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Obituary: M Karunanidhi, The Champion Of The Downtrodden

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In 1937, the first Indian National Congress government led by C Rajagopalachari introduced compulsory Hindi language curriculum in the government schools of Madras Presidency. Tamil, a language of Dravidian origin, is vastly different from the Indo-Aryan Hindi in terms of both spoken word and script. Inevitably, such an imposition  was meted with staunch opposition and the local-level Justice Party, helmed by Alagirisami, led the movement against this imposition . The very same movement also gave the Tamil land one of its most revered and revolutionary personalities. Little did the 14-year-old Muthuvel Karunanidhi, who spearheaded the same movement amongst students, know then that he would eventually become the most prominent political figure in Tamil Nadu.

The Illaigzhar Marumalarchi Amaippu movement, an offshoot of the anti-Hindi movement, which was started by Karunanidhi and his friends, became the first students’ movement in Tamil Nadu. Around this time, Karunanidhi also started publishing ‘Manava Nasan’, a handwritten pamphlet to fight for social justice. Hence began the story of this prolific writer and sharp politician, who used mass media to unite his people to fight against the hegemony of the Hindi-speaking North and the elitism of the Brahmins in the South. The most remarkable aspect of Karunanidhi’s life, therefore, wasn’t the social reforms he brought in or the powerful words he wrote, but  the grit and determination with which he stuck by his ideologies to fight for what he believed in.

M Karunanidhi passes away at 94
M Karunanidhi was the most prominent figure in Tamil Nadu politics

While the anti-Hindi movement continued for three years, Karunanidhi and his friends travelled to several villages in Madras to talk to people about equal rights. In a Brahmin-dominated and caste-based India of the early 20th century, Karunanidhi was one of the first people to talk about the rights of the downtrodden and unify people to fight against the prevailing social norms. At the age of 17, Karunanidhi became the leader of the students’ union of Madras Presidency when he opposed naming a town in Tamil Nadu Dalmiapuram, after Dalmia Cements established a factory in the area. Seeing a revolutionary streak in the student leader, the leader of Dravidar Kazhagam (DK; a party created to fight for social justice) Periyar EV Ramasamy, invited Karunanidhi to join the party and take its ideologies to the masses. Karunanidhi soon became the editor of a newspaper that was published by the party and expressed the party’s ideologies through his powerful words. Venturing further into communicating the message to a larger audience, Karunanidhi started script writing for theatre plays and feature films. Thus, he played an instrumental role in the establishment of a long-standing relationship between cinema and politics in Tamil Nadu.

Karunanidhi’s reformist-writing in Tamil cinema became so popular that it gave birth to a new wave of films that spoke about society and equality. This very same influence is so far-reached that some of the most popular Tamil actors and films still rely on themes surrounding social justice and commentary to gain a mass appeal. In fact, Telugu actor NT Rama Rao also joined politics and established his own party (Telugu Desam Party) after taking inspiration from Karunanidhi and his contemporaries.

Karunanidhi wrote one of his most famous lines in the 1952 film Parasakthi: “Kovilile kulappam Vilavithyen! Pujariyaie taakkinaen”, which translates to “I’m not finding fault with God. I’m only questioning the priest who is imposing his unfair activities in the name of God.” In fact, this one line is enough to describe Karunanidhi’s school of ideology that more or less remained constant throughout his lifetime. Post Indian Independence, the DK party and Periyar changed their initial ideas of atheism to  secularism and their hatred towards upper-class Brahmins into a more constitutional approach for equal rights and justice. The DK was renamed DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam), which became one of the first regional parties to assume power in 1967 (after the demise of Periyar) with Karunanidhi as the Chief Minister. Although the members of DMK initially resisted the idea of Karunanidhi heading their party, the writer used his skills of persuasion and quickly established himself as the DMK supremo.

Through his five terms as the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu and his 12 terms as a Member of the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly, Karunanidhi pushed for social justice and fought for the upliftment of backward classes and women by introducing several reservations and reforms in the state. He introduced a whopping 69 % reservation for backward classes in the educational system, passed a law to do away with ostentatious wedding rituals, did away with man-pulled rickshaws (which stood as a symbol of social inequality), introduced health insurances and improved the face of healthcare in the state, brought in a law to give a share in ancestral property to women much before the Indian government did the same, and became a massively popular leader amongst the masses.

Although Karunanidhi’s political career witnessed a major downfall when he opposed the National Emergency following which MG Ramachandran (MGR), assumed power in 1976 with the newly established party AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam), Karunanidhi’s popularity with the masses never diminished. The DMK came back into power in 1989, after the demise of MGR, which marked Karunanidhi’s third term as the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. Even though Karunanidhi’s political career in the 2000s was ridden with controversies and corruption allegations, the nonagenarian, who is lovingly called Kalaingar by his people, has left behind him an almost-century long and significant legacy which will remain deeply seated in the hearts and minds of the people of Tamil Nadu for generations to come.

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Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

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The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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