Reviving the legacy of Annai Sathiyavani Muthu, TN’s tall Dalit leader

Sathiyavani Muthu's contribution to Dalit welfare has been significant but her indomitable legacy has been largely ignored

Sathiyavani Muthu, Dravidian leader
A political leader who constantly fought for Dalit welfare: Sathiyavani Muthu with CN Annadurai

February is observed as the black history month globally. In India, for the last few years, some Dalit groups have started to celebrate this month as the Dalit history month.

Not surprisingly, the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) has used this opportunity to urge the Tamil Nadu government to celebrate the birth centenary of Sathiyavani Muthu, a Dalit woman leader, whose 100th birthday fell on February 15 this year, as a government event.

But, it is well known that Sathiyavani Muthu, who has gone into the annals of history as a Dravidian leader rather than a mere Dalit activist, has been sidelined by Dravidian parties. The Dalit intelligentsia are unhappy with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) for not taking the initiative to celebrate the leader’s birth centenary as a government function on its own, instead of the VCK pushing the government to act.

Homeopathic doctor takes to politics


Like the two stalwarts of the Justice Party, Dr C Natesa Mudaliar and Dr TM Nair, Sathiyavani Muthu born to a couple, Nagainathan-Janaki Ammal in George Town, north Chennai, was a doctor practising homeopathy. Her father was a member of the Justice Party and the South Indian Buddhist Association. So, naturally, she was inspired to follow in the footsteps of her father.

In 1943, at the age of 19, she was married to MS Muthu, a corporation employee. Her marriage was presided over by Tamil scholar Thiru V Kalyanasundaram and her marriage function became her first political stage, when she delivered a speech thanking the guests, who were largely political leaders. Witnessing her oratory skills, Muthu, a Congress worker, supported his wife in her political ascent.

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At the age of 20, she was appointed as head of the Chennai district women’s wing of the Scheduled Caste Federation, founded by Dr BR Ambedkar. When the latter was in Chennai, she delivered a welcome address in English that attracted Periyar, who invited her to join his Self-Respect Movement. Thus, her political journey began.

She also started writing in KudiArasu, a magazine run by Periyar. She was one of the earliest woman Dravidian leaders, who expressed her opposition to the imposition of Hindi, through her cover story Hindiyin Ragasiyam (The Secret of Hindi).

Witness to rise of Dravidian ideology 

In 1953, the then chief minister of Tamil Nadu, C Rajagopalachari introduced Kula Kalvi Thittam (Hereditary Education Policy), which was viewed as a casteist education system. This angered the Dravidian leaders and many staged protests. While major leaders like CN Annadurai, Nedunchezhiyan were in prison, Sathiyavani Muthu, despite being in her final months of pregnancy, staged a lonely battle in front of Rajagopalachari’s house. His government was shaken by this protest.

The protest became a defining moment in her political life and made her famous. From then on, she got a ringside view of some of the important events that shaped Dravidian history such as the rechristening of the South Indian Liberal Federation as Dravidar Kazhagam in 1944 at Salem district.

She is also regarded as one of the founding members of DMK in 1949, as she was present as the sole woman political leader at Robinson Park in Chennai. Sathiyavani supported M Karunanidhi’s candidature as chief minister after the death of Annadurai in 1969 and had accompanied Karunanidhi to Anna Memorial, after the party won in the 1971 Assembly elections.

She was the first woman propaganda secretary of the DMK. When she was the chief of the women’s wing in the party, she inducted spouses of male cadres into the party and strengthened it.

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A woman of many firsts

In 1957, the DMK fought the Assembly elections for the first time. Since it didn’t have a party symbol at that time, each candidate was allotted different symbols and contested the elections independently. In that election, a total of 15 candidates were elected to the assembly, including Sathiyavani Muthu. Contesting from Perambur constituency, she was the only woman candidate in that group of 15. Thus, she was also the first woman DMK MLA in the Tamil Nadu assembly.

In 1967, when the DMK came to power for the first time, she was made the minister of the Dalit welfare department, which later came to be known as the Adi Dravidar welfare department. Within a year, the DMK faced its biggest challenge in the form of the Keezhvenmani massacre in the then combined Thanjavur, in which 44 agricultural labourers were burnt alive. It was the time Annadurai was bedridden, the task of visiting the area and coordinating the relief measures were entrusted to leaders like Karunanidhi, Madhavan and Sathiyavani Muthu.

In 1974, she quit the DMK stating that the government had failed to allocate sufficient funds to the Dalit welfare department. She was also critical of the party saying that it did not care for Dalits after the demise of Annadurai. Her allegation that the government’s family planning scheme was aimed at depressed classes created a furore within the party.

In her autobiography Yenadhu Porattam (My Struggle), she accused Karunanidhi of seeing her through the lens of the caste she belonged to. She also believed that it’s not the Brahmin community but the intermediate castes, who are a threat to the depressed classes today.

Subsequently, she floated her own party, the Thaazhthappattor Munnetra Kazhagam (Depressed Progressive Federation), along with 10 MLAs from Scheduled Castes, two MLCs and an MP. When the AIADMK came to power in 1977, she merged her party with the former.

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Between 1978 and 1984, she served as an AIADMK MP in Rajya Sabha. In 1979, for a brief time, she became the minister for social welfare in VP Charan Singh’s cabinet. In that way, she was also the first non-Congress leader to become a Union minister in Tamil Nadu’s electoral history.

Push for Dalit welfare

Sathiyavani Muthu was instrumental in establishing the Dr Ambedkar Government Arts College in 1972 at Vyasarpadi, located in North Chennai, where a sizable Scheduled Caste population reside even today. This is touted as the first college in the country which is named after Ambedkar.

Dt Stalin Rajangam, a researcher on Dalit issues listed out her contribution to society. “It was she who proposed the idea of giving prizes to the couples of inter-caste marriages. She also suggested awarding sentences to those who were involved in caste atrocities; she championed for providing financial assistance to the SC/ST communities to open eateries and hotels. In her speech, in the assembly on March 15, 1969, she put forth the idea of appointing Dalit priests in temples.”

In 1973, she opened more than 500 hostels for Scheduled Caste students. This played a major role in making rural institutions more competitive. She also ran the Human Rights Society and a home named after Annadurai at Oragadam, Chennai, where women were trained in stitching.

She also edited a magazine called Annai and penned her autobiography Yenadhu Porattam (My Struggle). She was survived by her four children and died due to cancer on November 11, 1999.

After VCK’s demand, DMK announced that a special meeting to commemorate the centenary of Sathiyavani Muthu is to be organised on February 19, at TN Rajarathinam Auditorium, Chennai. It seems understandable that the DMK, for its own reasons, seems to be neglecting this tall leader, but it appears that the AIADMK too has completely forgotten her.

It should be noted that only three women in Dravidian history earned the moniker ‘Annai’ (mother) and one of them was Sathiyavani Muthu. The other two being Meenambal Sivaraj (who was also a Dalit) and Maniammaiyar. But, it is unfortunate that Sathiyavani Muthu is now remembered through the free tailoring machine scheme introduced in 1979-1980, which is run in her name.