The Vanniyar separatism

Print edition : August 17, 2002

Pattali Makkal Katchi leader S. Ramadoss' demand for carving out the Vanniyar-dominated districts of Tamil Nadu into a new state is based on a set of spurious claims and constitutes nothing but a desperate bid to remain politically visible in the shifting sands of politics.

DR. S. RAMADOSS, the founder of the Pattali Makkal Katchi, the political outfit of a major section of the Vanniyars, now has the dubious distinction of uniting the entire political spectrum in Tamil Nadu towards a common cause. The only other person who has so far been able to do so is J. Jayalalithaa.

As this comparison may sound odious, the difference between the cause celebre of the two needs emphasis. The unity in Jayalalithaa's case was one of strong support to her well organised and widely publicised campaign, which she as Chief Minister conducted with much aplomb, in order to protect the 69 per cent reservation in Tamil Nadu in government jobs and admissions to educational institutions and the creamy layers among its beneficiaries from the Supreme Court ruling of November 16, 1992. The unity in Ramadoss' case has been one of strong condemnation and opprobrium, which he has incurred in response to his casus belli.

Jayalalithaa must be still rejoicing. For she circumvented - that too indefinitely if you wish - the court rulings and the legal challenges to her political manoeuvres through parliamentary legerdemain and thanks to the disgustingly slow grind of the judicial juggernaut. In contrast, Ramadoss must be rueing the day he went 'gaga' with what he thought was his unique formula. The reference is to his public demand on July 17 for the bifurcation of Tamil Nadu by carving out the Vanniyar-dominated northern districts into a separate state.

In a democratic polity, articulation of aspirations should neither be a crime nor a matter for outright condemnation, as democracy even at the best of times has been only a rhetoric of expectations. Seen thus, what is important in the context of Ramadoss' demand and the uproar caused by it is for him and the supporters of the cause espoused by him to establish the legitimacy, feasibility and effectiveness of the cause, and for the opponents of this cause to call his bluff without allowing anyone on either side of the fence to claim any high moral ground.

PMK leader Dr. S. Ramadoss.-K. PICHUMANI

Among the claims made in support of the bifurcation, at least six need dissection. One is administrative convenience. Tamil Nadu has already been on a bifurcation spree, if not of the State into Vanniyar Nadu, Kongu Nadu, Dalitstan, and so on, at least into its constituent districts. This bifurcation spree has been undertaken apparently for administrative convenience, though the overriding consideration may be political. The result is there for all to see, namely, a more-than-two-fold increase from 13 to 29 in the number of districts in a short span of time. So the claim for bifurcating the State for administrative convenience does not wash.

A second claim relates to the development of backward districts. The northern districts as a whole may not be as developed as some other districts in the State. In fact, about 50 per cent of Vanniyars are still agricultural labourers. What is, however, more to the point is that Vanniyars are not the only denizens of these districts. They only constitute about one third of the population of these districts. The numerically larger Dalit community, which stands immediately below the Vanniyars in the traditional caste hierarchy, is the most backward. As a Dalit leader said, if it is just and proper for the dominant Vanniyars to demand a separate State, it would be a far more valid claim for Dalits who still constitute the most oppressed and backward section of society.

It is also important to note that over the years the rise in Vanniyars' access to resources has been impressive. This cannot be said about Dalits. To cite some instances, Vanniyars have been the main beneficiaries of land transfers by the upper castes such as Reddiars, Naidus and Mudaliyars, consequent on the migration of their members to the urban areas; Vanniyars, who seldom owned houses in upper caste streets until a few years ago - reflecting the spatial pattern of the traditional social hierarchy - have of late been proud owners of such houses because of sale and other transfers by the upper castes. If the present trend is any indication, they now own about 50 per cent of the lands of the traditional landowners, while Dalits have only a negligible share, say, 1 to 2 per cent. As Dalits have been victims of oppression, exploitation and every conceivable form of social indignity perpetrated on them by Vanniyars, Ramadoss' concern for the development and social well-being of the northern districts can only remind one of the devil quoting the scriptures.

A THIRD claim is that bifurcation would give a chance to a large number of communities that have so far remained under-represented at Fort St. George. Partly in response to the violent and destructive agitations in the late 1980s by the Vanniyar Sangam (founded in 1980 by Ramadoss), partly in fulfilment of one of its poll promises, and partly in order to outwit its adversary, the Congress (I), the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam Ministry introduced compartmental reservation after assuming office in January 1989. Out of the overall 50 per cent reservation for 201 communities listed as Backward Classes, or B.C.s, (over and above the 19 per cent reservation for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes) accounting for an estimated 67 per cent of the State's population, the DMK Ministry set apart 20 per cent for 39 communities listed as most backward within the B.C. list and 68 communities listed as denotified tribes, together accounting for about 36 per cent of the B.C. population.

As the largest community among the most backward classes listed, accounting for about 53 per cent of their population, and probably the least backward among them, Vanniyars have been cornering the lion's share of the benefits. That makes the third claim spurious. No doubt, the organised network of other castes such as Thevars helped them gain access to Fort St. George (read public service) well before and in larger numbers than Vanniyars. But the system of compartmental reservation has substantially improved their access as well.

Given the skewed distribution of reservation benefits, even the system of compartmental reservation would not have offered any succour to the numerous minuscule castes such as those of barbers and washermen and denotified tribes, which are clubbed along with Vanniyars as most backward; and Dalits as a category still remain mostly under-represented especially in posts in the higher echelons. It is unlikely that Ramadoss has suddenly developed such an abiding concern for these under-represented and disprivileged castes so as to mean that his reference to "a large number of communities" includes these castes, and not merely Vanniyars. If Ramadoss has any concern for them, what he should do is insist on excluding the creamy layer among all castes from the reservation benefits, aiding these sections, thereby also helping the State implement the relevant Supreme Court rulings.

The fourth claim in support of a bifurcation is that Chennai, the State capital, is about 800 km away from the southern most tip of the State, Kanyakumari. As Vanniyars are concentrated in the northern districts, which are close to Chennai, this 'distance claim' is inane, and indeed distant as a cause for bifurcation.

The fifth claim is that the Vanniyar community, which dominates 13 of the 29 districts in the State, has yet to have its member as Chief Minister. No doubt Vanniyars constitute the largest single community in the State, accounting for about 12 per cent of its population, and for one-third of the combined population of the northern districts. But any demand in a federal democratic polity to bifurcate a State just to have a Chief Minister from a particular community is ludicrous. Even if this demand culminates in the formation of a separate State, there is absolutely no guarantee that in a multi-caste, multi-party democratic political set-up such separation would result in a Chief Minister materialising from that particular community.

A variant of the previous claim suggests that a bifurcation of the State would afford a chance to a large number of communities from which no representative has been elected to the Chief Minister's post. Whether the reference is to the largest community, or to a larger number of communities, this claim also does not hold. Politics in Tamil Nadu has been caste-based from the beginning of the last century because of the strong caste idiom of political articulation used by the non-Brahmin, backward class, Self-Respect, and Dravidian movements. Despite this and despite the existence of mainstream castes such as Mudaliyar, Nadar, Thevar, Vanniyar and Vellala Gounder, and the three major Dalit castes (Parayar, Pallar, and Chakkiliyar, which together account for about 17 per cent of the 20 per cent Dalit population in the State), except for K. Kamaraj and C.N. Annadurai, Tamil Nadu Chief Ministers have not come from the mainstream and major castes. This clearly shows that while caste has been important for political articulation and alignments in a democracy, which works through vote banks, it is not the numerical preponderance of any single caste but the political standing of the person, that has made or marred Chief Ministers. This also explains the chief ministership of M. Karunanidhi, M.G. Ramachandran and Jayalalithaa for more than one term each.

In this context, it is relevant to note that the high noon of Vanniyars in politics, and not Vanniyar politics under the leadership of Ramadoss, was in the 1950s. Unable to secure any guarantee from the Congress party on representation in the services and local bodies proportionate to their population, Vanniyars contested as independents in the 1949 elections to the district boards. They secured 22 out of the 52 seats in South Arcot district, defeating many Congress candidates. Pursuant to the State conference of the Vanniyakula Kshatriya Maha Sangam convened in 1951, anticipating elections to the State Assembly, the Sangam formed the Tamilnadu Toilers' Party under the leadership of M.A. Manickavelu Nayakar and S.S. Ramasamy Padayachi and decided that Vanniyars should contest the elections in cooperation with the toiling masses. Although this party soon split, the Toilers' Party of Padayachi remained strong in South Arcot and Salem while the new Commonweal Party of Nayakar was powerful in North Arcot and Chengalpet. In the elections the former won 19 seats, and the latter six seats. Responding to the overtures of the Congress party, which failed to secure a majority in the State Assembly, the Commonweal Party, and later the Toilers' Party, supported it in return for ministerships for both their leaders in the eight-member Cabinet. After this event both the parties were dissolved, and their members joined the Congress. The moral of this for Ramadoss should be that in a democratic polity it is integration and not separation that makes leaders and Ministers.

IF all the claims made by Ramadoss in support of his demand for a separate State are spurious, one might ask why he has suddenly stirred up a hornet's nest. The answer to this question lies in his rise and, subsequently, increasing feeling of irrelevance. Ramadoss has always had a single-point agenda. As president of the Vanniyar Sangam, this involved getting separate reservation for Vanniyars. When he formed the PMK with the cadre built up for the Sangam, this agenda necessitated getting himself sworn in Chief Minister in either Tamil Nadu or Pondicherry.

However, he (like many other politicians of his ilk) failed to develop a democratic mindset. When the Vanniyar Sangam spearheaded rounds of agitation in the late 1980s, its main slogan was 'Vanniyar ottu anniyarukillai' (Vanniyar vote is not for the non-Vanniyar). Even after developing a cadre base and forming a political party he did not outgrow this parochialism and develop a national perspective. Unable and unwilling to democratise himself and his party cadres, and integrate them with non-Vanniyars, the PMK has persisted till now as a caste organisation with a mere party label. Predictably, the non-Vanniyars refashioned the Vanniyar slogan of the 1980s as 'anniyar ottu Vanniyarukillai' (non-Vanniyar vote is not for Vanniyar) to use against the Vanniyars and the PMK.

Devoid of any rallying point (unlike during the reservation-related agitations) to keep Vanniyars together in the PMK, its Vanniyar vote-base that might have existed earlier and as perceived by Ramadoss has already been considerably eroded by the multi-caste, multi-party system of Indian democracy. The Vanniyars do not any longer vote for Vanniyars alone. In this context, Ramadoss' vain and vexatious political brinkmanship - joining and switching alliances as he fancies, throwing to the wind democratic norms, niceties and the interests of the electorate - has only made him and his party a laughing stock, increasingly irrelevant even to Vanniyars.

The political strength of the PMK emerges only when it is in alliance with major political parties. Realising this, albeit belatedly, and with his party now in disarray, Ramadoss should have done a Vaiko in order to remain in the political limelight despite the discomforts of the jail. Since Vaiko outwitted him in this, though he must also be rueing the day he uttered what the inimitable Jayalalithaa and her establishment could interpret as falling within the 'POTA lexicon' - notwithstanding the Sri Lankan Minister for Community Development, P. Chandrasekaran, hailing the jailed Vaiko with his wish of 'let thousands and thousands of Vaikos bloom in Tamil Nadu' - Ramadoss is now desperate, if not to become a Chief Minister immediately, at least to remain politically visible in the shifting sands of Tamil Nadu politics, and continue to keep his head above in the State's political quicksand.

In these circumstances, it is premature and even far-fetched to give any importance to his demand for a bifurcation of the State, which is best dismissed as a red herring, though it has certainly helped Ramadoss to remain in the political limelight even without going to jail.

It is, however, important for the State and for political parties committed to democracy and democratic governance and to India's integrity as a nation to take the concluding observations of an editorial, titled "Dangerous and Destructive" in The Hindu (July 23, 2002) as the writing on the wall, especially the statement that "the 'bifurcation' demand of the PMK is nothing but a scarcely veiled attempt to promote the Tamil separatist campaign with Mr. Prabhakaran as the icon".

Dr. P. Radhakrishnan is a Professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai.

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