Different shades of Karunanidhi
August 14, 2018
In the 2016 Tamil Nadu assembly elections, BJP lost deposit in all seats, barring three. Amidst the Modi wave in other parts of the country— which has even impregnated the previously unimaginable regions like Bengal— BJP lost deposits in 231 assembly segments of Tamil Nadu. If there is one contribution of Karunanidhi which stands out, it is the creation of this political culture which has led to the development of a common sense strongly antithetical to Hindutva. This culture has not come into being merely due to the legacy of the Self-respect movement and its association with reason and rationality, but also because of the way Karunanidhi, as the leader of Dravidian movement and as the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, mediated and engaged with religion.
While the DMK did shed its atheist tag quite early since coming into power, this did not mean a complete surrender in front of communal forces. When blatant attempts were made to instigate communal passions in early 70s, Karunanidhi, as the Chief Minister, would argue that true believers cannot fall for such sinister moves. True belief was thus reinterpreted in a way that it came to be associated with love and compassion for minorities. As Prof. Pandian pointed out later, even rationality, which is otherwise considered dichotomous with religion, has been selectively used by Karunanidhi to engage with religious questions. This created a political culture in which rationality and religion are not seen in oppositional terms. Most importantly, the cultural- nationalist project which the Dravidian movement championed and which Karunanidhi led since the last fifty years, always considered Muslims and Christians as part of the Dravidian community. As a result of this inclusion, at no point did they become the ‘other’ for instigating communal passions. The only blemish on this record was the DMK’s alliance with BJP in the late 1990s. Nevertheless, the presence of this political culture has resulted in creating major obstacles for Hindutva forces to make inroads into Tamil Nadu. This will remain the greatest achievement of Karunanidhi.
His records, however, remain chequered on the social justice front, for which he is otherwise well known. Of course, he championed reservations and implemented several populist policies which gave immediate relief to the masses. But the domination of the Dravidian movement by forward OBC’s, particularly of the DMK, was not something which was adequately addressed. This association did not come into being during the time of Karunanidhi. From the very inception of the Non-brahmin movement, this association was apparent. In fact, the Non –Brahmin Manifesto which was released in 1916, stated that “The bulk of tax-payers including a large majority of the zamindars, landholders and agriculturists belong to the same class of Non-Brahmins”. Despite this, the non-Brahmin leadership argued that they were not given adequate representation in government services, as compared to the Brahmins. It is not that the large majority of non-Brahmins were economically well to do in that juncture, but, even during the colonial period— in contrast to several regions of India— the majority of local notables in Tamil Nadu belonged to non-Brahmin communities. They formed and steered the Justice party but when contradictions emerged within the non-Brahmin bloc, with the backward OBCs and Dalits complaining about the domination of leadership by forwarding OBCs, the Justice party leadership could not address these grievances leading to the demise of the party.
The cultural -nationalist trajectory embraced by the DMK, the successor of the Justice Party in the post-colonial period, could subsume many of these contractions, albeit temporarily. But the connection of the party with dominant OBCs was apparent for scholars who studied the party at that juncture. Almost nothing was done to check the domination of these groups in rural Tamil Nadu by Karunanidhi and his party. Land reforms were not implemented properly. Vast swathes of land owned by temple trusts— many of them controlled by dominant sections of non-brahmins— did not even come under the purview of land reforms. Instead, populist measures were resorted to and while these measures did not address the unequal social relations in Tamil Nadu, it helped in significantly improving the living standards of the vast majority. However, even regarding these populist measures, it has been argued that the populism promoted by Karunanidhi addressed the concerns of the assertive sections within the non-Brahmin bloc, which are the upwardly mobile OBCs. Even in the implementation of reservations, despite continuous protests of backward OBC groups like Vanniyars, who argued that the benefits of reservations were accruing to only the dominant sections of the OBCs, there were no attempts to make separate categories of reservation for the most backward sections, until the late 80s. By that time, Vanniyars, the most vocal backward OBC group, had formed a new party called Pattali Makkal Kakshi. Even policies like the cancellation of agricultural loans or free electricity for agriculture, addressed the concerns of socially mobile sections, compared to the very poor. It is for these reasons that when MGR formed the ADMK, the poor, especially Dalits, flocked in large numbers to support him. While even he did not attempt to address the unequal social relations, populist policies of his regime like the mid-day meal scheme, directly addressed the concerns of the very poor.
Overall, the profuse implementation of populism by Dravidian parties, in which a steering role was played by Karunanidhi, has helped in improving the human development indices of Tamil Nadu. This has also given mobility, although limited, to several individuals belonging to the most downtrodden sections. However, a radical overhaul of social relations, which seemed like the promise of the Dravidian movement during the period of Periyar, has never occurred. The biggest example of this broken promise is the continuing violence against lower castes, which Tami Nadu has become infamous for, in the recent decades.
Dravidian parties, particularly the DMK, reflect more than the power dynamics that operate in the society. Most functionaries of the DMK at the local level belong to the socio-economic elite. In most cases, they epitomise power in their regions. With vote-buying becoming prevalent across Tamil Nadu, economic clout has become a very important factor in becoming candidates of Dravidian parties, even at the panchayat level. In my own fieldwork in Tamil Nadu, I have come across several DMK functionaries who could not state anything about Periyar or what the Dravidian ideology stands for. For many of them, the position of their party has become an extra tool to advance their business interests. In many ways, the DMK thus presently functions in like manner to Congress in the 1950s, when it was controlled completely by local notables.
To sum up, while we should appreciate the contribution of Karunanidhi for the creation of a very strong secular culture in Tamil Nadu, a further and deeper democratisation of the Tamil society can happen only with a break from the policies of both the DMK and the ADMK. This means a deeper and meaningful break from the past, which includes a large part of the history of the Non-Brahmin movement. Despite numerous positive features, the Dravidian movement in praxis never seemed interested in the annihilation of caste or a radical overhaul of the society, apart from the Self- respect phase steered by Periyar. An objective appraisal of Karunanidhi’s political career should not overlook these facts.
Balu Sunil, a doctoral student in centre for political science, JNU.Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the writer's own, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Indian Writers' Forum.
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