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Tamil Secessionism and the “Dravida Nadu” (Dravida State) Demand in India

by D.B.S.Jeyaraj

Tamil secessionism in the island of Sri Lanka came to an effective end in May 2009 when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam(LTTE)Organization was militarily defeated by the Armed forces of the Government of Sri Lanka. Interestingly enough our big neighbour India which has a Tamil speaking population of over 60 million people too faced a Tamil separatist challenge several decades ago. Although secessionism flourished at one time in India’s southern state of Tamil Nadu – formerly known as Madras – it was confined within limits of democratic dissent and never transformed into a bitter armed struggle as it did in Sri Lanka.

Besides there was an element of ambiguity about it as Tamil separatism was articulated more in the form of a separate state demand for the Dravidian people of India as opposed to a separate state for the Tamil people of India. Also the caste factor played an important role in separatist tendencies taking root among the Tamils of India. However the rise and fall of Tamil secessionism in India provides an illuminating example of how a secessionist steam locomotive could run out of steam or be made to run out of steam through an acceptable course of democratic politics instead of resorting to brutal armed repression.

The years immediately before and after Independence from the British saw a Tamil separatist movement emerging in India too. Indian Tamil secessionism did not reach the levels to which its counterpart in Sri Lanka did. Unlike in Sri Lanka Tamil separatism in India did not result in organized armed violence against the state. It was basically non-violent and was confined within the parameters of democratic dissent.

The Indian central and state government writ ran at all times in all parts of lands inhabited by Tamils. Also unlike in Sri Lanka very little force and repression was used in India to suppress Tamil secessionism. More importantly, the roots of Tamil secessionism in India and Sri Lanka were different. In India , the seeds of separatism were sown within the caste structure when majority caste groups feeling hemmed in by a minority at the apex of caste hierarchy sought to empower themselves. In Sri Lanka, separatism grew gradually as a minority ethnic group found itself being restricted in many spheres and perceived itself to be oppreseed by a numerically larger ethnic majority.

Arguably both modern India and Ceylon/Sri Lanka are colonial constructs. It was the British who unified their territorial conquests into a cohesive unit for administrative convenience. But the British also fostered divisions within their conquered subjects to facilitate governance. Interestingly this unification and division paved the way for both greater and lesser identities. While an all-embracing “Indian” nationalism and identity began evolving a number of sub-nationalisms and multiple-identities also began flourishing.India itself was an “idea” albeit a superior one but there were other competing ideas. Thus there emerged in South India the concept of an alternative, “Dravidian” identity.

Anti -Brahmin Movement

A short re-run of history is essential to understand this development.This is of crucial importance as there can be no proper understanding of Tamil secessionism in India without analyzing its genesis. The roots of Tamil Nadu secessionism lie in the vibrant anti-Brahmin movement of the 20th century. This in turn led to the rise of a Dravidian ideology leading to a demand for a Dravidian state. Thereafter it metamorphosed into a demand for a separate Tamil state. It is necessary therefore to focus on events leading to direct Tamil secessionism.

In ancient times the Tamil country in India was ruled by the three great Chera, Chola and Pandya dynasties and to some extent the Pallava dynasty. There were also periodic conquests by the Hoysala, Rashtrakooda and Chalukya kings. Tiny principalities and vassal states under the suzerainty of powerful rulers also existed.When European countries like Britain, France, Portugal, Holland and Denmark began setting foot in South India, the older Tamil dynasties were no more. Three other powers namely the Mughals, Mahrattas and Vijayanagara Nayakkars had made their mark and as a result there was a proliferation of feudal rulers.South India was under a mixed bag of rulers reigning over both big as well as small states. They ranged from powerful kings like the Nizam of Hyderabad to the insignificant Rajah of Pudukkottai. The British assiduously practiced their divide and rule approach to acquire most South Indian territory through conquest, commerce and compromise.

To this day many people of North India refer to South Indians as “Madrasi” or from Madras. This reference was not due to the city of Madras (Now Chennai) but originated as a result of what was once the province of Madras encompassing the greater part of South India.The Madras province of British India known officially as the Presidency of Fort St.George (in Madras city) included at its heyday much of South India. The present day Tamil Nadu state,the Malabar region of Kerala state,the coastal Andhra and Rayalaseema regions of Andhra Pradesh state, the Tulu Nadu region and Bellary districts of Karnataka state, the Brahmapur and Ganjam districts of Orissa state and the Lakshadweep Islands comprised the Madras presidency of British times.Speakers of Tamil were the single-largest linguistic group in the Madras province. Telugu speakers were a close second. Together Tamils and Telugus formed 78 % of what was then the Madras presidency. Malayalee, Kannada, Tulu ,Urdu and Oriya speakers comprised the restWith English being the official language linguistic tensions were virtually absent. The great divide was in terms of caste.

“Varnashrama Dharma”

The Brahmin caste was upper-most due to cultural, social, economic and religious factors.The Hindu religion’s “Varnashrama dharma” caste concept afforded a privileged position to Brahmins. The Brahmin monopoly on Sanskrit language used for Hindu worship enhanced their position further. Under the British they learnt English and were miles ahead of other castes in English literacy. With a penchant for learning the Brahmins took to education under the British in a big way. Brahmins began filling up official positions and teaching jobs under the British rule.They took to law, medicine and accounts.Brahmins also served the feudal rulers well and obtained grants of lands to administer. There was also Brahminic control of assets bestowed to temples.

‘penchant for learning’

Thus the numerically tiny Brahmins (around 4%) were entrenched as a privileged minority in the Madras presidency. They dominated most government jobs, professions and teaching , owned lands and estates and managed properties of temples.They also had much influence over media and the arts. For instance an official survey undertaken in 1912 showed that Brahmins formed 3.2% of the male population in the then Madras presidency. Non – brahmin Hindus were 85.6% of the population.But the brahmins held a disproportionate number of Higher posts in Govt service available to Indians. Of Deputy -collectors 77 were Brahmins and 30 non -brahmins.15 sub-judges were brahmins but only 3 were non -brahmins. District chiefs or Munsifs saw 93 being brahmins and 25 being non -brahmins.

While the oppressed castes at the bottom rungs of Hindu society continued to languish the other castes regarded as forward also began climbing the socio-economic mobility ladder in south India under the British. These included the Tamil speaking Vellalas and Mudaliyars, Chetties, Nadars, the Malayalee speaking Nairs/Nayars, Nambiyars,Pillais and Krupps,Kannada speaking Lingayats and Vokkaligas, Telugu speaking Reddys and Khammas etc.In a bid to counter Brahmin domination the upper crust leaders of these castes began grouping together. Since these groups came from different ethnicities a non-linguistic identity was sought. Their resentment of Brahmin domination and common interest brought about an overarching non-Brahmin group identity.A non-Brahmin or anti-Brahmin consciousness evolved.This was transformed into a “Dravidian” consciousness and articulated as such.

Dravidian was fundamentally a linguistic term revived by the western scholar Robert Caldwell.The term “Dravida” itself was derived from Sanskrit.A Sanskrit scholar Kumarila had used the term “Dravidabhasa” (Dravidian languages) in 8th century AD to denote the Tamil and Telugu languages.The term Dravida was used in Sanskrit literature to describe the lands south of the Vindyas (South India) and inhabitants.Caldwell’s revival of the term was in reference to the principal languages of South India-Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada and Tulu.They were considered as “springing from a common origin and as forming a distinct family of tongues”.

Dravidian Association

This term was most suitable for the emerging non –Brahmin , South Indian elite to identify themselves. A movement for social reform was formed as Madras Dravidian Association (Different to the present Dravidian Association/Dravida Kazhagham) in 1912. This opened the floodgates. Several “Dravidian associations” followed in its wake illustrating the yearning and despair among non-Brahmin communities for progress and emancipation.The growing Dravidian consciousness saw some respected Non-Brahmins form an association called South Indian Peoples Association as an advocacy group.This in turn formed a political party called South Indian Liberal Federation. Membership was open to all non-Brahmins. The South Indian Liberal Federation was founded in 1916 by a trio comprising two Tamils and a Malayalee.They were Theagaroya Chetty, C.Natesa Mudaliyar and T.M. Nair.An English newspaper “Justice” was started. Eventually this led to the organization being known as the Justice party.

The nationalist Congress party was leading the struggle for Independence from the British.Many of the Congress leaders were educated Brahmins.The Justice party on the other hand did not want independence from the British until social justice prevailed. In other words the Justice party wanted independence to be delayed until social reform displaced Brahmin dominance. It depicted the Congress as a Brahmin party. As a result the Justice party participated in the limited governance provided by the British and ran several administrations in the Madras province from 1921.This co-operation has stigmatized the Justice party as collaborators of colonialism.

Gradually it became obvious that the non-Tamil linguistic groups were becoming less enamoured of “Dravidian nationalism”. Comparatively the Tamil speaking non-Brahmin elite was better off than others. This led to some heartburn and non-Tamil associations were formed to promote non-Tamil interests.The Tamils were also at the forefront of Dravidianism as their language was the oldest and most developed of the Dravidian languages. Some regarded the other Dravidian languages as being derived from Tamil. Prof.Sundarampillai in a popular poem depicted the Kannada,Telugu,Malayalam and Thulu Languages as “children” born out of the Tamil mothers “womb.” This also caused resentment. Incidently the Above mentioned poem “Neeraarum Kadaludutha” by Sundarampillai is the official Tamil Nadu anthem and is sung at all official state functions.

This resentment over perceived Tamil dominance led to a situation where the non-Tamil groups began moving away from the Dravidian consciousness. Dravidian was now being seen as co-terminous with Tamil. Thus the non-Tamils were reluctant to be identified as Dravidians though Scholars accepted the Dravidian linguistic label.In that respect one must note that the “official” reference to Tamil in Sinhala is Dravida. The Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) is called Eksath Dravida Vimukthi Peramuna. Referring to Tamil as “Demala” is regarded as being somewhat colloquial.

If the South Indian languages were termed as Dravidian most North Indian languages were classified as Aryan or Indo-Aryan. Sanskrit was regarded as the mother of Indo-Aryan languages. Sanskrit unlike Tamil had gone out of usage as a language of communication in daily life among non – brahmins but had spawned several numerically preponderant linguistic groups like Hindi.The anthropological and archaeological wisdom propounded by the Dravidian school of thought at that time was that a pre-Aryan Dravidian civilization had existed in India before Aryan invasion (This theory is strongly disputed by some now).

“Sangham” Literature

The Dravidian construct was that the Dravidians had a glorious civilization before being overrun by the Aryans. With the Brahmins retaining exclusive “ownership” of Sanskrit they were seen as Aryan “aliens” who were interlopers into Dravidian country.Citing the classical “Sangam” literature where people were classified in terms of territorial landscape (Anbinainthinai) rather than occupation it was argued that casteism did not exist among Tamils until the Aryans invaded. They had introduced caste with the Brahmins (Aryan) at the top and reduced the original inhabitants to inferior “Shudra” status. The vehicle for this was Hinduism it was alleged.

It was around this time that one of the greatest progressives and original thinkers of India made his impact on the South Indian political scene. This was “Eevera” or Erode Venkatappa Ramswamy Naicker who was born on September 17th 1879. “Periyar” (great person) Eevera as he was called by his followers was originally a Congress party stalwart who organized the successful satyagraha at Vaikom in present day Kerala. Periyar himself was not Tamil though hailing from Erode in the Salem district of Tamil Nadu.Though fluent in Tamil Ramaswamy belonged to a Kannada speaking Naicker family.Disgruntled at casteism practiced by some Brahmin Congressmen, Periyar broke ranks and left the party. He also began enunciating radical thoughts about dislodging Brahmin dominance, espousing rationalism, propagating atheism , opposing North Indian hegemony, combatting Caste oppression, encouraging equality of sexes etc.

In 1925 Periyar founded the “Suyamariyadhai Iyakkam” or Self-respect movement. Arguing that the Hindu religion provided the basis for Brahmin superiority and that it kept the Dravidians in bondage to the Aryans , Periyar called for Atheism on the basis of rationalism or “Pahutharivu”.“Kadavul Illai. Kadavulai Vanangubavan Muttaal” (There is no God. Those who worship God are fools)the outspoken Periyar would assert.He denied God saying-If there was no God there could be no religion. If there was no (Hindu)religion there could be no caste.If there was no caste then there cannot be caste oppression.

Periyar condemned the notion of Brahmin Caste superiority as an affront to the self-respect and dignity of non-Brahmins and so formed the self-respect movement.

Subsequently Periyar joined the Justice party and became one of its prominent leaders.A large number of non-Brahmin Tamils began gathering around Periyar over the years. They were called “Suyamariyathaikkaran” (self – respect adherent)or “Pahutharivaalan” (rationalist) and subscribed to Periyar’s views. The most educated of these at that time was Conjeevaram Natarajan Annadurai an MA Graduate. Annadurai known as Anna (elder brother) was born on September 15th 1909 . He became Periyar’s disciple in 1935.

‘Hindu’ India

By the late thirties/early forties of the previous century both Periyar and Anna took up the stance that the Madras presidency should not form part of India and that it should be a separate state called Dravidastan or Dravida Nadu. Being a part of “Hindu” India would only lead to permanent enthronement of Aryanism, Brahminism and North Indian hegemony it was argued.Prior to this both Guru and Sishya had wanted a Tamil state on the basis of the “Tamil Nadu for Tamils” demand. Within a short time they changed position and wanted a Dravida state on the basis of the “Dravida Nadu for Dravidians” demand.Two factors brought about this political change for Periyar and Anna. One was the attempt to impose Hindi upon non-Hindi students by making the learning of Hindi a compulsory subject for all students.The other was the Muslim demand by Mohammed Ali Jinna for an Islamic theocratic state of Pakistan.

In 1937 the Congress party extended limited cooperation to the British and contested local elections. The Congress formed the administration in Madras presidency and Chakravarthy. Rajagopalachariyar known as Rajaji became chief minister. In 1938 Rajaji introduced legislation to make Hindi a compulsory language. It was argued that India needed a single language to unite all its people.This was resented by the non-Hindi people of Madras province. The Tamil people are very proud and fond of their language elevating it to the status of a mother (Thamil Thai) It is a highly emotive issue and any attempt to belittle or demean Tamil was to be opposed. Hindi compulsion was an affront. It was described as a “victory” of Sanskrit over Tamil,Aryan over Dravidian and Brahmin over non-Brahmin.

An anti-Hindi agitation was launched.Widespread protest demonstrations took place particularly in the Tamil speaking places of the presidency.. There was police firing and two Tamils Thalamuthu and Nadarajan were killed. There were attempts of self-immolation also. Around 1200 persons were brought to court and sentenced to jail. Among these were Periyar and Anna.In 1939 the Congress withdrew from office and the Hindi imposition issue went away. But Periyar and Anna felt that a separate country was required to protect Dravidian languages in general and Tamil in particular. The danger of Hindi being imposed in an Independent India was there. Subsequent events in post-Independence India proved that these fears were not liars. The anti-Hindi agitation also made many Tamils including former Tamil Nadu chief minister Muttuvel Karunanidhi (who was fourteen years old then) more conscious of their language and heritage.

The second factor was the demonstration effect of the Muslim League and its demand for the creation of an Independent Islamic state of Pakistan. Periyar supported Jinna’s demand for a territorially non-contiguous state of Pakistan comprising Muslim majority regions in the east and west of India.Periyar then embarked on a tour of north India and met Jinna in person.Anna did the interpreting.He argued for a Dravida state on the lines of an Islamic state. Jinna was assured that the 7% Muslims in the envisaged state would enjoy full rights.

As a result Jinna began referring to a Pakistan for Muslims, a Hindustan for Aryans , a Dravidastan for Dravidians and a Bengalistan for Bengalis. Whenever he spoke of Pakistan Jinna also referred briefly to Dravidastan during the second world war. After the war when the prospect of partition became a real possibility Jinna abandoned support fror Dravidastan. It was only a two-nation theory-Hindu and Islam-thereafter.

Separate State

The initial support by Jinna however boosted Periyar’s thoughts on a separate state. The envisaged Dravidian state was referred to as both Dravidastan (Jinna inspired) and Dravida Nadu in Tamil. The support for a Dravida state was predominantly extended by Tamils alone. Apart from brief mention in English media the non-Tamil South Indians were lukewarm, to this concept.

Shortly after the anti-Hindi agitation , Periyar was elected president of the Justice Party. With this the anti-Brahmin self-respect movement and anti-Brahmin Justice party or South Indian Liberal Federation, experienced some form of fusion in practice.By this time the Justice party was practically a Tamil party with most non-Tamils dropping out. There were however a few well-known non-Tamil leaders in the party but practically no support from the Telugu, Malayalee, Kannada masses.Interestingly Periyar and Anna toyed briefly with Tamil secessionism and called for a Tamil state , before opting formally for greater Dravidian separatism and a Dravidian state. The reasons for this interlude is rather intriguing.

The growing anti-Hindi consciousness among non-Brahmin Tamils was manifesting itself in many ways.In August 1938 a prominent Justice party leader TP Vedachalam from Trichy formed the Tamil Thesa Viduthalai Sangam (Tamil Nation Liberation Society) and began demanding the creation of a separate state for the Tamils.At the second session of the Ramnad District Tamilians Conference at Karaikudi it was resolved “to work for the formation of a separate Tamil province, exclusively for Tamilians, and the use of Tamil as the administrative language”.A series of small meetings were held at various places in Tamil Nadu. These were attended by nondescript Tamils and presided over by little known personalities. But almost all these meetings passed resolutions calling for a separate Tamil state.

“Thamizh Nadu Thamizharukke” (Tamil Nadu is for Tamils) was the catchy and inspiring slogan that gathered momentum.This groundswell of opinion was something that Periyar and Anna could not ignore. The growing sentiments of Tamils in Madras state had to be addressed. So both briefly adopted the “Tamil State” cry instead of the “Dravida state” demand for some time .At a meeting held at Salem in October 1938 Periyar for the first time called for a Tamil state. He said that” if the Congress permitted the exploitation of Tamils by Brahmins and Northern Indians, the best way to preserve the liberty of Tamils was to agitate for separation from the rest of India and the proposed All-India Federation, just as Ceylon and Burma had chosen to stand aloof from India”, and ” urged the need for the ‘Tamilnadu for the Tamils’ campaign to be fought to the finish.”Annadurai followed suit by speaking at several “Tamil Nadu for the Tamils” meetingswhere he eloquently appealed for the creation of a separate state for the Tamils of India.

“Tamil Nadu for Tamils”

The “Tamil Nadu for Tamils” demand began to gather momentum slowly . The imposition of Hindi as compulsory in schools and consequent protests enhanced support for this demand. The need for an autonomous Tamil state under British rule as well as an Independent Tamil Country in the future was discussed and debated at local levels.The “Tamil Nadu for Tamils” demand was suspended before it could capture popular imagination. This was because Periyar and Anna did a volte-face and re-activated the Dravida Nadu state demand.

In 1939 Eevera Periyar organized the Dravida Nadu Conference for the advocacy of a separate, sovereign and federal republic of Dravida Nadu.In a rousing speech on December 17, 1939, Periyar proclaimed “Dravida Nadu for Dravidians”. This replaced the earlier slogan “Tamil Nadu for TamilsThis heralded the shift in policy but there was much confusion. The ensuing months saw people advocating both a Tamil state and a Dravidian state. To many Tamils there was no difference in both. With the wisdom of hindsight it appears that to both Periyar and Anna the demand for a Dravidian state and Tamil state was synonymous. The core of both demands was the existing Madras province. It also appears that most advocates of South Indian secessionism also failed to draw a distinction between both demands.

July 1940 saw a secession committee being formed at the Dravida Nadu Secession Conference organized by Periyar’s disciple CN Annadurai known as Anna (elder brother) at Kanchipuram his hometown. In this conference Periyaar displayed a map of the envisaged Dravida Nadu.It basically corresponded to the existing Madras Presidency. This conference was followed by the Madras Province conference of the South Indian Liberal Federation known popularly as the Justice party at Thiruvaaroor.On August 24, 1940, the Thiruvaaroor provincial Conference resolved that Dravida Nadu should be a “Thani Naadu” or Independent state.

Total Self-Rule

Some of the objectives of Dravida Naadu were defined as-attaining “poorana Swaraj” or total self-rule from the British and complete control in social, economic and industrial, and commercial fields; liberating Dravidians from domination and exploitation by non-Dravidian foreigners: acquiring equal rights and opportunities for Dravida Nadu citizens and eradication of discrimination and inequalities arising on grounds of caste and class: abolition of superstitious beliefs caused by religion etc.

Furthermore Periyaar outlined the characteristics of Dravida Nadu as-the area then comprising Madras Presidency; a passport system to enter the state; duty on goods from other provinces and entry apporoved only with permits ; re-demarcation of boundaries if necessary and continuing the existing system of defence till grant of full Independence.Religious freedom was assured to Muslims, Christians,Jains, Sikhs and Buddhists of Dravida Nadu.The right to be atheist, agnostic or non-religious was ensured. Separation of Politics and Religion was guaranteed.

Periyar also stated that “Self Respect should come before self-rule” thereby implying that social justice and reform should precede political independence from Britain.Even as the Dravida Nadu demand gathered momentum Periyaar suspended all political agitation for the cause one year later in August 1941. He explained that Dravidians should extend full co-operation to the British in world war two.This caused a political lull in Dravidian secessionist advocacy .

Sinhala Fears of Annexation

Although Periyar had defined the envisaged boundaries of “Dravida Nadu” there were some who spoke of a Greater Dravida Nadu incorporating regions in Burma, Singapore, Malaya and Ceylon where Tamils were concentrated. This was not a serious demand and was made by insignificant personalities.But in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) the assertion was treated with suspicion and sowed the seeds of fear about annexation into a greater Dravidian homeland in the future. As stated earlier the “official” reference to Tamil in Sinhala is Dravida. The Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) is called Eksath Dravida Vimukthi Peramuna. Referring to Tamil as “Demala” is regarded as being somewhat colloquial. Thus the threat of a greater “Dravida Nadu” annexing areas in the Island with substantial concentrations of Tamils loomed large in the Sinhala psyche. These fears were exploited by irresponsible and unscrupulous political elements. Sadly that mindset of suspicion and fear prevails even to this day among some sections of Sinhala society.

This article written for the “DBS Jeyaraj Column” appears in the “Daily Mirror” of December 2, 2017, it can be reached via this link:


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