On December 2, 1970, the Tamil Nadu Assembly passed the landmark amendment to the Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act to abolish the system of hereditary priesthood and to enable competent persons of all castes to become priests. Despite efforts, the aim of this amendment is yet to materialise fully because of legal challenges. But the delay has not diminished the significance of the amendment, which is lauded as a historic achievement of the then M. Karunanidhi-led DMK government. However, in this discourse, the person who provided the solid footing for the amendment is often forgotten or mentioned as a footnote. He was late Dalit leader L. Elayaperumal of the Congress, a three-time MP and a one-time MLA. It was the recommendations of the Committee on Untouchability, Economic and Educational Development of the Scheduled Castes, headed by Elayaperumal, that formed the basis for the amendment.
Step towards social reforms
According to the ‘Statement of Object and Reasons’ provided in the amendment, it was a step towards social reforms based on the recommendations of this committee. It referred to the committee’s report, which said, “The hereditary priesthood in the Hindu society should be abolished. It can be achieved even without legislation. The system can be replaced by an ecclesiastical organisation of men possessing the requisite educational qualifications after training at recognised institutions in priesthood. Such lines in priesthood should be open to all qualified candidates, irrespective of caste, creed or race.”
Subsequently, when the amendment was challenged in the Supreme Court, the Tamil Nadu government stressed that it was done in accordance with the recommendations of this committee appointed by the Government of India. Even the archaka training schools started by the DMK government in 2007 were on the lines of its recommendations.
The fact that Elayaperumal was only 41 years old when he was appointed to head the eight-member committee in 1965, the first such in Independent India, testifies to his stature. The committee travelled across India and submitted its comprehensive findings in 1969. However, its recommendations were never implemented by the Union government. This resulted in Elayaperumal leaving the Congress in 1984 and forming the Indian Human Rights Party.
During the Lok Sabha debates in the period between 1969 and 1974, several members, cutting across party lines, cited the committee’s recommendations and questioned the government’s delay in implementing them. In 1989, another key recommendation of the committee, on tightening the laws against caste discrimination, played a role in the passage of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.
Born on June 26, 1924 at Themmur near Chidambaram in Cuddalore district, Elayaperumal was anti-caste from a young age. Infuriated by separate drinking water pots kept for Dalit students in his school, Elayaperumal broke them by staying late after everyone had left. As new pots continued to be broken, his teacher eventually found out it was his handiwork. The school reportedly abolished the system of separate pots, seeing the justification in Elayaperumal’s anger.
A Congress candidate
He served in the army for a brief period around 1944 before returning to his native place. With caste discrimination, atrocities and forced labour by landlords widely prevalent in the region, Elayaperumal soon started spearheading a number of struggles. A recent comprehensive biography of Elayaperumal, authored by Balasingam Rajendran, brings out these struggles in detail. He became an MP, contesting as a Congress candidate from Chidambaram (reserved) in the country’s first election in 1952, when he was just 27.
While MLAs and MPs questioning their own governments in the legislative bodies are rare today, Elayaperumal did not hesitate questioning the Congress government in Parliament on the issues of caste and minimum wages. “After years of consideration, the Minimum Wages Act was placed on the statute book in 1948. I am really disappointed that the Act has not yet been implemented by our several State governments. The agricultural workers of Chidambaram taluk have been demanding fair wages since 1948, but till now no action has been taken by our Madras State government,” he said in a debate in the Lok Sabha on March 20, 1953.
On his further comment that the government should “abolish landlordism and the land must be made over to the actual tiller of the soil”, another MP even quipped that the Congress MP was voicing the policy of the Communist party.
Villupuram MP D. Ravi Kumar, who is working on a political biography of Elayaperumal, said no other party or leader in Tamil Nadu had raised the issues concerning landless agricultural labourers as seriously as Elayaperumal, whose significance was that he was a leader of Dalits within the Congress.
Importantly, as the Dalit leaders of the early 20th Century did, Elayaperumal campaigned intensely to prevent Dalits from taking part in work that are degrading to their dignity in a bid to reclaim their “cultural capital”, Mr. Ravi Kumar said. He headed the Nandanar Educational Society in Chidambaram after the demise of Swami Sahajananda. Politically, he played a prominent role in the Congress. He served as the Tamil Nadu Congress Committee president during Indira Gandhi’s comeback election in 1980. He got elected from the Egmore Assembly constituency. His significant political clout in the Chidambaram region was illustrated by the fact that the Independent he supported won in the Kattumannarkoil constituency in the 1989 election. In subsequent years, he worked in collaboration with like-minded organisations for the welfare of the Dalits, especially those organisations that emerged during the Ambedkar centenary in the 1990s.
Writer Stalin Rajangam, in his foreword to Mr. Rajendran’s biography of Elayaperumal, points out how the late leader intervened wherever caste atrocities happened in Tamil Nadu. He says that while many organisations fiercely fought outside, Elayaperumal, with his standing as a former Congress leader and former elected representative, remained the only person who could talk to the government machinery for the Dalits. Elayaperumal was the first recipient of the Annal Ambedkar Award instituted by the DMK government in 1998. He returned to the Congress in 2003. He died on September 9, 2005. This June marks the start of the birth centenary year of both Elayaperumal and Karunanidhi. Chief Minister M.K. Stalin has said the government will build a memorial hall in Chidambaram to mark the birth centenary of Elayaperumal.