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Karunanidhi: Sun sets, but a reformer never dies

Pradeep Narayanan | Updated on: 7 August 2018, 22:17 IST
(Arya Sharma / Catch News)

One cannot live for 95 years, of which more than 70 years was in active partisan politics, and yet not be disliked by most people, if not everyone. Being in active politics, one would have taken innumerable political stands and with every new one, would have made new enemies. Further, for every political compromise one would have made for getting to power, there would be ten times those to sustain power. And then, his longevity would leave him struggling to list even one principle that he preached and did not violate at least once in his life. Yet, history could never be able to ignore him easily, simply because for most of the era when he had power, there were no better role models anyway. That is Karunanidhi! 

With him ended the glorious era of Dravidian Troika - with Periyar and Annadurai. The three presided over probably the only successful social transformation, which owes to a socio-political movement, and resulted in even usurping of power by the then marginalised section through a political process acknowledged as democracy. Karunanidhi was way older than he was- at any point of his life. His intellectual grasp over social concepts and sarcastic retorts that are grounded in the realities made even his peers regard him as an old wise man. He was never young for any generation of youths. A generation of youth saw in him an experienced political and progressive artist; the next one called him a revolutionary leader; the subsequent one saw themselves as his benefactor; and some among the current youth saw in him a sentinel- to ward off any attempt to revive any brahmanical narrative that the troika always fought against.

The Dravidian movement, the first time, successfully used people’s mobilisation to win electoral power for a marginalised community. It displaced a system that perpetuated one minuscule sections’ dominance over policy-making spaces so much that the knowledge system around that power structure created a narrative that such kind of knowledge-based caste hierarchy is legitimate. The concept of merit, pedigree, hygiene, non-violence, karma - were all instruments that legitimated the illegitimate dominance of the so-called top most ladder of caste system. The inequality was so ingrained in the culture and society, that it produced a polity of inequity very legitimately. And this polity controlled the culture and this culture controlled the polity - and together they perpetuated an unequal system, but in a very organic way. Knowledge was the power and also the instrument to legitimise the illegitimate power-at the same time.

A hundred years ago, in 1919, out of 128 district munsifs, 93 were Brahmins: 609 out of 1007 gazettes posts were held by Brahmins; 9813 out of 17225 clerks were Brahmins; and not a single non-Brahmin was elected to the Legislative Council between 1887 and 1917. In 1914, of 650 registered graduates of Madras University, 464 were Hindus, and among them only 11 were non-Brahmin Hindus. This is the context to the Dravidian movement, which began as the Justice Party. The point was to bring justice - a section that has population of 3 to 4 percent cannot occupy most of the policy-making, implementing and influencing space. And while the reservation for non-Brahmins began as early as 1920s, the struggle was to use the political space to then influence socio-cultural and religious spaces, which continues even today. And Karunanidhi and his struggle needs to be located within that space of dissent and protest, where being in power does not matter.

More than the persistence, the Dravidian movement demonstrated the tactical acumen of the troika. A general statement about Tamil Nadu - cinema influences its politics - hides the way the politics of Annadurai and Karunanidhi instrumentalised Tamil cinema. Culture was an important cockpit space, and in cinema, they saw the amalgam of popular culture and popular mobilisation. Annadurai’s Vellaikaari and Or Iravu and Karunanidhi’s Parasakthi, Mandhirikumari and Thangarathnam set the tone for the movement’s influence over Tamil cinema. Karunanidhi promoted rationalist ideas and encouraged viewers to question everything. In Naam, he writes, “there is not much difference between a sickle and a question mark”. MGR’s screen dialogue is penned by Karunanidhi! Cinema was instrumental in educating masses. It took the form of student movements, cultural movements, social movements, political struggles, mass movement. You think of anything - it had characteristics of everything that is considered as progressive.

One can easily infer that the Dravidian movement underestimated the caste system. Democratisation of political space stopped with displacing Brahmins from certain political spaces. Brahminism was understood narrowly, ignoring that for thousands of years, Brahminism percolated at every level of caste relationships. That the relationship between Tamil Shudras (dravidas) and Adidravidas would also be brahmanical for the relationship is in the end a byproduct of the Brahmanical caste system - was not something unknown to the troika, but their inability to create sequential successive movements stopped at a new socio-political relationship, which may not be less brahmanical than what it displaced. It was not that the need for a continued struggle was never felt, but it just stopped!

Where did it falter? Firstly, the dynamics of capturing political power and sustaining political power are different. The agitators, who together built the movement, post the conquest of political power, rewarded themselves with positions - and they rested. The struggle stopped. Secondly, progressive politics became a victim of its own instruments, which legitimised power not because of ideology but because of its strength as mobiliser. Cinema as a medium to mobilise people won over it being the instrument to promote ideology, for the people were not fully prepared to stand up for the ideology. People never understood that ideology demands overhaul of power structure, which would not necessarily be comfortable for them. That a Dravidian ideology could produce MGR or Jayalalitha as its leaders - is the victory of the instrument over the ideology.

While it will be unfair to dismiss Karunanidhi because of his many wrong doings, it will also be unfair not to say that Karunanidhi, in the end, did fail the movement. He will probably never be forgiven for converting an ideology-based political party that he inherited from Annadurai, into a corrupt personal fiefdom. For that crime, an Annadurai and a Periyar would never give him a space alongside their cemeteries, but his life is definitely more than these. And then, Karunanidhi, the social reformer, should refuse to die!

First published: 7 August 2018, 22:17 IST