Could north India have been different if it had produced a Periyar, an Annadurai or a Karunanidhi? For although the north dominates national politics, because of the sheer numbers it send to Parliament, the stark truth is that Tamil Nadu, with its distinct politics, is way ahead of the north in every sphere, be it public health, industrialisation, education, and cultural and social justice.
And this has been possible because figures such as M Karunanidhi were part of the processes that did not merely speak of change but actually transformed society.
Born into a poor family of the Isai Vellalar caste, part of the Shudras in the caste hierarchy, Karunanidhi would in his lifetime be part of many transformations. In his teens, he would join Periyar’s self-respect movement, which demanded Tamils speak up against north Indian hegemony and that of the Brahmins in their state.
It was by the side of Periyar, the iconoclast, that Karunanidhi learnt his politics.
Cinema and politics were interwoven in Tamil Nadu, and Karunanidhi the most talented scriptwriter. Powerful films carrying the message of social change were part of the arsenal of the Dravida movement, and Karunanidhi’s contributions are embedded in the cinematic and cultural history of his state.
At the heart of what happened in Tamil Nadu (decades before the Mandal Commission report was accepted in the north) was the fact that the Dravida movement and the parties that spun out of it would bring people at the margins of the ordained caste order into the mainstream. It is a process but certainly any travels through Tamil Nadu will reveal that people do believe they have rights and entitlements, more so than their counterparts in the north, where people at the bottom of the caste scale can still have a fatalistic acceptance of their fate.
It is a well-established fact that Tamil Nadu performs extraordinarily well on a sector such as attracting industry. What is less known is their achievement in an entirely different sphere such as educational data on minorities. Muslim youth across India fare worse than OBC and Dalits in educational qualifications. Only 3 per cent of Muslims in Haryana, for instance, became graduates according to the data of 2017-2018. Tamil Nadu ranks first among all Indian states in this category. As many as 36 per cent Muslims from the state become graduates, just one more indicator of how much ahead of the north the south is.
As for Karunanidhi himself, he would have an extraordinary life story and be chief minister of Tamil Nadu several times; he would found a political dynasty. His son MK Stalin is the current CM.
On the downside, Karunanidhi and members of his party would also be named in many corruption scandals as would his adversary for many years, the late J Jayalalithaa. It would be her mentor MGR who would break away from Karunanidhi’s DMK and form the AIADMK, the other pole of Tamil politics.
Between these two parties, with all their imperfections, Tamil Nadu got its unique brand of politics: distinct, independent, assertive against the north and the imposition of Hindi.
Karunanidhi lived a long life and was a colossus who not just had political power, but had a role in transforming lives and empowering people. Change agents did appear in the north, but the reigns were short-lived and no one was as durable as M Karunanidhi. As a north Indian, one must doff one’s hat to this political colossus from Tamil Nadu and pause and ask, why could we not have moved ahead as they did?
Saba Naqvi is a Consulting Editor with India Ahead News. The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author.