Ahead of its time, a feminist revolution and a Dalit resistance –– The Self-Respect Movement was all three rolled into one. The name of this movement, Self-Respect Movement is what stood out for me. India’s history boasts of freedom movements and communal rebellions – fights that were fought as a group. There were no movements to fight for self, per se. Truly unique in its purpose, the Self Respect Movement is an important part of Dalit History.
In 1925, S. Ramanathan invited E.V. Ramaswamy to initiate this movement in Tamil Nadu, where it was largely influential. Also called the Dravidan Movement, the Self Respect Movement demanded equal rights for the backward caste, with a focus in the rights of women. Most importantly though – as the leaders of this movement professed – the movement fought for the people of the backward caste to have “self-respect” in society. Inspired from the emphasis on self-respect in Tamil Literature – called tan-maanam or suya mariyadai – Ramanathan and Periyar Ramaswamy sought to further the philosophy that the development of self-respect in individuals will put a stop to caste-discrimination.
Periyar, specifically, believed that the political freedom leaders like Gandhi and Nehru did not allow for any individual freedom. True freedom, he believed, lies in self-freedom. The political freedom that India was vying for neither allowed an individual to marry a person of their choice without consequences, nor did it allow for widows to be remarried. The Self-Respect Movement fought for these rights.
The primary demands of the movement included equality between men and women, economic parity in the society, no attachment to caste, religion or varna and the assurance of general unity and friendship among the citizens of India. There was a staunch opposition to chastity, as the women of the movement themselves claimed that “chastity is the way women are kept within the structures of chattel slavery.”
In 1925, a manifesto of this nature was truly ahead of its time. Men and women roamed the streets, chanting slogans, demanding what they had always deserved. The mere action of the backward caste reclaiming their identity – loud and unashamed on the streets – was a step forward in earning self-respect.
The movement was also a landmark for feminism in India.
Annai Meenanmbal and Veeramal were two women leaders of the movement. They constantly pushed Periyar to expand his understanding of the rights of Dalit women. A great part of the movement strove to eradicate societal practices against women as well as demand rights for them. At a time when Gandhi was strongly against any form of birth control for women, the leaders of the self-respect movement advocated for women being able to access permanent birth control. In fact, one of the most powerful phases of the movement was the establishment of the self-respect marriage system. This system allowed for marriages to be conducted without being officiated by a Brahmin priest, which was the norm. Conventional marriages were carried out solely by a caste-match and weddings were a big hoo-haa of Sanskrit verses no one understood – something that the self-respect movement condemned. It encouraged inter-caste marriages, allowing for love marriages without the constraint of dowry.
The Hindu traditions remained the same, but the Sanskrit chanting – considered synonymous to an upper-caste privilege – were done away with. Tamil Nadu became the first and only state to legalize Hindu marriages conducted without a Brahmin priest. This, too, was an exercise in building self-respect in the common people of the backward castes.
The Self-Respect Movement asked many questions: is political freedom true freedom? Will it lead to an equal society? Will it allow for women to be treated with dignity? The sad truth is that we do not have the answers to these questions even today. Caste-based marriages are unabashedly shown-off to the world. Widow remarriage is treated with bitter stigma. And the freedom to marry who you like? Until the day India legalizes gay marriage, this particular dream of the self-respect movement will never be realized.
However, the fact remains that the strong ideals and demands laid down by the Self-Respect Movement paved the way for a true democracy. As the youth of India, we draw from these forgotten pieces of Indian history to gather the strength to fight for what we deserve, just like our leaders taught us to.
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