Language as an instrument of politics has played a crucial role in Tamil Nadu. It was cited as a major factor when the DMK dislodged the Congress from power in the 1967 Assembly elections. Even today, it continues to be quoted in any discourse on polls.
Having identified himself with such a background, DMK president M. Karunanidhi, after he took over as Chief Minister in February 1969, was naturally expected to provide greater push to the promotion of Tamil. He did not disappoint.
Even though Mr. Karunanidhi, in his five spells as Chief Minister, took a number of steps towards it, the Union government’s declaration of Tamil as a classical language in October 2004 marked the high point of his “avatar” as a proponent of the Tamil cause.
At that time he was not the Chief Minister, but his role in making this a reality was substantial. When the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance captured power at the Centre after the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, it immediately acceded to the long-standing demand of the Tamils. The UPA dispensation owed its existence to the support provided by the DMK, especially Mr. Karunanidhi. In the polls, the DMK-led alliance made a clean sweep by bagging 40 parliamentary seats in Tamil Nadu and Puducherry. It was no surprise that after the UPA regime assumed office in May 2004, then President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, a Tamilian himself, announced the government’s intention to declare Tamil a classical language.
In March 2006, the Central Institute of Classical Tamil started functioning on the campus of the Central Institute of Indian Languages, Mysuru; two years later, it moved to Chennai. In June 2010, the then DMK regime conducted the World Classical Tamil Conference in Coimbatore; it was obvious that Mr. Karunanidhi had made the success of the meet a matter of personal prestige.
On several occasions, he demonstrated his fascination towards Thiruvalluvar, the author of the Tamil treatise on ethics, Thirukkural. In the mid-1970s, the DMK government raised a memorial, Valluvar Kottam, in Chennai. But a few weeks before the memorial was to be declared open, the government was dismissed from office, in January 1976. Mr. Karunanidhi waited 13 years to go to the memorial; when the DMK was swept back to power in the January 1989 Assembly elections, he made the memorial the venue for the swearing-in ceremony.
His dream of installing a statue for Thiruvalluvar in Kanniyakumari came true when he unveiled the 133-feet-tall statue exactly at the moment the second millennium commenced. In 1972, during his first innings as Chief Minister, the government, after consulting scholars, determined that Thiruvalluvar was born in 31 BCE.
Among the many measures taken by Mr. Karunanidhi as Chief Minister were the establishment of the Silappadikaram Art Gallery in Poompuhar and the creation of a separate department for Tamil development. A few weeks after he became Chief Minister in May 2006, the government promulgated an ordinance, making the learning of Tamil compulsory in all schools till Class X. It was to the credit of his government that the successor regime did not alter the law.
Mr. Karunanidhi, a follower of the two language formula, had emphasised several times the need to retain English as a subject in educational institutions. However, his passion for Tamil has been, and continues to be, acknowledged even by his bitter critics.