Revisiting Periyar’s Fight for Social Justice & the Mother Tongue
(This article from The Quint’s archives has been republished to mark Thanthai Periyar’s birthday. It was originally published on 21 February 2018.)
The United Nations’ World Social Justice Day falls on 20 February. A cursory look at the newspapers since 1 February whilst sipping a cup of coffee would wrench our hearts.
Here are a few headlines to illustrate my point:
“Differently-abled and caregivers sidelined in the Budget”
“Women comprise an abysmally low percentage in lower judiciary”
“Dalits beaten up by caste Hindu outfits in Pudukottai at temple festival”
21 February sets the stage for the UN’s International Mother Language Day. At this juncture, it all seems very paradoxical as we recollect the Finance Minister creating history by delivering the parts of the Budget in Hindi for the first time in (H)India, and Sushma Swaraj’s magnanimity in offering to spend Rs 400-crore annually to make Hindi one of the official languages in the United Nations.
A Legacy of Social Justice
For a Tamizhian, it is indeed an uncanny coincidence that World Social Justice Day and International Mother Language Day fall simultaneously. At this happenstance, one ought not forget the ‘Prophet of the New Age,’ the ‘Socrates’ of South East Asia, Father of the Social Reform Movement, and arch enemy of ignorance, superstitions, meaningless customs, and base manners – EV Ramassamy aka Periyar.
Periyar waged an ideological war against social injustice and against imposition of an ‘alien language’ in Tamil Nadu.
This supreme proponent of political rationality advocated that the crusade against social inequality and against ill-founded imposition of Hindi went hand-in-glove.
Whether his contention is correct or not is a never-ending debate. However, it leaves no room for doubt that “imposition” and “anti-egalitarian attitude” are seldom desirable.
Periyar’s condemnation of caste-atrocities, vilification of religious hegemony and social dogmas are well-known. One may have to write volumes depicting his glory on implanting rationalism in the Tamil soil that was once infected by baneful practices. He also battled against the practice of untouchability.
A noteworthy event was the Vaikom Satyagraha. In 1924, when Vaikom in Kerala was chosen for Satyagraha, Periyar and his wife, Nagamma, led the struggle for the right of all castes to enter the temple. He was imprisoned for participation. Although the ‘satyagraha’ was withdrawn, he was baptised as the “Vaikom Veera” – or the hero of Vaikom.
The patriarchal perspective confined women to households; Periyar’s articulation on feminism broke chains of orthodoxy. He valiantly spoke of a woman’s right to marriage and a woman’s right to bear a child of her own accord, uncontrolled by men.
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The Fight Against ‘Hindi’
He propagated that upbringing of girls should be in no way different from the upbringing of boys. Prominently, he advocated widow remarriage. Moreover, the Dravidians spoke of family planning way back in the 1930s casting away the notion that children were gifts of God.
The Dravidians, led by Periyar, protested against the imposition of Hindi on non-speakers. In 1950, Hindi was made the official language of India ignoring all the other languages.
The Official Languages Act 1963 was passed wherein Section 3 of the Act postulated that “the English language may... continue to be used in addition to Hindi,” thereby giving a discretionary colour. This draconian law added fuel to fire. Periyar, his protégé Annadurai, and other stalwarts of the anti-Hindi movement organised statewide protests.
Students played the most active role reprehending the Hindi imposition. The people’s movement turned ugly as police opened fire on unarmed students in Annamalai University.
It is pertinent to mention that this excruciating movement against imposition of Hindi entailed self-immolation by martyrs. In 1967, the Congress faced an ignominious defeat in the state elections forcing to amend the said Act to a “virtual indefinite policy of bilingualism.”
It has been 100 years since the Justice Party was started and almost 45 years have passed since Periyar’s demise, and 40 years since the Official Languages Act was amended — but social injustice and language imposition remains alive.
(The author is a practicing advocate at the High Court of Judicature in Madras. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them)