Karunanidhi’s defiance

How the DMK stalwart confronted Emergency excesses

March 10, 2021 12:15 am | Updated 12:26 am IST

“Karunanidhi: A Life”, A.S. Panneerselvan, Penguin/Viking ₹699.

“Karunanidhi: A Life”, A.S. Panneerselvan, Penguin/Viking ₹699.

The political career of Muthuvel Karunanidhi (1924-2018) lasted for eight decades. He took over the reins of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in 1969 and remained its leader until his death in 2018. Through the retelling of the life of the DMK stalwart in Karunanidhi: A Life , the Readers’ Editor of The Hindu also gives “an insight into the workings of the modern Indian state”. An excerpt :

Realising the way the Union government was zeroing in on the DMK [after Indira Gandhi declared the Emergency in 1975], M. Karunanidhi instructed his party cadres not to slacken their political work and to conduct both ward-level as well as district-level party meetings without fail. K. Anbazhagan, who became the treasurer of the party after MGR’s exit, ensured that at least one political event was held in every district of the State. The theme of these political meetings was the restoration of democracy.

On the evening of January 31, 1976, Karunanidhi addressed a school function and said, ‘This might be my last speech as Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu.’ Before leaving the function, he had asked one of his confidantes to inform the leaders of the Opposition, who had taken refuge in the State, about the impending dismissal and asked them to seek a safe exit. (George Fernandes was one of the prominent leaders Indira Gandhi wanted to arrest. Karunanidhi not only provided him a safe sanctuary but ensured that not a whiff of his presence in Tamil Nadu reached the bureaucracy or the police. Fernandes was arrested in West Bengal, a fortnight after the fall of Karunanidhi’s ministry.) In an hour, Karunanidhi reached his Gopalapuram residence to be greeted by his nephews — Amirtham and Selvam — with a telex. It was a news agency report that said the government has been dismissed and the Assembly dissolved. ‘At last, the suspense is over,’ Karunanidhi said.

Novel protest

For some strange reason, Indira Gandhi ordered the arrest of people close to Karunanidhi but not his arrest. The Central government cut off the telephone lines at Karunanidhi’s home, and at the offices of the DMK and Murasoli . The Army was called to carry out flag marches to instil fear and to curb protests. Within three hours of the dismissal, a posse of policemen landed at Karunanidhi’s place and wanted to arrest his son M.K. Stalin. This news sent shock waves through Karunanidhi’s family because Stalin had got married recently and his wife was expecting. Stalin, who was travelling, returned to Madras the next day and was arrested and lodged in Madras Central Jail. Within three days, the police arrested Murasoli Maran.

The police were refusing to release the names of the cadres arrested and the party was desperate to have a list of those picked up by the police. The excesses committed by the police in north India added not only an element of fear but also a sense of helplessness. Since 1969, Karunanidhi had led a special homage meeting for Anna on February 3 at the Anna Memorial, which he continued. The meeting was usually attended by all the DMK leaders and volunteers. As the new press censor rules did not permit the media to release the names of those who were arrested under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA), Karunanidhi found a novel way to do this. He made a note of all those partymen who did not come to the Anna Memorial to pay homage, as they most probably had been arrested, and published the list.

By May 1976, censorship had become more stringent, and even the mention of Annadurai’s name was not permitted by the authorities. Karunanidhi wrote a series critically assessing the Emergency and got it printed as a pamphlet in a friend’s press. He also got another notice printed that he would launch an ‘Arappor ’ (A peaceful struggle) on June 2, which would start with a procession from Anna Salai and end with a fast in front of the censor’s office. On the appointed day, he started marching from near the U.S. Consul General’s office towards the Anna statue, distributing the ‘ Arappor ’ pamphlet. This walk, of less than 3 kilometres, not only attracted the attention of the people but also galvanised the party cadres who had not been arrested, to assemble in the heart of the city. According to Selvam, though the police arrested the participants and the struggle came to an end in four hours, that defiance remains the lone public protest against the Emergency in India.

But Karunanidhi’s biggest journalistic defiance was the publication of a cartoon panel. Chellappan, one of the finest cartoonists of Tamil Nadu, created a panel called ‘Metamorphosis’, featuring Indira Gandhi slowly being transformed into Hitler. While this cartoon was republished in the magazine Newsweek , the government did not permit any of Chellappan’s cartoons to appear till the revocation of the Emergency.

Excerpted with permission from Penguin Random House

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