Karthick Ram Manoharan
(Karthick Ram Manoharan is Assistant Professor of Social Sciences at the National Law School of India University. He is the author of Periyar: A Study in Political Atheism).
Irrespective of whether one believes in the god Ram or not, the formal consecration of the Ram temple on January 22, 2024, marked a milestone in Indian politics. The grand event in Ayodhya was attended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, and RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat, among several other high-profile political leaders and celebrities. Modi called Ram the spirit and essence of the nation.
The temple ceremony was a state event, with government institutions declaring a half- or full-day holiday, public officials taking an active part in the celebrations, and the Indian Air Force showering petals during the function. Shruti Kapila, Cambridge professor of history and politics, called it “the arrival of the Hindu state itself” (ThePrint, January 23).
Whether a Ram temple existed originally beneath the Babri Masjid can be debated by historians for decades to come, but as far as politics is concerned, it is a moot question.
The Ram temple is real, and so is the politics that led to it. Millions of Hindus were mobilised by the Hindu Right to demolish the masjid, and they did so successfully. Millions more were mobilised on the promise to rebuild the Ram temple, and that promise was kept too. Liberals reject Hindutva for being ahistorical, but Hindutva has always been about creating history, not being true to it.
It is a theory, to paraphrase Marx, that has become a material force since it began to grip the masses. It is now the dominant political force that is trying to change the nature of the Indian state to a Hindu Rashtra.
Even more remarkable is what Modi did the day after the temple consecration—he announced the conferring of the Bharat Ratna on Karpoori Thakur, the socialist leader from Bihar who played a pioneering role in the implementation of social inclusion policies in the State. In his tribute to Thakur, Modi highlighted his regime’s commitment to social justice and transformative empowerment (Mint, January 24).
The two consecutive events convey a significant message—while Hindutva is here to stay as a political force, it cannot ignore the politics of social justice. The BJP has shown itself to be flexible in accommodating diverse voices to present its vision of Hindu Rashtra as not based on orthodoxy-inspired social hierarchy but as compatible with modern democracy. What does this mean for Tamil Nadu politics, where Dravidian parties pride themselves on their agenda of social justice, and where the BJP is desperate to make its entry?
In Bihar, the BJP showed political acumen by its recognition for Thakur. Within days, the Janata Dal (United) leader Nitish Kumar switched to the National Democratic Alliance. Both Bihar and Uttar Pradesh were once home to powerful movements for social justice led by the OBCs and the SCs.
The BJP was able to push its social engineering agenda in these States by expanding its base among those OBCs and SCs who felt left out by the likes of the Samajwadi Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party, and the Rashtriya Janata Dal. In Tamil Nadu, the bulk of the OBC and SC vote is divided between the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). The BJP needs to be innovative to break into this base. But something else prevents this.
The “four planks” of Tamil Nadu politics
Tamil Nadu’s Dravidian politics is broadly based on four planks: political non-Brahminism, social justice, Tamil assertion, and federalism. Whether the DMK or the AIADMK are in power, they are compelled to acknowledge their commitment to these planks, albeit in differing intensity.
The social justice movements in Tamil Nadu were primarily rooted in political non-Brahminism, that is, the political mobilisation of castes and communities that identified as non-Brahmin. The origins of non-Brahminism can be traced to the mid-19th century, when an emerging group of intellectuals, writers, and religious reformers from non-Brahmin castes began challenging Brahminical Hindu orthodoxy.
Much before Periyar E.V. Ramasamy, notorious for his radical criticism of religion, there were thinkers who propagated atheism and secularism. The Madras Secular Society, which was active between 1878 and 1888, was a group of non-Brahmin intellectuals who wrote in favour of atheism and wanted to subject religion to critical scrutiny.
Those like Athipakkam Venkatachala Nayakkar and M. Masilamani were quite confrontational in their criticisms of Hinduism. Parallel to these secular movements, there were also reformist Saivite and Buddhist movements in Tamil Nadu that challenged Hindu orthodoxy.
With the publication of the Non-Brahmin Manifesto in 1916 and the formation of the Justice Party in 1917, non-Brahminism got both political form and content. Since then, the binary of Brahmin and non-Brahmin has played a role in Tamil Nadu’s politics.
It would be an error, however, to assume that this binary was decisive. The Justice Party was seen by many, including backward non-Brahmin castes like the Vanniyars, as a party of elite non-Brahmins and zamindars. Periyar, who took over the party in 1938, tried to broaden its base and slowly pushed out the old guard. He dissolved the party to form the more radical Dravidar Kazhagam (DK) in 1944.
The DK sharpened its opposition to Brahmins, while reaching out to broader sections of non-Brahmins. Yet, non-Brahmin unity was evasive, owing to deep rifts between the different castes, between the OBCs and the SCs, and within the OBCs and the SCs themselves.
Periyar’s DK saw itself as a social movement that aimed to reform society without capturing political power. They were thus able to make bold criticisms of religion, caste, nationalism, and oppression of women.
The DMK, which was formed in 1949, watered down these criticisms, focussing more on Tamil assertion, federalism, the political empowerment of non-Brahmin castes, and reservation. Striding to power in 1967, the DMK heralded the political era of Dravidian rule in Tamil Nadu.
The AIADMK, which split from the DMK in 1972, further diluted the radical agenda of the DK and was less assertive about federalism. All the same, the party upheld reservation and a basic rhetoric of social justice, and found favour among those sections of the OBCs who were dissatisfied with the DMK. For instance, the party commands considerable influence among the Thevars of southern Tamil Nadu and the Gounders of north-western Tamil Nadu, both politically strong communities in these regions.
Pragmatism over idealism
The two major Dravidian parties have grassroots organisers across Tamil Nadu’s districts. While the top leaders get the name and glory, it is the well-connected local leaders who are the backbone. In most cases, these parties choose pragmatism over idealism in selecting candidates to contest elections. The candidates’ popularity, influence, organisational abilities, and, of course, caste are carefully taken into consideration before fielding them. Importantly, however, both the DMK and the AIADMK avoid religious communalism.
The DMK leadership, much to the irritation of the Hindu Right, has either been vocal about its criticism of Hindu nationalism or has at least provided space for the same. Some of these opinions have faced considerable controversy, such as Udhayanidhi Stalin’s recent comments on Sanatana Dharma. Among DMK supporters, there is an active group of writers, intellectuals, and public speakers, such as the Periyarist Suba Veerapandian, the Dalit Murasu editor Punitha Pandian, and the Arunthathiyar intellectual and poet M. Mathivannan, who spread the Dravidian ideology of rationalism and anti-caste critique to a variety of audiences. The leader of the DMK-allied Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi and Member of Parliament, Thol. Thirumavalavan, plays a significant role in militantly promoting Periyar’s thoughts.
The AIADMK, which avoids taking any confrontational position on religion and caste, has been accused of soft-pedalling.
For instance, M.G. Ramachandran, founder of the AIADMK, reportedly did not want to permit a statue of Periyar to be installed in Kanchipuram because it might offend the Shankaracharya. The DMK fought a legal battle to have it installed. However, many popular songs from MGR’s films stressed social equality and religious harmony.
Although the AIADMK leader Jayalalithaa briefly flirted with the Hindu Right in the 1990s through measures such as the introduction of an anti-conversion law, she quickly backtracked and portrayed herself as a friend of the minorities. The AIADMK, while not vocal like the DMK on issues of ideology, also subscribes to the common sense that religious coexistence and social justice are good for society.
Both Dravidian parties have allied with the BJP in the past, associations motivated by electoral calculations than any ideological affinity. The AIADMK entered into an alliance with the BJP after Jayalalithaa’s demise. But this broke in 2023, and it now claims that it will contest the 2024 Lok Sabha election alone. At the moment, it is explicit that the BJP’s key enemy is the DMK, but the party whose fall the BJP seeks to benefit from is the AIADMK.
While the DMK attempts to provide some sort of political education to its cadres, the AIADMK’s key force has been the charisma of its leaders like MGR and Jayalalithaa, and an ability to harness the non-DMK and anti-DMK voters. Without a charismatic leader to unite them, the AIADMK is a divided house, and the BJP looks to eat into its core base. The BJP has made inroads into the Gounder and Thevar communities.
Further, by targeting local caste leaders, it has marked a presence among the Nadars and the Devendra Kula Vellalars further south, and is trying to win the Vanniyars in the north.
Response to political non-Brahminism
To make inroads into Tamil Nadu, the BJP still needs to play on the four planks of Dravidian politics. Over the past years, it appears that the party is responding to political non-Brahminism. Former Brahmin leaders have been sidelined for the more aggressive K. Annamalai, a Gounder and the party’s Tamil Nadu State president since 2021. He was preceded by L. Murugan from the Arunthathiyar (SC) community, who was later appointed Union Minister, making him the first person from the community to reach this position. While this wins local appreciation for the BJP, it still does not give it a binding narrative to consolidate voters across castes under the saffron banner.
Beyond very few spaces, the BJP’s Hindu versus Muslim narrative does not sell. In the 2019 general election, Ramanathapuram district, home to the temple town of Rameshwaram, elected an Indian Union Muslim League candidate who was part of the DMK-led alliance and defeated the BJP candidate by over a lakh votes.
On social justice, too, the BJP does not score well in the Tamil imagination, as many see it as pursuing an anti-reservation policy. And reservation is more or less synonymous with social justice in the State. The last person in Tamil Nadu to try to change the caste-based reservation policy to an income-based one was MGR. And despite his status as a demi-god among the Tamil masses, his AIADMK was routed in the 1980 general election. After this, he raised the total reservation to 69 per cent.
The Tamil public takes it for granted that no matter who rules this provision will not be touched. So, an anti-corruption agenda alone will not be enough for the BJP to dislodge the Dravidian parties.
As for Tamil assertion, the BJP is trying to shed its Hindi image and project itself as a defender of Tamil. Modi makes frequent references to Tamil philosopher Thiruvalluvar and on occasions has said that Tamil is the oldest language in the world, a noticeable change from RSS ideologues of the past who reserved that position for Sanskrit.
But the DMK and their allies have the BJP on the back foot when they point out the several instances where the Centre has privileged Hindi over other languages. While Tamil chauvinism is fringe to Tamil Nadu’s polity, Hindi imposition is viewed negatively by largely all Tamils, and the BJP’s position on Hindi is too well known
The issue of federalism was muted in post-Emergency Tamil Nadu politics, with the focus centred mostly around the competitive welfare policies of the DMK and the AIADMK. After the DMK’s victory in the 2021 State election, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.K. Stalin has brought federalism back into the debate.
The BJP does not have a convincing explanation yet on how it will preserve the State’s rights. New Delhi, however, proceeds with its centralising agenda. The planned delimitation exercise will greatly reduce the influence of the southern States, but it will also hurt the growth of the BJP in these States which value federalism and their regional identities.
The BJP is leaving no stone unturned to change Tamil Nadu, and the Dravidian parties cannot be complacent. The AIADMK needs to retain its base and local organisation and evolve into something more than merely an anti-DMK party. The ruling DMK also needs to change tack. The old Brahmin versus non-Brahmin identity politics has lost its salience.
The contest between what Dravidian supporters claim to be an inclusive politics of social justice and the BJP’s exclusionary Hindutva politics is ideological, not identitarian.
The Dravidian claim of promoting pluralism, secularism, and social justice must be upheld by drawing camaraderie from all sections of society, including north Indians and migrants, women, and underrepresented groups from caste and religious minority groups.
Only this will validate its proposition. In the long term, Dravidian ideology, and the budding ideology of the INDIA bloc—of promoting the politics of federalism and social justice nationwide—is the best guarantee for a united and just India.
• Historically, Dravidian politics has been based on political non-Brahminism, social justice, Tamil assertion, and federalism.
• Even as the BJP leaves no stone unturned to break into Tamil Nadu, the DMK and the AIADMK cannot afford to be complacent.
• The Dravidian claim of promoting pluralism, secularism, and social justice must be upheld by including migrants, women, and underrepresented groups from caste and religious minority groups.