'Institutionalisation of caste in Tamil Nadu politics was solely due to DMK chief Karunanidhi'

“Karunanidhi (chief of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam or DMK) is wholly responsible for caste issues in this state,” begins Tho Pa, mincing no words. “Periyar was against caste. The Dravidian movement was against caste. Anna (former Chief Minister Annadurai) compromised the Dravidian movement when he said – “ondrey kulam, oruvaney devan” (One humanity, one God). Karunanidhi diluted it further and turned it entirely into votebank politics,” he said.

Sandhya Ravishankar November 26, 2015 07:38:49 IST
'Institutionalisation of caste in Tamil Nadu politics was solely due to DMK chief Karunanidhi'

 

Tho Paramasivan, better known as Tho Pa, smiles his withering smile despite the niggling pain of an amputated foot. The 65-year-old writer, retired Professor of Tamil at Manonmaniam Sundaranar University, researcher of temples for three decades and a staunch Periyarist, is affable and concise. Conversational chitchat, like his home in Palayamkottai, Tirunelveli, is sparse. His only God, he says, are the writings and teachings of the founder of the Dravidian movement in Tamil Nadu, Periyar EV Ramasamy Naicker, whose picture is hung up on the wall.

“Karunanidhi (chief of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam or DMK) is wholly responsible for caste issues in this state,” begins Tho Pa, mincing no words. “Periyar was against caste. The Dravidian movement was against caste. Anna (former Chief Minister Annadurai) compromised the Dravidian movement when he said – “ondrey kulam, oruvaney devan” (One humanity, one God). Karunanidhi diluted it further and turned it entirely into votebank politics,” he said.

Paramasivan refers to events that took place in the 1990s to prove his point. Renaming of districts in the state were on in full swing during the DMK regime with Karunanidhi as Chief Minister. Names for districts were those of prominent leaders belonging to different castes. Madurai, for instance, was named Pasumpon Thevar Thirumaganar district (referring to a prominent leader Muthuramalinga Thevar belonging to the Thevar caste belonging to the Backward Classes).

Villupuram district was called Villupuram Ramasamy Padayachiyar district, after another powerful leader of the Vanniyar (Most Backward Caste) caste. Many other districts had similar nomenclature. In 1997, caste riots broke out in southern Tamil Nadu when the State Transport Corporation in Virudhunagar was renamed as Veeran Sundaralingam Transport Corporation after a prominent Dalit leader. Thevars, an ‘upper caste’ refused to get into these buses named after a ‘lower caste’ leader. The state government led by Chief Minister Karunanidhi went into a huddle and hastily decided that names of caste leaders would not adorn districts or transport corporations.

Institutionalisation of caste in Tamil Nadu politics was solely due to DMK chief Karunanidhi

Tho Paramasivan. Firstpost/Sandhya Ravishankar

“Periyar is still relevant,” explained Paramasivan. “The Dravidian parties have diluted the movement. Absolute power corrupts absolutely – that is the Dravidian movement. It is a sad history. But no movement can die. It will change its form, new parties will come. It will morph and stay relevant to the times,” he said.

Paramasivan scoffs at Karunanidhi’s son and DMK heir apparent MK Stalin visiting the Thirukoshtiyur Ramanujar temple last month and at Karunanidhi himself penning the script for a biopic on the Hindu saint which is being aired on the DMK mouthpiece Kalaignar TV. “In the 1950s, (Tamil film actor) Sivaji Ganesan joined the DMK,” reminisced Paramasivan. “He went to the Tirupati Balaji temple before the release of some film of his. DMK men stuck posters all over the state calling him ‘Tirupati Ganesha’, mocking him. Karunanidhi and Stalin have forgotten all of that. All of this scriptwriting and visiting temples is only for votebank politics,” he said.

Paramasivan says that caste is here to say, considering how deeply institutionalised it has become in mainstream state politics. “Destroying caste is not an easy thing,” he argued. “Caste is as real as it is cruel. We can only dilute it. That is why Periyar believed in inter-caste marriages,” he said.

Periyar and the Dravidian movement have come under severe criticism from Dalit thinkers for being a movement that uprooted the Brahmin and installed the OBCs (Other Backward Castes) in its place, leaving the Dalits still outside of the system. Paramasivan, the Periyarist, defends his ideology. “The OBC took maximum advantage of Periyar’s Dravidian movement,” he argued. “It is an objective ideology and it was used more by the intermediary castes. This is unavoidable in such caste hierarchy,” he said.

Paramasivan also feels that there is a vacuum in political leadership for the Dalits in Tamil Nadu. “There is no good leadership for Dalits,” he said. “Dalit writers are sowing the seeds of hatred amongst people. Hatred is more powerful, it catches fire instantly. When hatred is sown, there is a sense of revenge amongst the community. Dalits are opposing non-Dalits, many times, for no reason,” he added.

“There will be lots of violence,” said Paramasivan on the issue of whether caste would be history in a few generations. “There will be at least another 50 years of bloodshed before caste dissolves. Caste will go only after unprecedented bloodshed, which we are yet to witness. It will come,” he warned.

The morphing of the Dravidian movement and caste intolerance in Tamil Nadu are interlinked, according to Paramasivan. He believes though that the movement itself will spread to other parts of the country, in a time of great intolerance. “In India, nationality has become a big thing now,” he explained. “India is a prison of suppressed nationalities. Tamil Nadu was the forerunner at one point. This crisis of nationality will come again. The BJP will ensure that this nationality question will remain alive. The Dravidian ideology will fight this and it will need to change to fight it. I see other states picking the anti-Hindi and anti-Hindu propaganda soon. Rationalism will spread to other states,” he said.

Parts one and two of the Tamil Nadu Caste Chronicles series are available here.

The author tweets @sandhyaravishan

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