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Television in Tamil Nadu Politics

Television has itself become a part of the discourse in electoral politics as can be seen from the central role that it played in the Tamil Nadu assembly elections 2006. Tamil Nadu offers a very interesting case study as not only have films and politics been inextricably intertwined in the state, but also because two distinct political parties have stakes in two popular private television channels.

Television in Tamil Nadu Politics

Television has itself become a part of the discourse in electoral politics as can be seen from the central role that it played in the Tamil Nadu assembly elections 2006. Tamil Nadu offers a very interesting case study as not only have films and politics been inextricably intertwined in the state, but also because two distinct political parties have stakes in two popular private television channels.


he effects of television as a tool of political communication can be traced to the “free and unconditional viewing experience” that the medium provides, the insinuation of “social intimacy” and the “ongoing communication” that causes “the viewers’ imaginative participation” [Rajagopal 2001: 277]. At the macro level, the role television plays in underscoring political identities has often been the subject of academic discourse.1 At the micro level, analyses have focused on the potential of the medium to persuade the audiences to accept one viewpoint over another. Television studies in India in the realm of political communication have dealt with the potential of the medium to swing the voters; the effects of consistent television exposure on voting behaviour; and the strategies employed by political parties to woo the media. While the scope of media influence in India has been questioned in the context of “illiteracy, non-availability of television sets and the limitations of official media”, it must be remembered that since the advent of satellite television in India in 1991, the scenario is much changed and still changing.2

The television landscape in India can be mapped with two “ignition points”: one was when colour television entered the Indian markets to coincide with the Asian Games in New Delhi in 1982 and the other was the allowing of foreign broadcasters into the country to coincide with the economic liberalisation that was launched in 1991 (Indiantelevision: online).3 The allowing of foreign broadcasters in the 1990s broke the monopoly of the state-owned Doordarshan that was criticised for its noncommercial, insipid and often mediocre programming with the exception of a few hugely popular soaps like Hum Log (1984) and Ramayan and Mahabharat (1987-1989), which again were part of the nationalist agenda.4

Politics and Media in Tamil Nadu

Tamil Nadu has been home to Dravidianism (as against Aryanism) and has all along celebrated a distinct culture and history.5 Tamil, the vernacular, does not trace its origin in Sanskrit but to Brahmi, the mother of Sanskrit. In 2004, it was declared as a classical language by the union government. In the political field, the state is known for the “regionalisation of party politics” which was achieved by “transforming the Tamil language into an object of passionate attachment, by introducing notions of self-respect and regional pride”.6 The “hegemonic hold over Tamil political life and culture” was strengthened by the Dravidian political parties through the presentation of their own version of Tamil cultural history, which incidentally is not vastly different from the culture of the rest of India.7

This presentation of “Tamilness” was done first by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), through films, among other means. In the 1930s, the 250 theatre companies in the region propagated nationalism through dramas.8 Tamil nationalists were soon to see the power of the silver screen in appealing to the often illiterate masses. C N Annadurai, the leader of the DMK, was a Tamil playwright of repute and an orator par excellence who used films to propagate the party ideology. His follower, M Karunanidhi, presently the DMK president and the chief minister of the state, started as a playwright and graduated to become a successful film script writer [Pandian 1991]. The late chief minister M G Ramachandran (MGR), who broke off from the DMK to form the All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), used his film career cleverly to further his political career.9He converted his numerous fan clubs to form his party bases, which since then is a route attempted by all film stars aspiring to a political career, not always with success.10 Although MGR’s successor, film actor J Jayalalithaa, did not use films to further her political career, but cashed in on her intimacy with MGR, her popularity, to a large extent, is owing to her film career. For decades now, politics and media have been inextricably interlinked in Tamil Nadu.

Today political communication in the state has come to be marked by “evocative prose with lilting alliterations, poetic in its rhymes and rhythms…evolved through plays and cinema”, while politics itself is punctuated by high drama and theatrics and populism [Vaasanthi op cit:44]. On the one hand, film stars are potential politicians who, it is believed can phenomenally change the fortunes of political parties, while on the other hand, political happenings take on the extravagant tenor and colour of a Tamil film.11 Two instances that illustrate this are first, the happenings in the Tamil Nadu assembly on March 25, 1989 when the then chief minister M Karunanidhi rose to deliver the

Economic and Political Weekly December 2, 2006 budget speech. A heated debate followed on a point of order concerning the police treatment of Jayalalithaa, which culminated in pandemonium with slippers, books and microphones being flung around and a minister pulling Jayalalithaa’s sari. Pictures of a dishevelled Jayalalithaa outside the assembly hall made it to the front pages of all the regional newspapers the following day. A more recent example is when Jayalalithaa, now in the opposition, after deciding to stay away from the assembly sessions chose to attend the assembly on May 27, 2006 after the opposition was unceremoniously suspended for the entire session. For her act of taking on the DMK government and Karunanidhi “singlehandedly” she has been likened to Joan of Arc and Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi by both sympathetic politicians and media. Every political party, big or small, new or old, regularly hosts mammoth conferences to show off their support among the masses. The conference venues are much like a filmy set of yesteryears, complete with facades of forts and temples.12

In a scenario in which the DMK and the AIADMK, the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) and the newest entrant Desiya Murpoku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK) all claim to follow in the footsteps of Periyar and Anna, at the same time encouraging and even following policies opposed to them, ideologies no longer matter. In electoral politics battle lines are clearly drawn between Karunanidhi representing the DMK and Jayalalithaa representing the AIADMK. Although there are any number of players in the arena and all permutations and combinations are possible in the realm of electoral alliances, the one constant seems to be that the two parties cannot and will not come together. Thus the scenario in the 2006 assembly elections was that the two parties led two different fronts, of which the DMK-led front emerged successful.

Prompted by the successful use of media for political purposes by their founders, the leaders of the two political parties have continued to deploy media for political gains. The DMK, having a few litterateurs among its members stole a march over the other in that Karunanidhi’s nephew Maran (later ‘Murasoli’ Maran) edited a Tamil newspaper, Murasoli, in which the DMK leader spoke and still speaks to his cadres through a “letter to my brethren”. The DMK’s Sun TV network group has slowly expanded its holdings to include six publications. These publications have been especially useful in times when the dominant press has been critical of the party. The AIADMK, perhaps due to MGR’s limitations in the literary field and his popularity as a film actor, has no other publication besides the party organ, Namadhu MGR.

When the Indian skies opened, moving into television business was a natural progression for both the parties. The first was the DMK, with Murasoli Maran’s son Kalanidhi Maran, brother of the union minister for communications Dayanidhi Maran, launching Sun TV officially in 1993. Today the Sun Network runs 14 TV channels, four FM Radio stations, two daily newspapers and four magazines. Sun TV has set a trend in film-based entertainment that successive channels have followed. Sun TV is a free-to-air channel and has spread up to North America and Australia. Sun TV’s red herring

Economic and Political Weekly December 2, 2006

prospectus says that in Tamil Nadu, the combined audience share of all Sun channels is 60 per cent compared to the 5 per cent of its closest competitor for the year ended March 31, 2006.13 While Sun TV clearly set out to be an entertainment channel largely dependent on films for its programming content, its political programmes in normal times, as against election times, consist of regular interviews with political personalities.

Jaya TV began telecast in 1999 and was clearly seen as a competitior to Sun TV although it lacked the latter’s infrastructure. Its growth in the initial years was slow. However, the channel grew rapidly during Jayalalithaa’s reign luring many disgruntled artistes from the rival Sun. Political programmes in Jaya TV are partybased with no pretence to objectivity. In fact, in the offing is news channel to provide competition to Sun News.14 Although there are a number of similarities in the programming content of both the channels, the personalities that dominate their programmes are different. This is clearly apparent in the news telecasts in the channels during election times, when party men are apportioned time according to their importance in the party.15 With the two rival political parties having a strong stake in the television business, Tamil Nadu politicians have become media savvy, more than those in other states.16 Television has moved beyond contributing to the information environment to fundamentally influencing the political environment by becoming a part of the electoral discourse [Ansolabehee et al 1997].

TV in Election Manifestos

The Tamil Nadu assembly elections 2006 were a contest between the DMK-led Democratic Progressive Alliance comprising the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), the Congress, the MDMK, Communist Party of India-Marxist, CPI and the Indian Union Muslim League and the AIADMK-BJP combine. While the AIADMK election manifesto was silent on “television”, the DMK’s references to “television” were contained in the poll promises section and highlighted as one of “marvellous features of the election manifesto” where free colour television was promised to every family for “women’s recreation and general knowledge”.17 Listed second among the “marvellous features” in the manifesto, it ranked after “quality rice at Rs 2 per kilo” to make women “happy” and was followed by promises on infrastructural development and aids to unemployed youth and farmers. Even among sops aimed at pleasing women, the promise of free colour television preceded the promise of “free gas stove for poor women and 50 per cent reservation for women in teaching positions”. Thus, not only had the DMK catapulted “television” into a premier position in the electoral discourse but also granted the status of an essential commodity on par with subsidised rice and reservation in jobs. Though the DMK’s poll promises were criticised for the skewed priorities,18 the AIADMK supremo countered every one of them in the course of election campaign with promises of similar sops. Just a couple of days before the campaign ended, Jayalalithaa promised to do away with the Conditional Access System operational in Chennai and enable the reception of all channels including pay channels for a meagre Rs 50 per month against the present Rs 100-200, if voted back to power.19 Thus, for the first time ever, television viewing moved to be part of the political discourse in the run up to the assembly elections in the state.

TV Deciding Party Allegiances

It is to be noted that the programming content in the two TV channels was largely dictated by film stars who were members of the respective parties or their supporters.20 Film terminology was current during the election time.21 While it is not uncommon for members to switch party allegiances before the elections, the run up to the May 8, 2006 elections to the Tamil Nadu assembly was marked by prominent members, both film stars and politicians, switching allegiances.

One of the major defections was that of film actor Sarath Kumar, a Rajya Sabha member from the DMK who switched to the AIADMK on April 17, 2006 on the grounds that he had been “insulted and humiliated” by the party leaders while in the DMK. One of the manifestations of the insult and humiliation was his being ignored by Sun TV. Among the different ways he had been ignored and insulted by the DMK party, the actor is reported to have pointed out that during the Pongal celebrations the DMK flew actor Vijay to New Delhi to interview the union communications minister Dayanidhi Maran for Sun TV. A piqued Sarath Kumar is supposed to have alleged that some hurdles were created to thwart the growth of his wife Radhikaa’s TV production company, Radaan, which produces programmes for Sun TV.22 Typically, Sarath Kumar’s decision to move to the AIADMK sparked off discussions on the future of his wife Radhikaa’s career as television producer.23 News reports on the defection also stated that Radhikaa had been assured of compensation in the event of Sun TV terminating her contract.24 In close comparison is the defection of film director K Bhagyaraj, who once claimed to be the cultural protégé of the late M G Ramachandran, from the AIADMK to the DMK. Although Bhagyaraj’s reasons for defecting to the DMK has no apparent relevance to television coverage, it must be remembered that faced with difficulties in releasing his film Parijadham, a comeback film in which he had launched the film career of his daughter Saranya, he sold the rights of the film to Sun TV. He also managed to get a daily half-hour slot from Sun TV which set off discussions that his decision to join DMK was aimed at uplifting his sagging movie career.

A non-partisan performer, Visu (M R Viswanathan), a national award winning film director, announced his decision to join the AIADMK on April 25, 2006. Two factors made his decision significant. One was the fact that Visu was the host of the decadeold longest-running talk show in Tamil on Sun TV called ‘Arattai Arangam’ for halfan-hour on Sunday mornings at 11 a m. Occasionally with political overtones, it largely dealt with social concerns and issues. The second factor and perhaps more important was the reason that Visu cited for his decision to throw in his lot with the AIADMK. Reporting on his joining the AIADMK, The Hindu said:

Mr Visu said the happenings in Sun TV had “pained his heart” and hence he quit. He also claimed that his contract with the Sun TV had come to an end.25

In an interview aired on Jaya TV soon after he joined the party, the film director/ actor/talk show host detailed the many problems he had faced while creating episodes for Sun TV. He said that material that was even remotely favourable to the government was ruthlessly butchered. But few like Visu have cited lack of artistic freedom in a television channel for joining a political party.

One of the biggest surprises was of MDMK leader Vaiko, not associated with Tamil filmdom, hitherto in the DMK camp, joining hands with the AIADMK. Blaming

Economic and Political Weekly December 2, 2006 the indifference of the DMK leadership for his decision to part ways, Vaiko maintained throughout his campaign that he was pained by Sun TV “blacking him out”. He said,

[I] was undergoing tremendous mental trauma for the last two years. I never expected a total blackout of myself and my party on Sun TV during the Lok Sabha poll campaign despite the fact that I campaigned for the DPA in all the party constituencies. Even at the one venue I participated along with Kalaignar – in Sivakasi constituency at Arippukottai – I was not shown. Only Kalaignar was shown. My hard work was utilised for the success of the UPA [United Progressive Alliance] candidates but at the same time, they didn’t want to show my face on TV.26

Indeed, television viewing seemed to have affected the very relations between Vaiko and Karunanidhi who referred to Vaiko as his “younger brother” even though he had divided the DMK. In the same interview, Vaiko went on to say,

I asked him [Karunanidhi], ‘I have not made any mistake. Why do you treat me like this?’ He had no answer. Then he said, ‘You told a weekly that you don’t watch Sun TV.’ I said, ‘I said so in an interview to Kalki because I don’t watch Sun TV. I am untouchable as far as Sun TV is concerned.’ After the padayatra was over, they [Sun TV] showed a skit about a man going on a padayatra and falling dead.

While the MDMK leader asserted that he was pained by the lack of coverage on Sun TV he, perhaps, unwittingly pointed out that television coverage and transmission had already become a political tool in Tamil Nadu when he said,

During my 42-day padayatra, I met lakhs and lakhs of people everyday, and only Sun TV did not telecast any visuals of it. The reward Raj TV got for telecasting my programme three times everyday was the cancellation of their licence27 (Warrier 2006: online).


In a state where film and politics have been inextricably interlinked, television is now taking centre stage in politics by creeping into and dominating the political discourse. The medium has become an active participant in the political process facilitated by the two major political parties operating two popular satellite channels in the state. In a scenario where cinema, which is the primary entertainment media in the state, is interlinked with politics, telecast of even feature films in these television channels takes on political colour. Even in non-election times, the television channels double as propaganda tools, acting as votaries of the respective party’s ideologies and as a means to defend the party’s stand on issues thus perhaps unwittingly contributing to a Habermasian public sphere. In fact, the effective employment of private television for political purposes in Tamil Nadu is seen as a model to be emulated by politicians.28

However, in the 2006 assembly elections in Tamil Nadu, the issue was taken one step further with the promise of free television sets by the DMK which eventually coasted to power although by a thin margin. A noteworthy development was the way in which television coverage influenced the decision of politicians, even those not connected with the film industry, in aligning themselves with particular parties. The coverage in television of their activities or the lack of it in Sun TV dictated the decision of at least two politicians to defect to the AIADMK, one of whom was a seasoned politician. Others who joined the respective parties, especially those connected to the entertainment media, seemed to be using the political decision to further their careers in the television industry. This indicates a new trend in the role of television in the political process and is to be seen if it spreads to other states in the country or remains confined to star-struck Tamil Nadu.




[The author thanks Sushila Ravindranath, editor of The New Sunday Express, Chennai, for publishing an article on this issue ‘Channelised’, The New Sunday Express, Chennai, May 14, 2005, Section 2, p 4.]

1 A Rajagopal (2001) analyses the use of media, particularly television by the Indian government in invoking the nationalist agenda.

2 P V Sharada (1998), see also Sevanti (2004) 02/29/stories/2004022900150300.htm, accessed June 12, 2006.

3 Interestingly, the first national telecast in colour was the prime minister’s address from the ramparts of Red Fort on August 15, 1982, the 35th anniversary of India’s independence. The potential of television to act as a tool of political communication was not lost on the government for, the setting up of low power transmitters across the country was supposedly done with the 1984 general elections in mind. See Bhatt (1994).

4 Doordarshan transmission in the early 1970s was centralised to a large extent with the Delhi Doordarshan Kendra being in charge of the national telecast. The development of regional kendras or centres were slow, but steady and were dictated by political expediences. For instance, the Srinagar and Amritsar Doordarshan Kendras in Jammu and Kashmir and Punjab, respectively were two of the earliest kendras to be set up in 1975. This was clearly to extend national hegemony over the region. Similarly, the telecast of mythological soaps was seen as a reiteration of a national identity with an aim towards resurgence of nationalism. With the proliferation of satellite channels, the central government stepped in to regulate the broadcasting sector. Along with a number of committees that were set up to govern the broadcasting sector, the Prasar Bharati, a holding company, to govern the state-owned AIR and Doordarshan, and de-link it from the central government’s dominance was also set up. However, the transfer to Prasar Bharati has not changed perceptions. While AIR and Doordarshan are still seen as state media, the private channels espouse different political views, overtly or subtly. See also television_stations and Indian Television, indianbrodcast/history/historyoftele.htm, accessed on June 12, 2006.

Call for Papers

Department of Political Science, Panjab University, Chandigarh is organizing a UGC sponsored workshop on the theme ‘Regions within Regions: Rethinking State Politics’ on February 26-27, 2007. Papers on the themes in comparative mode are called for on the issues related to development, identity, governance and representation.

For detailed concept note mail or

Economic and Political Weekly December 2, 2006

5 Interestingly, ‘Dravida’ that is part of almost of every political party’s name in Tamil Nadu, is a Sanskrit term. It refers to the confluence of the Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean.

6 One of the rallying cries of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) that spearheaded the anti-Hindi agitation that peaked in the 1960s when youths blackened Hindi letters, vandalised public property and immolated themselves in protest against what they termed the imposition of Hindi, was “our bodies are for the soil/land and our lives for Tamil”. For more details, see S Ramaswamy (1997), Vaasanthi (2006).

7 The ‘maanam’ (honour) and ‘veeram’ (valour) that they invoke as ‘Tamilness’ and the duty to protect one’s language and culture are in fact common to most cultures in India [Vaasanthi 2006, op cit, p xiv].

8 In fact, the very first Tamil talkie Kalidas, invoked the nationalistic slogan ‘Vande Mataram’ (long live the motherland), the clarion call of the freedom fighters.

9 Pandian 1991 and see also Vaasanthi 2006, op cit, pp 60-74.

10 In fact, MGR’s arch rival in Tamil filmdom, ‘Sivaji’ Ganesan was unable to cash in on his popularity and carve out a successful political career. Even other film stars like Karthik have met only with lukewarm success. Perhaps, an exception could be Vijayakanth, who formed the DMDK in September 2005 and made his electoral debut in the TN elections in 2006 and was elected from Vriddhachlam assembly constituency. See also Dickey (1993), pp 340-72.

11 In Junior Vikatan issue dated April 26, 2006, it was speculated that the AIADMK was attempting to draw the support of Tamil film star Rajnikanth and DMK a host of other film stars to bolster their images among the voters.

12 The launch of film actor Vijayakanth’s political party DMDK on September 14, 2005 in Madurai is a case in point. In a venue that was done up like a film set near Madurai, the actor launched the party by hoisting the party flag and with a rhetorical speech. See Menon, J (2005), web/pIe/full_story.php?content_id=78173, accessed on June 14, 2006.

13 See ‘Sun TV Files for IPO’, Business Line, February 15, 2006, 2006/02/15/stories/2006021502770100.htm, for more details.

14 Sibabrata Das and A K Bijoy (2005), ‘Jaya TV ‘Game’ for News’,, jayatv1.htm, accessed June 14, 2006.

15 The two channels with their main news capsules scheduled close to each other seem to be in a constant dialogue with each other. For instance, Jaya TV’s morning news is at 7.30 while Sun TV’s is at 8 am In the afternoon, Jaya TV news telecast is at 1 while Sun news is at 1.30 pm. The prime time news telecast in Jaya TV is at

7.30 pm while Sun news is at 8 pm. An interesting aspect during election times and even otherwise is that the channels use the news telecasts to refute the other’s claims or clarify them creating a public sphere. See Ranganathan, Channelised, 2006.

16 S Kamath (2004), 2004/03/27/stories/2004032704010300.htm, accessed on June 14, 2006.

17 The AIADMK election manifesto can be accessed at and the DMK election manifesto is available at Arasiyaltalk, 2006, Tamil Nadu legislative assembly elections 2006, http://www. dmk_manifesto_e2006.pdf, accessed June 30, 2006, pp 1-34.

18 Bharat M Kumar (2006),, accessed on June 30, 2006 and Foster (2006) http:// news/2006/04/14/windia14.xml&sSheet=/ news/2006/04/14/ixworld.html, accessed on July 9, 2006.

19 For more details on the cable TV sector in India see Srinivasan 2003: online. See ‘Kalangadikudhu Colour TV’, Junior Vikatan, issue dated April 23, 2006, available online at 23042006/jv0301.asp The report stated that people were disgruntled over the way in which the AIADMK was countering the poll promises of the DMK and felt that if the AIADMK was serious, the party could have upped the DMK by promising to provide a DVD player free with a colour TV.

20 Ram (2006), report.asp? NewsID=1027936&CatID=2, accessed on July 4, 2006.

21 See ‘Mylapore thogudhi yaarukku? Villainai muraikum comedian’, Junior Vikatan, issue April 19, 2006, available online at http:// jv0405.asp

22 Vikesh (2006), 2006/apr/23042006/jv0601.asp, accessed on August 10, 2006.

23 See Ranganathan, Channelised, 2006; Jayanth, V (2006) 04/20/stories/2006042005080500.htm, accessed on June 30, 2006 and B P Sanjay (2006) oryid= Web5917610166Hoot 115531%20AM 2105&pn=1, accessed on July 9, 2006.

24 The weekly speculative column Kazhugu in Junior Vikatan issue dated April 26, 2006 reported that all of Radaan programmes in Sun TV would soon move to Jaya TV and that Radhikaa had been assured that she would be made the CEO of Jaya TV and even a share in the profits, at the time of Sarath Kumar’s defection to the AIADMK. See http:// jv0101.asp.

25 See 2006042608190400.htm.

26 S Warrier (2006), ‘Sun TV Blacked Me Out: Vaiko’, Rediff News, March 27, http://, accessed on June 30, 2006. Vaiko also told another reporter, “Sun TV did not give any coverage to me or my functions. On August 5, 2004, when I set out on my 1,100 km march from Tirunelveli to Chennai in heavy rain, Sun TV reported that I had postponed my march due to rains. A popular serial on the channel also made fun of me. It showed a man, who sets out on a march, but collapses and dies midway,” says Vaiko. He says he had discussed the issue of the Sun TV coverage with Karunanidhi. “He said that they (the Marans) would not listen to his word. He has told reporters that Sun TV was a private channel and that it had the freedom to decide on what it aired.” Kumar, Vinoj P C, ‘DMK Twice Bitten as Vaiko Merry-Go-Round Reaches Amma’, Tehelka, filename=Ne032506DMK_twice.asp, accessed on June 30, 2006.

27 Warrier, ‘Sun TV Blacked Me Out: Vaiko’, Rediff news, online.

28 Karnataka chief minister H D Kumarasamy has mooted the setting up a television channel by his party on the lines of Sun TV.


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Foster, Peter (2006): ‘Free TV for Every Home: Even with No Electricity’, The Telegraph, UK, April 14.

Jayanth, V (2006): ‘Sarat Kumar, Radhika Face Different Problems’, The Hindu, April 20.

Kamath, S (2004): ‘All Set for the Battle on the Small Screen’, The Hindu, March 27.

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Menon, J (2005): ‘Vijayakant Now Starring in Political Role’, The New Indian Express, September 15.

Ninan, Sevanti (2004): ‘Regional Onslaught’, The Hindu, February 29.

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Rajagopal, A (2001): Politics after Television: Hindu Nationalism and the Reshaping of the Public in India, Cambridge University Press, UK.

Ram, Arun (2006): ‘Snip, Snip Go Rival Channels in Tamil Nadu’, DNA India, May 6.

Ramaswamy, S (1997): Passions of the Tongue: Language Devotion in Tamil India, 1879-1971, University of California Press, California.

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Economic and Political Weekly December 2, 2006

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