The Brahmins in the Madras presidency, who identified themselves as being of an Aryan origin, enjoyed a higher position in India’s social hierarchy. By the 1850s, Telugu and Tamil Brahmins were only 3.2% of the population. However, they began to increase in their political power by filling most of the jobs that were open to Indian men. They dominated the administrative services and the urban professions. This was due to their high literacy and English language proficiency.
During 1910 – 1920, 8 out of 9 members of the Madras Legislative Council were Brahmins. They were appointed to the legislative council by the Governor of Madras. Another majority of Brahmins were elected to the council from the district board and municipalities. During this period, there were 11 major newspapers and magazines in Madras Presidency, 5 of which were published by Brahmins or sympathizers of Brahmins. Even the Indian National Congress’s regional branch was dominated by Brahmins.
The following table shows the distribution of different caste groups in 1912:
|% of total male
The Brahmins exercised their superiority in the political society through their positions of authority in the British government and through their caste in the civil society. They promoted English and Sanskrit over Tamil. They claimed that Tamil Language and literature were derived from the Sanskrit language and literature. They argued that Devanagri was the common script of all Indian languages. They made the study of Sanskrit compulsory at Madras university. This marginalized the majority Tamil-speaking population. The Brahmins could speak fluently in English but none could speak a single sentence in Tamil without using a high percentage of English and Sanskrit words. Sanskrit was used to valorize the Brahmins and inferiorise the majority of native Tamil.
Scholars trace the Dravidian movement’s ideological beginning to a tiny group of highly educated Vellalas such as P Sundaram Pillai, J M Nallaswamy Pillai, V. Kanakasabhai and Maraimalai Adigal. This group of Vellalas were elites with no popular base. Also, they had no desire to be involved with the masses. But because they stressed the past glories and were suspicious of the outsider, it got them the attention of the people.
Maraimalai Adigal was the last of Vellala ideologues. He had changed his name from S.Vedachallam Pillai to remove Sanskrit words from his name. In 1916, he launched the Tamil Purist movement to resist those who claimed that the Tamil language originated from Sanskrit.
Maraimalai was a scholar not just of Saivism and Tamil language but also of Sanskrit and English. He was well read in Western literature. He combined all of this knowledge to develop a neat version of Dravidian ideology.
Maraimalai believed that people should think for themselves and examine their beliefs in the light of reason and history. This freedom of thinking was accelerated by the spread of Western education. He developed a specific sequence of history that made occupation the sign of progress or lack of progress. He noted that Vellalas discovered and refined farming. Before that everyone depended on hunting for food. People lived a nomadic life before they learned to farm. Only after the discovery of farming, people settled down.
Settled farming by the Vellalas not just freed them from survival hardships, but also espoused in them a superior moral code and behaviour. Cultivation required higher intelligence than nomadic living. Due to this higher intelligence, Vellalas were compassionate and practiced vegetarianism.
Aryan Brahmins on the other hand, according to Maraimalai, despised cultivation as a lower profession and continued to perform blood sacrifices. They also worshipped lower gods. When the Vellalas tried to disrupt their blood sacrifices, the Brahmins were angered and labelled them as Rakshasas and Asuras.
Brahmins rose over Tamil societies through imitation and co-option. To impress the Tamil kings, they divided the Tamil society into 3 groups, all lower than themselves. These were the Kshatriyas, who were kings and nobles; Vaisyas, who were the trading people; and Sudras, who were the labourers and farm workers. By accepting this classification, the rulers of the Tamil people led the Tamilians into becoming slaves of the Aryan Brahmins. Later on, they referred to everyone other than themselves as Shudras. They considered them untouchables. They would not let them draw water from the same well or come near them. They replaced animal sacrifices with other types of sacrifices. Before this caste system, Tamils identified themselves only by their professions.
Thus, Maraimalai, through his discussions dethroned Brahmins, but he replaced them with Vellalas. He believed that Vellalas were to protect and uplift non-Vellalas, just as they were doing before the coming of the Aryan Brahmins.
Vellalas’s ideology was transformed into the Self Respect Movement in the 1920’s and 1930’s.
Iyothee Thass (1845 – 1914), was a Dalit who converted to Buddhism. He founded the South Indian Buddhist Association. Tamil Buddhists were a casteless society. They were able to voice the concerns of the marginalised and caste oppressed, leading to a universal vision of equality for all.
Led by several civic leaders including Iyothee Thass, Southern people began a battle for their equal rights. The South Indian Liberal Federation, commonly known as Justice Party, was formed in 1916 on an anti-Congress and anti-Brahmanical stance. Their goal was to establish the fair and equal distribution of socio-political power. They demanded democratic representation for non-Brahaman caste in the fields of education, administration and legislation. Their plan of action was to educate non-Brahmins in large numbers, to work for self and the country’s development, to join together to ensure fair representation for all communities in administrative and legislative bodies and finally to build a casteless Tamil society.
In 1920, Justice Party was successful in running a diarchic government in Madras presidency. On 16 September 1921, they passed a government order by which they increased the posts in government offices for non-Brahmins. All district collectors were instructed to be careful to ensure that Junior appointments in their districts were not monopolised by a few influential families. They also passed legislation in support of inter-caste marriages, to abolish the Devadasi system, to open business opportunities for the common people, and for opening the temples for the depressed classes. They promoted primary education, women’s education, and technical industrial and agricultural education.
Self Respect Movement
The founder of the Self Respect Movement was Erode Venkatappa Ramasamy Naicker. He was better known as Periyar. The title Periyar means a great man. This title was conferred on him by the people during his struggle against Brahminic culture and ideology.
Periyar had joined the Congress in 1919 and he soon also became a prominent figure in Tamil Nadu Congress. However, he noticed that Brahmins were in control of the Tamil Nadu Congress. Therefore he left Congress and organised a Self Respect Movement for the Dravidian people and also to oppose ‘politics of piety’ as promoted by Gandhi. The most crucial event in his early public life that made him get disillusioned with the Congress party was when he saw separate dining arrangements for Brahmins and non-Brahmins in Congress sponsored residential schools in Madras. He tried to reason against such discrimination in the name of maintaining harmony, but he was unsuccessful in his attempts. There were other incidents as well that disillusioned him from the Congress.
Apart from speaking against the Brahmins, he also spoke against Vaishnavism and the Vaishnavites. The Vellalas and the Saivaites cheered Periyar because he spoke against the caste system. He too held the Aryan Brahmins responsible for the caste system in Tamil Nadu. He believed that Hinduism was nothing but Brahminism. The Saivites gathered evidence to prove this. So they supported him until he started speaking against their beliefs also. When this happened, Maraimalai strongly opposed Periyar through his writings. Even though various leaders of the Saivite movements tried to change the rituals and the caste practices of the Saivites to meet the challenge of the Self Respect movement, Saivites were eventually marginalized and sidelined in Tamil politics.
Periyar did not believe in God. He did not valorise the past as Maraimalai did. He strongly condemned retreating to a glorified past. According to him, only because of these ancient principles of the Tamils, they got deceived by the outsiders and plunged into foolishness. He believed there was nothing to gain by talking about ancient Tamils. Apart from criticising a Brahminical caste system, he also spoke against degradation of women in Hinduism. His movement addressed a wide range of such issues wherever any people were made inferior to others. Therefore, the Self Respect movement was widely accepted among Tamil people. He encouraged the oppressed people to rise up to fight for their own rights.
Periyar denounced caste observances, child marriage and prohibition of widows to remarry. He attacked the Laws of Manu, which he called the basis of the entire Hindu caste system.
In 1944, He established Dravida Kazhagam. The prime objective of this movement was to establish a non-Brahminical Dravidian state.
It is worthwhile to mention here that Periyar gained his popularity for the anti-Hindi agitation in 1937. Hindi was being introduced as a compulsory subject in Southern schools. Periyar waved black flags against it. After the death of 2 agitators in police firing, the government was forced to make Hindi an optional subject in schools. Soon after this, Periyar was elected president of the Justice party. Also in 1938, he demanded a separate country for Tamil Nadu while fully supporting Pakistan’s creation.
Tiruchirapalli Conference 1945
In 1945 in a Dravida Kazhagam conference at Tiruchirapalli, a constitution was adopted to make Dravida Nadu a casteless society to which all the depressed and downtrodden could pledge their loyalty. They adopted a black flag with a red circle in the center as their emblem. The black color represented the mourning for the hope of Dravidasthan. They proclaimed opposition to British rule. Periyar called upon Dravida Kazhagam members to give up any titles given to them by the British. He also asked them to resign from their British government jobs.
Black Shirt movement
Dravidian movement followers wore black shirts to symbolise their support for the movement. When the Brahmins, the Tamil Nadu Congress, and the newspapers complained and criticized the wearing of black shirt, Periyar explained that this was to only show that a group of Dravidians had realized their inferior position in the society and they had organized themselves under a leader to better their condition.
Dravidian Student Association
C. N. Annadurai organized a Dravidian student association. They held their first conference in Madurai on 20th October 1944. It was attended by 600 student representatives and 1000 visitors from various colleges affiliated to the university of Madras. A large number of school students also participated. A student secretariat was setup. Devamani Rajan became its first president. 12 secretaries were also appointed to represent various centres, and to enroll members for the student association.
M. Karunanidhi was an active student member of the Thiruvarur branch. He distinguished himself by running a student magazine called Murasoli, which today is a leading newspaper in Tamil Nadu. Madras Branch started a free library and a successful debating society.
Publications of Dravida Kazhgam
Kazhagam published 2 daily newspapers, Viduthalai and Kudi Arasu. Even though their circulation never exceeded 10,000 copies and 15,000 copies respectively, they were read by 10-15 times that number through various reading rooms established by Kazhagam. These papers carried information related to the party.
The only person who rose up in support of Periyar when he was speaking up for the oppressed people was C. N. Annadurai. Annadurai was not only popular among the masses, but also among college students and academicians. This was because he wrote very well and also performed plays in which he himself acted. His popularity made Ramasamy jealous of him. Soon differences arose between them forcing Annadurai to separate from him and start Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK).
Annadurai headed DMK as its secretary general from 1949 to 1969 until his death on 3rd February 1969. He was the first non-Congress party leader to win state-level elections with a majority in any state in India. This happened in 1967. He served as Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu from 1967 to 1969.
M. Karunanidhi became the first president of DMK from 1969 onwards. He served as DMK president until his death on 7th August, 2018. He served as Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu for 5 non-consecutive terms.
AIADMK was also a Dravidian party founded by M.G. Ramachandran on 17 October, 2022. It was a breakaway faction of DMK. M.G.R. became the Chief minister of Tamil Nadu defeating DMK in the state elections in 1977. He was the first film actor to become a Chief Minister in India. He remained Chief Minister till his death in 1987 after winning 2 more elections in 1980 and 1984.
From 1989 to 5 December 2016, AIADMK was led by J. Jayalalitha. She served as Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu 6 times.
Pandian M.S.S. – Notes on the transformation of `Dravidian Ideology: Tamil Nadu, c.1900-1940
Sahu, N.N. – Dravidian Movement
Greeto Sir’s notes – Dravida Kazhagam
Black Shirts in India (Periyar and the black shirt)