Is the Dravidian movement dying?

Print edition : June 20, 2003

Jayalalithaa, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and AIADMK general secretary, inaugurating a noon meal scheme for poor devotees, at the Kapaleeswarar temple in Chennai. - S.R. RAGHUNATHAN

The Dravidian movement is on the verge of collapse under the weight of its inherent ideological contradictions.

THE Dravidian movement in Tamil Nadu can be dated to begin from December 1916 when the "Non-Brahmin Manifesto" was released. In the manifesto, the Dravidian concept was anti-Brahmin specific because the patrons of the movement, the British imperialist rulers, had wanted it that way, and for good reason as I shall expound below. The manifesto was authored principally by Dr. T.M. Nair and Rao Bahadur Theogaraya Chetty. It candidly advocated the continuance of British imperialist rule because it was contended that the British alone could "hold the scales evenly between the castes and creed" of India.

The manifesto was immediately denounced as a handiwork of the British rulers with an aim to divide the freedom struggle. Dr. Annie Besant, then editor of New India, and a prominent personality in the freedom struggle, debunked the manifesto as "mischievous and unpatriotic". The non-Brahmins in the freedom struggle such as Kesava Pillay were also appalled by its blatant casteist approach and thus distanced themselves from it.

Since the Dravidian movement's focus was defined and set solely against the Brahmins, without an ideological structure for developing a pan non-Brahmin consciousness, with the movement's founding, the seeds of its demise were also planted. It has taken time, but today the decay and moral bankruptcy of the Dravidian movement is evident in the land of its birth. Its demise seems imminent.

The movement grew first with British imperialist patronage, and especially after being given a militant edge by a Congressman, Periyar E.V. Ramasamy Naicker. In 1932, the movement suffered a setback when Dr. B.R. Ambedkar rejected the British offer of separate electorates for the Scheduled Castes, and sided with Mahatma Gandhi to sign the Poona Pact. By then Periyar had left the Congress and militantly advocated godlessness and atheism. He even declared Ravana a Dravidian hero. Under Periyar the Dravidian movement came close to developing an ideology that could have provided a durable basis for its survival, but even Periyar could not overcome the erroneous assumptions and basic internal contradictions on which it was founded. The Poona Pact, for example, dealt a body blow to those who had thought that the Scheduled Castes would en masse defect from Hindu society.

Until Independence in 1947, the Dravidian movement functioned as a handmaiden of the British imperialists. Just prior to the transfer of power, Periyar had pleaded with the Viceroy's representative not to leave power in Tamil Nadu, even if they departed from the rest of India. The movement, however, survived and got a boost after 1952 because of the short-sighted partisan interest of the Congress, and further in the 1960s, ironically because of an even more myopic interest of C. Rajagopalachari, the then political Dean of the Brahmins. The Congress saw the Dravidian movement as a tool to keep other national opposition parties from gathering strength, and used them as ideological storm-troopers. It never thought that the Dravidian movement could culminate in power and office and replace the Congress itself. It was Rajaji, in his personal resolve to see the Congress out of power, who put together a wide coalition under the leadership of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), and brought the "Dravidians" to power in the State in 1967. For 36 years thereafter without a break (except short periods of President's Rule), Tamil Nadu has been administered by the DMK and its splinter, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), with the avowed national parties playing second fiddle.

The Dravidian movement has, however, on its own run its course, and lost momentum. All that remains, in my opinion, is in form - in names of organisations such as DMK, AIADMK, Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) and so on, but not in content. The Dravidian movement had remained, from its beginning, unable to handle its ideological contradictions or recognise the seeds of its own destruction planted in it.

It was not a grassroots movement from below to articulate the aspirations of the masses. It began with well-to-do British toadies seeking commanding heights of Tamil society. The British imperialists had wanted an instrument to divide and rule in the south, and seized on the fallacious Aryan-Dravidian theory propounded by East India Company-paid historians. It was annoying to the imperialist that many Brahmins, with little wealth to sustain themselves, but with religious authority, were in the forefront of the freedom struggle. Some such as Justice Sadashiva Iyer and Subramania Bharati were following the teachings of Ramanuja to advocate against birth-specific caste system. Justice Iyer, in fact, articulated in New India (July 3-16,1916) his views six months before the release of the "Non-Brahmin Manifesto", debunking birth-based caste system. The implied suggestion of Hindu unity was subversive and dangerous in imperialist perception. Hence it needed to be nipped in the bud. That gave birth to the Dravidian movement.

In 1947, the British patrons left India and orphaned the Dravidian movement. The movement would have collapsed soon after, but the Congress soon stepped in and propped it up for narrow partisan interests. With this patronage, the Dravidian movement revived with a political agenda and entered the Legislative Assembly. Through the Tamil cinema world, it propagated its ideas to win legitimacy. With democratic politics, and consequent democratic rule, some of the attractive agenda items of the Dravidian movement got internalised, adopted, implemented and became history. Reservations in jobs and educational institutions were pioneered in Tamil Nadu. The Brahmins, being only 3 per cent of the population, lost their pre-eminence in the commanding heights of the post-Independence society based on political power. The meat of the Dravidian movement had been thus consumed by democracy.

Since the ideological basis of the movement remained contradictory, it could not amalgamate, strike deeper roots, and otherwise build on these achievements for the non-Brahmins. The movement leaders attacked everything connected with Brahmins, including Sanskrit and idol worship. But Tamil and Sanskrit being intertwined from time immemorial, it became impossible to separate them. The two languages share 40 per cent of the vocabulary. The scripts of both languages have descended from the same mother: Brahmi. The word Dravidian is, for example, a Sanskrit word. It was first used by Adi Sankara, in reply to a question by Varanasi scholar Mandana Mishra as to who he was. Sankara replied that he was a "Dravida sishu", meaning a child of where the three oceans (the Arabian sea, the Bay of Bengal, and the Indian Ocean) meet. The British-paid historians, however, made Dravida into a race. Similiarly, "Arya" in Sanskrit denoted a gentleman (in Tamil: Aiya), but these historians made Arya into a foreign race from Europe who had come racing down the Khyber Pass to defeat the Dravidians. And thus India came to be propagandised as a two-race state.

For a time, after the British left India, Indian historians continued teaching this bogus concept of India, adding grist to the Dravidian movement propaganda. Some North Indian scholars suffering from inferiority complex lapped up this concept because the theory made them first cousins of Europeans. They too contributed to the myth.

THE Dravidian movement also failed to amalgamate the Scheduled Castes. During the last two decades, the Dravidian parties have each come to be controlled by a dominant caste, all which are in conflict with the Scheduled Castes. Hence, the movement failed to develop into a pan non-Brahmin movement, and has become fragmented.

DMK president M. Karunanidhi.-SHAJU JOHN

Interestingly, the decisive impact that undermined the Dravidian movement came not from scholars of independent India, but from Hindi films and nationally broadcast cable television. Hindi films recruited Tamil starlets and made them into leading actresses of national fame. Suddenly, the north-south physical divide visibly evaporated. Dress modes and songs got homogenised.

The Doordarshan serial on the Ramayana destroyed the concept of Ravana as a Dravidian hero. Ravana was portrayed as a Brahmin scholar who had done tapas in the Kailash mountains. Rama was an Arya, since he was a gentleman, but he was a non-Brahmin (Kshatriya to be exact) and hence more Dravidian than Ravana. Nothing embarassed Periyar's followers than this re-discovery of Ramayana by the Tamil people. Such contradictions began to manifest openly, undermining the ideological basis of the Dravidian movement. The religious revival in Tamil Nadu kept apace with this, compounding the discomfiture of the movement.

Through the visual media and national integration, a national identity for Tamils has been deeply embedded in the people's minds. Today it has become fashionable for a Tamil to claim to be Indian first and a Tamil afterwards. That sentiment means a death knell for the Dravidian movement because nationalism undercuts the possibility of Tamil separatism. For the movement's revival, in the 1980s its leaders had a hope in separatism because of the growth of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). That too has fizzled out now.

So what remains of the Dravidian movement today? It's name and attendant political power only. The springboard of anti-Brahminism has disappeared. Is it not odd that the AIADMK, which is in power today, is led by a religious Brahmin offering only lip sympathy to Periyar's commandments. The DMK leaders visit temples, and wear rudraskha malas and saffron shawls.

Although the Dravidian movement has definitely re-positioned the majority securely in Tamil society, which is an essential requirement of secular democracy, it has set back Tamil Nadu in the national political power structure. Compared to its size (more than 60 million people), the level of education (the second most educated State) and the number of Lok Sabha members (39), Tamil Nadu's national political status is marginalised, thanks to the provincial outlook of the Dravidian movement. Hence, although the movement is dying, being terminally ill, the negative positioning of the State in national affairs over the last four decades needs correction. Time has come to re-define the position of Tamil Nadu at the national level that is consistent with its size, economic potential and cultural contribution and at par with its status in Indian history. That means fostering a national outlook along with undoing the caste polarisation that the Dravidian movement has nurtured. This will require a new political dispensation. No easy task, but no societal transition ever is.

Dr. Subramanian Swamy is Janata Party president and a former Union Minister.

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