Thursday, October 29, 2020

Some articles on the Self Respect movement of the early 20th Century

 The Gyan Panchayat on 31st October 2020


The Principles of Self-Respect

(from Wikipedia)

The Self-Respect Movement is a South Asian movement with the aim of achieving a society where backward castes have equal human rights, and encouraging backward castes to have self-respect in the context of a caste-based society that considered them to be a lower end of the hierarchy. It was founded in 1925 by S. Ramanathan who invited E. V. Ramasamy (also called as Periyar by his devoted followers) to head the movement in Tamil Nadu.

Periyar was convinced that if man developed self respect, he would automatically develop individuality and would refuse to be led by the nose by schemers. One of his most known quotes on Self-Respect was, "we are fit to think of 'self-respect' only when the notion of 'superior' and 'inferior' caste is banished from our land".

Periyar did not expect personal or material gain out of this movement. He used to recall in a very casual manner that as a human being, he also was obligated to this duty, as it was the right and freedom to choose this work. Thus, he opted to engage himself in starting and promoting the movement.

Periyar declared that the Self-Respect Movement alone could be the genuine freedom movement, and political freedom would not be fruitful without individual self-respect. He remarked that the so-called 'Indian freedom fighters' were showing disrespect of self-respect, and this was really an irrational philosophy.

Periyar observed that political freedom as conceived by nationalists such as Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru and others did not cover individual self-respect. To him neither revival of the original spirit of Hindu religion and ancient traditions which formed part of Gandhi's conception of freedom, nor complete liberation from the British rule which was considered by Nehru to be the meaning of freedom or both of them together could ensure individual self-respect or the eradication of social ills from Indian society. In his opinion, the task of fulfilling the need for self-respect would have to be faced whatever be the extent of political freedom gained. Pointing out that even the British monarch in a sovereign independent nation had no freedom to marry a person of his choice and had to abdicate his kingdom, Periyar raised a question whether Gandhi's vision of freedom or Nehru's concept of independence contained even an iota of individual self-respect.

Periyar believed that self-respect was as valuable as life itself and its protection is a birthright and not swaraj ('political freedom'). He described the movement as Arivu Vidutalai Iyakkam, that is, a movement to liberate the intellect.

The terms tan-maanam or suya mariyadai meaning 'self-respect' are traceable in ancient Tamil literature considered a virtue of high valor in Tamil society. Periyar once claimed that to describe the ideology of his movement, no dictionary or language in the entire world could provide a word better than or equal to suya mariyadai.

Started as a movement (Iyakkam in Tamil) to promote rational behavior, the Self-Respect Movement acquired much wider connotation within a short period of time. Periyar, speaking with M.K. Reddy at the First Self-Respect Conference held in 1929, explained the significance of self-respect and its principles. The main principles of the Self-Respect Movement in society were to be: no kind of inequality among people; no difference such as rich and poor in economic life; men and women to be treated as equals in every respect without differences; attachments to caste, religion, varna, and country to be eradicated from society with a prevalent friendship and unity around the world; with every human being seeking to act according to reason, understanding, desire, and perspective, and shall not be subject to slavery of any kind or manner.

Equality with stress on economic and social equality formed the central theme of the Self-Respect Movement and was due to Periyar's determination to fight the inequalities ingrained in the caste system as well as certain religious practices. Working on the theme of liberating the society from the baneful social practices perpetrated in the name of dharma and karma, Periyar developed the idea of establishing this movement as the instrument for achieving his objective.

Self Respect

Periyar's philosophy of self-respect was based on his image of an ideal world and a universally accepted one. His philosophy preaches that human actions should be based on rational thinking. Further, the outcome of the natural instinct of human beings is to examine every object and every action and even nature with a spirit of inquiry, and to refuse to submit to anything irrational as equivalent to slavery. Thus, the philosophy of self-respect taught that human actions should be guided by reason, right and wrong should follow from rational thinking and conclusions drawn from reason should be respected under all circumstances. Freedom means respect to thoughts and actions considered 'right' by human beings on the basis of 'reason'. There is not much difference between 'freedom' and 'self-respect'.[55]

Periyar's foremost appeal to people was to develop self-respect. He preached that the Brahmins had monopolised and cheated other communities for decades and deprived them of self-respect. He stated that most Brahmins claimed to belong to a "superior" community with the reserved privilege of being in charge of temples and performing archanas. He felt that they were trying to reassert their control over religion by using their superior caste status to claim the exclusive privilege to touch idols or enter the sanctum sanctorum.[52]

Women’s rights

As a rationalist and ardent social reformer, Periyar advocated forcefully throughout his life that women should be given their legitimate position in society as the equals of men and that they should be given good education and have the right to property. He thought age and social customs was not a bar in marrying women. He was keen that women should realise their rights and be worthy citizens of their country.[56]

Periyar fought against the orthodox traditions of marriage as suppression of women in Tamil Nadu and throughout the Indian sub-continent. Though arranged marriages were meant to enable a couple to live together throughout life, it was manipulated to enslave women. Much worse was the practice of child marriages practised throughout India at the time. It was believed that it would be a sin to marry after puberty. Another practice, which is prevalent today, is the dowry system where the bride's family is supposed to give the husband a huge payment for the bride. The purpose of this was to assist the newly wedded couple financially, but in many instances dowries were misused by bridegrooms. The outcome of this abuse turned to the exploitation of the bride's parents wealth, and in certain circumstances, lead to dowry deaths. There have been hundreds of thousands of cases where wives have been murdered, mutilated, and burned alive because the father of the bride was unable to make the dowry payment to the husband. Periyar fiercely stood up against this abuse meted out against women.

Women in India also did not have rights to their families' or husbands' property. Periyar fought fiercely for this and also advocated for women to have the right to separate or divorce their husbands under reasonable circumstances.While birth control remained taboo in society of Periyar's time, he advocated for it not only for the health of women and population control, but for the liberation of women.

He criticised the hypocrisy of chastity for women and argued that it should either apply also to men, or not at all for both genders. While fighting against this, Periyar advocated getting rid of the Devadasi system. In his view it was an example of a list of degradations of women, attaching them to temples for the entertainment of others, and as temple prostitutes. Further, for the liberation of women, Periyar pushed for their right to have an education and to join the armed services and the police force.

Thoughts on the Thirukkural

Periyar hailed the Thirukkural as a valuable scripture which contained many scientific and philosophical truths. He also praised the secular nature of the work. Periyar praised Thiruvalluvar for his description of God as a formless entity with only positive attributes. He also suggested that one who reads the Thirukkural will become a Self-respecter, absorbing knowledge in politics, society, and economics. According to him, though certain items in this ancient book of ethics may not relate to today, it permitted such changes for modern society.

On caste, he believed that the Kural illustrates how Vedic laws of Manu were against the Sudras and other communities of the Dravidian race. On the other hand, Periyar opined that the ethics from the Kural was comparable to the Christian Bible. The Dravidar Kazhagam adopted the Thirukkural and advocated that Thiruvalluvar's Kural alone was enough to educate the people of the country.

Periyar also asserted that due to the secular nature of Thirukkural, it has the capacity to be the common book of faith for all humanity and can be kept on par or above the holy books of all religions.

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

By Vedika Agarwalla

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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