Caste and Social Mobility: Karunanidhi's Dravidian Century

Behind the DMK and AIADMK's durable support was their enabling of mobility to some lower-middle and middling strata and adopting egalitarian welfare policies that especially aided the poorest, along with sustained focus on language identity.

Since his teens, the late “Kalaignar” Mu. Karunanidhi was associated with the Dravidian movement, initially with the Self Respect Association, the Justice Party, the Dravidar Kazhagam (DK) and later with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, which he led for five decades. His public career of eight decades was intimately connected with various trends in Tamil Nadu’s politics and society. How might we regard the directions Kalaignar gave the DMK? How far might his passing change Tamil politics?

Building plebeian parties

The Dravidian movement is among Asia’s most durable ethnic movements. It initially claimed to represent a Dravidian community consisting of South Indians, primarily Tamil-speakers, other than Brahmins. While the Justice Party was led by elites from upper non-Brahmin castes and the DK’s founding leader, Periyar E.V. Ramasamy, was from a wealthy mercantile caste (Kavarai Naidu), the DMK’s leaders were born in underprivileged middle- and lower-middle-caste families – C.N. Annadurai, a Kaikola Mudaliar (a weaver caste) from a weaver-temple servant family and Kalaignar, an Isai Vellalar (a musician-dancer-temple servant caste) from a middling farmer family. (Karunanidhi’s family, however, acquired immense wealth over the course of his career and his son and political successor, Mu. Ka. Stalin, hardly had an underprivileged upbringing.) The AIADMK, like the early Congress Party, had upper caste leaders – M.G. Ramachandran, a Malayalam-speaking Nair and J. Jayalalithaa, a Malliyam Iyengar, who nevertheless built close links with lower strata.

The DK associated Dravidian identity mainly with middle castes and the DMK with those who primarily communicated in Tamil. Dravidianism upheld a popular community distinguished from elites based on caste, language use, dialect and occupation. Such a populist discourse helped the Dravidian parties attract various plebeian groups, enabled the DMK to become the second ethnic party (after the National Conference) to win a post-colonial state election.

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It also contributed to marginalising Indian nationalist parties far more than in other big states, although attachment to Indian nationalism remained strong in Tamil Nadu. Karunanidhi and other leaders built the DMK through close engagement with middling and lower status groups, such as small shopkeepers, smaller farmers, artisans and first-generation white-collar workers, drawn especially from the middle and lower-middle castes who were attracted to their promises to redistribute resources and challenge caste inequality. The DMK and the AIADMK changed status relations and public culture much more than property and income distribution. They increased voter participation, which has been higher in Tamil Nadu since the 1960s than in all but a few states and dominated Tamil Nadu politics from the 1970s.

M. Karunanidhi (front row, third from left) and Periyar (fourth). Source: YouTube

M. Karunanidhi (front row, third from left) and Periyar (fourth). Source: YouTube

Politics of ethnic belonging

The early Dravidian movement opposed certain ethnic groups, especially Brahmins and “north Indians”, which denoted speakers of the significantly Sanskrit-based languages of western, northern and parts of eastern India. Annadurai built bridges with these groups and Indian nationalism, by upholding Gandhi, abandoning secession in the early 1960s and clarifying that he opposed the caste inequalities associated with Brahmanism rather than Brahmins. Thus, the DMK under his leadership, asserted Tamil and middle-caste pride without promoting much ethnic antagonism.

Karunanidhi confronted his opponents more sharply. A bigamist whose literary writings and speeches frequently included racy sexual references, he justified the coarser elements of DMK culture as characteristic of a plebeian party. He opposed the AIADMK soon after it was formed on nativist grounds, abandoning this tactic only because it did not stem DMK’s decline. Karunanidhi’s political style and competition from the AIADMK limited party support among upper castes, Dalits and language minorities. As a result, he was consistently one of the two most popular politicians in Tamil Nadu, but also the one who evoked strongest opposition, especially through the 1970s and 1980s.

Hindu nationalist parties have been weakest in Tamil Nadu, polling no more than 3.2% of the vote in state assembly elections. This was crucially because DMK leaders promoted norms contrary to those Hindutvavadis valued – Tamil specificity based in middle caste cultures, rather than Hindu/ Indian homogeneity based on Sanskritic upper caste norms; and because, except when it was allied with the BJP from 1999 to 2004, the DMK built cooperative links between OBC Hindus, Muslims and to some extent OBC Christians.

Such networks impeded Hindutva growth and inter-religious violence, both of which were most limited in the DMK strongholds in northern and central Tamil Nadu. Many Muslims found in the DK’s and the early DMK’s criticisms of caste inequality and Hindu polytheism greater political acceptance than Indian nationalism offered them. As the AIADMK leaders more readily accepted various forms of Hindu religiosity and assertions of Hindu supremacy, Hindu nationalists gained more support and promoted more violence in the AIADMK strongholds in southern and western Tamil Nadu.

As it was closely associated with the middle castes and gave Dalits limited autonomous voice, the DMK did not impede middle caste violence toward Dalits much. In the Kaveri delta, it initially built middle caste-Dalit alliances, the upward mobility of some of whose members it enabled through minor land reforms. In its northern bases, it gained some support among Dalits, but less than among other groups. Where it was weaker until the 1970s, in the southern and western plains, it forged links with the most politically assertive castes, the Mukkulathor and the Kongu Vellala Gounder and therefore did not oppose their periodic anti-Dalit violence. This was for instance the case with the violence centered around Mudukulathur in 1958, elsewhere in the southern plains since the 1990s, and in parts of the western plains since the 2000s. Moreover, once entrenched in power, the DMK and the AIADMK became more closely aligned with dominant castes everywhere and local party cadre initiated caste violence at times, for instance in Villupuram in 1978, Pulliyur in 1998, Sankaralingapuram in 2001 and Nayakkankottai in 2012.


J. Jayalalithaa paying tributes to MGR. Credit: PTI

Policies of social mobility

The DMK’s policies had a complicated relationship with the party’s egalitarian rhetoric. Karunanidhi arranged for a son of his to marry a Dalit woman, appearing thereby to personalise a commitment to caste equality in ways rather unusual among non-Dalits. However, Tamil Nadu’s educational and job reservations, which are higher (69%) than in other states, benefitted OBCs more extensively than Dalits and Adivasis. The Congress Party introduced an OBC quota of 25% in 1951, which the DMK raised to 31% in 1971 and the AIADMK to 50% in 1980. Less widely noted is the entitlement to OBC reservations under Dravidianist rule of a further 27% of the population, including better-off castes such as the Kongu Vellala Gounder, that were the predominant beneficiaries thereafter. This creamy layer is at its thickest in Tamil Nadu.

By comparison, the Dravidian parties raised the SC-ST quota by less than a fifth, from 16% to 19%, below these groups’ population share of 21% (which understates the number who experience Dalit-Adivasi deprivation because Christian Dalits are not deemed SCs). The OBC job quotas are filled more than the SC-ST quotas, especially in higher posts.

However, the introduction of a 1% tier for the STs in 1989 and a 3% tier within the SC quota for Arunthathiyar in 2009 helped some of the lowest status groups and the two 10% tiers created within the OBC quota in 1989 for MBCs and denotified communities helped less advantaged OBCs. Thus, caste-targeted policies primarily aided better-off middle castes, but also offered some Dalits, Adivasis, and worse-off OBCs the slimmer pickings.

Some Dravidianist welfare and development programs had a wide range of beneficiaries. The lunch scheme, whose success inspired its adoption in other states and a similar though less effective national program, particularly improved nutrition, health, and education among the poorest. Along with high government educational investments and SC/ST educational subsidies, it significantly increased primary school enrollment to the third highest level in India and helped Dalits nearly equal others in this regard though not in the higher educational tiers. High investments in primary health, the wide distribution of subsidised food grains, homestead land and housing, a successful rural employment program and the proliferation of women’s self-help groups extensively benefitted the underprivileged.

Dayalu Ammal, M. Karunanidhi and M.K. Stalin. Credit: PTI

However, the Dravidian parties distributed productive assets mainly to the upwardly mobile rather than to the poorest and to Dalits and Adivasis. This was particularly noticeable in land ownership and tenurial reform, which primarily aided middling tenant farmers largely drawn from the middle castes whose secure tenure helped them buy land. The generous subsidies for agrarian inputs such as fertilizers, pesticides and water pumps, and extensive availability of agrarian credit and loan waivers further aided such mobility. Only a small section of SCs and STs benefitted thereby. Although Dalits and Adivasis remain predominantly rural and agricultural, their presence remains negligible among middling and larger landowners.

Thus, the DMK and AIADMK enabled the mobility of some lower-middle and middling strata and adopted somewhat egalitarian welfare policies that especially aided the poorest. Along with sustained attention to language identity, these policies gained the Dravidian parties more widespread and durable support than managed by other caste-focused parties, such as the socialist, middle-caste and Dalit parties of northern and western India and language-based parties, such as the Telugu Desam and the Asom Gana Parishad. They helped contain challenges to class and caste inequality without major property redistribution.


How might the DMK and the AIADMK fare after their preeminent leaders’ recent demise? The leader’s charisma was central to the AIADMK’s support under both MGR’s and Jayalalithaa’s leadership. This makes the absence of a credible successor a serious problem for sustaining the AIADMK. By contrast, DMK support was always based more on the party’s ethnic and populist orientations than on its leaders’ perceived qualities. Along with Karunanidhi having groomed Stalin as his successor over three decades, this makes the DMK’s electoral and organisational prospects much stronger than the AIADMK’s over the coming decade.

Karunanidhi speaks in the Tamil Nadu assembly. Credit: Facebook/www.kalaignarkarunanidhi.com

How far might society and politics change in Tamil Nadu now? Civil society mobilisation has pressed significantly beyond Dravidianist social visions since the 1980s, a trend that is likely to accentuate. Many caste associations pressed to change caste policies and various other associations opposed certain neo-liberal policies. Some of these civil society initiatives led to the emergence of new parties that mobilised certain MBCs (Vanniar), denotified communities (Mukkulathor) and Dalit groups (Parayar, Pallar and Arunthathiyar), but polled no more than 8.1% of the vote although they influenced popular aspirations more. Other new parties, notably the DMDK, gained support across group boundaries, but did not poll over 8.4% of the vote. These developments of the past generation suggest that the Dravidian parties’ influence in civil society is less secure than their electoral support.

Narendra Subramanian is Professor of Political Science at McGill University, Montreal, Canada and the author of
Ethnicity and Populist Mobilization: Political Parties, Citizens and Democracy in South India (Oxford University Press, 1999).