Recent incidents of miscreants throwing footwear or adorning Periyar’s statue with a string of chappals have stirred a hornet’s nest in Tamil Nadu and also across India. But what those who perhaps wanted to insult Periyar through those actions might not know is that Periyar had too many rendezvous with the ‘footwear’ and that it always failed to humiliate him. In his typical style of functioning, Periyar rode against the tide, unlike political leaders who went with the flow, and hence did not finding those footwear targeted at him as offending.
In 1940s, when Periyar was traveling towards the railway station in Cuddalore in a rickshaw after addressing a public meeting, someone, under the cover of darkness, hurled a slipper at him. The slipper hit Periyar and the cadre who accompanied him were not aware of it. Periyar asked the cadre to turn the rickshaw back and proceeded some distance. No one had any idea why he did so.
His followers and the cadre, who accompanied him on his way to the station, came to know of the chappal hurling only at the railway platform where he showed them a pair of chappals, carefully preserved in his bag. When the first chappal landed, he knew that the miscreant lurking in the dark would have no use for the second chappal and may even hurl it at him. It happened and he picked up the pair of footwear. At the same spot where the chappal was thrown now stands his statue, unveiled by the former chief minister Kalaignar M Karunanidhi in the 1970s. “If you sow a slipper, a statue will germinate,” so wrote poet Karunanandam about the incident.
Similarly, during a visit to Sivaganga district for campaign, Periyar was welcomed by a festoon of old slippers tied across the road on which he was traveling. Someone in his entourage rushed to remove them but Periyar restrained him. Later speaking at the meeting there, Periyar said that he had liked the chappal festoon the most among all the arrangement made to welcome him. ‘Many people presented me garlands, which would have been picked up from shops. But those people who tied the festoon of chappals would have worked hard going around to various places to painstakingly collect so many old and worn out footwear. Gathering the footwear so passionately just to welcome me is something that is to my liking.’
Another footwear thrown at him missed the target during a Dravidar Kazhagam procession at Salem in 1971. The procession was to create awareness against superstitious beliefs and so a few in the procession were carrying portraits of Rama and the man who hurled the chappal was a member of Jan Sangh, the precursor of the BJP. A cadre in the procession picked up the chappal from the ground and started to beat the Rama portrait with it, which caught the attention of everyone.
It was election time and the incident triggered an uproar in the state. The opposition Congress party blew it out of proportion and pasted posters in all districts with an illustration showing Periyar himself beating Rama’s portrait with a slipper and the DMK chief Kalaingar Karunanidhi encouraging it. It was turned into an election issue with the Congress referring to the incident in its campaigns and appealing to the electorate to vote out the ‘haters of Hindu gods’. The DMK swept the elections by winning a record 184 seats.
No chappal stopped Periyar in his fight against caste. Even now no chappal can stop the spread of his ideology. In fact, by throwing or tying a string of chappals on his statues, the miscreants are only reviving an interest among the younger generation on the teachings and ideology of Periyar, whose life mission ensured that many people could walk with their footwear on through many streets in Tamil Nadu. So, those who believe in the myth that a pair of chappals ruled a country called Ayodhya for 14 years may please take note that a piece of chappal cannot be used to insult Periyar.