Periyar: self-respect and socialism


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THE formation of the South India Liberal Federation and the release of the Non-Brahmin Manifesto in 1916 in Madras announced the advent of a new kind of politics in the Madras Presidency which was to dominate the political discourse of the Presidency, and later Tamil Nadu, for a century. The federation came to be known as the Justice Party, taking its name after Justice, the newspaper that its leaders launched to propagate the party’s political views. The manifesto posited the issue at hand thus:

‘Not less than 40 out of 41.5 millions who form the population of this [Madras] Presidency, are non-Brahmins, and the bulk of the taxpayers, including a large majority of the zamindars, landholders and agriculturalists, also belong to the same class. But in what passes for politics in Madras, they have not played the part to which they are entitled. They make little or no use of their influence among the masses for the general political advancement of the country. In these days of organized effort, they maintain no proper organizations for protecting and promoting their common interests and for preventing other professional and politicians, with hardly any corresponding stake in the country, from posing as their accredited spokesmen. Nor have they a press of their own to speak the truth on their behalf. Their political interests, therefore, (as compared with those of the Brahmins who number only about a million and a half), have materially suffered.’1


The manifesto then went on to explain how the ‘non-Brahmin community’ suffered materially. Citing the report of Sir Alexander Cardew, Member of the Madras Executive Council, it says that in the Provincial Civil Services examinations conducted between 1892 and 1904, out of 16 successful candidates fifteen were Brahmins.2 Brahmin monopoly was evident, according to Cardew, in the competition for the posts of assistant engineers, deputy collectors, subordinate judicial officers and so on. The situation in the Madras University, Madras Legislative Council was similar. On the political side, the manifesto pointed out that almost all the 15 leaders elected to represent the Madras Presidency in the All India Congress Committee were Brahmins and questioned the representative character of the party.

The grievances expressed in the manifesto were accompanied by evidence from the highest placed official sources. Brahmin preponderance in higher education, thanks to the community’s scribal background and the consequent advantage it had in acquiring modern education, especially English education, since the early part of the 19th century, was a fact well recorded by the British governmental agencies themselves. The Public Instruction Report of the Director Public Instruction for 1881-1882, ‘revealed that for the FA [Fine Arts] and BA [Bachelor of Arts] examinations combined, there was one candidate for every 125 Brahmins in the Presidency as against one candidate for as many as 5,888 other Hindus… The Civil Engineering College, the Medical College, and the School of Agriculture… are attracting to themselves Brahmin students in rapidly increasing numbers whilst the growing partiality of BA students for the science course is an indication of the same spirit.’3

The monopoly of Brahmins over English higher education naturally led to their monopoly over jobs in the bureaucracy which had been Indianized, centralized and expanded after the First War of Independence (‘Sepoy Mutiny’) of 1857. Their preponderance in liberal professions such as law, medicine and teaching was also well recorded.


Framing the issue in terms of the Brahmin-non-Brahmin binary had its origins, among other things, in one of the ways the British administration chose to look at India. It was the rulers’ practical need to make sense out of the highly complex caste-communal maze they encountered practically every single day of administration in almost every sphere of life. The British wanted ‘to control the society through the imposition of neat British or colonial categories. The indigenous society, however, lacked the neatness and precision that these categories seemingly embodied. British terminology tended to subsume large number of miscellaneous groups under one category.’4 Irschick cites the Education Department’s reports on the school population of the Madras Presidency in the late 19th century. In 1870-71, the department divided the school population into Brahmans, Other Hindus, East Indians, Europeans, Mohammedans, Native Christians and Parsees. ‘By the early 1880s, the Hindus were transformed into Brahmans, Vaishyas, Sudras and other Hindus. By the turn of the century the classification had simply become Brahman and "non-Brahman".’5


The manifesto questioned the claims of Brahmin dominated Congress leadership to represent ‘40 million non-Brahmins’ in the Madras province. The question of representative right held good for the Justice Party leaders as well when posed from a class perspective. A.N. Sattanathan, Chairman of the Tamil Nadu Backward Classes Commission (1969) writes: ‘It was a closely-knit elite of the rich people from the higher echelons of society, who in no way represented the masses, or knew them, or could speak their idiom. They did not seriously contemplate any social reconstruction or economic uplift to benefit the masses. …They were worried about the growing number of Brahmins in Public Services and in the District Boards which had been set up as first measure of local self-government, and the Brahmin influence in the Home Rule movement, which was very vocal in Madras, under the leadership of Dr Annie Besant.’6

The contradictions within the ‘non-Brahmin identity’ that was sought to be constructed by the Justice Party were evident in the decades before the formation of the Justice Party. The social and economic history of the Tamil country in the century preceding the crystallization of the Non-Brahmin Movement shows that in the matter of employing bonded or slave labour of Pallars, Parayars and Pallis, non-Brahmin landlords were not far behind Brahmin landlords. Writing about agrestic servitude, Dharma Kumar records that in early 19th century, ‘the Vellala (non-Brahmin) cultivators kept "slaves", and the masters could sell them or mortgage their services or hire them out (the earnings going to the master).’7


Again, discussing the problems in classifying the Pallis, she writes: ‘Indeed the Collector of Tanjore in 1819, points out that the slaves here are of two castes only, the Pallar and the Pariah whereas Francis White Ellis [Collector of Madras] stated that the agricultural "slave" castes were the Palli, Pallan and Paraiyans. Pallis were the slaves of the Brahmins and that the other two castes served non-Brahmins, while according to the 1881 Census Report many of the Pallis probably were once the predial slaves… of the Vellala landlords.’8 Agrarian distress led to large-scale migrations from the dry regions of the Tamil region. It also resulted in famines that came like waves turning large areas of the regions into mass graves. Socio-cultural degradation brought about by caste hierarchy was accentuated by the economic ruin of non-Brahmin masses. None of these bitter facts found a place in the Non-Brahmin Manifesto.

The narrow focus of the Justice Party leadership was exposed by none other than E.V.R. Periyar, who succeeded in adding new dimensions to the non-Brahmin identity. Addressing a non-Brahmin conference in Madurai in 1926 he said: ‘Firstly have we made the common people understand what our movement is all about? Have we done anything to win the sympathy of the common man… We bagged posts in government for ourselves, won titles but did the people benefit from these? We utilized our power and position to retard the progress of Brahmins, no doubt, but what have we done to relieve the miseries and superstitions which hold our people in thrall, which make them lead the lives of a poor coolie and worker?… I do not mean to say we need neither posts or titles, but these cannot be our objectives… When we speak of non-Brahmins we speak of the 90 per cent that are poor and deprived and not of the rajahs and zamindars… I ask this gathering if it is truly committed to the non-Brahmin cause or if it is concerned only with the improvement of a select few. I hope and appeal to all leaders to act and resolve on this matter with intelligence and responsibility.’9


In 1927, after his exit from the Congress following many failed attempts to convince the leadership of the need to take up the issue of communal representation, Periyar did not walk straight into the Justice Party for these reasons. Although he did not distance himself from the Justice Party, he found the Self-Respect Movement launched by S. Ramanathan in 1925 a preferred platform for his world view, which remained open to new ideas of emancipation throughout his political career spanning about nine decades. The Self-Respect Movement gave a qualitatively different dimension to the non-Brahmin identity and helped democratize the movement and broaden its social base.

A non-Brahmin, according to him, was one who had been culturally enslaved by Brahmins and thus denied access to material and intellectual resources that would help him emerge as a human being with self-respect and dignity. The caste system, ideologically supported and sustained by Brahminism with the help of myths, puranas, Vedas and scriptures, was the stumbling block to the non-Brahmin’s progress. Self-respecters broke the elitist boundaries of the non-Brahmin Movement and, according to E. Sa. Vissvanathan, reached out to the Scheduled Castes and other backward castes such as Nadars, Agamudayars, Isai Velalars, Sengunthars, Vanniyakula Kshatriyas. These castes, a majority of them agricultural labourers and unskilled workers, were equally spread over all the districts of the Tamil region.10


The members of the Self-Respect Movement, according to E. Sa. Visswanathan in his Political Career of E.V.R. Periyar, dropped caste appellations, divested themselves of caste symbols, encouraged inter-caste marriage, championed the cause of women, denounced child marriage and the dowry system, encouraged widow remarriage, championed women’s right to inherited property, right to divorce and so on. In 1932, says Visswanathan, 1,50, 000 dropped their caste names.

The Self-Respect Programme implied that the answer to the ‘Aryan’ cultural enslavement of the non-Brahmin lay in radical social reform, secularism and promotion of science. It had a tremendous appeal among the non-Brahmin masses of the Presidency. Writes E. Sa. Vissvanathan: ‘The historic bloc, comprising as it did his [Periyar’s] own self-respecters, lovers of Tamil, itinerant sadhus, women, the Adi Dravidas, workers and even Congressmen, proved a far more effective and resilient political force in Madras than the Justice Party … hundreds of young men and women, including Adi Dravidas, participated enthusiastically in several temple entry campaigns, which were organized by the Self-Respect Movement and the radicalized members of the Justice Party.’11


These programmes and practices elicited bitter criticism not only from Brahmins but also many Justice Party leaders who did not accept Periyar’s views on religion. The new radical and secular identity of the non-Brahmin shook vested interests across the caste divide. Their fears were accentuated further by the next qualitative change that the Non-Brahmin Movement experienced. The movement, essentially based on caste identity, entered the realm of class.

The increase in the number of factories and thus the working class population in the Madras Presidency created the social backdrop for the radicalization of the Self-Respect Movement on class lines. The association of working class and socialist leaders like M. Singaravelar and Jeevanandam with the Self-Respect Movement and their influence on Periyar took the movement from its reformist orientation into a revolutionary direction. The success of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917 and the emergence of a working class in India formed the backdrop of this development. A Tamil translation of the Communist Manifesto was serialized in Kudi Arasu, a newspaper launched by Periyar, with an insightful introduction. It explained that India had not seen a revolution though the conditions were ideal for one, mainly because the structure of caste masked the rich-poor conflict. Then came the Erode Programme with a strong socialist orientation.

In parallel with the Non-Brahmin Movement grew its twin (born in the same year), the Pure Tamil Movement against the privileging of Sanskrit vis a vis Tamil. When the Rajaji government’s decided to make Hindustani compulsory in school education, the Tamil country erupted in protest. These protests saw the confluence of the social justice and pure Tamil streams of the Non-Brahmin Movement and laid the social base for the growth of Dravidian nationalism. The Self-Respect Movement’s socialist phase, its fundamental social justice programme and the linguistic pride nurtured by the Pure Tamil Movement, in their confluence, articulated the aspirations of the Tamil person’s multilayered identity arising from his/her caste, class and language.


Periyar’s socialist turn raised an alarm in at least some quarters – a section of the non-Brahmin leaders and the British government. The landed interests in the Non-Brahmin Movement saw a potential threat to their power, privileges and wealth when class entered the political discourse in a major way. And for the British rulers, a social reformer turning into a revolutionary with a mass appeal would have been a major source of worry in the context of the upsurge in the nationalist movement and the idea of socialism taking a concrete shape in the Soviet Union. A crackdown on the nascent Communist movement followed. Periyar returned to the social reformist fold in order to preserve the gains made by the Non-Brahmin Movement, especially when the Brahmin dominated Congress captured power in the Presidency and the Justice Party’s political slide was evident.

However, the ideas of self-respect and socialism that Periyar espoused at a crucial phase of his political career and his tireless propagation of these ideas through both public meetings in the Tamil country and the print medium gripped the minds of the people and became a material force – a political force that has had a lasting influence for another century.


* The ideas presented in the paper are the result of research undertaken by the author under the Appan Menon Memorial Fellowship.


1. The Non-Brahmin Manifesto. Thanthai Periyar Dravidar Kazhagam, Madras, 2008.

2. Ibid., quote from Sir A. Cardew on p. 2.

3. P. Radhakrishnan, ‘Communal Representation in Tamil Nadu, 1850-1916: The Pre-Non-Brahmin Movement Phase’, Economic and Political Weekly 18(31), July 1993.

4. E.F. Irschick, Tamil Revivialism in the 1930s. Cre-A, Madras, 1986, p. 23.

5. Ibid., p. 23.

6. A.N. Sattanathan, Plain Speaking: A Sudra’s Story. Permanent Black, Delhi, 2007.

7. Dharma Kumar, Land and Caste in South India. Cambridge University Press, Delhi, (1965) 2018, p. 44

8. Ibid., p. 58.

9. Kudi Arasu, 26.12.26; as translated by V. Geetha and S.V. Rajadurai in Towards a Non-Brahimin Millennium. Samya, Calcutta, 1998.

10. E. Sa. Visswanathan, The Political Career of E.V.R. Periyar. Ravi & Vasanth Publishers, Madras, 1983, p. 95.

11. Ibid., p. 95.