institute of Siddha. Former chief minister M Karunanidhi laid the foundation stone for it in 1999 and in 2005, then-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh inaugurated it with PMK’s Anbumani Ramadoss, the Health Minister.
“That was a time when Dalits and PMK worked together. In the first 10 years, Dr Ramadoss was able to win the votes of Dalits. But when they came to power, he was unable to take the pressure from his own community. So he took anti-Dalit politics in his hand. That resulted in the expulsion of Ezhilmalai,” Ravikumar, Villupuram MP from VCK, writes in his obituary to Ezhilmalai on his Facebook page.
After leaving PMK, Ezhilmalai joined AIADMK and even won the Tiruchy Lok Sabha seat during the 2001 bypoll.
Married to Muni Rathinam, he is survived by three daughters and a son.