‘A friend of Dalits’: Thirumavalavan

Print edition : August 31, 2018

Karunanidhi with Thol. Thirumavalavan on the 50th birthday celebration of the VCK leader in 2013. Photo: R Senthil Kumar/PTI

I had a strong emotional connect with Kalaignar from the day the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK, the party he founded) decided to plunge into mainstream politics. The party, being identified with Dalits, faced stiff resistance from casteist elements. So the recognition it got from a party like the DMK was an achievement for us.

Tamil Maanila Congress leader G.K. Moopanar broke the taboo of political untouchability by allying with us in the 1999 Lok Sabha election. But it was Kalaignar who gave us that big break in mainstream politics. He took us along with the Puthiya Thamizhagam (P.T.) and allotted 10 seats to each party in the 2001 Assembly election. Even senior leaders within his party, such as ‘Murosoli’ Maran, opposed it. But he stood firm.

At a public meeting in Madurai, where he shared the dais with alliance partners, I spoke on the need for social justice and detailed Kalaignar’s commitment to that cause. Later, reacting to it, he said that at the age of 80, he felt so happy that young brothers had taken on the responsibility of keeping alive the agenda of social justice, which was what Periyar wanted. Such words of encouragement from a towering personality like Kalaignar increases one’s confidence level in public life where the leaders of disadvantaged groups get bullied and discouraged.

He used to guide me whenever I felt dejected at the discriminatory practices in public life. A fledgling political outfit like the VCK has to fight hard to gain space in mainstream politics. Kalaignar helped us in that fight. Even when there was great animosity against us within the DMK during election time over alliance formation, and so on, he never vacillated from his social commitment.

The loss of the DMK in the 2001 elections was attributed to the alliance with parties such as the VCK. Even a Tamil weekly magazine wrote about it. When I drew his attention to the accusations, he just smiled. “If so, how could our alliance win five seats [one of which was mine] out of nine in Cuddalore district? How could they blame you?” he asked. I had no answer.

From 2004 our bond remained strong and went beyond politics. On one occasion, during the 2004 Lok Sabha election, I had a difference of opinion with him when he did not allot the Chidambaram seat to the VCK. I felt anguished and resigned my Assembly seat, which I won in 2001 on the DMK symbol. It wounded him a lot. He later shared his pain with our general secretary, Ravikumar. Then we joined the AIADMK alliance for the 2006 Assembly election. It lasted for a short period only. In the subsequent local body elections, we returned to the DMK front.

When I told him that local body elections could not be conducted in Pappapatti and Keeripatti reserved village panchayats in Madurai district for nearly a decade because of caste discrimination, he, as Chief Minister, was shocked. He saw to it that elections were conducted in the two panchayats by issuing a special notification extending the 10-year rotational system of reservation for another term. He asked me to field candidates in the two villages. After a bitter battle, Dalit presidents won and assumed power, a historic occasion for the social justice movement. But for him it would not have happened. The VCK conferred the “Samathuva Periyar Kalaignar” title on Karunanidhi.

He was almost in tears when I met him on the day of the Mullivaikkal massacre in Sri Lanka, in which battle the LTTE lost and Tamils were massacred by the army. The 2009 Lok Sabha election was on at that time. The DMK alliance, in which the VCK was a partner, faced embarrassing moments. We were given two seats. I told him that we were deeply anguished by the developments and were not in a mood to contest. We would withdraw, I told him.

He looked at me for a few seconds and said that Prabakaran and the LTTE were known for their valour, which Rajiv Gandhi himself had extolled. “Do you think that Prabakaran would not know that the war could not be won? He never withdrew from the battle field. That was his courage, for which he would be remembered forever, and not for victory or defeat,” he said. He told me: “Win the elections and go to Parliament where you can share your anguish and anger.”

To those critics who hated our presence in the alliance, he would say that the alliance with the VCK was based on social justice. “It is a principled alliance and will remain forever,” he would explain. On our request he nationalised Perunchithranar’s works, which benefited the poet’s family. We presented him the Ambedkar Sudar award, which he cherished.

Thol. Thirumavalavan is the president of the VCK.

As told to Ilangovan Rajasekaran