JALANDHAR: When E V Ramaswamy started the Self Respect Movement or the Dravidian movement in Tamil Nadu in 1925, it was as much ‘anti-North India’ and ‘anti-Hindi’ as it was about fighting the caste system and superstition and inculcating self-respect among all. Periyar, as Ramaswamy was better known, would perhaps never have imagined that the Dravidian movement would one day manifest in northern India.

Now, more than 90 years later, many dalits in Punjab have started embracing what they call their ‘Dravidian identity.’ Many of them don’t even know about Periyar and the movement in the 1930s, but say they feel the need to define themselves differently. At nearly 32%, Punjab has the highest percentage of dalits among all states in the country.

This new assertion is finding maximum traction among members of the Valmiki community (traditionally involved in scavenging and considered lowest in the caste hierarchy). Although initial attempts to create such an identity in Punjab go back almost 50 years, it was mainly confined to a few activists. The recent Supreme Court order, which many saw as dilution of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, however, led to a renewed interest on the issue among Punjab dalits. They now wear this new identity on their sleeve and describe themselves as ‘Dravidian’ or ‘Anarya’ (non-Arya).

Many of them have also started taking on last names like Daitya, Danav, Achhoot and even Rakshas. Even Dravid is being adapted as surname. Given that it is cumbersome to change ones name officially, they do it informally and prefer to be identified by their new names.
“The Supreme Court order and the clash between dalit activists and right-wing Hindu groups at Phagwara on April 13, in which a Valmiki man was killed, have triggered interest in this regard,” says Aadi Dharam Samaj (ADS) founder Darshan Ratan Raavan. His organisation has been at the forefront of spearheading the movement.
“Youngsters from our community want to start Raavan Sena units in their cities and towns,” said Lakhbir Lankesh who heads Raavan Sena. “When they become our members, we give them last names like Lankesh, Danav and other names from Mahatma Raavan’s clan,” he says.