Dravidian Parties

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DRAVIDIAN PARTIES The Dravidian movement and the parties that emerged from it played important roles in the state of Tamil Nadu in southeast India since World War I, and these parties ruled the state from 1967 onward. Aside from their major roles in this state, which is currently inhabited by over 60 million people, these organizations were exceptions to some trends in Indian politics, and forerunners in other respects. Caste and language were central to their political vision, and some of the Dravidianist organizations criticized religion, or at least some religious practices and beliefs. The Dravidian movement of the late colonial period aimed to mobilize South Indians (especially speakers of the Tamil language), other than those of the upper Brahman caste, against the alleged dominance of Brahmans and North Indians. Its support was initially restricted to small pockets of society. However, the Dravidian parties grew after Indian independence, effectively mobilizing the less-privileged groups and changing social policies in ways that gave middle and lower social groups greater representation and power. Dravidianism came to express ethnicity in ways that strengthened democracy and enriched civic life.

The Dravidian movement mobilized South India's middle castes (often called the "other backward castes") and, to a lesser extent, the lower castes (called the "scheduled castes," Dalits, or Harijans) before political movements and parties did so outside South India. The Dravidian parties introduced the most extensive preferential policies for these castes in Tamil Nadu, setting aside 69 percent of college admission and government employment for these groups after 1980. Preferential quotas were instituted in other parts of South India as well, but were introduced later and were not as extensive in other parts of India.

The Dravidianist organizations linked caste appeals to language appeals in the late colonial period by claiming that South Indians (especially Tamil speakers), other than Brahmans, belonged to the "Dravidian race," distinct from the Aryan race, to which they claimed both North Indians and South Indian Brahmans belonged. They were among the first to demand secession from India, doing so as early as 1938, even before decolonization. While the major Dravidian parties demanded secession until 1963, they did not engage in armed insurgency or much violent protest to press this demand, unlike many of the secessionist organizations that emerged (most of them some decades later) in northern and northeastern India. The Dravidianists later abandoned secession, though the national and state governments neither subjected them to much repression nor granted some of their major demands, such as greater autonomy for the states and the acceptance of Tamil as one of India's official languages.

The Dravidian parties contributed to some changes in language policy and language use, The national government continued to use English and Hindi, as languages of administration, contrary to the Indian Constitution's commitment to replace English with Hindi for this purpose by 1965 because the Dravidianists led popular protests in Tamil Nadu against a complete shift to Hindi from the 1930s to the 1960s. The government of Tamil Nadu did not promote the instruction of Hindi in the state after the Dravidian parties came to power, while continuing to accept instruction in English. The Tamil used in Tamil Nadu's media changed, drawing more extensively from the dialects of the middle castes, from which the Dravidian parties drew much of their support.

Party competition was regionalized much earlier in Tamil Nadu than elsewhere in India because the Dravidian parties became dominant in this state early on. Pan-Indian parties ceased to be major contenders in the state as early as the 1970s, when the Congress Party still dominated much of India. Besides, Tamil Nadu was Hindu nationalism's weakest spot because of the influence of Dravidianist mobilization. This limited violent conflict further in Tamil Nadu, as Hindu nationalist organizations resorted periodically to violence against non-Hindus and other opponents in their regions of strength elsewhere. As the Dravidian parties built close political and social links between different religious groups and castes, they helped restrict mass violence along religious lines, and to a lesser extent along caste lines.

The ideology and some of the activities of the early Dravidianist organizations had considerable potential to promote intolerance, while also having the potential to promote social equality. The most popular Dravidianist organization of the late colonial period (the Self Respect Association, later renamed the Dravidar Kazhagam, or DK, the Party of the Dravidians) opposed religion, especially Brahmanical Hinduism, as the foundation of caste-based social oppression. It highlighted its atheism through heretical gestures such as breaking Hindu idols and depicting Hindu deities in demeaning ways. The DK opposed Indian nationalism even when it was the most popular political force in much of India. After decolonization, it criticized the Indian Constitution's provisions for religious freedom, meant to ensure tolerance in a multireligious society, on the grounds that allowing free exercise of the Hindu faith would inevitably involve the official acceptance of caste discrimination. While such gestures were meant to shock society into insight about caste-based dominance, they evoked widespread outrage, even among some from the middle and the lower castes. While critical of Hinduism, the DK mainly mobilized some Hindus of the middle castes.

The strategies of the DK might have evoked considerable intolerance and violent conflict along the lines of religion, caste, and language. Brahmans and non-Tamil speakers could have faced violence and intolerance, as could the lower castes and non-Hindus. However, the later Dravidianist organizations altered their social vision and approaches to mobilization to give greater value to various aspects of popular culture without promoting much animosity along ethnic and religious lines. Indeed, the Dravidian party formed in the 1970s, which ruled Tamil Nadu for five terms over the next three decades, was initially led by one of non-Tamil ancestry and later by a Brahman, though earlier Dravidianists had upheld the Tamil language and had opposed Brahman dominance.

The two most popular Dravidianist organizations of the post-colonial period were the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. These parties promoted civic associations, such as literary and debating societies, reading rooms and film fan clubs, and engaged with other organizations that were independent of political parties or affiliated with other parties, such as caste associations, farmers' associations, and unions of white collar workers. Such engagement with civic life linked the Dravidian parties closely to society and promoted their growth. However, civic associations remained somewhat independent of the Dravidian parties.

The Dravidian parties addressed the demands of various groups through policies such as caste-based preferences, agrarian subsidies, subsidized housing, and a free lunch program, which has fed over a fifth of the state's population (especially schoolchildren) since 1983. Such forms of patronage and political empowerment of some lower- and middle-status Tamils increased their upward social mobility.

Aspects of the Movement's History

Certain intellectual and cultural currents of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries influenced early Dravidianist ideology. Some European Orientalist intellectuals, who were colonial bureaucrats or missionaries, grouped South Indian languages in a Dravidian family, and claimed that South Indians, other than Brahmans, were descended from a distinct Dravidian race. Tamil revivalists recovered the two-thousand-year-old history of the Tamil language and its literature made available to the public old Tamil literary works, and attempted to develop a Tamil that was purged of words originating in Sanskrit. Dravidianist ideologues of the early twentieth century drew from Orientalist linguistics and Tamil revivalism the ideas that a Dravidian community, composed of South Indians, spoke a non-Sanskritic Tamil and had no caste distinctions prior to the arrival of Brahmans from the North and the growth of Hinduism in southern India toward the end of the first millennium a.d. They called for the revival of such a community in opposition to Brahmans, North Indians, and Indian nationalism.

The first Dravidianist political organizations—the Dravidian Association and the South Indian Liberal Federation (popularly called the Justice Party)—emerged in the 1910s to increase the presence of "non-Brahmans" in Western education and the professions, and to compete in provincial elections, based on a very limited franchise. Much of their leadership and support came from affluent princes, landlords, and merchants of the upper non-Brahman castes. The Justice Party ruled the provincial legislature through parts of the 1920s, when it increased caste-based preferential policies. It became ineffective once the franchise was increased and the Congress Party contested provincial elections in 1936.

The Self Respect Association, which emerged from the Congress Party in 1925, became the first mass-based Dravidianist organization, under the leadership of E. V. Ramaswami Naicker (1880–1974; popularly called Periar, or "Respected Leader"). Periar's sharply worded opposition to Brahman and North Indian dominance struck a chord among many of the middle castes and some of the lower castes. However, his heretical gestures against Hindu orthodoxy, his opposition to all religious beliefs and practices, and the popularity of Indian nationalism restricted the Self Respect Association's support. While Periar pointed to the goals of a society without caste distinction, and less consistently to reducing class and gender inequalities, the organizations he led consisted mainly of middle caste men. Nevertheless, many later lower caste organizations claimed Periar as their inspiration.

Many younger activists of the Self Respect Association developed an outlook somewhat different from Periar's through the 1930s and the 1940s. They gave the Tamil language greater importance, accepted popular culture (including popular religion), and used the cultural media effectively for political communication, opposing social elites more consistently and valuing more democratic practices. Their attachment to the Tamil language came to the fore when the Self Respect Association successfully agitated in 1938 against the efforts of the provincial government, led by the Congress Party, to introduce compulsory Hindi instruction in schools. During this agitation, the demand emerged for the first time for the secession of a "Dravida Nadu," a Dravidian state. Led by C. N. Annadurai, this faction initiated a change in the party's name to the Dravidar Kazhagam in 1944, and welcomed India's independence in 1947, in opposition to Periar. Inclined to use the political opportunities presented by India's postcolonial federal democracy, this faction formed a separate party in 1949, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (Party for the Progress of Dravidam, or DMK).

The DMK grew rapidly through the 1950s and 1960s and was elected to control the state government in 1967. It drew support particularly among the intermediate and lower Tamil castes and classes. As it grew, the DMK opposed social elites linked to the state and the ruling Congress Party more than it opposed Brahmans or non-Tamil speakers. It built close social and political bonds between many Hindus and Muslims, and so inhibited the growth of religious nationalism. The party's leaders abandoned their demand for secession in 1959, viewing it as a hindrance to building popular support, and made the decision public in 1963. The DMK's association with major language agitations in the 1960s and its celebration of Tamil and middle caste cultural pride aided its rapid growth. The growing popularity of a film star who promoted the party, M. G. Ramachandran (known as MGR), was crucial in attracting groups that had not previously supported the Dravidian parties.

Ramachandran maintained some distance from the DMK's caste and language appeals, but in his film career systematically chose to play roles of champions of the underprivileged, protectors of women, and idealized lovers. This especially attracted the poor, the lower castes, and women, groups that could readily watch films but had limited access to the printed word. Ramachandran's admirers associated him closely with the roles he played in his films, and were attracted to visions of him as a leader of his party and state, benefactor of the poor and the powerless.

The DMK distributed patronage among its middle-caste and middle-class supporters, and to a lesser extent among the lower castes and the poor. It increased the state's preferential quotas from 41 percent to 49 percent, especially benefiting upwardly mobile groups, with which the DMK became more associated. In the early 1970s, the DMK government abandoned or reduced the scope of policies attractive to the poor, such as food subsidies and temperance laws, and the corruption of many DMK leaders became widely known. This created an opening for Ramachandran, who did not enjoy a stature in the DMK commensurate with his mass popularity, to criticize DMK leadership for failing to provide welfare and clean governance. In 1972 he founded a new party, the Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (ADMK, or Anna's Party for the Progress of Dravidam, named after the DMK's founding leader, Annadurai, who had since died).

Starting from the base of Ramachandran's fan clubs, the ADMK became Tamil Nadu's most popular party in its very first year of existence. The DMK retained the support of many of its early followers, but the Congress Party became marginal to Tamil politics thereafter. The ADMK drew its greatest support from the poor, from women, and from non-Tamil speakers until the 1990s. To highlight its acceptance of Indian nationalism, the party changed its name to the AIADMK (the All-India ADMK) in 1976. The AIADMK assumed power after the next state assembly election of 1977, and retained power for three terms until Ramachandran's death in 1987. It expanded caste preferences from 49 percent to 69 percent, and introduced welfare policies that benefited the poor most, notably a free lunch program in all public schools. Such policies reinforced Ramachandran's preexisting image as a patron of the poor and helped the AIADMK retain its early support, even while building its following among the propertied.

The association of the two major Dravidian parties with particular social visions and social groups weakened from the late 1980s, reducing the strength of these parties. Some lower and middle caste Tamils felt the DMK did not effectively represent them, and they formed distinct caste parties. This was particularly true of the Vanniar, the majority of whom supported a caste party formed in 1989. Other DMK activists were critical of the inconsistency of the party's support of the secessionist insurgency that emerged among the Tamil minority of Sri Lanka, and of the gulf between party leaders and modest social groups, forming a separate party in 1994, the Marumalarchchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK, the Revitalized DMK). This highlighted the DMK's departure from its origins, although the MDMK drew only limited support. Cohesion declined among the DMK's supporters across caste and religious boundaries, leading to increased caste violence from the 1980s and greater violence between religious groups from the 1990s. It also created space for a minor growth of Hindu nationalism from the 1990s, leading the DMK and the AIADMK to tactical electoral alliances with the Bharatiya Janata Party from the late 1990s.

The leadership of the AIADMK passed after Ramachandran's death to his former lover, who had acted with him in many films, J. Jayalalitha. During her first term in office in the early 1990s, Jayalalitha did not retain Ramachandran's image as a champion of the underprivileged, and the AIADMK lost support among all groups because of its repression of dissent and the open corruption of its leaders. This especially reduced support among the lower castes, and two minor lower caste parties emerged in the 1990s. The recently formed caste parties claim inspiration from the early Dravidian movement, although each of them directs its appeals to particular castes, accounting for 10 percent of the state's population or less. As the newer parties are restricted to particular social niches, the DMK and the AIADMK remained Tamil Nadu's two strongest parties, alternating in power from 1989 (the DMK from 1989 to 1991 and from 1996 to 2001, and the AIADMK from 1991 to 1996 and since 2001). However, their support is less extensive, less consistent, and more vulnerable to erosion than was the case before the 1990s.

Narendra Subramanian

See alsoCaste System


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