Pluralization of political identity


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AT the heart of Dravidian politics lie the shifting valences of identities – Dravidian and Tamil. This is premised on the question relating to what forms of exclusion the chosen identity formation is likely to create. If Dravidian identity is drawn upon the racial imaginary of the Dravidian race, as distinct from the Aryan race, it serves to exclude Brahmins who claimed Aryan descent. If a Dravidian identity is fostered as people of South India speaking Dravidian languages, it excludes North Indians and Hindi speakers. In either case, people speaking Telugu or other South Indian languages at home in Tamil Nadu could be rightfully included in the Dravidian identity. However, since Dravidianism flourished only in Tamil Nadu and in Tamil language, it primarily came to stand in for Tamil identity. As Tamil language, its rhetorical use and signifying power became the mainstay of the DMK, Dravidian identity became synonymous with Tamil identity in everyday articulation and imagination.

This raises a question whether the language spoken at home, the so-called mother tongue, should also be the language that one culturally and politically identifies with. Some of the most ardent supporters of ‘Tamil’ nationalism, like V. Gopalasamy or Vaiko as he is better known, and K. Ramakrishnan, the leader of a faction of Periyar Dravidar Kazhagam, are Telugu speakers who identify themselves as Tamil, as do a host of others in politics, literature, art and pretty much any other form of social life. This participation of individuals and groups or communities speaking other languages, particularly Telugu, in Tamil identity politics is largely met with unexamined silence, surprise or charges of inauthenticity and subsequent denunciations. It could be argued that in response to the Orientalist construction of Aryan-Brahmin-Sanskrit as interlinked identity, politics in Tamil Nadu made it possible to pluralize subaltern resistance and discourse positing a non-Brahmin egalitarian identity as both Dravidian and Tamil.

This essay proposes that since Dravidian referred to the geographical spread of southern India and the languages spoken therein, it became possible for the non-Brahmin Telugu speaker, for instance, to transit from Dravidian as a geographic or language identity to a non-Brahmin identity subsequently relocating this ‘self’ in Tamil identity. This essay attempts to explore this complex transition as against a sort of simple naturalization following domicile. Its concern is with the process of contemporary identity formation, recognition, and the nature of the identity in terms of the public sphere – inter-subjective, social and political.

The dominant meanings of political identity like national identity are, to begin with, housed in citizenship, used almost as a neutral, merely descriptive term, a concomitant of the relationship of the individual to the state. It, however, becomes more substantial when referring to members of a group significant in the political realm or communitarian nationalism, infra- or supra-nation state prompted by a shared sense of ethnic origin, language or religion.


The concern over shifting valances between Dravidian and Tamil is currently caused by the rise of Tamil nationalism as distinct from Dravidianism. In a recent interview to a Tamil news channel, Seeman, the leader of a fringe Tamil nationalist party, Naam Thamizhar, was hard put to explain what he meant by the term ‘Tamilian’. When asked pointedly if he considered leaders of the Dravidian Movement like Vaiko who, as stated earlier, hails from a Telugu speaking family as non-Tamil, the response was, ‘He is Tamil no doubt but is not fit to take up a leadership position.’ That job should go only to a ‘true Tamil’.

In another register, Jeyamohan, a right wing ideologue and novelist, wrote in his web page that the primary conflict in Tamil history was between the Vadugars and Tamils. The term Vadugar, literally those from the North, is used to denote Telugu and Kannada speakers who migrated to Tamil speaking areas, particularly since the Vijayanagar period in the 15th century. Jeyamohan, however, sees the entire history of Tamilnadu as being characterized by conflict with Vadugars, characterizing the extant caste contradiction and the non-Brahmin mobilization as a Vadugar conspiracy to garner political power in Tamilnadu. Jeyamohan’s argument is much more insidious as it is cloaked in a veneer of historicity, though without an iota of evidence.


What is obvious in such articulations is the conceptual wedge that is sought to be driven between the term ‘Dravidian’ and the term ‘Tamilian’ so as to have politics pivoted around pure or autochthonous Tamil identity. In fact, Guna, a Marxist turned Tamil nationalist, first coined the adage, ‘We fell because of Dravidianism’ in an eponymous pamphlet a couple of decades ago, through which he elaborately proposed why Tamil national identity should eschew non-Tamil speakers.

The crux of the issue here is that the term Dravidian was adopted by the Non-Brahmin Movement, not so much to connote a South Indian origin but a non-Brahmin one; the term Dravidian was taken to symbolize the non-Aryan race as the Brahmins were identified as Aryans. There are several reasons why Tamil identity was not considered sufficient to counter Brahmin hegemony in comparison to Dravidian identity. Such identifications resulted from multiple discursive formations, some of which we will examine in what follows.

The term Dravidian was first used by the Non-Brahmin Movement that began in the then Madras Presidency as a counter to what Sudipta Kaviraj calls ‘the discovery of a national community’.1 This ‘national community’ is ‘a thing without a past’ but requires a delusion of eternal existence. So, on what basis was this identity constructed? Kaviraj goes on to state: ‘It was European writers writing on India as part of the counter Enlightenment who constructed this India and presented it to Indians looking for an identity.’2 In other words, this picture of ‘India’ was predicated on what might be termed as an ‘Orientalist construction of India’ which came out of 17th and 18th century European thought. These ideas that came out of European Indological and missionary scholarship were at the base of the self-image of this ‘national community’. Sanskrit and Brahminic constructions of India, imagined as Aryan, dominated this narrative. This then in the ‘mature’ nationalist period became such an ideological construct that ‘there seems to be no other reasonable way of writing history of this historical object.’


Interestingly, such Orientalist and derivative discovery of national identity as Indian could also be countered with a different set of Orientalist scholarship emanating from the Madras School of Orientalism with famous figures like Ellis and Caldwell who proposed Dravidian languages and culture as distinct from Sanskritic North India.3 Since Brahmins willingly identified with Sanskrit and the Aryan race, it became easy for the Non-Brahmin Movement to identify itself as Dravidian.

Hence, it is in opposition to the hegemonic narrative identity which Indian (anti-colonial?) nationalism sought to construct, that another narrative predicated on a different philological tradition was constructed in the South from the works of missionary scholars like Caldwell and Pope. The term Dravidian was initially used to denote both the geographical region south of Vindhya mountains and a group of languages mainly spoken in the region – mainly Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam. Later this was extended to denote race, the autochthonous people other than Aryans who migrated from Central Asia. Politically, however, the term ‘Dravidian’ came to gain currency only in the Tamil speaking districts of the Presidency and became synonymous with ‘Tamils’. It so happened that this term gained currency in the very same districts that also celebrated the ‘Pure Tamil’ and ‘Self-Respect’ Movements. As Nambi Arooran puts it, ‘The terms "Tamil nationalism" and "Dravidian Nationalism" were synonymous.’4 Though the word Dravidian, philologically speaking, in the modern period is derived from Caldwell et al, it should be noted that the history of such a distinction goes back to the 8th century work of Kumarila, Andhradravidabhasa, which uses the term ‘Dravida’ to denote the languages of Telugu and Tamil countries.


Basing their arguments on this history and the rediscovery of Tamil classics in the 19th century, scholars like J.M. Nallaswami Pillai and P. Sundaram Pillai argued for a Tamil culture independent of so-called ‘Aryan’ influence. This claim of Tamil scholars was vehemently contested by ‘nationalist scholars’. As Nambi Arooran, writing in Tamil Renaissance, says: ‘This primary independence of Tamil culture has been the source of constant tension and conflicts since the beginning of the 20th century.’5

If one were to examine this conflict, the ideological divide becomes obvious. Brahmin scholars like S. Krishnaswamy Aiyangar argued that South India was ‘mere marshy jungle and the reclamation was started by the Aryans who had migrated to South India’ and that ‘The history of peninsular India begins… somewhat later than Hindustan; for the Dravidian civilization of the south... owes its history to Aryan immigration, as does north India.’6 Contrast this with what a Tamil scholar, S. Somasundara Bharathi in his book Tamil Classics and Tamilakam writes, ‘The first Aryan stranger, who swam south across trackless jungles, was dazzled with the splendor of the Royal Pandyan courts, and he was not too proud to seek shelter in the hospitable land that smiled to a sunny clime.’7 This sort of celebration of a hoary past of Tamils was nevertheless criticized and as M. Srinivasa Aiyangar writing in 1914 says, ‘Within the last fifteen years or so a new school of Tamil scholars has come into being, consisting mainly of admirers and castemen of the late lamented professor and antiquary, Sundaram Pillai of Trivandrum. Their object has been to disown and to disprove any trace of indebtedness to Aryans, to exalt the civilization of ancient Tamils, to distort in the name of historic research current traditions and literature, which support the Brahminization of the Tamil race.’8


Along with this urban educated dominant caste elite, organizations like the Theosophical Society, which had moved its headquarters to Madras in 1882, had fully bought into the primordiality of the Aryan civilization story. Societies for the promotion of Aryan morals were started like the Varnasharama Dharma Sabha founded in Madras city in 1915, with branches opening up in districts soon after. At its first conference in Kanchipuram, the following resolution was passed that Varnashrama Dharma of the Hindus must be preserved in all its purity and perfection. Religiously too, then, one could argue, the non-Brahmin scholars were forced to build an alternative narrative to the one derived from the Vedic and Upanishadic texts.


Nallaswami Pillai, who studied Logic and Philosophy at Madras University, writing on the Tamil Saivite treatise Sivagnanabodham in 1895, argues that the Saiva Siddhanta texts ‘indicate a clear advance on the teaching of the Vedas or the Pantheism of the Upanishads.’9 In 1897, he went on to publish a monthly called Siddhanta Deepika (Light of Truth) and in outlining the agenda he writes ‘…greater attention will be paid to the language and history of South India, and the Dravidian philosophy and religion will find their best exposition in these pages, and in this respect, it is intended to supply a real and absolute want.’10 It is this ‘absolute want’ of an alternative identity narrative that I am interested in.

The political narrative that stems from such a counter hegemonic thrust is not conceived of as some ‘essential’ ‘Tamilness’ or ‘Dravidianness’. This is precisely the reason why, as R. Kannan points out in his book on C.N. Annadurai, that Periyar’s appeal to backward castes and untouchables of North India to consider themselves as Dravidians additionally complicated the issue. ‘The Dravida Nadu concept was in effect an idea that offered something for all except the Brahmins and later the northern Banias… Territorially unworkable and ethnically amorphous, the project was indeed no more than a medley of ad hoc theses and arguments.’11 It is this productive ambiguity of identity formation that has kept the spirit of difference alive to allow for pluralization without freezing the boundaries of the identity.


Contemporary Tamil nationalists like Seeman and Guna, and Hindutva ideologues like Jeyamohan, though with different agendas, call for an ‘essential atavistic’ Tamilness and build a narrative of a lost ‘essential’ Tamil self. If we carefully study the exchanges cited above from the work of Nambi Arooran, we can see that the Brahmin scholars writing in Tamil were arguing that Tamil civilization was the result of Aryan immigration, prior to which there was no civilization to speak of. Even today it is customary for English language scholarship and for Brahmins to leave as unfathomable pre-history as to what might have existed before Aryan migration to the Tamil speaking region. However, the non-Brahmin Tamil politics fused with Dravidian identity has vehemently argued for an independent civilization which then synthesized with Aryan influence. In short, there was no need for the Brahmin and upper caste proponents of Tamil to critique extant caste hierarchy even if there were certain struggles for hegemony between the Brahmin and Vella elite.

It is only the decisive turn to oppose the ‘discovery of the national community’ through the Orientalist marker of Brahminical Hinduism that gave strength to the counter-hegemonic thrust of the non-Brahmins to pitch for alternative narratives in which caste hierarchy was firmly opposed in order to infuse an egalitarian spirit. What makes the current Tamil nationalist articulations somewhat reactionary is their failure to see the significance of the Dravidianist formation as a play of difference in the nationalist imagination which sought to include a range of identities marginalized by the Brahmin-centred nationalist community.

As we noted in the opening paragraph of the essay and as pointed out by Kannan, the ambiguity and porousness of Dravidian identity allowed for various non-Brahmin constituencies to rally together, even allowing for transiting as Tamils not just because they lived in Tamil Nadu, but because they believed in a national imagination that is not premised on Brahminical Hinduism. Such transiting is not exclusive to the Telugu speaking individuals and communities. Even a Urdu speaking Muslim could thus be brought under Dravidian/Tamil identity. A Malyalee like M.G. Ramachandran could become a leader and later, chief minister of Tamil Nadu. The fluid interchange between Dravidian and Tamil identities kept the boundaries of the identity fashioned by egalitarian Dravidianism porous as it was premised on marking out a difference from Brahminical Hinduism.


In fact the strength and vitality of populist politics of the Dravidian parties derive in some measure from such pluralization of identities. It is only because right wing ideologues like Jeyamohan identify the real source of strength of Dravidianism that they end up driving a wedge between Dravidian and Tamil identity by inventing perennial antagonism between the Vaduga emigrants (Vaduga Vantherigal) and autochthonous Tamils.

William Connolly in his seminal work on Identity/Difference, has elaborately located the source of evil in identity formation. Since the chosen identity cannot allow for locating evil in it, it has to seek to distribute it to the ‘other’ which will help to unify this identity. While, Brahmin apologists would claim that non-Brahmin Dravidianism demonized the Brahmin ‘other’, this will simply not hold the test of even a perfunctory foray into social history. Dravidianism sought to locate the problem of the Brahmin in the hegemonic formation of the caste hierarchy wherein the Brahmin formed the apex assuming the role of the law giver. It did not essentialize it to the individual identity of the Brahmins. There are countless Brahmins, including the quintessential Brahmin leader of the Congress, Rajagopalachari, who remained a personal friend of Dravidian party leaders like Periyar EVR and C.N. Annadurai. Later, a Brahmin woman from Mysore, J. Jayalalithaa was to lead a Dravidian party and become the chief minister.


While a non-Brahmin identity located the ‘evil’ in the conceptual scheme of Brahminism, only seeking to curtail the identity based rights and power holding of Brahmins, the politics of privileging an autochthonous Tamil identity seeks to locate the evil in all contaminating emigrants who cannot claim origin in Tamil land and Tamil speaking communities. Hence, the need to treat other language speakers of Tamil Nadu as part of the putative Dravidian/Tamil community is not an act of generosity or a liberal understanding of the rights of domicile. It goes to the core principles of Dravidianism which was premised on an inclusive egalitarianism which was fashioned in opposition to Brahmin hegemony anchored on caste hierarchy. The current Tamil nationalist urge to eschew Dravidianism in favour of identitarian nationalism can only mimic the reactionary Brahminical pan-Indian nationalism seeking to locate the evil in the Muslim other.

In short, the crucial advantage of the Tamil-Dravidian ethos is the pluralization of identities that it allows in opposition to the Brahminical social order.



1. Sudipta Kaviraj, Imaginary Institution of India. Columbia University Press, New York, 2010.

2. Ibid.

3. Thomas R. Trautman. Madras School of Orientalism: Producing Knowledge in Colonial South India. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2009.

4. Nambi Arooran. Tamil Renaissance and Dravidian Nationalism 1905-1944. Koodal Publishers, Madurai, 1980.

5. Ibid.

6. S. Krishnaswami Aiyangar, Ancient India. Luzac & Co., London and S.P.C.K. Depository, Madras, 1911.

7. S. Somasundara Bharathi, Tamil Classics and Tamilakam. Tuticorin, 1912.

8. M. Srinivasa Aiyangar, Tamil Studies: Essays on the History of Tamil People, Language, Religion and Literature. Guardian Press, Madras, 1914.

9. J.M. Nalluswamy Pillai, Sivagnanabodham by Meykandathevar. Kanchipuram, 1895.

10. Ibid.

11. R. Kannan, Life and Times of C.N. Annadurai. Penguin India, New Delhi, 2010.