Raising their voice

‘Liberty, equality and fraternity’: the Dravidian Movement in South India

“We are fit to think of ‘self-respect’ only when the notion of superior and inferior caste is banished from our land” — Periyar Ramasami.

I visited India last year in November as a Panos fellow. The trip was quite memorable in itself, but one thing that left a deep impact on me was our visit to Anna Arivalayam in Chennai, the official headquarters of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). DMK is the ruling party in Tamil Nadu. A permanent exhibition depicting the entire history of the Dravidian Movement has been installed in Anna Arivalayam. The exhibition includes portraits of Dravidian stalwarts, scholars and leaders who inculcated the spirit of Tamil language and Tamil culture into the minds of the people; drawings and photographs of significant events that took place during the evolution of the movement; a mini-theatre has been set up where documentary films of Dravidian leaders, namely Periyar Ramasami, C.N. Annadurai and M. Karunanidhi, are screened; a collection of articles, mementos, shields, statues and other works of art are also on display; and a bookstall has been set up with a rare collection of Dravidian writers. It was quite an experience to see all these historical things in one place and I could not agree more with what was written on the exhibition’s pamphlet. It said: “In toto, it is more a treasure house than an exhibition.”

The official website of the DMK gives a brief background of the party and the Dravidian Movement. It says, “Fed up with the domination of Brahmins and their religious fundamentalism, Periyar E.V. Ramasamy left the Congress in 1925 and formed the Self-Respect Movement which was later transformed into a liberation movement named Dravidar Kazhagam (DK) in 1944. C.N. Annadurai (better known as Dr Anna) and the other front line leaders took active role in spreading the ideals of DK. Due to differences with Periyar over certain policies and programmes, they left DK and formed DMK on September 17, 1949…[DMK was founded] to liberate the Dravidian race from the shackles of superstition and religious dogmas, to revive and restore the ancient heritage of Tamil and Tamil Nadu, and to protect Tamil language from Hindi imperialism.”

The Dravidian Movement advocated that India should have a social democracy instead of being a mere political democracy as the latter cannot last unless social democracy lies at the base of it. The movement recognised that all human beings are equal and it is the birthright of every individual to enjoy liberty, equality and fraternity. This movement was close to the precepts of equality and fraternity as espoused by the sufis of Islam. One significant aspect of this movement was its potential to raise a forceful voice for preserving Indian democracy, pluralism and egalitarianism.

The Justice Movement or the ‘Dravidian Movement’ actually began in December 1916 when the ‘Non-Brahmin Manifesto’ was released in Tamil Nadu. The manifesto argued for reservation in the provision of government jobs. It is said that around the time of the founding of the Justice Party, the Brahmins (who constituted only three percent of the population) dominated high-level positions in the government services. They occupied about 70 percent of the high-level posts. The Justice Party (DK) came to power in 1920 and reversed this trend by introducing reservation system. It allowed non-Brahmins to have high-level government positions in Madras Presidency. It is also significant to note that Madras was the first state in India where women were granted the right to vote in 1920.

The Justice Party was aggressively anti-religion, which is why the Dravidian Movement has consistently harboured and entertained secular credentials. The Dravidian Movement’s aim is to reconstruct society on an egalitarian basis and do away with the caste system. The title Shudras (untouchables) given to the Dravidians by the Brahmins means ‘menials’, which in itself is highly derogatory. “In Tamil country, the multi-layered ideology of Dravidianism emerged out of opposition to Brahmanism and Brahmin institutions of colonial rule, and in the hands of Periyar became associated with a vision of Dravidian and Shudra primacy against Aryan Brahmanism” (Hasan, Zoya, ‘The democratisation of politics’, Literary Review, The Hindu, February 2, 2003).

DK and its offshoot parties – the DMK and the AIADMK – came out of the anti-caste movement, where struggle for self-respect and dignity was first waged successfully in British India. This led to an attack on superstition, gender discrimination and caste discrimination. The Dravidian Movement opened up government services and other professions for millions of lower caste people who were denied entry into education and jobs due to the monopolistic control of the Brahmin community.

“The educated non-Brahmins by the beginning of the 20th century began to question the inferior position assigned to the Dravidian civilisation in history. Most of the non-Brahmin leaders in Madras city as well as in the districts hailed from the landowning and merchant castes and they began to aspire to political power and official influence commensurate with their wealth and status in society. The Brahmins hold a pre-eminent position in education especially the University, and, as a consequence, in the higher and clerical grades of government employment” (R. E. Frykenburg, ‘Elite formation in 19th Century South India: An Interpretative Analysis’, Proceedings of the First International Conference Seminar of Tamil Studies, I, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 1966, p. 573).

Tamil Nadu shows high Human Development Index (HID) rank compared to regions of North India, which did not have such a successful social reform, anti-religion, anti-caste movement. This is a legacy of the Dravidian Movement.

The case of Dravidians needs to be seen in the context of the fact that this part of the world saw many invasions and these invaders marred the original natives’ culture and civilisation, relegating them to a back seat in the process. In the US, the Red Indians and in Australia the Aborigines suffered the same fate. The so-called low caste system was also invented to keep the hold of the upper class, mostly aligned to power. In Pakistan, too, if not caste, minorities have suffered on account of discrimination in jobs and general social attitudes. In the matter of ethnicity the Urdu-speaking community known as the ‘mohajirs’ faced discrimination because of the quota system introduced by a so-called ‘political government’ in the 1970s. The uneven socio-economic system has affected the well being of the weaker communities. The religious factor in the perpetuation of injustice against the weak is also evident in Pakistan. The reign of pirs and fatwa-giving clerics, who are allied with the chaudhries and waderas, have kept the vast majority of illiterate population in Pakistan’s rural areas under their thumb.

In the absence of political development in Pakistan because of disruptions caused in democracy and subsequent suppression of weak classes, forceful voices have not emerged in the country. In the absence of political leadership with strong commitment to the causes of the weak and underprivileged and also due to lack of concept of community development, movements like the Dravidians have not taken root in Pakistan. The feeble but disorganised voices for share in jobs and other resources and also for preserving sub-cultures have not made an impact. One reason is of course lack of democracy and relative strict conditions for those trying to make their statement against injustice and atrocities related to power.


Kiran said…
Be careful what you wish for!

While the dravidian movement might be good on paper, you will have to see how this has shaped up in reality. Let me take just two points which you have mentioned in the post.

Equality: I am not sure if you are aware of this, but Tamil Nadu is one of the first practitioners of Reservation in India. On paper this was the tool to pay for the years of injustices meted out to the backward classes. However, today after around 80 years (which means at least three generations) reservations are still intact. This has had the adverse effect of making the actual backward classes even more backward.

As an example, if a person has properties and assets worth Rs. 25 crores, should that person and his family be treated as a Backward Caste. But M. Karunanidhi is considered a member of the backward caste.

Secular: Again on the ground this has turned to pandering to the minority community. While DMK says they do not recognise the Hindu God going so far as to call one of the Hindu Gods a drunkard, every care has been taken not to ruffle the Christian or Muslim feathers. Again there are numerous examples for which google can help you.

It is alright to fight for ideals, however you will have to remember that in the end human beings carry forward the ideal and most human beings have their self interest and self preservation at heart.
anonymi said…
Tamil Nadu shows high Human Development Index (HID) rank compared to regions of North India, which did not have such a successful social reform, anti-religion, anti-caste movement. This is a legacy of the Dravidian Movement.

Before you can imply causation, there are a couple of points to be considered. First, if there ever existed a HDI parity between north and south India. Without that, any comparison will have to be between the change in HDI over a certain period of time, and not their absolute values. Also, more importantly, such a theory does not explain why south India, in general, has a higher HDI than the north, despite the Dravidian movement being confined to only Tamil Nadu. (Mention of the communists from Kerala is probably in short order. Although that in itself can be disputed, I have to point out the much larger non-communist, non-dravidian-movement Karnataka.) In addition, the time line does not match up between when the Dravidian movement was most active and when the most improvement in HDI was observed.

The time line agrees better with the industrialization of Tamil Nadu. That coupled with a more successful population control program would be closer to the answer. But again, there is no way of making a meaningful comparison without past data. Although, I wouldn't trivialize the real impact of such social movements, I have to say that we usually tend to blow-up the positives out of proportion. Surely there are far more effective (read economic) reforms that would bring far greater improvements to HDI in both India and Pakistan.
Revathi said…
A small but important correction :Shudras are not untouchables, though they were denied higher education in ancient hindu society and were mainly artisans.This is important since this caste forms the majority of the hindu society in all the states. They form the biggest political power in India today.

The untouchables were oppressed by everyone and are called dalits or harijans today. They are having a lot of problems to overcome their backwardness even though they seem to be getting more organised politically.
Sairam said…
The dravidian movement also was a unique movement in brining some much needed self esteem , albeit using some divisive mean.

They used the language tamil , which is one of the oldest in the country and ran parallely to sanskrit 1000s of years, as a rallying point.

The other fact of course was that the call was to be part of the intellectual class. So education was identified very early as the means to development.

I am not sure whether the dravidian movement has delivered on its promises, but i think it gave an indentity to tamil nadu. It also has gone a fair way in equlizing the social structure in tamil nadu . But of late there seems to be a lot of political will in actually keeping the backward classes backward.
Anonymous said…
A balanced article i should say by the standards of a Pak journalists, who had become adapt at spinning the truth in favour of Paksitan Army.

Too much of credit has been given to the DMK for development of the state. It is just another political party which employ the tactics of divide and rule.

There are have been many significant movements that have focused on uplifting social classes that have probably done better than that of DMK movement. statement that 'anti-religion is secular' is funny.

DMK movement was a linguistic movement carried on the shoulders of the movie industry. That is why you will find that all top politicians in tamilnadu have acted in the movies.

DMK movement was anti-brahmin surely, after the britishers were gone someone had to be made a scape goat. Inspite of that Tamil brahmins have contributed enormously to the intellectual capacity of India.
Male said…
Mehmal, I heard a lot about your wishful thinking and fairy dreams about India. you are partially correct, everything is good till you are a Hindu in INDIA. sitting on the otherside and speaking good on internet is the easiest thing a person can do.

I can prove you wrong with all facts and figures. if you are open to debate reply me with your email ID. LET ME EDUCATE YOU THE DARKER SIDE OF INDIA and it's policies towars Indian muslims.

Yes if I had been born during Freedom struggle of India. I would have killed both Jinnah and Maulana Azad. These two individuals are primarily responsbile for today's muslims cause in INDIA.

my email id: male.express@gmail.com

prash said…
I would agree with all other people comments. DMK is just an another party, everybody shows only good things to others. Only the people around them can tell what exactly they are. from your point, since you were visiting India they have shown you the good things only. may be they are true. but till what extent they are, God only knows.

as I have seen in India, the backward community gets all the reservation / all the facilities. Still, there are hardly a very few handfull of people who really value them and they are success with their own deeds. Others, they just enjoy the facilities what they get and still they keep cribbing that they are from backward community and they need reservation (in all sectors), they should be given extra care.

Think its high time in India that everyone are to be treated equally, no reservations to anyone. if given, give it to all communities. what mistake we [other community] have done. Hope one more Dr. Ambedkar should not be required from each of the community to start over again as India was 100 years back. in the name of community / religion, all the politicians enjoy their share (even others share also). its only the common man like most of us will suffer.

to speak about, there are a lots. lets not start 3rd world war. then there will be nothing left to talk :)
anyways every nation has its good and bad (political statement huh' :| ).
Hi Mehmal, I am really impressed by your knowledge about internal Indian politics. What makes you so much interested in India all the more desipite so much that has happened between our countries all these years?? Your knowledge about this stuff is really amazing.....
vichchoobhai said…
During C.N. Annadorai's time there was a move to secede from the Union with violent anti-Hindi demonstrations in Madras ( now Tamilnadu) The reason - dominance of NOrth who were trying to force Hindi down the southerners' throats. Nehru the great statesman that he was,doused the fire by declaring that English would remain the official language indefinitely instead of yielding place to Hindi. Pakistani rulers too, tried to impose Urdu on East Bengal and with lack of political vision in Yahya and a miscalculation by Bhutto, and non-recognition of the electoral victory of Mujib-ur-Rahman finally led to birth of Bangladesh. Just shows how much importance we human beings attach to our mother tongue.

Present day scenario in Tamilnadu does not reflect the ethos of dravidian movement. The leader of one faction AIADMK is not a shudra but a high class Ayyangar Brahmin lady (Jayalalitha) who runs the party with an iron hand with no sucessors in sight. The other factin DMK is led by an ocatogenerian Karunanidhi a movie moghul who made his fortune as story and script writer and now presides over a media empire. He is populist with promises like colour t v sets to all poor families which he implemented at enormous cost to the exchequer. He has overt sympathy for LTTE in Srilanka ( aftrer all blood is thicker than water).

Globalisation and industrialisation of the state and political compulsions at the centre ( plum ministerial posts are held by DMK and its allies)have rendered the dravidian movement redundant.

The spread of Hindi ( thanks to Bollywood) in southern states has diluted the inguistic fervour a bit. A R Rahman a Tamilian Hindu who converted to Islam is the top most music director both in Tamilnadu and in Bollywood. There is exchange of actors and directors between the two mass production film factories of Bombay and Madras.

Though you were touched by the museum, its relevance is only historical now. But good to know the interst you have taken in Indian politics and political history. Keep it up
Anonymous said…
I see that you have been purpotedly given wrong leads by some dravidian cult leaders while around the arivalayam museum. Karunanidhi is actually a gang warlord who started as a small time thug in a political outfit and grew up as one of the few billionaires in the world. He has assests in swiss, London, US and other countries along with a fleet of ships, media empires, cement industries, real estates and port managements. He wasnt a business man but a thug turned politician so you know how these wealth came about for him. His whole family is now in politics as Members of parilament controlling the state of Tamilnadu and the centre with threat and bigotry. Reference http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_political_families#India

As for the article 'Shudra' are not Untouchables, to literally translate 'shudra' means wheel or the life force/wheel of a society, they largely comprise of the farmers who are reverend very much in the Indian society. The Dravidian ideologist converted the name to their own interest and called it the suppressed class after getting precedents from the french revolution.

In effect it is the 3% Brahmins who even though are highly educated suffer at the

indiscriminate hands of these dravidian cult leaders. Most of these DMK party people are

stinking rich as they plunder the wealth and hard earned money of Brahmins in the south, they even go to the extent of abducting the Brahmin women as they keep up chastity. Infact one of Karunanidhi's own wife is a Brahmin (he has 4 wifes and numerous concubines) and his grandsons have married Brahmin girls. Despite these they enjoy all rights under the parlance of Backward class.

The Brahmins are pacifist and dont revoult or advocate militancy hence they are crushed by these goons. The truth is Brahmins were targets of all sort of atrocities, they have been pushed out of the land as a systemic genocide excercise that still persist but goes unnoticed in the world, now most of the brahmins as they are educated find their place in other countries and settle and prosper there. Sadly no journalist come forward to document and show their suffering or plight to the world for fear on their own welfare. Even those who try to bring this affront are threatend, mislead or mercilessly killed.

If at all any country want to invade India it need not spend billions on weapons but bribe some millions to the Karuna family and they would sell the deed of the country. They are such nationalist.
bashir said…
to some extend i agree with Mr Malas comment.But he is wrong when he blames AZAD and JINNA responsible for muslim backwordness
in fact it was the duel nature of NEHRUES, GANDIS,ETC who provok JINNAHA to form separate homeland for Muslims.
Unfortinatly AZAD DID NOT support and he kept the Indian Muslims in Dark.....

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