Muslims and the Dravidian movement


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IT was 1967; the DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) led by C.N. Annadurai had just come to power. The small community of Muslims in Pallipettai village next to Acharapakkam, near Madras, faced a predicament. Earlier a small thatched hut used by them as a prayer hall in Pallipettai had been burnt down and there was an impending threat of violence. Muhammad Ismail Saheb (Founder leader of the Indian Union Muslim League) also known as Quaid-e-Millath, sent his son Mian Khan to personally ensure that come what may, Id prayers were held at Pallipettai.

Mian Khan and a small group of Muslim men sat huddled anticipating trouble, and as the night wore on, they noticed the headlights of vehicles making their way towards them. As the men braced themselves to face the threat, they were in for a surprise as the vehicles were blue coloured police vehicles. Their surprise turned to celebration when they were told that the police had been directed by the chief minister’s office, not just to provide protection but also ensure that a thatched hut was made ready in time for their Id prayer in the morning.

It did not end with that. When the prayers were over, Mian Khan was surprised to learn that Annadurai, the chief minister was himself camping in a nearby tourist bungalow monitoring the developments. Even as Muhammad Ismail Sahib who was in Delhi at that time sent Mian Khan to Pallipettai, he had also sent a telegram to Chief Minister Annadurai about the problem. Anna as chief minister not only took prompt action but was personally present near the village to monitor the developments. A year later Anna would die of cancer, but such was his commitment to the Muslims that despite his life-threatening illness, he was personally present to ensure justice to them.

This extraordinary relationship between the Muslims and Annadurai who represented the DMK, was not just because the IUML (Indian Union Muslim League) was an electoral ally of the DMK in the 1967 assembly elections that swept DMK to power, but because the DMK represented the Dravidian movement, a political consciousness and an ideology that took shape in the early 20th century in the Madras Presidency.


Unlike northern India where early 20th century politics was beginning to take shape on the basis of religious identity, in the Madras Presidency it took the form of caste – the Brahmin vs non-Brahmin. And who were these non-Brahmins? A debate in the Madras Legislature in 1920, the early days of the Dravidian movement, throws light on this question. The debate was about Indianizing the administration based on a motion moved by C.V. Venkatramana Iyengar that Indians must be given certain posts in the police along with the Euro-peans. Dr Natesan of the Justice Party argued that the motion had to be reframed as ‘non-Brahmin Indians’ and went on to explicate that the term non-Brahmin ‘means such as Mohammedans, Indian Christians, non-Brahmin Hindus, Jains, Parsees and Anglo Indians.’ This understanding was the basis on which the Muslims and the Dravidian movement crafted their relationship.

More than a millennium ago, even as Islam was spreading across the Arabian peninsula, it reached the shores of the Tamil country through active maritime trade links that existed between West Asia and the Tamil country. The Arab traders who brought considerable wealth into the Tamil country in lieu of the produce, be it pepper or pearl, found a special place for themselves in the country that they called Ma‘bar. As the Tamil Muslim community evolved out of these trade contacts, it found active patronage from the erstwhile rulers of Tamil country that lasted into the beginning of colonial rule. By then hundreds of mosques in Dravidian Islamic architectural style dotted the Tamil country, and even as the colonial era progressed, the considerable literary output of the Muslims firmly cemented their place in Tamil society. It was in this milieu that the Dravidian movement took shape in the early 20th century, with Muslims as an integral part of it.


Even as the Justice Party, an earlier political manifestation of the Dravidian Movement was fighting to ensure social justice to its constituents, the Congress under Gandhiji actively supported the agitation led by the Ali brothers for the preservation of the Khilafat under the Ottoman kings. Ironically though, the Ottoman ruler was fast losing support among his own people. While the Justice Party too supported the Khilafat, the ardent advocacy by the Congress under Gandhiji struck an emotional chord among the Muslim masses. Meanwhile the Justice Party, which was in power in the Madras Presidency, not only ensured political representation for the Muslims in the legislature but also in various offices of the state and was sympathetic to the community’s needs.


A little after Congress and the Ali brothers parted ways, the Khilafat movement itself ended in a whimper. E.V. Ramaswamy Naicker (EVR), who as a Congressman had taken an active part in the eradication of untouchability campaigns left the party, disillusioned with its upper caste orientation. After quitting the Indian National Congress, with social justice as his rallying call, EVR galvanized the Self-Respect Movement and soon took over the Justice Party, which finally evolved into the Dravidar Kazhagam (DK) in 1944. In his quest for social change, EVR, also known as Periyar, though himself an atheist, advocated Islam as an antidote to the ills of untouchability.

EVRs writings as well as public meetings encouraged the oppressed to embrace Islam. However, his support for Islam wasn’t unconditional. Just as he had campaigned against the superstitious beliefs in Hinduism, he castigated Muslims for holding on to similar beliefs such as the fire walking ceremony observed during Muharram or the Santhanakoodu (Kandhuri) festival, which is akin to the Temple car festival of the Hindus. Clearly this did not endear him to some Muslims like Pa Dawood Sha, ironically a man considered to be a reformist among the Tamil Muslims.

Periyar and his atheism was viewed with great suspicion, but then there were also equally pious Muslims like Allama Karim Ghani, who was with Netaji in the INA and Siddhi Sunaitha Begum, the first Tamil Muslim woman novelist, who through their writings expressed faith in Periyar’s social justice oriented Self-Respect Movement. When in early 1947 EVR wrote in Kudiyarasu (Republic) that ‘to erase untouchability, Islam was the antidote’, his own followers were shocked and expressed so as much. Allaying their apprehensions, EVR asked them to look beyond the ‘lungi clad, skull cap sporting, bearded local Muslim’ and instead look at the Islam being practised in Kamal Ataturk’s Turkey and in Egypt. He believed in the possibility of a Dravidian Islam. Though EVR did not consider the Muslim League as the sole representative of all Muslims, he did understand their vulnerability and stood by them despite some reservations.


Though Periyar supported Jinnah and the League’s demand for Pakistan, a support reciprocated by Jinnah for Periyar, post the Partition EVR expected the Muslims in Madras Presidency to be part of the DK. At the conclusion of his Perambur (Mayavaram) meeting reported in Viduthalai dated 15 January 1948, Periyar spelt out that, ‘Whatever may be, if the Muslims support us today or oppose us too, let me assure you that when Dravida Nadu achieves self-governance, it will not retaliate on Muslims, because the Dravidar Kazhagam firmly believes that the Muslims of this country are racially Dravidians.’

Despite such differences, the absence of the Dravidian Movement in the Constituent Assembly and the Parliament was to a certain extent compensated by the presence of Ismail Sahib, representing the League. Muhammad Ismail Sahib spoke on the need for continuing with the system of reservations. In the Constituent Assembly debates, he was opposed to making Hindi as the national language and instead suggested looking at Tamil, his mother tongue, which he felt had all the attributes that were considered by the body as essential for a national language.

After the horrific communal riots the country witnessed during the Partition, many Muslim Leaguers in North India decided to abandon the party and League offices all over the country were closed. In such a situation when the Muslim League members met at the Banqueting Hall of the government estate in Madras to decide on their future course of action, both EVR and Rajaji had expected them to announce the disbandment of the party. However, looking at the troubled state of Muslim affairs in post-Partition India, Ismail Sahib instead decided that it would be better to continue the party as the Indian Union Muslim League.

‘Jawaharlal Nehru pressured Ismail Sahib to disband the party and join the Congress’, says Dawood Mia Khan, grandson of Ismail Sahib and Correspondent of the Quaid-e-Milleth College for Men. It was only in the Madras Presidency that the League was able to function despite a difficult environment and that was essentially because of the Dravidian Movement, which had always remained very sympathetic towards the cause of the Muslims. In post-Partition India, when Muslims were being sidelined throughout the country, it was this relationship that enabled the Muslims of Madras Presidency and later Tamil Nadu to weather the storm.


The Partition of India and assassination of Mahatma Gandhi did have its fallout in the Madras Presidency. Tiruvannamalai, Erode and Rajapalayam saw major riots with small-scale arson elsewhere that targeted Muslims. In the temple town of Tiruvannamalai, about 200 kms from Madras, within hours of Gandhiji’s assassination, about 100 Muslim houses were burnt and 50 Muslim owned shops gutted with the losses estimated at Rs 50 lakh. According to Pralayan, a social and theatre activist from Tiruvannamalai, suddenly there was a new class of rich people; as it was through wealth gained from the loot, they came to be known as Gandhi Panakkaaran (Rich man courtesy Gandhi). The Dravidar Kazhagam undertook relief measures and also protected Muslims from attacks in places like Cuddalore, recalls Mustafa Maraicair, a native of Cuddalore, settled in Singapore.


Post-independence, the Congress government of the Presidency withdrew many rights and privileges previously enjoyed by Muslims. The exclusive reservation for Muslims in the Government Muhammadan College was done away with and the college was turned into a general women’s college. Similarly the school for Unani medicine started during the rule of the Justice Party was also shut down. The residences of the Prince of Arcot and the Chief Qazi were searched for hidden weapons. Worse was a government order prohibiting the enrolment of Muslims into the police constabulary for a yet to be formed police battalion. It was only after a major hue and cry was raised that the order was withdrawn in early 1952 by Gopal Reddy, the finance minister in the Madras Presidency.

In such troubled times, EVR continued to uphold Islam and stood by Muslims even as he underscored the need for Muslims to be wary of their own elite, a point C.N. Annadurai, who separated from Periyar and founded the DMK, would also reiterate. Unlike the DK’s atheism that made it more akin to a social movement, DMK’s ‘One People, One God’ (Ondre Kulam, Oruvane Devan) and willingness to participate in electoral politics, saw Muslims warming up to the party.

Annadurai pointed to the injustice being meted out to the Muslims by the Congress, especially in its ministry formation. Despite many eminent Muslims being part of the Congress, there was not a single Muslim minister from 1946 to 1962. Subsequently, it was only during the third term of K. Kamaraj as chief minister that Abdul Majeed was made a minister in the Congress-led government of Madras state in 1962. During the same period the Congress did not nominate any Muslim as a member of the Legislative Council. It was the fledgling DMK that enabled Trichy Abdul Wahab Jaani of IUML to become a member of the council in 1962, a support which continued and enabled him to serve two further terms in the council till 1980. Immediately after the anti-Hindi agitations of 1965, which once again saw large Tamil Muslim participation, a demand was made in the DMK general council meeting to start a minority wing. C.N. Annadurai turned it down saying there was no need to do so as long as Quaid-e-Millath Ismail Sahib led IUML was there. It was again the alliance with DMK that enabled the Quaid-e-Millath Ismail Sahib-led IUML to enter into the Tamil Nadu Assembly in 1967. M. Karunanidhi, who succeeded Annadurai as the chief minister of Tamil Nadu, continued his predecessor’s legacy.


It was during the DMK regime under Karunanidhi that the Meeladhu Nabhi (Birthday of the Prophet Muhammad) celebrations were declared a government holiday and many Muslim communities were included in the backward class category, thereby making them eligible for reservation. The Unani system of medicine was reintroduced during Karunanidhi’s tenure. As if compensating for the takeover of the Government Muhammadan College immediately after independence by the Congress regime, Karunanidhi’s DMK not only renamed the college as the Quaid-e-Millath Government College for Women, but also donated land for a new college for the community on the outskirts of Madras, which continues to function as the Quaid-e-Milleth College for Men.


The 1980s oil boom in West Asia beckoned many Muslims from Tamil Nadu with jobs and business opportunities in the desert kingdoms. It was also the time that Tamil Nadu shot into limelight with the Meenakshipuram conversions, where an entire village of Dalits embraced Islam. With MGR making his religious beliefs obvious with a visit to Sri Mookambigai temple and his successor Jayalalithaa-led AIADMK taking part in the shilanyas for the construction of the Ram temple at the disputed Babri Mosque, the stage was set for the rise of fundamentalism in Tamil Nadu.

With DMK facing innumerable challenges, internally and externally, like most youth, the younger generation of Muslims too felt disconnected from the political process and were thus ripe pickings for the newly emerging puritanical, Wahabi or Salafi movements. Unlike the other youth who could while away their time and take refuge in art or entertainment, the vulnerable Muslim youth got further isolated from mainstream, as the puritanical movements considered art, literature, cinema or music to be haram (forbidden), closing the door for integration of Muslim youth with the mainstream, cutting themselves away from their roots. Interestingly, it was around the same time that Abdul Ravuf, a Tamil Muslim youth from Perambalur, committed self-immolation for the cause of the Sri Lankan Tamils. He was the first to self-immolate for the cause. Nevertheless, fundamentalist forces were rearing their head in both the communities, Hindu as well as Muslim, and the Jayalalithaa-led AIADMK government in its first term added fuel to the fire, leading to the Coimbatore riots.

The DMK, which made a dramatic comeback to power in 1996, was taken by surprise at the turn of events. Having lost the government twice before under Article 356, and with the Congress unwilling to enter into an electoral alliance with it, the DMK did the unthinkable. It aligned with the BJP, thereby causing further consternation among its Muslim vote bank, even though, as M.S.S. Pandian pointed out, Karunanidhi managed to ensure that the Hindu right wing activities in the state were kept under check by successfully persuading their Delhi bosses that social harmony was in the best interest of the alliance.


This was not surprising if one looks at the electoral alliance the DMK struck with the Indira-led Congress in 1971, where the DMK while conceding parliamentary seats to the Congress (I) had ensured that as quid pro quo, the Congress (I) would leave the state entirely to the DMK – a shrewd arrangement that ensured the dominance of the Dravidian parties in politics for the coming years. However, this political alliance with the BJP for survival was a godsend for the newly emerging Wahabi / Salafi outfits among the Muslims, which promised the Khilafat. Despite such influence among the Muslim youth, the voting pattern from the 1990s onwards presents a picture of consolidation of Muslim votes behind the Dravidian parties.

Election after election has shown that when the Muslim parties contested by themselves, alone, they have fared rather poorly. The general voter aside they were not able to garner even 10% of the Muslim votes. A constituency like Mayiladuthurai with more than 2,00,000 lakh Muslim voters has proved this in repeated elections, where a Muslim candidate representing the Dravidian parties has always fared better and often managed to be elected from the same constituencies. Election after election, constituency after constituency has revealed that Muslims did not vote on the basis of religion and identified themselves more with the Dravidian parties, with the Congress and the Communists taking a smaller share.


In the last parliamentary elections, the message was driven home even more strongly when Tamil Nadu Thowheed Jamaath (TNTJ), a strong cadre based Muslim outfit , withdrew its support to AIADMK citing Jayalalithaa’s reluctance to attack Narendra Modi or the BJP in strong terms. The reverberations were felt immediately. Unlike her earlier stints as chief minister, when J. Jayalalithaa came back to power in 2011, she began actively wooing the minorities with many government outreach programmes, and she wasn’t going to let that effort go to naught by this perception of her softness for Modi. For the first time she came out strongly against Modi’s showpiece developmental mantra of Gujarat. She reeled off statistics comparing various social developmental indices of Tamil Nadu and Gujarat, pointing out that TN was actually well ahead of Gujarat with regard to development. Deviating from her usual style of narrating short tales to voters during the campaign, she asked voters as to who was better, ‘Gujarathin Modiya allathu Tamil Nattin indha ladiya? (Gujarat’s Modi or this lady from Tamil Nadu?).

When the results were declared on 16 May, it became apparent that the Modi wave had failed to work its magic in Tamil Nadu and it was ‘Amma’ all the way. Despite contesting all alone, Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK had managed to win 37 of the 39 seats with the BJP-led NDA alliance winning just two seats. The BJP won the Kanyakumari seat and its ally, the PMK, won the Dharmapuri seat. The DMK despite the support of Muslim outfits and Dalit parties drew a blank.

The infighting within the DMK and the scandals had cost it dearly. While the Muslims had voted against the BJP, with the DMK supposedly receiving the bulk of their support, the margin of the victory indicated that the AIADMK to an extent was also a beneficiary of the Muslim vote.


Analysing the election debacle, the TNTJ, which had switched its support from AIADMK to DMK midway, declared that henceforth it would not take a political stand in elections. Its chief, P. Jainulabudeen, replying to a question in Unarvu, the weekly magazine of the outfit, wrote that, ‘When it comes to political affiliations, a majority of the Muslims in Tamil Nadu are sympathetic or supportive of the state parties.’ He accepted that ‘being Muslim doesn’t come in their way of being part of DMK, AIADMK or some other political party’ and pointed out that ‘there are those (Muslims) who consider themselves as a DMK family or an AIADMK family.’

Jainulabudeen admitted that while Muslims might be willing to accept TNTJ’s religious discourse, in the same vein they do not accept their electoral line. Election after election has only proved the fact that Muslims are as much a part of the Dravidian ideology that the founders of the movement espoused.