After Karunanidhi: The Dravidian Movement Needs to Refashion Itself Around Tamil Nadu's New Aspirations

The need of the hour is a conscious reorientation towards the tenets of the Dravidian movement in the context of the current aspirations of the people of the state. 

The late Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party leader M Karunanidhi marked his place in history not only as chief minister of Tamil Nadu, but also as a leader who played a key role in bringing together parties across India under a common narrative in the last 50 years. As the infighting within the party is growing, it becomes important to revisit Karunanidhi’s role in the Dravidian movement and what it means for Tamil Nadu and for the relationship between centre and states in general.

Tamil Identity as a Constituent Element of the Idea of India

The Constituent Assembly debates throw light on how the makers of the Constitution envisioned India. The pre-Partition discussions suggest that the makers were open to the idea of having a weak centre and stronger states. However, in the post-Partition period, there was a shift in this stance with the emergence of a bias towards a unitary structure. DMK leaders were vehemently opposed to a unitary set-up. In this context, Era Sezhian (2011), a veteran parliamentarian of Dravidian mantle, had remarked, “When they talk of integration, they forget one fundamental thing. India is a vast sub-continent with different cultures, histories, races, languages and nationalities... You cannot undo what history has done ... with a stroke of the pen.”

The aspirations of Tamil nationalist forces gained in the 1950s and in the early 1960s. Karunanidhi was marked by what Sugata Bose (2017) calls as “cultural intimacy,”  being aware and appreciative of multiple identities. Karunanidhi had advocated for a nuanced version of Tamil identity that set out to conserve its pride and yet, continues to thrive within the Indian identity as its constituent element. Almost half a century after Karunanidhi’s articulation, Karnataka’s former Chief Minister Siddaramaiah (2018) echoed his stance when he said, “My identity as a proud Kannadiga is not inconsistent with my identity as a proud Indian.”

Karunanidhi also built on the aspect of “cultural intimacy” which can be understood through the phrases like ‘Udanpirappugal’ (brethren; gender neutral) he used to address his party cadre and the people of Tamil Nadu. Annadurai used to address people as “Thambi” (younger brother). While the left might argue that such references carry a patronising note, these helped the Dravidian leaders to shape a society marked by fraternity. These terms need to be understood in the context of the deep-rooted caste hierarchy in Tamil Nadu at that time.

The Love for Autonomy and Advocating Federalism

The arguments in favour of state autonomy as revealed through an analysis of Thambikku Annavin Kadithangal (Letters to the Brother) by Annadurai suggest that there was a strong fiscal motive in seeking state autonomy. Under Karunanidhi, by virtue of his long administrative legacy, the arguments assumed a nuanced structure: The autonomy pushed for by Karunanidhi not only had a resonance in the Jallikattu (a regional variant of the bull-vaulting sport) protests of 2017 for preserving their cultural legacy, but it also raised the clamour for fiscal autonomy in face of resistance to the Fifteenth Finance Commission’s terms of reference.

The strident demand for “fiscal federalism” and in turn total federalism has now reignited the aspirations for federal autonomy, a call that has hitherto been associated primarily with the DMK from the days of Annadurai. Karunanidhi's relentless commitment towards the ideas of state autonomy and federalism could be observed in his decision to set up the Rajamannar Committee to understand and reflect upon centre–state relationship. Furthermore, the strong opposition to the usage of Article 356 by the central government in the pre-S R Bommai case days reiterates the importance he had attributed to the idea of the strong states, that is strongly grounded on “self respect”. He never shied away from supporting the cause in other states either, a case in point being his explicit support to the Srinagar Conclave of 1983 where leaders from over six states, including NT Rama Rao, Farooq Abdullah, Biju Patnaik, drafted a nine-page document on centre-state relations. Notably, the event received an extensive coverage in Murasoli, a newspaper Karunanidhi edited. Despite numerous differences with the centre, Karunanidhi’s politics were not secessionist, undemocratic or unconstitutional.

Equity and Social Justice

Karunanidhi upheld Dravidian ideology not only as the leader of DMK but also as an administrator who infused this ideology in his policy decisions, which resulted in a successful case of securing spaces for the backward and oppressed classes in Tamil Nadu. Increasing the reservation quota for lower sections of the society in education and jobs is one such far-reaching intervention. As argued by Narayanan (2018), this enabled the entry of lower sections of society into bureaucracy, which in turn had a positive impact on delivery of public services. A testament to this is the success achieved in schemes like Public Distribution System (PDS) and provision of healthcare services.

Moreover, Karunanidhi’s policies accorded importance to equity, even before the discussion around recognising the need to ensure equity over equality gained popularity. This was indeed catalysed by the climate that prevailed in Tamil Nadu, thanks to the legacy of ensuring social justice via various means, led by Ayothee Thassar, Justice Party, Periyar's Self Respect Movement, the Dravidar Kazhagam (DK), and the consolidation in the form of DMK.

Where Does the Movement Stand Today?

Karunanidhi’s political viewpoints and decisions—small or big—were dynamic. This helped him and his politics stay relevant on one hand and enabled him to address the varied issues of a diverse and a fragmented society. The movement was constantly reinvented to be inclusive and stay true to its fundamental tenets of equity, social justice, and federal autonomy. While his contribution is immense, there is a lot more to do.

In the wake of his departure, Tamil Nadu has two sets of people who the Dravidian movement or the DMK has to cater to. The beneficiaries of the policies whose expectations have gone beyond basic deliverables such as the  PDS constitute the first set. The second set constitutes people from those communities who could not reap the benefits as much as the other.

Furthermore, Tamil Nadu is witness to a fierce onslaught of divisive ideologies, be it the Hindu nationalists or the Tamil nationalists. The silver lining, however, is the resistance put up by the people of Tamil Nadu and their inclination towards fostering a syncretic society. The protests of the recent past, be it against the ban of Jallikattu or over the death of Anitha, a meritorious student in the behest of opposition to the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) serve as apt testaments.

On the political front, the above-mentioned protests were staged at a time when the state machinery and the ruling dispensation were marked by a phase of instability, infighting, and were in the process of returning to normalcy subsequent to the death of former Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa. However, these protests were not led by the DMK, as was the case in the past. Moreover, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government handled these protests with a marked high-handedness.

Such passiveness and complacency in the face of forces trying to unsettle the movement will not only erode the character of the party but also pose a larger question on the nature of the Dravidian movement. With the party enjoying a strong organisational base—thanks to the deft political maneuvering of Karunanidhi—and its assured reach across the state, the need of the hour is a conscious reorientation towards the tenets of the movement in the context of the current aspirations of the people of the state.

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