Self-Respect Movement is a movement with the aim of achieving a
society where backward castes have equal human rights, and
encouraging backward castes to have self-respect in the context of a
caste-based society that considered them to be a lower end of the
hierarchy. It was founded in 1921 by S.Ramanathan who invited E. V.
Ramasamy (also called as Periyar by his devoted followers) to head the
movement in Tamil Nadu, India against Brahminism. The movement was
extremely influential not just in Tamil Nadu, but also overseas in
countries with large Tamil populations, such as
Singapore Indians, groups like the Tamil Reform
Association, and leaders like
Thamizhavel G. Sarangapani were
prominent in promoting the principles of the Self-Respect Movement
among the local Tamil population through schools and publications.
A number of political parties in Tamil Nadu, such as Dravida Munnetra
Kazhagam (DMK) and All India Anna
Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam
Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK)
owe their origins to the
Self-respect movement, the latter a 1972
breakaway from the DMK. Both parties are populist with a generally
social democratic orientation.
1 The Principles of Self-Respect
3 Self-Respect marriages
4 Women of the Self-Respect Movement
5 See also
The Principles of Self-Respect
Periyar was convinced that if man developed self respect, he would
automatically develop individuality and would refuse to be led by the
nose by schemers. One of his most known quotes on Self-Respect was,
"we are fit to think of 'self-respect' only when the notion of
'superior' and 'inferior' caste is banished from our land".
Periyar did not expect personal or material gain out of this movement.
He used to recall in a very casual manner that as a human being, he
also was obligated to this duty, as it was the right and freedom to
choose this work. Thus, he opted to engage himself in starting and
promoting the movement.
Periyar declared that the
Self-Respect Movement alone could be the
genuine freedom movement, and political freedom would not be fruitful
without individual self-respect. He remarked that the so-called
'Indian freedom fighters' were showing disrespect of self-respect, and
this was really an irrational philosophy.
Periyar observed that political freedom as conceived by nationalists
not excluding even Gandhi and
Jawaharlal Nehru did not cover
individual self-respect. To him neither revival of the original spirit
Hindu religion and ancient traditions which formed part of Gandhi's
conception of freedom, nor complete liberation from the British rule
which was considered by Nehru to be the meaning of freedom or both of
them together could ensure individual self-respect or the eradication
of social ills from Indian society. In his opinion, the task of
fulfilling the need for self-respect would have to be faced whatever
be the extent of political freedom gained. Pointing out that even the
British monarch in a sovereign independent nation had no freedom to
marry a person of his choice and had to abdicate his kingdom, Periyar
raised a question whether Gandhi's vision of freedom or Nehru's
concept of independence contained even an iota of individual
Periyar believed that self-respect was as valuable as life itself and
its protection is a birthright and not swaraj ('political freedom').
He described the movement as Arivu Vidutalai Iyakkam, that is, a
movement to liberate the intellect.
The terms tan-maanam or suya mariyadai meaning 'self-respect' are
traceable in ancient
Tamil literature considered a virtue of high
valor in Tamil society. Periyar once claimed that to describe the
ideology of his movement, no dictionary in the entire world, implying
that no other language, could provide a word better than or equal to
Started as a movement (Iyakkam in Tamil) to promote rational behavior,
Self-Respect Movement acquired much wider connotation within a
short period of time. Periyar, speaking with M.K. Reddy at the First
Self-Respect Conference held in 1929, explained the significance of
self-respect and its principles. The main principles of the
Self-Respect Movement in society were to be: no kind of inequality
among people; no difference such as rich and poor in economic life;
men and women to be treated as equals in every respect without
differences; attachments to caste, religion, varna, and country to be
eradicated from society with a prevalent friendship and unity around
the world; with every human being seeking to act according to reason,
understanding, desire, and perspective, and shall not be subject to
slavery of any kind or manner.
Equality with stress on economic and social equality formed the
central theme of the
Self-Respect Movement and was due to Periyar's
determination to fight the inequalities ingrained in the caste system
as well as certain religious practices. Working on the theme of
liberating the society from the baneful social practices perpetrated
in the name of dharma and karma, Periyar developed the idea of
establishing this movement as the instrument for achieving his
Main article: Anti-Brahminism
Tamil Brahmins (Iyers and Iyengars) were frequently held responsible
by followers of Periyar for direct or indirect oppression of
lower-caste people and resulted in attacks on Brahmins, which, among
other causes, started a wave of mass-migration of the Brahmin
population. Periyar, in regard to a DK member's attempt to
assassinate Rajagopalachari, "expressed his abhorrence of violence as
a means of settling political differences". But many suggest
that the values of the non-
Brahmin movement were explicitly
One of the major sociological changes introduced through the
self-respect movement was the self-respect marriage system, whereby
marriages were conducted without being officiated by a
Periyar had regarded the then conventional marriages as mere financial
arrangements and often caused great debt through dowry. The
Self-Respect movement encouraged inter-caste marriages, replacing
arranged marriages by love marriages that are not constrained by
It was argued by the proponents of self-respect marriage that the then
conventional marriages were officiated by Brahmins, who had to be paid
for and also the marriage ceremony was in
Sanskrit which most people
did not understand, and hence were rituals and practices based on
Self-respect movement promoters argue that there was no reference to
Thaali in the Sangam literatures like
Akanaṉūṟu, which describe the Tamils' lifestyle during the Sangam
era. The Hindu marriage ceremonies involving Brahmins are argued to be
practices introduced relatively recently to increase the influence of
Hinduism on Tamils' lives.
Even though self-respect marriages have been practiced since 1928,
initially these marriages just lacked a priest while the Hindu
marriage events and ceremonies were followed. The first self-respect
marriage that was totally devoid of any Hindu ceremony was the
marriage of the prominent self-respect movement writer Kuthoosi
Gurusamy with another prominent leader, Kunjidham, under the presiding
of Periyaar on December 8, 1929. The self-respect movement
encouraged widow remarriage as well. Due to the prevalent practice of
child marriage and very poor health facilities, there were a high
number of widows in then society. Women like Sivagami Ammaiyar, who
could be widowed at 11 years, were given a new lease on life by the
widow remarriage principles of the self-respect movement.
Consequently, the self-respect movement attracted a lot of women.
Tamil Nadu became the first and only state to legalize Hindu marriages
conducted without a
Brahmin priest. This was the first file signed by
CM Annadurai when the DMK gained power in the 1967 Madras assembly
elections. Annadurai sent the rule draft to Periyar and at his
suggestion changed "and" to "or" in the law text which made the
thaali/mangalsutra optional in marriages. This was implemented as
Hindu Marriage Act (Madras Amendment) Act, 1967, introducing Section
7A, permitting Suyamariyathai (self-respect) and Seerthiruttha
(reformist) marriages as legal when solemnised in the presence of
friends, relatives or any other person by exchanging garlands or rings
or by tying of a mangalsutra or by a declaration in language
understood by both parties that they accept each other to be their
spouse. The law was passed by the
Tamil Nadu assembly on November 27,
1967, and was approved by the President on January 17, 1968. This was
officially announced in the gazette on January 20, 1968. The number of
inter-caste and inter-religious marriages has increased in the state
as a result of the self-respect movement.
Women of the Self-Respect Movement
In addition to many of the anti-
Caste and Tamil nationalist ideologies
of the Self-Respect Movement, it is also widely regarded that the
Self-Respect Movement, held as core, deeply feminist values.
Gender relationships were actively divorced from Brahminical
patriarchy and women's rights over their physical, sexual and
reproductive choices were celebrated. In Periyar's model of society,
women were to be allowed access to contraception and even permanent
birth control measures. This came at a time when the broad national
discourse on birth control through influenced by the thoughts of
leaders like Gandhi, was an almost unanimous condemnation of birth
control. Women were given the right to choose partners as well as
divorce them and remarry. Widowhood was not penalized through
religious beliefs. Heterosexual partnerships were radically
transformed by advocating for the erasure of gender hierarchies and
roles; the sharing of domestic work, child-rearing were all paths to
love through equality and service to society.
These ideas attracted several women from all walks of life to the
movement. Women included former prostitutes, former devadasis, wage
labourers, doctors and teachers. Women in the movement worked on
issues most closely affecting women's like advocating for alcohol
prohibition, supporting survivors of domestic violence and the
anti-temple prostitution ( devadasi system). However, these were
not the issues they were restricted to. For example, the anti-Hindi
agitations of 1930s were heavily represented by women of the movement.
On September 11, 1938 in Madras, several women including Ramamritham
Ammaiyar, Narayani Ammaiyar, Va. Ba. Thamaraikanni Ammaiyar,
Munnagaara Azhagiyar and a total of 73 women were arrested for
protesting. 37 of these women went to jail with their infants.
Two Dalit women, Veerammal and
Annai Meenambal Shivraj were key to the
sustenance of the movement and close advisors and friends of Periyar.
Annai Meenambal was the person who first gave E.V. Ramasamy, the title
"Periyar" meaning the elder or wise one  and Veerammal is said to
have provoked Periyar to think more critically about how the movement
could do better not just for non-
Brahmin castes, but also for Dalits
History of the Indian caste system
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