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The 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 Malaysia and Singapore. Among 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 (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.
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 of 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 self-respect.
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 suya mariyadai.
Started as a movement (Iyakkam in Tamil) to promote rational behavior, the 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 objective.
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 anti-Brahmin.
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 Brahmin priest. 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 caste.
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 blind adherence.
Self-respect movement promoters argue that there was no reference to Thaali in the Sangam literatures like Tirukkuṛaḷ or 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 Brahminism 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.
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 and Adivasis.