The widower was 70 and she 32. And yet they married. Obviously, it was a controversial marriage and the Tamils who referred to EVR as Periyar were traumatised. The wedlock is regarded as a turning point in Tamil Nadu politics. Periyar had earlier stood valiantly against the mighty Travancore kings in the Vaikom agitation. He acquired the Justice Party from a set of anti-Brahmin Zamindars who left politics disillusioned with the quirky voters who had thrown them out. Periyar donned the mantle and even changed the name of the party and took away its political role.
The Dravidar Kazhagam born out of Periyar’s self-respect movement aimed to eradicate the degraded status imposed on Dravidians. Perceiving Hinduism as the oppressor they publicly insulted its Gods. Periyar had decried every injustice in Hindu society, including its bad treatment of women.
The young bride Gandhimathi had renamed herself as Maniammai (her birth name is that of a goddess). Soon Maniammai grew to be Periyar’s trusted follower. Becoming his personal assistant, she looked after his well-being and even distributed pamphlets at public meetings.
Only one advice was sought and that too surprisingly from a political foe. Periyar met the Indian governor — general Rajaji on May 14, 1949. Other members of the party sensed something was amiss while Periyar published a statement in his newspaper Viduthalai on June 19, 1949. “I am no longer able to carry on with my work as before because of health. So I will appoint an heir, and this is what I discussed with Rajaji.”
And in nine days came another statement that he was making Maniammai a trustee of party funds. Then a newspaper broke the news that Periyar had secretly applied for register marriage.
EVR’s decision to marry Maniammai and name her as his political heir caused outrage among members of the movement. Party cadres had broken idols and garlanded the Hindu Gods with slippers in the name of rationalism and thought this was making them a laughing stock.
EVR explained that the marriage was purely an arrangement to secure his property while satisfying the law. Telegrams and delegations from party leaders from all over the province could not deter him. The marriage went ahead without any family members or followers in attendance.
Periyar had a free hand in the party newspaper Viduthalai and kept printing his own version of the events. The opponents decided to start a new paper but then to popularise it would take time. So they tried an innovative trick.
In the past, Periyar had written several articles on the evils of elder men marrying young women. Rama Arangannal, associate editor of the paper who still had access to the press compiled the old speeches of EVR featuring his views on age-differences in marriages. He published them without any sanction from his Editor. An angry EVR sacked him. This act hurt his lieutenants. It reminded them of all their jail days and their braving the police lathis and nursing the bruises which now meant nothing before the power of a woman. They realised that this was the end of the road for them or beginning of a new path?
Being denied political participation by Periyar was like cutting them off from oxygen. With prominent leaders such as CN Annadurai and EVR’s nephew (and perceived heir), Sampath left the movement to form a new party — the Dravidar Munnetra Kazhagam.
All of EVR’s followers went back to him for his blessings after every election they won but EVR knew they were watering down whatever he had taught them. From no God, they had accepted one God and many were rumoured to be consulting astrologers.
Maniammai who bore the trauma silently would outlive Periyar and would head the party for five years thereafter.
Reactions were tinged with surprise when during the emergency she conducted a Ravan Lila to ridicule the all-powerful Indira Gandhi’s Ram Lila at Delhi and challenged the PM to ban her party if she could. Indira responded with a series of back-breaking income tax raids.
— The writer is a historian and an author