Before Periyar, The Dravidian Movement Was Just Elites Fighting Elites

Why You Should Read This

  • With another election coming up in Tamil Nadu, people are once again discussing Dravidian politics and the current state of the Dravidian movement.
  • Many argue that the Dravidian movement does not embody its early principles of rationality and freedom from oppression anymore.
  • This paper, written by MSS Pandian in 1994, describes how the Dravidian movement was first born as a project by the powerful Vellala community and how Periyar and the Self Respect Movement transformed it into a radical and popular political project.
  • We have condensed the original 9000-word paper into a 1700-word summary. You can read it in fullClick on each point to dig deeper and get the complete picture. in 9 minutes or skim itRead only the numbered points. in 1 minute.
  1. At the end of the 19th century, the British-controlled regions of South India were dominated by Brahmins (both politically and socially) even though they were a tiny minority.
    • Brahmins constituted a little over 3% of the population of Madras Presidencywhich included most of present day Tamil Nadu, parts of Kerala, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh.
    • However, they held 42% of all government posts carrying a monthly salary of more than Rs 10. And the further up the ranks one went, the more over-represented they were – they held 58% of the 349 highest-ranking executive and judicial posts open to Indians.
    • While access to educationwhich was easily available to them due to their privileged position in society prior to the arrival of the British allowed Brahmins access to modern professions such as government service and law, they also simultaneously continued to hold on to their traditional caste practices and beliefs.
      • This meant that they could exercise their power through government in the public sphere or through caste hierarchy in the private sphere. And each of these powers helped maintain and support the other.
    • Other castes were understandably worried about this Brahmin domination. In 1878, a “Dravidian Correspondent” wrote in the Madras Mail that Brahmins should not serve in the judiciary. In his opinion, a Brahmin could not possibly be a fair judge when “he considers himself as a god and all others as Milechas”a Sanksrit term used to describe foreigners or barbarians.
  2. These powerful Brahmins mostly identified themselves with English and Sanskrit while looking down on Tamil language and culture.
    • They spoke English in the office and in public forums and became well-versed with Western intellectual thought. At home, they spoke a dialect of Tamil heavily-infused with Sanskrit, which they rarely used in public.
      • English allowed Brahmins access to power through the colonial “political society,” while Sanskrit reinforced their grip over Hindu “civil society.”
    • Brahmins claimed that the there was very little that was original in the Tamil language and its literature as most of it came from Sanskrit.
      • Based on this understanding, they argued for Devanagari to be used as a common script for all Indian languages, made learning Sanskrit compulsory for those seeking to study Tamil, and opposed the singing of Tamil songs in Carnatic music concerts.
    • But at this same time, European scholars were finally discovering that Tamil had its own unique identity and history. Non-Brahmin elites – specifically the Vellala caste – seized on this to empower themselves.
      • This school of thought rejected the idea that Tamil was derived from Sanskrit.
      • It further argued that very few Brahmins had contributed anything of note to Tamil literature and that it had been developed entirely by “native Tamilians”, operating independently.
  3. The origins of the Dravidian Movement can be traced back to an ideology created by “a tiny group of highly educated and capable Vellalas” in the early 19th century.

    • The Vellalas are a dominant agricultural landowning caste, who followed  a “Brahminical” form of Saivism, which was associated with strict vegetarianism.
      • Their control over land and alliance with Brahmins gave them a lot of power in pre-colonial society, which was greatly diminished by the further rise of the Brahmins under colonial rule.
      • Despite their close association with Brahmins, Vellalas were  designated as Shudras due to their occupational role as cultivators.
        • In South India, the four-fold division of castes that is common in the North is absent. Instead, typically, there are only two castes – Brahmin and Shudra, with Dalits being outside the caste system entirely.
    • The Vellala intellectuals who originated the Dravidian ideology are described as having “no popular base” and “no desire to be involved with the masses.” Their primary stage was within elite institutions and spaces.
  4. Maraimalai Adigal was one of the last famous Vellala thinkers to shape Dravidian thought. He claimed that in ancient Tamil society, Vellalas were the most advanced community because they were cultivators and followers of Saivism. To him, Brahmin culture was uncivilised.

    • Originally named Vedachalam Pillai, Adigal was such a staunch advocate of “pure Tamil” that he changed his own name as part of his efforts towards removing Sanskrit words from the language.
    • In addition to being a scholar of Saivite and Sanskrit philosophy, he was also deeply influenced by Western ideas – particularly the Enlightenment. All of these schools of thought come together in his work.
    • For Adigal, agriculture – the occupation of the Vellalas – was the true mark of civilisation. It required intelligence to execute and allowed humans to “cultivate their minds” and develop “superior moral codes.”
      • He linked this idea of superior morality to the core Saivite belief of “non-killing” (i.e. vegetarianism)
    • In sharp contrast, Adigal saw the early Aryan Brahmin lifestyle – based on hunting and pastoralism – as uncivilised. As evidence, he pointed to their performance of violent animal sacrifices for their gods.
      • He argued that when Tamil kings such as Ravanan attempted to stop these sacrifices, the Aryan Brahmins marginalised them.
        • Their books seemed to refer to Vellalas as monsters – “rakshasas”, and “asuras.”
        • These books also condemned the practice of cultivation and forbid Brahmins from indulging in it.
    • According to Adigal, the Brahmins’ success in acquiring power in the South did not mean they had become civilised.
      • He argued that though they had adopted non-killing, it did not flow from compassion like it did with the Vellalas. This, to him, was the only explanation for Brahmins never offering food to others, not allowing others to draw water from their wells, bathe in their tanks, or allow those belonging to Dalit communities like Pallars or Parayars to even come near them.
      • This argument was crucial to the next phase of Adigal’s thoughts as it delinked the Brahmins’ power from any claim of moral superiority, which still rested with the Vellalas.
  5. Based on this understanding of history, Adigal then articulated a new vision of society that dethroned Brahmins, putting Vellalas at the top instead. Essentially, he replaced the Brahmin caste system with a new Vellala “caste-like” system.

    • Using his two key arguments that Tamil society was originally devoid of caste and that Vellalas were morally superior to every other community, Adigal was able to propose that true Tamil society required Vellalas to be at the top with other groups free to move upwards as long as they imitated the practices of their superiors.
      • The crucial difference between this notion of society and the Brahmin caste system was that the compassionate Vellalas were shown as keen to protect and uplift those below them.
    • So for him, the solution to oppression was for the lower castes to be more like the Vellalas. This political vision offered little freedom to lower castes to define what freedom from oppression meant to them on their own terms.
  6. So this early Dravidian ideology was just about deciding who should be the real elites – until the arrival of the Self Respect Movement in the 1920s. At first, the two worked together to attack Brahminism. But that quickly changed when Periyar, began to attack all of Hinduism – including Saivism followed by Vellalas.

    • The Self-Respect movement was led by E.V. Ramasamy Naicker, popularly known as Periyar. His ideas matched those of Adigal in many respects: he too was influenced by the Englightenment ideals of reason and progress, he too argued that Aryan Brahmins had introduced the caste system among the Tamils in order to control them.
    • The official newspaper of the Self Respect Movement, Kudi Arasu, described how the Vellalas had enthusiastically supported the movement when it began to attack Brahminism and how they had rushed to provide supporting evidence when it denied the existence of a Hindu religion and claimed that Hinduism was just another word for Brahminism.
    • When the same Kudi Arasu began to write about how celebrated Saivite texts promoted casteism, Adigal described Periyar’s work as “atheistic vomittings.”
    • The battle between the Vellalas and the Self-Respecters went on till the late 1930s, with occasional spells of peace and collaboration in between – for example, during the anti-Hindi agitation.
  7. Periyar’s Self-Respect Movement took the original selfish vision of Dravidian politics and turned it into a real mass movement that fought against many kinds of oppression. His philosophy of rationality and freedom always looked towards the future and would come to shape Tamil politics for decades.

    • Periyar dismissed the glorification of ancient Tamil culture, arguing that they were only useful for “deceiving outsiders and plunging [oneself] into foolishness.”
      • He saw the past – and the future – as “an unending story of oppression and struggle against it.”
      • The core principle of his politics was rationality, which he argued could never be fixed and had to always change with time since what is reasonable today may seem like superstition tomorrow. So Periyar’s understanding of what freedom meant was constantly evolving.
    • Periyar also recognised that even in the same time period, freedom can mean different things to different people.
      • He said that there were many kinds of oppression and that one person can be an oppressor in one way and oppressed in another way. In his view, a Sudra man could be oppressed by a Brahmin, while still being an oppressor to women or Dalits.
      • By understanding that the Hindu religion and the caste system subjugated different people in different ways Periyar was able to go beyond the simple divide of Brahmin and non-Brahmin and  allow different groups of people the space to define what freedom meant for themselves.
      • He believed that only the oppressed could represent themselves and that no one else should speak for them. So his philosophy could appeal to the individual needs of each social group – Sudras, women, Dalits – separately and equally.
    • The changes brought into Dravidian politics by Periyar brought more social groups into its fold and therefore expanded its base and converted it into a true mass movement for the first time. This political platform created by Periyar and the Self-Respect Movement would go on to influence and shape Tamil politics for decades.

Source Text: Notes on the Transformation of ‘Dravidian’ Ideology: Tamilnadu, c. 1900-1940
Author: MSS Pandian
Publication: Social Scientist

Note: This is a summary of a single research paper. It reflects one argument that we think would be interesting or useful to discuss. It may not offer the full picture or represent consensus on this topic, both of which are always evolving. If you would like to know how other scholars have built on or critiqued the arguments presented in this paper, click here to see some of the works that cite it.