E. V. Ramasamy started the ‘Self Respect Movement’ in 1925 in Tamil Nadu (South India) against Brahminism. It was a movement with the aim of achieving a society in which oppressed castes have equal human rights. The Movement encouraged the backward castes to have self-respect in the context of a caste-based society that considered them to be the lower end of the hierarchy.
The Self Respect Movement was founded in 1925 by S. Ramanathan, who invited E. V. Ramasamy to head this Movement in Tamil Nadu against the caste bias of the Brahmins and to improve the living conditions of the Dravidian people. It was a dynamic social movement aimed at destroying the contemporary Hindu social order and establishing a new rational society free of religion, caste and god. It rejected the brahminical religion and culture, which E. V. Ramasamy felt was the prime instrument of exploitation of lower castes.
E. V. Ramasamy, popularly known as Periyar by his followers, rebelled against the Brahminical dominance and gender and caste inequalities in Tamil Nadu. Periyar also started the Tamil journal: ‘Kudi Arasu‘ in 1925 to propagate his ideas. He sought to undermine the position of Brahmin priests by formalising weddings without Brahmin priests. He also advocated not to invite Brahmins to the rituals and opposed the idol worship, forcible temple entry and bonfire of Manu Samriti.
The Self Respect Movement, also known as Dravidian Movement, advocated for equal rights for the backward castes, focusing on women’s rights. E. V. Ramasamy is known as the “Father of the Dravidian Movement“.
Annai Meenambai Shivraj and Veerammal were the two female leaders of the Self Respect Movement. Both were close advisors and friends of Periyar. Annai Meenambai was the one who first gave E. V. Ramasamy the title ‘Periyar‘, meaning the elder or wise one. Veerammal is said to have pushed Periyar to think more critically about how the Movement could do better, not just for the non-Brahmin castes but also for the Dalits and Adivasis.
Several Dravidian political parties in Tamil Nadu owe their origins to the Self Respect Movement. The Movement was not just influential in Tamil Nadu but also overseas in countries with large Tamil populations, such as Singapore and Malaysia.
Principles of Self Respect Movement
E. V. Ramasamy believed that self-respect was as valuable as life and that its protection was a birthright. He considered that if man developed self-respect, he would automatically develop ‘individuality’. He described the Movement as ‘Arivu Vidutalati Iyakkam‘, i.e., a movement to liberate the intellect.
Periyar observed that political freedom, as conceived by nationalists and others, did not cover individual self-respect. He declared that the Self-Respect Movement alone could be the genuine freedom movement, and political freedom would not be fruitful without individual self-respect.
The terms ‘tan-maanam‘ or ‘suya mariyadai‘, which means ‘self-respect’, are traceable in ancient Tamil literature. Inspired by this emphasis on self-respect in Tamil literature, S. Ramanathan and Periyar sought to advance this philosophy that developing self-respect in individuals would end caste discrimination.
Began as a movement to promote rational behaviour, the Self-Respect Movement acquired a much broader connotation within a short period. At the First Self-Respect Conference held in 1929, Periyar, speaking with M. K. Reddy, explained the significance of self-respect and its principles. The main principles of the Self-Respect Movement in society were to be:
- No kind of inequality among people,
- Men and women to be treated as equals in every respect without differences,
- No differences such as rich and poor in economic life,
- To eradicate attachments to caste, religion, and varna from the society with a prevalent friendship and unity around the world,
- Every human being seeks to act according to reason, desire, understanding, and perspective and shall not be subject to slavery in any form.
Equality with stress on economic and social equality formed the central theme of the Self-Respect Movement. E. V. Ramasamy developed the idea of establishing this Movement as an instrument to achieve his goals of liberating society from the baneful social practices perpetrated in the name of dharma and karma.
Objectives of Self Respect Movement
The Self Respect Movement propagated the ideologies of the dissolution of Brahminical hegemony, encouraged equal rights for the weaker sections and women in the society, and revitalisation of the Dravidian language, which included Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil, and Telugu.
The objectives of the Self-Respect Movement had outlined in two pamphlets: “Namathu Kurikkol” and “Tiravitakkalaka Lateiyam“, which were as follows:
- To build a society in which oppressed castes have equal human rights.
- To work for providing equal opportunities for growth and development to all people, irrespective of their community and religion.
- To eradicate untouchability and establish a united society based on brotherhood and sisterhood.
- Aimed for a social transformation after which friendship and fellow feeling comes naturally among all people.
- To provide shelter for orphans and widows and establish educational institutions.
- To discourage people from building new temples, mutts, chlorites or Vedic Schools.
- To discourage people from using their caste titles in their names and other similar practices that blindly followed.
Significance of Self Respect Movement
The significant aspects of the Self Respect Movement were Anti-Brahminism and Self Respect Marriages.
E. V. Ramasamy was an advocate of anti-Brahminism. He claimed that to eliminate the caste system, driving away the Brahmins was crucial. During the 1920s, he spoke against the unbalance of the dominance of Brahmins over government jobs, the judiciary, and the Madras University. In addition to his hatred against his perceived oppressor in the minority, Periyar was also anti-Hindu. In 1953, he organised agitations for the desecration of Ganesha idols.
Due to Periyar’s propaganda against orthodoxy, the Brahmins slowly lost their monopoly of power and influence. The Movement energised people with a sense of self-respect; and, above all, self-confidence to fight against social injustice perpetrated by the Brahmins of the day.
The practice of having separate dining places for Brahmins in every hotel, or reserving different eating places for Brahmins during public feasts, was slowly given up due to the agitation by the supporters of the Movement. People started taking pride in giving up their caste names.
Another sociological change introduced by the Self Respect Movement was the Self Respect Marriage System, whereby marriages were conducted without being officiated by a Brahmin priest.
E. V. Ramasamy had regarded the then conventional marriages as mere financial arrangements, which often caused high debt through dowry. The proponents of the Self Respect Movement argued that the then traditional marriages were officiated by Brahmins, who had to be paid. Also, the marriage ceremony was in Sanskrit, which most people did not understand, and thus, were rituals and practices based on blind adherence.
The Self-Respect Movement encouraged widow remarriage as well. The Movement also promoted inter-caste marriages, replacing arranged marriages with love marriages that are not constrained by caste.
The first self-respect marriage that was entirely devoid of any Hindu ceremony was the marriage of the prominent Self-Respect Movement writer Kuthoosi Gurusamy with another prominent leader Kunjidham under the presiding of E. V. Ramasamy on 8 December 1929.
After the Independence of India, Tamil Nadu became the first State, followed by the Union Territory of Puducherry in 1971, to legalise Hindu marriages conducted without a Brahmin priest. As a result of the Self-Respect Movement, the number of inter-caste and inter-religious marriages has increased in the State.
In addition to several anti-caste ideologies of the Self Respect Movement, it also encouraged equal rights for women. Widowhood was not penalised through religious beliefs. These ideas attracted several women from all walks of life to the Movement.