Karunanidhi's secularism

Friend of Muslims

Print edition : August 31, 2018

M. Karunanidhi and senior leaders of the DMK, Durai Murugan and K. Anbazhagan, hearing songs being rendered by Nagoor Hanifa at the DMK zonal-level conference held at Kottaipatti in Dindigul district on March 12, 2005. Photo: K. Ganesan

April 13, 1973: Karunanidhi accorded a warm reception by the Muslim community of Thanjavur district, in Thanjavur. Anbil P. Dharmalingam, Local Administration Minister, is on his right. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

June 5, 1989: Karunanidhi paying homage at the samadhi of Quaid-e-Millath in Chennai. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Karunanidhi flanked by Hyder Ali, secretary, and M.H. Jawahirullah, president of the Tamil Nadu Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam, at the function to felicitate the Chief Minister for his announcement of reservation for the Muslim community, in Chennai on November 24, 2007. Photo: M. Vedhan

Quaid-e-Millath.

M. Karunanidhi has had an extraordinary bond with the Muslim community of Tamil Nadu and took an active interest in its welfare despite the fact that the Muslim vote can make no significant difference in electoral politics.

THEYAGARAYA NAGAR, or T.Nagar as it is generally known, named after one of the early stalwarts of the Dravidian Movement, was conceived as a planned suburb of the expanding Madras city during the tenure of the Justice Party, before independence. As T. Nagar grew slowly into a township, in 1970, behind the bus terminus and adjacent to the police station where Muslims had been promised land for their prayers a Ganesha idol had emerged overnight. People called it a suyambu, meaning a self-manifested image. Immediately a group of people started claiming right over the land with ideas of constructing a temple there. As the situation threatened to spiral out of control, Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi tactfully handled it by ensuring that the thideer pillaiyar (instant Ganesha) was removed from the spot.

Although a staunch atheist himself, Karunanidhi was considered a trusted friend and a protector by Muslims. It does not come as a surprise if one understood the background of the relationship. Karunanidhi grew up in a milieu that had a considerable Muslim presence. Be it the place he was born (Thirukuvalai near Tiruvarur) or literature, cinema and politics, he had constant interactions with Muslims. Born in a district (the erstwhile Tanjore, now Thanjavur, district) that has a significant Muslim population, the majority of them traders with a love for Tamil, as Karunanidhi himself records, his initial years were shaped by reading Darul Islam as much as the writings of Dravidian stalwarts.

Darul Islam was a Tamil magazine published by Pa. Dawood Sha, considered the foremost among Tamil Muslim reformers of the early 20th century. Pa. Dawood Sha, who spoke of the necessity of reform among Muslims, was also a great Tamil scholar. As the early 20th century saw the rise of Tamil consciousness, even as the Pure Tamil movement of Maraimalai Adigal attempted to de-Sanskritise Tamil, Pa. Dawood Sha was making early attempts at translating the Holy Quran into Tamil. He criticised the ulemas (Muslim clergy) for giving long sermons in Arabic that very few in the congregation understood and instead suggested Tamil sermons during the Friday congregational prayers; he also wrote them for the clergy to make use of. No wonder the young Karunanidhi took a great liking to the magazine.

Perhaps it is not a mere coincidence that the Dravidian Movement itself had a favourable and friendly outlook towards Muslims. Under an atheist ‘Periyar’ E.V. Ramasamy, the Dravidian Movement, which had taken the form of Self-Respect, Islam was considered the last refuge if the movement itself came under attack. Periyar and C.N. Annadurai were invited by Muslims to address them during the Meeladhu Vizha (the birth anniversary of the Prophet Muhammad) celebrations. It was an opportunity that reiterated the bond between the movement and Muslims, where Dravidian leaders, even as they upheld Islam, were equally critical of superstitious beliefs in the community. It was at one such celebration that a young Karunanidhi met his mentor Annadurai for the first time, in Tiruvarur, although they had known each other earlier through their writings. When Karunanidhi’s initial brush with cinema did not go off well and he returned to Tiruvarur to restart Murasoli, it was a Muslim printer, Karunai Jamal, who not only printed Murasoli at his press but also offered the young man an extended credit facility.

Impressed by Karunanidhi’s writings, the lyricist Ka. Mu. Sheriff introduced him to Modern Theatres in Salem, which was looking for a scriptwriter for the film Manthiri Kumari. When Karunanidhi moved to Salem with his family, they found themselves in a rented house in a predominantly Muslim locality of Habib Sahib Street. When Karunanidhi’s film career took off, the fiery script-writer was sought by many Tamil Muslim film producers, and the association was long-lasting.

The love for Tamil and the march towards social justice brought many Muslims into the Dravidian Movement with their active participation in the anti-Hindi agitations. With Annadurai strengthening the already existing relationship with Muslims, the mesmerising voice of the famous Tamil Muslim singer Nagore Hanifa, a close friend of Karunanidhi from his young days, becoming the voice of the Dravidian Movement, (Hanifa was accorded the honour of giving a concert before the commencement of any Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) State conferences), and the DMK’s alliance with the Qaid-e-Millath-led Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) and the DMK itself ensuring Muslim representation in various executive arms of the government, it was an extraordinary relationship that Karunanidhi inherited from Annadurai. When Annadurai passed away in 1969 within a short span of coming to power, it was left to Karunanidhi to undo the damage that the earlier Congress regimes had inflicted upon Muslims after Independence.

Reservation for Muslims

After Independence, the Congress government of the Madras Presidency withdrew many rights and privileges previously enjoyed by Muslims. The exclusive reservation for Muslims in the Government Muhammadan College was done away with and the college was turned into a women’s college. Similarly, the school for Unani medicine started during the Justice Party regime was shut down.

As if compensating for the loss of the Government Muhammadan College, Karunanidhi’s government not only renamed the college as Quaid-e-Millath Government College for Women, but also donated land for a new college for the community on the outskirts of Madras, which continues to function as the Quaid-e-Millath College for Men. He also helped the community by starting another college in Madurai with the help of the Wakf Board. Similarly, the Karunanidhi government reintroduced the Unani system of medicine. It was the DMK regime under Karunanidhi that declared Meeladhu Nabhi as a government holiday in 1969. Muslim communities were included in the Backward Caste category, thereby making them eligible for reservation. A Minority Welfare Commission was set up for the uplift of minorities in educational, social and economic spheres. 

Of course, the love for their mother tongue, Tamil, was a factor that bound Tamil Muslims and Karunanidhi in a tight embrace. With a significant contribution to Tamil literature beginning from the 15th century, and historically the Tamil Muslim community being spread across Tamizhagam, Sri Lanka and South East Asia, the World Tamil literary meet is a much celebrated event in the community. Karunanidhi never missed a chance to attend the World Tamil Islamic Literary Meets (Ulaga Tamil Islamiya Ilakkiya Maanadu) whenever they were held in Tamil Nadu. However, it has to be pointed out that this love for Tamil did not mean exclusion of Urdu or its speakers who do have a significant presence in Tamil Nadu. Not only did the Urdu Muslim community find its way into the reservation benefit enjoyed by the Tamil Muslim groups, Karunanidhi even gifted it the Urdu Academy for the propagation of Urdu. This extraordinary relationship of more than 50 years between Karunanidhi and the DMK with Muslims came under severe strain in the late 1990s during Karunanidhi’s fourth term as Chief Minister. In the wake of the Meenakshipuram conversions of 1981, when communal forces focussed on Tamil Nadu and started making inroads into places such as Coimbatore, the Dravidian organisations, including the DMK, were busy handling the ethnic violence in Sri Lanka, where Tamils were being targeted. 

Says Ira Murugavel, writer and advocate: “With all their energies and attention on the Sri Lankan ethnic conflict, they failed to read the emergence of the communal forces.” The actions of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government under Jayalalithaa and the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992 had stirred the communal cauldron and Coimbatore was on the boil. When the DMK came back to power, it perhaps underestimated the gravity of the situation. Added to this, the party was caught in a terrible dilemma. Having lost its elected governments twice under Article 356, it became important for the DMK to have a friendly disposition towards New Delhi. With the Congress reluctant to ally with the DMK, and the DMK’s earlier experiments with the third front not making much of headway, an alliance with the ideologically opposed Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was on the cards.

“Thalaivar [Karunanidhi], of course, ensured with [A.B.] Vajpayee and the BJP leadership that the alliance would be based on certain guarantees, which included issues concerning the minorities [common minimum programme]”, says Rahman Khan, a senior leader of the DMK. The 1997 Coimbatore riots, the subsequent bomb blasts in 1998 and the detention of scores of Muslim youths still evoke unpleasant memories in an otherwise extraordinary relationship, with both sides groping for an explanation and the DMK losing the 2001 Assembly elections. However, in his last term (2006-2011) as Chief Minister, Karunanidhi was back to being a great friend of Muslims. From re-introducing Meeladhu Nabhi as a public holiday, which had been moved to optional holidays by the Jayalalithaa regime, Karunanidhi also announced a 3.5 per cent reservation for Muslims in government jobs. He set up the Muslim Ulema Board and introduced a pension scheme for ulemas, both measures aimed at the welfare of the poorly paid ulemas.

Most importantly, Karunanidhi, in his last term in office, brought a sense of relief among Muslims, who were until then easy targets for the security agencies. “In 2006, a police official in Coimbatore tried to frame Manaitha Neethi Pasarai (MNP) activists in a false case of planting bombs across Coimbatore, and when the issue was brought to the notice of Karunanidhi, the Chief Minister took immediate measures to investigate it and on the basis of reports, transferred the erring official, bringing relief to those falsely implicated,” says Ghulam, a writer and activist, who was part of the MNP. 

Considering that Muslims constitute just 5 per cent of the State’s population and are mostly scattered across the State, and that there are very few constituencies where their vote can make a significant difference, this relationship between the Dravidian Movement and the man who spearheaded it in the past 50 years is extraordinary. Perhaps Karunanidhi, who had a great understanding of Tamil history, was only continuing the policy of the erstwhile rulers of Tamizhagam, who had supported the rights of Muslims right from medieval times and stood by them despite great pressure during colonial days.

Kombai S. Anwar is a writer based in Chennai.

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