Dalit History Month – Remembering Veerammal, Founder of All India Ambedkar Mission


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The Self-Respect Movement led by Thanthai Periyar was probably one of the most radically feminist movements to have ever taken place in the subcontinent. Way ahead of their time, Self-respecters advocated for reproductive rights for women, equality in the workplace, equality in the home, paid housework and shared child rearing responsibilities. They openly criticised the Tamil value of chastity, imposed upon women. Dravidian Kazhagam schools still hang signs in that read “Chastity is the way women are kept within the structures of Chattel slavery.”

Periyar himself was a radical feminist authoring one of the first most comprehensive treatises against Patriarchy, “Why was the woman made a slave?” in 1942. Several women from several different castes featured prominently in the movement work. They included former sex workers, housewives, former devadasis (religious sex slaves), politicians and others.

However, one Dalit woman, Veerammal and the story of her disagreement with Periyar and split from the movement has since been lost. Veerammal, having exited an abusive marriage with an alcoholic, began her work with the Self-respect movement in the alcohol prohibition frontlines. Soon she became a friend and strategist along with Periyar and his wife, Maniammai. She would often call out Periyar for what she saw as his flawed ideology. When Periyar allowed the beating of the Dalit drum, Parai, she was upset. “It is an art Veerammal,” he has said. To which she replied, ” If it is an art, then where are the upper Castes trying to learn it? Why when one of theirs dies, do they run to the cheri (ghetto) and call for Pakkiri, Samban and Mookan (Dalit names)? ”

Periyar and her had a strong friendship based on respect and the values of the movement but it would seem that Veerammal was constantly challenging Periyar on the issues of the Scheduled Castes. ” Look Ayya, ” she would say, ” You ask for any number of reservations for the non-Brahmin Castes, but please don’t even try to move the 16% reserved for the Untouchables. That will be unacceptable!”

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On one occasion, a disagreement drove them apart finally, In 1957, riots broke out between the Mukkalatthor (non-Brahmin) Castes and Dalits in which 42 Dalits and a beloved Dalit leader, Immanuel Sekaran was murdered. In the aftermath of this incident, Veerammal was dismayed at what she perceived as Periyar’s lacking condemnation of the non-brahmin castes and the role of the Congress Party. She wrote a long and emotional letter to Periyar, explaining her deep respect and gratitude to him but citing irreconcilable differences. On reading the letter, Periyar is said to have wept openly.

Veerammal definitively did not disappear into the backdrop after that. In fact, her real work began, inspired by Babasaheb Ambedkar, she worked to open and run several schools and hostels for SC/ST (Dalit/Adivasi) children and women. She established the Tamil Nadu Women’s Welfare Association in 1954 and the Tamil Nadu Scheduled Caste Welfare Association soon after. She was one of the founders of the All India- Ambedkar Mission. She continued to head the anti-liquor movement. Today in Dalit History we salute this powerhouse of a woman!

From Dalit History Month Collective

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Veerammal

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  1. 1
    Sharad khandalikar

    Nice article explaining detailed history and mission of veerammal. There were sevaral movements working all over the country inspired by humanitarian ideology of banasahab ambedkar for establishment of equitable society. But due to non coverage by so called mainstream media(can be termed as selective targeted exclusion) these missionary peoples did not get recognition, not only from indian milieu but also from those sections for whome these egends fought. Take me for example, i dont know veerammal until i read your article on velivada. History witnessed, nobody from indian society has helped for the struggle of SC,ST,OBC movements for equal rights and partnership on par with other sections, except impetus from outside like british rule, british media and nowdays social media. We have to utilize this platform for large scale awakening of our new generation about humanitarian ambedkarite movement and legends who has sacrificed for this noble cause. After the defeat of UP many termed it as end of movement but there lies a opportunity to built a more stronger movement on all india level like all india ambedkar mission of veerammal. Hope is always better than hypocrites, so let be hopeful for common cause.

    • 2
      Velivada

      Thank you for your valuable comment. Yes, our continuous attempt is to provide and make available all inspirational as well as Dalit History to everyone so that everyone can learn and grow.

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