Reaction to Rajinikanth's Periyar Remark Mirrors Shifting Political Dynamics in Tamil Nadu

While Rajinikanth's comment on Periyar was intended as a direct jibe at the DMK, it is the AIADMK's enthusiasm to defend the Bahujan icon in the aftermath of the actor's comments that has proven surprising.

Chennai: Ten days after actor Rajinikanth criticised Periyar – Bahujan icon and a revered figure for the Dravidian movement in Tamilnadu – the fact that there is a controversy is not as surprising as the dramatis personae who have stepped forward.

Speaking at the anniversary function of Thuqlak magazine on January 14, Rajinikanth said, “People who read Murasoli [the DMK’s mouthpiece] can be identified as DMK. Those who carry Thuqlak can be identified as intellectuals.” He then went on to say how the magazine had been the only one to cover a rally led by Periyar in 1971, in which idols of Ram and Sita were paraded naked and garlanded with slippers.

Earlier edited by Cho Ramasamy, Thuqlak is now edited by Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh ideologue S. Gurumuthy.

A controversy broke out immediately, and in a rare display of conviction, Rajinikanth has stood his ground, declaring that he “will not apologise” in spite of the rising demand for it. The demand has chiefly come from the Dravidar Kazhagam (DK) and many other Periyarist outfits in Tamil Nadu.

Rajinikanth, meanwhile, has quoted a 2017 story from Outlook to emphasise his statement.

Even as the Tamil Nadu wing of the BJP fiercely defended Rajinikanth – the Salem party unit even announced a rally to uphold the honour of Ram at the same spot where ‘he was insulted’ – the reaction from the two Dravidian majors is curious. While both the parties condemned Rajinikanth’s remarks, the AIADMK surprisingly did it more forcefully than the DMK.

DMK leaders, including its president M.K. Stalin, its women’s wing secretary Kanimozhi and youth wing secretary Udayanidhi Stalin all spoke and tweeted against Rajinikanth’s remarks on Periyar, more than on the mouthpiece Murasoli.

Also read: One Year On, Rajinikanth’s Plan to Form a Political Party Remains Just That

But surprisingly, the AIADMK had many of its leaders speak out against Rajinikanth too. Deputy chief minister O. Paneerselvam said, “People like him owe their growth to leaders like Periyar. It is important to know the context and have a complete knowledge of Periyar before commenting on him.”

Condemning Rajinikanth’s remarks, state fisheries minister D. Jayakumar said the controversy ‘was eminently avoidable.’

“It happened way back in 1971, also one does not know if the said incident actually happened. It is said that even Cho Ramasamy expressed regret saying he published the report based on hearsay. Rajinikanth was clearly using it to divert people’s attention. Also AIADMK is staunchly loyal to four leaders – Periyar, Anna, MGR and Jayalalithaa. We will oppose tooth and nail any small insult to these leaders.”

Minister for cooperation Sellur K. Raju said it would not have been possible for Rajinikanth to get his second daughter “married for a second time if not for the reforms of Periyar.”

“Would they have accepted this, on basis of religion? It is because of Periyar such changes have been made possible.”

The attack by minister after minister on Rajinikanth comes as a surprise especially when the DMK itself prefers to maintain a silence, or as its leaders would prefer to say, has ignored the issue.

“We do not want to give Rajinikanth that kind of importance,” a senior DMK leader told The Wire. “We are against AIADMK, and BJP, and focused on it.”

But political observers find it surprising that AIADMK has turned so vocal. “Of course, there are also inherent contradictions. For example, when many ministers defended Periyar, their colleague Rajendra Balaji has jumped in favour of Rajinikanth. One should also note that Paneerselvam defended Periyar right after finishing a spiritual trip,” said senior journalist R. Mani.

But Mani acknowledges that Paneerselvam’s remarks after his spiritual journey or a pious Sellur Raju’s defence of the leader should be seen in the context of Periyar’s crusade for social justice and not in the context of his atheism.

“As a literary person and not as AIADMK spokesperson, I would say Rajinikanth’s remarks are being blown out of proportion,” said AIADMK spokesperson Maruthu Azhaguraj.

“Rajinikanth’s speeches have always lent themselves to several readings, different meanings and I don’t think it was a personal attack on Periyar. Also Periyar himself has said he was not above criticism.”

Predictably, the AIADMK’s vehement defence of Periyar has led to speculation on a rift in the alliance between the AIADMK and the BJP – which itself comes close on the heels of dissonance within the DMK-led alliance which the DMK has sought to dispel.

The Congress’s head in Tamil Nadu, K.S. Alagiri, had expressed his displeasure over the seat sharing arrangement in the local body elections. The DMK also boycotted the all-party meeting against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, called by Rahul Gandhi. Over the next few days, however, Alagiri met Stalin, after which the latter urged cadres from both parties to refrain from making any public comments on the alliance.

A possible rift between the AIADMK and the BJP may sound far-fetched, but the AIADMK is clearly miffed by the highhandedness of the BJP in the state especially since Jayalalithaa’s death in 2016. Several ministers have publicly expressed their displeasure over the alliance with the BJP but officially, the parties are still together.

Also read: Tamil Nadu: As Protests Against CAA Continue, AIADMK Says it Voted ‘Under Pressure’

“BJP leaders like Pon Radhakrishnan and H. Raja have constantly criticised the AIADMK government. They have criticised law and order in the state, have remarked on how ‘rampant’ corruption is and so on. They have even created pressure for the government by their remarks. But we understand that in a democracy, people are free to air their views. This applies to the AIADMK too. It does not mean that there is a rift in the alliance,” said Azhaguraj.

“Alliance is about an agreement on majority of issues, not on all issues. You don’t need two different parties if you agree with each other on every issue” he reasoned.

Azhaguraj also thinks the AIADMK defence of Periyar is not a ‘vehement’ one.

“Our leaders have only said Rajinikanth should be careful. This cannot be seen as a strong criticism. Also we have taken from Periyar what is relevant for today and not all his sayings. For example, we follow him on women’s liberation, eradication of superstitious ideas and social justice. But obviously not on something like belief.”

That said, the unusual though not unprecedented aggression with which AIADMK ministers spoke out against Rajinikanth – especially on an issue that is close to the BJP – is perhaps an indicator of how the party will probably not take things lying down any longer.

In 2018, both chief minister Edappadi Palanisamy and O. Paneerselvam had condemned BJP leader H. Raja for his tweet insinuating that Periyar’s statues be removed the same way Lenin’s were removed in Tripura.

Terming the comment as unacceptable, Paneerselvam even demanded a public apology from Raja. The BJP leader was forced to express regret and remove his tweet, which he said was posted by his ‘admin’.

But this time, the BJP is apparently in no mood to relent. While senior leaders have maintain a studied silence, several second rung leaders have been defending Rajinikanth, perhaps in hope that the actor might give a new lease of life for the Hindutva party in the state.

Rajinikanth had announced that he will launch his political party for the state’s general elections in 2021, and that his would be a ‘spiritual politics.’

Months ago, the actor briefly distanced himself from the BJP, even mooting the idea of a possible alliance with his colleague in Tamil cinema, Kamal Haasan.

But in his remarks against Periyar and Murasoli, the Tamil Nadu BJP probably sees an opportunity to revive the friendship between the actor and the party.

For the BJP, Rajinikanth will come in handy if and when the alliance with the AIADMK reaches a breaking point. But it all depends on Rajinikanth’s next move.

Kavitha Muralidharan is an independent journalist.