DK and DMK: the double-barrelled gun


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IN 1935, at a conference in Tirupur, a 26-year-old graduate, C.N. Annadurai (Anna) met Periyar E.V. Ramasamy who was quick to take him under his wings. In less than three years time, Anna was playing a major role in the Self-Respect Movement, becoming one of Periyar’s chief lieutenants in the 1937-39 anti-Hindi agitation. It was in the course of this mass-based agitation that the erstwhile Justice Party was absorbed by the Self-Respect Movement and rechristened the Dravidar Kazhagam (DK) in 1944. Anna soon became Periyar’s rival, breaking away to form the Dravidar Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in 1949.

Within two decades the DMK had dethroned the Congress. The years in between were marked by bitter hostility and rivalry between the DK and the DMK, something completely elided by both party ideologues and historians. The years after the 1967 election victory led to a rapprochement, and since then it has been customary to collapse the DK and the DMK into a homogenous Dravidian movement.

Anna was unique among Periyar’s many lieutenants. He had no social pedigree to speak of but his extraordinary linguistic skills, both with pen and on the podium, won him a huge following. In a matter of years, he transformed language in the Tamil public sphere eclipsing the Indian nationalist use of Tamil as a propaganda vehicle. An entire generation of young people from the backward castes and with aspirations to upward social mobility was charmed by his language. By the latter half of the 1940s, he had also harnessed the power of celluloid, greatly extending his power and popularity.

Anna’s first key moment came at the 1944 Salem conference when the Justice Party Self-Respect Movement was renamed Dravidar Kazhagam. In a resolution that came to be called the Annadurai Resolution, he skilfully refashioned the party, as Indian independence was imminent and fast approaching.

From this moment Anna was seen as a promising leader of the future. Gradually he drew significant support from within the party, becoming for all practical purposes the number two. A generation of upwardly mobile non-Brahmin youth with education and aspiration to political power sensed in Anna a leader who could lead them to power. The five years following the Salem conference saw a now-open, now-invisible struggle between two strands within the party, one represented by Periyar and the other by Anna.

In a series of moves Anna struck a path of his own. In 1942, he launched the journal Dravida Nadu. In 1946, when Periyar mandated that all party men should wear black shirts as a sign of the darkness that the Dravidian nation was engulfed in, Anna defied the diktat. By organizing the public grant of a purse in 1946 to the unofficial poet-laureate of the Dravidian movement, Bharatidasan, Anna proved that he could win support from across the political/literary spectrum. When Periyar declared 15 August to be a day of mourning, forever close to the pulse of the people, Anna declared that with the departure of the British the Dravidians now had one foe less. The differences were part of Anna’s consistent strategy of tweaking the Dravidian ideology to make it both inclusive and aestheticized so as to accommodate a wider section of the people.


The fundamental difference between Periyar and Anna lay in their approach to political power. While Periyar maintained a consistent position of keeping away from elections and political power, the movement he spearheaded spawned a generation of youth who sought political power and saw elections as a path to it. Anna came to represent this strand. ‘Dravidar Kazhagam [wrote Periyar] does not enter legislatures. It does not try to form ministries. It does not contest elections. All this is known. "How can you achieve anything without these," we are asked. I replied: "Whoever comes [to power] it’s enough if we can get things done for ourselves".’1

Periyar was clear that his radical ideas alienated people and would not pass muster in elections. ‘If someone like me develops the desire for office can I speak on the kind of issues and words that I now speak? Can anyone who seeks to capture political power speak in this manner? For example, I ask: "Can a stone be god? Can god eat food? Does god need a wife? Why conduct the annual ritual of marriage for gods? Who benefits from all these?" Will a person who asks such questions catch many votes? But then if one does not ask such questions will our foolish people understand a thing? Thus it is inevitable that one has to speak of superstitions in this manner. And this does indeed bear some result.’2


Periyar, therefore, fashioned DK as a party that campaigned for civil society and sought to change state policy by sustained public campaigning but desisted from competing for state power through elections. By the late 1940s it was clear to him that this view did not sit well with many party leaders and supporters. ‘For the last ten years I have maintained that Dravidar Kazhagam is not a political party but a propagandist movement. In order that people should consider it to be a movement and not a party, I have been forging Kazhagam as a propagandist organization. ...Dravidar Kazhagam neither believes in the pseudo-philosophy of Swarajya nor does it not pretend to aspire to win a majority and capture political power.’3

That these words were expressed by Periyar in a foreword to Anna’s polemical history of the Dravidian movement, Ilatchiya Varalaru (1947), is not without significance.

The split came under peculiar circumstances. In 1949, Periyar at the age of 69 decided to take 29-year-old Maniammai, his secretary of some years, as his wife. It was not only the marriage but also the manner in which Periyar went about it, and the rationale offered – Periyar had declared that he had no trust in his lieutenants and, therefore, was grooming Maniammai to take over the leadership as well as maintain the assets of the party – that antagonized a large number of his followers.

Anna and his followers tried out a variety of measures to make Periyar backtrack. But the die had been cast. Anna revealed the names of those who had protested Periyar’s marriage. The list turned out to be a veritable who’s who of the party. Titled by a subeditor as ‘kandana kanaikal’ (‘arrows of protest’), it was renamed by Anna as ‘kanneer thulikal’ (‘teardrops’).

Despite enormous pressure Anna refused to capture the party, preferring to start a new one. When the party split on 17 September 1949, Periyar’s 70th birthday, the new party, the DMK, had walked away with over three-fourths of the cadres. In an emotional and dramatic speech that he delivered at Robinson Park, Anna made a final plea to Periyar. While declaring that the new party would follow and try to realize the ideals of Periyar, he announced that the chair of the thalaivar (president) would remain vacant until Periyar himself deemed fit to occupy it. During the next two decades, the DK and the DMK defined themselves in relation to each other, and through this process Dravidian hegemony was established in Tamilnadu.


After the split the DMK, while repeatedly avowing the ideals of the parent party, in practice fashioned itself in opposition to it, a fact missed by contemporaries. By calling itself Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam – Dravida, an adjective rather than Dravidar as in Dravidar Kazhagam – it avoided an implied racial exclusion and kept itself open to Brahmin membership. Second, following from its critique that Periyar was running the party like a dictator with little democratic scruples, the DMK built an elaborate structure of party units starting from the grassroots level.

In the wake of the exodus, Periyar continued with his strategy of working as a pressure group to influence state policy. Immediately after independence, he backed the Congress ministry of the Madras state headed by Omandur Ramaswamy Reddiar. Omandur drew considerable strength from Periyar’s support, especially in relation to Brahmin interests in the Congress party.


The 1952 elections for the Madras Legislature, which saw the Congress party being unable to muster a majority, led to considerable horse-trading – buying the support of parties by offering ministerial berths – and C. Rajagopalachari’s accession to chief ministership through the back door by a nomination to the upper house, gave further credence to Periyar’s critique of the unrepresentative character of democracy. Despite his reservations, he supported Rajagopalachari against the Andhra lobby headed by T. Prakasam and lauded what he considered welfare moves such as the removal of wartime controls.

However, the controversy around ‘a new modified scheme of education’ introduced by Rajaji which provided for only half a day of schooling with the afternoon left free for learning the father’s occupation, greatly provoked Periyar’s ire who dubbed it ‘kulakalvi thittam’ or a ‘caste-based education scheme’. In this, as in the campaign against the Shenbagam Dorairaj vs the State of India, which threatened the provision of reservations to other backward castes, the DK and DMK were on the same side.

The kulakalvi thittam sealed Rajagopalachari’s political career in the Congress. With K. Kamaraj as the new chief minister, the Congress began transforming itself from being a Brahmin dominated upper caste party to a predominantly non-Brahmin one. When Kamaraj contested the bye-elections in 1954, Periyar declared his support by calling Kamaraj ‘pachai Tamilan’ (‘trueborn Tamilian’). Periyar’s support to Kamaraj, though it came as a surprise to many, was of a piece with his strategy of working through the government in power. Further, his party had been weakened by the split, and with DMK’s inevitable rivalry with Congress, strategic considerations could not be ruled out. While Periyar’s support for Kamaraj over the next thirteen years remained unconditional, his support for the Congress was not. Periyar’s backing gave Kamaraj crucial legitimacy that strengthened his position and ushered in a radical realignment of political forces.


Through the 1950s Periyar kept up his agitations. When the Congress government of Kamaraj took action, he stated that the government was only doing its duty. This was evidently to further his political programme as well as to keep the DMK at bay. In his autobiography M. Karunanidhi recollects that, ‘Seeing that the DMK’s propaganda power was bearing fruit in every village and hamlet, Periyar tried to spur his movement. He was seized of a special concern that his followers should not be drawn away by the DMK… Periyar was not wearied by the DMK’s fast growth; he opened up many battlefronts to draw the attention of the people.’4

In 1955 Periyar launched an agitation to burn the Indian national flag, demanding the repeal of the status given to Hindi as the official language, and for the secession of Tamilnadu. In 1956 followed the movement to publicly burn pictures of Ram. In 1957 the movement to erase the word ‘Brahmin’ from commercial name boards was launched. Though these campaigns were in keeping with the ideology of the party, they were also part of Periyar’s strategy to expose DMK’s Achilles heel – of the difficulty of sticking to hard rationalistic positions while striving to become a popular party.


Despite Karunanidhi’s diplomatic assessment of Periyar’s agitations in the 1950s, the DMK was far from being nonplussed. A recent biography of E.V.K. Sampath notes that there was much consternation in DMK as Periyar announced one agitation after another. Committed to the Dravidian ideology, DMK could not afford to publicly decry such agitations. It was left to Anna’s verbal skills to manage the difficulty.

When Periyar launched his agitation of breaking Pillaiyar idols, Anna famously said, alluding to the Tamil practice of breaking coconuts to god as an offering, ‘I’ll break neither Pillaiyar nor coconut.’ Explaining his position two years later in his weekly epistle to his cadre, he said, ‘We kept off the agitation because we did not wish to unnecessarily evoke hatred in those who would in due course come to join us.’5 Atheism was certainly a millstone around DMK’s neck and Anna had to tackle this tricky issue. In the years of his meteoric rise in the party, Anna had been second to none in professing atheism. However, he had always taken care to use innuendo and satire rather than wield a bludgeon as was Periyar’s wont. Anna’s challenge, if he wanted to win popular electoral support, was to negotiate this minefield without appearing to compromise on Dravidian ideology. Anna fell back on the skilful use of language to extricate DMK from the quandary. Anna responded: ‘Shocking scandals, hair-raising agitations, amazing demonstrations that would make people gape in wonder – rather than gaining strength from such as the above, I greatly desire the success that can be gained from instilling our ideology among the people, especially the Dravidians in the Congress fold.’6


For his part Periyar resorted to his characteristically blunt and rustic language to castigate DMK. Even though he saw his party as rivalling DMK, Anna rarely referred to it except derisively. He derided the emotional or sentimental term ‘kanneer thulikal’, ‘teardrops’ that Anna had adopted to describe themselves when they left Periyar. Anna inventoried the other epithets that Periyar hurled at the DMK: mountebanks, speakers of alliterative language, the vulgar, money-grubbers, power seekers, speakers of lustful words, paupers, and so on. While not concealing his resentment at Periyar’s intemperate language, Anna always showed patience and refused to repay in the same coin. He would invariably pay compliments to Periyar’s long life of sacrifice, and his criticism was often couched in sarcasm and innuendo.

Such criticism would quickly be deflected to the Congress, effectively damning it. Ridiculing the Congress for now siding with Periyar, Anna enquired, ‘Does Periyar accept Congress as a worthy political party? No! He says that Kamaraj is our man, a good man, a capable man! Not the Congress! Khadar? It’s a superstition. The charkha? The device of savages. Basic education? Foolishness! Gandhism? Idiocy! Nationalism? A fraud! Sacrifice? Humbug! Religion? Stoned stupor! Brahmins? The enemies! The North? The abode of uncultured people! Nehru? An impatient and ignorant man, the scion of a rich family.’7

In this context, Periyar had to repeatedly justify his support to Kamaraj. While Kamaraj’s wider acceptance in Tamil society owed much to Periyar, he in turn gained no advantage from this. Kamaraj did not publicly acknowledge Periyar’s support and in fact appeared to show discomfort. While a faction within the Congress belonging to the erstwhile Rajaji faction, detested Periyar and his politics and wanted tougher action against him, overall the party found him to be a useful ally in countering and containing the DMK.


For its part the DMK organized its own agitations. In 1953-54, the mummunai porattam or the three-pronged agitation was launched. As a new movement with a youthful and aspirational cadre, the DMK’s agitations were hugely popular. The Congress mishandling of these agitations made heroes and martyrs of the DMK leaders. While Periyar was always in the news, and his agitations garnered wide publicity, they were nevertheless overshadowed by the DMK agitations.

The dialectics of DK-DMK politics had serious consequences for the Congress that it missed. The DMK soon came to occupy the centre stage of Tamil politics. By 1956, as Periyar had all along predicted, the DMK held a party referendum and decided to join electoral politics. At this time Anna again wrote that, ‘Let’s continue to reiterate at length that we are contesting elections only with clean thoughts, and strive in the hope that Periyar’s support will be ours.’8 In the ensuing general elections in 1957, it was a creditable performance winning 15 assembly and two parliamentary seats. The numbers belie its significance.

By 1959 the DMK had won elections to the Madras Corporation and captured its mayor-ship. By 1960, as analyst Selig Harrison observed of Anna, ‘There is no doubt that this powerful orator is the single most popular mass figure in the region.’ In 1962, the DMK won 50 assembly and seven parliamentary seats. The 1967 sweep by DMK was expected, though the Congress made it worse by its sheer complacency.


In a magnanimous move soon after the victory, Anna made a surprise visit to Periyar in Trichy and dedicated his government to him. It was an emotional meeting between the two after a gap of two decades. The emotional bonds were strengthened by the tragic death of Anna as a result of cancer within two years of assuming power. Periyar played a crucial role in ensuring Karunanidhi’s ascent to power. He would be called upon to play a similar role in the internal workings of the DMK when MGR rebelled and ultimately split the DMK to form the AIADMK in 1972.

The split in the Dravidian movement had the paradoxical effect of establishing Dravidian hegemony in Tamil society. Combining his contempt for those who left his party with his long-term strategy of working with the state to further his political and social goals, Periyar readied the political soil for the dominance of Dravidian ideology. His decision to support the Congress during these years, rather than strengthening it resulted in weakening the Congress and helped the DMK gain centre stage. Anna’s prescient and pregnant metaphor of ‘the double-barrelled gun’ to describe the DMK’s relation with the DK captures this well.



1. Viduthalai, 15 May 1954. From V. Anaimuthu (ed.), Periyar E.Ve.Ra. Sinthanaigal. Sinthanaiyalar Kazhagam, Trichy, 1974, p. 828.

2. Viduthalai, 23 June 1949.

3. Periyar’s preface, C.N. Annadurai, Ilatchiya Varalaru, 1947.

4. M. Karunanidhi, Nenjukku Neethi. Thirumagal Nilayam, Chennai, 2000 [1975], p. 166.

5. Dravida Nadu, 24 July 1955, reprinted in C.N. Annadurai, Thambikku Annavin Kadithangal. Vol. 1. Poompuhar Pathippagam, Chennai, 2002, p. 121.

6. Dravida Nadu, 7 August 1955, reprinted in C.N. Annadurai, Thambikku Annavin Kadithangal. Vol. 1. Ibid., p. 137.

7. Dravida Nadu, 5 November 1961, reprinted in C.N. Annadurai, Thambikku Annavin Kadithangal. Vol. 4. Ibid., p. 227.

8. Dravida Nadu, 10 June 1956, reprinted in C.N. Annadurai, Thambikku Annavin Kadithangal. Vol. 1. Ibid., p. 666.