Musings

Dravidian legacy: three nonagenarians ginger up a new club

In a snapshot mode, M.R.Venkatesh of The Hindu Centre takes a look at the contributions of three nonagenarian Dravidian Movement leaders, coinciding with the DMK President M Karunanidhi turning 90 on June 3.

One man, who even amid crisis can still laugh at his own shortcomings – Muthuvel Karunanidhi; a second who can be truly humble about his Constitutional and Parliamentary procedures punditry- Era Sezhiyan; the last but not least, one who is content being the eternal Tamil charioteer – ‘Perasiriyar’ (Professor) K Anbazhagan- are all now catapulted into a new club.

As the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) patriarch M Karunanidhi turns 90 on June 3, in a unique concatenation of circumstances, all these three senior political leaders of the ‘Dravidian Movement’ in Tamil Nadu will now make a new Nonagenarians Club for the first time, almost contemporaneously. For the only other big leader in this league in the last four decades who was a singular member of this 90 plus years-set, was their rationalist inspirer Periyar himself.

It is this occasion which precisely offers a spring-board for reflection on their comparative contributions to the ‘Dravidian Movement’, though Sezhiyan and Anbazhagan had in recent months already crossed 90 years, while the former in particular had moved away from the DMK years back, first to the Janata Party, then Janata Dal and is now looked upon as an elder statesman.

The canvas is vast, often contentious and stormy, particularly after the party lost their ‘elder brother’ and leader, the late C N Annadurai, popularly known as ‘’Anna’ and who led the first DMK Ministry, at a rather young age in 1969 – for in politics you come of age only after 50 years-. Hence this attempt may at best open a hermeneutic window, when India’s political class is anxious to empower the Nation’s youth and reap the ‘demographic dividend’.

For Karunanidhi, politics, as he has often said, been a “continuous rumble and tumble”. The reasons are not hard to seek as he, at the tender age of 14, took to political action on the streets of Tiruvarur in the heat of the first anti-Hindi agitation in 1938, giving it a by-now famous slogan and distributing hand-written pamphlets that was to later become the cornerstone of his political vehicle, ‘Murasoli’.

‘Kalaignar’- as the DMK leader is widely known- first made waves as a Tamil film script-writer – his daughter Ms Kanimozhi, who now heads the DMK’s literary and cultural wing, once said at an interaction that his dialogues in much-talked about films like ‘Parasakthi’ and ‘Manohara’ were not only path-breaking but stylistic game-changers in Tamil cinema then-. Yet, in his political leadership’s evolution, from a grassroots man, an amazing fund-raiser for the DMK with his penchant for oration, drive and wit, to until the party’s mantle fell on him after Annadurai’s demise-, he has had several friends to thank for including the legendary actor-turned-leader, late M G Ramachandran.

Holding a unique record of being elected to the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly for a dozen times since the first election he contested from Kulithalai in 1957 to the latest 2011 polls from his home-turf Tiruvarur- only in 1984 he did not contest-, five times Chief Minister and the only MLA so far to have been a member of the Assembly for 50 years, Karunanidhi still ensures a robust engagement with Tamil literature and culture. Of late, he is lauded for the DMK’s role, as an UPA ally in Delhi, to get ‘Classical Status’ for Tamil language.

However, politically, the more significant contribution to the ‘Dravidian Movement’s legacy’ was aptly put by his long-term peer, Prof. Anbazhagan himself. “After Anna’s demise, everyone thought the DMK was finished; but since then till now, if there is one person who has held the party intact and the organization as an inclusive umbrella- (despite two major splits in the DMK, first MGR, then Vaiko and other political crisis engulfing the party)-, it is undoubtedly ‘Kalaignar’. There may be a hundred differences, but ‘Kalaignar’ has the art of taking ideas to the people that have kept alive the DMK.”

Anbazhagan himself, the senior-most leader in the Movement now, - notwithstanding the late ‘Naavalar’ Nedunchezhiyan’s biting irony, sarcasm and brilliant Tamil word-play-, for all his astounding Tamil scholarship and depth, has shied away from grand political ambitions. The troika who mattered most for ‘Kalaignar’ for many years were his late nephew and former Union Minister Murasoli Maran, ‘Perasariyar’ as a friend, philosopher and guide, and of course, his unrivalled personal secretary, Mr. K. Shanmuganathan.

Karunanidhi, to laughter from the crowd, was to candidly say at a wedding function: “Shanmuganathan endraal Naan; Naan endraal Shanmuganathan endru sollum alavirku, irandu perum iyambadhu varudangalukku melaaga serndhu kuppai kotti Irukkirom (Both of us have slogged together for over 50 years that we are like two sides of the same coin)”. It is such home-grown communicative acts that these leaders have also bestowed to the Movement.

In fact, a party insider once told this Correspondent, Anbazhagan would never fall for any attempt by any section in the party to project him as a superior entity. But he never hesitated to call a spade a spade in party matters, even if ‘Kalaignar’ has the last word. Rather, in any conference or convention Anbazhagan would, in his inimitable flawless style, harp more on issues of Tamil language and cultural identity, the best of which in recent years was at the ‘’Classical Tamil World Conference” in Coimbatore in the year 2010.

Last December, when DMK organized a function to felicitate Anbazhagan completing 90 years, he initially declined it. One of the brightest among the young enthusiastic band of pro-Tamil activists from the Annamalai University, who with the likes of Era Sezhiyan were drawn to Periyar’s Movement, Anbazhagan later kept the date despite his wife being in a private hospital ICU then. Even there, he did not hesitate to declare that, “Karunanidhi has still an onerous responsibility to protect this organization,”- an indirect allusion to the sibling rivalry within the party between M K Stalin and M K Azhagiri-.

Unfettered by such inner-party constraints, Era Sezhiyan soars high as a solid, independent intellectual now. If Anbazhagan, once a Professor of Tamil in Pachaiyappa’s College and a founder-member of the DMK had equally a long Legislative innings and a stint in Parliament before he turned an ideological anchor for the party in the post-Annadurai era, Sezhiyan had played a very important role in changing the course of the DMK’s party programme during the heydays of its separate ‘Dravida Naadu’ demand in the 1960s’.

A fine scholar including on Constitutional issues, Sezhiyan, even in those days was honest enough to argue that the ‘Dravida Naadu’ plank had little support with the Tamil-speaking people. Instead, as part of the Committee that wrote the new party programme then, Sezhiyan advocated a higher degree of autonomy for Tamil Nadu. This, amid other circumstances- when Anna himself gave up the demand in the wake of the Chinese aggression and the Constitutional amendment that sought to ban parties clamouring for separatism-, was a big turning point in the ‘Dravidian Movement’s history, with which Sezhiyan, along with Murasoli Maran, had been associated with.

“When I first went to Parliament, Nehru was the Prime Minister and he used to come and talk to us- DMK MPs’ who were just a 7-member group then; so great was Nehru as a leader,” acknowledged Sezhiyan at a recent function in Chennai to felicitate him on completing 90 years. It showed a certain ambiguity about DMK’s anti-Congressism even then as it began to acquire a new profile in Delhi, despite opposing the Emergency later, supporting the ‘JP Movement’ (when Sezhiyan himself joined the Janata Party) and the DMK turning a full circle to align with the Congress first in 1980 Lok Sabha polls. The rest as they say is history.

But Dr Manmohan Singh, to be the Prime Minister, should have got elected himself to the House of the People – Lok Sabha-, Sezhiyan categorically added. Strengthening India’s Federal structure, State Autonomy, greater accountability to Parliament are still passionate themes for Sezhiyan, who is perhaps the first Indian politician at 90, after 22 years in Parliament, to be appointed Professor at the ‘VIT University’ in Vellore, to teach ‘Ethics and Values’ to Engineering students. Significantly, all the three nonagenarian leaders have been journalists/writers, underscoring how media and pluralism is vital to strengthen democracy.

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