While the BJP’s tie-up with the Shiv Sena strengthens both the NDA allies for the coming electoral battle, the party’s alliance with the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu only serves to strengthen the DMK and its ally, the Congress. To appreciate why, one needs to understand Tamil political culture. And this is not something that comes naturally to people outside Tamil Nadu.
For anyone who seeks a crash course in Tamil politics and culture, help is at hand in the form of AR Venkatachalapathy’s recently-published Tamil Characters.
It is the kind of book that one hopes would be produced for each one of India’s linguistic states, because the characters covered include political leaders, literary figures and vital cultural and ideological constituents of Tamil Nadu’s discourse.
At the end of the book, you might not qualify for a PhD in Tamil studies but would understand why a population a trifle larger than France’s rose up in arms against a Supreme Court order banning a bull wrestling sport, known as jallikattu, and middle-class families not only sent their girls to spend nights at protest venues but also gave them packed tiffin.
Anti-Hindi, non-Brahmin, pro-Eelam, secessionist — Tamils have attracted such and other appellations. What Tamil Characters shows is that these are neither true nor false, the precise location in the range of ambivalence in which the significance of each term is spread out being contingent and contextual.
Even before Annadurai formally abandoned the secessionist demand in the background of the 1962 war with China, the Dravida movement’s demand for separation was never absolute, and more a symbol of resistance by an ancient culture, with its own distinctive language, literature and history, to being subsumed in a milieu that violated some of its own unique facets.
Non-Brahmin did not mean an opposition to Brahmins per se. Some of the most prominent Tamil characters discussed are Brahmin: Subramania Bharati, J Jayalalithaa and the literary genius Sundara Ramaswamy, for example.
What the Dravida movement and its leaders opposed was Brahminism, the ideology that put Brahmins at the top of the pecking order for no reason other than their birth. Brahmins who failed to appreciate this and did not conceal their disdain for non-Brahminites and non-Brahmins, such as Cho Ramaswamy, are excoriated in the book, whose author makes no bones about where his sympathies lie.
Symbols play an enormous role in Tamil culture and politics. Karunanidhi’s move to get Tamil declared a classical language, leading to competitive demands for linguistic classicism by leaders of other states, was meant to cement his claim to be the champion of Tamils worldwide, which helped him win votes in his own state. Perumal Murugan’s symbolic suicide as a writer did more to draw national, indeed, global attention to attacks on him for a novel that offended the sensibilities of a particular community that pressed its demand for the book’s ban with violence than anything else could have.
Tamil Nadu, which the author writes always as Tamil Nadu – the grammatically correct form for the conjugation of Tamil and land in Tamil simmers with caste tensions, not so much between Brahmins and the rest as among various layers of the hierarchy of social groups spawned by Brahminism, to protect and resist the domination of one by the other.
These battles have spawned many ideologues, some like Iyotheethoss (the local rendering of a name that would be more familiar to north Indian eyes as Ayodhyadas) little known outside the state.
In spite of Periyar’s denunciation of religion and caste, and the wholesale endorsement of his ideology by the DMK and the AIADMK, which have held the reins of power in the state since the 1960s, religion holds sway across Tamil Nadu. The right of ritually backward groups to take active part in temple festivals is a site of recurrent conflict, in which faith, custom and modern constitutional morality come head to head. Sabarimala is not quite unique.
At a time when communities are agitating in north India to be declared backward, the Pallars and their political party, Puthiya Tamilagam, seek Pallars’ removal from the list of Scheduled Castes.
Such insights are not the only joy of reading the book. If you enjoy making acquaintance with someone who calls Bharat Ratna MGR a clown (somewhat uncharitably, considering his role in reviving Kamaraj-era mid-day meals at school and setting up industrial training institutes that helped Tamil Nadu host a range of manufacturing industry) or the unselfconscious use of “gloss” in a manner that comes naturally only to a practitioner of textual criticism, this book by an authentic member of the endangered species, the bilingual public intellectual, is for you.
To conclude, BJP today stands in the Tamil mind for the disdainful, ignorant north Indian attitude that reduced their millennia-old bull-taming test of manhood to animal cruelty, never mind that these bulls are cherished animals looked after like sons of the family. Of course, attitudes and characters can evolve, within Tamil Nadu and without.