How the Fort was captured

The evolution of politics and legislature, with Madras as the centre.

Published : Aug 20, 2014 12:30 IST

February 25, 1968: Chief Minister C.N. Annadurai presenting the Budget for 1968-69 in the Assembly. Seated to his right, one seat removed, is M. Karunanidhi, who became Chief Minister on Annadurai's untimely demise.

February 25, 1968: Chief Minister C.N. Annadurai presenting the Budget for 1968-69 in the Assembly. Seated to his right, one seat removed, is M. Karunanidhi, who became Chief Minister on Annadurai's untimely demise.


“AT A CONFERENCE held in Madras [at the Victoria Public Hall] on the 20th November 1916 and attended by several non-Brahmin gentlemen of position and influence both in Madras and in the muffasal, it was resolved that measures be taken to start a company for publishing a newspaper advocating the cause of the non-Brahmin community, and also that a political association be formed to advance, safeguard and protect the interests of the same community. In accordance with this, a Joint Stock Company has been started under the name of ‘South Indian People’s Association’ for conducting a daily newspaper in English, Tamil and Telugu respectively, and also a Political Association has been formed under the name of ‘The South Indian Liberal Federation’.”

Little would these “gentlemen” have realised that what they were launching in Madras on that day would eventually grow into a political movement that would hold sway in peninsular India for about a century. The name of the newspaper they launched, Justice , eclipsed the name of their new federation, which officially came into existence in 1917. Thus was born the Justice Party, whose birth cry was the Non-Brahmin Manifesto released in Madras in December 1916.

The launch of the Justice Party by a group of about 30 non-Brahmins, including P. Theagaroya Chetti and Dr T.M. Nair, was essentially in response to the launch of a political movement in September 1916, from across Adyar—the Home Rule League of Annie Besant. Justice Party leaders saw the Home Rule movement, a grouping of moderate Congress leaders, as a Brahmin enterprise to entrench the community in the political administration of the country. They had a reason to believe so. Annie Besant, as the president of the Hindu revivalist Theosophical Society, was a great admirer of “Aryan civilisation”, Sanskrit literature, and Brahmin supremacy. Worse, she justified the fourfold Varnashrama system citing Sanskrit texts in support of her arguments. She said: “I have a vision…. Which I hope is not only a dream of the mighty [Brahmana] caste which in the past has given to India all that was greatest in her literature and arts; and you the natural leaders of the people by your high education, by your brilliant intelligence, by your powers of speech—I have had a vision of your mighty caste going to the feet of India…. I have dreamt that the great act of national sacrifice once accomplished, splendidly performed, India the mother would stretch out her hands in blessing and say to her children who made the sacrifice: ‘Go back to your people and take your rightful place again as leaders still in India’.”

This development on the cultural side showing sure signs of revivalism was met with a non-Brahmin section harking back to a golden Tamil past which, it said, was disrupted by the advent of the Aryans. It supported its arguments with the evidence of antiquity and glory of the Tamil language and literature, which were brought to light by successive generations of Christian missionaries starting with Robert Caldwell. Tamil was the language that was capable of standing up to Sanskrit. This world view led to the launch of the Pure Tamil Movement, spearheaded by Maraimalai Adigal, who also counterposed “Tamil’s Saivism” to Vaishnavism.

Thus, in the first decade of the 20th century, Madras was the battleground of world views rooted in the Brahmin-non-Brahmin binary, which determined the Tamil country’s political course for almost a century.

Impact of 1857 and reforms The emergence of Madras as the centre of political and ideological contestation in the Madras Presidency can be traced to the predominantly agrarian region’s political, economic and cultural encounters with the East India Company, and later the British government; the social churning these encounters accelerated in the caste-ridden society; and the administrative moves the alien merchants and rulers made to come to terms with that society. The revolt of 1857 shook the British empire, and the Crown was forced to take a series of political and administrative measures that would co-opt dominant sections of Indians without whose support, it realised, ruling India would be impossible. The first move was to take over the administration of India from the East India Company. It enacted the Government of India Act in 1858, which marked the beginning of a series of similar laws up to the Independence of India. The Act transferred the Company’s territories to the jurisdiction of the Crown; provided for the appointment of a Secretary of State for India who would be assisted by a 15-member Council, an advisory body; and empowered the Crown to appoint a Governor General for India and Governors for the three Presidencies of Bombay, Calcutta and Madras.

Revenue from agriculture, the main source, started falling and whatever the administration could collect proved inadequate to meet the rising administrative and military costs of the British rulers at Fort St. George. Military costs rose sharply because of the deployment of more and more garrisons to prevent the recurrence of the revolt of 1857 and because of the armed adventures of the British, especially in what is described as the folly in the North West Frontier. In the context of increasing prices, administrative costs were also on the rise to meet the needs of an expanding bureaucracy. The Madras Presidency, although poorer than the Bombay and Calcutta Presidencies, was the one on which the British government depended for raising resources.

With about 80 per cent of the population living in villages and less than 5 per cent living as factory workers in the emerging urban centre, agriculture was the main source of revenue for the government. The Collector was the government’s face in the districts and he had to depend on the bureaucratic machinery comprising the upper castes, mainly Brahmins. The huzur sheristadars (chief court officers) were at the helm of this machinery and below them were the tahsildars and the village officers. Being drawn from the traditionally dominant castes in villages, their organic link with society put them at an advantageous position vis-à-vis the Collectors. In fact, the Collector was almost entirely dependent on these “officials” for various operations relating to revenue collection. In the administration, power was diffused to the district level and below that. And Fort St. George in Madras felt the need to extend its arm deep into these structures. With this aim, Lord Mayo, the fourth Viceroy of India, initiated administrative reforms that curtailed the power of the local officials and enlarged the scope and functions of the provincial government. Recruitment of deputy collectors and tahsildars was strictly on the basis of a provincial civil service examination. Writes C.J. Baker: “The result was to give the provincial government far more control over its own tentacles thus to bring the provincial government more closely to the affairs of the locality.”

The government turned to non-agricultural sources of revenue such as business and commerce—merchants, businessmen, contractors, industrialists, cattle-breeders and moneylenders. As pressure came from Fort St. George, these economic groups shifted their focus from the local officials to institutions in Madras for redress of issues relating to tax and excise duty. Then the government Indianised the centres that made policies and took decisions. In the absence of trusted British officers and the increasing reluctance of Britons to take up careers in the Indian Civil Service (ICS), and with a view to giving political concessions to its restive subjects, the government opened up the ICS to Indians. Similar was the case with the judicial administration. Writes D.A. Washbroook: “The first Indian High Court judge was appointed in 1880 and by 1920 approximately half of the senior bench was composed of natives. The Attorney-Generalship , Solicitor Generalship and Provincial Prosecutorship were all in Indian hands by the 1880s.”

Lord Ripon’s Madras District Municipalities and District Boards Acts of 1884-85 extended the scope of political power to Indians at the local level also with a view to raising more resources and improving transport, sanitation, water resources, educational facilities and so on. Lord Ripon’s reforms laid the foundation for a new administrative system that brought together influential civilians and officials in local government bodies. Municipal councils (in 80 towns), district boards (in 24 districts) and taluk boards were established with local, non-official, Indians as its members—a ploy which ensured tax compliance by the local elites. Non-agricultural revenue—in the form of excise duties, forest and irrigation fees and income tax—went up to 24 per cent of total revenue.

New departments of agriculture, statistics, industries and fisheries, and a public works secretariat, a commissioner of forests, and a registrar of cooperative societies came into being with Madras as the headquarters. The government gathered data through detailed inquiries on famine, labour, industries, banking, agriculture, cooperatives, irrigation, railways, prices, taxation, and so on. The first Census was conducted in 1871.

The Indian Councils Act of 1892 increased the size of the provincial legislative councils by increasing the number of non-official members. Universities, district boards, municipalities, zamindars and chambers of commerce were empowered to recommend members to the provincial councils. This gave a sense of representation to Indians, however limited it was.

The next set of reforms came in 1909 in the wake of the unrest in Bengal following its partition in 1905. The need to accommodate more Indians was felt acutely by the British government. John Morley, the Secretary of State for India, and Lord Minto, the Governor General of India, drafted a scheme, the Indian Councils Act of 1909, popularly known as the Minto-Morley reforms. For the first time in the history of British rule, legislature space was given to elected Indian representatives. However, the franchise was limited to specific propertied sections.

Writes Washbrook: “By 1910s, the classical colonial model of imperial master and native subject was rapidly losing its appropriateness in the context of the Madras system. Indians were involved actively as well as passively in the highest process of government.”

However, the reforms did not have the effect the British expected and the level of representation the Indian protesters and collaborators aspired for. The British government’s burden of debt incurred during the First World War forced it to increase taxes. The protests against this and the rising prices made it imperative for the government to mollify Indians by creating more space for them in the power structures—a demand of the Congress, especially Home Rulers. Moreover, the provincial governments were also clamouring for the devolution of more power from the Central government.

The result was the next set of reforms through the Government of India Act of 1919. This time the reform scheme was designed by Edwin Montague, Secretary of State for India, and Lord Chelmsford. Writes Baker: “It designed the new legislatures to give representation to attract the men whose continued collaboration would be vital for the stability of British rule.”

The series of British moves post-1857 led to what Baker describes as unforeseen fallouts. These were: New posts were introduced at the lower and higher levels of administration, paving the way for new contests over power and influence; the Madras Presidency was drawn together and the seat of authority shifted from the districts to Madras; educational qualification-based recruitment gave more importance to the University Senate and the Education Department in the Secretariat; people had to direct their protests over administrative policies to the capital; and local politicians shifted to Madras.

Political fallout The introduction of modern political institutions with a partially representative character, Western education and commercialisation of agriculture in a predominantly agrarian society created new political opportunities for the traditionally privileged castes such as Brahmins and the newly rising middle and upper classes among non-Brahmin upper castes.

Writes Baker: “There were many people who needed to gain influence within the walls of Fort St. George—managers of temples and charities, large landholders, big businessmen, directors of educational institutions. These were the interests which would want to have access to the pressure points of any government. Previously, many of them had been content to have influence in the districts. Because of change in the administration, they now found they had to stake out a claim in Madras city, and to do this they had to work through the new politicians and their organisations.”

The Mylapore Group was one of the groups that emerged as a mediator between the new institutions of governance and district- and rural-level groups who were in need of such mediation. “Their knowledge and their wide range of contacts made them indispensable as advisers and assistants to the bureaucracy; their skills and their access to the bureaucratic ear enabled them to serve a plethora of interests,” says Baker.

The eminent men of Mylapore—lawyers, administrators, University Senate members, merchants, Legislative Council members—represented the moderate camp in the Congress. However, higher levels of taxation and the government’s increasing “intrusion” into their domains forced the Mylapore Group to seek more influence and political power in the province. Annie Besant’s Home Rule League served as its vehicle in this quest for more power. Writes Baker: “The Madras government was not a little distressed to find that its leading advisers had become the leaders of sedition. Several of the most influential men in Madras City now had one foot in the administration and one foot in a cantankerous nationalist movement.”

According to Baker, opposition to the Mylapore Group came from four sections. These were:

1. The Egmore group consisting of people whose backgrounds, professions and ambitions were similar to that of the Mylapore Group, but could not gain the confidence of the government as the Mylapore Group did. Among the important personalities in this group was Kasturiranga Iyengar who acquired The Hindu in 1905 and promoted it as a vehicle of nationalism of an extreme variety.

2. A group of lawyers, merchants and local politicians in the districts, led by C. Rajagopalachari, a reputed lawyer and former Chairman of Salem Municipality.

3. The group of people who were later to form the Justice Party. This group, says Baker, “came forward to offer themselves as loyal alternatives to the Mylaporeans as government favourites”. They included city merchants and politicians “who resented the way Mylapore had turfed them out of Madras Corporation and Pachaiyappa’s Trust, and so on”. This group included the weaving magnate Pitty Theagaroya Chetty; the journalist and doctor T.M. Nair (formerly with the Egmore Group); big estate holders such as the Rajas of Pithapuram, Ramnad, Bobbili and Kalahasti; and Arcot Ramaswami Mudaliar of Chingleput and Madireddy Venkataratnam of Godavari.

4. A scattering of local politicians of all sorts who resented the growing influence of the Mylapore Group in central and local administrations.

Of these four sections, it was the Justice Party’s political offensive, partly with the blessings of Fort St. George, that set the tone for the battles in Madras.

The Justice Party, according to Baker, had “appeal for educated non-Brahmans and particularly for those families which, like many Brahman families, looked on the public services and the literate professions as their traditional careers. They also had a wider appeal to men who were feeling the brunt of the stronger administrative machine, staffed at the subordinate levels largely by Brahmans.”

Its Non-Brahmin Manifesto declared: “We are not in favour of any measure, which, in operation, is designed, or tends completely, to undermine the influence and authority of the Britishers, who alone, in the present circumstances of India, are able to hold the scales even between creed and class, and to develop that sense of unity and national solidarity, without which India will continue to be a congeries of mutually exclusive and warring groups, without a common purpose and a common patriotism. We are of those who think that in the truest and best interest of India, its government should continue to be conducted on true British principles of justice and equality of opportunity. We are deeply devoted and loyally attached to British rule.”

In the Justicites’ view, the Congress’ nationalism was equivalent to Brahminism. The Manifesto said: “The social reactionary and the impatient political idealist, who seldom has his foot on solid earth, have now taken complete possession of the Congress.”

This negative perception was only strengthened by some Congress leaders’ approach to social issues—exemplified by their opposition to demands for communal representation and social justice, opposition to social reform and covert and overt support to Varnashrama Dharma. It was their dual character as politically progressive (as far as their opposition to foreign rule was concerned) and socially regressive that turned a staunch Congressman like E.V.R. Periyar into one of the fiercest critics of the Congress and its brand of non-inclusive nationalism. He literally walked out of the Congress after its leaders thwarted his attempt to move a resolution in support of communal representation at the Kanchipuram conference.

Communal representation The demand for communal representation goes back to the early and mid-19th century, when Tamil Brahmins and Maratha Brahmins were in control of district administrations. Citing R. Sundaralingam, P. Radhakrishnan writes: “In the whole of Madras Presidency Brahmins accounted for about 90 per cent of all the ‘huzur’ (chief) sheristadars, 87 per cent of all the ‘naib’ (deputy) sheristadars, 75 per cent of all the tahsildars, and 78 per cent of all these positions taken together.” Realising the “danger of exclusive reliance on brahmins”, writes Radhakrishnan, “the government began to check their monopoly in public service and weaken their family connections, a vital link to such monopoly and their established lines of patronage.”

In Nellore, Cuddapah and Bellary districts, for instance, the district administration was crowded with members of individual Brahmin families. The Tirunelveli district administration was in the grip of Vellalas. The preponderance of these two castes in district administrations was seen by the Madras government as a stumbling block to members of other castes approaching the administration with their grievances and demands. According to Radhakrishnan, this forced the government to remedy the situation with a Standing Order (promulgated by the Board of Revenue) in 1851. It said: “Collectors should be careful to see that the subordinate appointments in their districts are not monopolised by the members of a few influential families. Endeavour should always be made to divide the principal appointments in each district among the several castes. A proportion of the tahsildars in each district should belong to castes other than the Brahman, and it should be a standing rule that the two chief revenue servants in the Collector’s office should be of different castes.” This order was a precursor to the Communal Order issued by the Justice Party government in 1921 and to the policy of reservation adopted in post-Independence India.

The preponderance of Brahmins in the administration also proved to be a source of corruption. The most striking example of such corruption was the remission scandal in Thanjavur district. In 1884, the district was ravaged by floods and the district administration claimed a compensation of Rs.8 lakh. Writes Radhakrishnan: “As this sum was far in excess of the remissions granted till then, the government deputed H.S. Thomas, a member of the Board of Revenue and an ex-Collector of Thanjavur… to ascertain if such heavy remissions were really called for. His investigations revealed that nearly half the amount claimed was fraudulent and the outcome of a well-organised conspiracy by officials interested in obtaining remissions on their and their relatives’ lands, together accounting in value for more than a hundred lakhs of rupees. Following this scandal the government dismissed 19 officials (13 Brahmins, four Pillais, and two Naidus—another non-Brahmin upper caste)….”

When the British expanded, centralised and Indianised the administration, the section that moved into the space with speed and in large numbers was the Brahmins. Their traditionally privileged position as a scribal group and administrators and as affluent landholders led them to take advantage of the new opportunities of collegiate education, especially English education. The Census of 1891 recorded that of the total number of graduates from the University of Madras, 68.8 per cent were Brahmins, who were just 3.1 per cent of the population. The percentage of non-Brahmins, who comprised 86.6 per cent of the population, was 19.

In the context of a section of Brahmin heavyweights (however opportunistically) joining hands with Annie Besant and demanding self-rule, the British rulers felt an urgent need to contain them. A section of non-Brahmin leaders, aggrieved by Brahmins who formed only 3 per cent monopolising power, privilege and patronage in the legislature, the university, the judiciary and the media, saw in their demand for self-rule a conspiracy to capture political power and establish Brahmin rule. It was at this point that the interests and fears of the Madras government converged with those of the Justice Party.

Justice Party in power Periyar was equally critical of the Justice Party’s non-inclusive non-Brahminism, which was more interested in securing power and privilege for its followers—drawn mostly from among big landowners, merchants, middle- and upper-class sections of communities such as Vellalas, Chettiars and Naidus, and so on. However, despite its narrow social base, the Justice Party won a majority in the elections to the Madras Legislative Council, which was constituted in 1920 under the Government of India Act of 1919. This was possible because franchise was circumscribed by property qualifications (only those who paid Rs.10 as land revenue in rural areas, or over Rs.3 as municipal taxes in urban areas). Of the population of 40 million in the presidency, only 12,48,156 were eligible to vote. Among them, only 3,03,558 cast their vote. The Congress, which had launched the Non-Cooperation Movement, had boycotted the election. No constituency polled over 25 per cent of the vote. Polling was the highest in Madras (52 per cent). Mylapore, with a high concentration of Brahmins, also saw a high voter turnout.

The Council had 127 members in addition to the ex-officio members of the Governor’s Executive Council. A system of dyarchy based on the concept of Partial Responsible Government came into force, with reserved and transferred subjects. The elected provincial council had jurisdiction over transferred subjects such as Education, Sanitation, Local Self-Government , Agriculture and Industry. The reserved subjects such as Law, Finance, Revenue and Home Affairs came under the direct control of the Governor and his Executive Council. A. Subbarayalu Reddiar assumed office as the first Chief Minister of Madras Presidency.

In the second election to the council in 1923, the Justice Party won, but with a reduced majority. The government led by Ramarayaningar, also known as the Raja of Panagal, was defeated through a no-confidence motion on the first day of the new session. But Ramarayaningar remained in power until 1926. In the third council elections in 1926, the Justice Party lost to the Swaraj Party (a party formed in 1923 by a group of leaders from the Congress who sought greater self-governance). The Swaraj Party refused to form the government and the Governor set up an independent government under P. Subbarayan. The Justice Party remained in the opposition until 1930. It returned to power in the fourth legislative council election in 1930 and P. Munuswamy Naidu became the Chief Minister. The Swaraj Party did not contest the elections owing to its participation in the Civil Disobedience Movement.

The most significant achievement of the Justice Party in power was the passage of the Communal Order (Government Order 613), India’s first legislation providing for reservation. Its Madras Hindu Religious Endowment Act, which brought Hindu temples under the direct control of the State government, was a far-reaching piece of legislation. The Justice government, through a resolution, revoked the restriction in the Government of India Act (1919) on women becoming legislators. As a result, Dr Muthulakshmi Reddi became the first woman to enter the legislature in India.

GoI Act of 1935 In the wake of the increasing sweep of the Congress’ Civil Disobedience Movement, the British government took another far-reaching administrative reform. It enacted the Government of India Act in 1935 abolishing the Montagu-Chelmsford scheme of dyarchy and granting autonomy to legislatures at the Central and provincial levels. A bicameral legislature came into being in Madras Presidency with a 215-member Assembly and a 56-member Council. While the Congress had a well-defined political programme of bringing peasants and workers into the freedom movement, the Justice Party, writes Manikumar, “had to be on the defensive as it had no defnite policy or programme on most vital matters affecting the nation. The Justicites continued with their usual attacks on the Congress, criticisng it as being dominated by Brahmins.”

Despite its impressive record in social reformist and social justice legislation, the Justice Party’s class and pro-imperialist orientation led to its being pushed to the margins of Tamil society within two decades of assuming power. The Justice Party’s narrow, elitist social base determined its dubious stand on caste issues, and this was exposed when M.C. Raja, the first Dalit leader to be elected to the Madras legislature, quit the Justice Party in protest against the Justicites’ unhelpful attitude to Dalit-related issues. Their efforts to democratise Tamil society stopped with the uplift of sections of Other Backward Classes, which in the Sri Lankan Tamil scholar K. Sivathamby’s view was one of the unresolved contradictions of the non-Brahmin movement.

Its class character was exposed during the Great Depression, which resulted in agricultural distress, unemployment, migration and weavers’ and workers’ struggles. Writes K.A. Manikumar: “The depression that broke out in the Presidency manifested itself in the form of fall in prices of both foodgrains and commercial crops, resulting in an increasing debt burden on an already indebted peasantry. When the peasants ventilated their grievances by lawful means, they were all treated like political agitators and imprisoned…. Though repression was in force, the Justicites cooperated with the British, however much they encroached on ‘popular liberty’, and the two sections got on amicably.”

In contrast, the Congress, armed with its Karachi Resolution of 1931, called for, among other things, reduction of land revenues by 50 per cent. It also mobilised workers on the basis of the resolution demanding a living wage for industrial labour and the right to form unions “to protect their interests with suitable machinery for the settlement of disputes through arbitration”. The Congress withdrew its self-imposed ban on entering the legislature.

In the elections held under the 1935 Act, the Congress won 159 of the 215 seats, the Justice Party 17 seats, and Independents and others 39 in the Assembly. In the Legislative Council, the Congress won 30 seats, the Justice Party four and Independents and others 12. Periyar said the defeat was caused by the lack of contact between the party leaders and villagers. When C. Rajagopalachari assumed office as Chief Minister in 1937, Periyar described his government as an “Agraharam Ministry”.

The Justice Party did not see this as an upsurge of nationalism but as a development confirming its worst fears of British rulers being replaced by Brahmin rulers. As if to prove its fears true, Rajaji made the learning of Hindi compulsory in the first three forms of school education. This move triggered presidency-wide protests. Writes Nambi Arooran: “The introduction of compulsory Hindi was opposed by non-Brahmin leaders because Hindi was identified with Brahmins and Brahminism on two grounds. Since the beginning of the Home Rule Movement by Annie Besant in Madras in 1916, Congress had been regarded by many as a Brahmin organisation and this belief was further strengthened with the beginning of the Hindi movement by Gandhi in South India in 1918. This was so because of the choice of the Sanskrit script or Devanagari for the propagation of Hindi. Some of the Congress leaders who were also Brahmins openly stated that the adoption of Devanagari for Hindi would help the revival of Sanskrit.”

The Rajaji government invoked the much-hated Defence of India Rules (against which the Congress had been protesting elsewhere in India then). This gave a new lease of life to the non-Brahmin movement, which could successfully project the antagonistic “Other”—comprising the Brahmin, Hindi-Sanskrit, the Congress, the North—on the popular imagination of Tamils. The stream of Pure Tamil Movement, which was the political manifestation of pride in Tamil—a pride flowing from the new consciousness of Tamil being the only language that could stand up to Sanskrit in terms of antiquity and literary and grammatical richness—and the social justice stream of the non-Brahmin movement converged to constitute Tamil national consciousness. A rally that travelled along Madras Presidency’s coastline converged on the Marina, where the battle cry for a separate Dravidanadu rang out loud and clear. Periyar’s Self-Respect Movement was the pivot of this new upsurge which pitchforked C.N. Annadurai onto the centre stage as the future leader of Tamils.

Emergence of the DMK With the nationalist movement gathering momentum climaxing in the Quit India call, Annadurai realised that the pro-British, elitist orientation of the Justice Party could be a burden that would weigh down the Tamil nationalist imagination. He was instrumental in the Justice Party being renamed Dravidar Kazhagam at a conference in Salem in 1944 where he pilloried Justice leaders as pattu vettigal ( silken dhotis)and jarigai jibbas (liveried jubbas) and called upon them to give up their British conferred titles such as Sir and Dewan Bahadur.

Differences cropped up between Periyar and a section of his followers, including Annadurai, over his “undemocratic” way of running the party and his decision to observe Independence Day as a Black Day. Ultimately, Annadurai and his supporters walked out of the Dravidar Kazhagam protesting against Periyar’s decision to marry Maniyammai, who was much younger than Periyar.

The breakaway group formed the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK)—roughly translated as Dravidian Progressive Federation—in 1949, and it was launched on a rainy night at a public meeting held in Royapuram’s Robinson Park.

After Independence, the new Indian state did not alter much the parliamentary democratic system brought into being by the Government of India Act, 1935. Entrenching himself strongly in the social base created by the non-Brahmin movement through its various phases since 1916, Annadurai successfully converted the social movement radicalised by Periyar into a successful political party in the evolving federal democracy of India. The DMK emerged as a major political force in the 1950s along with the Congress and the Communists. With Periyar supporting K. Kamaraj of the Congress on the grounds of his being a Tamil and the Communists facing a ban and severe repression in the early years of Independence, the DMK successfully projected itself as the best alternative to the Congress in the Madras State. To achieve success in the electoral arena, Annadurai moved away from Periyar’s atheism and propounded the theory “one god, one community” ( ondre kulam, ondre thevan ), spoke of his desire to create a garden of socialism ( podhu udaimai poonga ) in his inimitable alliterative Tamil, lambasted “northern imperialism” of the Brahmin-Bania rulers in Delhi, appealed to Tamil pride, consolidated the support of at least two generations of the beneficiaries of the policy of communal representation and reservation, and put to maximum use the media, especially the newly emerging medium of cinema. He was assisted in this by a group of youngsters, including M. Karunanidhi, V.R. Nedunchezhiyan and E.V.K. Sampath, with unmatched writing and oratorical skills.

The DMK boycotted the first Assembly election in 1952. In the next Assembly election in 1957, it emerged as the second largest party, winning 15 seats and 14.6 per cent of the vote. But it announced its arrival with a stunning victory in the Madras Corporation elections in 1959. With the steady decline of the Congress in the post-Nehruvian era, the DMK, riding the wave of popular resentment over a food crisis and another round of anti-Hindi agitation in 1965 (following the Nehru government’s declaration of Hindi as the official language), “captured” Fort St. George in 1967. Since then, the Dravidian parties (the DMK and later the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam founded by the legendary actor-politician M.G. Ramachandran) have retained the Fort, together winning about 65 to 70 per cent of the popular vote.

The Dravidian parties’ domination symbolises the successful journey of a political idea from the Victoria Hall to Robinson Park to Fort St. George. Gopalapuram and Poes Garden are not merely place names in Chennai. Being the areas of residence of Karunanidhi, DMK president and five-time Chief Minister, and Jayalalithaa, AIADMK general secretary and three-time Chief Minister, they are the seats of political authority in Dravidian land.

(This article is based on a research project undertaken under the Appan Menon Memorial Award, 2001.)


1. Christopher, John Baker (1976): The Politics of South India, 1920-37 (Cambridge University Press).

2. Washbrook, D.A. (1976): The Emergence of Provincial Politics: The Madras Presidency 1870-1920 (Cambridge University Press).

3. Nambi Arooran, K. (1980): Tamil Renaissance and Dravidian Nationalism, 1905-1944 (Madurai: Koodal Publishers).

4. Suntharalingam, R. (1980): Politics and Nationalism Awakening in South India: 1852-1891 (Delhi: Rawal Publications).

5. Manikumar, K.A. (2003): A Colonial Economy in the Great Depression: Madras (1929-37) ; (Orient Longman).

6. Varadarajulu Naidu, T. (1932): The Justice Movement 1917 (Chennai: Dravidar Kazhagam).

7. Radhakrishnan, P. (July 31, 1993): “Communal Representation in Tamil Nadu, 1850-1916: The Pre-Non-Brahmin Movement Phase”, Economic & Political Weekly .

8. Sivathamby, K. (November 8, 2002): “Deideologisation of politics is the tragedy of Tamil Nadu”, Interview by R. Vijaya Sankar, published in Frontline .

9. Sivathamby, K. (February 10, 2006): “The economic interest… that was the contradiction”, Interview by R. Vijaya Sankar, published in Frontline .

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