Centre for Historical Studies
Jawaharlal Nehru University
Gender, Language and the Quest for a Tamil Identity: A Study of the Politics and Persona of Neelambikai Ammaiyar
The Tamil quest for identity and self-expression vis-a-vis the English
colonial masters as well as the Sanskritic/Hindi domination implicit in the
Congress ideology was met not by the Theosophical movment but by the Tani Tamizh
The Tani Tamizh Iyakkam represented not only the major strand in the transitional years in Madras politics but emerged as the most important post-colonial discourse in Tamil Nadu. The Tani Tamizh Iyakkam can be defined as the Tamil ethno-nationalist movement which did not merely claim separateness from the 'mainstream' Congress led nationalist struggle but in fact moved parallel to it and represented "a counter culture." It can be perceived as the beginnings of Tamil separatism which has persistently struggled against the domination of the centre in terms of Congress ideology, linguistic chauvinism of the Hindi belt and unequal resource allocation.
The nomenclature 'Tani Tamizh Iyakkam' can be translated literally as 'separate Tamil movement.' Its apparent manifestation was linguistic separatism or 'a movement towards purification of Tamil.'..Its political and cultural dimensions take off from this crucial point of difference. The role of women in the Tani Tamizh Iyakkam is best illustrated in terms of an unusual occurence on l4.ll.l938. An army of women consisting of a motley crowd of housewives, intellectuals, authors and professionals assembled in front of the Theological high School in Madras. The women raised slogans like 'Down with English' and 'Down with Hindi' interspaced with 'Tamizh Vazhga' meaning 'may Tamil flourish.' Five of the women leaders were arrested and jailed. Among these were : Moothatti Moovalur Ramamritham, Malarmugaththammai, Pattammal, Dharmambal and Neelambikai Ammaiyar. More women courted arrest in the cause of Tamil in l939. Each of these women was to carve out a place for herself in the sphere of Tamil renaissance, Dravidian nationalism and gender based social reforms. The anti-colonial, anti-Hindi discourse conducted entirely in chaste Tamil unstained by Sanskritic words or phrases was a feature of Tamil ethnic nationalism that began in the l930's. The anti-Hindi resurgent Tamil discourse however continues to be a dominant cultural characteristic of politics and literature in Tamil Nadu even into the 90's, almost fifty years since India gained independence.
For women however the Tani Tamizh Iyakkam represented an even more crucial avenue for self-expression. It provided them a powerful vehicle of protest against patriarchal practices and institutions. The patriarchal notions within Hindu society derived their validity and sustenance from the Brahmanical 'high tradition' texts. The Tamil Brahmins jealously guarded and enforced these patriarchal practices which included child marriage, denial of education to women, tonsuring of widows etc. Interestingly some patriarchal customs especially the practice of dowry and even tonsuring of widows persist to this day in the more conservative parts of Tamil Nadu, not only among the Brahmins but equally among 'sanskritized' upper caste non-Brahmins like the Pillais, Mudaliyars and Naidu.
The Tani Tamizh Iyakkam by its attack on Sanskrit/Hindi logically extended its struggle to encompass anti-Brahmanism in all its manifestations. It therefore became associated with the South Indian Liberation Front started in l9l6 which then led on to the foundation of the Justice Party, the Dravida Kazhagam etc. The Justice Party with its anti-Hindi anti-Brahmanical programme formed the government in Tamil Nadu after the l920 elections.
E.V.Ramaswami Naicker in spearheading a movement for the self respect of those he called the indigenous Tamils discarded the negative description of them as non-Brahmins, a description which still moves within the Brahmins and the Other polarity. In attacking Brahmins he also attacked patriarchal institutions perceived as social representations of Brahmanism. It is noteworthy that it was at the First Tamil Women’s Conference (Tamil Nattu Perumagalir Manadu) held on l3 November l938 that its chairperson Neelambikai Ammaiyar conferred on E.V.Ramaswami Naicker the title of 'Periyar' in recognition of his support to women’s causes.
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From economic history, Prof. Ramaswamy has broadened her interests to cover such varied fields as south Indian folklore, religious studies, and gender studies. Her publications include, The Historical Dictionary of the Tamils (2007), Walking Naked: Women, Society, Spirituality in South India (1997), Divinity and Deviance: Women in Virasaivism (1996). She is currently engaged in writing Crafts and Craftsmen in South Indian History (forthcoming) and Tamil Myths and Legends (forthcoming).