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.

With respect to political federalism, the most important influence on Karunanidhi has undoubtedly been his mentor, CN Annadurai, who in turn, owed his understanding in this instance to EV Ramasamy, better known as Periyar. From the late 1920s, Periyar and his followers argued against the idea of India, as being both untenable and impossible, given caste divisions and Brahmin intellectual and political dominance. While the former did not allow a shared polity and society, the latter ensured that national claims would remain partisan ones, calculated to preserve and perpetuate upper-caste dominance. In the 1940s, this critique morphed into a rigorous examination of what came to be termed the Brahmin-Bania core of Indian nationalism. Periyar and the Dravidar Kazhagam, a party that he founded out of the older Non-Brahmin Justice party, were vociferous in arguing that unless caste-based iniquities were addressed, Indian independence would usher in “Hindu-Hindi-Hindustan” and not a modern republic. As an alternative, Periyar outlined his case for a sovereign Dravidian nation that would be free of Brahmin hegemony and Bania control.

Like many others of his generation, Karunanidhi was excited by this call for a sovereign Dravida Nadu. It spoke to the linguistic pride and pleasure of young men, schooled in the anti-Hindi protests of the late 1930s. They were aware that the issue at hand was political—it had to be actioned not only on the streets and but also in the legislature. The moment for such a politics arrived, when a generation of enthusiastic Self-Respecters—followers of Periyar’s Self Respect movement—broke away from the Dravidar Kazhagam, which did not contest elections, to form the DMK in 1949. In time, Karunanidhi would emerge as the new party’s main spokesperson, but in the 1950s, he was one among many bright young men, who took to asserting the cause of Tamil autonomy within the Union of India. The political literature of the time examines the idea of federalism from several points of view, often drawing from global examples. Karunanidhi’s own writing blended the claims of what has been described as “cultural nationalism” with astute political and constitutional arguments.

Keywords: Tamil Nadu Karunanidhi AIADMK DMK federalism Dravidian politics Periyar