Often lost in the pages of Tamil Nadu’s tumultuous political history is the story of one determined woman leader who was among the central figures in a crucial event that shaped the region’s politics in the 1900s. KA Maniammai was heir to the legacy of social activist EV Ramasamy, commonly known as Periyar. She was Periyar’s second wife, a controversial marriage in 1948 that is believed to have caused a split in the Dravidar Kazhagam, the organisation born out of Periyar’s self-respect and justice movement that aimed to eradicate the perceived degraded status imposed on Dravidians.

The split is widely regarded as a turning point in Tamil Nadu politics, when prominent leaders such as CN Annadurai and EVK Sampath left the movement to join politics and form a new party – the Dravidar Munnetra Kazhagam or DMK. Forgotten amidst these events is Maniammai’s work with women and children, her commitment to the self-respect movement and the challenges she faced as a woman in a public role.

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Manimmai’s original name was Gandhimathi. Born around 1917, she was the daughter of Kanagasabai Mudaliyar, a member of the Justice Party, which was renamed the Dravidar Kazhagam in 1944. At a conference immediately after Periyar’s death in 1973, she described her childhood as a time when she refused to act like the demure girl she was expected to be. “She said that instead of playing indoor games with other girls, she would more often be found playing sadugudu with boys,” said Kolathoor Mani, a Periyarist and the founder of Dravidar Viduthalai Kazhagam. Sadugudu is a rough game similar to kabaddi.

In her early 20s, Maniammai joined the Dravidar Kazhagam. Over the next few years, Maniammai grew to be one of Periyar’s most trusted followers. She became his personal assistant, looking after his well-being, collecting his speeches in the form of booklets and distributing pamphlets at all Dravidar Kazhagam meetings. This strong trust in her commitment to the organisation led to Periyar’s decision to make Maniammai his legal heir.

“Periyar thought she was selfless enough to maintain all the property acquired by his Trust,” said Arulmozhi, an advocate and a promoter of Periyar’s ideals. “Even though it was against his ideals, he had to marry her to confer the rights to his property.”

Controversial marriage

This decision to marry Maniammai caused outrage among several senior members of Periyar’s movement. Maniamma was around 32 years old, and Periyar was over 70. Although he explained that the marriage was purely an arrangement to secure his property while satisfying the law, the organisational split had already developed. Many believe that leaders like Annadurai and Karunanidhi had been considering a role politics for while, even though Periyar was against joining the political sphere since this would lead to compromising his ideals.

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“The marriage happened to be a good reason for them to form their own party,” said Kolathoor Mani.

It was not an easy time for Maniammai, but she held her ground.

“No woman has taken as much criticism and abuses as she has,” Arulmozhi said. “Society treats women who take a controversial stand harshly. But she had full knowledge of her decision and continued to be Periyar’s caretaker till he passed away.”

Periyar has himself written in Viduthalai, the party’s daily, about Maniammai’s travails.

“Arrangements, a lot I have made, much against the hatred and unhappiness of many persons. I felt miserable whether you would leave me off without fulfilling those tasks.  If my life still agile even at this age, it is because of this woman. Who is not unaware of this? It is that woman who provides suitable food, and dresses to the occasion. Those who are not dare enough to oppose me directly finds fault and decry that woman.”    

— Viduthalai

After Periyar’s death, Maniammai became the leader of the Dravidar Kazhagam for five years until her own death in 1978. Many regard her as Tamil Nadu’s first woman political leader. She began to tour around the state and consolidate the party at a time when many members were looking to shift to the Congress or the DMK.

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“As a person, she was very simple,” said Viduthalai Rajendran, a Periyarist who worked alongside Maniammai. “She didn’t wear silk saris or jewellery at all. She was dedicated to the liberation of women.”

In 1974, Maniammai organised a controversial Ravan Leela to protest against Prime Minister Indira Gandhi attending the the Ram Leela celebrations in the Delhi. Effigies of Ram, Sita and Lakshman were burnt, since followers of Periyar always saw the mainstream version of the Ramayana as a demeaning to Dravidians. She also led protests against the censorship of Viduthalai during the Emergency. Hundreds of Dravidar Kazhagam members took to the streets and many were arrested. Maniammai was told by a senior Congress leader that of she did not rein in the protests, the party would be banned.

“She asked them to go ahead and ban it,” said Kolathoor Mani. “She said that if she gives up what their party stands for, then why even have one?”

Welfare schemes

Maniammai also played a big role in carrying out Periyar’s welfare measures. Periyar had started homes of destitute women and orphanages for girls, which he handed over to Maniammai to look after. Until today, the trust he started runs over 40 institutions in the state , mostly dedicated to women.

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“She was known to be very strict, and not too friendly,” said Arulmozhi. “But she was very concerned about the safety of the women and girls. She allowed them to study till whatever level they wanted to.”

Arulmozhi said that since Periyar was the philosopher and the founding leader of the movement, Maniammai’s considerable contribution was often overshadowed. But she has received recognition and praise from many of her contemporaries, including the Tamil poet Bharathidasan, who was a prominent figure in the Dravidian movement. Even though he was over 20 years her senior, he referred to her as Annai, which means “mother” in Tamil.

In his writings, Bharathidasan praised her for dedicating her entire youth to the movement. He asked: “For such a lady who had carried on the movement, if I don’t consider her my annai, then who will I?”