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A Colossus
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Radhika Sudhakar

Muthuvel Karunanidhi was a true colossus who strode the Tamil political sphere for six decades in electoral politics and before that in a political movement strengthening the Dravidian movement whichever field he trod, be it in the movement, political governance, literature or cinema. More than his declared policies, which he fulfilled, it was his political will that marked out the kind of governance that Karunanidhi gave during his five tenures as CM and over a three-quarters of a century in politics. He never lost an election since 1957 but more importantly, he made a mark in social justice every time he became Chief Minister. 

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Karunanidhi’s maiden speech as an MLA in the State Assembly underlined the kind of vision which was to distinguish Dravidian political rule in the state. What marked out Karunanidhi’s governance was the tenacity with which he stood by his convictions throughout his long political tenure, periods of which were marked by pressures, ploys of all kinds, dismissals and much mudslinging against him. 

His first speech in the Tamil Nadu Assembly was on the Nangavaram farmers struggle in which Karunanidhi got involved while on his electoral campaign in his allotted constituency. Karunanidhi supported the peasants who were demanding decent wages. The rich brahmean landlords of Nangavaram brought in peasants from outside to till the land instead of negotiating. Karunanidhi promised resolution for the peasants and agitated along with them. Upon his election, he kept his word and his maiden speech as an MLA was on Nangavaram peasant struggle and he continued to agitate for their rights until its resolution. It finally ended by the government heeding the demands of the peasants, including the grant of land rights. This launched him into his political career in which he went on to use political power to grant or codify rights for the subaltern time and again.

Karunanidhi’s entire period in power was distinguished by his going beyond his stated promises. He also did what he promised. He carefully avoided not promising what he could not deliver. All the while, the campaign against him and attempts to discredit the Dravidian politics went on around him. 

One of his first acts after becoming Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu in 1969 after DMK founder C N Annadurai’s sudden demise as Chief Minister was to abolish the hand pulled rickshaws saying that it was “demeaning to have a man pull another man by the hand.” He instead gave those who were engaged in that job cycle rickshaws for free to continue their livelihood. 

This was also the period in which he first dealt with implementing the grant of reservations in education and employment. In his first tenure as CM, he increased the quantum of reservation for backward classes and the scheduled castes, he subsequently modified, expanded and included other excluded communities, thereby bringing reservation for neglected sections including STs, Arundhadhiyars and Urdu speaking Muslims in TN. Initially, this group of Muslims was included in the backward class for reservation along with Tamil Muslims and others. Later on, when he came to power again, Muslims were given a separate reservation. He continued to look into the aspect of reservation dynamically and strongly stood by it as a means for social empowerment and inclusiveness. 

Continuing Annadurai’s policy of according legal recognition for self-respect marriages, whereas earlier only religious marriages were legally recognized, Karunanidhi’s return to power in 1989 saw him legalizing equal rights for women in inheritance. It was tricky given the views that continued to prevail in society close to two decades after Periyar’s demise in 1972. The view prevailing even among Tamil men was that women would “benefit doubly,” as women took dowry too. But nothing stopped Karunanidhi from legislating on it and giving women an enhanced legal status. His was a short stay in power between 1989-91 before his government was dismissed in 1991. These subtle nudges to society were reminders of Periyar and were instrumental in opening up sections of Tamil society that were still conservative and move it away from the practice of demanding that women remove their pottu and thaali (bindi and mangalsutra) and stop adorning their hair with flowers as a mark of widowhood. With dalit bahujan taking this path, the brahmeans themselves gave up on the practice of their widows shaving their heads and removing every adornment on their person and keeping windows segregated in a corner of their house.

Karunanidhi not only continued the progressive measures but also enhanced what his predecessors did or his successors did out of the pressure of his presence in politics, notable among them is the offer of the mid-day meal scheme in schools.  What was served was sambar and rice was made truly nutritious by Karunanidhi who also added an egg or a plantain to the meal and made it non-vegetarian. The scheme was conceived during the Justice party rule of Madras Presidency, from which evolved Dravidar Kazhagam (DK), from which came the DMK, which traces its origins to the DK and the Justice Party. The scheme was brought to life by K Kamaraj, the Congress Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu who enjoyed a good rapport with Periyar. It was re-launched by M G Ramachandran (MGR), as CM, looking for a grand name for himself after forming the break-away DMK party, the ADMK, and who enjoyed the support of the brahmeans. The noon meal brought in many a poor student to school and stabilized their presence. It also enabled job opportunities for women in the school kitchens. Karunanidhi had no qualms about the scheme or about who implemented it but went on to enhance it. He had the confidence always of someone who was never short of ideas. 

Many a time it was Karunanidhi being in opposition which brought his opponents to stay with the vision of Periyar. There were always overt or subtle ways in which Karunanidhi’s mere presence made those in power to support social justice and stand for subalterns, even if they did not have the political will to go the whole haul, be it MGR or MGR’S successor, J Jayalalithaa. When MGR attempted to bring in a creamy layer definition to restrict BC reservation, the DMK opposed it vehemently and argued and campaigned against it as it was a move against Dravidian movement’s fundamental principles that economy is not the criteria for caste discrimination. MGR ignored the opposition and went ahead with it and consequently lost badly in the ensuing parliamentary election. After his loss, he reversed his decision completely and enhanced the reservation quota to 68 percent, bringing it closer to the present 69 percent, to set right the way he would be viewed after DMK’S vociferous campaigns. 

Karunanidhi’s time in power saw him introduce many a scheme to reach out to the poor and the marginalized. But they were not mere doles. He brought in the Moovalur Ramamirtham Ammaiyar marriage assistance for young women from very poor families which were defined in such a way that the girls were pushed to pursue some schooling and stay on at education for a longer period. For poor families to avail of the scheme, the catch was that women should have attained education till 10th standard for others, and up to 5th standard for Scheduled Tribes, and the age limit for the bride was fixed at 18 years. Presently the assistance paid under the scheme stands at Rs 20,000 after periodic revision. It also broke into the tradition of poor girls being stopped from going to school on reaching puberty.

In the name of Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy, the first woman to graduate in medicine in India, a product of inter-caste marriage and who also underwent an inter-caste marriage, the government founded a scheme recognizing inter-caste marriages and offered a little financial benefit to help those in need. Under it, Rs 15,000 is given currently if the marriage is between a FC and a BC /MBC. Rs 20,000 if one of the spouses is an SC/ST. It fixes no income limit for the claim and the age limit is between 18 to 30 years for the bride. The assistance can be claimed by anyone irrespective of their income and anytime within two years of the marriage and was conceived to aid, where parental or social support flounders, as most couples in need would have been shorn by either or both parents of the couple. More than the financial aid it was a stamp of recognition for the couples in the society that the government gave through this scheme.

Taking after the ideal of Periyar to create a casteless society, Karunanidhi also founded the Periyar Ninaivu Samathuvapurams across Tamil Nadu, as a rural housing scheme that brought in people of all castes to live in the same neighbourhood with the same infrastructure and facilities. Houses here were allotted at random to ensure mixed living as a challenge to the segregated living in villages in separate caste marked streets. SCs were allotted 40 percent of the housing here and there are over 140 Samathuvapurams in operation in Tamil Nadu. And how they shape up/shaped up is a matter for sociological study.

On the front of health care and medical education, Karunanidhi took great care, and if TN before NEET is called as the mecca of healthcare attracting patients from everywhere, it was due to the setting up of 19 medical colleges out of a total of 22 State-run medical colleges by the DMK government under Karunanidhi. He himself never went for foreign surgeons and confined his healthcare to those doctors who were trained from the state health education. At every shot at power, he continued from where he left off during his previous governance. He introduced free heart surgery for children in 2007, the first heart transplant happened in the government general hospital in Chennai in 2009. He introduced the Kalaignar Kaapeettu Thittam, a pioneering health insurance scheme for the poor which the central government is now trying to replicate. As in many schemes, the benefits were obvious in the number of life-saving surgeries and medical care that was made possible through it.

On the front of higher education, he ensured implementation of 69 percent reservation in all colleges and university admissions in the state as well as established government and aided colleges in all districts. He established the Anna University as a pioneering science and technology university of the state when only central government institutes had a name as ones dealing with higher technical education. He also introduced the Tamil stream in higher technical education going with his overall vision of aiding students of the Tamil language stream, even if he couldn’t travel much further on that. He also abolished the entrance examination to professional colleges which strengthened the school education system and removed needless hurdles in entry into state professional colleges and burgeoned the number of students from marginalized sections getting into professional degree courses and into academics as a whole. He also introduced the subsidized and free bus passes for students in school and higher education to enable transport. He established the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, Dr. Ambedkar Law University, Veterinary and Animal Sciences University, the last one a first in Asia. His successors in power were often forced to go one up on Karunanidhi in offering benefits to the marginalized rather than in the opposite direction of embracing brahmeanism. 

On the political front, Karunanidhi was the only CM to oppose emergency and stood for state autonomy, though he could not progress much on the latter. In the 60s he initiated the slum clearance board which built concrete tenements for poor people living in urban areas in thatched houses on unauthorized lands. These tenements initially in his time were built in the same place that they lived in and the government made them own the house too. In his 2006 election manifesto, Karunanidhi promised and gave two acres of fallow land to the landless, till the time he was in power.

The idea of nationalizing public transport in Tamil Nadu in the early 70s came about as another unannounced step to break the shackles of caste. Private operators who were operating buses were not willing to ply in certain routes and had been refusing to allow Scheduled Castes into buses. There were major spats even during the days of the Justice party rule of Madras Presidency. Justice party condemned not allowing Scheduled Castes in transport meant for public and had tried negotiating with the transport owners but to no avail. The Justice party which got passed on to Periyar and got renamed as Dravidar Kazhakam, had strong views on enabling public transport. As the transport operators refused to budge during their discussions with Karunanidhi as CM and spoke of incurring losses, Karunanidhi without mentioning caste as the cause for his new policy, announced nationalization of public transport pointing out that government will be willing to incur losses in running buses in routes with fewer travelers. It opened the doors for everyone to travel on buses and also benefited students who had to walk long distances to reach their schools or kept off because of the distance of schools or lack of roads. Connecting roads were also laid in villages with a sizable population to enable public transport.

Another remarkable decision was to bring in women and Scheduled Castes along with other castes in administrative positions in temples administered by the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HRCE) Department of the Tamil Nadu government. Earlier legislation during the Justice party rule had brought in the HRCE department to administer the vast majority of temples in TN, on the request of the faithful who felt that the temple properties were being looted by those holding positions through heredity. In the 70s Karunanidhi, sought to enhance the administration of the temple for the public and brought in a legislation to abolish hereditary rights for priests as a first step to enable people of all castes to become temple priests. It was immediately embroiled in legal wranglings. After the legal hurdles were cleared in Supreme Court, Karunanidhi, in power then, began implementing the order to make people of all castes priests. And much to the consternation of brahmeans, he started priest training schools to teach people of all castes the sanskrit agamas that the brahmeans held dear, through paid brahmean teachers. The school, he announced, will take admissions based on the 69 percent admission as implemented in higher education in TN. Two batches were trained before opposition again cropped up and those trained remained unemployed. However, it was during his last days in the hospital that one trained non-brahmean priest, who studied in the school was appointed to an Ayappa temple administered by HRCE. On Periyar’s funeral in 1972, Karunanidhi had taken a vow to remove the thorn in Periyar’s heart, a thorn which Periyar said pierces his heart for not blasting that brahmean bastion of priesthood for the non-brahmeans in his lifetime.

Karunanidhi is also credited with the appointment of the first Scheduled Caste judge in Madras High Court. It was while speaking at a Scheduled Caste officers meeting where the officers felicitated Periyar for his work on social reforms that Periyar expressed regret that not much was done for social reform as there was still not a single Scheduled Caste judge in the High Court. The matter became a headline in Viduthalai, the DK newspaper, which caught the eyes of Karunanidhi who was the CM. Karunanidhi ordered furnishing of the list of district magistrates waiting for elevation and found a magistrate who was 12th in seniority for elevation who was from Scheduled Caste. Karunanidhi ensured that he is moved up the ranks. The judge later became the first Supreme Court judge from the Scheduled Caste.

Karunanidhi had a great way with words as a writer and orator. It was he who named transgenders as Thirunangai (transwomen) or Thirunambi (transmen) from being called as Aravaani or mentioned in much degrading manner. A board was formed for their welfare and his stamp of recognition normalized the presence of transgenders in public spaces without being ridiculed and got them benefits including ration cards. It was also during his tenure that the first welfare board was formed for the handicapped. Free cycles for Scheduled Caste school children and free cataract surgery for the old under Kannoli Thittam (plan for eyesight) were among the many welfare schemes he launched to reach a wide range of people in need. He also introduced pension for the old and free electricity for the farmers which was then extended to the weavers too. Free bicycles for rural temple priests and the provisions under the rations were further subsidized heavily. The offer of a free Saree and Vetti to the poor, distributed during Pongal festival by the TN government was a welfare scheme that not just benefited the beneficiaries but chiefly the handloom weavers who waited for the government orders for work during increased periods of crisis due to various factors, including mechanization.

Indeed, as much as politics, literature too defined Karunanidhi. Karunanidhi who began his writing in his teens began his journalistic work first editing a student magazine at age 14, a magazine aimed at students drawn to the Dravidian movement and at age 18 started “Murasoli” which is now the DMK party organ.  What he achieved in being in the Tamil intellectual sphere was remarkable as he took away Tamil from the strong clutches of the brahmeans. Moving away from brahmean writers, their vocabulary, he also gave a stamp of recognition to a legion of writers who strove to uphold the distinctness of Tamil language as opposed to Sanskrit.   

In fact, as much as electoral politics, the choice of Tamil too was a conscious decision of Karunanidhi to break the brahmean hegemony. In academics and literature, Karunanidhi promoted studies of Tamil scholars who gave records of the language’s uniqueness, promoted Tamil classical literature as ideal and historical, himself wrote interpretations for some classical Tamil works, iconized scholars like Caldwell, and writers as Thiruvalluvar, encouraged Thiruvalluvar reading and built grand memorials for Thiruvalluvar, critiqued brahmean works while DMK shunned Bharathiyar, a brahmean nationalist poet, and promoted Bharadidasan, a contemporary Dravidian movement writer who spoke for equality. 

As a writer and reader, Karunanidhi not just interpreted classical Tamil texts, but also had a clear historical understanding and explained how brahmean writers have inserted, explained and built their own interpretations into Tamil texts in a bid to destroy them over centuries. Both C N Annadurai and Karunanidhi’s facility with the language itself attracted a school of Dravidian writers who wrote along with them as well as held their own. After Annadurai’s sudden demise, it was Karunanidhi who promoted the Tamil identity in public space as ideal and opposite of the brahmean without any letup. In his writings, his speeches and his policies, he showed that he understood the brahmean well. Setting up committees for the language amid every raging controversy of the day – even if critics do crop up saying Karunanidhi could have done more – most of it brahmeanical in nature, Karunanidhi steered the language itself on a new progressive and contemporary line which culminated in him ensuring that Tamil was declared as a classical language by the Indian government in 2004.

In wrenching this status from a reluctant Indian government, it was indeed a new line that he took to the earlier one he held on declaration of “classical language status” for Tamil by India, when such demands did crop up in Tamil Nadu. Earlier he held that it was not for India to recognize what is a known fact of Tamil language – that it is a classical language of the world, whether anyone acknowledges it or not. What India did subsequently after the announcement is another matter for another essay on how the Indian government fights back against every hard-won right. But Karunanidhi’s act of moving with power centres in Delhi and getting the declaration was a new line from that he held on keeping away Delhi and underlined how he used his political power when available to wrench what he felt was right for Tamils and for the Tamil language to take on the brahmean hegemony.

The building of the Thiruvalluvar statue to stand tall at 133 ft in the southernmost tip of Tamil Nadu in Kanyakumari on a rock next to Vivekanandha statue and memorial, where the three seas meet dwarfing the Vivekanandha statue, is an instance of Karunanidhi’s astute understanding and opposition to  brahmeanism. For, building the memorial of Vivekananda on the rock was the first project of the RSS in Tamil Nadu. 

The RSS wrenched the rock from the fishermen who were using it through heredity. The fishermen who were Christians had a cross on top of the rock and used it as a guide for them to drop anchor on shore along the coast. The RSS fought a legal battle in court and won it and subsequently built the statue of Vivekananda and a mandapam for him claiming it to be a place he had visited, the idea symbolically bringing the southern tip into the brahmeanical idea as opposed to Tamil polity speaking with irreverence for the brahmean. Karunanidhi, who promoted Thiruvalluvar as he was a Tamil poet who was irreligious and wrote on equality and good social conduct, commissioned and built the Tamil icon’s statue to overshadow Vivekananda and had it opened in 2000. These were not obvious declarations of intent but symbolic activities to empower the subaltern, something that the brahmean well understood and consequently hated Karunanidhi, the most. 

Since his teens, Karunanidhi, who had come in touch with Periyar and Anna, traveled with the Dravidian movement in the propagation of Dravidian ideals through arts, especially theatre and subsequently cinema. When he entered cinema he freed it completely from the clutches of brahmeanism and made the medium to speak the language of the masses for the first time and retained it as normal and mainstream. Ilaiyaraja, the musical genius who also brought the music of the masses to the film screen had this observation to make on Karunanidhi on his demise:  “The last of the finest scriptwriters who wrote in clear Tamil is no more.” Such was Karunanidhi’s work. It was Karunanidhi who quoting research works used it to steer the language away from the direction of dilution to one which marked out its distinctness. Even the general scripts in movies moved away from mythology and spoke of rational ideas and continued to be openly critical of the brahmean every now and then after his entry.

Karunanidhi made cinema to speak about women’s equality, social inequalities, ridiculed sankritized words, kept Tamil names for good characters, made women speak politics, made women advise men, promoted widow remarriage and promoted self-respect ideals for all. All these were also spoken on the streets by Periyar himself until his death in 1972. Karunanidhi kept the tempo. 

Karunanidhi, in the cinema industry, was a successful and much-sought scriptwriter of repute even if some of his writings faced bans and censorship for their ‘anti-religious’ content. Still, his films were well received and some of them even became super hit movies of those days. To name one famous film, in particular, Parashakthi (1952), was first not allowed to be released for its criticism of Hinduism, but when it was, it became a super hit film. The films and songs of that era spoke of Dravidian valour, of social justice, dissected poverty, and its causes, questioned or broke norms and presented the Dravidian movement’s ideals. Even as communist writers too interspersed and came up to present humanizing communist ideals, as normal and praised Tamil. No one could surpass Karunanidhi in the use of Tamil. Karunanidhi also wrote poems and short stories and remained involved in script writing even after he entered electoral politics, not necessarily always with overt politics, but showed that he only promoted the same that he had presented on screen as Dravidian ideals. He scripted 72 films in all. 

Under the DMK rule, the word Dravidian was popularized even as the word remained interchangeable with Tamil in understanding and was inclusive of the masses of non-brahmeans beyond linguistic divisions and recognized them as one’s own as different from the brahmean. This was essential to prevent the brahmean avarice for Tamil identity in the public space and Karunanidhi remained conscious of it.

He was quick with wit too. Towards the end of the DMK-BJP alliance in 2004, a fringe leader of one of RSS arms, Rama Gopalan, a brahmean, took an appointment with Karunanidhi to present him the Bhagavat Gita, wanting to add fuel to the criticism that the DMK was facing over its relationship with BJP. Gopalan came prepared with the Gita and was waiting for his photo to be taken of the moment. Instead of refusing, Karunanidhi who gave him an appointment and shewdly called for a copy of “The other side of Gita” written by DK president, K Veeramani and gave it to him and asked him to read it after receiving the Gita. For Goplan it was unexpected and the meeting turned out to be a disappointment for him as Karunanidhi’s gesture made the news. After the meeting, Karunanidhi also casually remarked to the press that he was just being a good host by giving a guest something in return while leaving. 

Always proving himself to be shrewder than the brahmean, Karunanidhi, in his lifetime wrote five volumes of his own autobiography “Nenjukku Neethi” in Tamil, where he was frank also about his failings and importantly to record political happenings in order not to give space for brahmean nterpretation, even as he juggled all his work, politics and writing. He almost breathed writing and never stopped until his hand could no longer hold the pen. One of his last conscious political acts was to demand that photographs of the then ailing late chief minister, J Jayalalithaa be released, as her presence and treatment in hospital was shrouded in mystery. 

When party cadres outside the hospital Cauvery, where Karunanidhi was admitted shouted, “Come on, let’s go to Murasoli” hours before his demise, it was to remember his long-term relationship with the newspaper in which Karunanidhi, wrote or worked on every day. He wrote his view on developments, drew sketchy cartoons, reproduced his government’s policies, explained if necessary if in government, posed questions for himself and answered them while in opposition and wrote to cadres, edited or oversaw the headlines in ‘Murasoli.’ 

Updating himself in the age of television he also moved on to communicating with cadres on screen through Kalaignar TV, and also had a facebook page to communicate. He also gave active inputs to his television channel, Kalaignar TV, which in some of its programs showed its distinctness and the qualities of being a Dravidian channel. A competition for subaltern Gaana singers was the alternate idea of a singing contest when popular singing contests in other channels featured light music contests judged by Carnatic singers. One of the singers recalled casually that he made a living on a pavement in Chennai and was recognized by a constable on his rounds who had watched the show who was surprised to find him on the street. “I told him (the constable), Sir, I am like this only every day. In the studio they make me wear a good dress and makeup. Otherwise, I am this outside,” the singer recalled with some emotion. The constable then shook hands with the singer and left, he recalled. If other channels are trying to look for people with such stories deliberately, it must be remembered that it happened naturally on the TV that goes by his name and belongs to Karunanidhi family. 

The show also brought forth a singer who went on to hit the right notes in the film industry. Karunanidhi watched the headlines of his own news channel and pulled up the editor, if necessary. If Tamil Nadu is talking of a Tamil identity and “Thanith Tamil” (distinct language) it is largely due to the linguistic non-brahmean consciousness that Karunanidhi brought in and supported it as a politician. He shunned and ridiculed sanskritizedTamil writing or names and brought in Tamil names to the fore, promoted them as casteless, and marked buildings and landmarks in clear Tamil. After all, Karunanidhi started his political life agitating against Hindi.

To fully understand what Karunanidhi stood for, one has to truly start with Periyar, who once instantly put a phone call to an unknown young man then, to praise him immediately after reading an article he wrote for the Dravidar Kazhagam chronicler which he was editing then. The young man was Karunanidhi then receiving his first praise from Periyar. 

Among his lasting acts in power (2006-2010) was also the announcement made to declare Pongal day (January 14) as Tamil new year explaining scholars view and his own conclusions, that the Tamil month termed Chittirai which falls in mid-April cannot be Tamil new year but can only be a brahmeanic insertion. Though the following AIADMK government under Jayalalitha cancelled it, given Jayalalitha’s adamancy to cancel whatever Karunanidhi did; for the followers of DMK, DK and Periyar Tamil nationalists, Pongal on January 14 continues to mark the new Tamil year cycle rather than April 14, distinguishing the state as always between the Tamil and a brahmean identity. That was a tall achievement.

In leaving, Karunanidhi no doubt left a giant vacuum, difficult to fill for the many roles he played at the same time in different fields and for continuing politics of an era that rose from agitations for dignity and language rights. 

 (Thanks to Sakyamuni Chandal for the term brahmean, meaning Brahmin, used in this article.)



Radhika Sudhakar is a journalist from Chennai. She had worked with mainstream publications; presently makes contributions for certain publications, on and off, in Chennai.

Image courtesy: The Internet

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