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Karunanidhi's ode to Ravana has political significance

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Shobha Warrier in Madras

It was just another book release function. In such functions, people talk generally about books and authors. Karunanidhi, chief cinister of Tamil Nadu who after releasing a book of poems penned by Erode Tamizhanban, also spoke on books, poets and authors. He also spoke on the injustices done by them on a particular mythological character.

What is so contentious and controversial in talking about a mythological character, anybody may ask. The character was not controversial but the contents of the chief minister's speech became controversial, of course not as controversial as many expected it to be. The only major response was from the Hindu Munnani leader Rama Gopalan. Otherwise, the local press and people played it down.

Karunanidhi's objection was that the ancient poets and authors depicted the 'Tamil King' Ravana as an evil force who represented adharma and destruction. He angrily went on to say, "If you insult Ravana, you are insulting me." And, in the context of the periodically occurring caste and communal clashes, he went on to add that religions should be destroyed if they stood in the way of humanism and peace. Quoting from Jawaharlal Nehru's Discovery of India, he said Ramayana was a struggle for supremacy between the Aryans (read north Indians) and the Dravidians.

While the academicians are still debating on his statements, the small section of people who have read about it are also reacting, but not very strongly or agitatedly. Was Karunanidhi cautioning the people of Tamil Nadu against the Hindutva ideologies of the north Indian based BJP whose major plank is based on Hindu religion and Rama? Was he trying to revive the anti-Aryan and anti-north Indian sentiments of the people, like it happened during the early years of the Dravidian movement? By clamouring for the destruction of religion, was he talking about the Hindu religion? Why should he warn the BJP, which is a non-existent party in Tamil Nadu? Will Karunanidhi be na´ve enough to issue such statements when the AIADMK chief is moving closer and closer to the Congress?

Even though many political analysts wanted to see it only as a warning to the BJP, it is also possible that Karunanidhi, a shrewd politician that he is, might have had only local politics, which is slowly slipping away from his hands, and a particular figure in mind. The rise of a new leader and a star in the Tamil Nadu political scene, a man who calls himself as the saviour of Dalits -- Dr K Krishnaswamy who must be causing a lot of heartburn to all the Dravidian parties.

Dr Krishnaswamy, the founder president of Pudhiya Thamizhagam might not have won any seat in the recent Lok Sabha elections but he spoiled the chances of many candidates, especially those belonging to the DMK. Krishnaswamy's symbol was unknown and the name of his party was unheard of, still he could win lakhs of votes in almost all the constituencies where Dalits were in a majority. So, it is quite possible that Karunanidhi, talking in the context of the recent caste clashes, could be thinking about the threat that Pudhiya Thamizhagam is posing to all the Dravidian parties in the state.

Pudhiya Thamizhagam has created a separate Dalit identity, different from that of the Dravidian. In fact, you can say Dr.Krishnaswamy has hijacked the Dalit votebank, which is a large chunk, like Kanshi Ram did in UP.

Dr M S S Pandian, a social scientist agreed that the Dravidian movement is undergoing a churning process now because of the rising Dalit assertion but disagreed that Karunanidhi's statement was addressed to the resurgent Dalits. He insisted it was aimed at the Hindutva force and the north Indian, Aryan, Rama politics of the BJP.

The Dravidian movement under EVR 'Periyar' Naicker and Annadurai used the symbols of Rama and Ravana and the Rama-Ravana war as a battle between the Aryans and the Dravidians. Dr.Pandian said, "It was a response to the way Indian nationalism was putting out certain Hinduness as the defining feature of India. The non-Brahmin movement in TN was not just a non-Brahmin movement, it was a movement which aligned itself with certain rationalist texts. Ramayana was all along treated by the north Indian leaders as an allegorical story of the Aryan invasion on Dravidians. So, the same allegory was taken up by the Dravidian leaders because Indian nationalism was imposing a certain vision of India based on Hindu, Hindi and Hindustan. As a response to that, Ravana got recuperated as an icon of south India. Rama was looked upon as someone who was promoting Brahminical values though he was a non-Brahmin."

What another social scientist Dr Jeyaranjan told me in an earlier interview about the Dravidian movement appeared to be quite apt now. "The emphasis on the cultural aspects of Tamilness lost its cutting edge with the expansion of the market. Earlier, you needed such an identity, the Tamil identity, to acquire a space within the system. The other classes, the backward classes acquired enough resources now and what they want now is a big market. So, you can't talk in terms of Tamilian and Tamilness now. The pan-Indian identity is more important to these people. Simultaneously, if you take the case of Brahmins who have moved up much faster and much higher are no longer bothered about the pan-Indian identity. The globe is their market now."

Dr Pandian also admitted, "Some of the agendas of the Dravidian movement have produced contradictory outcomes in TN. If you take the new Dalit movement in TN, you will understand that it is a product of the reservation policy followed by the Dravidian parties, particularly that of the DMK. This positive outcome is taking the Tamil society to a new stage. They have found that the DMK can no longer perform the tasks of the Dalit movement. But you can't say that the Dravidian movement is losing its importance because of the Dalit movement. It is because of the agenda of the Dravidian movement that the Dalit movement was born."

That may be true but with the emergence of a new elite backward class, the Dalits under a different umbrella have moved away from the parent movement. This is what is worrying all the Dravidian parties which include the AIADMK, the DMK, the MDMK, the PMK, etc. And, the symbols like Rama and Ravana can be viewed only in that perspective, to woo the Dalits back and not chase the BJP away which is a non-entity in the state. The question that is tormenting the supporters of the Dravidian movement now is, what will happen to the Dravidian movement now that three of the dravidian parties, the ADMK, MDMK and the PMK have joined hands with the so called 'Aryan, communal forces'?

Still, Hindu Munnani leader Rama Gopalan reacted strongly to the chief minister's statements. "It is not true that Rama-Ravana yuddha was a battle between the Aryans and the Dravidians. It is a total, blatant lie. I thought a time has come to say it was a blatant lie. That's one of the reasons why I attacked his (the chief minister's) statement. If he has courage, let him have an opinion poll and find out who would people approve, Rama or Ravana. These people have been forcing their ideas on the people of Tamil Nadu for a long time, for the last 60-70 years."

On October 1, when Periyar Dravida Kazhakam decided to burn the effigy of Rama and Lakshmana as 'Ravana Leela', Rama Gopalan filed a case in the court and stopped them from performing the act. According to Rama Gopalan, the theory of Aryans and Dravidians in India was perpetuated by the British to divide the country.

Even though Rama is not worshipped as ardently in the south as in the northern part of India, many 'God fearing' Tamilians said they were hurt by the chief minister's 'insensitive' comments. Remember, none of these people have participated in the Dravidian movement, they have only heard or read about it; that is, a new generation of Tamilians. N Rao, who runs a shop said, "It is very unfortunate that the chief minister of a state has come out with such an irresponsible statement. We Indians are said to be a very tolerant race but that does not give anyone the license to criticise a particular community. Is it right to insult the faith of the people? Personally I felt very bad. I feel the whole of Dravidian politics has become a gimmick now. They use tactics to segregate people so that they can have votebanks. Here people are just literate and not educated. That is why politicians can play such dirty politics. By the way, who is he question our ancient poets and historians?"

Maniamma, who sells vegetables was shocked at the chief minister's observation. "How can you identify yourself with an asura who abducted somebody else's wife? Anybody who abducts a woman is evil. I support the DMK but I'll not support such ideas."

Thangam, who works in a bank also was equally offended. "Let him have his personal opinion. But as the chief minister of a state, he should think of the sentiments of the people. He should not be so irresponsible."

What is gratifying is that the people of Tamil Nadu just ignored a statement which, if made in another part of the country, might have led to riots.

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