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May 14, 2016

Thoughts from Tamil Nadu


May 14, 2016

A silent storm is brewing in Tamil Nadu, in India’s deep south, led by women fed up with husbands who would much rather while away their time searching for ‘jollity’ in the state’s officially sanctioned liquor stores than earn a decent day’s work. As for lending a helping hand with the household chores, well, that might be too much to ask of the Subcontinent’s men.

And so last year, when Gandhian activist Sasi Perumal who was agitating for a ban on liquor died accidentally, his death unleashed a wave of protests that had been simmering beneath the surface. Women across the state picked up the baton against alcoholism, and the state’s major and minor political parties were forced to acknowledge the sentiment. After all, Tamil Nadu is going to the polls on May 16, one of five states across India that will hopefully send an electoral report card on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP’s two years in power.

Except that Tamil Nadu is everything you would never expect it to be. For a start, it’s a large state in the Indian South and, for a north-Indian like me, totally alien territory. Almost no one speaks Hindi. Only in big cities like Chennai can you converse in English – that language of the upper classes. It’s like being in a foreign country.

So much easier to travel across the northern hinterland, I thought, as I logged the miles across Tamil Nadu this week, in the company of a multilingual journalist friend. There is a fundamental unity in the geographical stretch from the Hindu Kush mountains to Chittagong-by-the-Bay of Bengal, across ethnicity, language, religion and culture, never mind that this landmass is now four countries on the map.

But Tamil Nadu? The only thing common between this state and the rest of the country is the Bay of Bengal, on which the two great cities, Calcutta and Madras – now Kolkata and Chennai, respectively – were built by the hordes of administrators that were once the foot-soldiers of the British Raj. Across the vast expanse of Tamil Nadu, where people speak Tamil almost exclusively – a language that has no connection with Sanskrit, the mother lode of the languages of the Indian subcontinent, and even less with Indo-European philology. – there still exist vast district collectorates, in places with unpronounceable names like Puddukottai, through which the British expanded and consolidated their hold over the jewel in the crown.

Certainly, 70 years of independence have changed almost everything. For a start, Tamil Nadu has some of the best socioeconomic indicators in India, especially in terms of infant mortality and maternal mortality. This is the result of a social revolution launched in the 1920s by the anti-caste reformer E V Ramaswamy Naicker, fondly known as ‘Periyar’ (a term for ‘respected elder brother’) and consolidated by all the political parties that have taken power since.

Fascinatingly, cities like Chidambaram, Thanjavur and Madurai, which are synonymous with temples to Hindu gods like Shiva and Vishnu and the fish-eyed goddess Meenakshi (another form of Parvati, the consort of Shiva) and the dancing god Nataraja, also have large Muslim populations. It is common to see women in the black hijab – definitely an import from the Arab world, where South India’s Muslims have gravitated for decades in search of jobs. But I was struck by the image of a contented group of women, in hijab, picnicking in the courtyard of the Thanjavur temple. Nobody bothered them and they didn’t bother anyone.

And now it’s time to go to the polls again. The two main parties, the DMK and the AIADMK are vying for the people’s affections, along with a ‘third front’ led by the ageing film star Vijayakanth. But there’s another reason why it will be interesting to watch the Tamil Nadu polls: the BJP has absolutely no presence here. Of course, the BJP knows that. None of its top leadership speaks or understands even a smattering of Tamil, which immediately limits any pretensions of the BJP being a national party. It is a north-Indian party. Full stop.

There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. There’s enough to deal with in Delhi – the bribes that were allegedly taken by the Congress Party’s Sonia Gandhi in the AgustaWestland helicopter scam, the fallout of the internal politicking in Nepal, with whom India shares an open border, the hanging of Jamaat-e-Islami leader Motiur Rahman in Bangladesh for his war crimes in 1971 and the expulsion of liquor baron and girlie calendar promoter Vijay Mallya from his membership of parliament – without being embarrassed by the absence of the blooming lotus in Tamil Nadu.

Still, this election will also show that Tamil Nadu is connected with the rest of the country in other ways; it’s women have now joined Kerala and Bihar in agitating for a liquor ban. The political parties are goggle-eyed, because they know that several of their much-touted socioeconomic measures, as well as other freebies (like a pair of goats, several grams of gold, a laptop and a scooter), are funded by the Rs30,000 crore that the state earns annually through liquor sales.

What government in its right mind is going to forego that? The results of the polls are out next week, so watch this space.

The writer is a Delhi-based journalist who is passionate about debate and discussion across South Asia.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @jomalhotra


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