Just over a hundred years ago, 30 well-known non-Brahmin leaders gathered at the Victoria Public Hall in what was then Madras to form a political organisation that would radically shape Tamil Nadu politics in the years to come. Launched in November 1916, the Justice Party represented the interests of non-Brahmin castes both in politics and society, which were under the influence of the powerful upper caste. The party soon came under the leadership of philosopher EV Ramasamy, or Periyar, who withdrew it from electoral politics and turned it into a social reformist organisation, the Dravidar Kazhagam, based on the principles of rationalism, women’s rights and eradication of caste.

Fighting for the self-respect of the downtrodden castes became the foundation of the Dravidian movement led by Periyar. These principles would later trickle down into the many political factions that would emerge – only to end up as much-repeated empty rhetoric.

Only in name

The Dravidar Kazhagam was the mother organisation of the state’s two most influential political parties – the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, both of which make vociferous claims of following the ideals of Periyar and uplifting the Dravidian masses. So does a much weaker Dravidar Kazhagam, and its equally ineffectual splinter groups such as the Periyar Dravidar Kazhagam, Thanthai Periyar Dravidar Kazhagam and Dravidar Viduthalai Kazhagam.

But these claims appear hollow when one takes into account the lack of attention paid to research and scholarships on the Dravidian movement.

“No party has built a sustained interest in caste issues,” said V Geetha, a Dravidian movement historian. “There has been no objective research centre or programme supported by the government that can take up such work. One would imagine that the government would support research on Periyar considering how much they swear by his name.”

Earlier this month, The Times of India reported that a research centre dedicated to studying the Dravidian Movement, which was founded at the University of Madras in 2006, was now defunct. Citing an audit report, the article said that the research centre had barely used the Rs 3.9 crores in funds it had been allocated and plans for a separate building and library had made little progress.

V Sivaprakasm, one of two research associates appointed to the centre, worked there for less than two years. In 2010, the contracts of the researchers and the director of the centre were not renewed. Sivaprakasm blames the university administration for its lack of interest in encouraging research on Periyar and his legacy.

“I tried speaking to the vice-chancellor about the plans I had for the centre but they were just not ready to listen,” said the researcher. “The centre should be revived, because Dravidian studies is a unifying force of the southern states that overpowers regionalism.”

The research centre dedicated to studying the Dravidian movement was set up at the University of Madras in 2006. (Credit: Vinita Govindarajan)

The centre was established by M Karunanidhi, who was then the chief minister of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam-led government. In an effort to create “continued awakening and awareness in the future generations of Tamil Nadu”, four chairs were set up at the centre – the Periyar EVR Chair on Rationalism and Gender Justice, Arignar Anna Chair on Development of Tamil Language and Sociopolitical thoughts, Chair on Social, Economic and Equal Justice, and Chair on Federalism at the Centre and Autonomy for the States.

A change of government in 2011, when the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam led by the late J Jayalalithaa came to power, made it even more difficult for the centre to be revived, since the ruling party showed no interest in encouraging scholarly engagement on the Dravidian movement, according to Sivaprakasm. “The AIADMK cadre comprises only fans of MG Ramachandran and Jayalalithaa,” said Sivaprakasm. “They do not have any academic interest. The DMK has a little more of an orientation towards the teachings of Periyar and Annadurai [Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam founder and former chief minister]. But neither the DMK nor the AIADMK matched up to the performance of the Justice Party which ruled Tamil Nadu.”

The audit also revealed that a university proposal for financial assistance of Rs 1.1 crores in 2013 had received no response from the government, the Times of India reported.

Lack of scholarly work

While research on the Dravidian movement has received little support from the government, historian V Geetha pointed out that there has not been much critical and intellectual engagement by those affiliated with the movement too. “Much of it is unrigorous and uncontextualised,” she added.

According to Geetha, there has been active engagement by independent scholars in understanding the Dravidian movement, including the anti-caste Dalit movements that emerged before the Justice Party. There is a steady flow of original scholarly works that are being published in Tamil and English by independent bodies. But the Dravidar Kazhagam and other groups associated with the movement only republish old books and pamphlets and rarely come out with any original work.

“From within the movement itself, there has been almost no reflection,” said Geetha. “It is only very romantic, celebratory and repetitive.”