Over 50 years of Dravidian rule in Tamil Nadu has greatly helped in limiting the influence of right-wing politics in the state. But the BJP has been taking aggressive steps to gain a foothold there, especially after the death of two prominent leaders, M. Karunanidhi and J. Jayalalithaa.
A Dravidian ideologue, Karunanidhi had clearly defined the Dravidian versus Aryan politics in Tamil Nadu. Jayalalithaa, a Brahmin, was keen on keeping the Dravidian image of her party intact. The core component of Dravidian identity politics is rooted in non-Brahmin politics, with the term Dravidian denoting all caste groups other than Brahmins. Has this politics helped to achieve social justice by removing caste hierarchies?
In reality, both the DMK and AIADMK, which claim to be Dravidian movements, have relied heavily on caste votes. Caste configurations are an inevitable part of any electoral strategy in Tamil Nadu and end up becoming the single most crucial factor in any election in the state. Caste representations or consolidations in each region are seen as an electoral advantage. From forging electoral alliances to choosing candidates, both Dravidian parties have strategically worked on caste-based vote banks for their own benefit.
The resulting polarisation is thus an inevitable fallout of the weak Dravidian core. Caste outfits function openly, with dominant ones such as Mukkulathors, Vanniyars, Gounders and others increasingly and arrogantly asserting their rights in their respective ‘regions’.
Caste-based mobilisations and the Dravidian spirit
Tamil Nadu does take pride in its pioneering reforms, but it is also true that these divisions along caste lines have greatly demoralised the spirit of Dravidian politics. Fearing that they would hurt the sentiments of a dominant caste, the major Dravidian parties did not even criticise the murder in broad daylight of Shankar, a young Dalit. It is clear that they feared losing their vote bank.
Come election time, both DMK and AIADMK spare no effort to appease all major caste groups in Tamil Nadu. From paying homage to the Thevar leader Muthuramalinga Thevar, whose birth and death anniversaries both fall on October 30, to reaching out in myriad ways across castes and communities, winning votes becomes top priority.
The Dravidian landscape is corrupted and controlled by these fragmented caste outfits, and this situation seems to embolden the BJP, which hopes to take advantage of the divisiveness to further the Hindutva cause. The need now is to combat or resist BJP’s advancement in Tamil Nadu by redefining non-Brahmin politics as anti-caste politics. The demon of caste and religious fundamentalism has to be exorcised if Hindu majoritarianism is to be defeated.
A social movement and political party, Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi or VCK (Liberation Panther Party; earlier known as the Dalit Panthers of India or the Dalit Panthers Iyyakkam) has been at the forefront of fighting caste-based discrimination in Tamil Nadu.
Its chief Dr. Thirumavalavan is one of the few leaders to have stated outright that he would not allow the BJP and its brand of Hindutva politics to gain a foothold in the state. His political stand has its roots in Ambedkar’s idea of annihilating caste and is also a reiteration of Periyar’s Dravidian ideology.
Some fringe political groups in Tamil Nadu have criticised the term ‘Dravidian’ and demanded that it be replaced with Tamil identity. But the demand for Tamil identity has echo Hindutva politics. The fact that there is no criticism of sanatana dharma has helped the caste system to survive along with gender inequality. Instead, the focus has largely been on inconsequential things such as the use of the Tamil language in temples. But such change, if it can even be called that, has no impact on the lives of ordinary people.
Thirumavalavan’s politics has always been against majoritarianism and divisiveness. He has been vocal against the anti-minority tone of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), and indeed any atrocity against minority communities. Even before getting into electoral politics, Thirumavalavan’s movement, the Dalit Panthers, had played a crucial role in protecting the rights of Dalits, especially by retaliating against caste brutalities in Tamil Nadu.
More recently, Thirumavalavan was the first one to express concern over the OBC reservation issue. Earlier, he was critical of the economically weaker sections (EWS) reservation, stating that it diluted the social justice aspect of the reservations.
He has also criticised what he saw as anti-people measures, including NEET, Neduvasal hydrocarbon project, Kudankulam nuclear power plant and more recently farm bills. He has also spoken out against the Ayodhya verdict and the Kashmir issue.
Why is the BJP targeting Thirumavalavan?
Aware of his strident opposition to the causes they espouse and promote, and his continuing rejection of their ideology, the BJP seizes every opportunity to drag him into controversies relating to ‘sentiments of Hindus’.
A recent allegation is that he made adverse remarks against women by ‘misrepresenting’ Manusmiriti in an online event on Periyar and Indian politics. He was accused of ‘insulting Hindu temples’ when the fact was that he commented on some sexually explicit sculptures.
There is a serious attempt to portray Thirumavalavan as an enemy of Hindus and Hinduism. The BJP has enlisted the support of film and TV stars to speak out against him, hoping to sway public opinion. He retaliated by calling for the Manusmriti to be banned.
Even in this controversy, VCK’s ally DMK president M K Stalin demanded only the withdrawal of false cases against him without mentioning Manusmriti. It is evident that the DMK, despite its consistent criticism of Hindutva politics, wants to soft-pedal on this and similar issues, afraid that they will be branded as anti-Hindu by the BJP.
Clearly, the DMK is not keen to use Periyar’s ideology of rationalism any longer as a political tool. The rest of the country may be largely painted saffron, but the BJP is still finding it difficult to gain ground in Tamil Nadu. It is regrettable, however, that Dravidian politics remains pseudo-Dravidian, thanks to its reliance on caste politics.
If the Dravidian legacy is to be kept alive in Tamil Nadu, it is important to adopt Thirumavalavan’s political strategy of being anti-caste and anti-Hindutva.
Non-Brahmin politics in Tamil Nadu will have to be redefined. Instead of succumbing to pressure from the BJP, it is important for the DMK to remain true to the Dravidian legacy.
In short, for the caste system to be annihilated and to have a meaningful ideological fight against the BJP, Dravidian politics in Tamil Nadu needs not just redefining but a rebirth.
Semmalar Selvi is a Dalit rights activist and social work professional based in Chennai. She is an assistant professor in the Department of Social Work, Loyola College, Chennai. She teaches social exclusion, political economy of development and human rights.