The Dravidian Model and Its Long History of Upholding Women’s Rights

The women's rights conference held by the DMK in Chennai highlighted the challenges that women face today and how social justice politics can help overcome them.

Inflection point is a term that signifies a moment of transformation. It is a point where the painful stasis gives way to a new trajectory. The One Hundred and Sixth Amendment of the constitution of India was passed by Lok Sabha on September 20 amidst fanfare, with the spin doctors for manufacturing consent working overtime to attribute the historical significance of legislating women’s reservation in legislative bodies to the BJP.

At the same time, it immediately became clear that the BJP wanted to earn brownie points among aspiring women by pointing to the passage of the women’s reservation Bill while making sure that, by design, the Act is not implemented immediately. Since it was linked to the much-delayed decadal census and a future delimitation exercise with an indeterminate timeline, it not only has no date of arrival but also has the potential to disturb the fragile federal structure of governance.

The anguish, which the BJP’s cynical politicking induced among women who have been waiting for decades for the change, is still an undercurrent, as we speak. The Kalaignar Centenary Women’s Rights Conference ideated by DMK deputy secretary Kanimozhi Karunanidhi and organised by the DMK Women’s Wing on October 14, 2023 in Chennai brought together voices from across India that strongly opposed the intentional delay in implementing the women’s reservation in addition to pointing at the direction of the political mainstreaming of the core ideas of Dravidian model.

Since, the formation of the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA), the alliance partners have met thrice – in Patna, Bengaluru and Mumbai – and this is the first time that the representatives of constituent parties have addressed the public together in a public conference.

The women leaders from the Indian National Congress, Nationalist Congress Party, CPI, CPM, All India Trinamool Congress, Janata Dal (U), Samajwadi Party, Jammu & Kashmir People’s Democratic Party, Aam Aadmi Party addressed the gathering, who were largely women from Tamil Nadu. The leaders in their speeches delivered in Tamil, English and Hindi, not only reflected on the social justice history of their parties and the land they belong to but also paid rich accolades to the Dravidian movement and Kalaignar Karunanidhi’s foresight, progressiveness and politics of self-respect.

History of emancipatory conferences for women in the Dravidian movement

While the Women Rights Conference by a mainstream political party in electoral politics is viewed as an outlier by political observers, it is not new for the Dravidian movement which has seen conferences with a focus on women’s issues right from the historic 1929 Self Respect Conference. It was the resolutions declared in this conference that served as inspirations for the Hindu Marriage (Tamil Nadu) (Amendment) Act 1967, which legalised priestless self-respect Hindu marriages and the Hindu Succession (Tamil Nadu Amendment) Act, 1989, bestowing women equal rights to succession.

In addition to that, the conference also proposed a resolution to make 16 the age of marriage for girls; that a husband and wife should be able to separate legally in case of marital incompatibility; to reject inequality by birth, that is, Varnashrama Dharma; that every eligible girl child must get primary education with public funds; and that women should be employed greatly as primary education teachers. Also, it was during the 1938 Tamil Nadu Women’s Conference at Chennai, that E.V. Ramaswamy was bestowed with the title ‘Periyar’, by leading women leaders of those times, Annai Meenambal Sivaraj, Neelambigai Ammaiyar, Dharmambal Ammaiyar and Moovalur Ramamirtham Ammaiyar.

In 2007, a resolution was passed in the DMK Women’s Wing conference in Cuddalore for 33% reservation in legislative bodies, as a reflection of the long-standing support that the party extended to this critical policy of women empowerment.

DMK MP Kanimozhi speaks at the women’s conference in Chennai on October 14, 2023. Photo: X/@KanimozhiDMK

Mainstreaming of the Dravidian Model

The core message of this conference was put forth by Sonia Gandhi and M.K. Stalin: that the INDIA bloc will be able to defeat the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), a message that was reiterated by the other leaders. But the emergent common theme of the speeches was the unequivocal acknowledgement of the role of the Dravidian movement – especially Periyar, C.N. Annadurai and Kalaignar Karunanidhi – in enriching the social justice conversation and action in this country.

With ‘Self Respect’ being the bedrock on which the principles of the Dravidian Movement are built, it was no wonder that the DMK advocated for the preservation and enrichment of the powers of the states. When Kalaignar Karunanidhi, became the chief minister of Tamil Nadu, a three-member committee headed by the former chief justice of the Madras high court P.V. Rajamannar was set up to study the Centre-State relations and the recommendations of the committee were the abolition of the All India Services, constitution of an inter-state council, abolition of governor office, among others. The championing of state rights, while now caricatured as a uniquely southern phenomenon, saw the emergence of an array of voices from across India in the 1970s and 80s, like Jyoti Basu, Biju Patnaik, Farooq Abdullah, N.T. Rama Rao, leading to the historic Anandpur Sahib Resolution of 1973 and the Srinagar Resolution of 1983.

The present conference saw Dimple Yadav, a Samajwadi Party MP, mention the Rajamannar Committee, essentially bringing the document to the fore at a time when the Centre-state relationship cannot be more skewed. It is a significant undercurrent that we are now witnessing where states across India feel the need to rearrange the Centre-state relationship on the grounds of self-respect. Along those lines, Supriya Sule, NCP MP, highlighted how ‘cooperative federalism’ is under threat now.

Also, the conference saw Priyanka Gandhi calling for the rejection of any system – societal, religious or political – which thrives on the oppression of women and forces us to collude with it and highlighted the urgency with which the women’s reservation in legislative bodies needs to be implemented.

With the long-standing demand for caste census gaining support from the perspective of the dire need for rational intervention towards addressing systemic backwardness, the voices from this conference – especially Leshi Singh of Janata Dal (U) – added weight to this cause.

The voices in this conference were also reflective of the extraordinary circumstances that are felt by the people of the country, especially women, who face the brunt of the lacklustre macroeconomic situation in their homes over the past decade due to the impacts of demonetisation and the inflationary pressures due to faulty GST implementation. While families across India are increasingly seeing their life savings erode and accumulating debt burden due to the economic policies of the Union government, the state government’s ability to intervene and support their residents is hampered by the loss of fiscal freedom, thanks to the Centre’s creeping encroachment of the ability of the states to raise revenue. The urge of the Union government to centralise decision-making coupled with the interventions in non-BJP ruled states through the office of the governor is stymieing the states’s efforts to undertake individual development journeys.

While the economy is in a poor state, the BJP-led Union government is engaging in a PR blitzkrieg proclaiming an era of abundance, ‘Amrit Kaal’, while muzzling the independent media and interfering with institutions which are in charge of measuring the economic and societal status of the country. The women of this country can no longer take the spectacular ineptness with which this country is ruled, alongside the tendency of the ruling disposition to engage in perception management by using religion and exclusionary patriotism. The swiftness with which the ruling disposition and their right-wing media ecosystem responded to the Gaza issue to peddle a convenient political narrative in comparison to the wanton silence as a response to inhumane violations in Manipur along sectarian lines over several weeks is revelatory of their ineptness and bigotry.

The states across India have intentions and matching actions to empower women in a true sense as against tokenism measures that the ruling disposition at the Centre is fond of. The use of religion for political means by the BJP and its organisational ecosystem is endangering the decades-long improvements in women’s empowerment, which was made possible by persistent efforts via legislative, social and economic interventions. The women of this country, especially from backward and oppressed sections, want a better deal, a way for them to leap across millennia-long subjugation and neglect. The Dravidian model strongly supports the all-around empowerment of women and views the 33% reservation as the key block in the puzzle to unleash the intellectual and material potential of half of the population.

As Kanimozhi said, “Politics should be determined, defined and decided with opinions, concerns and aspirations of women. There should be no politics, no policy-making, and no governance without listening to what we want to say. Let us come together. Let us rewrite history and make sure there is justice. Justice not just for the women of this country but justice for everybody, every human being in this country.”

Yazhini P.M is currently pursuing her post-graduation and is the spokesperson and social media coordinator of the DMK women’s wing.