Byline | M.J. Akbar
When a coalition begins to melt, its partners subtly, if not silently, begin to shift their public agenda from common concern to individual need. The debate over the bridge built by Lord Ram between the Tamil Nadu coast and Sri Lanka is hardly new. A year ago, the supreme leader of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, Mr M.K. Karunanidhi, would not have fractured sensibilities nationwide with intemperate, unacceptable remarks about Lord Ram, revered and worshipped by Hindus as the paradigm of virtue. Today, the political calendar has a premature general election marked within the first half of 2008. His party’s fortunes are now more important to him than his coalition’s fate. After all, what use is any coalition to him if he cannot get the seats that can make him a power broker?
Under pressure, Mr Karunanidhi is dipping into the source of Dravida nectar for sustenance. The origins are lost to public memory, so it may be useful to recall them.
The movement began in 1914 when Dr C. Nadesan Mudaliar started the Dravida Association. But it got its first impetus when the son of a rich landlord, privileged enough to be educated in England, walked away from his background to fight for the lower castes against the domination of the Brahmins. The name of this remarkable man was E.V. Ramaswamy Naicker, popularly known as ‘EVR’ and then ‘Periyar’. His philosophy was practical: he likened caste to malaria and said that his search was not for medicine but for the mosquitoes that spread malaria. He declared himself an atheist and went to war against Brahmins, the chief perpetrators of caste iniquity. He launched an agitation against his personal friend, the Maharaja of Travancore for reform: an Untouchable could not walk on the streets of the princely state, let alone raise his eyes in front of someone from an upper caste. You can get a flavour of EVR’s views from this quotation: “(Aryans) concocted absurd stories in keeping with their barbarian status… The blabberings of the intoxicated Brahmins in those old days are still faithfully observed in this modern world as the religious rituals, morals, stories, festivals, fasts, vows and beliefs”. Inherent in the doctrine was the Aryan as an outsider, who had driven true Indians, Dravidians, south and then maintained his power through an iniquitous system. Brahmins were agents of that domination. The Dravida movement would move away from the eccentricities of EVR into the sager leadership of C.N. Annadurai, but the basic philosophy did not alter. When the DMK was formed after the split in the Dravida Kazhagam on 17 September 1949, it did not name a chairman. That chair was kept vacant for the “soul of Periyar”.
Mr Karunanidhi has made two basic miscalculations in trying to revive his party by resurrecting the spirit of Periyar. No faith has undergone more dramatic reform than Hinduism has in the last seventy-five years. This is a tribute to both Hinduism’s leaders, the most notable of them being Mahatma Gandhi, and to ordinary Hindus, who realised that the excesses of caste were self-defeating. The India of 2007, with a supremely confident Mayawati as chief minister of India’s most important state, would be unrecognisable to the Hindus of 1932, a dramatic year in the history of caste relations. A nation cannot be modern until it destroys the shibboleths that have kept it chained to regression. There is much talk of a Hindu renaissance in the 19th century. That is a myth compared to the true renaissance that came in the 20th century, and became the engine of social change, a vital necessity for the kind of economic growth that India is witnessing. When the Brahmin votes for Mayawati, he makes Periyar, once a crucial catalyst of change, irrelevant. Periyar’s genius created the change that has made Periyar unnecessary. Tamil Nadu has changed as much as the rest of India. The “low caste” Hindus of Tamil Nadu are no longer subservient to the Brahmin. Mr Karunanidhi’s electoral success is evidence of this.
Mr Karunanidhi is talking to the Tamil Nadu of 1967, not the Tamil Nadu of 2007.
Nor does the venerable Dravida leader quite understand the meaning of secularism, at least as we practise it in India. The European benchmark of secularism is the separation of faith and state. In India, secularism means respect for the other’s right to practice faith in whatsoever manner the other chooses. Hindus and Muslims have lived with each other almost as long as Muslims and Christians. But there is no instance of the kind of ferocious diatribe that Dante, author of Divine Comedy, indulged in against the person of Islam’s Prophet, in any epic written by a Hindu. Similarly, there is not a single writer of any standing among Muslims who has ever been insulting towards a Hindu god. We do not have to believe in each other’s creeds to have respect for each other’s religions. That is the essence of co-existence. Mr Karunanidhi, who is probably an atheist, forgot that simple rule.
The debate about proof is inane, to opt for the most polite word. I cannot ‘prove’ that Allah exists; a Jew cannot ‘prove’ that Jehovah exists; a Christian cannot prove that ‘God’ exists. This may be, for all I know, less a reflection on divinity, and more an indication of human limitations. It is arrogance to believe that truth is merely the little that the human brain comprehends. Gravity existed before Isaac Newton’s brain “discovered” it; indeed, it would be presumptuous to claim that the Pyramids were built without a thorough knowledge of gravity. The human brain is a work in progress.
Belief that has sustained itself for centuries is rarely constructed on a chimera, no matter what deviations (like caste) men may impose on the original faith. The past is littered with forgotten claims. Mr Karunanidhi would have been wiser to respect the faith of the millions who have prayed in the temple at Rameshwaram, the offshore island also called the Kashi of the South: no prizes for guessing that Rameshwaram is named after Lord Ram. It is interesting that a Sri Lankan, King Parakrama Bahu, built the sanctum sanctorum of the Ramanathswamy temple. Incidentally, “mythology” has an answer to Mr Karunanidhi’s question about whether Lord Ram was an engineer: the bridge between the mainland and Sri Lanka was constructed by Nala, the son of Vishwakarma. But such political wisecracks only trivialise a sensitive issue.
A voter decides on the fate of a ruling party because of a bouquet of reasons. There is rarely just one reason that becomes the decisive driver, submerging others. What parties need to worry about is the tipping point, the final straw that persuades a voter to move from the past to a different future. Many voters, across the country, will be hurt by the insult to Lord Ram and establishment’s inability to do anything about it.
Mr Karunanidhi has one advantage over his critics. He knows that no one cares how you win an election, or what you do to stay in power; the only thing that matters is numbers in an age of coalitions. His allies may fudge and squirm but no one will dare ask him to leave the alliance. If he retains his MPs after the next election, he will be welcome in the next permutation and combination, whatever it might be.
Power has its own moral, or amoral, code.