Chennai: Great tributes have been paid to the last of the Dravidian icons who has made it a quartet on the Marina memorial. Muthuvel Karunanidhi's demise represents the end of an epoch in Tamil Nadu politics as it swung away from domination by the Congress since Independence. The movement into its Dravidian phase came on top of a revolutionary student agitation against the imposition of Hindi before metamorphosing into a Dravidian duopoly that has passed half a century. There will never quite be another era like this ruled by a distinct Tamil sentiment.
What strikes me the most about Karuniaidhi was his ability to be a true secular democrat amid the highly complex caste equations of Tamil Nadu. He was a protégé of Periyar and obviously a pet thanks to his literary abilities that came out so well in the powerful dialogues and screenplays he penned. But history would suggest that Karunanidhi, a staunch atheist, was not a Brahmin and upper caste baiter like his mentor. Caste politics was extremely important for the Dravidian movement as it demolished the upper caste domination of centuries. None can argue against the need for such a movement to break the upper caste stranglehold in social history.
Karunanidhi was, however, shrewd enough to realise that he needed the advice of many of his erudite upper caste friends even as he pursued the promotion of affirmative action to lend a hand to the historically disadvantaged people. Some of his closest early advisers were Brahmins and his friendship with them was greater than any divide brought out by the caste equations. His doctor, lawyer and accountants of his first days as minister and then chief minister post Annaudurai's demise were all from the upper castes. In fact, the prominent lawyer VP Raman was instrumental in drawing up the DMK party’s constitution and byelaws, etc.
The balance he struck between friendship and his official position was quite fascinating. I know for a fact that he did not favour his neurosurgeon’s son with a medical seat soon as he left school along with us. And yet he did favours where he could for his friends as in appointing R. Ramakrishnan as the youngest Sheriff of Madras as he was one of his close companions in the Gopalapuram rummy playing days. Many of his industrialist friends were also from the upper caste and they all swore personal allegiance to him that went beyond the seeking of government help in those times when there was a licence-permit raj in India and clearances were needed for every little thing.
There is a little personal tale that may tell a lot about what a simple man Karunanidhi was, unaffected by the success of popularity with the people. He and his wife were to make their maiden trip to the United States and his neurosurgeon, Dr B. Ramamurthy, who was visiting him at his home at the time saw the couple packing their clothes in old, battered aluminium suitcases that were the flavor of the day in those times. The doctor decided it won’t do and called his son to go and buy appropriate suitcases. His son, Dr Ravi and I went to Spencer’s to buy two Paxall suitcases - remember the expandable suitcase with a ratchet arrangement at the back to raise the lid - and delivered them to the home of the first couple.
A childhood memory stands out. My grandfather, a Hindu Mahasabha candidate in the 1957 assembly poll, spotted the rise of the Dravidian party DMK earlier than many. As Karunanidhi was to stand in the MLA elections of 1962 from Thanjavur, my grandfather gave him Rs 1,000 as a donation to his election fund in 1960. It was a princely sum in those days (worth some Rs 68,000 today factoring in inflation, probably more as it could have bought a couple of grounds of land in Chennai at that time). Karunanidhi acknowledged the donation by stopping his massive election procession on South Main Road to say a big thank you with folded hands while wishing my grandad S. Srinivasachari, who was standing on the balcony of his gigantic home facing the road, before resuming his journey seeking votes.
Some people were offended at the sight of temple priests going to the house of an avowed atheist and rendering slokas in praise of the Lord, as seen in WhatsApp messages recently forwarded. As a secular person, Karuna would not stop the priests from coming home. He had open engagements with people of all religions if they came to him though he may never have sought to go to places of worship even to further any of his political causes. Here again he was able to strike a balance without going overboard and he remained that way to the very end.
(R. Mohan is the Resident Editor of the Chennai and Tamil Nadu editions of Deccan Chronicle)...