E. V. Ramasamy “Naicker” (1879–1973), better known as “Periyar” (literally “the big man”; figuratively “the revered one”), is an iconic figure in the history of Tamil Nadu. In Tamil Nadu all governments of the state since 1967 have been formed by two parties—Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK)—both of which split from Periyar’s Dravidar Kazhagam (DK) and claim his legacy.
Periyar is primarily known as a social reformer, anti-caste crusader, champion of non-Brahmin political and social interests, advocate of women’s rights, and atheist and rationalist. At an all-India level his reputation is that of an “anti-national” who demanded secession from the Indian Union, an atheist who rejected god, religion, and rituals. In 1990, in the context of the Indian government’s move to introduce reservation (affirmative action) for backward castes in education and employment, and the upper-caste protest against it, Periyar’s role in empowering backward castes has received attention. Further, with the renewed rise of Hindu fundamentalism from the 1990s, Periyar’s critique of religion, especially Hinduism, has been recognized politically and intellectually. The dominance of intermediary castes in south India, and Dalit political and cultural assertion since the 1990s, has triggered a re-evaluation of Periyar’s ideas on caste and their impact on the empowerment of backward castes.
The renewed political interest in Periyar’s ideas and a longstanding academic interest in the history of the non-Brahmin movement have come together in recent times. This has resulted in the proliferation of new compilations, editions, and reprints of Periyar’s writings. Analytical studies of his life and politics is a growing field. Though undertheorized by scholars, Periyar’s ideas on caste, religion, women’s rights, and language provide a window into understanding and conceptualizing non-mainstream ideological trends in modern Asian history.