Opinion: On The Resurgence Of Tamil Nationalism As A Counter To The Hindutva Tide

Tamil Nationalism‘ as a concept has been contested for several years, as to what it means, and what it encompasses. In recent times, I feel that with seeming political instability, the demise of Dravidian stalwarts, and in an attempt to counter ‘dominant’ Hindutva politics, Tamil nationalism has emerged in a newer form and has taken to the centre stage in the political and civil spheres in Tamil Nadu. In this context, it is imperative to look into the genesis of Tamil nationalism and its present-day relevance.

The recently concluded 17th Lok Sabha elections hold relevance in the apparent fight between ideologies of Tamil nationalism and Hindutva. Tamil Nadu is seen as the last frontier to not be ‘conquered’ by Hindutva. I strongly feel that the culmination of factors like “inclusive compassionate Tamil Hinduism”, as propounded by Maraimalai Adigal, along with high socio-economic development indicators due to the socialistic development policies of Dravidian parties, are making it a daunting task for Hindutva to make inroads.

Tracing The Genesis Of Tamil Nationalism: Religion And Language

Maraimalai Adigal, 2007 stamp of India. Credit: Wikimedia

To understand the re-emergence of Tamil nationalism, it is important to trace its evolution from neo-Saivism propounded by Marimalai Adigal. In the early 19th century, Brahmins exercised their dominance in the political sphere through the authority of structure in the colonial state, and in civil society through their caste location. It is said that they valourised Sanskrit and kept Tamil in the periphery. In this context, the counter-Orientalist movement, dominated by non-Brahmins scholars like P. Sundaram Pillai, V. Kanakasabhai, Maraimalai Adigal along with few Europeans like Max Muller, Monier Williams, reinvented Tamil identity, and started glorifying Tamil history, language, culture, and its past. Robert Caldwell’s ‘A Comparative Grammar on the Dravidian or the South Indian Languages’ published in 1856, exercised a profound influence on early Dravidian ideology.

Caldwell’s work negated the idea that the Tamil language was derived from Sanskrit, and found that there is no similarity between the two languages. In the initial decades of the 20th century, Maraimalai Adigal, a Saivite intellectual and Tamil scholar, considered the father of Tamil nationalism, attempted to ‘construct‘ a Tamil religion and through it the modern Tamil identity. From the time of medieval Bhakti (Devotion) movement, Saivism has played a central role in Tamil society, displacing other competing religious forces like Vaishnavism, Buddhism, and Jainism, at times through dialogue and conversion, and at times through force.

Saivism appealed more to the popular Tamil common masses owing to its ability to integrate local customs and adapt to local traditions. Adigal attempted to reform Saivism from within and desired to construct an enlightened theology of liberation. Adigal imagined a Saivite theology that was anti-Aryan, anti-Sanskritic, anti-Vedantic and anti-caste. Adigal was attempting to create a theology that was political and informed by the ideals of enlightenment. He articulated neo-Saivism in secular terms rather than in spiritual terms, as a modern non-Brahmin Tamil nationalism informed by a faith that transcended the boundaries of the Brahmanical caste system. Adigal’s neo-Saivism sought its validity through reason and dialogue rather than scriptural authority alone. Envisaging a Tamil Saivism that was opposed both to foreign colonialism and native casteism, he also challenged those strands of
Tamil Saivism that were adhering to an Indo-Sanskritic heritage. Thus, Adigal gave a more encompassing Tamil Hindu religion with rationality as its foundation.

According to V. Ravi Vaithees, in Neo Saivism, the reformulation of Saivism, Saiva Siddhanta became the quintessential religion of Tamil Nadu. Shiva was reinterpreted as the primary Tamil deity, making Saiva Siddhanta a sort of Tamil Monotheism. In the process, traditional guru traditions in Tamil Nadu such as Kanchi Paramacharya tradition were rejected by some as foreign, Aryan elements in Tamil Nadu society. In addition, the entire corpus of Puranas and Itihasas, as well as Sanskrit rituals were seen as ‘Aryan’. In contrast, Bhakti poetry and songs, directed towards Shiva and Murugan, were considered a part of Tamil culture. Within the Tamil religion of the Neo-Saivites, Vishnu and his avatars become Aryan gods with no place in Saiva Siddhanta.

During the last century, neo-Saivism, in the course of its development, accommodated various Tamil folk religious practices of Kula Deivam Valipadu (worship of the clan’s deity) within itself. And various folk deities like Ayyanar, Madurai Veeran, Sudalai Maadan, Karuppusamy, were regarded as different manifestations of Lord Shiva. The practice of animal sacrifice and religious practices of Tamil denotified tribes and castes, like Piramalai Kallars, found a place in neo-Saivism. Thus, Tamil Hinduism can be juxtaposed with ‘Brahmanical elite Hinduism’. In this context, I posit that neo-Saivism has prevented the Hindutva politics of ‘Ram Rajya’ (Ram’s rule) to find a base in Tamil Nadu.

Another important element of Tamil Nationalism was the emphasis on language purity. Maraimalai Adigal was alarmed by the fact that Sanskrit words and words from other Indian languages were getting mixed with Tamil. He emphasised that Tamil is a self-sufficient language without the need for words from Sanskrit to express the same concepts. Adigal expressed in his writings that the mixing of Sanskrit and other languages with Tamil will result in the corruption of Tamil religion and culture, and bring it under Aryan influence. The importance attached to language purity would come to play an important role in the development of Dravidian nationalism, and would eventually result in a ‘Pure Tamil’ movement in literature and education. This movement sought to revive a form of Tamil untouched by foreign linguistic influence.

Dravidian Nationalism

Dr.Ambedkar with Periyar. Credit: Wikimedia

By the second decade of the twentieth century, this Neo-Saivite revivalism had given way to a politicised, rationalist Dravidian movement initiated by Periyar E. V. Ramasamy (EVR). It sought to completely remove Brahmin influence on Tamil culture, as well as Hinduism (which it saw as a Brahmanical religion) from Tamil Nadu. The main ideological difference between Adigal’s Tamil nationalism and EVR’s Dravidian nationalism was that the former propounded neo-Saivism as the religion of Tamil nation, and the latter chose the path of atheism. By the late 1930s, Dravidian nationalists began demanding a separate sovereign state for the Tamil speaking people. One common thread that united both the neo-Saivites and the Tamil rationalists was their opposition to what they saw as Brahmanical traditions, and Brahmin influence on various traditional practices in Tamil Nadu. Both strived to create a casteless Tamil society in different versions. Adigal’s Tamil nationalism sought a Saivism-based casteless Tamil society, while EVR’s Dravidian nationalism sought an atheist, rational, casteless, Tamil society. In this
context, Dravidian Nationalism dominated Tamil political sphere from the 1930s.

During the 1940s, ‘Dravidianism‘ as an ideology was gaining prominence, and some leaders from the Dravidian movement were pitching for an independent ‘Dravida Nadu‘ (Dravida state). However, around the same time, Telugu and Malayalam speakers launched the Vishalaandra movement and the United (Aikya) Kerala movement respectively, demanding linguistic separation of states. In the Tamil speaking regions, the Dravidian movement was still propounding the idea of a united Dravida Nadu. Dravidianism failed when demands for United Kerala and Greater Andhra began in the late 1940s.

Tamil Nationalism Under Ma. Po. Si

In this period (the 1940s), the Indian National Congress (INC) government was imposing Hindi on non-Hindi speakers, and Dravidianism that promised to oppose that imposition was failing to stand united. This is when M. P. Sivagnanam (Ma. Po. Si) began floating the idea of Tamil nationalism in a revised version. As an ideology, Tamil nationalism took a different under the leadership of Ma. Po. Si., a few years before and after independence. In 1946, Ma. Po. Si and a few of his associates formed the Tamizharasu Kazhagam, which acted as the cultural wing of the Madras Presidency’s INC unit. Ma. Po. Si. and other leaders aimed at promoting Tamil literature, art and cultural values among the suppressed Tamil communities. Ma. Po. Si. stressed the necessity of forming an autonomous Tamil State in Independent India to promote Tamil language and culture. Ma. Po. Si’s Tamil nationalism adopted neutrality towards religion and believed in socialism as the economic policy required for the upliftment of ‘backward’ communities. Thus Ma. Po. Si’s Tamil Nationalism ideology was quite simple – Unite Tamils, promote Tamil and become a self-sufficient independent political entity, not a separate country. From this, I will say that federalism was and is the core ideology of Tamil nationalism. In this context, it differed from Dravidian nationalism in two fronts: anti-secessionism and secularism.

Dravidian And Tamil Nationalism Under C.N. Annadurai And the DMK

I feel that Dravidian ideology started changing around the 1950s for electoral political gains. In 1963, there was a break away from the core Dravidian ideology of separatism, to a coalition with the tenets of democracy and federalism.  In 1967 C.N. Annadurai’s (Anna) speech reiterated the faith in god, unlike the early Dravidian ideology which stood for atheism. This put forth the idea of inclusive and rational religious faith. In this context, Anna’s  Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) synthesised Ma. Po. Si’s Tamil nationalism and EVR’s Dravidianism. This ideological ensured Anna-led DMK’s victory in the 1967 assembly election with a huge margin.

From 1967, till the death of J. Jayalalithaa in 2016, Dravidian stalwarts like C. Annadurai, K. Karunanidhi, M. G. Ramachandran, and J. Jayalalithaa managed to withstand adversities of politics from the center, as well as from within the state. I am of the opinion that they upheld Tamil nationalism and its interests, along with federal institutions. Through socialist development policies, they were able to achieve impressive numbers in various socio-economic indicators and Tamil Nadu has emerged as one of the leading states in terms of inclusive development.

Present-Day Context

However, I strongly feel that the denouncement of Hinduism, as sought by Periyar, is not practiced by the majority of people in Tamil Nadu. Other than religion and caste, I feel other Dravidian ideologies still thrive the way he wanted. But, the tenants of caste and religious politics still have his influences. If not for his influence, I feel that it would have taken a violent turn. Here, I want to bring in the relations that exist between Dravidian and Hindutva ideology. I feel that although a Hindu social ‘identity’ continues to have a stronghold within the Dravidian umbrella, a Hindutva political identity hasn’t been able to make its stronghold in Tamil Nadu’s politics. Under Dravidian governments since 1967, the Hinduism in Tamil Nadu developed in a more inclusive way. Adigal’s version of neo-Saivism, as mentioned before, engulfed various folk traditions practiced by marginalised castes and tribes.

As per my observation, ‘Hindu Tamils’ are considered somewhat different from right-wing elite Hindus. The northern part of India was, in comparison to Tamil Nadu, provoked more by anti-Muslim sentiments. Most Dravidian parties, with their rational, secular-religious path, strived against caste-based inequalities, and, in line with Periyar’s ideology, embraced the Muslim demographic. Today, I am of the opinion that developmental populism and Tamil nationalism have outpowered Dravidian and Hindutva politics. In this context, we need to analyse the present failure and future of Hindutva politics in Tamil Nadu.

Now moving on to recent times where I feel Hindutva is trying to make its presence felt in Tamil Nadu in the name of development. Will this infusion of the Hindu-religious-right narrative into Dravidian politics work? In the Lok Sabha elections of 2014 and 2019, Hindutva has tried very hard to put its footprints in Tamil Nadu but failed. With the loss of two contemporary Dravidian leaders J. Jayalalithaa and K. Karunanidhi, why wasn’t it easy for Hindutva to gain its strength? Is their thought that ‘Dravidian ideology is at its decline‘ true? Are people not appeased by their developmental agenda? Are people worried that with the coming in of Hindutva, their Tamil identity would be crushed? Will their cultural practices be strained with the imposition of Hindi language? Will they degrade the environment in the name of development and appease the corporate world? I strongly feel that Hindutva could not bind its development card of ‘Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas’ in Tamil Nadu due to thee states high level of socio-economic developmental indicators. It is a leading state in terms of development, and I really think the ‘appeasing developmental agenda’ of Hindutva is nothing new to them.

After Hindutva’s coming to power at the centre in 2014, is it diluting the federal structure of our constitution to meet its objective of ‘One nation, One language, and One culture’? In this context we need to analyse the re-emergence of Tamil nationalism as a result of a threat to Indian federalism, which is aimed at protecting various states’ interests. The seemingly resurgent Tamil nationalism has emphasised the threat to, and security of, its language, culture, and land. This is evident through the Jallikattu protests, the anti-Sterlite protest which led to a massacre, and various environment-related protests like the protests against the Neduvasal coal-bed methane extraction project, the Theni neutrino project, and so on. To sum up, is Hindutva diluting long cherished Indian federalism and has Tamil nationalism re-emerged to counter this?

I strongly feel that Tamil Nadu might pose a challenge to the ‘common mass’ (of Hindutva), because of its strong attachment to its language and culture.

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