With Congress constitution change, Periyar’s dream comes true after a century

It was for “communal representation” that Periyar EV Ramasamy fought in the Congress, between 1920 and 1925, and finally walked

Self-Respect Movement leader Periyar EV Ramasamy (right) with Dalit icon BR Ambedkar | Pic: Wikimedia Commons

In its recently-concluded 85th Plenary Session held in Raipur, Chhattisgarh, the Congress has brought major amendments to its constitution. One of the two major ones includes providing 50% reservation across All India Congress Committee (AICC) and Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) posts for Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs), and Other Backward Classes (OBCs). The other is to increase the number of Congress Working Committee (CWC) members from 25 to 35, of which 50% seats will be reserved for SCs, STs, OBCs, minorities, youth, and women.

Incidentally, it was for this very “communal representation” that Periyar EV Ramasamy, the tall Dravidian leader and founder of the Self-Respect Movement, through which he espoused social justice, fought in the Congress between 1920 and 1925. He wanted reservation to be included as one of the resolutions that could be passed and raised the demand at various party meetings. But his request was turned down, finally prompting him to walk out of the party.

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With the amendment finally made to the party constitution, it seems the Congress has decided to accept Periyar’s belief as a core guiding light after a century.


From business to politics

Periyar was a rich and successful merchant. Due to his philanthropic and social service activities, he was elected to various posts, including the temple management board, and he left his mark as a diligent worker in every position. In 1917, he became the chairman of Erode Municipality. At that time, Congress leader C Rajagopalachari was the chairman of Salem Municipality. Since the municipalities were close to each other, the leaders developed a friendship.

Rajagopalachari was older than Periyar by a year, and hence, the latter had huge respect for the former’s words. Knowing the leadership skills of his friend, Rajagopalachari cajoled Periyar into joining the Indian National Congress. In 1919, leaving his business and renouncing the posts he held, Periyar became a Congressman.

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That was also the year when the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms introduced diarchy in the provinces and, in 1920, the first legislative council elections to Madras Presidency were conducted. The Justice Party came to power by winning the elections. Its main objective was to provide reservation to non-Brahmins in education and government jobs.

Periyar, who understood the rationale behind such an objective, thought that the Congress should espouse that cause as well so that it could effectively compete against the Justice Party, which was its rival in Madras Presidency then. So, he started talking about reservation in the public meetings.

Long fight for a resolution

At the Congress conference held in Tirunelveli in 1920, Periyar, for the first time, advocated to pass a resolution for reservation. He asked for communal representation for Brahmins, non-Brahmins, and Depressed Classes, based on their population. Though it got a majority, conference head S Srinivasa Iyengar did not allow it and, hence, it was not recorded.

Again, at the Thanjavur conference in 1921, Rajagopalachari said the party can include the topic of reservation as a “policy” but not as a resolution to get passed.

Following that, at the Tiruppur conference in 1922, one of the leaders, Vijayaraghavachari, refused to include reservation as a resolution subject, quoting Manusmriti and Ramayana. An agitated Periyar said those books should be burnt.

Undaunted, Periyar proposed the resolution again at the Salem conference in 1923. It led to a heated debate and many leaders feared there could be violence at any time. Leaders Varadarajalu Naidu and George Joseph took efforts to end the conference peacefully.

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At Tiruvannamalai in 1924, it was Periyar who headed the conference. Yet, he was unable to pass the resolution due to opposition from Brahmin leaders.

The last straw came at the Kanchipuram conference in 1925, when Periyar’s proposal was rejected yet again. Unfazed, Periyar beat the stage floor with his walking stick and stood up. He said the Congress would never do a good thing for non-Brahmins and, hence, he was leaving the party. “It is my duty to abolish the Congress, hereafter,” he said vociferously.

Several incidents between 1920 and 1925 may have further strengthened Periyar’s dream to have communal representation. Those incidents included non-Brahmin students being asked to eat separately at Cheranmadevi Gurukulam run by Brahmin Congress leader VVS Aiyar and the Vaikom temple entry movement.

Social justice is future

So, what could be the reason for Congress’ change of heart?

“The Congress has understood now that the BJP can be electorally defeated only by embracing secularism, federalism, and social justice. Though the party is known for supporting the first two things, it has lately realised that social justice is just as important as the other two, and that can be taken forward only with the help of regional parties,” well-known reservation activist G Karunanidhy told The Federal.

He added that it was only after implementing the Mandal Commission report in the 1990s that there was a change in the Indian political scenario.

“When leaders like Lalu Prasad, Nitish Kumar, and Mayawati came into the scene, the reservation got more spotlight. When Sonia Gandhi became the Congress president, reservation got even more attention. After the 2004 elections, the Congress came to power only with the help of regional parties. Only then it realised that by forging alliances with regional parties, which are naturally fighting for secularism and federalism, it can come to power again. Now, after Mallikarjun Kharge is the party chief, it has embraced reservation wholly,” added Karunanidhy, who is a general secretary, All India Federation of OBC Employees’ Welfare.

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It is interesting to note that the amendment came at a time when Tamil Nadu was bracing for the Erode (East) bypoll, for which the DMK campaigned in full swing for its ally Congress’ candidate EVKS Elangovan.

However, Congress Lok Sabha MP S Thirunavukkarasar, who attended the plenary session, told The Federal that the amendment was nothing new and was there in practice for a long time.

“The Congress has been supporting minorities, Dalits, youth, and women for a long time. They were always given representation in our party. We have been practising it for many years. It has only put it in writing now, which is being seen as a big move by the party,” he said.