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HomeExplainedRow over Sanatan Dharma: The history of DMK’s anti-religion, anti-caste origins

Row over Sanatan Dharma: The history of DMK’s anti-religion, anti-caste origins

DMK leader and Tamil Nadu Minister Udhayanidhi Stalin’s statement, saying Sanatan Dharma is against social justice and should hence be eradicated, has led to controversy. On September 6, an FIR against Udhayanidhi, under IPC sections 295 A (deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage the religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or the religious beliefs) and 153 A (promoting enmity between two different groups), was registered in Uttar Pradesh, police said.

The son of Chief Minister MK Stalin, Udhayanidhi said, “What is the meaning of Sanatan? It is eternal, that is, it cannot be changed; no one could pose any question and that is the meaning,” on Saturday, adding that Sanatan divided people on the basis of caste. Later, he posted on X (formerly Twitter): “I am ready to present extensive writings of Periyar and Ambedkar, who conducted in-depth research on Sanatan Dharma and its negative impact on society…”

Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), Tamil Nadu’s ruling party, has its roots in the Self-Respect Movement begun by EV Ramaswamy ‘Periyar’. The early 20th-century movement championed opposition to caste and religion and positioned itself as a rationalist movement against social evils. Through the years, these ideals have influenced the state’s politics, including the parties DMK and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), which emerged out of the movement.

What was the Self-Respect Movement, and how did Tamil Nadu’s political parties emerge out of it?

Periyar, the founder of the Self-Respect Movement (1925), was strongly anti-caste and anti-religion in his outlook. He advocated major social reforms related to caste and gender, and opposed the domination of Hindi, emphasising the distinct cultural identity of the Tamil nation.

In 1938, the Justice Party (which Periyar was a member of) and the Self-Respect Movement came together. In 1944, the new outfit was named Dravidar Kazhagam. DK was anti-Brahmin, anti-Congress, and anti-Aryan (read North Indian), and launched a movement for an independent Dravida nation. However, this particular demand would gradually peter out due to a lack of popular support.

Also Read | Explained: A short history of the demand for ‘Dravida Nadu’, and its evolution

Post-independence, Periyar refused to contest elections. In 1949, one of Periyar’s closest aides, CN Annadurai, split from him due to ideological differences. Annadurai’s DMK joined the electoral process. The party’s platforms were social democracy and Tamil cultural nationalism.

In 1969, following the death of Annadurai, M Karunanidhi took control of DMK. In 1972, differences between him and actor-politician M G Ramachandran led to a split in the party. MGR formed the AIADMK, with associations of his fans as the organisation’s bedrock.

In 1977, MGR came to power and remained undefeated until his death in 1987. He somewhat diluted the rationalist and anti-Brahmin agenda that was core to the DK, opting for welfarism as party ideology.

What were Periyar’s views on the Hindu religion and caste?

Historian Ramachandra Guha wrote in his book ‘Makers of Modern India’, that in states like Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra, “it was Brahmins who took early advantage of British rule, learning English in order to serve the new rulers as teachers, lawyers, doctors, clerks and civil servants”. They were also well-represented in the emerging Congress party and had enjoyed a high social status in society, traditionally.

Also Read | Behind Udhayanidhi remarks, an anti-caste view of religion going back centuries in TN

“Whether by accident or design, the policies of the Raj made them dominant in an economic and political sense as well. It was the danger of Brahmin hegemony in all spheres of life that lay behind the activism of Jotirao Phule and B R Ambedkar. Their analogue in south India was an equally remarkable thinker organiser named E V Ramaswami,” Guha wrote.

Dr BR Ambedkar (left) and Periyar in Myanmar. Dr BR Ambedkar (left) and Periyar in Myanmar. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Through his writings and speeches, Periyar propagated his core beliefs, which were fiercely critical of Hindu religious practices that marginalised some sections of society.

Also in Explained | A man, an ideology: The importance of EV Ramasamy Periyar

According to the article ‘Freedom from God: Periyar and Religion’, by Dr Karthick Ram Manoharan, early on, Periyar published translations of prominent works advocating atheism and socialism, like Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’s ‘The Communist Manifesto’, Bhagat Singh’s ‘Why I am an Atheist’, Bertrand Russell’s ‘Why I am not a Christian’.

Guha’s book also contains some of Periyar’s writings and speeches. In a 1927 speech, he said, “No other religion spends as much as we do. Within a short time of their coming Christians have rallied our people, given them education, and have made themselves our masters… But our religion, said to be made by god and millions and millions of years old, says that a majority of the people should not read its scriptures; and if one violates it, there are punishments such as cutting off the tongue that studies, pouring molten lead into ears that hear, and gouging out of the heart that learns.”

Explained | The concept of Sanatan Dharma: its roots and the historical context of its use

Periyar also questioned the dominance of a few caste groups in society, linking them to the existence of religion itself.

“Periyar wrote in his party paper Kudiarasu on 7 June 1931 that the non-Brahmins and the untouchable castes, the poor and the working classes, if they desired equality and socialism, needed to destroy Hinduism first,” according to Dr Manoharan. Periyar also wrote critical accounts of Hindu epics like the Ramayana.

He said in 1969, describing his mission: “I am a reformer of the human society. I do not care about country, god, religion, language, or the state. I am only concerned about the welfare and growth of the human society”.

Manoharan wrote, “Periyar saw religion as an institution of social power that privileged the Brahmins as an elite caste group to the detriment of equality and liberty of women and lower castes in the Hindu hierarchy.” He did not expect reform to happen within this, and suggested eradicating the religion altogether. One of Periyar’s most famous quotes says, “There is no god. He who created god is a fool. He who propagates god is a scoundrel. He who worships god is a barbarian.”

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CN Annadurai, meanwhile, would go on to have a moderate stance on the matter of religion. He said later, “I would neither break the Ganesha idol nor the coconut (make a religious offering).” His protege and later Chief Minister M Karunanidhi was also an atheist. As a poet and scriptwriter, he further criticised Brahmins and religion through popular plays and films that reached large audiences and spoke to them in their native language.

In his speech on Saturday, at a meeting of the Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers and Artists Association, Udhayanidhi also spoke of points that were made earlier by Periyar and connected them to the DMK’s political platform. “What did Sanatan do to women? It pushed women, who lost their husbands, into fire (the erstwhile practice of Sati), it tonsured the heads of widows and made them wear white saris… What did the Dravidam (the Dravidian ideology followed by DMK regime) do? It gave fare-free travel for women in buses, gave Rs 1,000 monthly assistance to girl students for their college education,” he said.

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“Let us take a vow to win in all the 39 Parliamentary constituencies in Tamil Nadu and the one segment in Puducherry (in the 2024 Lok Sabha polls). Let Sanatan fall, Dravidam win,” Udhayanidhi said. The BJP has alleged that “a complete eradication” of Hindu dharma is the “primary agenda” of the opposition alliance INDIA, which includes the DMK.

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