Karunanidhi leaves behind an enduring legacy on Dravidian legacy and politics


CHENNAI: The patriarch of Tamil Nadu and Dravidian politics, Muthuvel Karunanidhi died Tuesday at the age of 94. A five plus decade run in politics from a young organiser to five-time Chief Minister, he leaves behind a rich legacy.

Known as Kalaignar to the masses, M Karunanidhi leaves behind a legacy in the state of Tamil Nadu that will be remembered for decades. Just over a week after marking the golden jubilee of his leadership at the DMK, Karunanidhi has left an indelible mark on politics in the country.

In many ways, the ideals that propelled him into politics in the first place, continued to be his guide as the decades passed. He built his skills as a screenwriter and an orator; he has writing credits on 77 films. Growing up his idols were Periyar and DMK founder C Annadurai. Politics at the time were largely controlled by the Indian National Congress, which Periyar was active in. Periyar grew disillusioned with the party and came to regard it as an upper-caste north Indian party that did not commit to social reforms such as elimination of caste hierarchies and the uplift of lower-caste Hindus.

As Periyar went on to form his own movement, primarily focused on a Dravidian ideology, which was influenced by rationalism, communism and the ancient Tamil epics; a young Karunanidhi got his first taste in politics and civil disobedience. In 1937, Hindi was introduced as a compulsory language in schools. Periyar called on students and activists alike to take to the streets to protest. Karunanidhi enacted agitprop dramas, gave speeches and brought out a handwritten magazine.

As journalist Lakshmana Venkat Kuchi points out, the imposition of Hindi on the state was a galvaniser for activists, writing, “It is thanks to vociferous opposition from Karunanidhi and veterans like Periyar, and C.N. Annadurai before him that so far non-Hindi speaking States have not had to make a transition to a language that disadvantaged them as compared to those whose mother tongue it was. But the pragmatist in Karunanidhi never opposed Hindi as a language, only its imposition”.

His skills at writing and speaking were so remarkable, they caught the eye of stalwarts Periyar and his then lieutenant, CN Annadurai, who went on to become the first non-Congress chief minister of Tamil Nadu. Surely, as someone of the stature of those two taking an interest in a young boy’s civil exploits, it made a significant mark on Karunanidhi. As campaigning and politicking is about telling a story, Karunanidhi had a gift in doing just that.

He continued to follow the path of Annadurai after the movement Periyar started split post independence. As the DMK was formed, as an adept and astute learner and observer, he rose through the ranks of the party. He got to know it inside out; the way it functions, the coalition of castes to be managed and setting party priorities. He became the party’s treasurer and used his good communication skills in organising and fundraising.

As the second phase of an anti-Hindi agitation began in 1953, Karunanidhi came to the forefront. The agitation took place at Dalmiapuram, a small town near Lalgudi in Tiruchi District. As the name Dalmiapuram was coined after a North Indian industrialist, DMK activists took notice and mounted a campaign to help restore the original name, Kallakudi. Karunanidhi was among the five activists of the party arrested for stopping a train.

The elections of 1967 would prove pivotal for Tamil Nadu and the DMK. The Congress was defeated and thus began a period till date where no national party has been able to gain prominence in the state. As party founder Annadurai died in 1969, Karunanidhi was already a senior member within and edged out acting Chief Minister V. R. Nedunchezhiyan and became the Chief Minister. This would begin a long and sometimes tumultuous journey in the Chief Ministers chair another 4 times after.

His politics stemmed from a sense of pride in Tamil and all its roots, its history and its complexities. Secularism, caste and regional identity, their role in public affairs are what drove him and his party. As Periyar’s ideas, at the time seemed radical, were taken forward by Karunanidhi and went more mainstream and helped transform social relations in the region. For him, identity was important, identity politics was used to make the party and administration representative of the state’s composition and make up.

His death comes at a time when politics in the state are fraught and fractured. The opposition AIADMK has factions that have formed in the wake of former Chief Minister and Karunanidhi’s chief political foe Jayalalithaa’s death. With national parties continuing to struggle to gain a footing, two icons of the silver screen Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan have entered the fray. A DMK under MK Stalin will look to continue the rich, storied and complex legacy of Kalaignar.

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