Education and Dravidian common sense


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IN 2016, when the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) for medical education was introduced by the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE), Tamil Nadu witnessed large-scale protests to ban the test on the grounds that it was against social justice. A widely shared perception against the NEET was that it denied an opportunity of medical education to rural students from the Most Backward Classes and Dalits and thus was against the principles of social justice. However, this is not the first time Tamil Nadu has witnessed a large-scale protest to demand social justice in education. Anyone familiar with the history and politics of the Dravidian movement would know that the struggle for social justice in Tamil Nadu began with Periyar’s Self-Respect Movement which organized several mass protests against caste discrimination in modern public institutions.

In later years, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), when in power, intensified the politics of social justice through caste based reservations in education. For instance, the recommendations of the Sattanathan Commission appointed by the DMK government in 1969 led to increased reservations for the backward classes up to 31%, with the special reservation for the Most Backward Classes. The reservation for SC/ST (Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribes) was also increased to 18%, bringing the overall reservation to 49% for both segments. In 1982, the DMK appointed the Ambasankar Backward Class Commission which increased the total reservation for OBCs to 50%. In later years, the ST reservation too was increased by 1%. The current reservation for the marginalized groups in Tamil Nadu is 69%.

Significantly, some of the historic protests for social justice in Tamil Nadu have enjoyed mass support of the ‘Dravidians’ even within national political parties like the Congress or the Communist Party. In other words, there is a shared Dravidian common sense on education as equality of opportunity which has enabled such protests to become far more visible and successful in reversing the Indian state’s programmes and policies on education.

This paper discusses the above issue, using as illustration a mass agitation held in Madras state against Rajaji’s new education scheme, which was commonly referred to as Kulakalvi or caste based education. In 1953, the then chief minister of Madras state, C. Rajagopalachari introduced the Modified Scheme of Elementary Education or the Madras Scheme of Elementary Education in 35,000 schools in different districts of the Madras state.


One of the important elements of the scheme was the reduction of school time from five to three hours for elementary school children, who were made to learn their parent’s occupations for the rest of the school hours in their homes as crafts or as manual skill. For Rajaji, teaching manual work as part of schooling was a national necessity since in his view the family tradition of labour enabled the national ideals and authenticity of culture to be kept alive. Idealizing the caste based system of learning, he averred: ‘…the shoes are stitched, the scavenging is done, the cart-wheels and the ploughs are built and repaired, because thank God, the respective castes are still there and the homes are homes as well as trade schools …children are automatically apprenticed.’1

This new education scheme, Rajaji claimed, was modelled on the ideals of basic education formulated by Gandhi as the Wardha Scheme (1936) and later as Nai Talim. The central feature of this scheme was to teach children spinning, handicraft, agriculture, weaving and so on with the idea of productive manual work which could self-sustain the expenditure on school education by meeting the salary of the teachers and so on.

A phenomenal protest rocking the entire state ensued with the introduction of Kulakalvi. Several social organizations like the Federation of Depressed Classes, the South Indian Teachers’ Union and the Federation of Madras State Panchayat Union launched large-scale protests against the implementation of the new education scheme. Within the Madras Legislature, a series of objections were raised to the scheme on the grounds that it reinforced the varnashrama ideals of occupational learning and thus denied modern, secular education to rural children.


For instance, V. Chakkarai Chetti, a well known trade unionist and a former Mayor of Madras corporation asked: ‘…well, if the barber’s profession is pursued by the son, what opening is there for him in future years to aspire to higher places of responsibility and power in the state?’ A representative from the Tamil Nadu Toiler’s Party, A. Rathinam felt strongly that this scheme forced Adi-Dravidars like him to remain illiterate: ‘We are the landless agricultural wage labourers, so our children would be sent off again to herd the sheep and cattle. Therefore, we would never be able to progress in education.’2 The Congress party representatives in the legislature like R.S. Arumugam highlighted the intense protest in his constituency against the scheme and argued that with this scheme the chief minister had brought disgrace to the Congress party.3

Due to the unprecedented scale of protests across Madras state, which was followed by severe police repression with the arrest and imprisonment of DMK party leaders such as Annadurai and Sathyavanimuthu, the scheme was nearly vetoed by the entire assembly including several Congress party members. A vexed Rajaji cried foul and criticized the DMK for ‘communalizing’ the issue. He said: ‘Unfortunately for me and unfortunately for the scheme, the matter has been made into a political issue, a political debate, a furious debate, very closely allied to a communal debate, a communal issue and there are people who thrive on this kind of misrepresentation.’4 Further, he described the opposition to his education scheme as ‘a war between the Devas and Asuras’. Periyar too, who led a series of protests against the Kulakalvi, described it as a war between two races, the Aryans and the Dravidians.


Speaking at a public meeting to oppose the new education scheme, he countered Rajaji with this response: ‘In all honesty we are not opposing this scheme for some political reasons. This agitation against the scheme is a struggle of the Dravidians for social justice and it is an agitation for the right to livelihood of the Dravidians. Reservations in education and employment are issues for which we would even lay down our lives. A few thousands of us dying for this cause would not bring down our movement.’5

The Dravida Nadu, an official newspaper of the DMK, carried a series of editorials condemning Rajaji and his education scheme, accusing him of denying the lower castes the benefits of modern secular education by infusing ideals of varnashrama dharma in education. Writing in the party newspaper, C.N. Annadurai countered Rajaji’s Kulakalvi thus: ‘If Brahmins could give up their traditional occupation as priests to take on the modern education and government employment, why should the Sudras be denied the same by means of Kulakalvi? These days, the poorest of the non-Brahmins are able to access higher education, and find their ways to progress in life. This is unbearable for the Brahmins on whose behalf, this pretentious priest [Rajaji], has imposed such a primitive education scheme on the lower castes.’6


The significance of the anti-Kulakalvi protests lies in the participation of a large number of first generation educated non-Brahmin youth from the DMK. Arguably, these protests led by the Dravidian movement effectively mobilized the already existing and widely prevailing conceptions of modern education in the Madras state. One could discern this from the discussions and agitations against Kulakalvi within the legislative assembly and in the public speeches, newspaper reportage and so on. Indeed, the conception of modern education, infused with the ideals of social justice, has a long history in Tamil Nadu.

The Justice Party, for instance, promoted free and compulsory education and learning of English and modern technology particularly for the socially disadvantaged groups. It also effectively countered the colonialist perception that the introduction of free and compulsory education for the labouring poor would deprive craftsmen and cultivator parents the labour of their children who were otherwise expected to continue with their hereditary profession and caste trades.7 The Justice Party was convinced that the Brahmins’ access to primary education in English and their freedom from manual labour as caste privilege bestowed them with government and political appointments while the non-Brahmins were restricted primarily to manual labour. It was in this context that the Justice Party manifesto declared that ‘a more vigorous educational policy for the non-Brahmins has been long overdue.’8


In consonance with their educational ideals, the Madras Dravidian Association, a forerunner of the Justice Party founded by Natesa Mudaliar, provided free education and boarding for the children of the non-Brahmin and depressed classes. The Dravidian home in Madras city founded by him offered the possibility of English education to rural non-Brahmin students. In 1920, with its first electoral victory in the Madras Legislature, the Justice Party made schooling free and compulsory for children between the ages 5-12 years, along with a penalty imposed on parents who withdrew their wards. Free education was also provided up to 8th standard for girls. It is well known that the Justice Party pioneered free breakfast for students in the corporation preparatory schools and later extended it to other schools. This initiative obviously provided the model for mid-day meal schemes later.

The Justice Party was not content with the mainstream education of imparting literacy skills to the lower caste students. Writing to the Industrial Commission, P. Theagaraya Chetti, one of the founders of the Justice Party, demanded a ‘good system of technical education’ in the state with at least one central technological institute for the presidency and a network of technical and industrial schools throughout the districts to be established for the benefit of first generation learners from the disadvantaged communities.9


However, it was the Self-Respect Movement and later the Dravidar Kazhagam under Periyar’s leadership which offered a nuanced critique of the Congress educational schemes for their denial of knowledge based education to the non-Brahmins. Periyar was convinced that Gandhi, Rajaji and the Congress together conspired to prevent educational opportunities coming in the way of the non-Brahmin castes. He contended that under both the colonial and Congress regimes, the lower castes were denied their legitimate right to access modern scientific education. He observed that under their governance there was ‘no compulsory education, teachers were poorly paid and demoralized. The vernacular and craft education pushed out the non-Brahmins from the prospects of acquiring critical knowledge.’10

While criticizing Gandhi’s Wardha scheme for promoting occupational training for young children, Periyar expressed his anguish thus: ‘If the school does not admit a child until the age of seven, the working class child does not get exposed to the world beyond his family labour whereas the Brahmin child until that age is privately tutored at home and acquires his competency for intellectual activities. Thus, there exists a vast gap between them in completing school education. With the Wardha scheme, the non-Brahmin child is made to learn craft work, Hindi and the vernacular but not English. How would he survive the modern world?’11

One may note here that there were significant differences between the Justice Party and Periyar in promoting modern education. Unlike the Justice Party, Periyar was not concerned with dissemination of a specific body of knowledge to ‘unenlightened masses or elevating them to culture of literates’. He was quite critical of the vocational trainings involving manual work without mental labour. Rather, he preferred and advocated a new educational tradition where non-Brahmins could learn to align their intellectual labour with modern forms of productivity. His emphasis on modern education was to enable students to think critically. At the same time he resisted any valorization of English education.


His critique of Brahmins and upper caste non-Brahmins for their obsession with learning English or Tamil literature is quite illustrative here: ‘Education and knowledge or being an intellectual are two different things. In this world, there are educated illiterates like the Brahmins who learn science but apply only non-scientific methods to everyday life. Our Tamil Pundits for example, their education has made them stupid since they learnt only the puranas and nothing else. The moral texts that they read embed them in stupidity and blunt their intellectual capacities. At least a degree in English opens the door to the outside world – to learn about other cultures and lives, whereas the texts and teachings in Tamil prepare them to be fools for there are no textual sources and teaching methods in Tamil to promote scientific enquiry or rational quest among the learners. Promoting the values of self-respect and rational thinking among the learners and exposing them to modern realities must form part of our education.’12


He was also critical of the Justice Party’s paternalistic reduction of learning and integrating the lower castes into the existing education system. For him, rote learning in English or Tamil and earning a degree with a focus on employment were not adequate to understand the lived realities of the lower castes and their need to question the social order. Therefore, he was keen that non-Brahmins in the Dravidian movement should make an effort to grasp the intent of education so as to develop a critical understanding of their situation in order to liberate themselves from depending on Brahmin authorities and their deceptive educational reforms. In other words, for Periyar, education represented a political practice of producing new forms of knowledge. For him, education ought to prepare subaltern learners to critically engage with the exploitative world and enhance their abilities to think of alternatives to hegemonic social systems. These were some elements of his thinking and writing that gave direction to the Dravidian movement’s critique of Rajaji’s Kulakalvi and national basic education.

However, this historic protest to remove caste bias and democratize education in Tamil Nadu also led to the reformulation of agendas and goals of the Dravidian movement by the two important Dravidian parties of the time. In fact, the anti-Kulakalvi agitation not only ended the political career of Rajaji in Tamil Nadu politics, but also brought to the fore a severe rift between the two Dravidian parties with their different political visions. Periyar characterized the Kulakalvi agitation as a struggle of the Dravidians to oust the Brahmins from government institutions and power. The DMK, on the other hand, underplayed the anti-Brahmin rhetoric and supported the agitation upholding the right of Sudras to a secular education.


For instance, writing in Vidhuthalai, Periyar reiterated the goal of the agitation against Kulakalvi as ending Brahmin hegemony in modern education and employment. To realize this, the Periyar-led DK attempted to forge a wider anti-Brahmin collective, including inviting the Dravidian Congress leaders and legislators to protest against the scheme. During these agitations, Periyar continuously registered his appreciation for the ‘Congress-Dravidians’ for promoting the welfare of the Dravidians even as he reserved his choicest condemnation for DMK for competing with the Dravidians in the Congress party for gaining electoral power. Periyar acerbically criticized the DMK activists and leaders whom he described as being ‘trapped in the Arya Mayai (Aryan Illusion), therefore only clamouring for ministerial power rather than opposing the autocratic Brahmanic state power’.13

Through the course of the agitation, Periyar had by the end reformulated his opposition to the Congress party as one of only alienating the non-Dravidians within the Congress and a forging of solidarity with the Congress-Dravidians like K. Kamaraj who was addressed by Periyar as a ‘True Tamilian’. In 1957, Periyar and the Dravida Kazhagam openly campaigned for the Kamaraj-led Congress party. Periyar did not miss any opportunity to praise Kamaraj and his educational measures even as he continued with his vitriolic attack on Rajaji and his schemes. In his public meetings Periyar said that the defeat of Kamaraj would be a defeat of the Tamils. He warned his followers that the defeat of Kamaraj would lead to the restoration of Rajaji’s Kulakalvi by his follower C. Subramaniam.

The DMK, on the other hand, keeping in mind the electoral calculus consciously chose to criticize the Congress party and the ‘self-respecting Dravidians’ in the Congress camp for not exposing Rajaji’s varnashrama dharma ideals. Annadurai even went on to declare that the ‘Congress leaders were not masculine enough to contend with Acharya and his education scheme.’ It was clear that through the Kulakalvi agitation, the DMK wanted to carve out a new niche constituency of the youth, including Brahmin youth who would oppose Brahminism and not Brahmins. As Charles Ryerson observed, ‘Brahmins being anti-Kamaraj, it was natural for the DMK to make an appeal to them. In this attempt, the definition of "Brahminism" rather than "Brahmins" helped.’14 So much so that by 1967, Rajaji, a once bitter opponent of Annadurai, aligned with the DMK to defeat Kamaraj; he even declared that the DMK was no longer anti-Brahmin unlike the DK.

It can be argued that the anti-Kulakalvi agitation not only brought concerns of education to the forefront but also widened the base of Dravidianism. While Periyar aligned with Dravidian Congressman Kamaraj who spearheaded the spread of affordable education, the DMK even brought Brahmin youth into its support base by aligning with Rajaji. Overall thus, the significance of education as a means of social justice was to firmly etch itself in Dravidian common sense.



1. C. Rajagopalachari, Rajaji’s Speeches (Vol. II). Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Bombay, 1978, p. 13.

2. Madras Legislative Council Debates, Vol. V(8), 28 July 1953, p. 1698. Despite the Rajaji-led Congress government introducing the scheme, it was some eminent Congress leaders like Omandur Ramasamy Reddy, Dr. Subbarayan and Mayor Chengalvarayan who led the protests against the scheme.

3 Ibid., p. 1721.

4 Rajaji’s Speech at the Finance Department Budget Discussion for 1953-54, Madras Legislative Council, Madras, 1954, p. 718.

5. Viduthalai, 8 February 1954.

6. Dravida Nadu, 30 August 1953.

7. Justice Party Manifesto in Justice Party Golden Jubilee Souvenir. Klein and Peyrel, Madras, 1968.

8. See, Justice Party leader A.P. Patro’s counter argument to the view on hereditary based learning in A.P. Patro, Studies in Local Self-Government, Education and Sanitation. G.A. Natesan & Co, Madras, n.d., pp. 101 and 105.

9. Industrial Commission: Minutes of Evidence, 1916-1917 (Vol. III). Madras and Bangalore, Government Printing, India, 1918, Calcutta, pp. 51-63.

10. V. Anaimuthu, Periyar E. Ve. Ra. Chinthanaigal, Thoughts of Periyar E.V.R. Second Series, Vol. 5; Philosophy series, Part II. Periyar E.V. Ramasamy-Nagammai Education and Research Trust, Chennai, 2009, p. 4233.

11. Ibid., p. 4232.

12. V. Anaimuthu, Periyar E. Ve. Ra. Chinthanaigal. Phiolosophy Series Part I, p. 2460.

13. Viduthalai, 16 January 1954.

14. Charles Ryerson, Regionalism and Religion: The Tamil Renaissance and Popular Hinduism. Christian Literature Society, Madras, 1988, p. 120.