The upcoming Tamil Nadu Assembly elections have given occasion to a lot of never ending speculations, questions and expectations. Both the prominent Dravidian parties, AIADMK and DMK have lost their political stalwarts, J Jayalalitha and M Karunanidhi respectively, and this is going to be the first assembly elections in the state without them. Adding to this, the recent churn of events in Tamil Nadu can prove to be a game-changer to the state’s politics. Former IPS Officer K Annamalai who was the Bengaluru South deputy police commissioner has joined Tamil Nadu's BJP unit. Within four days of his joining the party, he was appointed as the Vice President of the party's state unit. Not only does he hold an excellent career record, but he is also immensely popular among the people. He quit the police service last year, and his entry into politics has added spice to the political battle.
Meanwhile, actor Rajinikanth’s entry into the arena has increased the scope for a bigger change in Tamil Nadu's political climate, long dominated by the Dravidian ecosystem. Other events like E V Ramaswamy Naicker’s grandson leaving AIADMK and joining the BJP, and internal disputes, like DMK MLA Ku Ka Selvam’s expulsion from the party, disagreements over DMK president's son Udhayanidhi’s promotion as the next leader, and the long standing turbulence between state Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami (EPS) and Deputy Chief Minister O Panneerselvam (OPS) within AIADMK have widened the possibilities of bigger surprises ahead. In fact, actor Rajinikanth had added to the ambiguity by saying that “people of TN will 100% create a big wonder and marvel in the upcoming elections."
Political entries, exits and statements are not uncommon. But why do these recent changes in TN call for scrutiny? Since 1967, Dravidian parties have held the reins of TN politics, though they have aligned with national parties at various points in time. Yet, no national party has displaced the major Dravidian parties. Today's major parties AIADMK and DMK owe their existence to the Justice Party created in 1916 and EV Ramasamy Naicker, who was elected as its leader in 1938 after he quit Congress. In 1944, the party was rechristened as Dravida Kazhagam, with a staunch support for colonial rule. Dravida Kazhagam set the base for a Dravidian political movement.
Ever since, without allegiance to Periyar and his Dravidian ideology, politics cannot run in the state. Be it caste reforms, women empowerment, rights for Dalits, reservations, or temple entry reforms, Periyar has been accorded the status of the ultimate social reformer of the Tamil people. Indeed, he has attained such a godly status in Tamil Nadu that he is exempted from the purview of criticism. Earlier this year, when Rajinikanth commented against the 1971 rally led by Periyar to insult the naked idols of Shri Rama and Sita publicly, he was severely criticised by several Dravidian outfits in the state. Effigies of Rajinikanth were burnt, and protests were held. In fact, there were attempts to lay siege to Rajinikanth’s house. The biggest danger of elevating a single person as the "ideal" saviour is that history is severely misappropriated by downplaying deserving people as well as by giving space for politically motivated narratives.
For the time being, however, let's take into consideration the two subjects that dominate Dravidian politics: Temple Entry Rights and Reservation.
The history of the Temple Entry Rights Movement
Periyar is hailed as the hero of Vaikom Satyagraha, within TN. Is it justified? Vaikom Satyagraha took place in the Kottayam district of Kerala during 1924-25, to fight for the temple entry rights of the depressed classes. It was started under the leadership of TK Madhavan, along with K Kelappan and K P Kesava Menon and supported by Gandhi, Chattampi Swamigal and Sree Narayana Guru. In fact, it was T K Madhavan who presented a resolution before the Kakinada session of the Indian National Congress in 1923, asking for the right to worship for all people without caste discrimination. Periyar, who was the President of the Tamil Nadu Congress Committee, entered the scene only after the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee wrote to him, pleading for his participation.
There were several volunteers and leaders - Periyar was merely one of them. Giving full credit to Periyar for the Satyagraha is the biggest injustice one can do to other prominent leaders like TK Madhavan, who were equal, if not greater, crusaders in the fight against untouchability in Kerala.
What about temple entry fight in TN? Was Periyar the ultimate crusader? It was Vaidyanatha Iyer who headed the temple entry movement in Tamil Nadu, under the chief ministership of C Rajagopalachari, starting with Meenakshi Sundareshwarar Temple in Madurai. On 8th July 1939, he had created history by taking four Dalits - which included one of the most incredible Dalit activists of TN, Kakkan - and members of other castes into the temple, despite the law that barred their entry. Thanks are due to the then Chief Minister of Madras Presidency, C Rajagopalachari, who from the Congress Party, passed an ordinance, legalising Dalit entry.
One of the most significant force besides Iyer was Pasumpon Muthuramalinga Thevar who issued a dire warning on that historic day, “I would be there at the entrance of the Meenakshi Temple. Those who dare to prevent the Dalits’ entry into the temple, could come there and meet me.” The same year Temple Entry Authorization and Indemnity Act was passed by Rajaji. This paved the way for subsequent entries to Azhar temple, Thiruparankundram, Thiruvarangam, Pazhani and Srivilliputhur in 1939. At this juncture, let’s take into account Subbarayan Gounder, who introduced the Temple Entry Bill in 1932 as an independent member to the Madras Legislative Council. Periyar is definitely known for his rhetoric for temple entry, but a delve into history puts both the Justice Party and Periyar at a loss of substantial action.
Reservation in Dravidian politics
Tamil Nadu politics is nothing without talk of reservations. One unshakeable narrative, thanks to the Dravidian ecosystem, is that without the Justice Party and Periyar, reservations would have been a far-off reality. The Justice Party introduced Communal Government Order (G.O. No. 613) in 1921 to legislate reservations in the state, under CM Raja of Panagal but it was "not implemented". Only in 1927, was it implemented by Chief Minister Subbarayan Gounder, who neither belonged to the Justice Party nor the Swarajya party.
Periyar, in particular, was dissatisfied with reservations proposed by the Constitution and accused Ambedkar of selling himself to Brahmins. He said, "The Brahmins had paid him a price. The price is this: he asked for 10% reservation, and they gave him 15%. They knew that even if they gave him 25%, not even three or four per cent of qualified people would be available [among the Dalits]. He accepted the Constitution written by the Brahmins and signed on the dotted lines. He did not think about others."
In spheres of education, the incredible contributions of TS Avinashilingam Chettiyar, Kamarajar, and Swami Sahajanada are unjustifiably missing from popular discourse. Again, Periyar is adorned as the icon of the feminine renaissance in the state, but it is a shame that we undermine the acts of Subramaniya Bharathi who advocated for women’s rights, education and their active participation in politics way before Periyar.
Leave alone the matter of deserving icons getting overshadowed. The fact is that Dravidian politics, in its quest for power, has also embarrassingly abused it at the cost of historical accuracy. A classic example is the story of how V V S Iyer was vilified, and his gurukulam at Cheranmadevi was closed. Similarly, Pasumpon Muthuramalinga was turned into a villain, and his name was removed from schoolbooks and later was added owing to societal pressure. From Mahakavi Subramaniya Bharathi to Mahatma Gandhi, nobody, outside the realm of the Dravidian separatist ideology of Periyar, has managed to escape vile mistreatment. For years, history in the state has been incessantly hijacked. Without re-examining history and questioning the tenets of Dravidian politics, drastic and deep-rooted changes in Tamil politics will remain a matter of question.