IN Tamil Nadu, the Rama vs Ravana tussle has been on the backburner for well over two decades now with the DMK considerably watering down its anti-Brahminism, and the atheist doctrine of Periyar being largely ignored. With no electoral dividends in sight, even mainstream Dravidian parties soft-pedalled the issue. So, M. Karunanidhi's October 18 speech in Chennai, when he took umbrage at Ravana being portrayed as an evil force, came as that much of a surprise. Why is the chief minister reviving a subject which is no longer regarded an emotive and vote-catching issue?
Karunanidhi, according to senior party leaders, was making both a political and cultural statement. The immediate provocation, of course, was the attempt by Union human resource development minister Murli Manohar Joshi to enforce a cultural agenda in schools based on the Sangh parivar's philosophy of ultra-Hindu nationalism. For the DMK, this was an obvious attempt to impose Aryanism on the rest of the country. The Joshi agenda may have been withdrawn—after it came up for considerable criticism at the October 22-23 education ministers' conference in Delhi—but Karunanidhi's statement refocuses on the entire Rama/Ravana, Aryan/Dravidian question.
Can the Rama-Ravana factor be whipped up to gain political mileage? Left to the realm of myth, Valmiki's epic may be a typical good vs evil story, with its own subtleties. But when it takes on a north vs south hue, it has the potential of evoking strong passions. Points out social scientist and writer S. Ambirajan: "For the average man, Ravana represents a king who abducted another person's wife. And this is commonly perceived as a wrong. I am not giving you any urban view. I come from a village and that is how everyone sees it. But when you view the Ramayana as a story of an Aryan-Dravidian clash, the picture changes and the north-south question comes in. The entire issue becomes political."
In this context, Karunanidhi's assertion that "if you insult Ravana, you are insulting me" assumes significance. Quoting from Jawaharlal Nehru's Discovery of India, the septuagenarian politician pointed out that the epic is all about the Aryan-Dravidian struggle for supremacy. Karunanidhi's speech was a throwback to some of his earlier film scripts when he brought this struggle to the fore through subtle messages that bypassed the scrutiny of censors.
Fringe Dravidian groups have all along been protesting against the portrayal of Ravana. On October 1, Anoor Jagadeesan, president of the Periyar Dravidar Kazhagam, and 16 party activists were arrested when they attempted to burn effigies of Rama and Lakshmana in Chennai. Billed as 'Ravana Leela', neither the event nor the arrests attracted any notice in the local press. Of course, the media picked up the story as soon as Karunanidhi, of mainstream DMK, spoke out on the issue. And the Hindu Munnani issued a strongly-worded statement in protest against Karunanidhi.
Jagadeesan had earlier written to the prime minister and the president, protesting against Ram Lilas being staged in the north. He described the stage version of the Ramayana as "anti-secular" and working "against the unity of India by setting one group of people against the other." In his letter to president K.R. Narayanan, he asked: "How can you, as a south Indian, responsible for upholding the Constitution, allow Ram Lila?" What standing do Rama and Ravana enjoy in Tamil Nadu? While it would be wrong to say Rama is not worshipped in the state, he is not as venerated as in the north. Diwali, dedicated to the return of Rama from Lanka after defeating Ravana, is celebrated for a different reason in Tamil Nadu—it was the day Krishna killed the rakshas Narkasura. But this also does not mean that there are no temples for Rama or no Rama devotees in Tamil Nadu.
As for Ravana, a host of non-Brahmins worships the Lankan king. But more importantly, many politicians as well a certain section of religious leaders have been reiterating that the Ramayana is an allegorical story of the conflict between Aryans and Dravidians. It is this interpretation which gives a sense of hurt when Ravana is portrayed as evil incarnate.
Karunanidhi's outburst has struck a chord even among some of his bitter critics who have accused the DMK of deviating from the teachings of earlier Dravidian leaders. Thus, D.K. Veeramani, who heads the Dravidar Kazhagam (DK), the party founded by Periyar, is very supportive of Karunanidhi's stand. "The chief minister is perfectly right. The evil portrayal of Ravana is nothing but part of a cultural conquest. In our view Ravana was a perfect gentleman. He was an efficient ruler. He was no Asura. This is all part of a conspiracy to paint the Dravidians in poor light."
Veeramani goes on to add that Rama was not perfection personified. "The manner in which he surreptitiously killed Bali; the way in which he subjected Sita to 'agnipariksha' and sent her off to the forest when she was pregnant were cruel acts. If we apply the Indian Penal Code then Rama would be guilty on many counts." In the same breath, however, Veeramani justifies Ravana's abduction of Sita as an act that many Tamil kings were familiar with in the past. "It was a practice to kidnap the wife of a rival. Many Tamil kings have committed such acts. But remember, Ravana never molested or even touched Sita."
Right from the beginning, the Dravidian movement has tried to dissociate itself from the san-skritised idea of India or of Hinduism. Periyar, one of the principal driving forces of the movement, was an atheist and the entire body of texts and scriptures of the Hindu pantheon were subjected to rigorous re-reading. Neither the Gita nor the Ramayana were spared from such scrutiny. The early '30s witnessed "politically correct" renderings of Ramayana. Of the dozen versions of the epic written during this period, Periyar penned two.
Periyar's attack on Rama was sharp—it portrayed him as a "male chauvinist" with no principles. The drift of Periyar's questioning ran thus: "How can we celebrate the man who subjected his wife to ordeal by fire to prove her chastity? How can we speak of Lakshmana in glowing terms when he, in a racist manner, cut off the nose of Surpanakha, the sister of Ravana, when she expressed her love for him? Isn't it true that Ravana abducted Sita as an honourable revenge for the insult heaped upon his sister? Isn't it a brahminical ploy to give the colour of lust to a most honourable kidnapping?" Periyar's questions were relentless.
THE questions he posed became so significant that even a casual rendering of the Ramayana in Tamil had to be tempered with a respectful presentation of Ravana. The highly successful mythological film Sampurnaramayanam, that had a mega budget in those days, showed Ravana as a great musician and a wonderful ruler. His only error? Lusting for Sita.
Other Dravidian leaders like C.N. Annadurai tried to take it beyond Periyar. The last major attempt to reinterpret Ravana—and shed his demonised image—was by noted theatre personality, R.S. Manohar. His Ilankeswaran (The King of Lanka) was a phenomenal hit. Even the brahminical order had to acknowledge its popularity by permitting it to be staged many times at what is perceived by many as the nerve-centre of brahminical culture—the Music Academy in Chennai.
But the Rama-Ravana controversy no longer occupies cen-trestage in Tamil politics. It has become more of a subject of debate among academics than a plank to win votes.
By asserting his identity with Ravana, Karunanidhi seems to be merely reiterating that hobnobbing with the BJP does not mean an enduring alliance. And that his basic identity as a politician is rooted in the non-sanskritic Tamil way of thinking that has been propagated down the decades. But whether Rama or Ravana was the more evil force is a question that will continue to be debated, despite the fact that its relevance lies at the level of myth. As one DMK leader puts it, "Rama has been politicised. The BJP's plank is that it will strive to bring Ram rajya in the country. Well, there are people here who wouldn't mind Ravana rajya either. Remember, he was a better administrator than Rama."