Karunanidhi as journalist

Mightier than sword

Print edition : August 31, 2018

A statue of Karunanidhi seated at his work desk, as part of an exhibition showcasing the 75-year-old history of 'Murasoli'. Among those present are N. Ram, Chairman, The Hindu Group, K. Veeramani of the Dravidar Kazhagam, M.K. Stalin and S. Peter Alphonse of the Congress. Photo: M. PRABHU

A message published in ‘Murasoli’ from the 1960s exhorting DMK cadre to burn the notification declaring Hindi as official language, as part of the anti-Hindi agitation. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

An exhibit of the printing press at the Murasoli exhibition. Photo: M. PRABHU

Pages from 'Murasoli' displayed at the exhibition. Photo: S. R. Raghunathan

Through his party organ 'Murasoli', of which he was Editor, M. Karunanidhi ensured that he stayed connected with his party men, even as he deftly moulded them to his line of thinking.

It was a routine that Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) president Muthuvel Karunanidhi rarely missed: his appointment with writing for his party organ, Murasoli. This was his daily engagement with his readers—DMK party men, of course—where he discussed one or multiple issues at length. The Editor’s work began at 4 a.m. each day.

For instance, on September 24, 2005, he began his address to his “udanpirappe” (blood brethren) thus: “Since I am one who rises much before sunrise, my first glance on waking up fell on the book stack next to me.” He then went on to describe a book gifted to him by fellow journalist “Chinnakkuthoosi”—who, interestingly, remained with Murasoli each time the DMK lost power and left the newspaper every time the DMK came back to power—and then went on to explain, selectively, some happenings from the Tamil Nadu State Legislative Assembly the previous day.

In this case, it was an exchange between Chief Minister Jayalalithaa and a senior DMK member, Durai Murugan, on a Bill moved by the State government to allow the University of Madras to continue with the same name. The Bill was necessitated by the fact that the earlier DMK government, after changing the name of the city from Madras to Chennai, had passed a law making it mandatory for all entities to convert to “Chennai” from “Madras”.

As soon as the Bill was introduced, all the major opposition parties in the Assembly, the DMK, the Congress, the PMK, the Communist parties and the BJP, opposed it, Karunanidhi told his cadre. Then he quoted Durai Murugan’s queries: “When did the Syndicate decide on this issue? Why are you against a Tamil name (Chennai University)? Do you not have regard for the Tamil language?” To these questions, Jayalalithaa retorted: “Those who speak about love for Tamil have named their TV channel ‘Sun TV’.”

According to Karunanidhi’s report, Durai Murugan got another chance to counter her, and he said: “Even you have named [your area] Poes Garden.” At this juncture, the Speaker, K. Kalimuthu, intervened to say that she [Jayalalithaa] had not named the place thus. The exchange therein dominates the rest of the front-page piece, “Kalaignar Kadidham” (Letter from Kalaignar).

This is a typical case of how Karunanidhi selectively quoted events in the Assembly to convey to his cadre an issue and mould the cadre to his line of thinking. There was no attempt to change the narrative or to peddle fake news here; Karunanidhi was merely using those portions of an exchange that suited him, and which would make his loyal readers condemn the manner in which Jayalalithaa was impeding the growth and propagation of Tamil culture and tradition. There are two issues here. One, the relative length of this exchange in the Assembly compared to the proceedings, and two, how a deft journalist positions this exchange.

Each day, the Tamil Nadu Assembly’s proceedings begin with the question hour at 9 a.m. After an hour of questions, it is time for a brief “zero hour” where any MLA can raise any issue. Usually, in the Tamil Nadu Assembly, issues are raised after prior intimation to the Speaker. After this, about three hours are spent on the presentation of a demand and a debate on the particular subject. Bills are usually the last agenda on the subject, and are clubbed together for the last few days of the Assembly session.

The essence is that Karunanidhi had taken an exchange over one Bill which had lasted a little over a few minutes—in an Assembly proceeding which lasted for over four hours—and chosen to highlight that Jayalalithaa and her government were not protectors of the Tamil language, and that they would destroy Tamil tradition.

These themes returned every once in a while to the front pages of Murasoli, The Rising Sun (the English newspaper that the DMK brought out), Karunanidhi’s speeches, his poetry, his dialogues in films, and in any other platform that was possible. There were a few such recurring themes in Karunanidhi’s mass communication strategy. Jayalalithaa’s autocratic mode of functioning was the first one; the second one, that was highlighted across many platforms, was the corruption in the AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) government and the manner in which its Ministers were being treated. A third focus was on the maladministration of the AIADMK government and its insensitive nature of governance. Karunanidhi connected with people by playing on issues of everyday concern, such as leading an agitation against a hike in power tariff and transport rates.

Murasoli as party organ

Though established in 1942 (on August 10), Murasoli was not a party organ in the beginning. There were as many as 15 other DMK-aligned newspapers, and the one edited by C.N. Annadurai (Nam Naadu) was the party organ from 1953 onwards. Thaniarasu by A.V.P Asaithambi was another notable DMK publication. But Karunanidhi’s perseverance with Murasoli made it the only newspaper to become the party organ, a little after he took charge as Chief Minister in 1969.

Murasoli was initially published in pamphlet form and sent to offices of the precursor of the DMK, the Dravidar Kazhagam. In 1948, it was relaunched as a weekly, but folded up because Karunanidhi could not devote enough time because of his preoccupation with theatre and cinema. On September 17, 1960, Karunanidhi converted it into a daily and later set up the Murasoli trust to run it.

Karunanidhi did not introduce too many technological changes in Murasoli. Even colour printing came to Murasoli much after all the mainline newspapers had shifted to it, in 2005. Karunanidhi once told me: “as long as you keep the cadre interested in what your write, he will read regardless of how well or poorly the layout is done.” This was in the context of a Tamil newspaper introducing a style of single-word staccato headlines on its front page. But he also complained that senior members of the DMK did not read the Murasoli thoroughly and often admonished them for this.

Karunanidhi, sharp politician that he was, found ways to circumvent the strict publishing rules of the Emergency years. “I wrote literary pieces which had no politics in them,” he reminisces in his autobiography Nenjukku Neethi (Part 2, page 547). His cadre rose to the occasion and were able to decipher the hidden meanings in these writings, he adds. After a few of these, the government censor grew suspicious and demanded that he stop writing. Anything penned by Karunanidhi or Kalaignar was unfit to be printed, the censor ruled. Karunanidhi became “Karikalan” for the next year—he changed his pen name. He found many audacious ways to point out to cadre as to which leaders were in prison. In one write-up, he published a list of leaders who would be unable to attend the anniversary commemoration of party founder C.N.Annadurai.

Another exchange with the censor is even funnier (in retrospect). Karunanidhi began writing under the name “Karikalan”. In a series of questions and answers, a question read: “A section of people still believe in ghosts and such things. What do you say to this?” His response: “All this is imagination. It is superstition to believe in these. Do read the book authored by rationalist M.Singaravelar to understand why there are no ghosts.” Permission to print this question and answer was declined by the censor. The reason was that Karunanidhi was referring to Indira Gandhi as the ghost. “I did not know whether to laugh or cry hearing this response,” he adds.

The Emergency not only created problems for Karunanidhi from outside; some deserted the party because of pressure from the Congress government. There was also a minor internal revolt. Murasoli became handy for Karunanidhi to convey details of these deserters and the revolt to his party men. He also drew strength from the postal letters that came to the offices of Murasoli on a daily basis, proclaiming loyalty to the party. Enthused, he wrote that merely because water in the sea evaporates, it did not become a desert; merely because the rivers mingle into the sea, they do not dry up. On the internal revolt, Karunanidhi shifted gears and turned rhetorical. One of the questions posed to Karunanidhi was: “Karikalarey, if you were given a chalice filled with poison and told you could either leave the party or consume this, what will you do?” The answer would qualify as melodramatic today, but in that day and age, when Karunanidhi insisted that he would gladly drink up the poison, “just as a captain who pushes out all the crew and goes down with his ship,” it found huge resonance with party cadre.

Though he was one of the worst affected because of the excesses of the Emergency, ironically Karunanidhi encouraged other, particularly Tamil, newspapers and magazines to align with the DMK (especially when it was in government) with a mixture of carrot-and-stick policies. One journalist who received the rough end of the stick and lived to tell its tale is Tharasu Shyam, who in later years became a vehement critic of Karunanidhi.

The party organ also had another, rather strange, use. Karunanidhi used it for singling out correspondents and newspapers that had, in his view, crossed the line. Correspondents were named and their “misdeeds” were showcased in box items on the pages of Murasoli. I wrote in The Hindu about the DMK from August 2001 until I left for Sri Lanka as Sri Lanka Correspondent in 2010, and have had a fair share of being boxed on the pages of Murasoli. One early instance was a box which had a reverse type headline titled: “Why this in The Hindu newspaper?” It quoted a Page 4 story from The Hindu titled “Lok Sabha Poll: PMK, DMK flay media.” The crux of Karunanidhi’s argument was that he had only meant some, not all media. “The news item put out in the name of R.K. Radhakrishnan makes it seem as if we are blaming all media.” “We are constrained to point out that this approach will harm the reputation and tradition of The Hindu newspaper.”

Karunanidhi loved to flaunt his journalistic credentials, especially in case of negative news such as an attack on a reporter. When the questioning got too intense, he would sometimes seek to lower the temperature by saying that he was a journalist too.

Murasoli was way ahead of its “competition”, that is, comparable newspapers of rival parties—the CPI (M) organ Theekathir, the AIADMK organ Dr Namadhu MGR (now controlled by one faction of the party) and so on. This was solely because the Editor of the newspaper was also the head of the party. Reporters and sub-editors were routinely pulled up for mistakes in language and content; identifying spelling errors and mistakes was also Karunanidhi’s wont early in the morning. He did not show the same kind of interest in The Rising Sun, though. The result was that the translation in the newspaper was poor, and it had quite a few mistakes from time to time.

In the case of Dr Namadhu MGR, although Jayalalithaa was the titular head, the newspaper had a professional editor (Marudhu Ganesh edited it in the later years). Though a competent editor, he did not obviously enjoy the powers of a party boss. The other important thing about Murasoli was that it was not merely a daily in name; the newspaper reached homes each morning.

Murasoli did not aim too high and did not want to be a mass product, unlike its counterparts in Kerala such as the CPI(M) organ Deshabhimani or the CPI’s Janayugam or the BJP’s Janmabhoomi. While general advertisements can be found in these Kerala newspapers, Murasoli rarely had them—even when the DMK was the ruling party. In Karunanidhi’s view, the newspaper had a purpose and nothing was to deflect it from this aim.

Karunanidhi once told me that the idea of starting a Tamil television show—which later became a channel—belonged to him and his nephew, Murasoli Maran. “What we conceived as a show, ‘Tamil Maalai’, is now a huge television channel,” he said. After the death of Maran and following the DMK leadership’s rift with Maran’s sons, Karunanidhi was keen on starting a television channel to air DMK propaganda without the help of the Maran brothers. While senior DMK men established the channel, Kalaignar TV, the subsequent entanglement with the law in the 2G spectrum case made it seem as if the DMK president had made a rare miscalculation.

Technology-savvy

Karunanidhi’s obsession with reaching out to people grew proportionately with age. He realised that technology could be an amazing tool to gauge the moods of certain sections of people and also reach them in a targeted manner. That was the reason why he joined Facebook about eight years ago. After the administrator of his page explained to him how Facebook worked, Karunanidhi asked to see the comments on a post.

The brief exchange, where I was present, went like this: “I see a lot of positive comments. What are you doing?”

“We are moderating comments,” the administrator said.

Karunanidhi looked baffled. “Meaning?”

“We edit out the negative comments.”

“Why?”

“Because these are negative.”

“You should not.”

“Ok Aiyya. But some comments are abusive.”

“That’s ok. People have abused me to my face. If they are abusive it will only expose what kind of people they are.”

The conversation ended there.

A letter from the Editor


Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

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Sincerely,

R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

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