The Self-Respect Movement — The Emergence of South Indian Politics

The Self-Respect Movement was founded in 1921 by S.Ramanathan and invited E.V Ramasamy to head the campaign. E.V Ramasamy, popularly known as Periyar is regarded as the ‘Father of Modern Tamil Nadu.’ Periyar was a social activist, politician and a thinker who was way ahead of his time. He was the pillar of the Dravidian framework and philosophy that went on to shape the politics of Tamil Nadu.The Self-Respect Movement is also known as the Dravidian Movement. The three main ideologies that were propagated through this movement were the breaking down of the Brahminic hegemony, equal rights for the backward classes and women in the society and revitalization of the Dravidian languages which included Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, and Malayalam.

It opposed the domination of Brahmins as the superior class and hence, encouraged the facilitation of self-respect for those belonging to the lower end of the caste-based society in India. The movement believed in the principle of individuality which could be developed only when one gains self-respect.The movement had a lofty goal of achieving equality in various spheres of life. It wanted the liberation of the society from baneful social practices performed in the name of caste and religion which led to a vicious cycle of discrimination such as the practice of caste-based occupation and untouchability. The method of casteism led people to act in an irrational manner which hampered the ability of people to act according to reason, understanding, and perspective.

One of the most critical and significant sociological change that occurred through the Self-Respect Movement was the enforcement of self-respect marriages in which a marriage could be officiated without a Brahmin priest, as the ceremonies were usually conducted in Sanskrit which most people lacked an understanding of and therefore rituals were based on blind adherence. The movement regarded marriages to be not bound by caste and hence encouraged inter-caste and inter-religious marriages where one should be able to marry a person of their choice. The self-respect marriages stood for widows remarrying as well, because the prevalence of child marriages widowed many girls at a young age. Consequently, the movement was able to garner a wide audience of woman.Tamil Nadu was one of the first states to legalize Hindu marriages without the presence of a Brahmin priest which led to an increase of inter-caste marriages.

Apart from the anti-caste ideologies, the Self- Respect Movement had a deep-rooted sense of feminist values. It advocated for a society where a woman had the freedom over their physical, sexual and reproductive choice. Periyar’s model focused on enabling woman to gain access to contraception as well as permanent birth control; this came at a time when there was an extensive national talk on anti-conception medication. The feminist ideology of the movement propelled woman to have an equal right to choose partners, to divorce and the choice to remarry. The Self-Respect Movement wanted to bring a radical transformation in the heterosexual relationships by abolishing gender hierarchy and gender roles. It emphasized the importance of sharing domestic work and child-rearing activities among men and woman.

One of the primary aims of the movement was to eradicate the devadasi system which was prevalent in the eastern and southern parts of the country. In this system a woman between the ages of 7-36 were to dedicate their lives to the temple deity where they performed various arts. Initially the status of a devadasi was considered to be respectable, but later on, at the time of the colonial era, the devadasi system was condemned on the grounds of practicing prostitution as they bore many children to the priest and wealthy patronages. Moreover, the devadasi system isolated these woman from the society. Hence the movement consisted of women from all walks of life who were actively engaged in protests fighting for human rights. The basic motto of the Self-Respect Movement was to bring social changes in the society. It touched lives from all the strata of the community – not only attacked the caste system prevalent at that time, but also advocated for gender equality.

Even though Periyar never wanted this movement to become political, gradually it became so. As the movement slowly turned political, the leaders associated with it became power hungry, and corruption crept in. The origin of the two major political parties of Tamil Nadu- DMK and AIADMK can be traced to the Dravidian movement. Both these parties of Tamil Nadu have ruled the state for more than half a century. These parties have defiantly brought significant social changes, but subsequently, their main aim became to capture the popular mandate and vote bank politics. Unfortunately, most of the mass movements in our country which have noble intentions of bringing radical changes in our society tend to deviate from its intended goal.

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