Periyar: The Man Behind Tamil Nadu’s Dravidian Politics

Decades after his death, Periyar’s ideology continues to influence Tamil Nadu’s Dravidian politics. 

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(This article from The Quint’s archives has been republished to mark Thanthai Periyar’s death anniversary. It was originally published on 24 December 2017.)

Tamil Nadu politics as we know it today was shaped by one man – EV Ramasamy. Popularly known as Thanthai Periyar, he was more of a social activist than a politician, best remembered for his vociferous lobbying caste-eradication and ‘self-respect’

Periyar joined the Indian National Congress in 1919, and went on to head the Madras Presidency Congress Committee in 1922. However, he quit the party in 1925, after his attempts to bring about caste-based reservation in government jobs fell on deaf ears.


After quitting the Congress, Periyar began the ‘self-respect’ movement, aimed at instilling pride over the Dravidian culture in non-Brahmins. His movement resonated with the masses and Periyar travelled the world from 1929, to find a political ideology that would further the cause of the movement. This is when he became heavily influenced by Marxist ideology, even though he did not advocate abolishing of private ownership.

In 1939, Periyar was called upon to head the Justice Party, which was formed by the non-Brahmins in Madras Presidency with the aim to wrest power from the hands of the Aryans. Periyar renamed the party ‘Dravidar Kazhagam’ in 1944. Over time, the DK would go on to birth several offshoots like the DMK and the AIADMK.

The DMK was carved out from the DK after Periyar and his ‘right-hand-man’ CN Annadurai went their separate ways. Where on one hand, Periyar refrained from entering electoral politics, Anna was keen on fighting the elections with an eye to defeat the ‘Hindi-imposing’ Congress. But despite their differences, the core intent of both the DK and the DMK remained lobbying for ‘self-respect’ among the masses in rural and semi-rural areas.

Periyar passed away in 1973 but his ideology continues to influence the political landscape of Tamil Nadu, which remains a Dravidian stronghold till date.

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