Controversy over a statue

Print edition : January 05, 2002

THE removal of a statue of Kannagi, an epic heroine who is seen as symbolising Tamil womanhood and Tamils' zest for justice, from a prime place on the Marina in Chennai in mid-December has led to widespread protests. The government said that the statue was removed because its pedestal was damaged by a speeding truck in the small hours of December 6. Although initial reports said that the pedestal was "slightly damaged" and that the statue was intact, the Public Works Department, which maintains the statue, removed it a few days later. It was kept at the PWD headquarters on the Marina and was later taken to the Government Museum. According to a government press release, PWD officials who examined the pedestal found that it was too weak to bear the weight of the 10-foot bronze statue.

The removal of the statue went unnoticed initially. For about a week the platform where the statue stood was covered with bamboo poles and thatches, giving the impression that some renovation work was on. It was only when the platform was demolished and a pucca road laid in a midnight operation that the newspapers became suspicious and reported the "disappearance" of the statue. There were instant protests.

Former Chief Minister and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) president M. Karunanidhi said on December 16 that the removal of the statue was "a challenge to Tamil pride" and amounted to "a war on Tamil culture and an affront to Tamils' sensibilities". Karunanidhi and leaders of other political parties, Tamil scholars and writers and literary organisations have demanded the reinstallation of the statue at the same spot.

Rejecting the demand, Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam said on December 17 that the City Police (Traffic) had expressed the view that traffic could be regulated in a better manner if the statue was not there. He did not indicate where the statue would be installed after renovation. However, as the agitation for the re-installation threatened to snowball, the government announced on December 19 that the statue would be re-erected at an "appropriate place" on the Marina sea front. A committee comprising engineers and police and government officials would choose the spot, an official press release said.

Police Commissioner K. Vijay Kumar told mediapersons that the road was "widened" in the vicinity of the statue after the traffic police pointed out that the stretch was accident-prone.

Karunanidhi did not agree that the statue hindered the flow of traffic. He said that it had been there for over 33 years and the other statues along the same road were in fact closer to the road. According to him, the statue was removed for reasons of "vaasthu", on the advice of astrologers. Reports in a section of the press said that some astrologers had advised All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) general secretary Jayalalithaa to have the statue removed because, in their opinion, in its present form and location it would jeopardise her attempts to regain power. Panneerselvam and Education Minister M. Thambi Durai denied that the statue was removed for astrological reasons. In that case, they argued, the statue could have been removed during Jayalalithaa's earlier term as Chief Minister (1991-96).

KARUNANIDHI, as Public Works Minister in the first DMK Ministry headed by C.N. Annadurai, was instrumental in having the Kannagi statue installed in January 1968 on the occasion of the second world Tamil conference in Chennai. A distinguished orator in Tamil, Karunanidhi used to draw heavily from Ilango Adigal's third century epic Cilappatikaram ("The Jewelled Anklet"), which has Kannagi as one of the major characters. He scripted the screenplay for Poompukar, a film based on the epic.

In Cilappatikaram, Kovalan, a young merchant from Poompukar, the capital of the Chola kingdom, develops a romantic relationship with Madhavi, a courtesan, and leaves his wife Kannagi, an epitome of virtue. He loses his wealth and returns to Kannagi. They migrate to Madurai, the capital of the Pandya kingdom. Kovalan tries to sell his wife's anklet to a goldsmith. The goldsmith, who had stolen the queen's anklet, puts the blame on Kovalan, passing Kannagi's anklet off as the queen's. The king executes Kovalan. Kannagi proves the king wrong. Stricken by remorse, the king and the queen fall down dead. Kannagi's rage reduces Madurai to ashes.

Karunanidhi said that unless the statue was reinstalled in its original place he would mobilise Tamils "who cherish and value their self-respect" and launch a Statewide agitation.

Pattali Makkal Katchi founder Dr. S. Ramadoss said that the "pre-planned" removal of the statue was an insult to Tamils all over the world. Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam general secretary Vaiko, Tamil Nationalist Movement leader P. Nedumaran and Tamil Nadu Congress Committee president E.V.K.S. Elangovan, among others, deplored the removal of the statue and demanded its re-installation at its original place. Demanding that the statue be re-installed, N. Sankaraiah and R. Nallakannu, State secretaries of the CPI(M) and the CPI respectively, said the government's action was a ploy to divert people's attention from burning issues.

Tamil scholars and literary activists, including Dr. M. Nannan, Abdul Rahman, Inquilab, Vairamuthu and Prabanjan, decried the government's action and endorsed the agitation plan. Ponneelan, general secretary of the Tamil Nadu Kalai Ilakkia Perumandram, the literary front of the Communist Party of India, said that the Kannagi statue was a symbol of the two principal roots of Tamil culture, aram (righteousness) and veeram (valour). S. Senthilnathan, president of the Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers Association, said that the story of Kannagi, who heroically fought against an unjust court verdict, represented "protest literature" in Tamil.

Karunanidhi convened a meeting to chalk out an agitation plan, which was attended, among others, by leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the PMK. These parties decided to organise a Tamil cultural conference in Chennai on January 2 (later postponed to January 5).

Referring to this meeting, Tamil Maanila Congress general secretary Peter Alphonse asked why these parties, if they were really concerned about the threat to Tamil culture, did not react to the Sangh Parivar's attempt to "saffronise education". He also pointed out that these parties did not raise any objection when astrology was introduced in university curriculum and were silent on the Centre's inaction on the demand to declare Tamil a classical language.

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