The DMK Has Been Two-Faced in Its Commitment Towards Social Justice

A critique of the Dravidian movement largely focusing on DMK and particularly on Karunanidhi's regime from a Dalit perspective.

It is quite common to read and listen to hagiographies when a prominent leader passes away. Given Karunanidhi’s stature as a leader who has been in public life for more than 60 years, it is fitting that there has been an outpouring of comment since his demise. Referred to as Kalaignar (artiste), he was a multifaceted personality who had a strong political acumen and possessed an incomparable rhetorical and oratory flourish that was autodidactic. Karunanidhi was a highly skilled administrator and a fierce political competitor who stood his ground even after suffering numerous setbacks and succeeded in making several comebacks.

All the above is unmistakably true and there is a ready consensus on his political acumen and standing. However, what is somewhat questionable is the glorification of him as an uncompromising champion of social justice. There is no denial that, as a legatee of Periyar E.V. Ramasamy, he was committed towards social justice but to address him as a lieutenant of the icon of equality B. R. Ambedkar is quite unwarranted. This essay looks at Karunanidhi’s and the DMK’s commitment towards social justice and Dalit rights to offer a more rounded evaluation of his time in office.

After capitalising on the anti-Hindi agitations, the DMK swept to power in the 1967 elections promising the creation of a new social order with commitments towards social justice, democracy and devolution of power to the subaltern classes. C.N. Annadurai, DMK’s first chief minister, among various achievements, amended the law to permit self-respect and reformist marriages, provided gold medals to encourage inter-caste marriage, successfully renamed Madras State as Tamil Nadu and also organised the second International Tamil Conference. However his tenure was tarnished by the infamous Kilvenmani massacre where 44 agricultural labourers belonging to the Scheduled Caste were burnt to death over wage struggles.

It is not that the DMK played an active role in the slaughter so much as its reaction to it that is telling. What irked activists of that time was the callous attitude of the government and its representatives who had come to power promising to be a voice of the subaltern. Women’s rights activist and writer Mythily Sivaraman’s accounts compiled in a volume Haunted By Fire tell us how the ruling DMK downplayed the incident and tried to erase it from public memory. Fearful of alienating Backward Caste (BC) votes, condemnations were conspicuous by their absence and it was left to the Communist movement in Tamil Nadu to commemorate and memorialise the event.

Also read: Caste and Social Mobility: Karunanidhi’s Dravidian Century

Following Annadurai’s demise, M. Karunanidhi became the chief minister in 1969 and numerous schemes aimed towards the upliftment of BC and SC were implemented during this time. Prominent among them were the free concrete houses for SCs under the slum clearance board, the increase in the percentage of reservation from 16% to 18% for SCs and from 25% to 31% for BCs. This was remarkable insofar as the first BC (A. N. Sattanathan) Commission appointed by DMK in 1969 actually recommended 33% for BCs and the continuation of 16% for SCs, but Karunanidhi increased reservation for SCs to 18%.

It was during Karunanidhi’s second term as chief minister from 1971 to 1976, that the influential senior DMK Dalit woman leader and the then minister for Harijan welfare, Sathyavani Muthu resigned from the ministry in 1974 accusing Karunanidhi of being prejudiced against Dalits. In her words “After Dr. Ambedkar, nobody has taken the cudgels in real earnest … We will form a new party, sit on the opposition benches, and fight for the rights of Schedules Castes. We will not let them be exploited and humiliated endlessly.” Later, she formed her own party Thazthapattor Munnetra Kazhagam (Federation for the Progress of the Depressed Classes) before merging it with MGR’s AIADMK in 1977. It is certainly instructive that a politician of her stature and ability was pigeon-holed as Dalit and never accorded more prominent cabinet portfolios.

Commenting on Sathyavani Muthu’s revolt, a 1974 Times of India report opined that Muthu’s exit would not cost the DMK much as the Harijan community was never a significant factor either for DMK or its parent Dravidar Kazhagam or even its precursor, the Justice Party as all three were dominated by high caste non-Brahmins. It also reported that, following Muthu’s exit, ten MLAs and two MLCs and an MP jointly signed a resignation letter in support of her before recanting in the face of political pressure.

Interestingly, Parithi Ilamvazhuthi the young Dalit face of DMK who defeated Sathyavani Muthu in the 1984 elections, shifted to AIADMK in 2013 citing lack of respect in the DMK. This lack of respect for Dalit leaders within the DMK is not uncommon. For example, Coimbatore-based senior DMK leader (contemporary of Annadurai) and former MP, the late C. T. Dhandapani who belonged to the Dalit community was once publicly insulted on the basis of his caste by the then local minister Pongalur Palanisamy and his wife, both of whom belong to the powerful OBC Kongu Vellala Gounder caste. It may be recalled here that even during the times of Justice Party, Dalit leader M.C. Rajah quit the party citing lack of adequate interest on the issue of untouchability and the general welfare of the Depressed Classes. So, Dalits receiving stepmotherly treatment or experiencing lesser concern on issues affecting Dalits was not uncommon within the DMK.

After being in the political wilderness for a long time during MGR’s heydays, Karunanidhi’s third term from 1989 to 1991 was quite promising on the social justice front. During this tenure, he also played an important role in national politics and was instrumental in bringing V.P. Singh to power through the formation of a National Front, leading to the realisation of implementation of Mandal Commission recommendations for reservation for OBCs.

He also fulfilled the Vanniyar demand for a separate reservation which was earlier denied by MGR. However, the 1987 Vanniyar agitation for separate reservations resulted in violence targeted against Dalits as the ‘Most Backward’ Vanniyars sought to assert their superiority. As many as 5,000 huts were burned down and properties worth thousands of rupees destroyed. The state response was pitiful. Instead, as part of the celebrations to commemorate Ambedkar centenary in 1990, Karunanidhi renamed the Madras Law College as Dr. Ambedkar Law College, and in 1997 as CM for the fourth time he also established the Tamil Nadu Dr Ambedkar Law University.

Coming back to power in 1996, Karunanidhi had the toughest time in his political career as he had to tackle the Dalit renaissance that was not only proving to be an ideological challenge but also posed challenges in the political arena and everyday life. Militant Dalit social movements with slogans exhorting followers to ‘Refuse to Submit’ and to ‘Hit Back’ were gaining momentum, drawing hordes of Dalit youth to move out of Dravidian and Left parties to join Puthiya Tamilagam and the Dalit Panthers of India.

This period saw southern Tamil Nadu witness the worst clashes between the intermediate caste collective of Mukkulathors and upwardly mobile Pallars (Devendra Kula Vellalars) along with other Dalits. These clashes were popularly then referred to as ‘Then Maavatta Kalavarangal’ (Southern District Riots), which changed the political landscape in the region. Karunanidhi was unable to handle caste clashes and was caught between the competing demands of the different caste blocs. Pallars raised calls to rename districts and government run transport corporations after their caste heroes, demanding a share in the political practice centered on symbolism mastered by Karunanidhi to appease certain dominant castes in the form of monuments, statues and other visual iconography. Both DMK and AIADMK engaged in competitive symbolic investments to ‘appease’ certain dominant castes.

Karunanidhi acceded to the Pallar demands and unveiled the Veeran Sundaralingam Transport Corporation but he soon became embroiled in a bitter conflict over caste symbolism. The announcement sparked largescale violence and Thevars demanded a bus corporation to be named after Pulithevan. Karunanidhi acknowledged their demand but this sparked numerous demands to name districts after leaders which ultimately led to a situation where the DMK was compelled to organise an All-Party meeting at which it was agreed not to name any district or university or transport corporations after leaders. The party then changed both the district names and transport corporations which were named after various leaders.

Puthiya Tamilagam workers and villagers performing rituals to welcome the first bus from the newly created Veeran Sundaralingam Transport Corporation in Virudhunagar on May 1, 1997. Photograph copyright: PT Media

This effort alienated disgruntled Pallar youth who felt that the government endorsed the demands of each caste group in turn and commemorated their leaders but lacked the spine to control the unruly caste mobs when Dalit leaders were finally accorded recognition. This feeling was accentuated when the massive labour agitation by tea plantation workers demanding an increase in wages, led by PT in Tirunelveli, ended up in state violence in which 17 people including women and a one-year-old child died. A police baton charge drove several to their deaths in the Tamirabarani river in what is annually remembered as the ‘Tamirabarani Massacre’. As with Kilvenmani above, the state response further irked activists, as protestors were condemned for unruly behavior and the police were exonerated despite numerous reports pointing towards an excessive use of force.

A police officer and his team looking at an estate worker’s body that has drifted ashore after drowning to death. Photograph copyright: PT Media

Following the caste clashes and a smoldering unrest in south Tamil Nadu the government came up with the novel idea to establish ‘samathuvapurams’ (equality villages) in the name of Periyar.  The idea to create such forms of spatial equality was unique and speaks to the desire for social justice, but it was poorly thought through and remained most potent as a symbolic gesture rather than actually fostering harmony. I recall the words of Tamil writer and intellectual Stalin Rajangam, who told me during an interview that ‘Samathuvapurams both as an idea and structure stand as signs of social justice on the surface level and also provide an opportunity for the DMK leader to claim lineage to social justice through spatial symbolism’. Going further still, while presiding over a self-respect marriage in Chennai Karunanidhi criticised the party’s top leaders and prominent faces for not setting an example. He insisted that they should replicate these reformatory practices first, for the whole state to become an equal space. Indeed, his son, the politician Azhagiri was married to a Devendra Kula Vellalar, and so one could say that he led by example in this instance.

People caught unaware when baton-wielding police charged them can be seen running towards the Tamirabarani river in which 17 died. Photograph copyright: PT Media

Following the institutionalisation of Dalit social movements into political parties in the late 1990s they underwent a phase of deradicalisation and got subsumed within Dravidian politics. Karunanidhi’s fifth term from 2006-2011 saw the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (Liberation Panthers) work so closely with the DMK that Dalit critics started to term them as the SC/ST wing of the party. Whilst this appears like a further instance of the commitment to the Dalit cause, the relationship did not result in a significant change in policy. Small measures were adopted around land-reform and the Special Component Plan, but these remained more impressive on paper than in practice. Dalit critics, indeed, argue that Karunanidhi astutely used alliances not only to thwart independent and autonomous Dalit mobilisation, but to suffocate the Dalit counter-hegemonic discourse of the 1990s through his politics of accommodation. ‘The time worn response to dissent’ in India, as Ashish Nandy asserts, ‘is to neutralise it by absorbing it into the mainstream’ (1998: 51).

K.Krishnasamy founder president of Puthiya Tamilagam and Tamil Maanila Congress leader S. Balakrishnan during the Manjolai estate workers rally in Tirunelveli on July 23, 1997. Photograph copyright: PT Media.

The ambivalent relationship between the DMK and Dalit parties was further witnessed in 2009 when Karunanidhi, following a lot of struggles by the Left and Arunthathiyar organisations, introduced the Tamil Nadu Arunthathiyars Special Reservation Act, 2009 to ensure representation for the most marginalised among the SCs, providing them a sub-quota of 3% within the SC quota. Though welcomed by many, this Act was challenged and cited as an effort to split Dalit unity. Again, the commitment to justice here is largely symbolic and requires few extra resources. Critics largely agreed that the Arunthathiyars deserved a special quota for their uplift, but argued that the government should have carved out a separate quota rather than providing compartmental reservation. It is also notable that the concession here was wrung from the party through sustained struggle rather than being granted by a party commitment to the values of equality.

Silencing the Dalit question

Most commentators find it hard to grasp the argument that the rhetorical commitment to social justice masks an underlying neglect of Dalits. Tamil Nadu is often seen as the cradle of the self-respect movement and as influenced by the anti-caste politics of Periyar. We are familiar with the silencing of the Dalit question in Bengal and Kerala, but fail to see that Tamil Nadu was not an exception to this rule. Dalit intellectuals played a major role in the creation of anti-caste consciousness and were the precursors of the Dravidian intellectual tradition, but Karunanidhi himself never acknowledged this, neither did the Dravidian ideologues. For example the idea of a Dravidian identity was conceived in 1886 when Rev. John Rathinam (a Dalit) of the Wesleyan Mission founded ‘the Dravidar Kazhagam.’ Likewise, The Dravida Mahajana Sabha was formed in 1891 under the leadership of Iyothee Thass in Ootacamund in Madras Presidency. None of these efforts were acknowledged in the Dravidian discourse.

The Madras United League, an organisation of non-Brahmins, was formed in 1912 under the leadership of C. Natesa Mudaliar. It was later renamed the ‘Dravidian Association.’ The Dravidian parties take this point to be the inception of Dravidianism and celebrated its centenary in 1912 without acknowledging the Dalit contributions. Thirumavalavan, the leader of the VCK, in an interview lamented to me on how Dalit history was suppressed by the Dravidian movement. He noted how the conceptualisation of ‘Dravidian’ emerged in the 1880s spearheaded by Dalit intellectuals, predating the ‘centenary’ year. Thirumavalavan also said that Dalit leaders like Rettamalai Srinivasan, M.C. Rajah, N. Sivaraj and Meenambal Sivaraj had been neglected in the modern Tamil Nadu mainstream history and it was all the more shocking to see that the Periyarists and Tamil nationalists, who propagated an inclusive Dravidian or non-Brahmin identity, were behind this suppression.

The neglect and suppression of Dalit history and contributions do not happen in the political domain alone, in other words, but also in the intellectual domain. Recently, scholars working on Dravidian movement and culture organised a two-day conference in Delhi to commemorate the centenary of the Dravidian Movement and there was not a single paper or scholar working on Dalits to provide a Dalit perspective of the Dravidian movement.

DMK’s caste majoritarianism

In seeking to understand this conundrum it is important to understand the politics of the DMK. The DMK under Karunanidhi pioneered a political practice of caste majoritarianist politics leading towards the concentration of power among particular dominant intermediate castes who are perceived to be better placed to swing elections. For example the Thevars are the lynchpin of contemporary Dravidian politics, they along with Kongu Vellalars and Vanniyars enjoy greater political power and influence in Dravidian rule. This power has yet to trickle down to other lower castes in the social order. This was particularly evident during Karunanidhi’s last term when DMK ministers were acting akin to feudal lords in each district with Madurai under the complete control of his son M.K. Azhagiri.

In districts like Salem, Coimbatore, Tirunelveli, Tuticorin, Karur, Thanjavur the ministers from locally dominant castes ruled them as their provinces and even Karunanidhi was not able to control them. Though it is often said that DMK has intraparty democracy while AIADMK right from MGR’s days to Jayalalithaa’s was authoritarian, there is a flipside to this in how politics is performed in everyday life. Such democracy is strictly curtailed by caste considerations. The possibility of a Dalit becoming district secretary competing against powerful intermediate castes was almost impossible in the case of the DMK.

Even in allocation of ministerial berths it is always members of these three intermediate castes who get important portfolios whilst Dalits would be given insignificant ones. VCK leader Thirumavalavan in an interview in 2011 described this as political discrimination and a form of hidden untouchability on the part of Dravidian parties to confine elected Dalit representatives to the lesser departments of Adi-Dravidar Welfare or Animal Husbandry. It is also instructive how, despite claims to castelessness, Dalits are almost never fielded as candidates in non-reserved constituencies. This was a common practice among Dravidian parties with some exceptions.

The Dravidian parties from the 1960s onwards encouraged the powerful and populous intermediate castes. Such castes were the Dalits’ most immediate oppressors but provided the support base for the Dravidian parties to extend and exert social and political dominance in rural Tamil Nadu. It is against this backdrop that we can comprehend the reluctance of the DMK – despite being in opposition at the time – to openly condemn the brutal and brazen murder of Shankar, the 22-year-old Dalit chopped down in broad daylight for the ‘crime’ of marrying a woman from a higher caste.

Championing social justice or mere tokenism

For all the rhetoric hailing Tamil Nadu as a land of social justice, the reality is that there is a continued neglect of Dalit interests in the state. For example, take the case of Ambedkar who remains a contested symbol; his statues in Tamil Nadu are often put in iron cages. This was because Dravidian parties only took symbolic efforts to incorporate him and that too largely due to the compulsions of electoral politics where he remains a symbol representing their concern about social justice. For most of Dravidian movement’s history, Ambedkar was never an integral part of the Dravidian rhetoric of anti-Brahmanism or egalitarianism. Periyar formed its centre, and Ambedkar, where he featured at all, was relegated to the position of a leader of Dalits who fought for the rights of the SCs. Not only DMK, even other parties and social movements only paid lip service to Ambedkar and never propagated Ambedkar’s contribution to non-Dalits which was phenomenal.

Political parties, particularly DMK, which thrive on concepts of social justice and democracy have failed to give proper recognition to Ambedkar and his ideology in their rhetoric or interventions despite the fact that Tamil Nadu is a state that has more reservation benefits for the intermediate castes than any other. This failure by the Dravidian parties to take Ambedkar along with them is one of the key reasons why Ambedkar statues get desecrated and confined to cages. Ambedkar is seen by certain intermediate castes as a caste-based challenge to the supremacy of their own leaders and icons. As elsewhere, Ambedkar statues are perceived as a threat, often invoking contests over public space. Ambedkar’s absence from the language of Dravidianism, according to Stalin Rajangam, reinforces his image as the symbol of the conflict between Dalits and non-Dalits.

In Tamil Nadu, except for a few Dalit parties, annihilation of caste does not feature as central to party ideologies. Instead, ‘appeasing’ castes with a majoritarian approach has become the dominant political practice of the major parties including the DMK. The DMK, as we have seen, is Janus-faced in its commitments towards social justice, except for a few important schemes it has been largely symbolic in nature. Whilst Karunanidhi was undoubtedly a giant of Tamil – and Indian – politics, therefore, we introduce a note of caution in assessing his legacy in terms of social justice. In the leadership struggle that followed Annadurai’s demise in 1969, Marguerite Ross Barnett (1976: 268) observes that ‘the majority of the Untouchable members of the DMK General Council were members’ of his faction. The portents for Dalit uplift were promising on his ascension to power, in other words, but as Barnett concludes: ‘A structural realignment of caste alliances is taking place that will increasingly isolate Untouchables … Thus far, the DMK has shown little creativity, commitment, or special competence in handling so crucial an aspect of social reform’ (1976: 268).


Barnett, M. R. 1976. The Politics of Cultural Nationalism in South India. Princeton University Press

Nandy, A. 1998. Exiled At Home. Delhi: Oxford University Press

Karthikeyan Damodaran is a Visiting Fellow, Centre for Modern Indian Studies, University of Goettingen, Germany.

Hugo Gorringe is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Edinburgh and is the author of ‘ Panthers in Parliament’ Oxford University Press 2017.