Tamil or Dravidian?
Some time in the early 90’s, ‘Arinyar’ Guna published a pamphlet titled “Dravidathaal Veezhnthom” (We fell due to Dravidianism) where he criticized the self-respect movement and its emphasis on a Dravidian identity for weakening the consciousness of a Tamil national identity. This paper seeks to explore the inner contradictions between the ‘Dravidian’ and the ‘Tamil’ using K. Nambi Arooran’s seminal work on ‘Tamil Renaissance and Dravidian Nationalism: 1905-1944’ as reference, while keeping the essence of Guna’s argument in mind.
The number of academic works on the Dravidian movement have been few and Nambi Arooran’s book provides a detailed chronological account of the political and cultural scenario in Tamil Nadu in the earlier half of the 20th Century. Arooran observes that Tamil nationalism and Dravidian nationalism were synonymous (p9). Yet, there were political reasons for the preference of the term ‘Dravidian’ over the term ‘Tamil’, which also had political repercussions both in short term and in long term.
TAMILS A NATION?
Nations, it can be argued, are relatively modern constructs. Vague though the various definitions of nation are, it is generally agreed that they are social groups defined by the presence of a common language, identification with a common territory, common economic formations and a sense of common identity. Language in particular is central for a national formation because “language is directly connected with man’s productive activity, as well as with all his other activities in all his spheres of work without exception.” (Stalin 2008) By the above indicators, the Tamils can be said to constitute a nation.
Ernest Gellner argued that “nationalism is not the awakening of an old, latent, dormant force, though that is how it presents itself. It is in reality the consequences of a new form of social organization” (Gellner 1983, p48). By a Marxist viewpoint, “A nation is not merely a historical category but a historical category belonging to a definit e epoch, the epoch of rising capitalism. The process of elimination of feudalism and development of capitalism is at the same time a process of the constitution of people into nations.” (Stalin 2010, p78) Tamil or Dravidian nationalism, like Indian nationalism, was a new construct. The rise of Tamil nationalism is to be traced to the emergence of the Tamil bourgeoisie in the late 19th and early 20th century. In this period, there were great debates, both in political as well as cultural circles, on Tamil culture, language and history. As a social formation, the Tamils enjoyed greater socio-cultural autonomy for a longer period than any other major political grouping in India owing to the Tamil regions not falling under any centralized rule till the arrival of the British. As the author points out, “this primary independence of Tamil culture has been the source of constant tension and conflicts since the beginning of the 20th century.” (p9) Tamil nationalism as a socio-political force in the modern era began to emerge in the early 20th Century.
One of the demands of national consciousness is the construction of a common history. And the rich history of the Tamils provided the Tamil nationalists great sources to common cultural pasts. The literature of this period, especially the works of Subramaniya Bharati and ‘Manonmaniam’ Sundaram Pillai referred greatly to the glory of the Tamil language and the greatness of the Tamil society. Also, the Pure Tamil Movement, which laid emphasis on the lingual purity of the Tamil language by avoiding alien loanwords, led by stalwarts of Tamil literature like Maraimalai Adigal, Paaventhar Bharathithaasan, Perunchittiranaar and Devaneya Paavanaar, had a direct impact on the regional cultural politics of that period.
LOCATING THE BRAHMIN WITHIN THE TAMIL
With the rise of Tamil consciousness, which grew in parallel with the Indian national movement, the Tamil brahmins had a very uneasy relationship with developments in Tamil Nadu. While brahmin scholars like Krishnaswami Iyengar, UV Swaminatha Iyer, Srinivasa Iyengar, Subramaniya Bharati had contributed extensively to Tamil language and literature, their loyalties were two fold “to the concept of one India, and to the idea of the Tamil language and the persistent and distinct culture that went with the language.” (p59) Bharati was also opposed to the non-brahmin movement as he felt that it would impede the Indian national struggle. Moreover, these few scholars apart, most of the brahmins had an aloofness from the non-brahmin Tamil masses and were hostile to Tamil nationalist sentiments. As Prof. MSS Pandian puts it, “The zeal of the brahmin for Sanskrit had to exist in a complicated relationship with Tamil. While the brahmin’s use of Tamil was heavily Sanskritized and was celebrated for its beauty despite its relative unintelligibility to most, the Tamil spoken by non-brahmins was treated as unworthy of any man’s tongue.” (Pandian 2008, p80) The brahmins as a community could not be completely integrated in the folds of Tamil nationalism with their loyalty to the Indian entity over the aspirations of the Tamils and with their privileging of Sanskrit over Tamil. Thus, “The Tamil renaissance which coincided with the nationalist movement demanded that the non-brahmin, the Dravidian, become the custodian of his own culture.” (p69)
THE NON-BRAHMIN MOVEMENT
It is of vital importance to note the role played by the non-brahmin movement in shaping the political discourse in Tamil Nadu. While the origins of anti-brahmin philosophical thought can be traced to Iyothee Thass, as an organized political movement, it began with the formation of the South Indian Liberal Federation, or the Justice Party. The Justice Party, which was started in 1917 by a group of elite non-brahmins, strove to achieve political power and proportional representation in educational institutions and government services for the non-brahmin Tamils. It was the first political outfit to oppose the imposition of Hindi as an official language in the Madras Presidency, as early as 1937. The focus of the non-brahmin movement was urban, “appropriation of education was not only a means for the capture of new emerging power structures but also for emancipation from the rigidity of ascribed, occupational status – the basis of caste-feudal relations; a share in the political power of administration and legislation was the other issue.” (Aloysius 1997, p59)
The Justice Party used the term Dravidian to all non-brahmin castes in South India and sought to use the identity of the Dravidians, their cultural past and the vision of an egalitarian future under them as an assertion of the non-brahmin castes against brahminism. From an economic perspective, it was the assertion of the emerging Tamil regional bourgeoisie – comprising of elite sections of the non-brahmin castes – who felt discontented by the economic and political dominance of the brahmins despite the latter being a miniscule minority in the Tamil region. Though the membership was open to all persons of South India, except the brahmins, the Justice Party was confined to Tamil Nadu due to various factors, the primary one being that the antagonism between the brahmin and the non-brahmin had not developed in the other southern states to the extent it had developed in Tamil Nadu. Thus, “the use of Dravidianism as a political weapon was mostly confined to the Tamil non-brahmins.” (p55) Later, under the leadership of Periyar EV Ramasamy Naicker, the Justice Party evolved in to a radical social organization – the Dravida Kazhagam (DK). The Dravida Kazhagam, through consistent propaganda, managed to create a ethnic consciousness among the Tamils, viz. the Dravidian Tamil non-brahmin vs. the Aryan brahmin.
IMAGINING A DRAVIDIAN NATION
Originally, the term ‘Dravidian’, popularized by Robert Caldwell, was used in a linguistic sense to refer to the four major languages of South India. With the beginning of the non-brahmin movement, the term was used to denote not just linguistic groups, but rather to a race and also to a nation – the ‘Dravidian nation’ of non-brahmin south Indians who were pitted against the brahminical dominance in Indian nationalist politics. It was with this idea that the demand for Dravidanad was placed. “The idea of a separate Dravidanad was associated with the linguistic proposition that the four main languages spoken in South India constituted a separate Dravidian group.” (p233) Periyar, who argued that the brahmins were not Tamils, defined Dravidians to include non-brahmin Hindus, depressed classes, Muslims and Christians. R. Kannan points out in his book on CN Annadurai that Periyar’s appeal to backward castes and untouchables of North India to consider themselves as Dravidians additionally complicated the issue. “The Dravida Nadu concept was in effect an idea that offered something for all except the brahmins and later the northern banias… Territorially unworkable and ethnically amorphous, the project was indeed no more than a medley of ad hoc theses and arguments.” (Kannan 2010, p59)
Most of the leaders of the non-brahmin movement in Tamil Nadu did not have a clear picture about how to convert the idea of Dravidanad into a mass movement for national liberation. Even the demand of ‘Tamil Nadu for Tamils’ was never complemented with direct militant political action. Also, there was no such demand from any popular leader from the other southern states. If it could be argued, and correctly, that India had never been a historical national formation, it could also be said that Dravida Nadu too comprised of different nations, each with its unique history. However, it can be argued that these demands were used as pressure tactics to gain concessions for the non-brahmin castes.
Another point is that the Self-respecters’ defined the Dravidian nation “in terms of shared ideologies and convictions rather than in terms of language, ethnicity and geography.” (Geetha 1999, p453) Ideologies and convictions can be national or transnational – but they cannot be the factors that constitute a nation. Any nationalist movement needs to have a notion of who ‘we’ are and who ‘they’ are. ‘We’ is formed through a historical process and ‘they’ is formed through confrontation or conflict. The ‘Dravidian’ was too general a term to generate the kind of exclusive ‘we feeling’ that a nationalist movement requires. But it did prevent the polarization on the lines of ‘we’ Tamils for quite some time.
WHITHER TAMIL NATIONALISM?
It was, however, the socio-political scenario that prevailed in India, post-British rule, that provided the strongest impetus for Tamil nationalist sentiments in Tamil Nadu. The imposition of Hindi by the central government as the official language of India provoked a strong backlash in Tamil Nadu. Narendra Subramanian, author of Ethnicity and Populist Mobilization, observed that the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), which split from the DK in 1949, “decided to encompass the ethnic notions within a populist discourse that would attract and appeal to larger sections of people.” (Vaasanthi 2006, pxvi) C.N. Annadurai, the founder and leader of the DMK, with his vitriolic speeches and plays, gave a new status to the Tamil language and identity. His efforts to “crystallize a distinct linguistic and cultural identity” was based on “the planks of separatism, brahmin-bashing, the glorious past of the Tamils, and the exploitation of the South by the North.” (Vaasanthi 2006, p44)
The strongest opposition to the imposition of Hindi, however, came from the student community of the Tamil Nadu – the section of the population who were directly affected by the measure. Numerous anti-Hindi demonstrations and agitations were held in Tamil Nadu through out the fifties, continuing up to the mid sixties. Owing to the intensification of these protests in 1965, the use of Hindi as the sole official language of India was dropped by the then Prime Minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri. The DMK profited the most from the student uprising and the sentiments generated in Tamil Nadu. Riding on the wave of popular discontent, the DMK came to power in the State assembly elections of 1967, securing 138 seats out of 234, and effectively decimating the Congress as a political force in Tamil Nadu. C. N. Annadurai, who was installed as the Chief Minister, was the key player in changing the name of the Madras state to Tamil Nadu – the Land of the Tamils.
To sum it up, “the DMK’s discourse on Tamil nationality was centered on ideas of Tamil identity, or Tamil-ness that appealed to the sense of human dignity among those who rallied around the party. Honour, maanam, and valour, veeram, were emphasized and skillfully linked to the ‘mission’ of protecting the Tamil language and culture.” (Vaasanthi 2006, pxxii) And these ideas became the planks on which any aspiring politician of Tamil Nadu had to base her or his Weltanschauung.
Yet, the DMK and the other parties that emerged from it, reconciled Tamil nationalism to the interests of India owing to their prospects within the Indian parliamentary system. A powerful alternative to the major Dravidian parties based on Tamil nationalism could not emerge as these parties claimed to inherit the ideals of the Dravidian movement – social justice, reservations, populist schemes and so on – while at the same time claiming to be the ‘defenders’ of Tamil interests. This is the main reason why even after considerable mass discontent in Tamil Nadu over the atrocities committed by the Sri Lankan government against the Tamils, there could be no sustainable political movement. A party which seeks a radical breakthrough in Tamil nationalist politics would need now to push the Dravidian aside and bring the Tamil to the forefront.
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AROORAN, K. NAMBI (1980) Tamil Renaissance and Dravidian Nationalism: 1905-1944, Madurai, Koodal
GEETHA, V. & S.V. RAJADURAI (1999) Towards a Non-Brahmin Millennium: From Iyothee Thass to Periyar, Kolkata, Samya
GELLNER, ERNEST ANDRE (1983) Nations and Nationalism, Oxford, Basil Blackwell.
KANNAN, R. (2010) Anna: The Life and Times of C.N. Annadurai, New Delhi, Penguin-Viking
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VAASANTHI (2006) Cut-outs, Caste and Cine stars: The World of Tamil Politics, New Delhi, Penguin.