After forty years, two major Dravidian parties, AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) and DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam), encountered the 2021 assembly election in the absence of their charismatic towering leaders. The prevailing double anti-incumbency wave and successful portrayal of counter ideological confrontation against the BJP-led alliance aided the DMK alliance to showcase a comfortable victory. Despite winning 133 seats, DMK’s 37.7 per cent vote share is the second-lowest since 1996. Even though the high decibel battle was between black and saffron, Naam Tamilar Katchi (NTK), a Tamil nationalist party, stood alone and emerged as an indisputable force to reckon with in the future. Promising an alternative politics, NTK’s chief coordinator, Seeman proclaimed, ‘Give us your vote. We will deconstruct the existing system.’ The Naam Tamilar party that, opposed both alliances ideologically, secured third place with a vote share of 6.85 per cent, which is a substantial increase from its debut in 2016 at sixth place with a 1.1 per cent vote share. It is well evident that due to its radical agrarian policies, green politics and emphasis on a rural-based economy succoured them to secure more votes in semi-urban and rural areas. Here, one of the paramount questions that have come up in the political discourse is how the NTK was able to secure considerable votes than anticipated? Perhaps, the apprehension is that NTK’s success stems from unveiling a coherent narrative of Tamil nationalism and a strident deconstruction of Dravidian ideology as propaganda by non-Tamils to deceive Tamils. How do Dravidian ideology and NTK’s Tamil nationalism differ from each other? Whether they are anti-caste ideologies to the subaltern castes is what I would attempt to examine in this essay.
Diminishing Dravidian Ideology
After the demise of AIADMK leader Selvi J. Jayalalitha and DMK leader Kalaignar M. Karunanidhi, there was a vehement conjecture on the question of leadership and ideological struggle of the Dravidian parties. Unfortunately, the untimely decease of CN Annadurai (Perarignar Anna) was the death knell of the Dravidian school of thought, which gradually lost its substance and ideological relevance over the years. The core elements of the Dravidian ideology like anti-Brahmin, anti-Hindi and anti-Delhi dominion political sentiment has drastically dwindled and disappeared in Tamil Nadu. Surprisingly, both Dravidian parties have deviated from their cardinal concept of social justice and rationalism, which were the foundational principles of their politics. Along with ideological drift, deep-rooted corruption, dynasty politics, nepotism, rank opportunism, and bad governance have dreadfully dented their political image and credibility. The past electoral alliance with national parties compromising the state’s autonomy and federalism has created huge havoc and a setback for their reputation. It is ideologically outrageous that DMK was in alliance with BJP from 1999 to 2004. Presently, why is there an ascending discontentment with Dravidian parties? In fact, both Dravidian parties predominantly indulged in appeasement of a few dominant intermediate-castes majoritarian politics. Gradually this led to the concentration of power, incongruously bridled with caste dynamics in electoral politics, which eventually fostered strong disgruntlement among the neglected castes. Thus, in 1990’s the advent of parties like Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), Viduthalai Chiruthaikal Katchi (VCK), Puthiya Tamilagam (PT), Kongunadu Makkal Desia Katchi (KMDK) and Indhiya Jananayaga Katchi (IJK) emerged as a counter-hegemonic power structure against the prolonged betrayal and suppression of the people by Dravidian Parties. For more than four decades, Dravidian politics conveniently masked the caste-based social structure by appealing to the downtrodden voters using anti-brahmin populist imagination and rhetoric.
Tamil writer Stalin Rajangam elaborates, Dravidian parties, despite claiming castelessness, almost never fielded any tribal or dalit candidates in non-reserved constituencies. The worst form of political untouchability, then is allocation of the most insignificant ministerial berths to them. And when it comes to atrocities on the marginalized, especially during caste massacres and honour killings, both Dravidian parties ensured insidious ‘strategic silence’ in favour of the oppressors. Social activist Thiyagu articulates, “Even now justice is not delivered to the heinous state-sponsored violence on the marginalized in Kodiyankulam by AIADMK and Thamirabharani by DMK explicits the dominance of intermediate castes in the party”. It is dreadfully discernible that Dr. Ambedkar’s statues frequently get desecrated, often confined in the iron cage is an indictment that Dravidian parties did not annihilate caste in Tamil Nadu. It should be noted that the Dravidian parties are facing an ideological crisis, which is conspicuous in every aspect that could produce a space for alternative politics in Tamil Nadu. Recently, DMK President Stalin posing with ‘Vel’ (spear of Lord Muruga) to DMK MLA KS Masthan’s donation for the Ram temple construction casts a shadow on the party’s ideological stand. The Dravidian and Tamil nationalist ideological debate centres around a critical question: Could the rise of Tamil nationalism in the last decade be perceived as an identity crisis of Dravidian ideology or is it a new wave of linguistic assertion? Why does untouchability persist in the land of Periyar? Answering this question is imperative to know the nuanced practice of ideology and caste dynamics in electoral politics.
NTK’s Tamil Nationalism and Caste Politics
Political Scientist Benedict Anderson in his book Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (1983) points out, “Nation and nationalism is a social construct to make people think its ancient, eternal and powerful consciousness but it is a myth”. To illustrate more precisely how the NTK’s Tamil Nationalism works, we must decipher the social composition of associated caste groups. What is NTK’s definition of Tamil nationalism? How is Naam Tamilar (We Tamils) Party’s Tamil nationalism constructed? Seeman is, an acerbic orator who frequently deliver quotes of Thiruvalluvar, Plato, Adolf Hitler, Karl Marx, M.K. Gandhi, Dr Ambedkar, Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro and Nelson Mandela to substantiate his vicious arguments to deem as legitimate by subtly distorting the context. Today due to the exponential boom of the digital platform, Seeman has become a very popular leader among the younger generation. Several scholars have accentuated that the NTK’s Tamil nationalism is a dangerous delusion of cultural vindication incorporated in the primordial sentiments of Tamil language, Tamil identity, and the construction of hatred on Dravidian ideology. But Seeman corroborates, “Our brand of politics is a revolution for the betterment of all living beings, including the animals and environment”. Further, he emphasizes, that, we derive the ideology of Tamil nationalism from revisiting, our glorious Tamil history, culture, heritage, rich language, values, agricultural practices, struggle in Eelam. Through our politics, we want to reclaim and restore our Tamil legacy. Significantly, Seeman insists that Dravidian ethnicization is propaganda of false construction, fostered by non-Tamils to rule indigenous Tamils. More importantly, NTK arrogated attenuate definition of who are Tamils, invited sharp criticism from all quarters. According to Seeman, Thanthai Periyar, CN Annadurai, Kalaignar Karunanidhi, MGR, and Selvi Jayalalitha are not qualified to be called Tamil, as all of them are immigrants from other south Indian states.
In order to understand Seeman’s proposition of ‘real Tamils’ who are eligible to be the ruling class or caste, one needs to implicitly embrace the perpetuating caste system in Tamil Nadu. Firstly, NTK’s political strategy propounds on peddling in victimhood to target and blame linguistic minorities as outsiders. Then, it expounds the previous leaders as illegitimate leaders of Tamils who are responsible for the social backwardness of Tamils and the current economic underdevelopment of Tamil Nadu. Incidentally, the social construction of linguistic minorities as non-Tamils and immigrants is a novel way of identity polarization. The second manifestation is the aspirational politics of cultural revivification and an irredentist attempt to revamp the state of affairs for indigenous Tamils. Here, the primacy of Seeman’s definition of Tamil identity could potentially spill inimical consequences not only for linguistic minorities but also for religious minorities. One can easily apprehend that, Seeman is disseminating the political discourse of creating intense nostalgia for an imagined past of a strong and supreme Tamil community invoking through Tamil nationalism is an absolute illusion. Interestingly, in his early days, Seeman affirmed, “I am the student of Karl Marx, grandchild of Periyar and brother of Prabhakaran”. Nevertheless, later he changed his stance by denigrating, Periyar as an outsider, and “we would consider Periyar as a symbol of the Dravidian movement, and we could never accept him as our leader”. Contrary to this, Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), Chief Thol Thirumavalavan argue, “If you accept social reformer Periyar as an outsider, then there will be a situation to thrust even Dr. Ambedkar as an outsider.” Further, he argues, “Politics driven by ethnic purity and hatred is no different from Hindutva’s caste supremacy ideology”.
To examine his claim here the critical question is why doesn’t the NTK absorb the widely accepted, Ponparappi Tamilarasan’s Tamil nationalism which appeals to first annihilate caste for uniting as Tamils. We must understand, Caste permeates every social sphere in India, and it is the social reality of this country. In his seminal work ‘Annihilation of Caste’, the architect of Modern India, Dr. Ambedkar wrote, “You can’t build up a nation on the foundations of caste and if you build it will crack.” Ironically, the basic elements of NTK’s Tamil nationalism have the attributes of promulgating exclusion, hatred, and discrimination within an ethnic identity. Notably Bryan Pfaffenberger in his book, ‘Caste in Tamil Culture’ observes that LTTE Chief Velupillai Prabhakaran envisaged an egalitarian society in Eelam based on ancient Tamil society by decimating caste and class through Tamil nationalism. Seeman flaunts Prabhakaran as his ideological master but differs strikingly when it comes to his anti-caste measures. It is comprehensible that NTK’s ideology is not a coalescent brand of nationalism that accepts diverse cultures and multiple identities. For instance, it lacks the intellectual ammunition for constructing a new Tamil identity and the legitimisation of ideology. Apparently, NTK’s Tamil nationalism disregards constitutional and democratic principles of equality and associated living. Renowned theoretician on Nationalism, Ernest Gellner explicates “Nationalism is not the awakening of nations to self-consciousness: it invents nation where they do not exist”. There is a pretentious contradiction. During his initial days, Seeman was vociferous about rationale politics, but later he argues that Lord Murugan is the God of Tamils. He denies that he is either indulging in spiritual politics or the appropriation of a deity. Primarily we deem Lord Murugan as our ancestor, then you must apprehend the fact that culturally, ‘ancestors are our gods and nature is our worship’. It is a deliberate process of cultural revival to reclaim our God from the brahminical Hinduism.
In recent years, it is ubiquitous that several intermediate caste outfits in Tamil Nadu compete to claim as they are the genuine descent of King Raja Raja Chola. Most of the caste groups believe that the king’s legacy is a symbol of caste pride and a rapid modus operandi for caste assertion. Remarkably, Seeman started his 2016 assembly elections campaign by garlanding the statue of King Raja Raja Chola at Thanjavur Big Temple. He took the oath of ethnicity-revenge through invoking caste induced cultural nationalism for securing the votes bank of the dominant castes. As political thinkers rightly observe, Seeman assiduously wooing the caste supremacist groups in the name of unification of the splintered Tamil people would further stimulate to serve the reproduction of social inequalities. Writer Mathimaran stated that NTK is outrightly organizing dominant Nadar and Devar caste groups for prompt political mobility. Another perspicacious ploy that, NTK adopted was to revoke and revisit the icons from heterogeneous castes like Quaid-E-Milllath, Iyothee Thass, K Kamaraj, Rettamalai Srinivasan, Muthuramalinga Thevar, and Sundaralingam as their own leaders by coaxing them as they were historically abandoned by Dravidian Parties. Therefore, we must recognize how NTK is viciously perpetrating the caste-based mobilisations for consolidating vote banks rather than endeavour to annihilate caste structure among the Tamils.
The Future of Tamil Nationalism
The early proponents of Tamil Nationalism like Maraimalai Adigal, Ma.Po.Si, Pazha Nedumaran and SP Adithanar sowed the ideological seeds for asserting Tamil rights and cultural revival which are now reaped by NTK. But Seeman is entirely different from his predecessors. Seeman articulates that “Tamil nationalism is not about the opportunistic feasibility; it’s the need of the hour to save Tamils perpetually.” He blames the Dravidian Parties for inculcating cinema politics culture, which pushed people into a congenital stupidity of political ignorance, void of emancipation. Besides, questioning the underrepresentation of women in Dravidian parties which blazon for gender equality and gender equity, NTK’s implementation of a 50 per cent quota in electoral politics for women could be seen as a remarkable decision. Why is Tamil Nadu conducive for NTK’s linguistic and ethno-nationalist politics? The recent infiltration of non-Tamils in all central government jobs like banks, railways, post office, and even in the state government jobs instigated vast resentment among the youth. Such a mass influx of people from other states for livelihood in Tamil Nadu has profoundly availed NTK to instil a fear and insecurity for invoking feelings of Tamil ethnicity. We must fathom, whenever the question of language has arisen, the problem of hegemony, power, and culture has surfaced in the political system.
As per the data of the ministry of home affairs, the government of India, since 2009, Tamil Nadu tops the list of most protests in India. Interestingly there is an unprecedented rise of ‘people’s protest’ for a string of issues like NEET, GAIL, TASMAC, Sterlite, hydrocarbon, neutrino, Cauvery, Mulla Periyar, eight-lane green corridor, agrarian distress, and fishermen issues. So, it created a conducive political ambience for NTK to attack blatantly both of the Dravidian parties for their inefficiency and administrative failure to serve the Tamil people’s interest. Such burning issues triggered the debate of Dravidian parties, long term nexus with national parties for power and cabinet berths in the centre which eventually diluted the state’s autonomy, independence, and federal values. Citing such policy failures Seeman, vehemently opposes both national parties that have the same brahminical ideology ingrained with an inherent attitude of suppressing Tamil rights. Hence Seeman strongly advocates that there is no need for a national party in a culturally and geographically diverse country like India. More specifically, NTK’s ideology promises that if they come to power, they will never go into alliance with national parties.
In spite of the fascinating manifesto, why does NTK’s policies get a mixed response? NTK promises to abolish populist freebies culture that is aimed at garnering votes. Seeman argues the true welfare politics is ceasing rampant privatization of the education and health sector which is not affordable to all. NTK promulgated to provide world-class quality education, health and drinking water for free to all citizens. Another aspect is Seeman romanticises an agriculture centric rural-based economy, providing importance to indigenous crops along with sophisticated water-intensive management practices. As per NTK’s notion the concept of collective farming will be initiated, judiciously using arable land with massive state support. Despite all the criticism, Seeman assures farming and cattle rearing shall be designated as a government job. At the same time, on the economic front, experts forecast implementing such schemes could create a huge financial burden. Moreover, ways to find income for such mammoth projects are completely abstained in their framework. It is appalling that NTK’s manifesto is outrightly misleading people with rhetoric futuristic policies which lack pragmatism and scientific approach. The NTK’s militant version of the “sons of the soil”, notion merely panders to narrow linguistic chauvinism which could pose a serious threat to national integrity and unity. Progressive thinkers foist fierce criticism on Seeman for disseminating radical regional chauvinism and sectarian politics. But staggeringly there is a substantial escalation of ardent young followers and the vote bank for him is perturbing. Since 1991 onwards psephological statistics exhibit around 20 percent swing votes. Such a sustaining phenomenon could be obvious to demonstrate that people are craving for alternative politics and this could be the space for NTK or People’s Welfare Front or any National Party. In the long run, NTK could possess a significant political threat and stiff ideological confrontation to Dravidian parties, if they do not adhere to structural changes and ideological transformation.