Origin Stories

Reading Periyar today

A portrait of EV Ramasamy, popularly known as Periyar, in the 1950s. His political life lasted over fifty years, during which he wrote, organised and gave speeches, with few breaks. Courtesy Periyar Archives
31 March, 2021

IN 1957, a special-forces inspector in Tiruchirappalli filed a case against EV Ramasamy—the founder of the Dravidar Kazhagam, popularly known as Periyar—under Section 117 of the Indian Penal Code. Section 117 forbids the abetment of an offence by ten people or more, and is punishable with three years of imprisonment. Periyar, 78 years old at the time, was charged for allegedly urging people to kill Brahmins and set fire to their houses, and for burning sections of the Indian Constitution at a public demonstration. A sessions judge sentenced him to six months in prison.

In the three speeches submitted to the trial court for review, all of them given in the first three weeks of October that year, although Periyar did not urge anyone to kill Brahmins or burn their houses, he announced his intention to burn the Constitution in public and explained clearly his reason for wanting to do so. He even listed the exact parts he wanted to burn: Article 13, Section 2; Article 25, Section 1; Article 29, Sections 1 and 2; and Article 368. They are, he said, a mess of contradictions: the article that states all citizens may freely practise and propagate religion is at odds, he said, with the laws that protect minorities or grant them entry into all institutions maintained by the government and the right to preserve their distinct culture and language.

In one of the speeches, published in the magazine Viduthalai, Periyar said:

Let the government make a law that there will be no “Brahmin” caste and that, even if there is, they won’t be allowed to live as Brahmins. Of the six who made the Constitution, four are Brahmin; most of the unelected members of the Constituent Assembly are from the Congress Party. This law protects Hinduism. Hinduism protects caste; its whole point is to protect caste. There is no easy way for an annihilator of caste to modify it; he has no chance. (Read Article 368.) So what can we do, those of us who want to annihilate caste, those of us who want an independent Dravidian nation, those of us who want to protect Tamils from exploitation? What way do we have to show our opposition other than setting fire to it?