New times in Tamil Nadu


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IN post-1947 Tamil Nadu, Dravidian politics, in particular the politics of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), has been built up around two major ideological planks. The first is caste-based social justice; the second, Tamil identity. While social justice took the form of a critique of Brahminism and continuous innovations in the reservation of government jobs and seats in educational institutions for the lower castes, the articulation of Tamil identity took different incarnations, contesting the desire of the Hindiwallahs to produce a congruence between Hindi, Hindu and Hindustan.

By the late 1990s, however, the relevance of both these ideological planks had considerably diminished in Tamil Nadu politics. They were instead supplanted by new forms of politics based on intense welfarism stage-managed by a developmental state. While this new form of politics is in many ways enabling for the economically and socially underprivileged, it is also marked by a depletion of ideology. The state – and not the society – is increasingly getting endorsed as the main arbiter of politics.

First, let us take up the question of caste-based social justice in Tamil Nadu. Today, it might have been forgotten that it was large-scale agitations in the then Madras state during the 1950s, led by the Dravidar Kazhagam (DK) of Periyar E.V. Ramasamy and the DMK led by C.N. Annadurai, that resulted in the first amendment to the Indian Constitution which legally validated caste-based reservations. However, what is more important is the fact that the DMK, after coming to power in 1967, had been sensitive to the idea that reservations would not deliver social justice unless constantly reworked.

In 1971, the first Backward Classes Commission of Tamil Nadu headed by the late A.N. Sattanathan, recommended a 33 per cent quota for the backward classes in place of the pre-existing 25 per cent. Yet, the DMK government in power at that time, chose to increase the quota for the backward classes only upto 31 per cent. The remaining two per cent was added to the Scheduled Caste quota, increasing it from 16 per cent to 18 per cent. The logic behind this move was simple. As much as the backward castes, if not more, the Scheduled Castes too needed an increase in their quota.

The reservation system was further modified in the 1980s. In 1989, the DMK government introduced sub-quotas within the quota for the backward castes, partly in response to an agitation by the Vanniyars, a caste predominately composed of small and marginal cultivators and farm labourers. Though classified as a backward caste for a long time, they found it difficult to compete with the advanced sections of the backward castes and hence failed to gain much from the reservation system. They sought a 20 per cent exclusive reservation in the state and a two per cent reservation in the central services.

The compartmentalized reservation system, which was introduced in the state following the Vanniyar agitation, set aside 20 per cent out of the total 50 per cent backward caste reservation for the most backward castes and denotified communities. The new system of reservation led to a five-fold increase in the Vanniyars getting admitted to professional courses in state-run educational institutions.

The 1990s witnessed two more major, but aborted, interventions in the reservation system by the Tamil Nadu government. In 1990, the DMK once again introduced a new scheme of awarding five bonus marks to applicants to professional courses whose families did not have a graduate. Significantly, the new scheme had no reference to caste and, if educationally backward, anyone from a Brahmin to a Dalit could benefit from the scheme. However, since the Madras High Court struck down the scheme as unconstitutional, it could be implemented only for a year; most of the beneficiaries, as one might have expected, were Dalits.


In 1996, soon after the DMK returned to power, it modified the reservation system yet again. This time it introduced quotas for students from rural areas. As much as the ‘bonus mark’ scheme, this too did not make any reference to caste. The fate of the reservation in favour of the rural students was similar to that of the ‘bonus mark’ scheme. The Madras High Court struck it down.

The possibility of such innovations delivering social justice through reservations seemed to have reached their limits in Tamil Nadu by the 1990s. First, the hostility of the judiciary to such innovations, as evident from the Madras High Court’s decisions in striking down the schemes of ‘bonus marks’ and ‘rural reservation’, has limited the power of political parties to pursue the question of social justice as an ideological agenda. In addition, the Supreme Court, in several of its judgements, has held that the total quantum of reservation should in no case exceed the limit of 50 per cent. This too has restricted the ability of the Dravidian parties to rely on social justice as a major ideological plank.


Importantly, the social transformation witnessed by Tamil Nadu during the past few decades, has also diminished the relevance of social justice as a political ideology. The upwardly mobile sections of the backward castes no longer seek their future in government employment. It is private sector employment which is now the preferred destination for these groups. In addition, as they are not short of economic resources, they seek education in private educational institutions; Tamil Nadu has been (from the time of M.G. Ramachandran as the chief minister of the state) a forerunner in fostering such institutions. In contrast, those who have been left behind by the reservation system do not find it useful to subsume their independent caste identities under broad categories, such as the non-Brahmin or the backward castes. After all, such broad categories did not benefit them. This has led to a proliferation of parties based on single castes. Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), the Viduthalai Chiruthaikal Katchi (VCK), and Puthiya Tamilagam (PT) are cases in point.

Let us now turn to the question of Tamil identity. A fledgling DMK contested elections for the first time in 1957. Demanding a sovereign Dravida Nadu, it polled 14. 6 per cent of the votes and secured 15 seats in the Madras state assembly. Incidentally, the communists, who had been victims of endless repression by the Congress government in the preceding years, could poll only 9.6 per cent of the votes and win no more than four assembly seats. In an article published in New Age, the communists admitted that their failure was in part a result of not taking into account the Tamil national factor: ‘...many of us did not grasp the tremendous democratic significance of the [Tamil] national factor... Without a doubt the minimization of this factor by us helped the DMK to capture anti-Congress sentiments in a big way.’1 

While the Congress, given its commitment to pan-Indian nationalism, was openly hostile to the DMK’s articulation of Tamil identity, the communists too, despite realizing the importance of the Tamil national factor, did not change course and remained at best indifferent to the question. The DMK thus emerged as the sole defender of Tamil identity in the state. Throughout the 1950s, the central demand of the DMK was for a sovereign Dravida Nadu. In the context of mass politics, this demand took the form of opposing the Union government’s moves to impose Hindi on non-Hindi speakers.


In 1956, resenting the comment made by the chairman of the Official Language Commission that Hindi was indeed fit to be the official language of the Indian Union, the DMK organized an anti-Hindi protest day which drew enthusiastic response from the people of the state. In 1960, when the Government of India issued a directive to make Hindi the language of administration, the DMK’s threat of an agitation resulted in Jawaharlal Nehru’s assurance: ‘…I would have English as an alternative language as long as the people require it and I will leave the decision not to the Hindi-knowing people but to the non-Hindi people.’

Though DMK gave up its demand for secession in 1963, following the sixteenth amendment to the Indian Constitution which sought all political parties to affirm their faith in the integrity of India, it consciously kept alive the issue of Tamil identity by opposing Hindi. In 1965, when Hindi was to become the sole official language of the Indian Union (in accordance with the Article 313 of the Constitution), Tamil Nadu turned into a theatre of massive violence. The agitators demanded the deletion of Chapter 17 of the Constitution which dealt with the issue of an official language of India.

The agitation continued for no less than 55 days and the Congress government in Madras, headed by M. Bhaktavatsalam, unleashed a reign of police terror on the agitators. It not only used the Defence of India Rules to suppress the agitation, but also refused to relent even after two young non-Brahmin Congress ministers from Madras – C. Subramaniam and O.V. Alagesan – resigned from the Union cabinet. Bhaktavatsalam’s policemen shot dead 35 agitators in a single day, i.e., on 10 February 1965.


The intensity of the agitation, which was supported by politicians of Andhra Pradesh and Bengal, made Hindi’s future as the sole official language of the Union bleak. The Official Languages Amendment Act of 1967 guaranteed that, ‘English would continue as an associate official language indefinitely with the provision that the state governments, if they desire, have a veto power to displace English by Hindi as an official and link language.’2 

After coming to power in 1967, the DMK played down the issue of language. Yet, it kept up the issue of regional identity by taking up centre-state relations as a focal point of its politics. It organized a demands day in 1968, pressing for the Salem steel plant and Tuticorin harbour project. It appointed an expert committee under the chairmanship of P.V. Rajamannar in 1969 to investigate the claim that the Indian Constitution is federal in nature, and organized a meet on centre-state relations in 1970. In 1974, the DMK government placed a white paper on the issue in the state assembly and passed a resolution seeking state autonomy.


During the 1980s, the linguistic consciousness in Tamil Nadu was closely identified with the plight of the Sri Lankan Tamils and their liberation movements. The DMK took up the cause of the Sri Lankan Tamils on different occasions and mobilized the local Tamils on a large-scale. For instance, during the 1989 election campaign when Doordarshan asked Karunanidhi to remove a reference to the Sri Lankan Tamil issue from a pre-election telecast, he refused to appear on the small screen and made it a campaign issue.

But times have changed. Several decades of implementation of reservations for the backward castes in Tamil Nadu has given rise to a self-confident segment among the non-Brahmin Tamils. Entrenched in positions of power, distributed across the country and beyond, this is a segment that knows English to be the vehicle for a professional future. And Sanskrit and Hindi are no longer as threatening as they were in the past.

If the anti-Mandal agitation brought new alliances between the backward castes in the North and the South, the era of coalition politics at the Centre has increasingly rendered the political marginality of the Tamils, both imagined and real, a thing of the past. Most Tamils know that the Centre cannot hold without a regional presence. Today, as the northern BJP is forced to do business with the godless regionalists of Tamil Nadu, even ‘state autonomy’ looks like an archaic concept from the past.

The Tamils have, however, found other uses for Tamil. The field of cultural production in Tamil Nadu during the past two decades is bubbling with new energy. Avant-garde magazines, a proliferation of publishing houses, an expanded reading public, globally informed debates, books which both in their content and design can compete with the best in the world, are all hallmarks of a new self-confident Tamil cultural public. As much as other language writings are translated into Tamil, Tamil literary and other writings are translated into other languages and showcased nationally and internationally. In short, most of the Tamils do not think that either their language or they themselves need to be defensively protected. If they continue to be Tamils, it is an identity which is donned unselfconsciously.


With social justice and Tamil identity losing their importance as the ideological basis for mobilization, the DMK has fashioned a new form of politics during the last decade. The beginnings of this politics could be seen in the DMK’s election campaign during the 2006 state assembly elections. The election manifesto of the DMK promised the Tamil electorate provisioning of rice at Rs 1 per kg., an expansion of the range of essential commodities such as lentils and spices, cooking oil, the supply of free gas stoves and subsidized gas supply distributed through the public distribution system, free television sets and also distribution of land to the landless households, if the party was voted to power. In contrast, the All India Anna Dravida Kazhagam (AIADMK) promised five lakh jobs in the IT sector and to convert the state into a replica of Hong Kong. The welfarist election promises of the DMK swayed the electorate and the party returned to power.

After coming to power, the DMK implemented its election promises with varying degrees of success. What is more, it ensured state-managed welfarism as the central element of governance in Tamil Nadu. The functioning of the Public Distribution System (PDS) in the state is an instructive case in point.


The commodities supplied by the Tamil Nadu Civil Supplies Corporation (TNCSC), include rice, wheat, sugar and kerosene. Under a special public distribution scheme, it further distributes tur dal, urad dal, palmolein oil, fortified wheat flour, rava and maida at subsidized prices. In addition, the corporation also supplies cement at concessional rates and free LPG stoves under the scheme of free LPG connections to poor families. Notably, the essential commodities under the PDS in Tamil Nadu are supplied at significantly lower prices than those fixed by the Government of India. For example, the issue price of PDS rice as fixed by the Government of Tamil Nadu is Rs 1.0 per kg. This is against the Government of India’s issue price of Rs 3.0 per kg under Antyodaya Annayojna allotment, Rs 5.65 per kg under Below Poverty Line allotment, and Rs 8.0 per kg under Above Poverty Line allotment.

Apart from the PDS, the DMK government has also introduced special schemes for the economically vulnerable sections. For instance, the Tamil Nadu Agricultural Labourers-Farmers (Social Security and Welfare) Scheme introduced in 2006, provides maternity benefits, accident and health insurance, scholarships for the education of children, and old age pension for agricultural workers and marginal farmers. The DMK has also strengthened its strategy of welfarism by adopting schemes which are followed in other states. Following the example of Andhra Pradesh, it introduced a health insurance scheme for the poor in Tamil Nadu.

The 2009 Lok Sabha election illustrates the success of this new welfarist politics of the DMK in the state. The election was conducted at the peak of the Sri Lankan Army’s ethnocidal offensive against the Tamils in the island nation. The popular feeling in Tamil Nadu was that the civil war in Sri Lanka was abetted and aided by the Congress (I)-led UPA government at the Centre. They were not wrong. The state witnessed a number of self-immolations and numerous agitations by students, lawyers, film artistes and others, protesting the humanitarian crisis faced by the Sri Lankan Tamils.


The DMK, to begin with, made feeble protests – in the form of assembly resolutions and writing letters to the prime minister – seeking the UPA government’s intervention to bring about a ceasefire in Sri Lanka. However, it soon began to use the notorious National Security Act against the prominent campaigners in the state for the Tamil cause in Sri Lanka. The Chennai city police had, at the instance of the DMK government, claimed that making Sri Lanka a poll issue was contrary to the norms of the Election Commission. Instead of courting the Tamil issue, the DMK highlighted its welfarism in the election campaign. In contrast, most of the parties in the AIADMK-front, in particular the PMK, the Marumalarchi Dravida Munetra Kazhagam (MDMK) and the Communist Party of India (CPI), made the Sri Lankan issue a central theme of their election campaign.

The election results clearly show that the Tamil electorate preferred the welfarism of the DMK over identifying with the cause of the Lankan Tamils who were being bombarded day after day by the Sri Lankan Air Force. The DMK-led front won 27 out of 39 seats. Interestingly, in the forthcoming assembly elections too, the DMK’s campaign theme is going to be its successful welfarism during the past five years. Recently, answering the question, ‘What is the DMK’s main plank in the campaign?’, the Deputy Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, M.K. Stalin replied, ‘Our schemes. We have accomplished more than what we promised in 2006. Every family has benefited from the government policies.’3 Note the studied silence on the opposition-led charges of corruption.


As mentioned earlier, the new welfarism of the DMK has ensured a vast social and economic safety net to the underprivileged in the state. It is indeed true that if democracy has to ensure a parity of political participation across differently endowed groups, the minimum needs of everyone should to be guaranteed. Yet, excessive welfarism diminishes the distance between society and the state, a distance which is necessary for politics based on competing ideologies. As the 2009 elections had shown, a majority of the Tamil Nadu electorate is willing to look at the state as the key arbiter of their lives instead of formulating their own political agendas.

Yet, it may be a mistake to discount a future politics in Tamil Nadu which might go beyond the DMK-kind mediation by the state and its welfarism. In fact, most of those who opposed the DMK and the Congress (I) during the 2009 election, based on their commitment to the Sri Lankan Tamils, were first-time voters who were being initiated into politics. It is the choices they exercise which will decide whether the DMK’s new mode of politics has a future.


* The author wishes to thank M. Vijaybaskar and S. Santhosh for their inputs in writing this piece.


1. Cited in Robert L. Hardgrave Jr., Essays in the Political Sociology of South India. Usha Publications, New Delhi, 1987, pp. 60-61.

2. Asha Sarangi, Language and Politics in India. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2009, p. 23n.

3. The Week, 20 March 2011.