Sentinel of democracy

Era. Sezhiyan (1923-2017), though not the archetypal Dravidian leader, was one of the last custodians of Dravidian ideals and remained a staunch advocate of parliamentary democracy, federalism and social justice throughout his life.

Published : Jun 21, 2017 12:30 IST

THE passing away of Era. Sezhiyan, or Era as he was affectionately called by his friends in the corridors of Parliament, signals the end of an era. On June 6, Sezhiyan breathed his last at the age of 94 in Vellore, Tamil Nadu, where he had spent his last years. While the demise of Jayalalithaa and the exit of M. Karunanidhi from active politics have already caused a void in Tamil politics today, the impact of Sezhiyan’s departure is different in nature: He was one of the last custodians of Dravidian ideals and one of the original faces of the movement that completed its centenary just a year ago. This disciple of C.N. Annadurai, the founder-leader of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), was respected by many as a great champion of Tamil causes in the face of an increasingly unitarised centre in New Delhi for more than three decades (from the 1960s to the 1980s) and as a parliamentarian par excellence.

Sezhiyan was not an archetypal Dravidian leader. In fact, he ceased to be a “Dravidian leader” in the late 1970s itself when he became a key figure in the Janata Party that took shape under the leadership of Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) during the Emergency. Known for his integrity and clean image, Sezhiyan was indeed an outlier in Tamil politics for quite a long period. Nonetheless, as an intelligent face of the Dravidian movement, a political strategist for the DMK during its emergence as a strong political force, a fearless opponent of Indira Gandhi during the Emergency, a responsible leader of the opposition in Parliament and later, a great advocate of parliamentary democracy, Sezhiyan’s legacy will last long. At a personal level, he had been a friend, guide and philosopher for those who were fortunate enough to be associated with him.

Sezhiyan had a remarkable life, though a chequered one. Born on April 28, 1923, in Thirukkannapuram in Thanjavur district, Tamil Nadu, he was a gold medallist in the secondary school (SSLC) examination in 1939 and graduated in mathematics and statistics from Annamalai University, Chidambaram, one of the academic nerve centres of the Dravidian and Tamil revivalist movements in those days. Sezhiyan and his elder brother, V.R. Nedunchezhiyan, associated themselves with E.V.R. Periyar’s Dravidar Kazhagam and later with its political offshoot, the DMK. The brothers, whose original names were Narayanasami and Srinivasan, rechristened themselves as Nedunchezhiyan and Sezhiyan in keeping with the trend then thanks to the Self-Respect Movement, when many Tamils shunned their Sanskrit names and caste surnames and opted for secular and classical Tamil names. When Nedunchezhiyan emerged as one of the top-rung leaders of the DMK and became the No. 2 in the party with Annadurai (Anna) at the top, Sezhiyan positioned himself as one of the trusted lieutenants of Annadurai, who liked him for his extraordinary grasp of political ideas and meticulousness in drafting policies.

Sezhiyan entered Parliament in 1962 after winning the election from the Perambalur constituency in central Tamil Nadu. He won again in 1967, this time from Kumbakonam. It was in the 1967 Assembly election that the DMK captured power in Tamil Nadu, riding the crest of the wave of the anti-Hindi agitation of 1965. He continued to be a Member of Parliament, either in the Lok Sabha or the Rajya Sabha, until 1984.

Role in Parliament Sezhiyan was a staunch believer in parliamentary democracy, and his role in Parliament was threefold: defending parliamentary democracy, opposing despotic tendencies in the Union Cabinet and being a proponent of the various political objectives of the Dravidian movement. Sezhiyan was the voice of the DMK in Parliament and consistently fought for the State’s rights. In 1962-63, when the DMK decided to drop the demand for a separate Dravida Nadu, the party was in pressing need of an alternative goal. Sezhiyan was one of the key persons in Team Anna (others included Karunanidhi and Murasoli Maran) and helped shape the idea of State autonomy as an alternative agenda for the party. In 1969, when the DMK government under Karunanidhi appointed the P.V. Rajamannar Committee to study Centre-State relations and propose a viable model for State autonomy, both Maran and Sezhiyan provided valuable inputs to the Committee. Sezhiyan’s views on the subject, delivered during a debate on the Anti-Secession Bill in Parliament, is quoted often even today: “Delhi is known to be the graveyard of many empires. Let not… one more graveyard be dug here by this measure.”

In the 1970s, Sezhiyan established himself as a parliamentary strategist. He mastered parliamentary conventions and questioned the treasury benches when they attempted to breach them. Many a time, he stalled what looked like easy passing of budgets and won cases in the court on constitutional disputes. As Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee (1971-73), he presented as many as 96 reports and fought a related case in the Madras High Court and won it. However, he never forgot his home State. In the early 1960s, when the anti-Hindi agitation was about to spread all over the State, Sezhiyan was one of its key fighters in Chennai and New Delhi. Later, in 1974, he fought the Union government vigorously when the small island of Katchatheevu in the Palk Straits was transferred to Sri Lanka.

However, he had to wait till 1975-77, when the Emergency was imposed, to unleash his strategies and skills as a great defender of democracy. Tamil Nadu and India saw a different Sezhiyan. The Member of Parliament from a “regional” party suddenly became a powerful opposition leader with a pan-Indian reach and significance. It was in this period that Sezhiyan started to drift away from the DMK, joining the ranks of the Janata parivar under JP, whom he loved and respected deeply. JP made him the Convener of the National Committee for Review of the Constitution and the People’s Union for Civil Liberties. Unsuccessful attempts of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency regime to arrest Sezhiyan, his escapes from them and his fiery speeches in Parliament on the excesses that rattled Indira Gandhi herself made him a star among the fledgling Janata parivar . When the opposition collective defeated Indira Gandhi in the 1977 general election, Sezhiyan made a major shift in his political life. He quit the DMK and became one of the founder-members of the Janata Party. He later became a member of the Janata Party’s National Working Committee and the Parliamentary Board. However, he was defeated in the Lok Sabha election in 1977. The next year, he returned as a member of the Rajya Sabha, thanks to the support of the M.G. Ramachandran-led All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) in Tamil Nadu.

Political shift However, shifting his base from Tamil Nadu to Delhi midway through his political career was considered one of the factors that sealed his political future in the State. He did not seem to have many options before him then. If the pull factor for his foray into national politics was JP, the push factor was Karunanidhi and Murasoli Maran strengthening their positions within the DMK. In the post-Annadurai period, his brother Nedunchezhian, once considered Annadurai’s successor to head the DMK, broke ranks with the Karunanidhi-led DMK and joined the AIADMK. Sezhiyan, too, found his position becoming untenable in Tamil Nadu and chose to stay in Delhi, which he had become comfortable with by then. In 1984, when, as a candidate of the Janata Party, he lost to Vyjayanthimala Bali, an actor-turned-politician from the Congress, in the South Chennai constituency, Sezhiyan’s innings in the State almost came to an end.

Though his political experiments with the Janata Party did not bring him any success, he continued with it. In 1988, he was, again, a founder-member of the Janata Dal, along with V.P. Singh. He was considered instrumental in the party implementing the recommendations of the Mandal Commission report after it formed the government as a constituent of the National Front in 1989, with V.P. Singh as Prime Minister. But after the short life of the Janata Dal government, Sezhiyan quit the party in 1996. Meanwhile, as a senior politician, Sezhiyan was offered ministerial berths, governorships and Ambassador posts. He chose not to accept any of them. After quitting the Janata Dal, he was with Ramakrishna Hegde’s Lok Dal for some time as its vice president. Losing faith in party politics and disappointed over all the Janata tamasha, Sezhiyan quit active politics in 2001.

Shah Commission Report However, he began engaging with civil society on various issues of political and social importance, and hit the headlines again in 2010 when he unearthed and published the Shah Commission Report, which exposed in detail the “misuse and abuse of power” by the Congress government under Indira Gandhi during the Emergency. The Janata Party government had constituted the Justice J.C. Shah Commission in 1978 to inquire into the excesses committed during the Emergency. Everyone believed that the three volumes constituting the report had gone missing, and even researchers and authors were not able get hold of copies of the report. It was believed that the Indira Gandhi government, when it returned to power in 1980, had systematically recalled and destroyed all copies of the report. A review, written by Sukumar Muralidharan, of The Life of Indira Nehru Gandhi by Katherine Frank, in Frontline says: “As a family with strong sense of its own destiny, the Nehrus were once fastidious record keepers. Yet during Indira Gandhi’s later tenure as Prime Minister, the family proved eager to efface certain aspects of the public record. An instance is the J.C. Shah commission of inquiry into political excesses during the Emergency—many hours of tape recordings of the depositions before the commission have been lost and it is believed that not one copy of its final report has survived within the country” (“The Indira enigma”, Frontline , May 11, 2001).

In 2010, Sezhiyan discovered copies of the report in his own home library and decided to publish it. The historical document was published as Shah Commission Report: Lost, and Regained (by Aazhi Publishers, to which this writer belongs). When it hit the bookstores in the winter of that year, political and legal circles in the country also rediscovered Sezhiyan. It was, undeniably, a high point in his life and one of his finest contributions to the Indian political discourse.

Sezhiyan published another gem, Parliament for thePeople , a compilation of his speeches in Parliament in 2011. In Tamil, he had already published a collection of his columns and articles, Samudhaaya Needhiyil Arasiyal Adippadai , and a wonderful biographical sketch of M.K. Thiyagaraja Bhagavathar, the first “superstar” of Tamil cinema. Sezhiyan’s Tamil was rich but fact-based, very different from the colourful style used by the communicators of the Dravidian movements. It was not surprising because he and his brother Nedunchezhiyan had published Mandram , a popular Tamil literary and political magazine, in the early years of their political careers. He was also a regular contributor of well-researched scholarly articles to Frontline .

Sezhiyan, in a way, was a gift of Tamil Nadu to India. Along with himself, he took to New Delhi the political ideas of state autonomy, social justice and welfare economics—major ideas that defined the affirmative and constructive political possibilities in Tamil Nadu in the last 50 years of Dravidian regimes. When most MPs of national parties from Tamil Nadu became subservient to Delhi, Sezhiyan was always the representative of Chennai in New Delhi, even during his Janata Party days. During the last phase of the war in Sri Lanka in 2009, Sezhiyan circulated a booklet containing images and facts about the war crimes committed by the Sri Lankan armed forces among the MPs of both houses of Parliament and urged them to raise their voices against the pro-Sri Lankan stance of the Manmohan Singh government.

He also attracted criticism now and then. Dravidian and Left intellectuals did not take kindly to his relatively close links with right-wing elements who were inherently opposed to the Dravidian ideology. He was often questioned over his rather naive bias towards the AIADMK, particularly at a time when Jayalalithaa’s brutal and corrupt ways of governance shocked the people of the State. These traits were considered inexplicable in a person like Sezhiyan, especially given the ideas he stood for.

Despite such inconsistencies, Sezhiyan still stands tall among the leaders of Tamil Nadu who contributed to its modern history. He was unflinching in his commitment to the principles of constitutional democracy, federalism, State autonomy, responsive and responsible governance and social justice-oriented model of development. And his contributions did not stop with mere words but extended to action. A complete life by any measure.

Aazhi Senthilnathan is one of the publishers of Era. Sezhiyan and federal coordinator of Campaign for Language Equality and Rights (CLEAR), a language rights movement in India. Email:

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