“WHY is your head bald always?”
“My head is bald outside. Yours is bald inside.”
The repartee came like a bolt of lightning, evoking peals of laughter from the crowd, including the man who raised the query. The occasion was one of the annual readers’ meets he organised in different parts of Tamil Nadu to commemorate the anniversary of Thuglak , a fortnightly he founded and edited for about 45 years until his death on December 7.
Irreverent repartee, self-deprecation, and fearless articulation of what he thought was right irrespective of the stature and influence of his opponents at the time were the hallmarks of Cho S. Ramaswamy’s multifaceted career as film comedian, playwright, journalist and lawyer. His self-effacing humour and extremely high level of self-confidence were evident in the first cover of Thuglak , launched in 1970. It had a drawing of two donkeys conversing outside his magazine office. Thus went the conversation: “We will have no problem hereafter…. We will have a lot of paper to eat.”
Political satire took different forms in his magazine—Onnarai Pakka Naaledu (One-and-a-half newspaper), which was a spoof on politics; Oru Paisa Money Order, which appealed in the last page to his readers to send Re.1 as money order to a politician he chose for having made an absurd statement; Vattam and Mavattam; questions and answers; and so on. Thuglak was also known for its serious political articles, most of them written by Cho himself, characterised by an anti-establishment streak, which, of course, faded out in his later career for obvious reasons. His publication became a platform for some of the interesting minds of Tamil Nadu: film director Mahendran wrote incisive film reviews titled “Doctor-in-Post-Mortem” and the writer Vannanilavan (a pen name) wrote some searing current affairs analysis under another assumed name Durvasar. Jayakanthan and Jayalalithaa were other important contributors.
The momentous political changes of 1967 created a sense of insecurity among entrenched sections in Tamil Nadu. The fact that the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) emerged as a major power at the Centre too to keep Indira Gandhi in power despite being a leader of a party that did not have a majority in the Lok Sabha added fuel to this anxiety. It was in this context that Cho emerged as a journalist and assiduously created a space for right-wing journalism.
It was the time when bitter rivals C. Rajagopalachari and K. Kamaraj came together to form the Grand Alliance with the idea of defeating the DMK. Cho, unlike many editors who maintained a distance from political alliance formations and their bargaining for seats, played the role of a go-between with an easy calm and composure. He did not see any contradiction in this.
The main targets of Thuglak ’s editorials, jokes and caricatures were the DMK, which had been in power for hardly three years when the magazine was launched, and Indira Gandhi, who was out to consolidate her power within the Congress after its 1969 split. Almost every issue of the magazine had a spread of caricatures with two human figures with a small circle ( vattam ) and a big circle ( mavattam ) representing their heads. The reference, obvious to every reader, was to the Vattach Cheyalaalar (local circle secretary) and Maavatta Cheyalaalar (district secretary) of the DMK. Even their clothes ( dhoti with black-and-red border, long shawl thrown over the left shoulder) were objects of constant ridicule. The DMK’s flag was black and red. It was an expression of the anxieties of sections of the upper castes who felt threatened by the rise to power of a party that had its roots in the non-Brahmin movement and which was one of the first social forces that fought for reservation and made significant gains.
Cho’s particular contempt for Dravidian politics was, in another sense, the reflection of the middle classes’ purist view of politics, which tends to see the entry of backward classes into politics as a sign of deterioration from the days when only honourable men with high ideals and noble motives entered it. In the 1960s and early 1970s, Chennai sabhas’ stage plays, with highly honourable exceptions, gave expression to the obsessions and concerns of the middle-class and upper-caste segment of Chennai. They were mostly family melodramas dripping with wisecracks, witticisms, and word play with inbuilt caste and gender biases. Politics was gutter ( Arasiyal oru Saakkadai , in Tamil) and one dirtied oneself by getting into it. Shooting down politicians was the only solution and writing a letter to the editor was the highest form of political praxis. Cho gave this theatre form a political twist, sprinkling it with high doses of sparkling humour and biting satire.
Indira Gandhi was another bête noire of his. A consistent critic of the Prime Minister, he lampooned her grand idea of burying a time capsule (at the Red Fort) that would be a guide to future generations on contemporary history. In his inimitable style, Cho buried a matchbox tied to a string in the presence of thousands of his readers. He ingeniously beat press censorship during Indira Gandhi’s infamous Emergency by carrying a review of Sarvaadhikari (Dictator), an M.G. Ramachandran film released 25 years before the Emergency. In that review, he denounced dictatorship. Cho spoke truth to power, and journalists remember him for his courage. As a mark of protest against restrictions on the press during the Emergency, he brought out an issue with a black cover. Later, on many occasions, Cho did not hesitate to raise his voice against any attempt to curtail media freedom and was one of the leading participants in media protests. Muhammad Bin Thuglak , the stage play considered to be his magnum opus and later made into a movie, was a sharp critique of Indira Gandhi’s style of functioning, the sycophancy that she allowed to thrive around her and her authoritarian tendencies.
Political observers attribute an ideological reason to Cho’s opposition to Indira Gandhi. After the 1969 split in the Congress, Indira Gandhi sought to project a progressive image of herself by nationalising banks and abolishing the privy purse. Also, she gave expression to her unwavering commitment to secularism by incorporating it in the Preamble to the Constitution through the 42nd amendment in 1976. These were ideas that ran counter to Cho’s right-wing politics and economics.
Cho’s contemptuous dismissal of all political parties as corruption-ridden and power-hungry almost came to an end when Jayalalithaa arrived on the political scene and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rose as an alternative to the Congress. He was more than willing to suspend his incisive analytical skills when it came to them, especially Jayalalithaa. “At a time when both the State and Central governments were led by parties opposed to her, Jayalalithaa, although bereft of power, faced many legal cases. The nature of the cases notwithstanding, she faced a war from four directions, namely, the newspapers that opposed her, political leaders who were her inveterate enemies, a State government that tried to stifle her permanently, and a Central government which helped the State government in that in every possible way. Amidst all this, she carried out a political campaign, regained the influence she had among the people and eventually captured power. Extraordinary courage,” wrote Cho in an article in Thuglak dated October 21, 2005. What was lost in this conspiracy theory was the sharp intellect Cho was celebrated for.
This was hardly a decade after he helped forge an alliance between the DMK and the Tamil Maanila Congress, a party that Congress leader G.K. Moopanar formed in protest against the party high command’s decision to join hands with the Jayalalithaa-led All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). This was in 1996, at the end of Jayalalithaa’s first term, notorious for the vulgar display of wealth at the wedding of V.N. Sudhakaran, a member of the Sasikala clan whom Jayalalithaa anointed as her adopted son, and the slew of corruption cases against her and her associates in the Sasikala family.
The same Thuglak article brought out clearly the real reasons for Cho’s trenchant criticism of Dravidian politics. To him, Jayalalithaa taking over as the leader of a Dravidian party was itself a surprise because she did not have a high political tradition to speak of. He wrote: “Only the god that the Dravidian leaders do not believe in outwardly knows what Dravidian political tradition is. Who is Jayalalithaa who has taken over the leadership of one of the two parties with an inexplicable tradition? She has nothing do with that meaningless tradition. She belongs to a community that was staunchly and disgustingly opposed by that tradition.” The references were clear: Jayalalithaa was a Brahmin and she had taken over the reins of a party that is historically rooted in the non-Brahmin movement. In the changing politics of the 1990s, upper-caste victimhood was the new narrative and the casteist subtext of Cho’s politics came to the fore tellingly in this period.
The ideological thread of Cho’s thought became more explicit in the same decade. He now brought together the AIADMK and the BJP, seen by observers as natural allies, in an alliance. The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), with the AIADMK as a constituent, captured power in 1998 and Atal Bihari Vajpayee became Prime Minister. When the BJP-AIADMK relationship soured, Cho started attacking Jayalalithaa politically. The two friends fell out, albeit briefly. The BJP nominated him to the Rajya Sabha in 1998.
Says senior journalist R. Mani: “In the elections to the State Assembly in 2001, Cho made amends for his ‘sins’ of 1996, that is, playing a role in the defeat of Jayalalithaa, by helping forge a grand alliance of the AIADMK with the Congress, the Left parties, and the Pattali Makkal Katchi [PMK]. The alliance won a massive mandate. In the 2011 elections also, he played a role in forging an alliance between the AIADMK and actor-politician Vijayakanth’s Desiya Murpokku Dravidar Kazhagam [DMDK], an alliance that clinched the election in the former’s favour. Surprisingly, and sadly, no one raised the basic question whether a journalist could take on such a role.”
According to informed sources, the real reason for Cho falling out with Jayalalithaa was the Tamil Nadu government enacting the Tamil Nadu Backward Classes, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Reservation of Seats in Educational Institutions and Appointments or Posts in the Service under the State) Act, 1993, and getting the Central government to include it in the Ninth Schedule of the Constitution. Any law in the Ninth Schedule is not subject to judicial review. The Jayalalithaa government did this to sidestep the Supreme Court’s order in the Mandal case ruling out reservation above the constitutionally mandated 50 per cent. In this case, Jayalalithaa stuck to the Dravidian movement’s social justice tradition, which was unacceptable to Cho, who, understandably, was opposed to the policy of reservation. In fact, he opposed the proposal of 33 per cent reservation for women in the legislature. In an editorial opposing the demand, he said the next demand would be reservation for eunuchs.
Evidently, with his wholehearted support to Jayalalithaa even when she was not absolved of the corruption charges against her, Cho was slipping from the high pedestal as an uncompromising anti-corruption crusader.
More shocking was the revelation that Cho was a director in MIDAS, an alcohol producing company in which Sasikala and her family members are stakeholders even today. In May 2014, Prashant Bushan, an Aam Aadmi Party leader then, released documents at the Chennai Press Club revealing that Cho held the post of director in the company from December 16, 2011, to October 2012.
By now, Cho had achieved consistency in being inconsistent about his early image as an anti-establishment man. He was one of the public personalities who whitewashed Narendra Modi’s Gujarat sins and projected him as Prime Minister material.
At one of his readers’ meets in 2008, marking the 38th anniversary of Thuglak , he introduced Modi, the chief guest, as the “merchant of death”, a clear dig at Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s description of the Gujarat Chief Minister during the Gujarat Assembly election in 2007. “I now invite to address you, the ‘merchant of death’…. The merchant of death to terrorism, the merchant of death to corruption, the merchant of death to nepotism, the merchant of death to official inefficiency, the merchant of death to bureaucratic negligence, the merchant of death to poverty and ignorance, the merchant of death to darkness and despair… will now address you,” said Cho. It was one of Modi’s first visits outside Gujarat after he was re-elected Chief Minister for the second time. In his opinion, Narendra Modi was the best Prime Minister in post-Independence India.
When the United States denied Modi a visa, Cho launched a tirade against it. Coming from a man known to be an admirer of the U.S. and an unflinching critic of socialism and the Soviet Union, this was a big surprise. In fact, Cho wrote a series of articles against Indo-Soviet friendship. Communism was anathema to him but he maintained that communist leaders were honest and not corrupt.
The stand he took on social and political issues cannot be divorced from his world view, which upheld the Vedic tradition and Varnashrama Dharma, an ideological justification of the caste-based social system based on a hierarchy that puts Brahmins at the top. “Enge Brahmanan”, a series of articles he wrote in Thuglak and later presented as a TV serial on Jaya TV, upheld in so many words (and episodes) this system, whose organising principles, according to Cho, were distorted by wrong interpretations and incorrect understanding.
The right-wing sociopolitical trajectory of Cho found full expression in the post-1991 political atmosphere that saw the decline of the Congress and the rise of the right-wing BJP. It is only in the fitness of things that S. Gurumurthy, a right-wing ideologue, succeeds Cho as the Editor of Thuglak .
One could tell Cho that he was not what he professed to be. He would have come up with a repartee that would dissolve the criticism into peals of laughter and deflect observers’ attention without a hassle. That was Cho.