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!”
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