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.
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.