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A Dravidian leader for a plural India

Telegraph 2018-08-08 04:25:33
M. Karunanidhi with Indira Gandhi, with whom he formed an alliance in 1971

In 1948, one Padmavathi, the wife of a Dravidian activist, was severely sick with tuberculosis. Her husband, however, left her to attend to a party meeting in a nearby town. When he returned, his wife had passed away.

Commitment to the Dravidian movement meant more than family ties to the then 24-year-old Karunanidhi, who would later be known for his symbolic reference to party cadres as udanpirappugal (family members).

Indeed, thousands of these udanpirappugal thronged the vicinity of Kauvery hospital in Chennai as the Dravidian leader, former chief minister and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam chief Muthuvel Karunanidhi breathed his last.

Fondly referred to as 'Kalaignar', or artist, Karunanidhi was also a novelist, poet, dramatist, and scriptwriter who optimally used the medium of mass culture to propagate Dravidian ideals. His scripts for Tamil films were encoded with messages of popular Dravidianism that stressed Tamil pride, a desire for egalitarianism and social progress.

Hailing from an extremely marginal caste that held little social and political clout, Karunanidhi was hugely influenced by the militantly atheistic ideas of Periyar E.V. Ramasamy, whom he held in high regard till the very end. But the political mentor of Karunanidhi was the charismatic, and politically pragmatic, C.N. Annadurai, who would eventually break from Periyar's movement to form the DMK in 1949 to participate in electoral politics.

With V.P. Singh whom he helped become Prime Minister in 1989

Karunanidhi made his name in the course of the anti-Hindi agitation. Learning of Hindi was made compulsory in the then Madras Presidency by C. Rajagopalachari in 1937. Both Periyar and Annadurai promptly opposed this move. Karunanidhi took out an anti-Hindi procession in 1938, when he was 14. Compulsory Hindi was withdrawn in 1940, only to be brought back eight years later. But this time, it faced more formidable foes.

The official languages commission was created in 1955 with B.G. Kher as its first chairperson. The Dravidianists criticised it for its largely pro-Hindi policies.

The DMK, though a fledgling organisation, had powerful local leaders who articulated Tamil discontent with the Indian language policy. The DMK appealed to a wider base with its politics of Tamil pride, social justice and state autonomy and effectively took over the mantle of the anti-Hindi agitation. Although Periyar supported the local Congress heavyweight K. Kamaraj against the DMK, Karunanidhi won his first seat in the Tamil Nadu Assembly from Kulithalai in the 1957 elections. He was 33 then. Since then, he has never lost a seat he contested, having an enviable six-decade career as a legislator when he passed away.

Despite Nehru's assurances to look into the grievances of the linguistic minorities in 1962, the DMK was not convinced. They formed the anti-Hindi agitation committee, with Karunanidhi as the president, in June 1963. Later, the then DMK chief Annadurai presented Karunanidhi with a silver sword and shield to be the "General" in the fight against Hindi imposition.

The anti-Hindi agitation rocked the state from August to September 1963 and the protesters braved police brutalities. Both Annadurai and Karunanidhi were arrested in December 1963 and sentenced to rigorous imprisonment for six months.

Karunanidhi with Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh. He played a key role in the formation of the UPA I and UPA II governments

The repression of the DMK and its leaders would continue for the next few years. Karunanidhi was taken into preventive detention on the Republic Day of 1965 and again in February 1965 when the state government conducted mass arrests of the agitators.

But by this time, the DMK was a powerful force that commanded the attention of the Tamil subaltern population. Such was its influence that a student leader of the DMK defeated Kamaraj in 1967 elections, the year that saw the Dravidian party capturing power in Tamil Nadu.

Karunanidhi took over as chief minister when his mentor passed away in 1969. In power, the DMK always sought to use its influence to negotiate with the Centre. It should be noted here that the DMK's politics was both confrontationist as well as compromising.

Although dismissed by Indira Gandhi in January 1976 - the DMK was the only party in power to have formally opposed the Emergency - Karunanidhi entered into an alliance with the Congress (I) in the 1980 Assembly elections. In electoral democracy, political manoeuvering takes priority over ideological rigidity. The short-lived and strained alliance between the DMK and the BJP is such an example.

The DMK chief enjoyed a good rapport with Atal Bihari Vajpayee but dumped him in 2004

In the general election of 2004, the DMK played a key role in Tamil Nadu in helping a UPA victory - the DMK-Congress alliance won all the 39 seats they contested. In the 2009 general election, the alliance again tasted victory, winning 27 seats. In the 2011 Assembly elections though, the DMK suffered a humbling defeat to Jayalalithaa's AIADMK.

While the DMK was opposed to Hindi imposition, Karunanidhi did not conceive of the Tamil identity in chauvinistic terms, but instead saw it as a unique part of a plural and diverse India.

Despite its fleeting alliance with the BJP in the past, the DMK is still seen as the party of the minorities in the state. Indeed, its move to provide reservations for Muslims and Christians won them much support. Even towards the end of his life Karunanidhi attempted to build coalitions with regional leaders like Mamata Banerjee, Siddaramaiah, and Lalu Prasad Yadav in efforts to construct alternatives that would secure the secular and plural character of the Indian state, and also strengthen federalism.

Karunanidhi's demise is a loss for the Indian polity.

Karthick Ram Manoharan  is assistant professor of political science at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta (CSSSC). The author would like to thank A. Kalaiyarasan for his inputs