`The economic interest... that was the contradiction'

Published : Feb 10, 2006 00:00 IST



Karthigesu Sivathamby on the Dravidian movement today.

The Dravidian movement, whose origin is marked by the release of the Non-Brahmin Manifesto and the formation of the Justice Party, is in the 90th year of its existence. Social justice and linguistic nationalism were the major planks that saw its phenomenal growth, which helped it capture power in Tamil Nadu in 1967. The movement has not looked back since then, with the two major Dravidian parties - the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam - ruling the State alternately for about four decades now. However, critics argue that the movement is a pale shadow of its former self. Among other things, they argue that though it facilitated the upward mobility of intermediate castes, the Dravidian movement has not done justice to Dalits; that it has not really contributed to the growth of Tamil as a modern language; that the Tamil identity it has constructed has failed to transcend caste identities, and so on.

In this interview conducted by R. Vijaya Sankar as part of a research project under the Appan Menon Memorial Award, Sri Lankan Tamil scholar Karthigesu Sivathamby explains the factors underlying the transformation of the movement in its post-colonial phase. Excerpts:

Although the Dravidian movement has lost much of its radical sheen and moved far away from its ideological moorings, Dravidian parties remain an electoral force in Tamil Nadu. Even about four decades after assuming power and suffering a major and, several minor splits, they command 70 per cent or more of the vote share in Tamil Nadu, leading to a virtual two-party system in the State. What explains this situation?

If you take the all-India picture, you will see that in virtually all States there is now an evenly poised balance between regional or local politics and the so-called national parties. State-level parties and politics have emerged in a big way. In the case of Tamil Nadu, the rise of the DMK [Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam] came very significantly almost with the coming of Independence. The fact that there was an assertion of the cultural identity of this community was somehow or the other overlooked by the Congress leaders of Tamil Nadu, especially in the earlier era. And whatever Kamaraj did later was only to reccognise that but he could not stand against the student leader of the DMK. And taken along with the overall position India took by way of reorganising the States on linguistic lines in 1956, it was clear that the cultural linguistic appeal was there. Then we thought, even [Jawaharlal] Nehru thought, this was an unwelcome phenomenon. Now we find regional parties everywhere. Whether it is Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh or Bihar, that regional identity politics is there.

Also do not forget the type of politicisation that was taking place through the Dravidian ideology. There was mobilisation of the masses in terms of their own social and cultural identity and social and cultural aspirations. And that was why, basically speaking and also in caste terms, you saw the emergence of the backward classes that formed nearly 80 per cent of the population - a reality which the national parties, whether it was the Communists or the Congress, were unable to comprehend. In the case of the Congress I think the way it was handling the issue was wrong. It realised its mistake at a very late stage when it put up Kamaraj. Even then it did not work. In the case of the Marxists, they were facing a lot of problems. It is only now that they are trying to rediscover the Marxist traditions from within the Tamil Nadu peasantry. Earlier they were thinking in terms of workers. The continuance of the Dravidian movement is because of that socio-cultural assertion which is the result of the type of political mobilisation [E.V.R.] Periyar did; the DMK did.

I find one more reason for the movement's relevance. I have had the opportunity to be in touch with top professionals of Tamil Nadu based in Chennai. Strangely I find all of them at heart Periyarists. In fact, an engineer of international repute and a great doctor by all-India standards told me that had it not been for Periyar's inspiration, they would not have made it. This type of cultural assertion and political mobilisation have given the people a sense of power. The Dravidian movement was able to mobilise people because it was able to speak in terms of these people.

They had a sense of identity with the movement...

The Dravidian movement leaders made people conscious of that identity. In the early days of [C.N.] Annadurai and [M.] Karunanidhi, it was felt that this would run counter to all-India feelings. But today it has been shown that it need not run counter to the all-India current.

It can run parallel to that or coexist with that...

Yes. Without losing even a shred of your "Dravidianness" you are part of the all-India framework. Whether it was Kalaignar Karunanidhi or MGR [M.G. Ramachandran], they have done the same thing. I see it more conspicuously or effectively in the case of Kalaignar because he talks about Tamil and Sangam literature and at the same time he is also part of the all-India combination. His family or the people who are associated with him have been able to establish in terms of capitalistic expansion what I would call, for want of a better phrase, a media empire, which covers the entire South India and even diaspora Tamils.

What about the economic grievances? What has been done to the people they mobilised in terms of Tamil identity? I mean those at the lowest rungs of the economic ladder.

This is the exact problem. When the independence movement was on, the Congress mobilised and activated a particular section of society. They did not go beyond that. The Dravidian movement activated the backward castes or the intermediate level of people. It is only now we know that they too did not go further down. In spite of one Satyavani Muthu here and/or someone else there, it did not work at all. There has been an effort to hold the power among themselves. And parliamentary politics gave them power. I will also make bold to make this statement. If you analyse the class character of the MLAs and MPs who have come from the Dravidian movement, you will see that in terms of economic interests they were not the people who believe in the type of sharing that the ideology of Annadurai stood for. This economic interest... that was the contradiction. The Dravidian movement had no major economic plan and programme to take forward. That was seen even in their own policies. They go for a sort of welfarist budget. But has there been any plan from 1967 till now, a definitive plan, a radical plan? Has there been any major measures in relation to the problem of land tenure and distribution in these areas? The whole countryside is prone to floods even now as in the days of Manikkavasagar.

But people still vote for the Dravidian parties...

That is the result of cultural assertion. This movement can speak to them in their own terms. Sometimes in their own caste idioms. Above all, one should not forget that the Dravidian movement as developed by Periyar and Annadurai brought in a sense of self-esteem among the Tamils which was virtually kept low. The Self-Respect Movement raised a sense of self-esteem among the Tamils, as a community at that point. It cut across caste barriers. This perhaps lingers even today. Now, of course, the position of Tamil within Indian culture is better recognised even though it is not fully valued.

As you have been saying, the convergence of the streams of social justice and linguistic nationalism created a strong base for the upsurge of Dravidian politics in the 1940s and 1950s. In the post-colonial period, the Dravidian movement attained ideological hegemony and surged past the Congress and the Left. What made this possible? Could this be explained in terms of Gramscian political discourse?

That is exactly what has happened. The greatness of Annadurai depended on the fact that he was able to turn the tables on the Communists. He said: Uzhavar Dhinam [Pongal or Peasants' Day] is the May Day of the Tamils. He got all their sources and turned the tables wonderfully well. And of course the Communist Party also was facing some problems in that period.

He really broke away from Periyar when Periyar made the fatal mistake of trying to marry the Self-Respect Movement with the Justice Party by creating a new formation [Dravidar Kazhagam] in 1944. That marriage need not have taken place and it was a divorce even before the thaali was tied. The Self-Respect Movement and the Justice Party remained separate. This after having created aspirations in the people. With the coming of Independence, unfortunately, again Periyar took a harsh view. This Anna thought was the opportune moment. What did he use? He used the linguistic-cultural identity and worked on the socio-economic grievances of the people. Please read Anna. I remember as a young man reading [Annadurai's] Panaththottam. It was a call for a sort of equality which we could never imagine. It was anti-Brahmin, it was about equality, it was egalitarian... . So there was a call for not only social equality but also economic equality. That was the plank on which Annadurai appealed...

In this connection, it is worth recollecting the dialogue Karunanidhi wrote for the film Parasakthi. The protagonist says in fiery Tamil: "We are not against temples. But we are against temples becoming the den of the wicked." Also there is a scene where the protagonist, driven to despair by hunger, says, again in alliterative Tamil, "Why did not that God teach us to cook stones and sand and eat them." It was an expression of the pangs of poverty in their own language...

Also, remember this famous sequence in Parasakthi when it is discovered, as in a Roman play, that this poverty-stricken boy belongs to a great family and the family asks him to return to its fold. "No, I want to be with them [poor]. I belong to them."

I remember, back in Ceylon [now Sri Lanka], people clapping their hands at this scene. You must read Panaththottam. Annadurai was a post-graduate and he knew his economics. And there he went for a type of socialism, not even socialism, a type of equalisation. And people thought that they were getting it.

Podhuvudaimai Poonga [Garden of Socialism]...

Yes. Podhuvudaimai Poonga. We are better than them [Communists]... They hold the umbrellas here when it rains in Moscow... . Through such expressions he tried to discredit them. But there was an element of economic equality [in their thinking], which unfortunately they were not able to implement when they came to power. But they did it in bits and pieces... giving pots and pans... giving rice for one rupee. That type of populist actions. But in terms of concrete planning for the State... no. By the time, parliamentary power was already in the hands of an emerging power group, which wanted to hold the power to itself... It was accused of amassing wealth.

Not only in Tamil Nadu but in other parts of India too you find this a particular feature. This was a country which had waged its independence struggle, to the amazement of the entire world, adopting tactics that were never known in history earlier. In this country, tell me, how do we have this type of corruption, large-scale corruption, where even parliamentarians are accused of accepting bribes for asking questions. Where did this slip occur? This is the question which we have to analyse in all earnestness. Where did it go wrong?

What do you think?

At present it is an open question and I don't want to make any guesses. But we know that it is a reality. Of course, corruption is a part of our social life. I accept that. But the larger question is we - that is Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Burma or Bangladesh - we who claim a civilisational past, glorious linguistic and religious heritages, how are we now reconciling ourselves to this political corruption. And it has become part and parcel of our life. Coming to Tamil Nadu in particular, as you said, in the 1950s there was this very populist way of asking for economic equality. And Anna used to say that he himself was an economist and that he knew his economics. I have great regard for Anna for his responses when he was Chief Minister. When he was in office he sincerely made an effort to achieve this. But unfortunately the dissensions within the party were so much that he could not hold it together. And he told [CPI(M) leader] P. Ramamurthi that the DMK had come to power much earlier than it expected.

I would put it in another way. I had to write a small piece in English to my Sinhala friends on what the Dravidian movement meant. They think that we are trying to create a Tamil movement in a jingoistic sense. I told them no. It was a movement for the amelioration of the political injustices, of the neglect this Tamil culture suffered.

But the other cultures also suffered because of uneven development and the kind of nationalism the Congress sought to construct.

But as a Sri Lankan I tell you, over and above all these things, there has been some inbuilt mechanism within the Indian setup, which went for a Constituent Assembly immediately after 1947. And no less a person than [B.R.] Ambedkar who challenged Gandhi in a different sense was Minister of Law. And in 1956 the Panikkar Commission prepared the States Reorganisation Report, which today I think is holding India together.

Identity is neither static nor one-dimensional. Has the Dravidian movement adapted itself to the changing Tamil identity, the transformation brought about by socio-economic changes? A new class has emerged. The continued relevance of the Dravidian movement may be because of that. The ability to adapt...

I think there is a misplacement of the cause and effect in the way you have raised the question. I don't think that the Dravidian movement of Periyar or the Dravidar Kazhagam went in for the type of Tamil identity as Anna did. With Periyar, the emphasis was on the non-Brahmin Tamil tradition. In fact the way Anna and his followers constructed the identity of the Tamils is quite interesting because the Pallava period, the Chola period came into the picture. The so-called achievements in terms of art and architecture, sculpture, the bronzes, even the Bhakti literature... none of these was brought in. They went back to Sangam literature, which was secular. There was the highlighting of the Tamil tradition in terms of its secularism. And there was a focus on the so-called pre-Sanskritic Tamil culture which they thought Thirukkural was and Sangam literature was. That was the type of identity. In fact, if you are very sensitive to the use of language, you would notice that there was a slide. And there was an observable distinction between what was Tamil and Tamilian. That was the type of identity. And over the years that identity began to sort of get diluted. And this was the question I raised in an earlier interview (Frontline, November 8, 2002). The question of religion. And the other one was that except for its platform rhetoric and perhaps its contribution to the types of dialogue in plays and in cinema in a way, what was the contribution of the Dravidian movement writers in terms of creative literature? I don't think up to date they have produced a famous short story writer like Jayakanthan, Sundara Ramaswamy or La. Sa. Ra. [Ramamirtham] or the great Pudumaipithhan. There were short story writers no doubt but not of a class...

Maybe the last one was Annadurai... stories like "Sevvazhai"...

Yes. The last one perhaps was Anna. He was very effective. So the identity which the Dravidian movement had created in the late 1940s and early1950s to serve a particular purpose was not in a position to be sustained when the country, and Tamil Nadu as a whole, began to respond to this new development. This is very important because from Rajaji [C. Rajagopalachari] we come to Kamaraj. That was very great. The Congress really became alive to the situation and they find that Rajaji or people of that type could no longer be the representatives of the Tamil image... the Tamil psyche. And they had to go for Kamaraj. Take the press... it was pattuvada, zilla - that type of language was being used. And there was the coming in of the Tamilian sentiment. But the question was, did the Tamil identity have all the creative capacities, propensities within it to confront or face the subsequent changes and challenges. Society is dynamic, dialectical. As new things were coming in and when Sangam literature really began to be studied deeply, it also brought in a new sense of poetics, depicting human experiences situationally and in a very direct manner. This in a way ran counter to the post-Bharati poetic rhetoric.

More important, there was the question of the theatre. The type of theatre that was used for political propaganda did not arise from within the Tamil tradition of Koothu, whereas in Kerala and Karnataka there was social identification of Kathakali and Yakshagana. In Tamil Nadu the Therukkoothu was never tapped, it had to wait till about the mid-1970s. And the contradiction was that the cultural assertion which had such a political clout did not tap the non-Sanskritic Tamil cultural tradition of the villages.

But why did it appeal to people then?

It was a real contrast. The intellectual leaders of the time did not speak of Sangam poetry. Nor did they realise the value of Thirukkural. Nobody spoke about the special identity of Tamil literature as part of Indian literature.

Which Tamils were proud of...

Yes. There was no non-Brahminism, anti-Brahminism there. [U.V.] Swaminatha Iyer was equally proud of Sangam literature as was Damodaram Pillai. So this had an appeal. That was why they went for a secular tradition. They went for a literary tradition. But unfortunately it lacked all these things mentioned above. And subsequently, politicisation took a different turn with MGR. The pattern of politicisation definitely changed then. Annadurai and Karunanidhi gave a populist turn to politics. It may also be intellectual populism if I may be allowed to use the term. MGR, who made no claims about all these things, went for mass populism. And that holds good even today because it means votes.

Another question relating to identity. Why has not the Tamil identity been able to transcend caste and Dalit identities? The formation of parties like the Pattali Makkal Katchi, which have a social base among particular castes, is a manifestation of this.

This exactly is the tragedy of the way the Dravidian ideology was handled. The anti-Brahmin, anti-Congress ideology should have extended to a sense of egalitarianism of all non-Brahmin castes. This contradiction was not resolved. The Justice Party never resolved it. In fact, they were only unhappy that Brahmins did not share power with them. But they were not prepared to share it with people down below.

Periyar too did not go beyond a point... .

Periyar was more an ideologue. In his own way he was an idealist. He was trying to live as an idealist. Within the framework it was well and good. Periyar is basically a social reformer. And the problem that Periyar faced was that he had no political agenda. Otherwise he was a wonderful social reformist. He stood for social assertion.

Social awakening... .

But he had no planned political agenda. The main problem was that the Justice Party and its non-Brahmin movement dictated the economic outlook of the Dravidian movement. Under Anna also the movement was fostering this economic line.

They did not go in for land reforms, which would have benefited large sections of Tamils...

Yes. They were only worried about the caste benefits. You can see the irony of the entire situation. The Dravidian movement, which was so careful about caste benefits, group benefits, community benefits, has nothing to say against privatisation. In fact, if the public sector is weakened, the entire base crumbles. They are unable to see the ill-effects of globalisation. This is the contradiction within the Dravidiam movement. There has been no progressive carry-forward of that ideology.

Is it because of the class character of the leadership?

Actually it is not the class character. They started from quite humble positions and graduated to positions of power. You cannot say that basically Kalaignar was a capitalist. He comes from a poor family in Thirukkuvalai. His having reached this stature is marvellous... stupendous. But for them political equality did not imply economic equality. And they were subsumed later under class interests. So this factor of the class taking over, they did not recognise. This is a larger question that scholars like Gail Omvedt have discussed in detail... The caste-class continuum... the caste-class conflict. Where is the blending? Which is the blending point? It is slender. They went straight into the class character where caste is being used for class interests. Discussing this question, we should realise that ours is basically a hierarchical society. The hierarchy at the start was based on caste. But modernisation takes the hierarchy to an economic level. Thus for those who go up the ladder, social and economic power becomes very very important. No wonder a great anthropologist has used the term homo hierarchicus.

The newly emerging classes within these castes.

You cannot blame them. For them social mobility means getting on to the other class. They never thought about it. They have automatically become not so much landowners but entrepreneurs. And as they changed, the caste mythology also changed. The entire media are in their hands now. This is class interest. The moment you become a person of that class, then your whole attitude changes.

The question of communal representation came up when the state apparatus was expanding under British rule and there was this race to be part of the administration. But in the neoliberal context of today, where the state is shrinking in terms of jobs, how does the concept of social justice operate? Is there a need to redefine social justice in this context? The struggle for social justice now has to be a struggle against neoliberalism. What is the future of Tamil nationalism in an increasingly globalised world?

We have not had an ideologue to mediate Tamil nationalism in the new context. Within an all-India framework that mediation was possible and for this we can fall back on a man like Bharati. Or even some of our Congress desi leaders. But in the context of globalisation, nobody has done that sort of mediation of Tamil nationalism (by Tamil nationalism I mean the assertion of the socio-political identity of the Tamils as a political community). This I think is a bit of a problem. I have not found an answer for it. But I have been thinking of the problem in a slightly different way. In the whole discourse of the Dravidian movement in the 1960s and 1970s they have not brought in the concept of colonialism and post-colonialism. In terms of colonialism, even the upsurge of the Dravidian movement and the need for a Dravidian identity were a colonial necessity. And there was also a sort of a Protestant Christian movement, which was really westernising our society for the needs of British rule. The type of social mobility that was promised to us, that we wished to aspire for... there was a colonialist necessity. We have imbibed the colonialist tradition and we have never gone out of it. Even in the post-colonial situation, Tamil Nadu has not begun to realise this. See the way they cling on to English as a medium of education in spite of all their Tamilness, in spite of all their claims about Tiruvalluvar and others. The Kannadiga teaches his child Kannada up to a particular standard. And the Malayalee can do it. Why can't at least primary education be had in Tamil in Tamil Nadu?

There was a big protest in Tamil Nadu when Tamil was introduced as the medium of education in the primary sections.

Even intellectuals and topmost officials are for it. This shows the colonialist character of your disposition towards your identity. You want to be a Tamil within the English world. So much so that you do not even want to teach Tamil to your child. That is why I want this paradigm to be brought in. That of colonialism and post-colonialism. Then you will see that in terms of post-colonialism to what extent have we decolonised Tamil society? We have only been talking about decolonising Tamil society from Sanskrit hegemony. If we have started decolonising from British rule, then in a sense bureaucracy will not be as powerful as now. Today what we have in a post-colonial India is a colonial bureaucracy, which is not at all sensitive to the needs of the people. It is again part of the South Asian situation.

They do not have any problem adjusting to the demands of globalisation...

We feel very happy about being outsourced. But we don't realise that outsourcing means that they have all the technological advantages and we are only a sort of low-down the ladder. We are not looking at the problem from this perspective. The role of the bureaucracy in many of the South Asian countries shows there has been no decolonisation. This adds to our problems.

Please do not confine your analysis of the Dravidian movement within the framework of Tamil nationalism, within the framework even of Indian nationalism. See it in the larger context of how the movement was the child of colonialism and how it has been faring during the post-colonial situation, how it has contributed to post-colonial life in Tamil Nadu. Then you will see that not a single Chief Minster from 1967 has been for bringing in Tamil as the medium of education. The gap in society, the gap between the lower and upper rungs, was never breached and the Dalit movement comes from that.

And Vanniyars...

These are the internal contradictions and inconsistencies that ultimately led to the loosening of the strength of the so-called Dravidian fabric. So much so that the Dravidian movement today keeps the Tamil man and the Tamil woman as important because they have votes in their hands.

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