`De-ideologisation of politics is the tragedy of Tamil Nadu'

Print edition : November 08, 2002


Interview with Karthigesu Sivathamby.

The Dravidian movement, which has dominated politics in Tamil Nadu for about four decades, faces an identity crisis. Nothing signifies this crisis better than the competition among the Dravidian parties the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam to forge an electoral alliance and share power with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-driven Bharatiya Janata Party, which stands for whatever the Dravidian movement set out to fight against. The Dravidian parties, which miss no opportunity to describe themselves as the true inheritors of the legacy of E.V. Ramaswamy Periyar, whose rationalist world-view rejected the Vedas and the ``revealed truth'' of the scriptures, do not hesitate to find common cause with the BJP, which has declared that ``the guiding principles of Bharat will come from the great teachings of Vedas, ancient Hindu and Indian scriptures".

Social justice, the birth cry of the Dravidian movement, is a concept that has not been accepted by a major section of the upper castes that form the social base of the BJP. The Sangh Parivar's world-view, based on the principle of ``one nation, one culture'', is essentially opposed to linguistic nationalism and social reformism, the two major currents that converged to make the Dravidian movement a powerful political force in Tamil Nadu. In fact, the BJP stands for the division of States into smaller units for ``administrative convenience'', much against the principle of linguistic reorganisation of States a principle that flows from the democratic need to reflect the pluralistic character of Indian society and which forms the basis of the federalist political arrangement envisaged by the founding fathers of the Constitution. In recent times, the demand of some States for greater financial devolution has not found resonance from the parties of the Dravidian movement, which was the champion of State autonomy.

The deviation of these parties from the tenets of Dravidianism is not just a matter of political opportunism. According to Karthigesu Sivathamby, a prominent Tamil scholar from Sri Lanka who has closely studied the evolution of the Dravidian movement, it is the culmination of a process that started in the 1940s. Ideological shifts took place at different periods in the history of the Dravidian movement, he says. The crucial one, according to him, was the break between Periyar and C.N. Annadurai, who founded the DMK. After the split, the movement saw major deviations from atheism to universal theism (`one god, one community'); social reformism to electoral politics; separatism to national integration. These deviations were the result of, among other things, the changes that took place in the post-Independence politics of India and the limitation of the Dravidian ideology itself in that it lacked an economic perspective. ``There was no ideological coming of age,'' in the Dravidian movement, says Sivathamby, who has done two insightful studies on the Dravidian movement Understanding the Dravidian Movement: Problems and Perspectives (in English) and The Relevance of the Dravidian Ideology Today: A Historical Perspective (in Tamil). The ideological shifts culminated in the deideologisation of politics, he says in this interview he gave R. Vijaya Sankar in Chennai recently. (The interview was done as part of a study on ``The post-1967 phase of the Dravidian movement'' under the Appan Menon Memorial Award).

An Emeritus Professor of Tamil in the University of Jaffna, Sivathamby, along with the late K. Kailasapathy, is considered as an outstanding Tamil scholar from Sri Lanka. His areas of study include social and cultural history of Tamils, culture and communication among Tamils, Tamil drama, Sri Lankan and Tamil Nadu politics, and so on. He has published about 50 monographs and books on these subjects. His research on the Sangam period in Tamil history is considered a pioneering work. In recognition of his scholarly achievements in Tamil studies, the Tamil Nadu government conferred on him in 2000 the Thiru V. Kalyanasundara Mudaliar Award. Sivathamby is a Visiting Professor of Tamil to universities in India (the University of Madras and the Jawaharlal Nehru University), England (Cambridge), Finland and Norway. Excerpts from the interview:

In what historical context did Dravidianism emerge as an ideology?

E. V. Ramaswamy Periyar, founder of the Self-Respect Movement and the Dravidar Kazhagam.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

When one retraces the steps of the Dravidian movement, the first and the more important one was the emergence of a new `class' conglomeration of various non-Brahmin castes of the then Madras Province the Pillais, the Nairs, the Kammas, the Kapus and the Reddys. Their emerging interest was such that they would have invented some glue to stick them all together. An ideological glue was a socio-political or an ideological necessity at that time. And the emerging concept of Dravidianism from its original, and acknowledged, meaning of a section of a group of languages provided that glue.

The other crucial factor is the impact of the British rule and the type of social dislocations it had created. In British India, in the ideological need to bring India into one cultural concept, the role played by, or the role ascribed to, Hinduism, the Sanskrit texts and the great revelational books, from Max Mueller to the Theosophical Society, especially Annie Besant, creates a new awareness which all historians have recorded.

And there were two responses to that. One was the Thani Thamizh (Pure Tamil) Movement. It was a sort of an elaboration of the Aryan-Dravidian ideology because Maraimalai Adigal, its founder, was never against translations. He wrote long English prefaces for his Tamil works.

But the more important response was the so-called rationalism, starting from people like Iyothee Thaas. In fact, except for a few people, no one has taken this seriously at the level of modern Indian historians. This question has not been tackled properly. There was a growing movement of rationalism, especially coming from the underprivileged classes. There were a number of caste groups, associations of the so-called lower castes early Tamilians... the Pariars, the Pallars, or the Adi Dravidas. The new life, the new encouragement given, to the so-called Brahmanism was a reaction to this.

Now we come to the crux of the problem the inability of the Congress leadership in Madras to relate social problems to political demands. So the social contradictions were swept under the carpet. So much so, as one leading non-Brahmin Congressite told me, Gandhi himself was responsible for the political launching of the Self-Respect Movement in Madras because he did not understand the sort of inner desperations, the inner workings of the mind of the people during the Vaikom struggle. Leaders like Thiru Vi Ka (V. Kalyanasundara Mudaliar) on the other hand were trying to relate the entire Tamilian history to the question of socio-political liberation. So the lid was off with the Vaikom satyagraha.

By this time the rationalist movement, through its association with the world socialist movement, was becoming more scientific. It was not merely rationalism in the Ingersolian sense. It was becoming more and more scientific... promotion of socialism, and so on. And this is seen in the immediate tie-up of M. Singaravelu Chettiar and Periyar.

The moment the major political victory of the freedom fighters was achieved, the social contradictions in Tamil Nadu came to the fore. In 1944 the Dravidar Kazhagam was formed. In 1949 it broke up and the DMK came.

C.N. Annadurai, founder of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

There was a sort of social ferment. There was a sort of unfelt, unheard of, unrecognised strength of this whole movement. Nehru dismissed the movement. But within four years it became an important force.

Does it mean that it was the nationalist response to the social question or the lack of it that mainly contributed to the growth of the Dravidian movement?

Nehru was being idealistic. The southern leaders of the Congress failed to bring up this question. Some of the Congress leaders themselves were very progressive in their political views but were not so progressive on the social issues.

After India won Independence and embarked on the path of development, the hegemony of the Congress was questioned and provincialism came to the fore for the first time, in the Madras Province. In the context of the Congress' failure to take into account the traditional social differences and social oppression prevailing in Tamil Nadu and give importance to the perspectives on social differences, the Dravidian movement emerged as an expression of the socio-cultural grievances of some sections of society. This expression was fully politicised with the emergence of the DMK. It brought about a change, new styles of leadership and new forms of recruitment and political mobilisation in the political trajectory of Tamil Nadu. It created a new political vocabulary in Tamil Nadu.

Was there a kind of duality in the Congress' approach... politically progressive and socially conservative?

DMK president M. Karunanidhi.-S. MAHINSHA

Yes. So the explosion in the Dravidian movement has to be understood in these terms. It emerged basically as a movement of grievances. It can now be recorded that these grievances were the result of, one, caste inequalities and, two, the problem of sharing of the government positions that the British rule was prepared to give because of these inequalities. The second aspect is the politics of the Justice Party. The Justice Party only wanted a share in government jobs and education. And Periyar gave an ideological dimension to the Justice movement. Looking retrospectively at Periyarism per se, when it is worked down to its basics, it speaks for the honour of the individual or the respect for individual rights. These questions should have been accommodated within the Congress or elsewhere without any problem. But that is where I think the class distinctions that arose out of the process of modernisation in Tamil Nadu or in Madras came into play. The professionals who came from these classes confused caste and class. So the Dravidian movement grew as a movement of grievances.

Where did the movement flounder?

It floundered when it rejected religion as a whole in the course of its fight against Brahmanism. Religion has a social necessity religion in a traditional, unequal, hierarchical society which Marx himself accepts.

Religion is ``the sigh of the oppressed...''

``...the sigh of the oppressed... the heart of a heartless world... the soul of a soulless environment..'' If you take the topography of Hinduism in Tamil Nadu, there is a sharp distinction between the stone-built temples with high walls and high gopurams (towers) and those that lie outside them the Karumari Amman temples, the Grama Devathas where you find clay-made structures. When there was this total rejection of all these higher forms of religion what happened was one of the things that complicated the whole notion of Sanskritisation which (M.N.) Srinivas speaks of. When that was rejected people went in for Karumari Amman and other local gods. The Dravidian movement could not do anything with that. The very same force or medium which went against religion was responsible for bringing up the Amman temples and local gods.

The second problem was that the socio-political grievances for which the Dravidian movement gave expression were not cemented with a basic economic perspective. The grievances were not given an economic orientation in as much as they were given a political orientation. This became evident during the period in which the Dravidian movement wielded political power. One can notice that with the acquisition of political power, differences among the leaders acquired more importance. Owing to its inability to forge a politico-economic outlook, the leadership took the path of populism.

Thirdly, when the questions of marriage registration, the question of increasing the quotas were neglected, they naturally affected the mobility of the lower groups, which included Dalits. But the Dravidian movement stood for the upward social mobility of the middle groups, whereas it should have, in terms of its own ideology of rejection of religion and going in for the fundamental rights of all the people, included Dalits also.

Periyar strived for shudra-Dalit unity.

But it never happened. In fact the Mandal Commission Report refers to this. It said Tamil Nadu will be the last place (where) the whole issue of Dalit-Other Backward Class conflict will come up. But when the conflict came it exposed various things.

The Mandal Commission talked about this. It observed that as long as Tamil Nadu remained in the grip of Tamil cultural revival, a real movement of backward classes would not emerge there and that as in other States, the conflict between Dalits and Other Backward Classes would not hide the Brahmin-non-Brahmin divide. This, according to the Mandal Commission, was because Dalits in Tamil Nadu had readily accepted the Self-Respect Movement. But the Mandal Commission's perspective was proved wrong within ten years of its implementation. The question is whether the Dravidian movement's attempts at cultural revival has created a commonness among the non-Brahmin castes of Tamil Nadu.

M.G. Ramachandran, founder of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.-

Where exactly did the Dravidian movement fail?

When all that has been written on C.N. Annadurai is now put together, one could detect a major problem he faced. He was able to gather all these social grievances into one major political demand but was not able to resolve them internally, in terms of organising the party. I've quoted (P.) Ramamurthy in my book. He (Annadurai) tells Ramamurthy: "We have come to power much earlier than we expected.''

The break between Periyar and the DMK was crucial in this.

A major shift took place in the Dravidian movement with the formation of the DMK in 1949. It was at this stage that the Dravidian movement emerged as a movement that gave full expression to Tamil national consciousness. It underwent the following important ideological shifts: 1. The decision to take part in electoral politics (1956); 2. Moving away from atheism and advocating the principle of `one god, one community'; 3. The abandoning of the demand for a separate Dravida homeland (1963).

As a result of this, there was no for want of a better term I would say ideological coming of age.

At this point, looking back, with my Marxist background, I feel that Periyar knew that going beyond social reform into political action demanded something more for which he was not ready. Because political demand has its own trajectory. In that sense Periyar was a Gandhian.

Gandhi, as assessed by E.M.S. Namboodiripad in his The Mahatma and the Ism? What was Periyar's limitation? Why did he not travel that extra mile?

I had earlier thought, from a Marxist point of view, that he should have immediately politicised the whole thing. But the problem was that the politics of Tamil Nadu had undergone change in the post-colonial period. This is where I think post-colonialism as a concept has to be seen. All those forces which in colonial India promised relief or salvation from British rule now turned themselves into political parties and groups. As we got rid of colonialism the only radical force that was with us, Netajism, shot itself out or kicked itself out of India. There were various sections within the Congress. Rajaji himself had a group. The Congress (O) and (I) came. Politics was turning inwardly. And the Communist movement was banned.

I now think that I don't know to what extent this caught the imagination of Periyar the type of social grievances that he articulated could not have been done politically at the time. So Periyar kept out of politics.

It was an irony. The man who should have demanded political action did not do it. The others who wanted political action, politicised culture.

What does it mean and imply the idea of politicisation of culture?

You cannot understand the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, its rise, its strength and its weaknesses without understanding the whole idea of politicisation of culture. It is basically a communication strategy the platform speech, the rhetoric, the theatre, the newspaper and the film.

The issues that were neglected because of social contradictions earlier, now came to the forefront in free India. And these issues were politicised the Tamil pandit not getting recognition, Tamil Pongal being considered Maha Sankranthi, and Tamil not getting a place, and so on. The DMK did not intend to revive Tamil religion. They did not want to revive religion but Tamil culture the reification of the Sangam period... the reification of Silappadhikaram. Silappadhikaram is full of magic. I don't think there is any other work of that period which is so full of magic, wonders and miracle. But a political reading was done into the text... that it symbolised the glory of the three kingdoms Chera, Chola and Pandya.

And in this process of politicisation of culture and looking into individual grievances without an economic concept, ideology slipped. As long as you had a man who understood the whole thing it was okay. Annadurai died. And once MGR (M.G. Ramachandran) came to power, or had come to command power, ideology was in the back seat.

The emergence of the Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam led by M.G. Ramachandran brings about some major ideological shifts in the Dravidian movement. First, though a tactical one, was the AIADMK taking itself into the larger national circle. It marked the beginning of a break from the DMK's stand on State autonomy. It also marked a major shift from the basic atheistic aspect of the Dravidian ideology. Although measures such as the enhancement of reservation in jobs and the nutritious mid-day meal scheme for schoolchildren made a major social impact, the distinct socio-religious perspective of the Dravidian ideology was eroded.

What about DMK president M. Karunanidhi?

The problem is, Karunanidhi symbolises Tamil, the rhetoric. The tragedy of Tamil Nadu is, as I look at it as a student of Tamil literature and as a Marxist, there has been a de-ideologisation of politics. As a Marxist I would say that the basic problem was that the whole Dravidian ideology was not shaped in terms of economics.

And there all-India politics matters. It is very interesting in spite of all these things, West Bengal continues to thrive, and Kerala has a common sense of purpose. The question is this: What was the Bengali spirit that the Communists could tap? What was the Malayalam spirit that they could work on. What was the Bengali spring on which Jyoti Basu stood? And what was the Kerala spring on which EMS (Namboodiripad) stood? And what happened in Tamil Nadu? Dravidianism is no more a coherent ideology. It has been deideologised. And the tragedy is, without another proper ideology taking its place.

There is another aspect. The beginning is not within Tamil Nadu. The emergence of provincialism. The glue that the British government and the Indian intellectuals gave for India, the great Indian culture and all that, was not able to hold this country together. Provinicialisation or regionalisation of politics and the politics of ruling India leads to all sorts of alliances. Now provincialism has become a part of Indian polity. So now there must be some lowest common factor, highest common factor, or lowest common multiple to bind them together.

What will be this new binding factor and when will it emerge, if at all?

That is an all-India problem, not a Tamil Nadu problem. Because Tamil Nadu is now in India and India has Tamil Nadu as a part. So will you have a movement which will sort of make its appeal on the basis of a common pool of grievances a common pool that will make Indians alive to socio-political debates and at the same time stay within India? This is the real challenge that awaits India's politics.

Anti-Brahmanism and later anti-casteism was the bedrock of the Dravidian movement, especially when Periyar was actively in the field. More than half a century later, Tamil Nadu has been witness to the most vicious kind of clashes between Dalits and backward communities such as Thevars and Vanniars. Does this signify the Dravidan movement's failure? Has the Tamil national identity failed to transcend caste identities?

When you look at the way the policy of reservation in jobs and education has worked in Tamil Nadu (as at the all-India level), it has strongly reinforced the permanence of caste groups and caste consciousness. This has created a historical contradiction. That is, the movement that sought to reject the socio-cultural hegemony of a particular caste has strengthened the caste consciousness of the low and middle castes among which it should have maintained equality. This is why caste clashes have become a persistent phenomenon in the contemporary history of Tamil Nadu.

Despite the struggle against the caste system, the system was reinforced owing to the absence of a change in the basic socio-economic system and to the persistence of certain ``relations'' in sectors that have seen change. This will complicate the process of democratisation in the long run. But we should not forget the fact that such a situation has arisen as a result of the process of democratisation. Had the Dravidian movement taken the process of ``democratisation'' of the non-Brahmin communities to its logical conclusion, the process would have reached the oppressed sections of Tamil society.

When you look back, it is clear that the process of democratisation is not complete. The historical task remains incomplete. In its efforts to get rid of castes, ironically, the Dravidian movement has only strengthened castes. Caste identity has become one's second self in Tamil Nadu.

Despite the process of de-ideologisation, the Dravidian parties put together still constitute a strong force in electoral terms.

The social grievances that the Dravidian movement gave expression to are real. The raison d'etre of Dravidian consciousness has been the insurmountability of these grievances. Also the movement has shown the possibilities of upward social mobility for the middle caste groups and the Dravidian parties still command support from these sections.

If the grievances are real, is there a possibility of the grievances being channelled into a separatist path again?

I rule out the possibility of Tamil Nadu going back to separatism. History will not permit it. Tamil consciousness emerged when it could not express itself within India. It took about 10 years for independent India to recognise the importance of regional languages and reorganise the States on a linguistic basis.

Now one sees oneself not just as a Tamil but as an Indian Tamil. Young students and their parents see themselves and their upward mobility in terms of entire India. Employability is no longer confined to Tamil Nadu. Also in matters of demand and supply, the all-India market is a major consideration.

As things stand, the average enterprising non-Brahmin Tamil (Nadu) parents feel that education in the English medium is, ironically, the only deterrent against Brahmanism, which would give them a place in the all-India market; in such a situation, separatism cannot find a place.

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