The intemperate outburst of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi against Sri Ram and the Ramayan tradition has left many questions unanswered. For instance, whom was the DMK'spaterfamilias addressing while pouring scorn and abuse on an icon of Hindu reverence?
Was he pandering to ?Dravidian? sentiments? Was he sending out a not-so-subtle vote-for-DMK message to Tamil Nadu'sradical Islamists who believe the pearly gates swing open even before suicide bombers knock on them? Was he striking out in blind fury over the economic consequences of a pet project gone awry? Or, is it simply that Mr Karunanidhi is caught in a time-warp and believes that little has changed in Tamil Nadu since the day when ?Periyar? E.V. Ramaswami Naicker led a procession in Dharmapuri, carrying Sri Ram'sportrait garlanded with slippers and then made a great show of destroying it amid loud applause?
Between the 1950s, when ?Periyar? stunned Tamil Nadu'sBrahmin elite as well as those who were resentful of an exclusivist social hierarchy by declaring, ?There is no god. There is no god. There is no god at all. He who propagates god is a scoundrel. He who worships god is a barbarian,? and 2007, both society and politics in this State have undergone a sea change. For evidence, look at ADMK leader J. Jayalalithaa'sbold and public denunciation of Mr Karunanidhi'srant because it ?hurts Hindu sentiments?. An astute politician who has learned the art of Dravidian politics from none less than M.G. Ramachandran, Ms Jayalalithaa was not referring to sensitivities in India'scowbelt but within Tamil Nadu where Periyar'sgodless rationalism has been largely supplanted by popular Hinduism which manifests itself so vividly in idol worship and spiritual discourse at Karumari Amman temples as well as shrines dedicated to local gods and goddesses. Having burned her fingers over the Shankaracharya fiasco, she should know that Hindu-baiting does not pay in today'sTamil Nadu. Mr Karunanidhi, a veteran politician with far greater experience than the celebrated resident of Poes Garden, should know this too. But Kalaignar appears to have cocooned himself from the real world.
What is amazing is the authority with which he rubbished the Ramayan tradition and disputed the historicity of Sri Ram. It would seem that he had come to his conclusions and penned his script after an in-depth study of Hindu scriptures. But this is far from the truth. In Cutouts, Caste and Cine Stars: The World of Tamil Politics, a delightful book shorn of pretentious academic gobbledygook by reputed journalist Vaasanthi, there is a revealing passage attributed to R.M. Veerappan, who produced several boxoffice hits starring MGR. Recalling the Dravidian movement inspired by ?Periyar?, Veerappan tells her, ?Neither Periyar nor the others in the Dravidian movement knew what the Vedas said… It was generally felt that Sanskrit, which was neither a Dravidian language nor a language spoken anywhere, was still holding sway over the Brahminical Hindu religion. Nobody in the movement was well-versed in the epics either. But the epics had to be banished because the Brahmins revered them. Somebody pointed out to Periyar, ?Aiyya, the fellow who narrated the Gita was a cowherd. The fellow who heard it was a Kshatriya. The fellow who wrote the whole thing was a shepherd. Where is the Brahmin in it?? Aiyya said, ?I am not speaking to intellectuals like you. I am speaking to the masses who believe in myths spread by Brahmins?.? That would explain E.V. Ramaswami Naicker'sastoundingly scurrilous yet, in his time, hugely acclaimed The Ramayana: A True Reading published in 1959.
For all his ?rationalist? thunder, Periyar, it needs to be said, was not necessarily a man of either courage or conviction. He was careful enough to limit his criticism of faith to undiluted abuse of Hinduism and its rituals ? he did not utter a word against Christianity and Islam, though both religions are anchored in faith; Mr Karunanidhi exercises the same caution. As for conviction, ?Periyar?, who took to preaching socialism in the 1930s and was imprisoned for his Bolshy views, promptly denounced the Revolution rather than have his prison term extended. Later, responding to critics, he grandly declared that he had much more to do than ?going to prison and becoming a martyr?. The Congress embraced him only to realise its folly; Periyar launched his ?Self-Respect Movement? and joined the Justice Party whose name he changed to Dravidar Kazhagam (Party of the Dravidians). By all accounts a tyrant who had no patience for parliamentary democracy, his starry-eyed followers dumped him, or so the story goes, after he married a young woman. Thus was the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, or DMK, led by C.N. Annadurai born. ?Periyar came to break and he has done it and it is for us to build anew,? Annadurai told his followers, among them Mr Karunanidhi.
The subsequent split and the launching of the ADMK by MGR is history, as is the marginalisation of the Congress in Tamil Nadu politics after its defeat in 1967. From being a ?two-and-a-half-party? State, Tamil Nadu has witnessed the emergence of two dominant parties which retained power between themselves till their overwhelming dominance was weakened by the emergence of smaller, caste-based parties like the PMK and the MDMK. The tectonic shift in Tamil Nadu'spolitics is signalled by the arrival of coalitions led by the ADMK and the DMK; neither can win a poll on its own any longer. Dravidianism'sdecline ? noted Tamil scholar Karthigesu Sivathamby says ?it floundered when it rejected religion as a whole… religion has a social necessity? ? was accompanied by the ascent of fragmentary mobilisation based on caste identities. While the middle social groups may have prospered on account of Dravidian politics, the lower groups have stagnated; quotas have not fetched uniform benefits; and, with economic liberalisation creating jobs and employment opportunities irrespective of caste identities, Government is no longer seen as the sole benefactor. Prosperity has brought pride among those who felt aggrieved during the heyday of Dravidianism. It'sunlikely today'sTamil Nadu will riot over Hindi or endorse separatism. Self-immolation as a declaration of political loyalty has made way for hooliganism fashioned after north India'smuscle-power politics.
Mr Karunanidhi appears to be blissfully ignorant of these realities as he tries to resurrect the ghost of ?Periyar? and re-enact the public humiliation of Sri Ram, forgetting that till the parting of ways in 2004, the DMK was an ally of the BJP and was not particularly discomfited by the idea of Sri Ram which is central to the idea of India.
(The writer is Associate Editor, The Pioneer and can be contacted at 2nd Floor, Link House, Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg, New Delhi, India 110 002.)