Politics

Tamil nationalism, then and now

Print edition : January 25, 2013

C.N. Annadurai with M. Karunanidhi. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Periyar E.V. Ramasamy. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

THE frequent references in Tamil Nadu and outside to “Tamil nationalist” and “Tamil protectionist” movements by leaders of the Patali Makkal Katchi (PMK) and Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) and other political parties are confusing and misleading.

These terms were initially used in the context of the struggle for Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka. But their use in the context of Tamil Nadu calls for explanation. The concept of “Tamil nationalism” was initiated at the end of the 19th century mainly to protect the separate identity of the Tamil language. When a false impression was created that the pan Indian culture was Sanskrit, a section of educated Tamils asserted the point that Tamil culture was distinct from Sanskrit culture and demanded its independent recognition. This was followed by the non-Brahmin movement of the non-Brahmin upper castes (who identified Brahmins with Sanskrit) against Brahmin monopoly in education and employment in the first three decades of the 20th century and by E.V. Ramasamy Periyar’s Self-Respect Movement since 1925 and the Dravidian movement thereafter.

The Dravidian nationalist movement in its pristine form may be summarised as follows:

The non-Brahmin movement of the Justice Party founded in 1916; the Justice Party’s rise to power in the 1920 elections to the Madras Legislative Council through the “communal electorates”—a major outcome of its non-Brahmin movement; the Self-Respect movement founded by Periyar in 1925 with his long-term goals of establishing a rational egalitarian society; C.N. Annadurai’s acceptance of Periyar as his leader in 1935; their work together for the next 14 years when they changed the course of Tamil culture, politics and society, with Periyar more on the campaign side and Anna on the culture side; the related groundswell and efflorescence of the Dravidian movement from the 1930s to the 1960s; Anna’s entry into the Justice Party in 1935 when it was in its last gasp, which, as he revealed later, was “to convert the party of the affluent into a democratic and socialist party”; the Justice Party unwittingly facilitating this radical change by naming Periyar as its leader in 1938 when he was in jail for the anti-Hindi agitation, which he and Anna led (Anna was also in jail for sometime); Anna’s takeover as general secretary of the party in 1940; Anna and Periyar together transforming the moribund Justice Party into the Dravidar Kazhagam (D.K., or Dravidar Federation) in 1944, laying the foundations of Tamil cultural and political nationalism in the province; the rupture between Anna and Periyar in 1949 when Anna left Periyar and the D.K. and founded the DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, or Dravida Progressive Federation); Anna’s election to the Rajya Sabha in 1962, even as the DMK graduated to become the principal opposition party in the Madras legislature; Anna’s demand in his maiden speech in the Rajya Sabha expounding his goal of an independent Dravida Nadu (Dravidian country), which Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru rejected in the House later; the Sixteenth Amendment to the Indian Constitution, which proscribed advocacy of secession and the DMK’s decision to drop its Dravida Nadu demand, all should be seen as precursors of the DMK’s rise to power in 1967.

Anna, after he became Chief Minister, used power to achieve the goals of the Dravidian movement, of Dravida Nadu. He named Madras State Tamil Nadu, enacted the progressive legalisation of self-respect marriages, which was central to Periyar’s Self-Respect Movement, encouraged inter-caste marriages by awarding gold medals to such couples, and, daringly, abolished Hindi as a mandatory subject in government schools.

Anna pleaded with the Centre for a constitutional realignment in favour of the States, and believed that India could play an international role when Indians “are socially integrated, economically self-reliant and work out ostensibly what can be federal and State subjects”. Anna’s DMK pioneered the advent of regional parties in India’s polity, providing a safe and democratic outlet for regional aspirations within a united India and the espousal and accommodation of linguistic cultural nationalism in India’s complex plural ethnic and religious mosaic.

Periyar’s D.K. and Annadurai’s DMK were genuine Dravidian parties. The general perception is that they treated all non-Brahmin castes with equal respect. But after the demise of Annadurai, the DMK was and continues to be dominated by Karunanidhi and his clan.

After the breakup of the DMK in 1972 when film actor-turned-politician M.G. Ramachandran formed the Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (ADMK), later renamed the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), the political landscape of Tamil Nadu spawned many new parties, each for the promotion of a single caste, mainly to gain from the loaves and fishes of public office, have a share in the State’s caste-based power play and a larger slice of the cake in its caste-based reservation politics.

The PMK is a product of this caste-centred political churning. Its single-point political agenda has fostered the Vanniyar caste, first through the family of its founder, Dr S. Ramadoss, and then through “Vanniya Nadu”. For this, Ramadoss has been doing a Bal Thackeray in Tamil Nadu by appropriating what he fantasises as Tamil culture and Tamil nationalism, crying foul that “Tamil culture is in danger” without understanding the heterogeneous and palimpsest nature of culture, which is of multiplex complexity in a caste-ridden society.

The upshot of the power play and factional politics in the State is the conflict between the Scheduled Castes and the intermediate castes. The non-Brahmin movement was successful in highlighting Brahmin domination in every sphere of public life. The Brahmins retreated tactfully. It was a slow process. In the face of the social mobility movements of Dalits and their legitimate aspirations for a higher and better place in what is increasingly seen as a secular and not a caste society, that too after centuries of subjugation, sections of the so-called “intermediate castes” such as Vanniyar, Mukkulathore (Thevar, Maravar, Agamudayar) and Goundar, who once tried to move up the caste hierarchy by claiming Kshatriya status through Sanskritisation (briefly, imitation of Brahmin behaviour), are unwilling to yield social and political space to Dalits as the Brahmins did from the 1940s to the 1970s. (These castes were not really intermediate in the traditional fourfold Varna system but at the bottom of the hierarchy of the Sudra castes and are “intermediate castes” only now in relation to Dalits; Dalits were outside the Sudras and hence were characterised as Avarnas or Panchamas.)

The sooner they do this the better for them and for the State. In this context it is important to recall that naxalism in Dharmapuri, when it was a naxalite stronghold, cut across castes and communities and brought in a measure of equality across the regional society, characterised by the healthy practice of inter-caste dining and inter-caste marriage. As Dalits have nothing to lose but their traditional shackles and naxalism is still rampant in more than 140 districts in the country, it may not take much time for its ideology to penetrate those areas of Tamil Nadu where the fringe groups are still highly vulnerable. It will be in the interest of Ramadoss and other leaders of “intermediate castes”—the self-appointed champions of Tamil culture, Tamil language, Tamil society, and protectors of the chastity of Tamil women—to realise this and work for an inclusive society.

All said, there is no substitute to what B.R. Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian Constitution, said more than once, that the best way of disposing of the disembodied spirit of “Manu” still hovering around is through commensality (inter-dining) and exogamy (which in Tamil Nadu’s context should translate into inter-caste marriages). The Communist movements, wherever they struck root in the country, became a success, albeit as a long haul, mainly through inter-dining and inter-caste marriages. As the philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The politicians of Tamil Nadu stoking caste and sectarian embers and oppressing the already oppressed will do well to take a leaf out of Santayana’s book.

P. Radhakrishnan

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