The recent World Classical Tamil Conference was one of the grandest of conferences. The International Association of Tamil Research lost the opportunity of hosting this conference due to the intransigence of its President.
We read with dismay Professor Noboru Karashima's requiem for the International Association of Tamil Research (IATR) in The Hindu of July 23, 2010. We were both Vice Chairmen of the World Classical Tamil Conference held at Coimbatore in June 2010 and we may narrate the circumstances that led to the Government of Tamil Nadu conducting the conference on its own.
IATR is an academic body established in 1964 and registered in Paris. It has a General Body, a Central Council, and an Executive Council. It has no funds or office of its own. It has been existing from conference to conference and has conducted eight conferences so far, the last one being at Thanjavur in 1995. All the conferences, excepting the one held at Paris, have been conducted with the active participation and funding of the government of the country concerned.
It is not true to say, as Professor Karashima has done in his article, that the second conference at Chennai in 1968 was a celebration of the DMK victory. In a democracy, the ruling party constitutes the government and its support to the conference cannot be described as politicisation.
The pattern for IATR conferences was well established during the second conference. It consisted of academic sessions strictly restricted to the delegates and general programmes outside and away from the academic sessions for the benefit of the public. The IATR conferences in Tamil Nadu have always had these two components in parallel sessions — an arrangement with which the academic scholars and the general public alike were happy.
In his article, Professor Karashima has harped on the IATR conferences in Tamil Nadu being politicised. May we in this regard quote from a letter written by Professor Stuart Blackburn, Department of Culture of South Asia, University of London, to Professor Karashima on April 6, 1999. It reads as follows: “I understand your reluctance to have another conference in Tamil Nadu. However, I thought that the Tanjore experience wasn't so bad; the politics was isolated from the papers and we shouldn't overlook the fact that by holding the conference in Tamil Nadu many of our Tamil Colleagues are able to attend; that is a very big advantage.”
The separation of academic activities and the general programmes was more severe and strict in the recent World Classical Tamil Conference at Coimbatore.
Dr. V.C. Kulandaiswamy, in his letter of February 18, 1999, to Professor Karashima conveyed the invitation of the Government of Tamil Nadu to conduct the ninth conference. But Professor Karashima, in his letter dated March 10, 1999, declined the offer saying that he was not in favour of IATR conferences being held twice successively in Tamil Nadu. There was also his obsession with politicisation of the conferences held in Tamil Nadu.
The opportunity of holding a conference in 1999-2000 was also lost by the overly rigid stand taken by Professor Karashima on his own without consulting any of the office bearers. For 15 years after the conference at Thanjavur, IATR was hardly functioning and the office bearers were worried about its future. It was in this background that the offer was made by the Government of Tamil Nadu to host the ninth conference. The Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu himself wrote to Professor Karashima, seeking his support for the conference.
Among the four objections raised by Professor Karashima, three were settled and the only remaining issue was the timing. While he suggested December 2010 or January 2011, the Government of Tamil Nadu wanted to hold the conference at the end of June 2010 since State Assembly elections were due early in 2011. In any event, the difference of six months is too trivial an issue to turn down the offer of the government to the IATR to hold the conference.
Dr. Kulandaiswamy, as Vice President and also as President of the Executive Council, went to the extent of assuring Professor Karashima that we would be able to persuade the Tamil Nadu Government help IATR have its own building in Chennai, and also provide the necessary corpus fund for maintaining an office and conduct its research activities. Professor Karashima, in his reply to letters from Professor V.C. Kulandaiswamy and Dr. Iravatham Mahadevan, finally declared his unwillingness to accept the date proposed by the Tamil Nadu Government.
The question that one would naturally ask is: who authorised Professor Karashima to reject the offer of the Government of Tamil Nadu in the manner he had done? He did not convene a meeting of the Executive Council. He did not even consult the members of Central Council or the Members of the Executive Council. In fact, three of the four members of Executive Council and six of the nine surviving members of the Central Council pleaded with him in writing to accept the offer of Tamil Nadu. As President, he was bound by the opinion of the overwhelming majority of the office bearers. But he acted on his own.
In the above circumstances, Dr. Kulandaiswamy, in his capacity as Vice President and also as the President of the Executive Council, convened a meeting of IATR and obtained partly in person and partly in the form of written letters the support of six out of the nine members in the Central Council. He informed the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister that IATR had the mandate to hold the conference. However, the Chief Minister, after due consideration, expressed his unwillingness to associate IATR with the conference in the absence of unanimous support.
Consequently, the Government of Tamil Nadu went ahead and conducted the conference under the title, the World Classical Tamil Conference. One of the grandest of conferences ever conducted, it was attended by some of the tallest of research workers like Professors George Hart, Asko Parpola, Jaroslav Vacek, Alexander M. Dubyansky, and many others. IATR has lost the opportunity of hosting this conference due to the intransigence of its President.
Professor Karashima, in his characteristic way, declares that IATR has fulfilled its mission. It is not for the President, all by himself, to declare the virtual end of the international organisation he has been presiding over. It is but a confession on his part that after 15 years of inaction, he would not be able lead IATR in future.
Finally, we wish to recall the great contributions made by scholars like Professors V.I. Subramoniam, Jean Filliozat, and Fr. Thaninayagam, the founding fathers of IATR. They were also men of exceptional intellectual integrity and courage of conviction. They interacted with politicians, but managed to maintain the academic independence of IATR and built up its resources to serve the cause of Tamil studies. What we now need is not a ‘new IATR' but a new leader at its helm, deeply committed to the cause of Tamil, sensitive to Tamil sentiments and aspirations, and with wise statesmanship. Given such leadership, the IATR will resurrect itself and play its historic role for the promotion of Tamil studies.