The federal manoeuvre: on the Dravidian movement

The Dravidian movement’s contribution to keeping India united is not appreciated enough

Updated - December 05, 2021 09:18 am IST

Published - September 16, 2017 12:15 am IST

College students taking out a rally in Coimbatore as part of the anti-Hindi agitation throughout Tamil Nadu.

College students taking out a rally in Coimbatore as part of the anti-Hindi agitation throughout Tamil Nadu.

To have served for 60 consecutive years as a legislator is a rare achievement especially if it is in Tamil Nadu, a large and relatively successful State. Few politicians in India can match this record of Muthuvel Karunanidhi, known as Kalaignar , or artist, to his admirers. When some do come close to it, they possess none of his achievements. He was Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu more than once and played a role on the national stage once coalition governments became a reality. He also has quite a unique significance to which I shall return. How are we to view his legacy?

Karunanidhi’s role

Despite his long presence in Indian politics, Mr. Karunanidhi is really a beneficiary of the Dravidian movement and its vehicle, the political party Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). The movement itself had been sculpted by E.V. Ramaswami Naicker and its presence in national politics was cemented by C.N. Annadurai, who led the party in the Lok Sabha. Thus unlike his contemporaries, Mr. Karunanidhi inherited significant political capital. For instance, he did not have to carve out a path for a party, as did E.M.S. Namboodiripad almost a generation before him. Namboodiripad had to first craft the Communist movement in the country and then govern a newly formed State during the high noon of Congress hegemony, the 1950s. In a brief and turbulent tenure, Namboodiripad attempted a move to a distinctly new model economy and society in Kerala, even though subsequent developments may not have conformed to what he had anticipated of them. It is difficult to detect a similar motivation in Mr. Karunanidhi as judged by his actions while in office. Tamil Nadu today may be considered a leading Indian State economically, but most of its achievements in this sphere had been initiated by Congress politicians, notably R. Venkataraman when he was Industries Minister of Madras State.


In fact, Mr. Karunanidhi’s chief ministerial accomplishments may be considered less impressive than that of M.G. Ramachandran or even Jayalalithaa, Chief Ministers who followed him. ‘MGR’ is known for having scaled up to unimagined levels the noon meal scheme started by K. Kamaraj in the fifties, an intervention that has received global attention. Jayalalithaa’s implementation of compulsory rainwater harvesting in Chennai ameliorated the situation in a city that was once the byword for water shortage. It is difficult to ascribe a similar game-changing role to the flyovers in the State capital associated with the Karunanidhi government.

Standing up to Mrs. Gandhi

He does have a unique significance though. He had stood up to Indira Gandhi and dared to oppose the Emergency when few politicians even outside the Congress party had done so. For this he paid a price. His government was dismissed, though on grounds of charges of corruption. It is not entirely surprising that Karunanidhi’s achievements are difficult to detect for it is not clear how he saw himself, whether as an artist or as a politician aiming to improve the condition of his people, an urge evident in Kamaraj and even in ‘MGR’, both politicians much loved by their people. As Mr. Karunanidhi’s own record in office does not stand out when compared to the Chief Ministers who came after him, the occasion of his completing 60 years as legislator is perhaps better utilised reflecting upon the role of the Dravidian movement of which, as we have seen, he is a scion.


Paradoxically, the significance of the Dravidian movement lies in its having played a major role in keeping India together at a crucial juncture. This may appear counter-intuitive given its image as a permanent opposition to the Indian mainstream, but is actually not so. By staunchly opposing the imposition of Hindi on the rest of the country, an end relentlessly pursued by certain sections of the north, the Dravidian movement and its principal heir, the DMK, saved India from going the way of Pakistan or Sri Lanka. Before the former lost its eastern wing, West Pakistan’s conspicuously anglicised establishment had imposed Urdu on their Bengali co-religionists who were unwilling to bear the injustice. In Sri Lanka the Oxford-educated S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike disempowered the Tamil minority through the ‘Sinhala Only Act’, making it the official language of the country. While Sri Lanka remains intact, it has lost some stature in the eyes of the international community due to its suppression of minority rights. India avoided this fate only due to the creative leadership of the Dravidian parties.

That the DMK had only sought cultural autonomy and not secession was made clear in Annadurai’s parliamentary intervention during the Indo-China war in 1962, when he affirmed his State’s unwavering commitment to the Indian Union. This was not reciprocated though, when, at the first opportunity after the death of Nehru, cultural chauvinism was to raise its ugly head and the possibility of Hindi being adopted as the sole official language re-emerged. Riots erupted in Tamil Nadu accompanied by acts of self-immolation. A compromise was arrived at and English was to be retained till such time as the southern States desired it. This remarkably mature arrangement saved Indian democracy. From time to time linguistic chauvinism has been on display from actors as diverse as Mulayam Singh Yadav and Central ministers in the Narendra Modi government, but by and large the principle has been adhered to by the Centre in its dealing with the States. Of course, the other southern States must thank the Tamil leadership for this extraordinary achievement, but so must the rest of India, for it contributed to the country being left in one piece.


It is possible to argue that the Dravidian parties’ love of the Tamil language may have been more steadfast than their commitment to the Tamil people. As already mentioned, it is not obvious they have led the State to exceptional achievements in any sphere. Punjab matches it in agriculture, Karnataka leads it in IT and Maharashtra dominates it in manufacturing. Also, Chennai is no longer the iconic southern city that Madras was when these parties first came to power. Tamil Nadu was among India’s first States to allow private entry into education, leaving it to entrepreneurs, often from the political class itself, who get away with poor-quality service. Over time they have emerged as a vested interest opposing all regulation that curbs their exploitative practices. The State has had no land reforms and populist policies for electricity and water use have led to a plunging of the water table with long-term implications for its agriculture. And, finally, the State pioneered the practice of using the treasury to dole out private goods. This has weakened its public finances and encouraged the politics of clientelism with individual politicians depicted as the fount of welfare. Termed ‘social justice’ by the Dravidian parties, the practice is at odds with the usual understanding of democracy.

The social sphere

Ironically, it is not in the economic sphere but in the social that the Dravidian movement’s legacy is more dubious. While the Keezhvenmani massacre of agricultural labourers attempting to form a union may have taken place at the very beginning of DMK rule, violence against Dalits has not ceased, and even very recently activists have claimed that it has increased. The Dravidian movement may have succeeded in unseating the upper castes in governance but it has actively strengthened the middle castes that form the backbone of the rural economy. In the absence of land reforms, they control the rural economy and with patronage from the state have succeeded in keeping the lower castes in a state of permanent suppression. This is a disappointing denouement for what had started out as an anti-caste movement. Tamil Nadu’s history suggests a difference between loving your identity and nurturing your country. The nationalists in today’s India share a similar predicament.

Pulapre Balakrishnan is Professor, Ashoka University and Senior Fellow, IIM Kozhikode. The views expressed are personal

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