By Aprameya Rao

Edited by Nidhi Singh, Junior Editor, The Indian Economist

After the Home Ministry’s issued an order asking officers to post messages on social media in Hindi – English being optional, all Dravidian parties opposed the order in the same tone, notwithstanding their usual differences. As the anti-Hindi rhetoric of the Tamil parties resurfaced, I, a ‘Tamilified’ Kannadiga, began surfing the pages of history to satisfy my inquisitiveness about the ‘Dravidian movement’.

The Justice Party era

The movement initially began as a reaction to the perceived Brahmin domination in education and government services in the Madras Presidency. The Brahmins, constituting just 3.2% of the total population, held nearly 70% of the positions in the British run bureaucracy, making them the object of hatred for the non-brahmins. To unite the non-brahmins of Madras against the powerful ‘Brahmin coterie’, C. Natesa Mudaliaralong with his associates founded the Madras Dravidian Associationin 1912, renaming it the South Indian Liberal Federation or ‘Justice Party’four years later. The party’s central agenda was to press for more representation to non-brahmins in government services. After the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms, it became the first Dravidian party to plunge into electoral politics – contesting & winning the 1920 legislative elections. Between 1920 and 1937, the Justice Party held power for 13 years, with only an interregnum between 1926 and 1930.

The party is still remembered for pioneering the biggest reform in modern India’s socio-political history – caste based reservation in jobs. In 1921, the government under the Raja of Panagal passed an order which reserves 44% of the jobs for non-Brahmins and 8% of the jobs for the Scheduled Castes. But his untimely death in 1928 accelerated the party’s downfall, which was complete when yielded power to the Congress in the 1937 elections.  A number of other reasons also added up to their electoral downfall, primary among them being the rise of the Congress in Madras after the Non-Cooperation movement. The Telugu-Tamil divide in the presidency harmed their prospects as many Telugu speakers began to accuse the party of Tamil hegemony. Nevertheless the final nail in the coffin had been the alleged misgovernance and indifferent attitude of the Ramakrishna Ranga Rao government towards the sufferings of the common man.

Periyar: the torchbearer of the movement 

After the decline of the Justice Party in the late 20s and 30s, EV Ramaswami Naicker, a Justice party leader, had a meteoric rise as the leader of the anti-brahmin movement. He founded the ‘Suya Maryadai Iyyakam’ or ‘self-respect movement’ in 1925 to promote rational-humanist ideas among the non-brahmins and eradicate the regressive caste system in South India.

Periyar – as Naicker is fondly addressed – should rightly be called the progenitor of the larger Dravidian movement. Before he arrived in the scene, the Justice Party and its predecessor the Madras Dravidian Association, both of which were driven by elite non-brahmins, only focussed on ending the economic & political dominance of Brahmins without giving any thought to social reforms. His ‘self-respect movement’ on the other hand primarily attempted at social reforms, mobilised non-brahmins to resist Brahmin chauvinism and lastly promoted the Dravidian languages.

The Aryan Invasion Theory, suggesting an alleged ‘invasion’ by Indo-European Aryans tribes that led to the southwards migration of the original Dravidian population of the Indus Valley Civilisation, along with the research works of Scottish missionary Bishop Robert Caldwell, who concluded that Tamil was much older than Sanskrit and the mother of all the languages of the Dravidian family, had inadvertently influenced the larger Dravidian movement.

Periyar believed Brahmins – dubbed ‘Aryans’ – to be responsible for the spread of irrational superstitious beliefs, declared the caste system alien to the Dravidian society and despised the increasing ‘Sanskritisation’ of Dravidian languages.  By conveniently mixing both the theories, he was able to give a xenophobic and ethnocentric colour to the movement which began as a social movement against social evils.

Periyar decried the 1937 order imposing Hindi, calling it a desperate attempt by the ‘Aryan North’ to subjugate the ‘Dravidian South’. While the order was finally withdrawn in 1940, a new demand for a separate ‘Dravida Nadu’ for Dravidians gained momentum. At one point of time even Jinnah and Ambedkar supported the idea but when it failed to garner public support, especially in the Non-Tamil speaking regions of the Presidency, the idea had its natural death.

The ‘self-respect movement’ under Periyar was successful in creating propagating the message of scientific temper amongst the people, inspiring other rationalist movements in India. The concept of self-respect marriages – which required no rituals and hence did not require a priest – brought about a sociological change in Tamil society. But its failure to spread outside the Tamil areas, partly due to its overtly pro-Tamil leanings, meant it remained a ‘Tamil only’ movement. A highly racist campaign forced Brahmins to flee en masse to safer locations, which raised questions about the true nature of the movement.

Independence and after: losing momentum

In 1949, C.N Annadurai, then Organizing Secretary of the Dravidar Kazhagam – the successor of the Justice party, broke away to form the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.  The new party initially demanded a separate Tamil Nadu, but the 16th Amendment to the Indian constitution made DMK to drop its demand forever. After 1957, the DMK focussed on safeguarding the rights of the Tamil people and preserving the Tamil language. The 1965 anti-Hindi agitation proved to be a turning point for the DMK, as public swelled in its favour. Two years later Annadurai was sworn in as the first CM of a regional party.

The meteoric rise of Dravidian politics can be attributed to the influence of Tamil cinema. The 1953 Sivaji Ganesan-starrer Parasakti was a landmark in the Dravidian movement, spurring more movies that propagated Periyar’s rationalist and egalitarian ideology. Many leading actors of the era including MGR – who later formed the AIADMK, MR Radha & SS Rajendran were leaders of DMK.

The DMK was instrumental in legislating self-respect marriages, which it did in November 1967. Four years later, it raised the educational quota for OBC’s from 25% to 31% and for SC/ST’s from 16% to 18%. But the steps it took to empower the schedule & backward castes were overshadowed by the infighting within the party. In October 1972, MGR, the popular cinema idol, broke away from the DMK to form the Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, after accusing its leaders of corruption. This event was the beginning of the end of the ‘original’ Dravidian movement.

In 1977, MGR became the first actor to become a CM of any state in India. He remained the CM until his death a decade later, initiating several ‘pro-people’ populist measures that plunged the state into financial crisis but nevertheless got him a Bharat Ratna posthumously.  His support for the LTTE too made him popular amongst the people but the state had to face its consequences just four years after his death.

Since 1987, the Dravidian movement has literally been a ‘Kollywood affair’, a tug of war between a nonagenarian scriptwriter and a yesteryear actress turned politician. It is quite evident whom I am referring to. The Cinema industry, which was instrumental in bringing the DMK government to power in the 60s, is now split in two camps. TV media too has not escaped this fate. Free & unbiased media is only a dream for ordinary Tamilians, with every other channel being a mouthpiece for some Dravidian party.

Dalits, considered by many as the original Dravidians (Adi-Dravidars), though better off when compared to their situation 6 decades back, are still being persecuted. Only the persecutor has changed – once they were Brahmins, now they are the communities which are classified as OBC.  The alleged indifference of the Dravidian parties towards the Dalits – who have only been used as vote-banks – has forced Dalit organisations to thread their own path, independent of the Dravidian movement.

The fate of both the parties now revolve around a personality – the ruling party around a religious Brahmin lady (what an irony!), while the other party is being held together by a family patriarch. With both the parties having weak second generation leaders, the movement will only be going downhill.

Aprameya is a final year student of KC College, Mumbai University, and is pursuing a degree in Economics. He has also completed an Advance Diploma in TV Journalism from KC College of Management Studies, Mumbai. He has previously interned with reputed media organisations like Press Trust of India & ZEE NEWS. A keen observer of Indian politics and international affairs, he aspires to be a political journalist. In his pastime he loves watching movies, especially Hollywood classics.

Posted by The Indian Economist | For the Curious Mind