FOUNDING LEADERS – Justice Party: 100 years of Dravidian movement

Formed On Nov 20, 1916 At The Residence Of Ethiraj In Vepery

For a political or social movement to evolve, ex pand, sustain and serve its purpose, not only are strong ideologies and eminent leaders required but, more importantly , a ripe social climate is needed. In simpler words there should exist a necessity for such a movement.

In the early 20th century , caste and religion dominated life in Tamil country . In public buses, lower caste people (dalits) were not allowed to travel.On bus tickets, it was printed that untouchables were not allowed inside the bus. A theatre on Wall Tax Road denied entry to those afflicted with leprosy and people of lower caste (dalits).

In public places like hotels, entry was prohibited to people of lower social strata even if they were affluent. Most people couldn’t dream of higher education or regular jobs. Census 1921 figures show that nearly three-fourths of brahmins in the Madras Presidency were educated. People belonging to other upper, intermediary and lower caste groups were barely literate. People from non-brahmin communities were not encouraged to join major educational institutions.

This practice had been prevailing for several centuries -from the time of imperial Cholas. For instance, during the time of Rajendra Chola and his son Rajathi Rajan, two colleges were built: One at Yennairem village near Villupuram and another at Thirupuvani near Puthucheri. All the 600 students that studied in the colleges belonged to the brahmin community .

The situation was no different during the Vijayanagar dynasty and Nayak rule.During the Nayak rule, a college in Madurai had an intake of nearly 10,000 students and all of them were brahmins, according to R Sathianathier’s “Tamilaham in the 17th century“.
Monopoly in education had given brahmins an edge when it came to holding key positions in the British government. More than half of the deputy collectors, 83% of sub-judges and 72% of district munsifs were brahmins. Yet, as per the Census, the brahmin population accounted for only 3% of the province’s population.

The first signs of resentment surfaced in 1915 when a set of non-brahmin students from other parts of the Presidency came to Chennai to pursue their postgraduation and were denied hostel accommodation as it had been given to brahmin students. C Natesan who started the Dravidian Association in the year 1912 built a hostel for the non-brahmin students and named it as Dravidian Home. Natesan, one of the three founding pillars of Justice Party, played a pivotal role in bringing together the other two stalwarts of the movement: Sir Pitti Thyaga raya and T M Nair. Within four years of forming the party , i.e., in the year 1920, the party won the first ever elections to the Madras Presidency .

In power, the party carried out many reforms. Names of public places that decried dalits were changed. Denying rights to dalits at public places like theatres, public wells, and hotels was made illegal and punishable under law. Devadasi system was abolished; land reformation act was passed; Hindu Religious & Charitable Endowments Board was established; noonmeal scheme was started for Madras school students; women were given voting rights and welfare measures for non-Brahmin students instituted.

The party’s most ambitious reform was proportional representation for castes in education and employment, but that could not succeed in its first term. Though this reform was its first Government Order, the Governor of the Presidency refused to grant permission. It was only in 1926 that the GO was passed thanks to Periyar EVR.Incidentally Periyar, one of the pillars of the Congress here, had resigned from the party as it did not pass a resolution in favour of the communal GO.

When Justice Party was dethroned, veteran Congress leader Satyamurthy said: “Justice Party was buried deeply beneath the soil at five hundred feet and it would not resurface again“. Periyar was made the leader of the party in 1939. In 1944, he changed its name to Dravidar Kazhagam. When DMK came to power in 1967, Anna proudly said that the Justice Party was not buried as claimed by Satyamurthy . Rather a seed had been sown then, and the seed had sprouted with vigour.

(The writer is the vice-president of Tamil Nadu Rationalists Forum)

Author: Book Club India

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