• Dravidian Movement and M Karunanidhi: A Tale of Fostering a Fraternal Society

    Vignesh Karthik KR and Jeyannathann Karunanithi

    August 17, 2018

    Image Courtesy: News Bugz

    The late DMK leader M Karunanidhi marked his place in history not only as Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, but also as a leader who played a key role in bringing together parties across India under a common narrative more than one time in the last 50 years. As the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) is going through a difficult phase owing to infighting, the following thoughts on the Dravidian patriarch may be relevant.

    Tamil Identity as a Constituent Element of the Idea of India

    The Constituent Assembly debates throw light on how the makers of the Constitution envisioned India. The pre-Partition discussions suggest that the makers were open to the idea of a weak Centre and stronger states. The post-Partition period however, witnessed a shift in this stance with the emergence of a bias towards a unitary structure. One argument was that the southern states have not witnessed violence akin to what the north suffered during Partition. Has this influenced their view of federalism? DMK leaders were vehemently opposed to a unitary set-up. In this context, Era Sezhiyan a veteran parliamentarian of Dravidian mantle remarked, “when they talk of integration, they forget one fundamental thing. India is a vast sub-continent with different cultures, histories, races, languages and nationalities … You cannot undo what history has done … with a stroke of the pen”.

    The aspirations of Tamil nationalist forces gained in the 1950s and the early 1960s. Karunanidhi was almost marked by what Sugata Bose (2017) calls as “cultural intimacy” — being aware and appreciative of multiple identities. He advocated a nuanced version of Tamil identity that set out to conserve its pride and yet, continue to thrive within the Indian identity as its constituent element. Almost half a century after Karunanidhi’s articulation, Karnataka’s former Chief Minister Siddaramaiah echoed his stance when he observed, ‘My identity as a proud Kannadiga is not inconsistent with my identity as a proud Indian’.

    The Love for Autonomy and Advocating Federalism

    The arguments in favour of state autonomy as revealed through an analysis of ‘Thambikku Annavin Kadithangal (Letters to the Brother)’ by Annadurai suggest that there was a strong fiscal motive in seeking state autonomy. Under Karunanidhi, by virtue of his long administrative legacy, the arguments assumed a nuanced structure: the autonomy pushed for by Karunanidhi not only had a resonance in the Jallikattu protests of 2017 for preserving their cultural legacy, but it also raised the clamour for fiscal autonomy in face of resistance to the 15th Finance Commission’s terms of reference.

    The strident demand for “fiscal federalism” and in turn total federalism has now reignited the aspirations for federal autonomy — a call that has hitherto been associated primarily with the DMK from the days of Annadurai. Karunanidhi's relentless commitment towards the ideas of state autonomy and federalism could be observed in his decision to setup Rajamannar Committee to understand and reflect upon Centre-state relationship. Furthermore, the strong opposition to the usage of Article 356 by the Central Government in the pre-S.R.Bommai case days reiterate the importance he had attributed to the idea of the strong states, that is strongly grounded on ‘Self Respect’. He never shied away from supporting the cause in other states either, a case in point being his explicit support to the Srinagar Conclave of 1983 where leaders from over 6 states including NT Rama Rao, Farooq Abdullah, Biju Patnaik etc., drafted a 9-page document on Centre-state relations. Notably, the event received an extensive coverage in Murasoli – a newspaper Karunanidhi edited. In spite of the numerous differences with the Centre, what makes the politics of Karunanidhi praiseworthy is the fact that there were no secessionist, undemocratic or unconstitutional tendencies whatsoever.

    Forging a Fraternal Society

    The aspect of ‘cultural intimacy’ can be understood by the phrases the leaders used to address their cadres and the people of Tamil Nadu, be it ‘Thambi’ (Brother) by Annadurai or ‘Udanpirappugal’ (Brethren – Gender Neutral) by Karunanidhi. While the left might argue that such references carry a patronising note, these helped the Dravidian leaders to shape a society marked by fraternity. These terms need to be understood in the context of the deep-rooted caste hierarchy in Tamil Nadu at that time.

    Nationalization of Bus Services: Mobility and Empowerment

    While the DMK played an important role in Bank Nationalization taken up by Indira Gandhi, the party had expressed its favorable stance towards the idea of nationalization of banks even before it became the slogan of Indian National Congress. As revealed in one of the letters of Annadurai to his brethren, the economic ideology that DMK espoused then is clearly revealed, which was to create a socialistic order in matters concerning public needs.

    Karunanidhi’s pioneering attempts to nationalize the passenger transport services, first as the Minister of Transport in the DMK Government of Annadurai and then as the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, following the demise of Annadurai led to the emergence of a number of Transport Corporations like Pallavan, Chola, Chera, Pandiyan in 1972. One can argue that it was an attempt to bind the Tamil speaking world (Tamil Koorum Nallulagu) through routes, which connects remote locations in the state to Chennai.

    The nationalization of bus routes signified the role of Government in everyday life of its citizens, as the Government ensured their mobility. The outcomes of the nationalization scheme in terms of the resultant connectivity that spurred the movement of people from villages to nearby towns for employment and the impact it had on the power equation between the farmers and the farm laborers, the altered state of small farmers who were able to transport their produce from villages to town markets, and the sociological impact of mobility on the ossified caste structures remains to be studied in depth. However, going by the inferences made by a few scholars, the impact is palpable (Narayan S, 2018)

    The nationalization of the bus routes also indicated the conscious decision of the then Government in establishing the role of the private sector within the boundaries drawn by the State. The post-liberalization era saw the DMK regime of 1996 – 2001, introducing the pioneering scheme of Mini-Bus for last mile connectivity, wherein the entrepreneurial spirit of private players was utilized to ensure seamless connectivity to every hamlet and settlement in the state of Tamil Nadu. The role of Mini-Bus in supporting the aspirations of people in rural and semi-urban areas previously underserved by transportation systems can be sensed through the number of commuters using the services of such buses.

    Equity and Social Justice

    Karunanidhi upheld Dravidian ideology not only as the leader of Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam but also as an administrator who infused this ideology in his policy decisions, which resulted in a successful case of securing spaces for the backward and oppressed classes in Tamil Nadu. Increasing the reservation quota for lower sections of the society in education and jobs is one such far-reaching intervention. As argued by Narayan (2018) this enabled the entry of lower sections of the society into bureaucracy, which in turn had a positive impact on delivery of public services. A testament to this is the success achieved in schemes like Public Distribution System (PDS) and provision of healthcare services. In other words, he didn’t take politics to the lower sections, he meticulously made them a part of it.

    Moreover, his policies accorded importance to equity, even before the discussion around recognizing the need to ensure equity over equality gained popularity. This was indeed catalyzed by the climate that prevailed in Tamil Nadu, thanks to the legacy of ensuring Social Justice via various means, led by Ayothee Thassar, Justice Party, Periyar's Self Respect Movement, the Dravidar Kazhagam (DK), and the consolidation in the form of Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK).

    Where Does the Movement Stand Today?

    The aspirations of the people in Tamil Nadu are now akin to that of a developed state and in this context the deliverables of the Dravidian parties are not enough. It is also important to note that the movement did miss out on uplifting a few communities to whom the said deliverables should reach. For the rest, the DMK will have to reinvent itself to stay relevant.

    On the positive side, the ideals and the passion of the movement form an integral part of the masses of Tamil Nadu. To begin with, an instance from the recent past where the country saw the nature and magnitude of the solidarity of people of Tamil Nadu was during the protests against the ban of Jallikattu (the regional variant of the bull-vaulting sport). This was quickly succeeded by protests around the death of Anitha, a meritorious student and opposition to National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET).

    The above-mentioned protests were staged at a time when the State machinery and the ruling dispensation were marked by a phase of instability, infighting, and were in the process of returning to normalcy subsequent to the death of former Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa. A few similarities are, the kind of solidarity displayed by the people of the state across various sections of the society be it caste, religion, language, place of birth; and more importantly the opposition to any sort of an excess or overreach by the Central government.

    Clearly, we do not see as many black-shirt clad people as the previous generation used to. (Black-shirts are associated with both DK and DMK) The point however is that the ideals associated with those clothes have transcended to the conscience of the people and this qualifies as a worthy tribute to the stalwart of the Dravidian movement.

    The late DMK leader M Karunanidhi marked his place in history not only as Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, but also as a leader who played a key role in bringing together parties across India under a common narrative more than once time in the last 50 years. As the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) is going through a difficult phase owing to infighting, the following thoughts on the Dravidian patriarch may be relevant.

    Tamil Identity as a Constituent Element of the Idea of India

    The Constituent Assembly debates throw light on how the makers of the Constitution envisioned India. The pre-Partition discussions suggest that the makers were open to the idea of a weak Centre and stronger states. The post-Partition period however, witnessed a shift in this stance with the emergence of a bias towards a unitary structure. One argument was that the southern states have not witnessed violence akin to what the north suffered during Partition. Has this influenced their view of federalism? DMK leaders were vehemently opposed to a unitary set-up. In this context, Era Sezhiyan a veteran parliamentarian of Dravidian mantle remarked, “when they talk of integration, they forget one fundamental thing. India is a vast sub-continent with different cultures, histories, races, languages and nationalities … You cannot undo what history has done … with a stroke of the pen”.

    The aspirations of Tamil nationalist forces gained in the 1950s and the early 1960s. Karunanidhi was almost marked by what Sugata Bose (2017) calls as “cultural intimacy” — being aware and appreciative of multiple identities. He advocated a nuanced version of Tamil identity that set out to conserve its pride and yet, continue to thrive within the Indian identity as its constituent element. Almost half a century after Karunanidhi’s articulation, Karnataka’s former Chief Minister Siddaramaiah echoed his stance when he observed, ‘My identity as a proud Kannadiga is not inconsistent with my identity as a proud Indian’.

    The Love for Autonomy and Advocating Federalism

    The arguments in favour of state autonomy as revealed through an analysis of ‘Thambikku Annavin Kadithangal (Letters to the Brother)’ by Annadurai suggest that there was a strong fiscal motive in seeking state autonomy. Under Karunanidhi, by virtue of his long administrative legacy, the arguments assumed a nuanced structure: the autonomy pushed for by Karunanidhi not only had a resonance in the Jallikattu protests of 2017 for preserving their cultural legacy, but it also raised the clamour for fiscal autonomy in face of resistance to the 15th Finance Commission’s terms of reference.

    The strident demand for “fiscal federalism” and in turn total federalism has now reignited the aspirations for federal autonomy — a call that has hitherto been associated primarily with the DMK from the days of Annadurai. Karunanidhi's relentless commitment towards the ideas of state autonomy and federalism could be observed in his decision to setup Rajamannar Committee to understand and reflect upon Centre-state relationship. Furthermore, the strong opposition to the usage of Article 356 by the Central Government in the pre-S.R.Bommai case days reiterate the importance he had attributed to the idea of the strong states, that is strongly grounded on ‘Self Respect’. He never shied away from supporting the cause in other states either, a case in point being his explicit support to the Srinagar Conclave of 1983 where leaders from over 6 states including NT Rama Rao, Farooq Abdullah, Biju Patnaik etc., drafted a 9-page document on Centre-state relations. Notably, the event received an extensive coverage in Murasoli – a newspaper Karunanidhi edited. In spite of the numerous differences with the Centre, what makes the politics of Karunanidhi praiseworthy is the fact that there were no secessionist, undemocratic or unconstitutional tendencies whatsoever.

    Forging a Fraternal Society

    The aspect of ‘cultural intimacy’ can be understood by the phrases the leaders used to address their cadres and the people of Tamil Nadu, be it ‘Thambi’ (Brother) by Annadurai or ‘Udanpirappugal’ (Brethren – Gender Neutral) by Karunanidhi. While the left might argue that such references carry a patronising note, these helped the Dravidian leaders to shape a society marked by fraternity. These terms need to be understood in the context of the deep-rooted caste hierarchy in Tamil Nadu at that time.

    Nationalization of Bus Services: Mobility and Empowerment

    While the DMK played an important role in Bank Nationalization taken up by Indira Gandhi, the party had expressed its favorable stance towards the idea of nationalization of banks even before it became the slogan of Indian National Congress. As revealed in one of the letters of Annadurai to his brethren, the economic ideology that DMK espoused then is clearly revealed, which was to create a socialistic order in matters concerning public needs.

    Karunanidhi’s pioneering attempts to nationalize the passenger transport services, first as the Minister of Transport in the DMK Government of Annadurai and then as the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, following the demise of Annadurai led to the emergence of a number of Transport Corporations like Pallavan, Chola, Chera, Pandiyan in 1972. One can argue that it was an attempt to bind the Tamil speaking world (Tamil Koorum Nallulagu) through routes, which connects remote locations in the state to Chennai.

    The nationalization of bus routes signified the role of Government in everyday life of its citizens, as the Government ensured their mobility. The outcomes of the nationalization scheme in terms of the resultant connectivity that spurred the movement of people from villages to nearby towns for employment and the impact it had on the power equation between the farmers and the farm laborers, the altered state of small farmers who were able to transport their produce from villages to town markets, and the sociological impact of mobility on the ossified caste structures remains to be studied in depth. However, going by the inferences made by a few scholars, the impact is palpable (Narayan S, 2018)

    The nationalization of the bus routes also indicated the conscious decision of the then Government in establishing the role of the private sector within the boundaries drawn by the State. The post-liberalization era saw the DMK regime of 1996-2001, introducing the pioneering scheme of Mini-Bus for last mile connectivity, wherein the entrepreneurial spirit of private players was utilized to ensure seamless connectivity to every hamlet and settlement in the state of Tamil Nadu. The role of Mini-Bus in supporting the aspirations of people in rural and semi-urban areas previously underserved by transportation systems can be sensed through the number of commuters using the services of such buses.

    Equity and Social Justice

    Karunanidhi upheld Dravidian ideology not only as the leader of Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam but also as an administrator who infused this ideology in his policy decisions, which resulted in a successful case of securing spaces for the backward and oppressed classes in Tamil Nadu. Increasing the reservation quota for lower sections of the society in education and jobs is one such far-reaching intervention. As argued by Narayan (2018) this enabled the entry of lower sections of the society into bureaucracy, which in turn had a positive impact on delivery of public services. A testament to this is the success achieved in schemes like Public Distribution System (PDS) and provision of healthcare services. In other words, he didn’t take politics to the lower sections, he meticulously made them a part of it.

    Moreover, his policies accorded importance to equity, even before the discussion around recognizing the need to ensure equity over equality gained popularity. This was indeed catalyzed by the climate that prevailed in Tamil Nadu, thanks to the legacy of ensuring Social Justice via various means, led by Ayothee Thassar, Justice Party, Periyar's Self Respect Movement, the Dravidar Kazhagam (DK), and the consolidation in the form of Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK).

    Where Does the Movement Stand Today?

    The aspirations of the people in Tamil Nadu are now akin to that of a developed state and in this context the deliverables of the Dravidian parties are not enough. It is also important to note that the movement did miss out on uplifting a few communities to whom the said deliverables should reach. For the rest, the DMK will have to reinvent itself to stay relevant.

    On the positive side, the ideals and the passion of the movement form an integral part of the masses of Tamil Nadu. To begin with, an instance from the recent past where the country saw the nature and magnitude of the solidarity of people of Tamil Nadu was during the protests against the ban of Jallikattu (the regional variant of the bull-vaulting sport). This was quickly succeeded by protests around the death of Anitha, a meritorious student and opposition to National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET).

    The above-mentioned protests were staged at a time when the State machinery and the ruling dispensation were marked by a phase of instability, infighting, and were in the process of returning to normalcy subsequent to the death of former Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa. A few similarities are, the kind of solidarity displayed by the people of the state across various sections of the society be it caste, religion, language, place of birth; and more importantly the opposition to any sort of an excess or overreach by the Central government.

    Clearly, we do not see as many black-shirt clad people as the previous generation used to. (Black-shirts are associated with both DK and DMK) The point however is that the ideals associated with those clothes have transcended to the conscience of the people and this qualifies as a worthy tribute to the stalwart of the Dravidian movement.

     


    Vignesh is a Policy Analyst with a special interest in politics and identities in democratic societies. He holds a Masters in Contemporary India Studies with a special focus on Identity Politics. ​Jeyannathann is a Biochemical Engineer with focus on environment, working in the domain of Water and Sanitation. He holds a special interest in the history of Dravidian movement.

    The authors thank Kalaiyarasan A and Karthick Ram Manoharan for their inputs.

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