Periyar’s Self Respect Movement

Movement was started by E. V Ramasamy Naicker. He was popularly known as “Thanthai Periyar”. This movement was intended to provide equal rights to non Brahmin backward castes in Tamil Nadu. All through his life, Periyar fought against Brahmin domination. E. V Ramasamy Naicker was born on 18th November in 1879. He was born in a rich high class family. He was a normal kid in every means. He left school at an early age of twelve and joined his father’s business. He got married to Nagammai at the age of nineteen and started handling his father’s business after his father’s death. Very soon, he became well acquainted with the business.

Periyar later entered politics. Periyar entered the public scene with the formation of Madras Presidency Association in 1917. It is in this place that his convictions and ideals were strengthened. He was known for taking ecisions on his own without the influence or pressure from others. At this time he showed some affiliation towards the congress party. He found the ideals of Congress party such as removal of untouchability, prohibition, improvement in the condition of masses similar to his ideology. He joined congress in 1919. He became a staunch follower of Gandhian principles. In 1920 Gandhiji started the non cooperation movement. Periyar closed down his whole sale business for the cause and also in order to fully work for the congress.

His commendable work during the Temperance Movement and Khalar Movement and also the Vaikom satyagraha made him very popular. He was given the title of Vaikom Veerar (Vaikom Hero). Slowly Periyar started loosing faith in the principles of congress party, because he felt that some leaders in the party itself were trying to spread differences based upon community. He was also in opposition to Gandhi’s and Nehru’s meaning of freedom. Gandhi’s meaning of freedom had a religious attachment to it, which Periyar never agreed upon.

Nehru freedom will be achieved only when we will be free from the clutches of the British. But periyar felt that true freedom means when one is free from all inequalities and everyone is the same in all conditions. This loss of faith in the principles of Congress, forced him to leave congress. Apart from this he was also very disturbed by the inequalities present in the society. He realized that the upper classes (the Brahmins) were the main people who were propagating the inequalities. Incidents such as Kashi yatra and Vaikom were the seeds for Self respect movement.

Periyar at the age of 25 went Varanasi because it was believed to be a very holy place. When he went there he noticed that Brahmins were being given better treatment. Periyar being a non Brahmin was not given any food. He was also not allowed to live in the hostel because it was meant for the Brahmins. This experience made him completely against Hinduism. The other event that hurt him more than the previous was that which happened in Vaikom in Kerala. At Vaikom, the lower caste people were not even allowed to walk or pass through the streets where there were temples.

These incidents really frustrated Periyar and he decided to start a movement against these social evils that treated people irrationally on the basis of the caste they took birth in. He was completely dejected to be a part of the social structure where one class of people claimed to be superior to others. Periyar belonged to upper class and an economically well-off family so in real terms he was not being affected by the situation. Hence he entered as an external agent in the whole scene to stand with these people and motivate them to raise their voices against the age old exploitations.

His extra-rational intentions to start this movement were to completely eradicate untouchability and to establish a united society based on brotherhood and sisterhood. The incidents of exploitation and ill treatment to the backward classes kept on building the frustration amongst the neglected masses but the major incidents like Vaikom episode instigated people to rise against these exploitations. This incident can be looked from the convergence approach where frustration and impulse keeps on building, until a collective action is activated by an incident.

This period was actually the time of social unrest because it was the time when the individual action was getting transformed into a collective action. The first Self Respect Conference was organized on 17th and 18th February Chegalpattu, Tamil Nadu where the main agendas related to tackling the situation of inequality were discussed. More than six thousand common people attended this conference basically to gain some insights regarding the social equality, social evils and ways of overcoming the forces of exploitation.

Two more conferences took place in 1930 and 1931 with the common aim to make people realize the need for a movement to fight against all odds and demand equality. It was actually after the conference of 1931 that the Self Respect Movement gained momentum and people started realizing that caste differences should never be encouraged. They started to feel that there should be equality in terms of social and economical considerations. The social service rendered by Periyar thus helped in the liberation nd upliftment of the neglected masses and brought them into the mainstream of National Life. Through this movement, Periyar wanted to enlighten the people by uprooting their ignorance. He used public forums to give speeches and instigate people to bring about change in the institutions and values that lead to meaningless divisions and unjust discriminations. He stuck to non-violence methods such as speech and other similar propagandas. He advised people to change according to the requirements of the changing times and keep pace with the modern conditions.

Periyar was of the opinion that everyone in politics was bound to turn dishonest and betray the cause he is working for. So he tried his best to keep political service and social service separate and kept away from politics completely. The Dravid Kazhagam party to which he belonged was also a social party and not a political one. Later, the political parties DMK and AIDMK were the offshoots of the Dravid Kazhagam party that still carry some similar ideologies of bringing economic and social equality in the society.

This movement resulted in the change in the way people thought. Periyar was able to create this awakening among the people who had, for generations, got used to a subordinate position. They started recognising the importance of sending their children to school and demanding equal rights and status. The important results of the movement were self-respect for the backward classes, reduction in the domination by Brahmins, social reform, economic equality to the backward classes, eradication of caste, removal of caste names.

There were some other achievements that were not under the agenda of the movement in the beginning but were achieved during the course of this movement like upliftment and equal rights for women and inter-caste marriages. The laudable social progress that has been achieved now in Tamil Nadu can be attributed to the Self-Respect Movement and the tireless propaganda conducted by Periyar over the years.


  1. Social movements in India- Rao, M. S. A
  2. A research paper by Louis Antony (http://snphilosophers2005. tripod. com/louis. pdf)
  3. http://www. thanthaiperiyar. org/political-career/self-respect-movement/

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