The problem

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THE term Dravida refers to the geographical South of India as inscribed in the national anthem. Dravidianism, roughly based on the geographical marker and its metaphoric extension to racial imaginary and linguistics, but historically housed in Tamil Nadu, has two important components, the hierarchy of significance among them varying for both political actors and analysts – non-Brahminism and Tamil identity.

In its first major political iteration as the South Indian Liberal Federation or ‘Justice Party’ as it is popularly known, it sought to counter what is known as Brahmin/casteist hegemony. It extended through its second major political iteration as the Self-Respect Movement against the orthodoxy of ‘Vedic Hinduism’, in an alleged continuation of the so-called heterodox religions and sects of India. The Self-Respect Movement led by Periyar E.V. Ramasamy laid the popular base of the movement throughout the state, subsequently going on to espouse the cause of Tamil language and identity in opposition to Hindi. This was later consolidated by the third major iteration as the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the DMK.

What appears unique to Dravidianist movements, though some of the iterations espoused the cause of or expressed an aspiration to a sovereign Dravidian Tamil nation state in the period from 1930s to 1960s, is that popular movements underwriting the ideology of Dravidianism adopted only civil means to propagate and consolidate the demand. In other words, there was no attempt to develop a confrontational politics with violent means as an option, very unlike the neighbouring island of Sri Lanka where discrimination against Tamil identity led to armed insurrection and violent suppression at the hands of Sinhala majoritarianism.

The popular political party, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), literally Dravidian Progressive Association, founded in 1949 and led by C.N. Annadurai announced in the mid-sixties that state autonomy within a federal India was its political goal, once and for all getting rid of the odium of ‘separatism’. The DMK came to power in the state in 1967. After the demise of Annadurai in 1969, the party came under the leadership of the now nonagenarian M. Karunanidhi, the five-time chief minister of Tamil Nadu. The fourth major iteration was led by M.G. Ramachandran (MGR), a popular actor turned politician, who broke away from the Karunanidhi-led DMK in 1972 and formed the Anna DMK, later significantly renamed as the All India Anna DMK during the national emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi. MGR came to power in 1977 defeating the DMK. Since then, the two political parties have alternated in ruling the state, both claiming to represent the ideological legacy of Dravidianism and state autonomy. The DMK in the seventeen year period from 1996 to 2013, was a part of coalition governments at the Centre except for the short break of 13 months in 1998-99, leaving a strong imprint on national politics.

Popular democracy and electoral practices in Tamil Nadu in the era of Dravidianist rule have been, like in many other states, marred by many features detested by the so-called civil society and the English language media, particularly the role played by money in elections, the competitive promotion of what is billed as ‘freebies’, aka welfare measures, and subsequent charges of ‘corruption’ in holding public office. However, the state has managed a vibrant political culture and stability which is perceived to be tied with, or be the cause of, better performance in governance leading to high economic growth, particularly measured through human development indicators in comparison to most states in India.

Even as Tamil Nadu has not been immune to violence and conflict related to caste and communal tensions, the overall secular ethos set by Dravidianism is widely perceived to have erected a shield against the consolidation of social polarities. What has also been noted is the co-existence of widespread practices of diverse forms of religious life with a public culture capable of transcending identities. There has been considerable debate on the achievements on this count in both Tamil and English.

While the concept of state autonomy as advanced by the DMK in the last fifty years has not been fully realized, by managing to ensure the stability of state politics the party has constructed a strong foundation for such federal imagination and cultural pluralism. Its role in forging alliances at the national level, both through the ‘Third Front’ formations, and through aligning with the BJP and the Congress, its contributon to political transformations in the country has also been historically significant. The AIADMK has served to balance the role of the DMK at each juncture, though it has not been as successful at sharing power at the Centre.

The phenomenon of Dravidian politics, more specifically the political manifestation of Tamil-Dravidian difference, merits sustained enquiry for extracting a critical yield for the history of the Indian Union as a political entity. As such a task could only be interdisciplinary in nature, there are at least five rubrics under which the phenomenon can be looked at: federalism, identity formation, economic development, political processes and the formations of the public sphere. The essays in this issue of Seminar present and narrate the 20th century history of Tamil Nadu in different modes and registers, focusing the analytical lens on different aspects and moments of the historical manifestation of Dravidianism within these five interdisciplinary rubrics. Together, they might help us better appreciate both the unique contribution of this socio-political/cultural movement as also its likely future in our rapidly changing polity.




* Earlier versions of the essays in this issue were first presented at a conference jointly organized by Ambedkar University, Delhi and Ashoka University, Sonepat in January 2018.