Mannargudi in the Kaveri Delta, 300 km from Chennai, is famous in south India for its medieval Rajagopalaswamy Temple (to Vishnu) and its fine tradition of Carnatic music. But this sleepy temple town, built in a neat grid around a huge, clean open tank, has other cards up its sleeve. It has contributed 14 judges so far to India’s highest courts. (Needamangalam village next door contributed the Chief Election Commissioner, N. Gopalaswamy, who schooled in Mannargudi).
Mannargudi is where the first red flag in India was hoisted, in 1918, soon after the October Revolution of 1917 in Russia. Hammer-and-sickle flags flap from almost every village flagpole in the region. But there has been no agitation here for nearly 30 years.
It is the Communist Party of India that is the oldest party in these parts — it was all-powerful until the 1980s. But though the DMK and AIADMK have taken turns ruling Tamil Nadu since 1967, it was only the late M.G. Ramachandran who managed to politically enter this CPI-ruled fortress in 1981 through his personal charisma and free mid-day meal schemes: ‘bread and circuses’ as the old Roman emperors might have said.
There is no industry in Mannargudi. There is no typical political issue either, except the general one of development. Unlike in other parts of Tamil Nadu where OBCs are in large numbers (Vanniyars in the north, Thevars in the South), it is the Scheduled Caste quotient that is as high as 25 per cent in and around this region, reflecting its long zamindari history when a few families owned vast acres while others toiled for them. All that changed with land reforms in the 1950s, and today, the region faces the unique problem of plenty of tiller-owned farms but a shortage of labour.
The biggest issue is the upkeep of agricultural land, and crucial to that is water. The regular supply of Kaveri water, to be precise, held up by the dispute with upriver Karnataka. “One week’s requirement of water in the 16 lakh acres of the Delta is equal to the entire requirement of Chennai city for one year,” says the spare, elegant S. Ranganathan, general secretary of the Tamil Nadu Kaveri Delta Farmers’ Welfare Association, when I meet him and his writer wife in their lovely old-style home in Mannargudi (She translates Hindi writers like Manu Bhandari and others into Tamil).
Though a zamindari Brahmin, Ranganathan is accepted by the Delta’s multi-caste spectrum of farmers since his father had a good rapport with his workers and the son has continued the democratic process, giving away land for schools and other developmental causes. Regional interests united over the usual caste and class issues, in a brothers-in-arms bonhomie against faraway, indifferent ‘Delhi’ that has yet to push for closure on the Kaveri dispute, though the Kaveri Delta farmers are willing to live with the Supreme Court’s interim award of May 2007.
“The two major parties (DMK and AIADMK) have not come together to solve this,” says P.R. Pandian, 41, the CPI district secretary (Thiruvaroor district) and chairman of the local Panchayat Union (he represents the welfare of 49 panchayats in Kottoor block). Pandiyan also farms 15 acres of paddy. Tidy and brisk in his veshti (dhoti) and white shirt, and with the superbly polite manners of old-world Tamil Nadu, he joined the CPI-run Bharati Youth Federation for social work at 15 and joined the party soon after. After school, he took to farming and politics, supporting his mother, wife, younger brother, a 12-year-old daughter and an infant son.
Beyond caste, it is culture and region that matter in the Delta. Over delicious tea, biscuits and glace cherries, Pandiyan says casually, “I am a friend of Jayendra Saraswati, the senior Shankaracharya of Kanchipuram. We are both from Irulneeki village and close friends.”
Though this is a male-dominated traditional society, the mainstream is not a purdah culture and the literacy level is 73.5 per cent. Women move about freely with a swing to their hips and a lithe stride. Rural girls cycle to school and back, ribbons fluttering jauntily on their neat, looped plaits. Women go in twos or in girl gangs without a male escort to the cinema for very cheap tickets in the reserved ladies’ section — that’s another way MGR won over voters. Girls from Mannargudi work in Chennai. For weekends, they take a night bus home in perfect safety. That’s the level of security a woman alone enjoys in many parts of south India.
It is P. Pakkiriswamy, 61, former district board chairman, Thiruvaroor and a member of the All India Kisan Sabha, exuding a grand, self-assured personality, who sums up eloquently: “Tamil Nadu, especially the Kaveri Delta, is not a problem area for India. It is a contributing area. Despite no concern from the Centre for our farmers, we as a state have moved ahead socially and economically. We have consistently provided support to the prime ministers of this country after Nehru. Our votes will decide who the next prime minister will be. But we do not feel a sense of belonging because of our Tamil ethnic identity. We feel the Centre and its northern politicians don’t respect or value us or our deepest sentiments.”
Will this change after the general elections? Mannargudi isn’t holding its breath.