Editor's Note

Print edition : August 31, 2018

The Dravidian movement formally came into existence with the release of the Non-Brahmin Manifesto by the Justice Party in 1916 foregrounding the Brahmin-non-Brahmin binary and social justice as the core of the political discourse then. In the same year, the Pure Tamil Movement was launched as a counter to the domination of Sanskrit in the Madras Presidency’s public sphere. Within a decade of the arrival of these movements, Muthuvel Karunanidhi was born and he grew up almost parallelly with the movement through its various forms and phases—the Self-Respect Movement of the Dravidian patriarch E.V. Ramasamy Periyar, the Dravidar Kazhagam and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. The C. Rajagopalachari government’s ill-advised move to make Hindi compulsory in school education led to a popular upsurge which took the form of an anti-Hindi struggle in which the streams of social justice and Tamil assertion merged, leading to the demand for a Dravida Nadu. It was from the great churning that C.N. Annadurai and Karunanidhi, with unmatched writing and oratorical skills, emerged. The duo, strongly rooted in Periyar’s social justice and self-respect ideals, saw new political possibilities of an India that broke free from British rule and launched the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam as a political party within two years of Independence. While the Left saw the post-colonial Indian state as a representative of capitalist-landlord classes unwilling to shake itself fully from imperialist influences and to advance the interests of workers and peasants, the Dravidian ideologues critiqued it as one serving Brahmin-Bania interests and seeking to promote a Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan project, denying the socially oppressed classes a share in power and economic development.

For the godless Dravidian movement, which used to the hilt the print medium and theatre as vehicles of its ideas in its pre-Independence phases, cinema was a godsend, as it were. A young Karunanidhi, with his extraordinary literary skills, mastered the art of writing film scripts and dialogues, which fired the imagination of Tamil-speaking people. They easily identified themselves with his film characters which articulated their socio-economic frustrations and aspirations in their own dear Tamil aesthetically. The Dravidian duo’s powerful socio-political message, conveyed effectively through their mastery of the medium, gripped the minds of the masses and, as Marx would put it, became a material force. Within two decades of the launch of the party, the artist-politicians became rulers—Annadurai became Chief Minister and Karunanidhi one of his Ministers. Within two years of reaching the portals of power, Annadurai passed away and the mantle fell on his protégé. What followed was a fascinating story of the artist (kalaignar) mastering the skills of running a party and its government tasked with fulfilling its promises in a State within the constraints imposed by an increasingly centralising Centre and against the challenges posed by regional and national-level political rivals.

In a political career spanning over eight decades—five times as Chief Minister, 60 uninterrupted years as legislator and half a century as party president—Karunanidhi worked with almost all the Prime Ministers of India, built and broke alliances with regional and national parties and played a key role in forging political fronts in the coalition era after the decline of the Congress at the national level. He also faced unsparing criticism for making compromises and diluting and deviating from his core political ideology but, as many leaders acknowledge in their tributes in this issue, he was ever ready to correct himself.

The nonagenarian politician’s demise has come at a time when social welfare is dismissed as populism in the neoliberal rhetoric of the capitalist-landlord state and the ideals of social justice, State autonomy and pluralism are under unprecedented attack from the proponents of the Hindu-Hindi-Hindustan variety of nationalism. In this situation, Frontline’s special issue seeks to record the life and career of this extraordinary artist-politician, who is much maligned by the “victims” of his affirmative action and rationalism even after his demise, misunderstood as a separatist and an advocate of linguistic chauvinism by the protagonists of non-inclusive nationalism, and less understood by well-meaning observers outside Tamil Nadu.