Why Periyar and his ideals still matter in Tamil Nadu

EV Ramasamy Naicker, better known as Periyar, was an enigma of sorts | Illustration - Eunice Dhivya

EV Ramasamy Naicker, better known as Periyar, was an enigma of sorts. The leader of the rationalist movement, founded the Dravidar Kazhagam, a split in which later brought about the birth of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). The Dravidian movement removed the Congress from power in Tamil Nadu and has not looked back since. Ironically, the man who brought about the transformation in Tamil Nadu politics resulting in the ouster of the Congress from power, was himself an activist of the Congress party, having joined that party in 1919.

Erode Venkata Ramasamy was born on September 17, 1879 to a Kannada Balija merchant family in Erode, then a part of Coimbatore district. In 1929, EVR announced the deletion of the caste title Naicker from his name at the First Provincial Self-Respect Conference of Chengalpattu. Ramasamy was a theist until his visit to Kasi (Varanasi), after which his views changed and he became an atheist. To EVR’s shock, he was refused meals at choultries, which exclusively fed Brahmins. This incident had a profound impact on him.

As a Congressman, EVR had participated in programmes spreading the use of Khadi, picketing of toddy shops, boycott of shops selling foreign cloth, and eradicating untouchability. In 1921, Periyar courted imprisonment for picketing toddy shops in Erode, when his wife and sister too took part. He was again arrested during the Non-Cooperation movement and the Temperance movement. In 1922, Periyar was elected the President of the Madras Presidency Congress Committee during the Tirupur session, where he stressed the need for reservation in government jobs and education, but when this was resisted, he left the party in 1925.

Subsequently, he devoted his life to the cause of social justice, spearheaded the Vaikom Satyagraha to gain temple entry and the right to use public roads for every Hindu irrespective of caste or creed. He received the title Vaikom Veeran.

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