How Dravidian movement staved off majoritarian politics

DECCAN CHRONICLE. | M R VENKATESH
Published May 1, 2017, 4:17 am IST
Updated May 1, 2017, 4:36 am IST
Quoting Periyar, Prof. Pannerselvam says, “social reform is not such an easy game as politics. "
“The idea of starting the journal, ‘Kudiyarasu’ came to Periyar when he was in the Coimbatore jail along with his friend Thangaperumal, in 1922, but the idea materialised only on May 2, 1925,” Dr S. Panneerselvam says in his detailed study.
 “The idea of starting the journal, ‘Kudiyarasu’ came to Periyar when he was in the Coimbatore jail along with his friend Thangaperumal, in 1922, but the idea materialised only on May 2, 1925,” Dr S. Panneerselvam says in his detailed study.

Come May 2, another marker in the history of the Dravidian Movement finds itself in a confluence of remembrances. It marks an important date in what may be called the ‘birth of ideas’ that has since played out as contestations and consensus in the politics of Tamil Nadu.

As an amazing plurality of mostly Tamil journals played a vital role in the growth of the Dravidian Movement, May 2 is a special date in this political theatre, as 92 years ago, that day in 1925, ‘Kudiarasu (The Republic)’ started by Periyar and published at Erode had first appeared. It was not an also-ran, but turned out to be a cutting edge technology.

 

Significantly this year, it has come on top of one of the Dravidian Movement’s leading lights, former MP and Constitutional expert, Era Sezhiyan, who now teaches at VIT Vellore, had just turned 95 years.

Along with the likes of other veterans and Tamil scholars like Prof K.Anbazhagan, 94, DMK president M. Karunanidhi, running 93, and late multi-faceted brilliant leaders from CN Annadurai, VR Nedunchezhiyan, to charismatic personalities like MG Ramachandran and J.Jayalalithaa who are no more, their collective iconic status in the Dravidian Movement is undeniable.

The mosaic of this broad, yet distinct group of political leadership includes other prominent faces too, like the MDMK leader Vaiko and veteran AIADMK politician Panruti S Ramachandran, who have been through this movement from their student days.

There have also been several other passionate souls with great literary flourish like late P. Jeevanandam who later gravitated to the Left Movement in Tamil Nadu.

For, they all played key roles, at one time or the other in getting the ideas of the Dravidian Movement heard in the ‘corridors of power in New Delhi’.

This huge legacy, in retrospect, now adds to the significance of May 2, though at times some of the later leaders, in the post-1990 coalition era at the Centre, have tactically backed the BJP to protect their political turf.

A few signposts to this hermeneutic can be gleaned from a painstaking and brilliant study, ‘Cultural Paradigm And Social Critique — A Tamil Perspective’, by Dr S.Panneerselvam, former Professor of Philosophy, University of Madras. “The idea of starting the journal, ‘Kudiyarasu’ came to Periyar when he was in the Coimbatore jail along with his friend Thangaperumal, in 1922, but the idea materialised only on May 2, 1925,” he says.  

There were several newspapers and journals that began to crowd the market in 1930s’. From the Daily, ‘India’ (1931)’, started by JS Kannappar, who was involved in the Self-Respect Movement and founded the ‘Dravidian’, ‘Candamaarutam (1931)’ which critiqued superstitious beliefs and old customs, ‘Puratchi’ (1933) edited by Periyar’s brother, EV Krishnasamy (grandfather of former TNCC president EVKS Elangovan), ‘Pudu Vaazhvu (1948)’ edited by Prof K.Anbazhagan which supported the DK Movement and was against Hindi imposition, to ‘Porvaal (1947)’ edited by Kanchi Manimozhiyar.

Prof Pannerselvam points out they not only propagated Periyar’s ‘Self Respect Movement’ views after he quit the Congress, but some critiqued both Periyar and the DK party.

Alluding to those very hard days when most poor Tamils were just floating around as migrant workers, “leading a life without any self-identity”, Prof Pannerselvam says even the Tamil journals of those days were “brimming with religious contents, and were saturated with religious doctrines and practices of Hinduism, Christianity and Islam.”

Even then, productivity of the Tamil peasants was not taken seriously, he notes. Some journals of those days also discussed Tamil language and literature, but their contributions hardly reached the common man.

“It is in this context that we have to understand the role of Periyar and the responsibility he took to uphold the cause of the downtrodden,” contends Prof. Pannerselvam.

A journal like ‘Kudiarasu’ was for Periyar a deconstructing tool, a sledgehammer, to narrate the grim realities to the Tamil people, in his view, more so when the caste system dominated “every aspect of social, political and economic life.”

“So Periyar’s ‘Kudiarasu’ spread the message of social justice in all its aspects,” he affirms.  

For Periyar social reforms were far more tenuous and important than contesting elections and the grand old man left behind an architecture, based on social justice principles, which became the ground of ‘social consensus’, where all socio-political contestations could meet.

Quoting Periyar, Prof. Pannerselvam says, “social reform is not such an easy game as politics. The task of social reconstruction is a play with the sword. A slight slip will end in a cut. A wrong swing will result in a thrust.”

The Dravidian Movement, anchored in rationalism, he adds, “made the people think deeply on all aspects of religion, social discrimination and inequality in thought, word and deed.”

Periyar may have been anti-God, anti-Gandhi, anti-North India, anti-Hindi, anti- upper caste domination and so on, but his historical role created a space for a secular, transcendental discourse that enabled relatively free communication, people of all classes, castes and religions to come to the dialogue table, also dovetailing in its wake development of Tamil language, literature and culture.

But Dalits still get a raw deal, cry critics. To this Prof Pannerselvam replies, Periyar saw the caste system as the greater evil. This is how contestations in the Dravidian Movement have hit a consensus in each crucial phase of its unfolding. As Annadurai’s famous line went, “my steps are measured”, brilliant shorthand for unity amid differences.     

This debate will be unending, but what is contemporarily significant about it is that this social paradigm of contestations and consensus the Dravidian Movement fostered, similar to the equally inclusive and consensus paradigm which the Gandhi-Nehru era of the Congress earnestly cultivated, exclude in their very nature any majoritarian politics.

Prof Panneraelvam concludes his work quoting the much acclaimed Tamil scholar Karthigesu Sivathambi: “In the evolution of Tamil renaissance, the journals have occupied an important place.... the modernisation of Tamils brought inside the western development into Tamil; probably, this modernisation is responsible for the social change in Tamil society. Because of the modernisation alone, he argues, specialisations in journals have emerged.” yet another standing example of contestations and consensus.

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