Periyar’s philosophy is that different sections of a society should have equal rights to enjoy the fruits of the resources and the development of the country; they should all be represented, in proportion to their numerical strength, in the governance and the administration of the state. This principle had been enunicated earlier by those who stood for social justice, particularly by the South Indian Liberal Federation, popularly known as Justice Party. Periyar’s unique contribution was his insistence on rational outlook to bring about intellectual emancipation and a healthy world-view. He also stressed the need to abolish the hierarchal, graded, birth-based caste structure as a prelude to build a new egalitarian social order. In other words, he wanted to lay a sound socio-cultural base, before raising a strong structure of free polity and prosperous economy.

It was in this context, the Self-Respect Movement, founded in 1925, carried on’ a vigorous and ceaseless propaganda, against ridiculous and harmful superstitions, traditions, customs and habits. He wanted to dispel the ignorance of the people and make them enlightened. He exhorted them to take steps to change the institutions and values that led to meaningless divisions and unjust discrimination. He advised them to change according to the requirements of the changing times and keep pace with the modern conditions.

Self-respecters performed marriages without Brahmin priests (prohits) and without religious rites. They insisted on equality between men and women in all walks of life. They encouraged inter-caste and widow marriages. Periyar propagated the need for birth control even from late 1920s. He gathered support for lawful abolition of Devadasi (temple prostitute) system and the practice of child marriage. It was mainly due to his consistent and energetic propaganda, the policy of reservations in job opportunities in government administration was put into practice in the then Madras Province (which included Tamilnadu) in 1928.

Though the Self-Respect movement was started in 1925, the first provincial conference was organised by Periyar at Chengalpet (near Chennai and Kanchipuram) only in February 1929. It was presided over by W.P. Soundarapandian. M.R Jeyakar was the president of the second conference conducted at Erode in 1930. Sir RK. Shanmugam occupied the chair in the third provincial conference that met at Viruthunagar. Apart from enthusing the people, these conferences passed resolutions meant to promote Caste eradication, Social integration and equal rights to women.

Since the British rulers in India had no vested interest in perpetuating the inequitable Varna-Jaathi social structure based on Vedic Sanathana Dharma, Periyar and his followers found that they could influence or pressurise the alien government to take measures to remove social inequality. So they adopted a moderate policy in the struggle for political independence.

From the beginning of 1930s, Periyar added the programme of fighting for economic equality to his original programme of working for social equality and Cultural Revolution. Along with the veteran communist leader Com. M.Singaravel, he organised industrial and agricultural labourers to stand against the exploitation of big capitalists and landlords. In mid -1930’s, the central and provincial governments took steps to ban the Communist Party and the organisations purported to have similar programmes. They started to stop the activities of the Self-Respect Movement. Periyar had to take a crucial decision. He had known by experience that there were supporters for the work to carry on the freedom struggle and to organise the labourers. But only a few came forth to expose the religion based traditional evils, and struggle against the exploitation of the powerful Brahminical upper castes. Under this circumstance, he toned down his socialist activities in order to be free to carry on the task of the socio-cultural emancipation of the disadvantaged and the downtrodden sections.

In 1934, there was an unsuccessful move through C.Rajagopalachari, known as Rajaji, to bring Periyar back into the fold of the Congress Party. Periyar prepared a programme of action consisting of measures to promote Social Justice, through reservations, to implement socialisation of vital and large-scale commercial and industrial activities, and to remove the hardships of the debt-ridden peasants. He sent the programme to the ruling Justisce Party and the Congress Party that was growing popular. The Congress Party did not accept it, as the policy of reservation was not agreeable to it. As Justice Party agreed to most of the measures including communal representation to uphold Social Justice, Periyar continued to support it.

In 1937, Justice Party that was in power in the then Madras Province from 1921, except for a brief period, lost the elections to the Congress Party. Rajagopalachari who introduced compulsory study of Hindi language in the high schools headed the Congress Government. Those who opposed this effort to make non-Hindi speaking people second-class citizens organised a vigorous agitation under the dynamic leadership of Periyar. More than 1200 persons including women with children were imprisoned in 1938, of which two, Thalamuthu and Natarasan, lost their lives due to the rigours in prison. When the agitation gained momentum Periyar was sentenced to undergo rigorous imprisonment for two years, though released in six months (Periyar was in gaol five times in 1920s and four times in 1930s).

In November 1938, a women’s conference in Madras (now Chennai) passed a resolution to refer to E.V.Ramasamy always as Periyar (the great man.).
While undergoing imprisonment, the Justice Party elected him as its President on 29th December 1938.

Periyar who opposed compulsory study of Hindi in the then Madras Province was sentenced to undergo rigorous imprisonment for two years. But he was released after about six months of confinement from 26th November 1938 to 22nd May 1939. After his release, he announced that he would continue his agitation against the imposition of Hindi.