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Dravidian politics

The Self-Respect Movement was founded in 1925 by Periyar E. V. Ramasamy (also known as Periyar) in Tamil Nadu, India. The movement has the aim of achieving a society where backward castes have equal human rights,[1] and encouraging backward castes to have self-respect in the context of a caste based society that considered them to be a lower end of the hierarchy.[2] The movement was extremely influential not just in Tamil Nadu, but also overseas in countries with large Tamil populations, such as Malaysia and Singapore. Among Singapore Indians, groups like the Tamil Reform Association, and leaders like Thamizhavel G. Sarangapani were prominent in promoting the principals of the Self-Respect Movement among the local Tamil population through schools and publications.

A number of political parties in Tamil Nadu, such as Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) owe their origins to the Self-respect movement,[3] the latter a 1972 breakaway from the DMK. Both parties are populist with a generally social democratic orientation.[4]


The Tenets of Self-Respect

Periyar was convinced that if man developed self respect, he would automatically develop individuality and would refuse to be led by the nose by schemers. One of his most known quotes on Self-Respect was, "we are fit to think of 'self-respect' only when the notion of 'superior' and 'inferior' caste is banished from our land".[5]

Periyar did not expect personal or material gain out of this movement. He used to recall in a very casual manner that as a human being, he also was obligated to this duty, as it was the right and freedom to choose this work. Thus, Periyar opted to engage himself in starting and promoting the movement.[6]

Periyar declared that the Self-Respect Movement alone could be the genuine freedom movement, and political freedom would not be fruitful without individual self-respect. He remarked that the so called 'Indian freedom fighters' were showing disrespect of self-respect, and this was really an irrational philosophy.[7]

Periyar observed that political freedom as conceived by nationalists not excluding even Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru did not cover individual self-respect. To him neither revival of the original spirit of Hindu religion and ancient traditions which formed part of Gandhi's conception of freedom, nor complete liberation from the British rule which was considered by Nehru to be the meaning of freedom or both of them together could ensure individual self-respect or remove the ills from Indian societies. In his opinion the task of fulfilling the need for self-respect would have to be faced whatever be the extent of political freedom gained. Pointing out that even the British monarch in a sovereign independent nation had no freedom to marry a person of his choice and had to abdicate his kingdom, Periyar raised a question whether Gandhi's vision of freedom or Nehru's concept of independence contained even an iota of individual self-respect.[7]

Periyar believed that self-respect was as valuable as life itself and its protection is a birth right and not swaraj ('political freedom'). He described the movement as Arivu Vidutalai Iyakkam, that is, a movement to liberate the intellect.[8]

The terms tan-maanam or suya mariyadai meaning 'self-respect' are traceable in ancient Tamil literature considered a virtue of high valor in Tamil society. Periyar once claimed that to describe the ideology of his movement, no dictionary in the entire world, implying that no other language, could provide a word better than or equal to suya mariyadai.[8]

Started as a movement (Iyakkam in Tamil) to promote rational behavior, the Self-Respect Movement acquired much wider connotation within a short period of time. Periyar speaking with M.K. Reddy at the First Self-Respect Conference held in 1929, explained the significance of self-respect and its principles. The main tenets of the Self-Respect Movement in society were to be: no kind of inequality among people; no difference as rich and poor in the economic life; men and women to be treated as equals in every respect without differences; attachments to caste, religion, varna, and country to be eradicated from society with a prevalent friendship and unity around the world; and every human being seeing to act according to reason, understanding, desire, and perspective, and shall not be subject to slavery of any kind or manner.[8]

Equality with stress on economic and social equality formed the central theme of the Self-Respect Movement was due to Periyar's determination to fight the inequalities ingrained in the caste system and religious practices. Working on the theme of liberating the society from the baneful social practices perpetrated in the name of dharma and karma, Periyar developed the idea of establishing this movement as the instrument for achieving his objective.[9]


Tamil Brahmins (Iyers and Iyengars) were frequently held responsible by followers of Periyar for direct or indirect oppression of lower-caste people on the canard of "Brahmin oppression" and resulted in attacks on Brahmins and which among other reasons started a wave of mass-migration of the Brahmin population.[10] Periyar in regards to a DK member's attempt to assassinate Rajagopalachari, "expressed his abhorrence of violence as a means of settling political differences".[11] Eventually, the anti-Brahmanism subsided with the replacement of the DMK party by the AIADMK.[12]

Self-Respect marriages

One of the major sociological changes introduced through the self respect movement was the self-respect marriage system, where by marriages were conducted without being officiated by a Brahmin priest. Periyar had regarded the then conventional marriages were mere financial arrangements and often caused great debt through dowry. Self-Respect marriages encouraged inter-caste marriages and arranged marriages to be replaced by love marriages. It was argued by the proponents of self-respect marriage that the then conventional marriages were officiated by Brahmins, who has to be paid for and also the marriage ceremony was in Sanskrit which most people did not understand, and hence were ritual and practices based on blind adherence.[13]


  1. ^ N.D. Arora/S.S. Awasthy. Political Theory and Political Thought. ISBN 8124111642. 
  2. ^ Thomas Pantham, Vrajendra Raj Mehta, Vrajendra Raj Mehta, (2006). Political Ideas in Modern India: thematic explorations. Sage Publications. ISBN 0761934200. 
  3. ^ Shankar Raghuraman, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta (2004). A Time of Coalitions: Divided We Stand. Sage Publications. ISBN 0761932372. 
  4. ^ Christopher John Fuller (2003). The Renewal of the Priesthood: Modernity and Traditionalism in a South Indian Temple. Princeton University Press. p. 118. ISBN 0691116571. 
  5. ^ Gopalakrishnan, Periyar: Father of the Tamil race, p. 64.
  6. ^ Saraswathi. Towards Self-Respect, p. 88 & 89.
  7. ^ a b Saraswathi, S. Towards Self-Respect, p. 2.
  8. ^ a b c Saraswathi, S. Towards Self-Respect, p. 3.
  9. ^ Saraswathi. Towards Self-Respect, p. 54.
  10. ^ Lloyd I. Rudolph Urban Life and Populist Radicalism: Dravidian Politics in Madras The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 20, No. 3 (May, 1961), pp. 283-297
  11. ^ Lloyd I. Rudolph and Suzanne Hoeber Rudolph, The Modernity of Tradition: political development in India P78,University of Chicago Press 1969, ISBN:0226731375
  12. ^ C. J. Fuller,The Renewal of the Priesthood: Modernity and Traditionalism in a South Indian Temple P117, Princeton University Press 2003 ISBN:0691116571
  13. ^ Hodges S (2005)Revolutionary family life and the Self Respect movement in Tamil south India, 1926–49 Contributions to Indian Sociology, Vol. 39, No. 2, 251-277

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