CHENNAI, Tamil Nadu — On M. Karunanidhi's 94th birth, in June last year, the man who embodied Tamil politics received a tribute from an unusual quarter. Nitish Kumar, the Chief Minister of Bihar, said Karunanidhi was a familiar name in his state, and his vision had shaped the politics of Bihar.
Kumar said his guru, the famous socialist leader Karpoori Thakur, had been influenced by Karunanidhi.
"Whatever he has done in Tamil Nadu and, through Tamil Nadu, for the country will always be remembered by those who believe in social justice," Kumar said, summing up Karunanidhi's extraordinary political life, which began with the tumult of the independence struggle, and coincided with the most significant periods of Indian democracy. Independence, the Dravidian movement, Emergency, the rise of the LTTE, Rajiv Gandhi's assassination, the Mandal Commission, language riots, economic liberalisation and Hindutva: Karunanidhi saw it all and shaped much of it from his perch in India's southern-most state.
On 7 August, Karunanidhi died of prolonged age-related illnesses, drawing the curtains on a remarkable political career. He is survived by his two daughters, four sons, and the cadres of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the party he helped found, and shaped in his image.
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Muthuvel Karunanidhi was born on June 3 1924, in Tirukuvalai, a tiny hamlet in the Cauvery delta, in what was known as the Madras Presidency, to an Isai Vellalar family (a caste of musicians now categorised as Most Backward Caste in Tamil Nadu). Karunanidhi was also trained a musician as a boy, but by his own admission, he wasn't particularly interested in refining his craft.
The Isai Vellalars were expected to pay ritual obeisance to the dominant castes in the village; men were expected to untie their head-cloths and re-tie at the waist in the presence of other castes. These childhood humiliations, Karunandhi wrote in his book series Nenjukku Needhi (Justice for the heart), played a formative role in shaping his career in politics. As a student in Tiruvarur, he began a small magazine called 'Maanava Nesan' (friend of the student). The teenager and his friends would compose each issue and painstakingly produce each of 50 copies by hand. They would then distribute these handmade copies to interested readers.
Karunanidhi was still in his teens when he was captivated by the politics of social reformer 'Periyar' EV Ramasamy. In 1925, Periyar, meaning 'the elder' in Tamil, had broken with Mohandas Gandhi and the Indian National Congress over Gandhi's endorsement of the caste system, and Periyar's radically anti-caste politics. In his magazine, 'Kudiyarasu' (Republic), Periyar often wrote that the departure of the British would leave independent India in the control of a cabal of upper class and upper-caste Brahmins, who would further entrench the caste system in the country.
Where Gandhi frequently infused caste-Hinduism into the freedom struggle, Periyar espoused atheism, rationalism, self-respect, social justice and pride in a southern Dravidian identity. The Dravidian movement would count some of southern India's brightest minds amongst its followers: C.N. Annadurai, a young sharp student unionist in Chennai, was one of the movement's most brilliant orators. Karunanidhi too, was drawn into its fold.
In the 1940s, a few years before independence, Karunanidhi started 'Murasoli' (or drum beat). It began as a fiery leaflet, uncompromising in its critique of caste, and continues to exist to this day as the party mouthpiece of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). The October 1944 issue, for instance, had this exhortation published in reaction to a 'varnashrama' rally planned in Cuddalore:
"In our glorious state
Which has sung the song of many victories
Without a bit of shame
Some selfish brethren come together
And even if they turn somersaults in a vain effort
To set down the roots of varnam (caste)
Protect your self-respect
Upon pain of death, brave Tamizhaa!
Down with Varnaashramam!"
In the years that followed, Karunanidhi chose C.N. Annadurai as a mentor, and supported him when Annadurai and Periyar fell out over the future of the Dravidian movement. While Annadurai and his supporters wanted to enter electoral politics, Periyar was opposed to the move. On a rainy day in September 1949, when Annadurai announced the formation of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam at Robinson Park in Chennai, Karunanidhi was by his side.
In the decades that followed, the DMK and Karunanidhi fundamentally shaped Tamil Nadu's distinct cultural identity, and the state's relationship with the rest of the India: Karunanidhi led strident rallies to oppose the imposition of Hindi on southern states, yet also diluted calls for Tamil secessionism.
In 1967, C.N. Annadurai and the DMK formed the first non-Congress government in Tamil Nadu, only for Annadurai to die two years later. So in 1969, Karunanidhi became the state's Chief Minister, a post he would hold five times.
The 1960s were a turbulent time in Indian politics. The Congress was divided between the warring factions of Morarji Desai and Indira Gandhi. Karunanidhi backed Indira in 1970, playing a key role in garnering support amongst MPs across the political spectrum for the election of V.V. Giri as the President of India. He then forged an alliance with Gandhi and other regional parties to return her to power.
But when Indira flexed muscle on Karunanidhi in the seat-sharing talks of 1970, he proved to be a skilled negotiator. In his book, Nenjukku Needhi, he recounts how the DMK had agreed to give the Congress 5 to 7 seats in the Lok Sabha, and 10-15 Assembly seats in Tamil Nadu in the 1970 polls. But when the Congress pushed harder, he called off the alliance.
"Around midnight, the phone rang," Karunanidhi writes. "It was Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and G. Parthasarathy from Delhi."
'Why has such a thing happened?' they asked regretfully.
'We have not made any mistake. Your Tamil Nadu Congress unit released their list of candidates. It is only after that that we released our list.' I replied.
'Would you reconsider your decision and give us at least twenty assembly seats, and ten Lok Sabha seats?' they asked.
'It is not possible to allocate assembly seats any longer but I will think about whether I can give some parliamentary seats,' I said."
Gandhi swallowed her pride and agreed to 10 Parliamentary seats, and no seats in the state assembly. The DMK would be the regional boss, and the Congress's presence in the state would eventually shrivel to the point of irrelevance.
In 1972 the DMK itself split. Cine star MG Ramachandran broke away, and took half the party with him to form the Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (ADMK).
The Emergency was declared in 1975, and Karunanidhi's was one of the few loud voices to condemn it. Tamil Nadu, far from the hostile political climate in Delhi and Bihar, became a safe haven for those being hunted by the police during the Emergency to hide away. DMK cadre offered sanctuary to a number of rivals of Indira Gandhi, publishing pamphlets and magazines using underground printing presses in defiance of Emergency.
Indira soon turned her ire on Karunanidhi and hundreds of DMK men were arrested. Karunanidhi's son M.K. Stalin was arrested as well, and tortured in custody. Cases were foisted upon those who supported Karunanidhi, and when he continued to oppose her, Indira dismissed the Karunanidhi-led government in Tamil Nadu on charges of corruption in 1976.
One of Karunanidhi's first acts as an elected politician was in 1967 when, as transport minister, he nationalised the state public transport system. Over the years, he and the DMK would roll out a credo of political-welfarism that would eventually be emulated across the country.
For instance, Tamil Nadu under Karunanidhi was the first state to provide 25 kg of rice, at Re 1 a kilo, for families living below the poverty line. The state was among the first to implement a universal public distribution system of state-run ration shops, and also a front-runner in state support like free electricity to farmers, and crop loan waivers during distress years.
Over the years, these policies — which grew to encompass free healthcare, eye-glasses, and education — were tweaked to the point of caricature in 2006, when the DMK offered free colour televisions in a naked bribe to potential voters.
He also oversaw a series of political missteps, often with tragic consequences. It was under his watch that the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) established deep roots in the state — a decision that ultimately resulted in the assassination of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in Sriperumbudur in 1991.
As the years rolled by, he struggled to retain control of his powerful district secretaries, his feuding brood and the DMK cadre. Power local leaders gradually took control of vast tracts of land, and corruption and lawlessness grew to the point where the electorate rejected his party for two straight terms.
The 2007 firebombing of the Tamil newspaper Dinakaran, by Karunanidhi's son M.K. Alagiri's supporters, epitomised the disarray within the party. Three people were killed in the attack, which was allegedly sparked by a succession battle between Alagiri and his younger brother Stalin and the Marans' support for Stalin.
Karunanidhi's death, two years after the demise of his most recent political rival Jayalalithaa, marks the end of an era of Tamil politics that stretches all the way from the peak of the Dravidian movement to a time when the Bharatiya Janta Party is dreaming of establishing a beachhead in the southern state.
The Tamil identity is in flux, but the image of a smiling elderly man in his trademark yellow shawl and dark glasses, worn to shield an unseeing eye, will endure.
Sandhya Ravishankar is the author of 'Karunanidhi: A Life in Politics'.