Karunanidhi — a champion of social justice, caste amity

Among his earliest acts as CM was to form a Backward Classes Commission.

Updated - November 28, 2021 12:28 pm IST

Published - August 07, 2018 09:15 pm IST

Scarred early in life by a sense of discrimination based on his birth, M Karunanidhi was driven by a zeal for social justice. The iniquitous nature of the caste system was a dominant theme in his writings, and restoring historical justice by ameliorating the conditions of the backward classes was an article of faith with him.

 With backward class reservation an established norm by the time he became CM in 1969, he had a foundation to work on. One of his earliest acts was to set up a Backward Classes Commission under A.N. Sattanathan. Based on the Commission’s recommendation, he raised BC reservation from 25% to 31%. The quota for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes was raised from 16% to 18%, taking the total reservation to 49%.

 Significantly, his regime did not accept a key recommendation that economic criteria, such as income ceiling and land ownership, be used to restrict BC reservation to the less privileged. He was a fierce opponent of introducing any economic criterion. Later, he vehemently opposed the introduction of the ‘creamy layer’ concept, by which the better-off among the communities enjoying reservation were to be kept out of its purview.

 His political rival, M.G. Ramachandran, who became CM in 1977, introduced a ₹9,000 annual income ceiling to be eligible for reservation in 1979. Mr. Karunanidhi opposed the measure as one that struck at the root of social justice. After the AIADMK suffered a near-drubbing in the 1980 Lok Sabha election, MGR rolled back his decision and scrapped the economic criterion; he further raised the BC quota to 50%.

Karunanidhi and the shaping of the Dravidian movement  

 On the DMK’s return to power in 1989, Mr. Karunanidhi made two significant decisions. Responding to a prolonged agitation by the Vanniyar Sangam for a separate quota for the backward community, he carved out a new category of ‘Most Backward Classes and Denotified Communities’ and included many castes, including the Vanniyars, in it. This MBC category was eligible for a 20% quota within the 50% BC reservation.

In 1990, following a Madras HC judgment suggesting that the Scheduled Tribes be given separate reservation and not be clubbed with the Scheduled Castes, he created a 1% quota for the STs.

In his next tenure that began in 2006, he created two sub-quotas of 3.5% each for Muslims and Christians among the backward classes. This was within the 30% BC quota. Christians found this compartment restrictive for students and job aspirants, as they stood to gain more if there was no Christian quota. This quota was withdrawn, but the BC-Muslim category of reservation is being successfully implemented in Tamil Nadu, with the number of Muslim students in medical and engineering courses going up since then.

 Another significant intervention was the introduction of a sub-quota for the Arundathiyars, a Dalit community that is on the lowest rung among the Scheduled Castes. Karunanidhi had special legislation passed to provide job and educational quotas for this neglected community, which constituted 16% of the State’s SC population.

 He was one of those who consistently called for implementation of the Mandal Commission recommendation for backward class reservation in Central government employment. He favoured Dalits getting reservation in the private sector too.

 During his 1996-2001 stint, he had to handle caste tension in several parts of Tamil Nadu, and his was a sober voice advocating peace and harmony. In the Assembly, he used to intervene to cool down passions during debates that tended to take an acrimonious twist, reminding members that one irresponsible word uttered in the House would have severe consequences in the form of tension and violence outside it.

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