A Comprehensive History of the Dravidian Movement in Tamil Nadu

  • This FAQ tells who started the Dravidian Movement in Tamil Nadu-when and why, formation of Justice Party and DMK, objectives of Self Respect Movement and anti-Hindi agitation.  

As India’s struggle for independence from British colonisation gathered pace, the southern part of the country was roiling in its own peculiar issues. In the early 1900s, the stage was set for a confrontation between non-Brahmins and Brahmins, which would subsequently become the political rhetoric of the land now called Tamil Nadu. 


Let us understand the Dravidian movement through some FAQs.


1. When did the Dravidian movement start?

The Dravidian movement, as it came to be called, began in the early 1900s. It was in November 1916 when a group of affluent men came together to form the South Indian Welfare Rights Association, that the Dravidian movement as an idea took concrete shape.

2. Who started the Dravidian movement?

There were many people associated with this. Some of the prominent names are:-


Sir Pitty Theagaraya Chetty: Lawyer and industrialist from Madras Province, born into a Devanga Chettiar family that ran tanneries. Devanga Chettiars are classified as OBC (Other Backward Classes) by the Central government. They were earlier viewed as a Shudra community.


Album Palaces of Chettinad


Dr. Taravath Madhavan Nair: A regular feature at meetings of the Indian National Congress at the time, this physician represented Triplicane in the Madras Corporation from 1904 to 1916. He was born into a Swaroopathil Nair family, landlords and related to the Travancore Royal family. Nairs are a Kshatriya caste in Kerala and considered a Forward Caste.

Raja of Panagal Sir Panaganti Ramarayaningar: Born in Srikalahasti in present day Andhra Pradesh, this Raja was of the Telugu Padmanayaka Velama caste. The Velamas are an influential land-owning Forward Caste. They are largely present in present day Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. He was a zamindar in Srikalahasti in Chittoor district.


Dr. C. Natesa Mudaliar: An allopathic doctor and a social activist, he was born into the Tuluva Vellala caste also known as Mudaliar in Tamil Nadu. Mudaliars are Forward Caste in the state. The wealthy Dr. Mudaliar embarked on his political journey in 1912 by bringing together a few non-Brahmin government servants, who felt discriminated against and unfairly treated by their Brahmin superiors. They founded what was called the Madras United League. Later that year it changed its name to the Madras Dravidian Association, the first time the term Dravidian was used.


3. What did the Dravidian movement wish to achieve?

In the 19th century, Brahmins in rural Tamil Nadu began to migrate to cities like Chennai in search of jobs under the British government. Brahmins in Tamil Nadu were not land-owners, except in some parts of the Cauvery delta. As jobs in the villages dwindled, they arrived in cities, learnt English and began taking up jobs as clerks and bureaucrats under the British Raj.


Over time, the bureaucracy and government jobs came to be disproportionately dominated by Tamil Brahmins, who constituted only around 5% of the population. This was a sore point for members of non-Brahmin castes, who alleged discrimination by their superiors who were Brahmin. They began to form associations to “overthrow” Brahmins from the seat of government. 


The Dravidian Movement, was in effect, a movement started by elite land-owning aristocrats of Tamil, Telugu and Malayalee society who wanted to remove the Brahmins from government jobs and take their place.


4. What did the South India Liberal Federation do? 

It was reported in newspapers at the time that “non-Brahmin gentlemen of position and influence both in Madras and the mofussil” founded two institutions in 1916. The first - South India People’s Association – would publish newspapers in English, Tamil and Telugu “to present the non-Brahmin viewpoint.” The second institution was the South India Liberal Federation “to promote the interests of non-Brahmin Caste Hindus.” 


In 1917, the first edition of the English newspaper was published – it was called Justice. As a result, the South India Liberal Federation came to be known in local parlance as the Justice Party.


5. What happened to the Justice Party? Does it still exist?

The Justice Party got a leg up following the Montagu Chelmsford reforms introduced by the British in 1919. Elections were held in 1920 for the first time and the Justice Party won in Madras Presidency. (“The Madras Presidency, during the British, covered a vast expanse of the southern part of India that encompasses modern-day Tamil Nadu, the Lakshadweep Islands, Northern Kerala, Rayalaseema (Andhra Pradesh), Coastal Andhra, districts of Karnataka and various districts of southern Odisha.”)  Source


The Justice Party was pitted against the Indian National Congress and for the next 17 years, it formed four out of the five ministries. It was in power for 13 years.


The Justice Party lost to the Congress in 1937 and never recovered electorally. The party was converted into a social service organisation called the Dravida Kazhagam (Dravida Party) in 1944. The Dravida Kazhagam exists to date.


6. Who is PERIYAR? How is he connected to the Justice Party and Dravidian movement?

Periyar is a title in Tamil meaning the elder. This is the moniker given to E.V. Ramasamy Naicker, a wealthy landowner from Erode (extreme north of TN, bound mostly by Karnataka. Naicker is also known as Kannada Balija (OBC)) who took over the reins of the Justice Party in the 1920s and 1930s. We shall refer to him as EVR henceforth.


EVR had joined the Indian National Congress in 1919 but quit in 1925, accusing Mahatma Gandhi of being pro-Brahmin. He accused the Congress party of being a Brahmin party and joined the Justice Party instead.


EVR began to advocate atheism and rationalism along with anti-Brahmin rhetoric. He began what is also referred to as the “Self-Respect Movement” which organised the non-Brahmins by pitting them against Brahmins. However, EVR did not speak on the subject of Depressed Classes empowerment or upliftment. 

In 1944, EVR took over the Justice Party and renamed it as the Dravida Kazhagam (DK). This organisation attracted the likes of students such as C.N. Annadurai and Muthuvel Karunanidhi, who went on to become Chief Ministers of the state of Tamil Nadu in independent India.


7. What was the Self Respect Movement about?

The Self Respect Movement was started by EVR around 1925, after he quit the Indian National Congress. He began mobilising non-Brahmins against the Brahmin community, blaming the Brahmins for the evils of the caste system and discrimination that was prevalent at the time.


Read Were Backward classes always suppressed in India And Why Indians should stop being defensive about caste


He asked the “lower castes” to stand up with self-respect and create a society without religion, caste or God. EVR dropped his last name Naicker – since it denoted caste identity and urged other Tamils to do the same. 


The Self-Respect Movement dovetailed into the Dravidian movement – a fake British narrative that Brahmins were descendants of Aryans who had come to conquer India from abroad, was peddled repeatedly. The native inhabitants of this land were called Dravidians. This false Aryan invasion theory further drove a wedge between non-Brahmins and Brahmins. 


Read Debunking the Aryan Invasion Theory


EVR exhorted young DK members to look for Brahmins and cut off their kudumi (topknot) and poonool (sacred thread). His magazine, Viduthalai (Freedom), carried a regular count of the number of Brahmins who were attacked in this fashion. He publicly espoused violence against the Brahmin community.


EVR and his DK members took to the streets, throwing open the sanctum sanctorum of temples for everyone, hitting Lord Ganesha’s idol with slippers, garlanding other Hindu Gods with slippers and breaking idols wherever possible. 


8. What happened after EVR? (died in 1973)

In the late 1940s, in the afterglow of independence, a group of restless youngsters wanted to participate in elections. However, EVR was against it.


In 1949, C.N. Annadurai, along with a group of youngsters, broke ranks with EVR and his Dravida Kazhagam. They formed the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam or the DMK.


By 1967, the DMK had defeated the Indian National Congress and come to power in the state, with Annadurai as the Chief Minister. He would be succeeded by Karunanidhi. The party split in 1972 and AIADMK was formed. M G Ramachandran (MGR) became Chief Minister in 1977.


The era of the Dravidian parties would begin and the Congress slowly ceded all ground to the regional parties.


9. Why did the anti-Hindi agitation begin? 

The first agitation against Hindi took place in 1937, when the then first minister of the Madras Presidency C. Rajagopalachari introduced the compulsory teaching of Hindi in schools. The Justice Party and EVR opposed it and staged violent protests. The legislation was withdrawn in 1940 by Lord Erskine, after the Congress government resigned.


The second wave of anti-Hindi agitations were spearheaded by the DMK in the run-up to 1965. This began when the Jawaharlal Nehru government at the Centre proposed to make Hindi the sole official language of India after 1965. Protests turned into violent riots. Then Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri announced that English would continue to be an official language for as long as the states wanted.


Author   Sandhya Ravishankar is a journalist of close to two decades of experience. She hails from Chennai and writes on politics, trends and current affairs of South India.


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