On Saturday, November 2, the Tamil Nadu BJP posted a couplet by the legendary Tamil poet, Thiruvalluvar. The chosen verse was taken from the Kadavul Vazhthu (In Praise of the Creator) chapter of Valluvar's Tirukkural— the famed compilation of 1330 kurrals (as the couplets are known). Gopalkrishna Gandhi in his 2015 translations of the text “The Tirukkural – A New English Version” interprets the verse: “Your learning’s idle, incomplete. If you haven’t placed it at the source’s feet”. The TN BJP’s Twitter handle along with quoting the original Tamil text added that the “education of those who profess atheism and spurn the faithful is pointless”. Further, it claimed that the Dravida Kazhagam (DK), the DMK and the CPI (M) were the sort of forces that Valluvar had warned against. Lastly, attached to the tweet was a picture of Valluvar dressed in saffron robes, holy ash smeared on his forehead and wearing rudraksha beads.
கற்றதனால் ஆய பயனென்கொல் வாலறிவன்
நற்றாள் தொழாஅர் எனின்
கடவுளை தூற்றி, இறைநம்பிக்கை கொண்டவர்களை பழிப்பவர்களுக்கு, அவர்கள் கற்ற கல்வியினால் என்ன பயன்?
அன்றே வள்ளுவர் சொன்னதை இன்று தி.கவும், திமுகவை நம்பி வாழும் கம்யூனிஸ்டுட்களும், அவர்கள் சார்ந்த ஊடகங்களும் அறிந்து தெளிய வேண்டும் pic.twitter.com/xBeXs9aXHa
— BJP Tamilnadu (@BJP4TamilNadu) November 2, 2019
Unsurprisingly, the tweet set off a storm of backlash. #BJPInsultsThiruvalluvar was used over 10,000 times. Thiruvalluvar has conventionally been depicted in an ascetic white robe and with no religious markings on his body. The celebrated poet who probably lived and wrote sometime between 2 BCE and 5 CE has long been a towering icon of Tamil culture. In the 70s Valluvar Kottam commemorating the poet was commissioned by then Chief Minister and DMK Leader, M Karunanidhi. Under the DMK’s auspices the 133ft tall Thiruvalluvar Statue at Kanyakumari, was finally unveiled in 2000.
His couplets continue to be memorised in Tamil Nadu schools. They cover a wide range of topics from the divine to love to advise for rulers. In Tamil culture, he is hardly viewed as a religious figure.
Speaking to the Indian Cultural Forum and Newsclick, political analyst and writer Arunan Kathiresa calls the BJP’s representation “ideological fraud”. “Firstly, it needs to be noted that in Thiruvalluvar’s time, Hinduism, as we know it today, did not even exist. Jainism, Buddhism and Vedic doctrines existed” he said. “The Thirukurral was a direct opposition to Vedic doctrine. It opposes the varna system. Those in the BJP who are quoting portions to suit their representation, need to read the text and understand its essence properly.” He added, “the BJP is trying to co-opt Thiruvalluvar. They are trying to forcibly convert him to their religion. They have no great leaders of their own, so they co-opt Sardar Patel, a Congress leader. They have no great literary figures or thinkers of their own, so they try to co-opt Thiruvalluvar. We must speak out against this betrayal of rationality and historical evidence.”
This is not the first time the BJP has attempted to appropriate Tamil culture. Perhaps because of the thorough routing the party faced in Tamil Nadu during the General Elections and the unpopularity of the Prime Minister, evidenced in the black-flag protests and #GoBackModi that erupts during his visits to the state, the BJP appears to be making attempts to change their regional approach. Modi met the Chinese President Xi Jingping in Mamallapuram clad in a white veshti and shirt. He quoted the Tirukurral in Thailand. These overtures do not seem to be making much of an impression on the people.
Anger over issues such as NEET, Hindi imposition and anti-incumbency towards the BJP-allied AIADMK in the state are perhaps reasons for the BJP’s continued unpopularity in Tamil Nadu.
P Suganthi State General Secretary of AIDWA told ICF and Newsclick, “Thiruvalluvar and his work belongs to everyone. He wrote on wide-ranging topics. The BJP is trying to saffronise him, just as they did Patel. All that people have common claim over, BJP tries to bring into the Hindutva fold. Such actions are only going to increase people’s displeasure with the BJP in Tamil Nadu, not endear them.”
Reactions from DMK and CPI(M) leaders have been swift and curt.
— Kanimozhi (கனிமொழி) (@KanimozhiDMK) November 7, 2019
People from the state who were tweeting using the hashtag BJPInsultsThiruvalluvar also weighed in the thousands.
I think this single Template is too enough for ur Writeup @Narayanan3
— M.Gokul AMMK (@Gokul_Ammk) November 3, 2019
— venkysplace (@venkysplace) November 3, 2019
Vandalism of a Thiruvalluvar statue has been reported in Thanjavur district. The perpetrators have not been identified so far, though there has been strong condemnation from all quarters. Following the incident, Arjun Sampath of the Hindu Makkal Katchi (a right-wing nationalist party), further fanned tensions by garlanding a Thiruvalluvar statue, draping it in saffron cloth and affixing rudraksha beads. He was later detained by the Thanjavur police, pending an FIR.