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Wednesday, Nov 13, 2019

Lok Sabha Elections 2019: This 20-year-old student wants scrapping of NEET and safeguarding of quotas

Their parents were so influenced by rationalist principles – which stress on social good, the benefit of science over belief, superstition and blind faith, and religious dogma – that they called him ‘Inanalam’ (the welfare of the race).

lok-sabha-elections Updated: Apr 15, 2019 08:24 IST
M Manikandan and Dhrubo Jyoti
M Manikandan and Dhrubo Jyoti
Hindustan Times, Tamil Nadu
Staunchly against caste system, Inanalam says he is concerned by social injustice.
Staunchly against caste system, Inanalam says he is concerned by social injustice.(HT photo)
         

When Inanalam was six years old, he first heard of Muthuvel Karunanidhi.

His father was a reporter at the Tamil newspaper Viduthalai, the mouthpiece of the Dravidar Kazhagam (DK) party – considered the parent of the two main Dravidian parties DMK and AIADMK -- founded by EV Ramaswamy, the anti-caste social reformer popularly known as Periyar, in 1944.

Their house on the outskirts of Chennai was always buzzing with discussions about state politics and the rationalist movement. His mother was a leading advocate of self-respect marriages, a potent anti-caste tool envisioned by Periyar where the role of the traditional Brahmin priest is eschewed. His grandfather had been an active member of the DK and worked actively with Periyar and CN Annadurai, Tamil Nadu chief minister at a time of great churn in the state.

Their parents were so influenced by rationalist principles – which stress on social good, the benefit of science over belief, superstition and blind faith, and religious dogma – that they called him ‘Inanalam’ (the welfare of the race).

Finding his hero

At home one day after school, Nalam watched the 1952 film Parasakthi, a watershed film that follows the life of a lower-caste man from erstwhile Burma, and was mesmerized by the dialogue, in particular a 15-minute court sequence. “I never knew social injustice could be explained in such a manner. The word flow gripped me for days. I kept asking everyone who had written the dialogues and was told Karunanidhi’s name. And then, I found out everything about him and became his lifelong fan. For me, he embodied Tamil culture and his death was a loss for all of us.”

When he heard Karunanidhi had passed away, he broke down, and jostled among tens of thousands of followers to get a glimpse of his hero.

“It was a big shock; I ran to Rajaji hall to see his remains and cried. He was the one who gave us the right to speak, gave us social justice. He worked for women’s liberty. He gave us libraries. He achieved many things. And so I was sad to see him go.”

Now 20 and an engineering student, Inanalam can recite from heart famous Tamil dialogues that Karunanidhi wrote in his career as a playwright. He goes to DMK meetings, and to Periyar Thidal, the DK headquarters, where groups of youth discuss the important issues of the day.

Meme politics

In his spare time, Inanalam manages a Tamil meme page whose reach is in the tens of thousands. “Most of my friends and college mates get their news from memes.” Tamil meme channels, a cult unto themselves, are deeply invested in society and most of them focus on social issues such as jallikattu or the Thoothukudi police shooting. “We in Tamil Nadu are a highly politicized society with a distinct cultural and social identity. Many young people are not able to read newspapers or television. They use memes.”

The other outlet for the young people around him is the short-video app TikTok, which has ballooned in popularity in the state and is teeming with both serious and sarcastic political content – enough for a senior Tamil Nadu minister to demand a ban on the app.

A state in churn

Through Inanalam’s late teenage years, Tamil Nadu has been in a state of churn. The state was hit by a devastating flood in 2016 and the government’s tardy relief efforts sparked protests across the state – and inspired a new generation of meme makers.

The next year, the suicide of a Dalit medical student spotlighted the simmering anger in the state over the new uniform medical entrance examination, or NEET, that was seen as pro-northern India and anti-Tamil. The same year, a Supreme Court ban on the controversial bull-taming sport Jallikattu prompted tens of thousands of young people to protest as anger over a move seen as hurting Tamil culture spilled out into the streets and led to a weeks-long demonstration on Chennai’s Marina Beach.

Last year, police firing on a group of protesters in southern Tamil Nadu’s Thoothukudi during an agitation against a local copper plant over pollution sent ripples of fury across the state.

For Inanalam, each of these incidents showed that Tamil Nadu was in deep crisis. “The youth felt that there was anti-people activity, and brought back memories of the anti-Hindi movement in the 1960s that we had heard from our parents. The students are feeling insecure, and once again, they are gaining awareness.”

He and his friends have been protesting for the past month over an alleged rape-and-extortion racket in western Tamil Nadu’s Pollachi town that has shaken Tamil society.

The face of Tamil Nadu politics transformed over 2017 and 2018 with the deaths of Karunanidhi and his long-running political rival, J Jayalalithaa. Both had been chief minister five times and sparred for almost half a century. And though an avid follower of Karunanidhi, Inanalam says that Jayalalithaa, as a strong woman in charge of a major party, was an important leader. “When Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi were alive, they protected the state’s autonomy and identity. The state government is now under the shadow of the central government. Never had Tamil Nadu seen a time like this; this has forced people to protest.”

His vote goes to .....

Inanalam lives on the outer reaches of Poonamallee, where the black-and-red DMK flag flutters on almost all rooftops and stickers of Karunanidhi and his son Stalin are on the windshields of most cars and autos. His neighbourhood is part of the Thiruvallur constituency, which was won by the AIADMK the last two times.

This time, Inanalam says he will vote for the DMK, not only because of his admiration of Karunanidhi but also because he feels that the current government has done little to safeguard the state’s distinct history of social justice. “The AIADMK government is being run by Delhi. They promised they wouldn’t allow NEET but they did. They didn’t do anything after the Thoothukudi firing.”

In contrast to the AIADMK’s squabbles, he says, the DMK’s leader Stalin rose slowly through the party’s ranks, as a mayor of Chennai and then a minister, and had to prove himself at every step. “But yes, he is not like his father – he doesn’t have his father’s oratory or mass connect.”

This election, two superstars – Kamal Hassan and Rajinikanth – are making their political forays, but Inanalam thinks they wouldn’t taste much success despite having tremendous pull as actors. Hassan’s party has fielded candidates; Rajnikanth seems happy to be an influencer. “Karunanidhi articulated self-respect politics and Dravidian ideology in cinema. But these guys never put politics in their cinema. They want to gain power in an ideological vacuum.” He adds that the fan base of these stars is fast aging. “The young people don’t stand with these stars – they have moved to younger actors like Ajith and Surya.”

The two national leaders Inanalam has heard of are Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Congress chief Rahul Gandhi. He believes the latter is more secular and doesn’t like the former because his party, according to the 20-year-old, interferes too much in people’s personal affairs.

Election issues

For him the biggest issues this election are the scrapping of NEET, safeguarding of reservations, and extending them to the private sector. He thinks the next government should drop the recently introduced 10% quota for the economically weaker sections because it will hurt the existing structure of affirmative action.

At Inanalam’s modest two-bedroom flat he shares with his parents, photos of Periyar, Anna and Karunanidhi crowd the walls. A part of the other backward classes, he says the rationalist movement has taught him to not believe in the caste system and insists that it is wrong to call the Dravidian movement as working against Brahmins. “The DMK opposed Brahmins but in the long run, changed its stance. Ninety per cent of the people are Hindus. They are not anti-Hindu or anti-Brahmin.”

Inspired by his idol, Inanalam wants to take a few years off after college and try his hand at becoming an actor. “Through cinema, I want to send a message. I don’t want to do commercial cinema; if there is bad government, I want to be critical and change the way of storytelling.”

For him, the biggest legacy of Karunanidhi is creating the infrastructure for education, and then enabling weaker sections of society to attend these institutions. “And, of course, not allowing Hindi,” he says, followed by lau