In an era when upper caste women were beginning to find their feet in public life and participating in politics, a young woman from the Depressed Classes was a pathbreaker and opened the doors for Dalit women in politics. She was Sathiavani Muthu, who participated in electoral politics for 3 decades, from the 50s to the 80s, served as Minister in the Tamil Nadu Government twice and served the country as a Rajya Sabha MP and as a Union Minister.
She has the unique distinction of being probably the first Dalit woman in India to start and lead a new party, Thazhthapattor Munnetra Kazhagam (Depressed Classes Development Front). What should have been a storied life, taught to young Indians as a lesson in self-reliance and leadership remains unknown beyond the unspoken annals of Dravidian history and unsung.
Dr Sathiavani Muthu rose from a background of activism. Her father was part of Ayotheedasa Padithar’s Adi-Dravida Buddhist platform. The Adi Dravida Mahajan Sabha, which was established by Ayotheedasar and led by such stalwarts as M C Rajah eventually was subsumed into EVR’s Self-Respect Movement and its offshoot the Dravidar Kazhagam. Beyond Dalit politics, her family were Buddhists and led workers agitations. Her home turf was the industrial suburb of North Madras, Perambur, from where she stood for Assembly elections 5 times and won thrice.
She was among the cohort of young politicians that joined C N Annadurai in the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. When the DMK picketed Chief Minister Rajaji’s house in 1953 during the anti-Hindi agitation, Sathiavani was in the forefront, in spite of advanced pregnancy.
When the DMK came to power in 1967, she was part of Annadurai’s cabinet, holding both Harijan Welfare and Information portfolios. After Annadurai’s passing in 1969, she was again Harijan Welfare Minister in M Karunanidhi’s Cabinet until 1974.
Her first major disappointment came in 1968, at the time of the Keezhvenmani massacre, when the Dravidian leaders soft pedalled and tried not to bring too much public attention. The main accused was Gopalakrishna Naidu, a landlord from the same community as many of the Dravidian leaders, and the 43 landless labourers who were burned alive were from the Scheduled Castes.
In spite of Dravidians being in power, she realized that Scheduled Castes were still no better placed in terms of empowerment. She already had faced the bigotry of EV Ramasamy, when he wrote in his periodical Nasthikam of 2 March 1963 – “Pariah women wearing jackets led to increased prices for clothes and Pariah men becoming literate led to increasing unemployment”.
In her autobiography “Enathu Porattam” – My Agitation, she writes:
“Periyar conducted an Untouchability Eradication Conference in which I was invited to speak. I said
You have told us that when we encounter a snake and a Brahmin, the Brahmin must be struck first since he is more dangerous than a snake. You were able to say these words and these Black-Shirted Self-Respect Activists here have risen in life through you. I have to place on record that the situation of our people from the Depressed Classes has not improved in any way.
The Depressed Classes face no trouble from the Brahmins. On the contrary, the information I have is that it is non-Brahmins who are responsible for many of the atrocities against us. The situation today is such that there is a greater need for Shudra and Non-Shudra based politics rather than Brahmin, non-Brahmin polarization.”
Leaving the DMK
In 1974, she made a speech at Integral Coach Factory in a meeting organized by the SC/ST Employee’s Association where she pointed out the skewed nature of family planning policies that targeted Scheduled Castes and may result in their relative diminishing in numbers compared to dominant castes. A man such as M Karunanidhi would never let such an open criticism of his Government’s policies go without retaliation.
When Dr Sathiavani Muthu pushed for a Law University dedicated to Ambedkar, she was told that there were not sufficient funds and the Government would put up half the money. She could raise the remaining money through her own efforts. Though she managed to put up the funds by lobbying on her own behalf, she was smarting from the insult. In 1974, she left the DMK and formed her own party, Thazhthapattor Munnetra Kazhagam.
MGR and the AIADMK
In 1977, MGR won the elections and the AIADMK came to power. The Scheduled Caste vote base had largely shifted to the AIADMK, largely due to MGR’s individual popularity. He had carefully cultivated the Scheduled Castes as a constituency, beginning with ‘Madurai Veeran’ (1956), in which he played a legendary hero from a cobbler background.
Madurai Veeran is the kula deivam for many people from the South of TN and still has a special place in the hearts of Tamil Dalits. ‘Padagotti’ (Boatman, 1964) had him as a fisherman, ‘Rickshawkaran’ (Rickshaw Puller, 1971) was a massive hit among the Dalits who dominated the itinerant working class of the urban slums, Oli Vilakku (Shining Lamp, 1968) was a major hit among the nomadic Narikurava community, as it featured a Narikurava dance by MGR and Jayalalitha.
Dr Sathiavani Muthu was cognizant of the need to use MGR’s popularity as a vehicle for her more activist brand of politics and accepted when MGR reached out to her. The AIADMK only fielded her from Ulunderpet, a rural region in North Tamil Nadu, far away from her home base of Perambur in Chennai. She could not find sufficient traction and lost. MGR nominated her to the Rajya Sabha in 1978, and Dr Sathiavani Muthu served briefly in the Charan Singh Ministry as Minister Of State for Social Welfare.
In 1980, power reverted to Indira Gandhi-led Congress and this time, the DMK was in alliance with the Congress. She fought elections to the Assembly one last time in 1984 in her home turf of Perambur, but the years away from ground-level politics took their toll on her support base. She was ousted by Parithi Ilamvazhuthi, then a rising young star in the DMK who was also from the Scheduled Castes.
Dr Sathiavani Muthu’s career serves as a lesson on the importance of self-reliance, especially for Dalits. Despite her background and skills in organization, she was consistently boxed within the Dalit category and could not strike out on major positions.
In the early years of Independence, Dalit leaders like Babu Jagjivan Ram rose to powerful positions. In 1960, Damodaram Sanjeevayya became the first Dalit Chief Minister of an Indian State, in the then unified Andhra Pradesh.
However, regional and caste-centric politics have stymied further growth of Dalits to such positions of leadership.
One wonders what would have been of Dr Sathiavani’s career if the Adi-Dravida Mahajan Sabha had moulded itself into a strong political movement under the leadership of M C Rajah. This trailblazer’s life today remains but a foot note in history, waiting for future generations to carry forward her legacy.
- Dravida Mayai Part 2 – Subbu
- Thi Mu Kavin Thottramamum Valarchiyum (The Rise and Growth of DMK), Sivalai Ilamathy, 1987