Federalism Is at the Heart of DMK’s Tryst With Jammu and Kashmir

The DMK's opposition to the sidelining of Kashmiris while diluting Article 370 is rooted in urging the Centre to abide by the Constitution.

The discussion around the dilution of Article 370 and the reorganisation of the state of Jammu and Kashmir saw zealous participation of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the third-largest party in the Lok Sabha. On August 22, DMK MPs reached the heart of the country’s capital and staged a protest at Jantar Mantar. The event saw addresses by leaders across parties in the opposition and demanded the release of political leaders of the state. Earlier this month, the DMK voted against the Bill in parliament.

A few questions are worth answering. What lies at the core of DMK’s opposition? Can one trace this back to similar actions in the past and if so, how similar are the actions? Why is DMK doing this? How does this play out in the larger framework of the ‘idea of India’?

The what and how

The DMK’s opposition in the Lok Sabha started with MP T.R. Baalu’s speech, where he remarked that the Bill “does not reflect the will of the people” and further went on to say, “the net result is that you are making a mighty state government into a municipality. Two municipalities are being created”.

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Subsequently, an all-party meeting was called on August 10. The party took a stand and began to incisively question the means adopted by the government through its spokespersons. The protest in Delhi marked the culmination of the opposition to the government’s move. The demands were two-fold i.e., the release of political leaders and lifting restrictions imposed on the public. The members of the ruling party tagged the DMK as anti-national, separatist, terror-sympathiser etc. That said, the party’s focus on federalism and human rights garnered wider support across parties in the opposition.

Notes from the past

To understand how the Kashmir issue falls within the scope of politics espoused by the DMK, one needs to go back to the days of anti-Hindi imposition protests of the 1950s. These protests, among other things, paved the way for the assertion of distinctness (if not uniqueness) by a community of people from a region within the Indian nation. In a famous speech delivered in April 1962 in the Rajya Sabha, the DMK’s chief C.N. Annadurai remarked:

“I belong to the Dravidian stock. I am proud to call myself a Dravidian. That does not mean that I am against a Bengali or a Maharashtrian or a Gujarati. As Robert Burns has stated, ‘A man is a man for all that’. I say that I belong to the Dravidian stock and that is only because I consider that the Dravidians have got something concrete, something distinct, something different to offer to the nation at large. Therefore it is that we want self-determination.” 

Such calls for self-determination were brought to control with the enactment of the 16th Amendment Act of the Indian Constitution also known as the Anti-Secession Bill. That said, the aspect of diversity and its significance in the making of India raised by Annadurai in his speech remained relevant.

The focus subsequently shifted from the sidelines to the constitutional realm i.e., division of powers, state autonomy and the spirit of federalism, which found takers across the nation. This led to a series of developments between the late 60s and mid-80s.

It started with the Centre-State Relations Inquiry Committee constituted by then chief minister M. Karunanidhi in 1969, also called the Rajamannar Committee, which recommended the setting up of an inter-state council that would oversee and approve legislations affecting states and the federal structure. It also recommended prudent use of Article 356.

Five years later, in 1974, the DMK passed a resolution in the Tamil Nadu legislative assembly urging the Union government to implement the Rajamannar Committee recommendations to ensure ideal federalism.

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With the Emergency (1975-77), serving as an exposition of the scope offered by Indian Constitution to the Union government to unilaterally disrupt the democratic and federal tendencies, the question of ‘Centre-State relations’ garnered further support, with the ‘West Bengal Referendum’ (1977), a resolution passed by A.K. Antony as chief minister of Kerala (1978) and discussions in the Conference of South Indian Chief Ministers (1983) led by Ramakrishna Hegde.

Eventually, the Sarkaria Commission was set up in 1983 to deliberate on the Centre-state relations by the Indira Gandhi led Central government. It is also worth noting that during the Emergency years, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat refused to ratify the amendment in the Constitution of India that sought to make the proclamation of Emergency non-justiciable.

The Kashmir question

While Annadurai had commented about the internal politics of Jammu and Kashmir as early as 1948, even before the DMK’s inception, the party’s significant contribution in the issues pertaining to Jammu and Kashmir can be located in the historic Srinagar Conference (1983) that led to the ‘Srinagar Resolution’. This conference saw the participation of 17 political parties and talks delivered by 59 leaders, effectively communicating the need for a movement to bolster the principle of federalism and its realisation in practice.

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It is worth noting that in the conference, lines from ‘Hail, The Dawn! written by Annadurai, published in Home Rule (January 1969) were evoked.

“We have a federal structure. That is why the framers of the Constitution wanted a federal structure and not a unitary structure, because many political philosophers have pointed out, India is so vast – in fact it has been described as a sub-continent – the mental health is so varied, the traditions so different, the history so varied that there cannot be a steel framed unitary structure here.”

After taking over the mantle from Annadurai, Karunanidhi and the party always articulately defended regional identities on the grounds of plurality espoused by the constitution makers as against reductive ethnic distinctiveness.

Former DMK chief M. Karunanidhi. Photo: Facebook

In this context, one can argue that the press statement released by the DMK on August 19 opposing the sidelining of Kashmiris in the decision taken on their future evokes the faint memory of the collective efforts in negotiating the federal rights with the Centre, that was common between Jammu & Kashmir and Tamil Nadu, right from the times of Annadurai. Put otherwise, this is not a support for separatism, but a move to urge the government to abide by the Constitution and its values.

One can argue that the protest staged by the DMK around liberty and federalism, when seen as metonyms for the upkeep of diversity, conveys the larger message regarding the idea of building an inclusive India – both in its structure and spirit.

Vignesh Karthik K.R. is a PhD student at the King’s India Institute, King’s College London. Jeyannathann Karunanithi is a political analyst based in Chennai.