Annai Meenambal Sivaraj was born into a Dalit family that had migrated from Tamil Nadu to Myanmar. In Rangoon, her family was able to escape the brutality of the caste system and flourish both socially and economically. She was as a result, well-educated and raised in a family that was consistently political. Her father and grandfather were Dalit leaders who were part of the Adi (Aboriginal/Nativity reclamation) movements.
After completing her Bachelors of Fine Arts in Rangoon, she returned to Madras where she nurtured her own specific political aspirations. In particular, she was hoped to bring a Dalit woman’s perspective to the struggles against caste. This was no simple task in those times for a Dalit woman but Meenambal was nothing if she was not determined, woman.
Her public political engagements really began in 1928 when she gave an address in favour of the Simon Commission. Many ‘upper’ caste Indian leaders had boycotted the Commission which they said did not represent Indian interests. However, Dalits like Meenambal, deeply mistrustful of the ‘upper’ castes’ inclination to deny them rights, appealed to the Commission for recognition and affirmative action for all Dalits.
After that, she became close with Dr. Ambedkar and Periyar’s movement and took it upon herself to spread their messages of anti-caste revolution in Tamil Nadu. Her achievements include many firsts. She was the first Scheduled Caste woman to become a member of Madras Corporation representing Madras University Senate. She presided over two major SCF women’s conferences in Madras and then Bombay in the 1940s. She was the honorary magistrate for Madras province, member of the post-war rehabilitation committee, Director of Scheduled Castes Cooperative Bank and leader of the anti-Parry corporation labour struggle.
She was also one of the radical feminist leaders of the Self-Respect Movement. It was Annai Meenambal who gave E.V.R Ramasamy the title he has now come to be known by – “Periyar” (The Great One) in the conference in Madras. Periyar on hearing this title is said to have laughed and accepted it as a sister’s gift. In 1937, Meenambal Sivaraj presided over the Tinnelveli District Third Adi Dravida Conference.
Meenambal worked tirelessly for the causes of Dalitbahujans throughout her life, retiring from public service only after she hit 80. Many Dalits who remember her as a strong, warm and elderly figure began fondly calling her Annai (Mother). Today we celebrate her breaking gender barriers, her unstoppable spirit and her life-long commitment to her people. She was
– First Dalit women appointed as Deputy Mayor of Chennai Corporation
– Senate Member of Madras University
– Censor board Member
– Oppressed class co-operative bank director
– Chief of Women’s Entrepreneurs Association
– Head of selection committee of Lady Wellington College
She died on 30 November 1992 at the age of 92.
Source – Dalit History Month Collective
Image – Annai Meenambal, Dr. Babasaheb and Rao Bahadur N. Sivaraj at ‘The All India SCF Women’s Conference’, Bombay, 6 May 1945, Image Credit – ambedkarambeth blog