The promises and let-downs of the DMK-organised national alliance for social justice

At the All India Federation for Social Justice's first national conference in Delhi, held in the hybrid mode, with others attending virtually, leaders demanded caste census and affirmative action. Seen in the frame, clockwise, are Tejashwi Yadav, Thol Thirumavalavan, D Raja, Hemant Soren and MK Stalin. YouTube
07 April, 2023

On 3 April 2023, a host of 22 political parties representing 15 states met in Delhi under the aegis of the first national conference of the All India Federation for Social Justice. The meeting, held in the hybrid mode, with others attending virtually, chaired by MK Stalin—the chief minister of Tamil Nadu and the president of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam—led to nearly all the parties agreeing on a common set of demands. These included a caste census conducted by the union government, affirmative action in the private sector, the removal of the 50 percent cap on reservation and 50 percent reservation for women in elected offices, within which proportional representation would be given to communities categorised as Schedule Caste, Schedule Tribe and Other Backward Classes. In the run up to the 2024 Lok Sabha polls, several regional political parties, such as the Congress, the All India Trinamool Congress and the Bharat Rashtra Samithi have attempted to cobble together a grand alliance to oppose the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. While not speaking directly of an electoral alliance, the AIFSJ meeting has allowed the DMK to push what can be a common minimum programme for the foundation of such an alliance. Noticeable in the conference, however, was the complete absence of women speakers and under-representation of parties helmed by SC and ST leaders.

The proposal for the AIFSJ was first made on 26 January last year. Stalin promised that his party would create a national body to fight for greater federalism, to strengthen laws in support of proportional representation in education and employment for historically deprived communities, and to create additional safeguards for social justice. Soon after, in a letter written to the leaders of 37 political parties inviting them to join the AIFSJ, he wrote, “As I write this, our unique, diverse, multi-cultural federation is under threat of bigotry and religious hegemony … At this crucial juncture when repressive forces are challenging the progress made in social justice front over decades, it is vital that all the progressive forces join hands to protect the interests of the oppressed.” The letter argued that affirmative action is necessary to “unshackle centuries of oppression and exclusion from mainstream society.”

The pitch that Stalin made is one that frames Tamil Nadu as having a unique position in terms of social justice and affirmative action. Stalin, as well as other Tamil speakers, traced this ancestry to the Justice Party—an early twentieth century political force that fought for non-Brahmin representation in government—which later became the Dravidar Kazhagam, headed by the iconoclastic anti-caste leader EV Ramasamy, commonly known as Periyar. Political action by the DK and its electoral break-away, the DMK, has allowed Tamil Nadu to have 69 percent reservation for OBC, SC and ST communities in educational institutions and government employment—higher than the 50 percent cap on affirmative action placed by the 1992 Indra Sawhney judgment in the Supreme Court. This was possible because the state’s affirmative action policy was placed under the ninth schedule of the Indian Constitution, which limits judicial review.

K Veeramani, the president of the DK, made a bid to scale up this Tamil Nadu model across the country, at the conference. He introduced Tamil Nadu as “the land of social justice, the land of Periyar,” and the land of various constitutional amendments that upheld the principle of affirmative action. Veeramani called for parties led by backward communities to become, “a great army of fire fighters” for social justice. “Tamil Nadu has created history and it is the right time that we have turned our attention fully to the all India,” Veeramani said. “The caste system has dehumanised us and it is social justice which wants to rehumanise us … [In Tamil Nadu] we were able to do this because we have created public opinion [in support of social justice], we have created a number of people who will give their life for the cause of social justice.”