A statue of Periyar EV Ramasamy, revered Indian activist, social thinker, and anti-caste leader, was found desecrated on Friday with vandals spilling saffron paint on it in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu.
The incident has caused tensions in Sundarpuram where followers of the reformers have been protesting and demanding the miscreants' arrest. The vandalism has been called out by several politicians, activists, and students as well as civil society, especially on Twitter where Periyarists have been demanding action against the incident.
DMK MP from Thoothukudi, Kanimozhi Karunanidhi, took to Twitter to call out the vandalism. "Even after decades after his demise Periyar is still the one who sets the narrative. He is not a mere statue but the path to self-respect and social justice including those who smear him with colours".
Even after decades after his demise Periyar is still the one who sets the narrative. He is not a mere statue but the path to self respect and social justice including those who smear him with colours.#Periyar pic.twitter.com/i5vgDWaXqD
— Kanimozhi (கனிமொழி) (@KanimozhiDMK) July 17, 2020
Similar messages sprang up across social media.
"You cannot expect any rational thought from a religious man. He is like a rocking log in water."#Periyar, always speaking from beyond the grave.
— Pragya Tiwari (@PragyaTiwari) July 17, 2020
The casteist forces humiliated Periyar statue with saffron paint in Coimbatore, TN. Culprits must be arrested soon & ensure strong action. Periyar is not just a social reformer but is icon of native Indians & pride of TN and India. #JaiPeriyar pic.twitter.com/USi97LZZJS
— Mission Ambedkar (@MissionAmbedkar) July 17, 2020
— Thiyagarajan A (@Er_Thiyagarajan) July 17, 2020
Even after decades after his demise Periyar is still the one who sets the narrative. He is not a mere statue but the path to self respect and social justice including those who smear him with colours.#Periyar pic.twitter.com/4ph8RtFAb9
— வழக்கறிஞர் இடவை நா.செல்வகுமார் (@advselvakumarbl) July 17, 2020
— MALIK-FIROSH-KHAN (@nameismalik) July 17, 2020
The desecration was not an isolated incident. In fact, tensions had been on the boil since some BJP workers objected to content posted by the YouTube channel Karuppar Kottam, which is run by a group of Periyar's supporters.
A major row had erupted after the channel made "denigrating" remarks about "Kandha Sashti Kavacham", a Tamil hymn sung in praise of Lord Muruga, son of Lord Shiva, with some of the videos going viral in other social media.
The BJP in Tamil Nadu announced a protest on Thursday, asking its members to hold demonstrations in front of their houses with a portrait of Lord Muruga to press the government to act against those behind the "Karuppar Koottam." One person has since been arrested for the incident.
Why target Periyar's statue?
A social justice advocate and reformer, Periyar is known as the father of the Dravidian movement who also pioneered the Self-Respect movement which aimed at making people from so-called "lower" and backward castes to gain self-respect and break the shackles of the Brahmanic caste system.
Born Erode Venkata Ramasamy, Periyar gave up his caste title 'Naicker' in 1929. Known as the 'Socrates of South India', Periyar's ideologies form a focal point between communist, Dalit and Dravidian politics in Tamil Nadu, as well as feminists, Tamil nationalist and anti-caste movements.
After a brief stint in the Indian National Congress from 1919 to 1925 after which he went on to join the Justice Party which eventually became the Dravida Kazhagam party. The latter eventually went on to demand a separate state for Tamil Nadu after the Muslim League raised the demand for Pakistan.
Periyar was also a staunch feminist and vocally spoke against child marriage and in favour of widow-remarriage. He advocated women's education and was one of the first to address caste-oppression from a gender lens. In fact, it was a Dalit woman, Meenabal, who was the first to give him the name
"Periyar" during a 1938 women's conclave in Chennai. Critics, however, were displeased upon his wedding to a 32-year-old woman, whom he described as his successor, at the age of 70.
EVR, who wrote vociferously and was actively involved in ground-level activism as well, was severely critical of Indo-Aryan imposition on Dravidian people. In fact, Pariyar's staunch resistance of the Brahmanic caste society and religion earned him many critics. A vocal atheist, Periyar once concluded that "he who created God was a fool". Earlier in January, former actor and politician Rajinikanth has caused a row after he referred to a 1971 rally conducted by Periyar in which he and his supporters allegedly burnt disrespected Hindu deities. Not just his followers and DK but members of DMK and AIADMK also demanded an apology from Rajinikanth for misrepresenting the reformer.
Targeting Periyar's statue might be a way of undermining the ideologies that have shaped Tamil politics and identity in India.
Periyar died in 1973 but his legacy continues to live on in the politics of Tamil Nadu as well as other states in South India. After the desecration of his statue, workers of DMK, MDMK and VCK have already staged protests in Coimbatore. The activists and workers who had gathered to protests against the desecration were only dispersed after police promised action in the incident.
DMK MLA N. Karthik condemned the incident, adding that the act was an attempt to destroy harmony in Tamil Nadu. A case has since been registered at Kuniyamuthur Police Station against Arun Krishna, a worker of Bharat Sena, in connection with throwing of saffron colour on Periyar's status in Coimbatore. Krishna has surrendered before the police at Podanur Police Station, ANI reported.