E.V. Ramaswamy Naicker

E.V. Ramaswamy Naicker



       Ramaswamy Naicker was undoubtedly one of the most colourful and important leaders of the anti-Brahmin, Dravidian movement in south India. He was born on 17 September 1879 at Erode, Tamil Nadu, in a well-to-do artisan family. His father, Venkatapa Naicker, and mother, Chinnaathai Ammal, were pious Hindus with an orthodox bent of mind and wanted their son to grow up in the orthodox tradition. Instead, their son, E.V. Ramaswamy Naickerwhen he grew up, tried to destroy all the tradition which was so dear to his parents.

Ramaswamy attended a local school only for three years. His teachers found that the boy was unfit for school education and advised his parents to withdraw their son from school. Ramaswamy never entered a school again. His parents put him into business, where he did not do too well either. His orthodox parents used to invite preachers, priests and pandits to deliver religious discourses, which motivated the young boy to study the scriptures in Tamil. The more he studied, the more critical he became about some of the tenets of Hinduism, especially its caste structure. While he was still struggling to decide about his future, he was married off at the age of nineteen to his thirteen-year old cousin, Nagammai.
His critical study of the religious texts did not satisfactorily answer his queries about caste distinctions, untouchability and other ills of the Hindu society. At the age of twenty-five, Ramaswamy left his family, without even telling his parents and wandered about like a recluse, visiting religious places in the north, including Kashi, in Search of the ultimate truth and spirituality. He had no idea how cold it would be in winter, in north India. Exposed to the chill and the rain, he suffered terribly. Exhausted and not much wiser, he returned home. However, his hatred towards Hindu orthodoxy was gradually taking shape.
But Ramaswamy’s protestations against the ills of Hindu society were somewhat subdued when he joined the Indian National Congress in 1907. For eighteen years, 1907-1925, he was in the thick of Congress politics in Tamil Nadu, and was also very active in public life, in and around Erode. He was an honorary magistrate for twelve years, and served as chairman of Erode Municipality in 1917 and was known for his efficiency and dynamism. He played active role in removing encroachments on public roads. He also got the sanitation system of the town considerably improved. This drew the attention of C. Rajagopalachari who was, at the time, chairman of the municipality of a nearby town, Salem. Rajagopalachari requested E.V.R. to lend the services of a trained sanitary inspector for Salem municipality. Several items in the agenda of the Congress appealed to Ramaswamy, like the eradication of untouchability, enforcement of prohibition, swadeshi and above all, their fight for the freedom of the country. In 1920, he joined the Non-Cooperation Movement under the guidance of Gandhi. E.V.R. courted arrest while picketing the toddy shops. After his arrest, his wife Nagammai and sister Kannamma continued the picketing. On his release, as a true satyagrahi, he resigned from all the honorary posts held by him. He even closed down the lucrative wholesale business of the family and destroyed all the promissory notes and documents of mortgages and ledgers. However, for E.V.R., his days in the Congress ended abruptly in 1925. Several incidents happened during 1924-25 which left a deep impression on the sensitive and rational EMR. In 1924, he took an active part in the Vaikom Satyagraha (Travancore state), which was organized for opening of roads leading to the Mahadevar temple, for all castes. Earlier, the low caste people were not allowed to use the roads. E.V. Ramaswamy emerged as the ‘Vaikom Hero’ for the depressed classes. A large number of depressed class people, led by Ramaswamy and his wife Nagammai, walked along the newly opened roads amidst great rejoicing." When Ramaswamy returned to Tamil Nadu, some orthodox Brahmins belonging to the Congress party resented his participation in the Vaikom agitation. He was hurt and could not understand the reason for their negative reaction.
Another incident which added to his resentment against the Brahmin orthodoxy in the Congress was observance of varnashrama Dharma in the Chiranmadevi Gurukula run by the Congress. This was a national volunteer training school getting Rs. 10.000 from the Tamil Nadu Congress party. To the surprise of Ramaswamy, Brahmin and non-Brahmin volunteers were served food in separate halls. The quality of food served was also different for different castes Brahmins getting much better food. The proverbial last straw came when the resolution moved by him in the Kanchipuram Congress in 1925, seeking justice for the non-Brahmins in the form of proper representation in the Congress bodies in Tamil Nadu, was defeated by the strong Brahmin lobby. He walked out of the Congress with a vow to take revenge. I will destroy the Congress in Tamil Nadu," E.V.R. told his followers, who had also walked out with him. He almost succeeded.
After leaving Congress in 1925, Ramaswamy launched the Self-Respect movement to fight for the cause of downtrodden, low caste communities. He vociferously, and somewhat crudely, attacked Brahmanism, Manusmriti and various rituals and institutions of Hinduism. He attacked their gods and goddesses and ridiculed various inhuman' instruments of Brahmanic and Aryan culture. He aspired to create a Dravidian state based on Tamil culture. In 1931-32, Ramaswamy visited several countries in Africa, Asia and Europe. He also visited the Soviet Union, where he was well-received as the leader of the atheist movement. The Soviet Union visit led him to believe that materialism, and not spiritualism, was the answer to the problems of the starving millions of this country. He asked his followers to address him as Comrade EV Ramaswamy. He dropped his caste name Naicker.
He came to prominence in 1937, when the Rajaji-led Congress government in Madras presidency made Hindi a compulsory subject in schools. Ramaswamy led the first anti-Hindi agitation in the south. He termed the imposition of Hindi an insult to Tamil culture. The anti- Hindi agitation soon gathered momentum throughout the Tamil speaking areas and the regulation had to be changed. When the Constitution of India made Hindi the national language, Ramaswamy refused to recognize Hindi as such. His Hindi phobias made Ramaswamy do some very eccentric and even comic things. His followers would go round the cities and towns of Tamil Nadu tarring and erasing Hindi letters on the billboards at the railway stations and at other places. Since then, anti-Hindi sentiments have carved a niche in the minds of the Tamil speaking people. The credit or discredit for this must go to Ramaswamy. In 1937, Ramaswamy was arrested for such activities. While still in prison, he was elected president of the Justice Party. This party was formed in 1916 to fight for the rights of the intermediate castes and its official organ was Justice. The party did extremely well during the 1920s, but was routed during the 1937 elections. When Naicker took over, the party was moribund. He tried to breathe life into the party with his anti-Hindi and anti-Brahmin slogans. In 1944, Naicker reorganized the Justice Party as the Dravida Kazhagam. A new rival to the Congress had emerged and the politics of Tamil Nadu took a new turn.
Since the late thirties, Naicker had also launched a separatist movement similar to the Muslim Leagues ‘two-nation' concept. He had started demanding a separate state for the Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam speaking areas calling it Dravidistan. At the Madras session of the Muslim League in April 1941, Naicker and some other non-Brahmin leaders were present as special invitees. Jinnah gave his blessings for their separatist demand and promised support for the creation of an independent, sovereign state in the south. He assured the non-Brahmin invitees that seven per cent Muslim population will stretch its hands of friendship and live with you on lines of security, justice and fair play. But when in 1944, Naicker reminded Jinnah of his promise through a letter (9 August 1944), the reply of Jinnah was non-committal. Jinnah wrote, I have always had much sympathy for the people of Madras, ninety per cent of who are non-Brahmins, and if they desire to establish their Dravidistan it is entirely for your people to decide on this matter."
On 30 March 1942, a Justice Party delegation led by Ramaswamy Naicker met Stafford Cripps and told him that their party owing to lack of education and of Wealth and opportunity was unable to win any election and to stand up against the more Wealthy and powerful Brahmin population. In View of this they demanded that Madras should be separated from the Indian Union. The Cripps proposals had provided for non-accession of provinces either through a vote of the legislature or by a plebiscite. The delegation argued that non-accession of Madras was not feasible by either of these methods. Hence they demanded separate electorate for non-Brahmins to achieve that end. Cripps replied that it was ‘a wholly impracticable suggestion”.
Later Naicker’s anti-Brahmin movement took an ugly turn when he and his followers started destroying Hindu idols, hitting the deities with shoes and chappals, blackening the faces of the idols and the priests, cutting the tufts of the Brahmins, breaking their rosaries, burning their scriptures, especially the Manusmriti, and insulting Brahmins in several other ways. He had built up a formidable anti-Brahmin cadre. Thousands of black flags with a red dot in the centre (the party flag) fluttered on house tops of party workers. They claimed to be the saviours of Tamil and Dravidian culture.
Then came a setback for Ramaswamy from an unexpected quarter. In 1949, at the age of seventy, Naicker married a twenty-eight year old party worker Maniammai. Thousands of party workers led by Annadurai left Ramaswamy’s Dravida Kazhagam. They formed a new party Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). The new party gradually became more popular and powerful. In the election of 1967 they Won majority of seats in the legislature and formed the ministry with Annadurai as chief minister. This, however, was indirectly the victory of Naicker against the Brahmanism, because the party was completely dominated by non-Brahmins
The anti-national and secessionist activities of Ramaswamy continued even after Independence. When India declared itself a Republic under the Constitution, it did not deter him from spewing venom. He openly said that he would prefer any alien rule to the Brahmanical rule. He declared Republic Day (January 26) as a day of mourning for the Sudras and the Dravidians. He had no hesitation in burning the national flag and the map of India. Till his last days, he stood for a sovereign independent Tamil Nadu. His questionable tactics, a disregard for other’s sentiments, made him unpopular even among the low-caste people. But his impact on the political scenario of Tamil Nadu is quite visible. However, to the chagrin of Ramaswamy, anti-national sentiment did not spread to other southern states. The tri-language formula adopted by India in 1965 defused and weakened the anti-Hindi forces. “Dravidian pride and cultural-linguistic assertiveness remained lively but was conducted within the political boundaries of the Indian Union”.
To propagate his views, Ramaswamy wrote several pamphlets and started several journals. In 1925, along with Thangaperumal Pillai, he started a Tamil Weekly Kudiarasu. Revolt, an English weekly was started in 1928. Purachi in Tamil was started in 1933 to propagate socialism, and Pakutharivu in Tamil in 1934, which was started as a daily but was later converted to a monthly. Naicker initiated a Tamil script reform and used it in Pakutharivu. This reform is adopted by the Tamil Nadu state government, educational institutions and by Tamil journals. The last important conference, in which Ramaswamy took active part, was the Superstition Eradication Conference in January 1971 at Salem. Age was catching up with him and his robust body was showing signs of decay after he crossed the ninth decade of his life. He addressed his last meeting in Madras on 19 December 1973. After that, he suddenly fell ill and died on 24 December 1973. His body was not cremated according to Hindu rites but was buried at, what is now called Periyar Thidal in Madras (Chennai). While the demand for a separate sovereign state of Dravidistan has died down, anti-Hindi and anti-Brahmin sentiments are very much alive in Tamil Nadu even today and the political equation has changed in favour of non-Brahmins. After centuries of dominance, Brahmins are at the receiving end in Tamil Nadu today. The credit for this goes largely to B.V. Ramaswamy Naicker, Periyar (great soul) to the millions.

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