Identity politics on a linguistic basis became prominent in the 20th century. Such an identity politics, which led to several political changes, has been an influential ideology till today.
The construction of a popular Tamil identity took place within the modern political space and was transformed into a monolithic linguistic identity. This monolithic Tamil identity led to a popular uprising first during the 1938-39 anti-Hindi agitation. It unified various social groups and their activities. It was a moment when voices that raised demands contradictory to this linguistic identity could easily be marginalised.
Leaders with various interests joined the anti-Hindi agitation. Tamil pundits, teachers, those who organised along caste lines, and political leaders emotionally became involved in the agitation. Though the mass mobilisation was in the hands of the movement headed by Periyar, leaders of the Congress and the Justice Party too joined the agitation. It is at this level that we should understand the involvement of the couple — Annai Meenambal and her husband N Sivaraj, activists of the Depressed Classes — in the agitation.
When the central figure of the politics of the Depressed Classes, MC Rajah, supported the Congress after the Poona Pact of 1932, it was Meenambal and Sivaraj who campaigned for Dr BR Ambedkar.
There are no references to the couple, who served in the Adi-Dravida Association, having ever been associated with the Congress. They also served in the All India Scheduled Castes Federation (AISCF) started by Dr Ambedkar. In fact, Meenambal’s husband Sivaraj was the first secretary of the AISCF.
Meenambal Sivaraj’s only identity-related protest
Those involved in the upliftment of the oppressed usually work only for their fundamental rights. So it is interesting to find Meenambal, who was born on 26 December 1904, involved in cultural aspects such as the anti-Hindi agitation.
Neither before nor after the agitation did Meenambal or Sivaraj show interest in such identity protests. Since we don’t have many concrete details about their political life, we are not able to clearly say anything about their vision of culture or trace the reason for their involvement in this agitation.
Meenambal Sivaraj’s grandfather Madurai Pillai was a Burma-based entrepreneur who sponsored Tamil poets. A collection of poetry in praise of Madurai Pillai was titled ‘Madurai Prabhandam’. We are not sure whether this could have been an influential factor in their turn towards Tamil identity politics.
Venugopal Pillai, the elder brother of Meenambal’s father, was the municipal commissioner in Kadappai. He was the one who organised the famous Spur Tank meeting in which TM Nair spoke in 1917. He had links with Adi-Dravida politics as well as the Justice Party.
Similarly, Meenambal also had close links with the Justice Party. Based on Meenambal’s remarks, we find that she showed interest in this agitation only when Tamil scholar CT Nayagam, who came to her house, criticised the Rajaji government’s introduction of Hindi in schools as Brahminical. We may surmise that she entered into this agitation only as a continuation of anti-Brahmin ideology.
There is no possibility that both Meenambal and Sivaraj were involved in this agitation following the path of Dr Ambedkar. It is obvious that their position was an outcome of the culture of the Tamil region.
This could be understood only as an attitude related to the political climate rather than as an ideological position. Their contemporaries such as MC Rajah, Rettaimalai Srinivasan, and Swami Sahajananda did not participate in it.
When MC Rajah, Munusamy Pillai, and Sahajananda supported the Congress, it was only Meenambal and Sivaraj who were close to the Justice Party.
The Justice Party, which had faced an electoral setback then, got an opportunity to combine the idea of Tamil Renaissance, Saivism, and the revolutionary Self-Respect Movement. When Periyar got into the institutional structure by becoming the leader of the Justice Party, the anti-Hindi agitation gave a justification for his anti-Brahmin rhetoric.
It also paved the way for the emergence of new forces like CN Annadurai, lending itself to the rise of a new politics of passionate attitude towards Tamil.
Dalits in anti-Hindi agitation
During the anti-Hindi agitation of 1938–39, Dalit activists with various ideological positions operated from northern Tamil Nadu.
There was yet another group similar to Meenambal and Sivaraj who participated in the agitation. They were the Buddhist revivalists who ideologically connected themselves with Periyar right from his early days. Intellectuals such as G Appadurai, Pundit AP Periyasamy, Annapoorani, Anubanda Ubasagar, and VPS Mani, who operated right from the times of Pundit Iyothee Dasar, joined this agitation of the Self-Respect Movement.
Later on, Anubanda Ubasagar and AP Periyasamy joined the Dravidian movement. The former had lost his hearing ability due to police excess during the agitation.
If the neo-Buddhists were ideologically attracted towards the agitation, Meenambal and Sivaraj were politically attracted towards it.
From a campaign by intellectuals into a mass agitation
It is only after an anti-Hindi campaign initiated by Tamil Saivite scholars in Madras following Rajaji’s speech imposing Hindi that the agitation moved to the next stage of arrests. The agitation then moved from scholars and intellectuals to the masses.
It was Meenambal who had taken charge of the agitation in Chennai. She was responsible for converting the campaign by intellectuals into a mass agitation. Under her able leadership, many belonging to the Depressed Classes joined the anti-Hindi agitation.
The remarks of Meenambal show that she participated in the very first meeting organised against the imposition of Hindi.
She said: “Once when CT Nayagam came to our home and said, ‘Hindi is imposed due to the trickery of Brahmins. We need to join Periyar and do something.’ My husband said, ‘Ok, let us think about it.’ I, who just then had got married to him, said, ‘Why think about that? We should oppose the imposition of Hindi?’ ”
Nayagam then told her that the first meeting was to be held in T Nagar and that “an auspicious married woman must initiate it”. That was the first anti-Hindi agitation meeting that Meenambal participated in.
“The next meeting held at Periya Palayathu Amman Koil Street in Royapet was presided over by me. Then followed several meetings,” Meenambal said.
Scholar Nambi Aruran said that the agitation faced a setback for some time as Meenambal had differences with the campaigners over a fast and did not allow the Adi-Dravidas to participate in it.
Meenambal’s house and a fast
A fast-unto-death was announced by Stalin Jagadeesan of Rajamahendrapuram on 1 May 1938. This instigated the agitators.
Referring to this fast, Annadurai spoke on 10 June 1938: “We now have to think about the place of cremating Jagadeesan. The questions before us are: Should we cremate him in front of the chief minister’s house? Or in front of the bungalow of the governor who keeps saying he is not bothered about anyone dying?”
This speech showed how Jagadeesan’s fast functioned as an ethical justification for the emotionally charged agitation against the government.
In his diary, Tamil Saivite scholar Maraimalai Adigal wrote on 3 June 1938: “We visited Mr Jagadeesan, who was fasting for the past 34 days.” Again he emotionally wrote on 21 June 1938: “Mr Jagadeesan, who has been fasting for the past 57 days, is going to die.”
The fast, which started in CT Nayagam’s house, had been shifted to Meenambal’s house. There were a huge number of visitors.
Like several volunteers of the anti-Hindi agitation, Jagadeesan also did not belong to any political party.
We need to state that Jagadeesan’s fasting was necessary for the agitators. Periyar also met Jagadeesan on 26 May 1938. Meenambal shifted Jagadeesan only to persuade him to give up his fast.
But the ethical justification of the protest constructed through Jagadeesan’s fast was demolished by Meenambal. She revealed that Jagadeesan took food during the night when he was shifted to her house.
Many were said to be terribly angry with Meenambal. But ultimately many, including Periyar, had to disown Jagadeesan.
In their extensive study of Periyar, SV Rajadurai and V Geetha quoted Periyar calling him a ‘Congress spy’. As a result of this crisis, Jagadesan had to give up his fast and leave Madras. It was because of the difference of opinion created in this regard that Meenambal had to leave the agitation.
Referring to a government report in this regard, scholar Nambi Aruran said that Meenambal’s decision had created a setback in the anti-Hindi agitation.
Dalits and Periyar’s Self-Respect Movement
There was yet another difference between Meenambal and the Self-Respect Movement.
She shared Sivaraj’s opinion that since Adi-Dravidas and Dravidians had a long-lasting difference, they could not be united in a short span of time. She felt that Dravidians may like to be subservient to Aryans but would not like to unite with Adi-Dravidas.
Sivaraj strongly believed that there was no foundation on which they could come together, scholar Anbu Ponnoviam has noted.
Once when she went for a meeting, Meenambal was told about the ill-treatment faced by Dalits at the hands of the Self-Respecters. In the same meeting, she said she would beat the culprits with brooms. Periyar had written to Sivaraj, who had gone to Shimla, seeking an explanation about this incident, according to Ponnoviam.
These incidents show that Meenambal and Sivaraj always extended their support without compromising their stand.
The weakened anti-Hindi agitation revived its momentum only when personalities like Meenambal returned to it after November 1938. This also showed the strength of the Dalit leadership and their unity.
Historian Rajsekar Basu described it thus:
“In protest against the arrest of women volunteers during the agitation, Adi-Dravidas from the villages surrounding Madras participated. When the women were brought to the George Town court for judicial enquiry, several Dalits gathered at the court premises. When they were chased away by the police, the Adi-Dravidas attacked the offices of media such as Dinamani and Indian Express.”
In his report submitted to the government, the Madras police commissioner stated that the “non-Brahmin volunteers of the Self-Respect Movement summoned the Adi-Dravidas to attack the Brahmins”. The police excess brought together the Self-Respecters and Adi-Dravidas to a common platform.
Influenced by the ideas of the Self-Respect Movement, the Adi-Dravidas of various parts of Tamil Nadu blamed Brahmins for imposing Hindi on the Dravidian society and raised slogans such as “Down down Brahmin raj, down down Hindi”.
The local leaders used the diasporic Tamils to propagate anti-Hindi ideas. Speakers from Singapore and Malaysia spoke at the meetings held in suburban areas around Chennai. Their eloquent speeches attracted the Adi-Dravidas working in the mills. Dalit leaders including Rettaimalai Srinivasan then supported the protests conducted by the Self-Respecters against the policies of the government headed by Rajaji.
Such a total uprising with an emotional affiliation to Tamil led to the formation of a strong opposition to Brahmin domination. The role of Adi-Dravidas played a crucial role in this mass mobilisation, said Rajsekar Basu.
The number of people (including women and children) arrested during the agitation between 3 June 1938 and 21 February 1940 was 1,271.
Of these, except the leaders, most of the volunteers were Dalits and belonged to Madras.
There is no direct evidence regarding Dalit participation in the anti-Hindi agitation except Meenambal’s brief interview. Details of Dalit participation could only be found in the writings of others.
Meenambal Sivaraj’s return to the anti-Hindi agitation
At that time, a group of 101 people gathered with the title, ‘jadha’. They sought to join the anti-Hindi agitation, started from Tiruchy, and reached Madras on 11 November 1938. The group was headed by KV Alagirisamy.
Nambi Aruran notes that only 80 were there when the group arrived in Madras. Till the arrival of the ‘jadha’ group, the anti-Hindi agitation remained just a protest. They decided to hold a demonstration in August 1938 before the house of the then chief minister Rajaji. The plan was to raise slogans for half an hour and disperse. There were agreements and disagreements with this mode of protest. Periyar himself issued a press release saying that there was no need to protest in front of the chief minister’s house.
Meanwhile, the so-called leaders of the agitation, CT Nayagam and Shanmugananda Adigal, were given bail after they gave a declaration that they would no longer participate in the agitation. But one Ponnusamy, who claimed to be a Congressman, was jailed as he was not willing to give such a declaration, says Ko. Kesavan in his book ‘Dravidian movement and Language Policy’ (p.66).
In the 15 August 1939 issue of Kudiyarasu, it was said that in awarding punishment, there was bias between the Congress and non-Congress people. The protest, which had such internal contradictions, reached its zenith only after the Tiruchy team reached Madras.
It was at that time that Meenambal had returned to the agitation. There are not many details about the exact period the differences lasted and her return to the agitation.
The women’s conference where EVR was given the title ‘Periyar’
It was only in the protest demonstration held in front of the Hindu Theological High School in November 1938 that women participated.
It was during this conference that the leadership of the anti-Hindi agitation went to the hands of Periyar.
On 13 November 1938, a Tamil women’s conference was conducted in support of the anti-Hindi agitation. Usually, historical accounts about the conference mention it as one headed by Dharumambal and make a passing reference to Meenambal as one of the participants in it.
But it was Meenambal who played a significant role in organising the conference. She was wholly responsible for bringing women to the conference. She was the one who hoisted the conference flag.
It was at this conference that EV Ramasamy was given the honourary title ‘Periyar’.
Citing this, Dalit historians note that it was Meenambal who honoured EVR with the title ‘Periyar’. We can find a different account in a book by M Elanchezhian who carried a photograph of the conference and treated Dharumambal as the central figure and Meenambal as one among the participants. In that photograph, however, Meenambal occupies a central place surrounded by other women.
The conference played a significant role in the anti-Hindi agitation.
Speaking at the conference, Periyar said, “Women should participate in the agitation.” On 5 December 1938, a case was registered against Periyar alleging that he instigated violence and promoted anti-state activities. A fine of ₹1,000 was also imposed on him and he was given a jail term of one year.
Talking about this incident, Meenambal later said: “Periyar got arrested when he was about to preside over the meeting. Then I spoke in that meeting. But I was not arrested. There was a reason for that. In those days untouchables served as butlers in the houses of white people. So, our brother went to Rajaji and told him that I must not be arrested. If I was arrested, they would not go to work. Anyhow, the government did not arrest me.”
It is significant to note here the reminisces of a contemporary Dalit personality, Sakthidasan, about the women’s conference, in a personal interview with this author.
“My father took me to that women’s conference when I was a small boy. He referred to Meenambal and told me that she was like a mother to us. She did all the work at the conference. But after his release from prison, when Periyar spoke about the conference, he spoke only in praise of Dharumambal,” Sakthidasan said.
Such oral histories are still alive in the memory of elderly Dalit personalities.
When the anti-Hindi agitation had no direct relation to caste and untouchability, how did they understand the imposition of Hindi and the value of Tamil? How did they take it to their people? What kind of an understanding did those people get about the agitation? How did they integrate the Dalits into the newly forged Tamil identity?
Was it an attempt to find a space for Dalits in this new identity? Or did they initially try to use Dalits for the newly formed political mobilisation and later dissociated themselves from it? We shall leave all such questions for further research.
(Stalin Rajangam is a Tamil Dalit history researcher. He also writes on cinema, politics, and culture from the Dalit perspective. He has done his doctoral research on Dalit pioneer Iyothee Dasar. He is currently working as a professor in The American College, Madurai)
(A version of this article in Tamil earlier appeared in Kalachuvadu. It was translated by R Azhagarasan, who teaches English at the University of Madras)