Annai Meenambal Sivaraj
This piece was first published on 11th May 2016 on DHM’s social media handles and is now being republished on Medium.com
Annai Meenambal Sivaraj was born into a Dalit family that had migrated from Tamil Nadu to Myanmar. In Rangoon, her family was able to escape the brutality of the caste system and flourish both socially and economically. She was, as a result, well-educated and raised in a consistently political family. Her father and grandfather were Dalit leaders who were part of the Adi (Aboriginal/Nativity reclamation) movements.
After completing her Bachelors of Fine Arts in Rangoon, she returned to Madras where she nurtured her specific political aspirations. In particular, she was hoped to bring a Dalit woman’s perspective to the struggles against caste. This was no simple task in those times for a Dalit woman, but Meenambal was nothing if she was not a determined woman.
Her public political engagements began in 1928 when she gave an address in favour of the Simon Commission. Many ‘upper’ caste Indian leaders had boycotted the Commission which they said did not represent Indian interests. However, Dalits like Meenambal, deeply mistrustful of the ‘upper’ castes’ inclination to deny them rights, appealed to the Commission for recognition and affirmative action for all Dalits.
After that, she became close with Dr.Ambedkar and Periyar and took it upon herself to spread their messages of anti-caste revolution in Tamil Nadu. Her achievements include many firsts. She was the first Scheduled Caste woman to become a member of Madras Corporation representing Madras University Senate. She presided over two major SCF women’s conferences in Madras and then Bombay in the 1940s. She was the honorary magistrate for Madras province, member of the post-war rehabilitation committee, Director of Scheduled Castes Cooperative Bank and leader of the anti-Parry corporation labour struggle.
She was also one of the radical feminist leaders of the Self-Respect Movement. It was Annai Meenambal who gave E.V.R Ramasamy the title he has now come to be known by- “Periyar” (The Great One). Periyar on hearing this title is said to have laughed and accepted it as a sister’s gift.
Meenambal worked tirelessly for the causes of Dalitbahujans throughout her life, retiring from public service only after she hit 80. Many Dalits who remember her as a strong, warm, elderly figure began fondly calling her Annai (Mother). Today we celebrate her breaking gender barriers, her unstoppable spirit and her life-long commitment to her people.