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Opinion

September 8, 2018

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Tamil politics through the ages

It is an unfortunate fact that an Indian studies centre doesn’t exist in Pakistan. While there is a centre for South Asian studies in Lahore, it mostly focuses on all Saarc states, and not specifically on India. As a result, there is a dearth of research articles and journals published in Pakistan about India.

The meagre research publications we have access to in Pakistan are either about the Kashmir conflict or the so-called Two-Nation Theory. What little awareness there is about India in Pakistan is overwhelmingly about North India.

South India is an uncharted land for Pakistanis. Perhaps the only introduction to South India one gets in Pakistan Studies textbooks are related to Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan – the two indomitable rulers from Mysore who fought against the British in the 18th century. In recent years, newspaper reports about Tamil Nadu’s former chief minister Jayalalithaa’s corrupt practices, her immense wealth, and her adopted son’s extravagant wedding ceremony have attracted attention of some keen followers of South India’s politics.

The death of Karunanidhi last month – at the age of 94 – gives us an opportunity to discuss Tamil politics, especially Karunanidhi’s role in it. Interestingly, South India has had more interaction with European powers in comparison with North India. British, French, and Portuguese explorers and traders landed in South India first and then tried to strengthen their foothold in the Indian hinterland. The British had an upper hand. From Madras to Kerala and Karnataka, their supremacy was firmly established by the late 18th century. Meanwhile, North India only came under a complete British sway in the mid-19th century.

As a result, English is much more widely spoken in South India. The literacy rate is almost 100 percent and other human development indicators are also far better, especially in comparison with Bimaru states. Bimaru is an acronym some journalists in India use for Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh. Sometimes an ‘o’ is also added to the acronym to denote Odisha (formerly Orissa). These states are also included in the cow belt that represents their Hindu majority’s extraordinary devotion to their cow goddess. Hindu fundamentalism has been more pronounced in North India but has a rather limited following in the south.

Perhaps Tamil politicians were the first to oppose the introduction of Hindi in South India. In the 1930s, the provincial governments led by the Indian National Congress introduced Hindi in schools as a compulsory subject. Many Tamil politicians opposed the decision. This opposition to Hindi continued even after Independence till the 1960s when the Nehru government in the centre decided that it was a state’s right to choose languages for its people. In the 1950s and 1960s, the central government of India, led by Nehru, made two decisive concessions that have ensured Indian integrity.

The first was the decision to constitute a commission to redraw state boundaries. As a result, India now has 29 states as opposed to just a dozen or so it had at the time of Independence. The second was the decision to not impose Hindi across India. Though attempts were initially made to make Hindi compulsory, the centre relented in the face of stiff resistance, especially from South Indian states. These two landmark decisions have not only inculcated a feeling of nationhood among various groups in India, but have also thwarted centrifugal forces.

After Independence, the Indian National Congress ruled over Madras from 1947 to 1967. The two most prominent Tamil leaders of this period were Rajagopalachari (1878-1972) and Kamraj (1903-1975). Both worked with the Congress and established its stronghold in Madras. Rajagopalachari became the governor of West Bengal in 1947, and then the only Indian governor-general of India. He took over from Lord Mountbatten in 1948 and handed over his charge to the first president of India, Dr Rajendra Prasad, in 1950 after the Indian constitution was promulgated.

After the death of Vallabhbhai Patel, the first home minister, Rajagopalachari also remained the union home minister for one year before taking charge as the chief minister of Madras in 1952. In the late 1950s, Rajagopalachari left the Congress and veered towards the Right, calling to replace Nehru’s left-wing politics. In the 1960s, Rajagopalachari involved himself in Tamil nationalist politics with Annadurai who was strongly opposed to the Congress.

Meanwhile, Kamraj remained loyal to Nehru and became the chief minister of Madras in 1954 – a position for almost a decade. The late 1960s marked a turning point in the politics of Madras. After the death of Nehru, his daughter Indira established herself as the Congress leader and prime minister, much to the chagrin of some senior Congress leaders. In the 1967 elections, the Congress was routed by the opposition and Annaddurai became the first non-Congress chief minister. An important aspect of anti-Congress politics in Madras was a clear anti-Brahmin stance taken by some nationalist leaders such as Periyar Ramasamy (1879-1973).

Although Periyar was an early Congress member, he left the party in 1925 when he realised that the Congress was much too Brahmin-dominated. He founded the Dravidar Kazhagam in 1944, a party for Dravidians.

In 1949, Annadurai, one of Periyar’s former disciples, split from his mentor and formed the DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) – a party that was ultimately led by Karunanidhi for 50 years. In 1967, the DMK, led by Annadurai, became the first party with a clear majority, other than Congress, to form a government in a state on its own.

Earlier in Kerala, the Communist Party of India had formed a coalition government in 1957, which was dismissed by the central government two years later. In the 1960s, the three most important DMK leaders were Annadurai, Karunanidhi, and M G Ramachandran (MGR). All three leaders were associated with art and culture in one way or the other. Annaddurai was an acclaimed Tamil writer and had written and acted in several plays that were later made into movies. MGR was a cultural icon and the most influential actor in the Tamil film industry.

Karunanidhi was a renowned journalist, playwright and screenwriter who contributed to Tamil literature by writing novels, plays, and stories. The trio represented a non-Brahmin, non-Congress, and non-Hindi streak of politics in South India, and used both print and electronic media to promote it. When Annadurai died in 1969 – just days after changing the state’s name from Madras to Tamil Nadu (or Tamil Land) – the DMK was led by Karunanidhi and supported by MGR. Karunanidhi won the second state elections for the DMK in 1971 and remained chief minister till 1976.

In 1972, MGR split from Karunanidhi and formed the All India Anna DMK (AIA DMK). MGR defeated Karunanidhi in the 1977 election and remained the chief minister for a decade till his death in December 1987. It was only after MGR’s death that Karunanidhi and his DMK could re-enter the CM House. In 1989, Karunanidhi became the chief minister again but could only retain this post for two years. Jayalalithaa – the former actress who often appeared in films with MGR – finally took over the AIA DMK. won elections and became chief minister – a position she held till 1996.

For the next 20 years, Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa alternately entered the CM Office until Jayalalithaa’s death in 2016. Karunanidhi ruled Tamil Nadu for almost 20 years spanning four terms while Jayalalithaa was chief minister for a total of 15 years from 1991 until her demise.

The writer holds a PhD from theUniversity of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]

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