The States' Man

Karunanidhi’s unsung contributions to Indian federalism

15 August 2018

“Under our constitutional system, no single entity can claim superiority,” Muthuvel Karunanidhi, then the chief minister of Tamil Nadu, wrote in The Hindu on 15 August 2007. “Sovereignty does not lie in any one institution or in any one wing of the government. The power of governance is distributed in several organs and institutions … Even if we assume that the Centre has been given a certain dominance over the States, that dominance should be used strictly for the purpose intended, not for oblique purposes.”

At the time Karunanidhi wrote the article, his Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government was in its second year of office and enjoyed cordial relations with the Congress and the Left parties at the local and national levels. Even so, it opposed a move by the central government—via a resolution passed in the Tamil Nadu assembly—to transfer to the Union List the subject of “Panchayati Raj,” which until then was on the State List. Around the same time, the DMK government passed a resolution in the assembly to enable the use of Tamil in the Madras High Court. The party attempted to utilise its good offices with the Congress leadership to return to and strengthen federalism, a principle that remained dear to Karunanidhi, in spite of the twisted outcomes that attended a realisation of the idea. (The centre disallowed the use of Tamil in the high court, though it could be used in the lower courts.) His arguments for federalism spanned several registers, of politics and law, of economic planning and development, of Tamil linguistic pride and Dravidian nationalism.

Karunanidhi’s sense of Tamil culture was shaped by the historiographical debates of the early twentieth century—in particular, by the views of those who upheld the distinctive claims of Tamil culture and civilisation. Drawing on the corpus of poems known as the Sangam texts, as well as Jaina and Buddhist literature, antiquarians as well as popular writers of the time argued that ancient Tamil culture did not know varna divisions and owed nothing to the Aryan-Brahmin civilisation, highlighting its secular aspects. Throughout his life, Karunanidhi would reference these texts: for instance, he cast the Thirukkural, a fourth-century Jaina text known for its gnomic wisdom, as a veritable icon of Tamilness. To this day, buses run by the Tamil Nadu State Transport Corporation, which was created when Karunanidhi’s government nationalised transport services in 1967, feature verses from the Kural. A gigantic statue of Thiruvalluvar, author of the Kural, was erected in Kanyakumari, as if to rival the commemorative presence of Vivekananda that marks that landscape. These marks of Tamil culture may be read as public reminders of the avowedly “secular” tradition of Tamil rational and ethical thought.

Keywords: Tamil Nadu Karunanidhi AIADMK DMK federalism Dravidian politics Periyar The Caravan Collection #19