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Remembering Anna

By R. Kannan

C.N. Annadurai epitomised Tamil pride, personifying honesty, simplicity and caring.

FIFTY OF his "thambis" (younger brothers) had been elected to the Madras legislature — the year 1962. But Conjeevaram Natarajan Annadurai, the leader of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), had suffered defeat in his hometown Kanchipuram. An electoral quirk, the defeat meant that Annadurai's genius became known outside the confines of Madras State — since in its aftermath he went on to the Rajya Sabha. "They say money power defeated me... ", he mused on his failure. "Despite this, I should have won the affection of the people. Henceforth this will be my mission."

Popularly known as "Anna" or elder brother, Annadurai was much loved. It is said that vendors and servicemen would refuse to accept payment from him. Barely five foot three and devoid of arresting physical features, Anna's unpretentious humanity, affection and intellect marked him out. His versatile pen delivered evocative plays (eliciting comparisons to Bernard Shaw), stories, scripts and essays. His speeches dazzled listeners as much for their kaleidoscopic alliterations, metaphors and his unorthodox syntax use, as for their content. Such was his appeal that on occasion tickets were sold for his speeches.

Anna was born on September 15, 1909 to a weaver couple of modest means. Sensitive to his social and political milieu, he met E.V. Ramasamy (EVR) `Periyar' in 1935 while in his final year at college. He quickly became EVR's disciple, an association that was to last for 14 purposive years. Anna's extreme speeches and essays, hitting out at alleged Aryan hegemony and addressing Hindu epics and legends, Arya Maayai (The Aryan illusion), Thee Paravattum (Let the fire spread), and Kamba Rasam (The essence of Kamban), later sold as booklets, manifest the firebrand's influence. Insightful propagandist plays such as "Shivaji's Hindu Empire" were also penned during this phase. EVR's tirelessness and sense of mission were to remain the enduring lessons of his early tutelage.

The feisty yet unpolished EVR and the incandescent Anna made a formidable duo in the struggle for social justice. In 1938, they led the successful campaign against mandatory Hindi. In 1944, the pair converted the elitist non-Brahmin Justice Party into the mass-based Dravidar Kazhagam. That year at Salem, the "Annadurai resolution" mandated that party leaders return their British titles, positions and drop caste suffixes. The Kazhagam stood for social justice and an independent Dravida Nadu against purported north-Indian domination.

In 1949, following differences with EVR, the ambitious Anna launched the DMK. In deference to his mentor, Anna however installed Periyar as the new party's titular president. Unlike the parent Kazhagam, the DMK sought power. Besides, Anna professed faith in the Tamil saint Thirumoolar's credo "One humanity and a God." (EVR was opposed to the idea of God.) Typically, he organised the DMK into a brotherhood — cadres forming a family of thambis looking to their elder brother Anna for guidance and affection.

Anna's persona, his mighty pen and silver tongue proved the DMK's capital. His prolific writings in journals Dravida Nadu and Kanchi whetted the appetite of the cadres for more. A network of DMK reading rooms became the gathering point each evening where cadres listened avidly to readings from these journals. Equally, a whole generation of speakers imitating Anna's style of public speaking carried the party's philosophy to towns and villages.

The pace picked up exponentially once Anna's brilliance harnessed the power of cinema. His works like Velaikaari (servant maid) and Kalaignar M. Karunanidhi's Parasakthi (Goddess Parasakthi) readily took the party's social and political message to the masses. Stars such as M.G. Ramachandran infused strength in and drew strength from the party. Further, the party's Dravida Nadu campaign harking back to a glorious past conflated the party and the polity in a sense of collective Tamil consciousness. However, some of the party's agit-prop methods of the 1950s — the black flag demonstration protesting Nehru's critical remarks for example — display Anna's impetuousness and his reliance on symbolic and emotional themes.

In 1957, Anna and 14 of his thambis were elected to the State Legislature. However, the party's quick rise was not without difficulties. Expectations of power triggered dissensions culminating in the 1961 split. Dissenters accused Anna of human frailties, dithering and succumbing to a clique (Poet Kannadasan's work Vanavaasam (Exile)).

The party's advance was unstoppable though. Fifty of Anna's thambis were elected in 1962 and Anna himself was chosen to the Rajya Sabha. A growing maturity became discernible in Anna as his vistas broadened. He had come a long way in the 13 years since the DMK was launched. Beholden he wrote to his thambi that "You, the cause of all this advancement, are far away." His heart and mind, as ever, were in the right place. He took the Rajya Sabha by storm introducing himself as a "Dravidian" seeking self-determination.

Dravida Nadu remained a goal, though not a conviction any longer. (Anna had been modest even about the DMK's prospects in the 1959 civic and the 1967 general elections. The DMK succeeded in both.) While he was realistic about the odds of realising Dravida Nadu, he did not show it. He was fully aware of the strengths and attractions of the Indian Union. In 1962, he "renounced" Dravida Nadu in an expression of solidarity with the Union during the Sino-Indian war. Anna warned, however, that the causes underlying the claim remained. The party sought regional autonomy instead, focussing simultaneously on people's issues. Critics who had once accused him of preaching secessionism now ridiculed him for giving up on the idea.

The synergy of the 1965 anti-Hindi agitation, the Congress' bungling on rice distribution and Anna's adroit alliance with both the Right and the Left coalescing Opposition votes — a precursor to today's alliance arithmetic — catapulted the DMK to power in 1967. It was the first time a regional party had risen to power and in 18 years. Anna had once told his thambis: "You and I are common men — me especially — called upon to shoulder uncommon responsibilities."

As Chief Minister, Anna promptly sealed the State's borders to redress the food situation but his catchy promise of "three measures of rice for a rupee" proved unrealistic. He legalised self-respect marriages, renamed the Madras State Tamil Nadu, introduced the two-language formula, offered incentives for inter-caste marriages and nationalised some public transport routes. He deliberately eschewed big industrial projects, preferring the quick impact approach. (Critics have argued that the Dravidian parties lack economic vision and put too much emphasis on imagery and populism.) But more than 25 textile mills had to be shut down. The problem had begun in 1964. Anna also approached land reforms very cautiously. Farm workers appeared restive and in December 1968, landowners in Keezhvenmani village burnt down 42 Dalit women and children. Anna's compassion alone proved insufficient to handle these problems. He served for less than two years with cancer claiming him in February 1969.

Anna was a rare leader. He would have dominated the national political stage if he had chosen so. Instead, he epitomised Tamil pride, personifying honesty, simplicity and caring. He never held a bank account until his aides insisted he open one for deposit of his salary as Chief Minister. Once an old associate brought an industrialist to him for a favour. "Until yesterday you had always brought the poor," he observed, regretting the changing priorities of his follower.

He exhibited a rare political culture of tolerance and dignity towards the Opposition and opponents. He held no grudge or malice. Before assuming office he first went to seek EVR's blessings (as well as other leaders), oblivious of the 18-year hiatus. He would not campaign against the Congress leader, K. Kamaraj in 1968, as he desired his opponent's success for the good of the polity. He generously admitted that Kamaraj was Prime Minister material.

Anna loved books. In 1968, he asked his physician Dr. Miller to postpone his surgery to remove his cancerous growth by a few days. Dr. Miller wondered if Anna was waiting for an auspicious day. Anna smilingly replied that he was in the midst of a book and he would be through in the next two days. His success served as catalyst for the rise of a new generation of commoner thambis in the political process. Sadly, most failed to adopt his mantra of duty, dignity and discipline. Where Anna stressed service, the new wave focusses on personal success. Perhaps it is a degeneration that has spread to all sections of society. As we mark his 95th birth anniversary today, we would do well to ponder over the life of this remarkable leader who served the nation selflessly. A sea of humanity attended his funeral (The Guinness book of Records registered it as the largest till then) — a fitting tribute to a man who sought only affection in return for his work.

(The writer heads Civil Affairs with the U.N. Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus.)

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