On May 23, 2019, Thol. Thirumavalavan won back his seat in parliament in the Chidambaram constituency. With his astounding victory, the president of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK, or Liberation Panthers Party) has proved himself the most charismatic of his generation of Tamil political leaders.
He has also destabilised another phenomenon: Of smaller parties needing to ride on an established party’s symbol.
Thirumavalavan refused to use the ‘rising sun’ symbol of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the alliance leader. Instead he stayed autonomous – a political inviolability that Dalits strive to achieve.
As a tactical choice, to make the most of limited resources, his general secretary was elected under the DMK’s rising sun. Thirumavalavan himself stood apart, though, and won with the symbol the Election Commission had thrust upon him: the pot.
In what followed, the Liberation Panthers took the pot symbol to every nook and corner of his Chidambaram constituency. Their strong network of youth cadres chose every medium to canvas voters. Pitched against an incumbent from the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), fighting on its popular symbol of ‘Two Leaves’, Thirumavalavan had a tough challenge. A potent symbol carries weight with voters.
Although he is well respected among liberals and intellectuals, he is despised in equal measure by right-wing forces and casteists. There was a very strong anti-Thirumavalavan campaign, smearing him with half-truths and wild concotions, conducted by his rival party the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), controlled by the intermediate caste of Vanniyars.
The Bharatiya Janata Party and Hindutva groups also vigorously campaigned for his defeat, as he was seen as their greatest ideological threat in Tamil Nadu.
Despite being a minor partner in the DMK-led alliance, Thirumavalavan and his Liberation Panthers were actually spearheading the anti-Modi wave in Tamil Nadu. The BJP is working very hard to breach the Dravidian fortress, and the Panthers are a key bulwark. VCK is largest party representing the Dalits in the state; it also has a significant presence of Muslims among its office-bearers.
Using all his persuasive oratorical skills, Thirumavalavan took the fight to the Hindutva forces by organising a Desam Kappom (‘Save the Nation’) conference. He created this major platform for opposition parties to vow to defeat the Modi government together. His speech at the convention emphasized that the BJP was enforcing ‘Sanatan Dharma’, which rejects equality, freedom and brotherhood, so they had named the convention ‘Save Nation’ from the hands of RSS and BJP.
The Liberation Panthers thus fuelled anti-Modi sentiment in Tamil Nadu and gave it an ideological edge to supplement the cultural nationalism that is a default in Tamil politics.
In a series of protests, the party raised issues concerning the state’s rights. There were large-scale protests over the suicide of a young woman, S. Anitha, on the NEET exam issue; and on Jallikattu (bullfighting). These were allied to a strong critique of Hindutva, articulated by the Panthers, to help Tamil Nadu resist the Modi wave. Eventually, the DMK alliance made a clean sweep just losing a single seat to Modi’s NDA.
Why Thiruma Matters
The emergence of Thirumavalavan on the landscape of Dravidian politics was a watershed for subaltern politics.
Along with another Scheduled Caste leader, Dr K. Krishnasamy, he created a strong counter-hegemonic, Dalit discourse for the first time in post-colonial Tamil politics. Thirumavalavan and his VCK altered the look and feel of Tamil politics.
A fiery orator, Thirumavalavan took on the leadership of the erstwhile Dalit Panthers of India (DPI) after the death of its founder, A. Malaichamy in 1989. The DPI grew through the 1990s, practicing confrontational street politics and ‘hitting back’ against the dominance of intermediate castes. It publicised cases of discrimination in Madurai and surrounding districts, forcing authorities to act against caste violence.
From its base there, the organisation grew rapidly and became a predominant Dalit party in northern Tamil Nadu. It entered electoral politics in 1999 as the VCK, and during this turbulent period both Krishnasamy and Thirumavalavan emerged as the faces of militant Dalit politics. In 1999 they jointly fought the elections along with G.K. Moopanar’s Tamil Maanila Congress (Tamil State Congress), promising a non-Dravidian alternative for the state.
In that election and others to follow, while they were unable to win seats, they won too many votes for Dravidian parties to ignore. The scale of the challenge that Thirumavalavan, as a popular and articulate advocate of Dalit and Tamil rights, posed may be seen in the levels of violence that have marked his election campaigns.
Over time, Thirumavalavan and his party became embroiled in the machinations of electoral politics. Lacking resources, they entered alliances, either with DMK or AIADMK – and once even a coalition including the BJP. In 2001, Thirumavalavan won an Assembly seat on the DMK symbol, though he subsequently quit saying the DMK had not treated him properly.
In the 2004 general elections, he contested in Chidamabaram as part of the Janata Dal (United) alliance and lost by a narrow margin. In 2006, his party aligned with the AIADMK and won two assembly seats. In 2009, he returned to the DMK’s side and was elected MP from Chidambaram.
He still struggled to receive due recognition. In the 2016 assembly elections, he helped launch an ideologically-driven third front. The third front drew a blank, but his stature was confirmed in a tight contest which he lost by only 85 votes.
In a state dominated by two major parties, it is incredibly difficult for even well-resourced parties – such as Kamal Hassan’s new outfit – to make inroads. These problems are compounded for the Panthers by the fact that they are a Dalit-led party. Without the backing of either main party, the VCK could secure a huge number of votes but never cross the finishing line.
In 2019, therefore, Thirumavalavan contested alongside the DMK once again. He repeated his 2009 feat, winning a seat in Parliament, but with his own symbol, the pot. He played a more prominent role in the campaign, and exercised new power to get the DMK to condemn caste atrocities.
With Thirumavalavan and D. Ravikumar as MPs, the VCK has been presented with a golden opportunity. Both have political experience, and are respected for their oratory. D. Ravikumar, the party’s general secretary, is a writer and a shrewd politician who made several policy interventions when he was an MLA.
Both have written passionate critiques of casteism. Both have intellectual standing as well as political nous. Both carry a major responsibility to rejuvenate subaltern politics in the state, and build a strong and committed cadre-base in Tamil Nadu to take the Liberation Panthers truly into the mainstream.
Though it’s an open truth that the party relies on its leader and his charisma, it needs to move away from this dependency. It must strengthen its infrastructure and build its digital presence. Through such means, it can enhance its autonomy and push forward long-overdue changes in Tamil politics and society.
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.