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Fifty-fifty: Half a century of Dravidian rule

Ever since CN Annadurai stormed to power in 1967, no national party has been able to dislodge the Dravidian majors in Tamil Nadu. Here’s a look at the highs and lows of five decades of tumultuous Tamil politics in the state.

india Updated: Jun 08, 2017 15:33 IST
Kavitha Muralidharan
Kavitha Muralidharan
A poster of a popular magazine depicts the factional feud going on in the AIADMK.(PTI File/ Representational Photo)

After delivering a lecture on the state of the transgender community at a Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers and Artists Association function recently, transgender activist Priya Babu was faced with a strange question from a member of the audience. While several states in north India celebrated transgender community members as children of god, it was not so in Tamil Nadu. Wasn’t Periyar the reason, the questioner asked.

Without batting an eyelid, Priya Babu responded: “We needn’t be treated as gods; we only need to be treated as human beings. And in that, Tamil Nadu fares much better. We are part of government welfare schemes, including education, and Tamil Nadu is the first state to have a welfare board for transgender members. All this is because of the kind of foundation Periyar laid.”

The foundation Priya and many others believe in was set five decades ago — Indian politics witnessed a tectonic shift when the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) was swept to power in the then Madras State, ending Congress rule. The regional party had entered politics only 10 years prior to the 1967 electoral victory, changing Tamil Nadu politics forever.

The DMK, whose stance against Brahmin hegemony, Vedic rituals and casteism, combined with its fierce push for self-respect and Tamil pride, had broken away 18 years earlier from its parent Dravidar Kazhagam, a movement founded by reformist leader EV Ramasami, popularly known as Periyar. Since then, no national party has been able to dislodge the Dravidian majors — the DMK and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) — in Tamil Nadu.

Now, half a century after CN Annadurai became chief minister, where has the Dravidian parties’ rule left the south Indian state?

There are those who believe that from its lofty plank of rationalism, atheism, rejection of Vedic culture and a call for a return to Dravidian roots, the apparent rise of caste-based politics and parties today has consistently undermined the Dravidian movement’s contribution to the state. Though its harshest critics go so far as to accuse it of leading Tamil Nadu to all-round detriment, there are leaders who insist the movement has still not lost its relevance.

“The Dravidian movement was born out of an historical necessity which is not over yet,” said SP Agathiyalingam, a leftist thinker who lives in Chennai. Referring to the two main Dravidian parties, he pointed out, “Every family in Tamil Nadu today has members who vote both the parties though, of course, I think it is not right to equate the DMK with the AIADMK.” Now, more than ever, he said, Tamil Nadu needs them “when the saffron forces are spreading everywhere”.

DMK spokesperson Manu Shanmugasundaram agreed. “We cannot claim a copyright on the Dravidian movement, but we are its biggest defenders. It is probably the only political movement that has translated social justice into legislative action. To that extent, it has lived up to its promises. It is another debate altogether whether it needed to have performed better.”

He pointed out to three singular achievements wrought by the movement, which, he emphasised, have remained near-impossible elsewhere in the country. Starting with self-respect marriages (where couples get hitched without a Brahmin priest officiating and where inter-caste unions were encouraged), he said, “(These) marriages eliminated all customs (including dowry) that demean women. The DMK government gave self-respect marriages legal sanctity and it was one of its earliest achievements. Next, despite the legal imbroglio, the Act that allowed members of any caste to become priests in temples was an important step towards social justice. Lastly, the welfare of marginalised sections such as transgenders and the differently abled has remained consistently in focus in the state. There are some actions by Dravidian parties — especially the DMK — that go beyond politics and this is one. I think that is very rare in a country driven by vote-bank politics.”

Dravidian historian S Thirunavukkarasu, who recently wrote a book (the early history of DMK in three volumes) on the DMK, reeled out a bigger list. “From eliminating the Devadasi system to having the first woman legislator [in the Madras Legislative Council in 1927], the Dravidian movement’s achievements have not just remained symbolic. It was the Justice Party (which was later merged with self-respect movement to form Periyar’s Dravida Kazhagam) that gave women the right to vote. As far as I am concerned, I would consider only the Justice Party and the DMK as Dravidian parties to have ruled the state. To accommodate the AIADMK into the Dravidian framework is a compromise of sorts. Even the Justice Party and DMK have not fully achieved the Dravidian ideology, but they tried their best.”

Thirunavukkarasu’s dissing of the AIADMK as not being a Dravidian entity raised the hackles of Marudhu Azhaguraj, editor of Namathu MGR, the party’s official mouthpiece. Bristling, he insisted the AIADMK was closer to Dravidian ideals than its parent parties, the DK as well as the DMK. “It was the AIADMK that implemented 69 percent reservation in the state. Liberation of women was an important agenda for Periyar, and Madam Jayalalithaa effectively translated it into action. She reserved 50 percent seats for women in panchayats. Women were given several key posts in the bureaucracy and a large number of women were made mayors. We accept Periyar as our (ideological) leader and probably the only point we differed with (his vision) was atheism,” he said.

Perhaps, acutely conscious of the late Brahmin AIADMK supremo J Jayalalithaa’s association with several shrines and religious offerings, he claimed that though many DMK members professed to be non-believers, they practised theism on the sly. “We are open about it. That is the only difference,” he said.

Azhaguraj may have been defensive about religion but observers point out even when Annadurai launched the DMK in 1949, he had adopted a more flexible stance on atheism. So if Periyar described believers as fools, Anna watered it down to “one community and one God”.

Thinker Agathiyalingam views the AIADMK as being far away from even Annadurai’s softer stance, saying the party has more in common with the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) ideology. “Laws on conversion and the ban on animal sacrifice in temples are some examples of how Jayalalithaa’s government was closer to the BJP ideology than Dravidian ideology,” he commented.

Observers say the AIADMK leadership is intelligent enough to ensure it is perceived as a Dravidian major as the movement is still very much relevant in Tamil Nadu. “MGR’s intention was to start a Dravidian party. But it is completely diluted now. However, AIADMK will be marginalised if it is not in favour of social justice or reservation in the state,” says Agathiyalingam.

Another criticism comes from Sahitya Akademi Award-winning writer S Venkatesan. “Culturally,” he observed, “it was the Dravidian movement that facilitated the relegation of orthodox, varna identities in the state and replaced them with strong Tamil identities. But the movement, despite being in the leadership for over five decades, has failed in adopting a scientific approach to education in the mother tongue.”

Such pride in the mother tongue is built into the Tamil’s character. Several leaders of both the DMK and the AIADMK were drawn from the field of the arts and the movement created ripples in cultural spaces too. Many were fiery orators and writers well versed in Tamil, an ancient language capable of rousing powerful poetry and emotions. Many came from theatre and cinema, both formidable mediums of mass communication. Films penned by DMK supremo M Karunanidhi, whose alliterative prose imbued them with Dravidian ideals like atheism and self-respect, had wide-reaching impact across the State.

So three years ago, when the nation hyperventilated over Aamir Khan’s PK, the Tamil cineaste merely shrugged, wondering what the fuss was all about. For, when the likes of Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor were tunefully romancing Nimmi and Nargis way back in 1952, the legendary Sivaji Ganesan, in a stunning debut in Parasakthi, was delivering radical dialogues scripted by Karunanidhi that bordered on blasphemy in a very conventional sense. Considered a propaganda vehicle for the newly-launched DMK, the film ran for over 175 days; a telling testimony to the impact of Dravidian movement in Tamil Nadu.

Despite its advantageous hold over the Tamil psyche, there are those who think the movement has failed to bring about any real change. Detractors accuse it of doing little for Dalits. Several Dalit activists feel the Dravida parties have done little to stop the increasing caste-based polarisation across Tamil Nadu.

Caste formations have grown relentlessly over the last few years, leading to consolidation of backward castes against Dalits. The alleged suicide of Dalit youth E Ilavarasan in 2013 at Dharmapuri, after he was forcibly separated from his girlfriend from another caste, and the murder of Gokulraj in 2015 at Salem after he was found talking to a Gounder girl, are clear pointers to growing caste-based consolidations. Statistics point to over 100 reported ‘honour killings’ in Tamil Nadu in last three or four years.

Accusing the Dravidian movement of excluding the Dalits, D Ravi Kumar, writer and Dalit scholar says: “The backward classes were definitely strengthened by Dravidian rule. But it never actually became a socially inclusive political majority. It stopped at being a communal majority, as Ambedkar pointed out. The hate campaign and honour killings that are rampant in Tamil Nadu are proof enough.”

He adds that the Dravidian movement should rediscover itself to suit Periyar’s anti-caste politics and the democratic spirit of constitution. “Failing which the caste majoritarianism strengthened by the Dravidian rule has the potential danger of becoming a religious majoritarianism.”

Later, speaking to HT, Priya Babu said, “It is thanks to Periyar that successive governments in Tamil Nadu have consistently focused on the welfare of the marginalised and I’m not talking just about the transgender community. This is precisely why we are better off in Tamil Nadu than anywhere else.”

From its robust opposition to the imposition of Hindi as the sole official language to cultural colonisation, the Dravidian movement has instilled a strong sense of identity and pride in Tamils. There is much the country can emulate from it: right from women’s participation in the public sphere to concerns for the marginalised to focus on primary education. However, for that sense to continue and prevail, it should perhaps go through a phase of self-introspection and rediscovery. But one thing is certain: dislodging it from the seat of power remains a distant dream, at least for the next few years.

(Published in arrangement with GRIST Media)

First Published: Jun 08, 2017 15:18 IST