The dramatic political events of February 2017 left many of us stupefied in Tamil Nadu. J Jayalalithaa, the chief minister of the state until her death in December, was indicted for corruption in the harshest possible words by the Supreme Court. Yet she was, and is still, hailed reverentially as “Amma” and held up as having been blameless by a large section of the citizenry and media, and by her party, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. Each of the factions of the AIADMK that now claims the mantle of leadership appears determined to make Jayalalithaa’s compromised political heritage its own. There has been no moral outrage over the judgment, no reflective remorse from any quarter.
These events have unfolded in the fiftieth year of Dravidian rule in Tamil Nadu. Yet here we are, at this major anniversary, watching a promising political project that appears to have gone awry. To make sense of the present, we must reckon with history, and examine how the Dravidian movement, and the ideology underlying it, has fared in the last half-century.
The Dravidian movement sprang from the efforts of the radical social reformer Periyar, and all parties styling themselves as Dravidian claim descent from his movement and allegiance to his beliefs. In a historical sense, Dravidianism connotes a politics that privileges social justice, opposes caste, promotes a culture of rational debate, and upholds vernacular and regional concerns over all else. In a political sense, though, Dravidianism has had to reckon with the rule of the two Dravidian parties that have taken turns at ruling Tamil Nadu in the last 50 years—the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, which inaugurated Dravidian rule in the state, and the AIADMK, which has ruled for more of this period than its rival, and holds power today.
The DMK was formed in 1949. For nearly two decades, the party worked tirelessly to mobilise the poor and lower-middle classes—comprising sections of the Dalits and castes that the Tamil Nadu government categorises as the Backward Classes—against both the hegemony of the ruling Congress, which it saw as an “Aryan” party of Brahmins and Banias, and the overweening authority of the Indian state, which it saw as dominated by the north of the country. The DMK invited the disenfranchised to be part of a new “secular” community, one defined not by class or caste but by adherence to “Dravidian” culture and civilisation. The party promoted Tamil cultural rights, while also proclaiming the virtues of socialism and a casteless society. All of this attracted young people from suppressed classes and castes, and they became the DMK’s most enthusiastic publicists and ideologues.
The DMK assumed political office in March 1967, having won a state legislative election for which it coordinated a grand anti-Congress front, which included the Muslim League as well as the conservative Swatantra Party. The DMK continued numerous policies put in place by the earlier Congress government. For instance, it supported agrarian growth fuelled by the green revolution, and encouraged the expansion of private industry and capital—measures that favoured the ruling classes and dominant castes. But the party was also resolutely populist. Among other things, it nationalised transport, used subsidies to give the public cheap rice, built houses for the urban poor, and sustained reservations in education and government recruitment for Dalits and the Backward Classes.
But, populism notwithstanding, on several key issues the DMK government made it clear on whose side it stood. It came down heavily, and sometimes violently, on protesting workers in Chennai’s factories, and on restive students. It also maintained a tactical silence in the face of grave upheaval in the countryside—as after 44 Dalits were burnt alive in the village of Kilvenmani in 1968, after the area’s Dalit labourers demanded better pay and working conditions from their landlords and asserted their allegiance to the CPI(M).
In effect, the first years of Dravidian rule, while high on rhetoric, were modest in what they actually delivered to the majority of the citizenry. Despite this, the DMK burnished its status as a symbol of underclass and Tamil defiance by daring to confront the Indian state, with demands for regional autonomy and resistance to the imposition of Hindi as the national language. Further, the party’s affirmation of Tamil culture challenged the self-righteous political bombast of the English-speaking and largely upper-caste middle classes—especially Brahmins. This appealed to an emergent Tamil intelligentsia that, for decades, had had to reckon with Brahmins’ easy assumption of intellectual leadership. The DMK government also challenged, through an amendment to existing law, Brahmins’ hereditary monopoly on temple priesthood. The party also remained, albeit uneasily, open to the forthright atheism of Periyar and his followers.
Nevertheless, the party’s appeal did not prove durable. M Karunanidhi, the DMK leader and chief minister, was accused of political high-handedness by his colleagues, and at least one senior Dalit woman leader left the party. Karunanidhi was also charged with unfairly favouring a particular business house in the tendering for a water project—a charge later upheld by a commission of inquiry. Matters came to a head when a popular actor and DMK publicist, MG Ramachandran, or MGR, questioned the leadership, alleging malfeasance with respect to party accounts. This led to a split in the DMK, and MGR formed the AIADMK in 1972. The new party came to power in 1977.
Very soon, the AIADMK became an organisation that existed primarily to foreground the charisma of its leader, and to honour his every whim. MGR had been a very successful film actor, and his on-screen persona—heroic, compassionate and always on the side of the downtrodden—became the face of the Dravidian movement. His acts came to define Dravidian ideology, rather than the other way around. For instance, MGR’s support for the separatist Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka was seen first as a bold personal investment, and only later an expression of the Dravidian movement’s interest in Tamil nationalism.
MGR proved an even greater populist than his predecessor. The DMK’s populism was still balanced by a vision, however skewed, for economic growth and progress. Not so the AIADMK’s populism, under which state resources came to be treated as if they were part of MGR’s personal fiefdom. Economic growth slowed, and fell below the national average. As a consequence, there was great unrest among workers, and a rise in leftist militancy. Unable to engage these discontents politically, MGR’s government turned ferocious. Militants were killed in staged “encounters” with the police, civil-rights groups that protested such killings faced coercion, and, in 1981, MGR’s government passed a bill that made “scurrilous” or “indecent” writing a cognisable offence, inviting up to five years’ imprisonment. MGR’s rule thus ushered in an authoritarian statism—one that Tamil Nadu is still reeling under to this day.
One of the most far-reaching policy changes under MGR’s rule was the partial privatisation of higher education—particularly through government support for the establishment of private engineering colleges, many of which were set up by politicians and industrialists. The government reserved the right to select candidates for over 60 percent of seats in these colleges, including those for students from reserved categories. In practice, however, these seats, particularly those meant for Dalits, were never completely filled. This has remained so ever since, as the state government has not invested in higher education in any meaningful way. Higher education remains inaccessible for poor sections of the Backward Classes and a substantial section of the Dalit population, and this perpetuates the inequalities the Dravidian movement set out to destroy.
After MGR’s death in 1987, the DMK returned to power in the 1989 election. But its government was dismissed in 1991, and the AIADMK regained office, with Jayalalithaa as chief minister. Since then, the two parties have ruled alternately, one five-year term at a time, until the last state election, in 2016, when the AIADMK was elected to a consecutive term in office.
The 1990s heralded the age of neoliberal economic growth. The DMK was more efficient than its rival in pushing ahead with economic reforms—whether this had to do with the acquisition of land for special economic zones, or the setting up of industrial parks. But it was Jayalalithaa, starting with her very first term, who really reaped the expanded possibilities for corruption that accompanied this growth. She was charged with criminal conspiracy for granting illegal exemptions to a hotel builder, for irregularities in coal imports, and a host of economic offences that allegedly involved the abuse of power for pecuniary gain. She and her party also presided over numerous lucrative but legally questionable economic activities, such as sand mining and granite extraction. The DMK too has been accused of gaining from such practices.
Jayalalithaa proved to be as good a populist as her mentor, MGR. Many of her schemes—free rice from the government, free kitchen appliances, childbirth allowances—consciously cultivated female voters. Not to be outdone, the DMK, during its turns in office, instituted such things as marriage allowances for women and pensions for widows. Increasingly, these measures became substitutes for serious policymaking. By Jayalalithaa’s third term, between 2011 and 2016, Tamil Nadu’s economic growth had stagnated. Competitive populism also distracted people from vital economic and ecological concerns that accompanied the prevailing methods of growth, such as the retreat of agriculture and the destruction of natural resources.
For all this, Jayalalithaa remained unassailable, until her death. She cultivated a political self that was remote, exotic and given to excess—and her followers, including the ministers in her cabinet, colluded in the making of this persona. She was apotheosised into Amma—a beatific mother, at once benign and menacing, sometimes rewarding and sometimes chastising those she held close. She was scornful of her critics, and came down heavily on those who opposed her. Meanwhile, she ensured that she was viewed as a champion of regional interests, and kept up a steady battle over these with the central government.
In sheer political terms, then, Dravidian rule has meant populist governance, with the party in power arrogating to itself the authority to define the popular, “Tamil” interest, and, in doing so, holding itself as sovereign over and above the people. Anyone who opposes the party in power risks being termed insufficiently Tamil, or even anti-Tamil. The DMK and the AIADMK routinely accuse each other of betraying Tamil interests.
Concurrently, democracy has suffered. For instance, institutions such as Tamil Nadu’s women’s-rights commission and human-rights commission have been rendered largely inactive. The bureaucracy, subject as it is to the whims of the ruling party, appears uncertain of its authority and role. The police are allowed a free hand in “managing” political conflict, as was evident in their use of violence during the January 2017 protests against the Supreme Court’s ban on jallikattu. This is particularly the case when it comes to protests by Dalits—such as those in Parmakudi in 2011, when police fire left six demonstrators dead.
Neither populism nor the erosion of democracy are exceptional in the Indian context, but in the context of Tamil Nadu they sit oddly with how some commentators evaluate the state’s society and economy. Economists have lauded Tamil Nadu’s growth model, pointing to favourable indices of education and health as well as praising the state’s pro-poor policies. Social scientists have argued that Tamil Nadu’s reservation policies have brought hitherto marginalised communities to the forefront of politics and governance.
These assessments are valid, but they do not tell the whole story. Other balance sheets must also be drawn up. Feminists have pointed to how Dravidian rule, from its inception, has never engaged with the women’s question in progressive ways. In the heyday of the Dravidian movement, in the 1930s and 1940s, this question was central to all discussions of a just and equal society. However, it lost its import as the movement’s ideology was upstaged by an emphasis on “Dravidian” ethnic identity—one masculinised by the DMK, which proclaimed itself a brotherhood bound by ties of language and culture. MGR advanced a regressive politics of gender that erased feminism from the political scene. He characterised women primarily as mothers—a strategy that won him adulatory female supporters, but ensured strategic silences around public policy regarding women’s education or public safety.
Dalit intellectuals have argued that while Dravidian rule might have brought some gains for sections of the Backward Classes, it has also perpetuated discrimination and violence against Dalits. It is not that Dalits have not progressed, they hold, but rather that Dalit progress has come because of their own struggles for justice and equality, and not on account of Dravidian governance.
These Dalit critiques have emerged in the context of a model of economic development and electoral politics that has helped consolidate the political authority of “touchable” castes across the state—including many of those categorised under the Backward Classes. There has been a hardening of caste identities, since these have proven useful in staking claims to reservations and state resources. On top of that, both major Dravidian parties have deliberately cultivated voters from the “touchable” castes. Here the AIADMK was an early starter. Under MGR, it pursued castes collectively known as the Mukkulathors, ensuring their presence in local administrations and police forces. Thus empowered, and resentful of Dalit mobility and assertion, these castes have flagrantly indulged in anti-Dalit violence. Such reactions by the “touchable” collective also serve to unite malcontents and antagonistic sub-castes from within this collective’s ranks, who have not all benefitted equally from Dravidian rule. In a sense, these dynamics transcend the DMK-AIADMK rivalry. Regardless of what party the members of any caste might prefer, their political authority—and so social authority—is often deployed against Dalits, with the tacit support of local bureaucracies often staffed with their caste fellows.
In several crucial respects, the Dravidian movement’s insistence on social justice has failed to hold out against the complex realities of social and economic change in the state, as well as against obstinate casteism and patriarchy. What has survived is a manner of doing politics that may be termed characteristically Dravidian. Whether it is demands for reservations or opposition to Hindi, the register of Dravidian protest is always laced with a sense of righteous cultural hurt, and voiced in a rhetoric that invariably blames outside forces—often the central government. This admixture of pride and grievance has meant that matters internal to Tamil society, to do with caste, gender and class, are seldom addressed with the acuity they deserve. This travesty of the original principles of the Dravidian movement has us led to our current ethical and ideological impasse.